In the early 1970s, Rick Roberts and Jock Bartley first crossed paths when Bartley was on tour with Gram Parsons as a member of his backing band The Fallen Angels. Both The Fallen Angels and Roberts were performing in New York City at the same venue on consecutive nights. Roberts was impressed by Bartley's guitar work. The duo soon began practicing together. Encouraged to form a band, they contacted bassist-singer Mark Andes (a former member of the bands Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne who had temporarily retired to the mountains outside of Boulder, Colorado) and Washington D.C. singer-songwriter-guitarist Larry Burnett and coaxed them into joining their band, which they christened Firefall in 1974. Roberts got the name from a tradition at Yosemite National Park in California where a woodpile would be set aflame and slowly pushed off a cliff, the burning logs forming a blazing cascade as they fell.
For the drum chair the group auditioned several local musicians but eventually decided to phone Roberts' former band mate from Flying Burrito Brothers, Michael Clarke, who was most famous for his time spent in the '60s folk-rock band The Byrds. Clarke, who had recently relocated to Hawaii, agreed to come aboard.
The band tightened up their act performing in clubs in Colorado for over a year, mainly in Boulder and Aspen. In early 1975 the band recorded a demo tape consisting of three songs produced by Chris Hillman. They then began taking it around to major labels, but were unsuccessful at first.
Breakthrough and Success
In 1975 Bartley, Andes and Roberts were brought into Chris Hillman's band. Before a scheduled performance at The Other End in New York, Hillman took ill and was unable to play the show or finish the tour. Burnett and Clarke were then flown in to complete the commitments. Atlantic A&R representatives (who had already heard the band's demo tape) saw the Other End show and quickly signed the band to a multi-album contract. Work on their first album began in late 1975.
Just before the debut album's recording sessions at Criteria Studios in Miami, they brought in Roberts' high school friend from Bradenton, Florida, David Muse. Muse was a multi-instrumentalist who played the saxophone, flute, harmonica and keyboards. Jim Mason, who had worked with Poco in the past, was producer.
The album was recorded in one month and the result, the self-titled Firefall, released in May 1976, became Atlantic Records quickest album to reach Gold status. The group's first single, "Livin' Ain't Livin' ", stopped just short of the Top 40. In the following months the band toured with Leon and Mary Russell, the Doobie Brothers and The Band.
The band's next single "You Are the Woman", hit the Top 10 and the band began touring with Fleetwood Mac, who were at the beginning of their commercial peak. Their next single, "Cinderella", though it reached the Top 40 and was played extensively on FM radio, did not fare as well on AM radio because of its controversial lyrics which caused feminist groups to pressure the stations to avoid playing it. However, this did not have a lasting effect on the band's sales.
The group then headed back to Criteria Studios to record their second album, which was to be titled Tropical Nights. They were joined by Cuban percussionist Joe Lala(ex-Manassas) and the Memphis Horns. But after hearing the final mix, Atlantic Records decided that the album needed to be reworked. Firefall then went back on tour, redid several songs and added some new ones. The album was renamed Luna Sea and released in July 1977. The revamped LP peaked at #27 on the charts and went Gold less than two months after release. The single from the album "Just Remember I Love You", featuring backing vocals by future Eagle Timothy B. Schmit, reached the Top 10.
It was around this time that tensions were beginning to rise within the group, stemming from non-stop touring and management problems, not to mention frequent alcohol and drug abuse. At this time the group was also incredibly popular and playing to sold-out crowds with Fleetwood Mac as part of their Rumours tour. But this only delayed their disintegration for a short time.
In 1978, the band brought in producer Tom Dowd, who had worked with the Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton , among many others, to produce their third album Elan, recording some at Criteria and some at L.A.'s Record Plant. The band and Dowd got along well personally but they had conflicting musical visions. The differences were apparently noticeable enough that the band's new management pressured the record label into letting the band rework the album. This put the band in debt with the label, and within the year they parted ways with their new management. The production team of Ron and Howard Albert were brought in to finish the record. Luckily, Elan, released in October 1978, was a massive success, and it became their first album to reach Platinum status. The hit single "Strange Way" continued the band's commercial hot streak.
After two years of non-stop recording and touring, the band seemed burnt out. Several band members were not on speaking terms with each other and their financial situation was less than perfect.
