Unsung: The first in an occasional series about the long-serving musicians, writers, artists, technicians, and other uncelebrated heroes of the entertainment world.
If you have seen Ringo Starr or Billy Joel live or in video clips during the last few decades and noticed a rangy man slinging a saxophone, playing percussion, singing harmony vocals, and wearing a big grin, you have seen Mark Rivera. If you’ve ever hummed along to the opening bars of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” or grooved to the sax arrangement on Foreigner’s “Urgent,” you have heard Mark Rivera.
In addition to serving in Joel’s band for the last 32 years, and as musical director for Starr’s All Starr Band, for the last 19, Rivera — a multi-instrumentalist and singer — has recorded or performed live with a star-studded list of artists including Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Bennett, Don Henley, and Sam & Dave.
The Brooklyn native finally decided it was time to sing his own song, and released his first solo album, “Common Bond,” in February. A combination of bar-band rockers, ethereal ballads, and a few covers that find Rivera’s soulful croon front and center, “Bond” offers Starr and Joel — who jams out on Hammond B-3 on a ripping take of Jimi Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic” — a chance to be sidemen, alongside other friends including guitarists extraordinaire Steve Lukather, Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band, and Robert Randolph.
When we reached out to Starr for comment, he winkingly responded: “As a conga player, a sax player, a piano player, and a guitar player — he’s a great dancer!” He added, “Mark is our dear friend and a great musician.”
We caught up with Rivera at home in New York, where he’s been playing Joel’s residency at Madison Square Garden, and he still gets a little Starr-struck talking about that gig. “It’s an amazing friendship,” he says of the Beatle. “I’m very blessed. He’s just a funny, funny man. I love him so much.”
Rivera hits Fenway Park with Joel for a sold-out show Thursday, and will sign copies of “Common Bond” Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the Barnes and Noble at the Prudential Center. Naturally, he’s also convening a band to play a few originals and covers.
Q. How has the residency with Billy been going?
A. Tremendously. Billy is just wanting to keep things fresh. Since we started this, we’ve done about 58 songs. He’s singing better than he has in 15 years.
Q. Just like the artist at center stage, sidemen also have to play the same songs over and over. Which songs do you still love playing?
A. The songs I love the most are the obscure tunes — you mentioned before “Close to the Borderline,” “Laura,” “All for Leyna.” “New York State of Mind” is great, but the songs that we don’t get to do that often are the ones that I love the most.
Q. You’ve normally juggled Billy and Ringo without a lot of overlap, but I know you had to opt out of a few shows overseas with Billy to play with Ringo, and now you’re missing Ringo’s summer tour to play with Billy. You’re a busy man.
A. Nils Lofgren said to me, “Mark, you had to decide between Ringo Starr and Billy Joel, that’s what we call a champagne problem. Which bottle do you open up?” [Laughs.]
Q. Tell me about your contribution to “Sledgehammer.”
A. We were [in the studio] . . . myself, [trumpeter] Wayne Jackson, and [trombonist] Don Mikkelsen, and there was some guitar, synth, and bass [on the track]. And Peter Gabriel said, “All right, guys, listen to the track and play the first thing that comes to your head.” And I swear the first thing I played was [he sings the opening horn line] “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-da, da-ba-da.” That line started the whole thing. There’s not a single note that was written for that chart; it was all head charts. I came up with something. Wayne came up with something. It was kind of like “Show me what you’ve got,” and the very first thing I played was that opening lick. I’m very proud of that one. The same thing happened with [the non-solo sax parts on Foreigner’s] “Urgent.” The first thing that I played when I came to the studio was exactly what you hear.
Q. You’ve been playing with everyone else for years. What took so long to make a record of your own?
A. The fact of what you just said: I was blessed to have a career that was putting my two sons through college and keeping me in my house, which is a very good thing. It finally hit me a little over two years ago, I had these great tracks. Getting Billy to play B-3 on it is a coup. It’s funny. I know back from when we were all younger he was in [rock bands] the Hassles and Attila, and that’s his first love, Hammond B-3. When I explained what I hoped he might do for me, he made all these hand gestures and he’s all animated [talking about organists] Lee Michaels and Jon Lord [of Deep Purple]. And that’s exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want him to come in and play piano or sing background vocals; I wanted him to rip that B-3. So I got really lucky.
Q. Did you have any trepidation about asking Ringo and Billy to guest on it?
A. My expression is you don’t use a trump card against a 4. You wait until you’re up against a king. I’ve worked with Billy for 32 years and Ringo coming on 19. When I asked Ringo “Would you do me the honor of playing drums on one of my songs?” his response was, [adopting a Liverpudlian accent] “Oh you think I can?” [Laughs.] And I said, “Yeah, I think you actually can.” For this I have to give complete credit to [co-writer-producer] Jimmy Bralower. He was the one who said, “Hey, man, just ask ’em.” If you’ve seen any of my performances, I give all of myself, be it to a room of 30,000 people or a room of 16 people at a club, because quite frankly if you treat it any other way then shame on you. Integrity will always rise. I asked these people knowing that I’ve given every ounce of me on any show that I’ve ever done for them. And it was almost kind of sneaky, because they kind of knew they couldn’t say no, because I’ve been so good to them. [Laughs.]
Mark Rivera will play with Billy Joel at Fenway Park on Thursday. The show is sold out. Rivera will perform and sign copies of his new album, “Common Bond,” at the Barnes and Noble at the Prudential Center at 800 Boylston St. Tuesday at 5 p.m.