Despite this, Atlantic Records still expected a new album. The band recorded the album sporadically over a year. The Alberts were again brought in to produce the album, but the band once again required a second effort, which was produced by Kyle Lehning. The result, entitled Undertow, was released in March 1980. This would be the last album with the original lineup. During a 1980 tour of Japan, Michael Clarke, due to his binge drinking, missed gigs or showed up in no condition to play. The band resorted to hiring a German drummer, Dan Holsten, whose playing technique was similar to Clarke's, to sit in. Holsten, who even looked a lot like Clarke, had played in several other bands in the Colorado area and caught the eye of Jock and Larry one night at a Colorado Springs bar. He became known as a 'reliable' back up drummer for tours and some studio work. Upon completion of the tour, Clarke and Mark Andes both left the band. Clarke later died of alcoholism at his Treasure Island home in Florida in December 1993.
They were later permanently replaced by Kenny Loggins' former rhythm section, consisting of bassist George Hawkins and drummer Tris Imboden. With the two new players, the band recorded Clouds Across the Sun, which was released in December 1980 and spawned the early 1981 hit "Staying With It", which was done as a duet with singer Lisa Nemzo. After only a few television appearances, Hawkins resigned from the group to join up with Mick Fleetwood's Zoo , a side project the Fleetwood Mac drummer was recording in Africa. Hawkins was replaced by Kim Stone. Everything seemed to be on track until Larry Burnett suddenly disappeared from the group while on tour in April 1981 to return home, citing ill health as his reason (Burnett eventually kicked a serious drug habit and is now pursuing a solo career). After playing a concert with the band in Hawaii not long afterwards, Rick Roberts announced that he also was leaving for a solo career. With the band lacking personnel and increasing financial debt, Atlantic dropped Firefall from their roster in 1981 and released Best of Firefall at the close of that year.
Resumption and Later Work
Upset with the way things had turned out, Jock Bartley decided to put together a new lineup in early 1982. At Ron Albert's suggestion, Jock got together with two Miami based musicians, John Sambataro and Chuck Kirkpatrick. Sambataro was a singer/guitarist/keyboardist/bassist/songwriter who'd sung on record with Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Dave Mason, McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, the members of the Bee Gees and many others. John and Jock had actually met back in 1978 when they both played on the Criteria sessions for Andy Gibb's Platinum album, Shadow Dancing. Kirkpatrick was a singer/guitarist/keyboardist who'd sung with John on a number of the aforementioned sessions and had worked as an engineer at Criteria on such albums as Derek & The Dominos' Layla. Albert then brought in Alan Jacobi, a Miami entertainment lawyer who had a relationship with Atlantic and Jacobi convinced the label to help fund Firefall's rekindling. Atlantic sprang for some new demos which led to a new album deal, and in the spring of 1982, Criteria sessions for the Break of Dawn LP began with Ron and brother Howard producing once again. Backing Bartley, Sambataro and Kirkpatrick were a number of Miami session players, with Stephen Stills and Rick Roberts making guest appearances. The album appeared in September 1982 and Jock, John and Chuck began auditioning additional players for a followup tour. Chuck's brother Scott(a top notch session drummer who, like John, had also played on record and toured with McGuinn, Clark & Hillman) and Colorado bassist Greg Overton were chosen and, at the last minute, David Muse decided to rejoin the band.
In the winter of 1983, Firefall set out across the U.S. to promote Break of Dawn. Unfortunately, the single from it, "Always," failed to reach the Top 40 and quickly fell off the charts.
Mirror of the World followed in the fall of 1983, the title track a comment on the effects of TV violence on children. The album had a much harder edge than its predecessors, which many radio programmers thought reflected too great a departure from the classic Firefall sound. Though the first single, the rocking "Runaway Love", written by Bartley, Sambataro and Paul Crosta, briefly appeared in a video on MTV and received limited radio airplay, this album too failed to attract sales and quickly disappeared.
The group, once again dropped by Atlantic, nevertheless continued to tour, headlining in smaller clubs and opening in larger venues for groups like the Beach Boys, Little River Band and Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band. In 1983 Overton quit(he would return briefly to play a few shows in 1986 as a fill-in) and Muse decided to retire from touring again. Steve Hadjoupolos(woodwinds, keyboards, backing vocals) and Bob Gaffney(bass, vocals) were brought in and the group soldiered on. Sandy Ficca replaced Scott Kirkpatrick on drums in 1984 and is still with them to date.
On the evening of August 4, 1986, Chuck Kirkpatrick was leaving from a local club gig in the area of Florida where he resided. After breaking down on the road home, he was shot and wounded in the arm by a freak passerby in a car who then fled the scene. The wound was serious enough to almost require amputation of Chuck's left arm, but thankfully, doctors were able to save it and Chuck was able to play again after a very difficult rehab period. Many Miami musicians, including Jon Secada and members of the Miami Sound Machine, came to Chuck's aid playing a series of shows to help defray the cost of Chuck's medical care and rehab. Firefall brought in Colorado musician Mark Oblinger to sit in for Chuck until he was able to return to the band in November 1986. But Kirkpatrick's tenure in the band was coming to an end. In late 1987 Gaffney left and Eddie Gleason came in in the interim. Then Chuck left at the tail end of 1987 after differences with Jock Bartley. Oblinger(who'd subbed for both Chuck and Gaffney in 1986) returned as Kirkpatrick's permanent replacement in December 1987 and Bil Hopkins was the new bassist. Dan Clawson(ex-Pure Prairie League) came in as well to take the place of Hadjoupolos in early 1988.
In 1989, after seven years in Firefall, Sambataro decided it was also time to say goodbye. Surprisingly, this paved the way for the return of Rick Roberts and in September 1992 Rhino Records responded to the demand to put out Firefall music on CD by releasing Firefall: The Greatest Hits which featured all of the singles and AOR favorites and one new song, "Run Run Away," about adult victims of earlier child abuse.
In the early 90s the personnel shuffles continued. Oblinger left in late 1992 to be replaced by Bruce Crichton, who turned it over to Steve Manshel in June 1993. Roberts, who was suffering from health problems, left as well with Steven Weinmeister coming on board in May 1993. After Dan Clawson left that same year there were several people to occupy the woodwind/keyboards chair, including Bray Ghiglia(1993–1994), the returning David Muse(1994–1995; 2000–2003), Jim Waddell(1993; 1995–96; 1998–2000; 2003) and Bob Fisher(1996–1998; 2007). Chris Ball has been the band's regular sax/flute/keys player since 2003.
While touring in 1993 Firefall encountered the terrible Flood of 1993. One of their gigs was canceled and a few had to be moved to higher ground. In response Jock wrote "When The River Rises", a song with an upbeat message of finding strength in adversity. The band recorded the song in Colorado Springs at Startsong Recording Studio, with engineer/programmer, Tom Gregor, co-producing with Bartley. "When The River Rises" was then brought back to St. Louis and played on the radio for the first time. At that point, the flood waters had still not crested. Vowing to donate a large portion of the publishing to Flood Relief, the song was sent to other radio stations in the flooded areas. It received heavy regional airplay and was also used by CNN and other TV stations behind coverage of the disaster.
With the band's profile raised, the search for a new record deal began. Some smaller companies showed interest. They decided to go with a Colorado independent label, Redstone Records, who'd had some successes in the smooth jazz genre. Messenger was recorded in Denver and Boulder and was released in September 1994. Bartley had been stock piling songs for ten years for just this opportunity. Along with the hard edged "When The River Rises" and "Secret," his songs "Love Find A Way," "Very First Moment" (co-written with Rick Roberts) and "Who Ran Away" gave the album a familiar but updated Firefall sound. Bil Hopkins' song, "Say It's Over" (written with Mark Oblinger) and Steve Manshel's powerful "Innocent Victim" also appeared on the CD. Mark Andes and Richie Furay made guest appearances on the album and Jim Mason returned to the producer's chair. Messenger was much more diverse than anything the band had released to date with the usual love songs and ballads, but there were also songs about child abuse, environmental catastrophe and even sexual abuse/rape in the chilling "No Means No". The first single, "Love Find A Way," received some minor play on some stations, but Redstone didn't have the distribution clout to get the CD into all stores, so overall sales were disappointing. Some fans hailed it as "their best record since the early days of Firefall" and this gave the group a new touring impetus.
Manshel left the group in 1999 to pursue his own career and the band has been a five piece unit ever since. Other than short term fill-ins(Steve Jenks subbed for Hopkins in the spring and summer of 1998 and Gary Jones sat in for Weinmeister for a gig in November 1999 and one for Hopkins in June 2002), Bartley, Weinmeister, Hopkins and Sandy Ficca continue on in Firefall to this day.
In September 2007, Firefall released a brand new CD Colorado to Liverpool – A Tribute To The Beatles (http://www.firefall.com/beatles_tribute_cd.asp) And on April 9, 2008, at Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colorado, there was a Firefall reunion concert that featured the current lineup joined by Mark Andes, David Muse, Larry Burnett and original Firefall studio percussionist Joe Lala. Rick Roberts attended the show as well but was unable to perform with the others due to health issues. As previously mentioned, Michael Clarke had died in 1993.