Interview By: Joseph Hett
Legendary guitarist Steve Morse recently spoke with Music Recall Magazine from his home in Ocala, Florida. In this exclusive full and uncut 45-minute (nearly 5,000 word) interview, Morse discussed his past, present and future. He spoke about the Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple, Flying Colors and more! Check out MRM’s exclusive interview with Morse below.
The new Flying Colors CD/DVD/Blu-Ray release “Live In Europe” is out NOW and can be purchased wherever music is sold.
MRM: Growing up, who were your musical influences?
Morse: There were so many. It started with the first music I heard, the hymns that the congregation sang in church. My father was a minister, and for a number of years we didn’t have any pop music or radio music in the house unless it was very mellow [Laughs]. So, I guess the next thing I remember was Harry Belefonte and when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan for the first time in the United States. I was hooked. I said, “This is really great stuff.” And it was one of the reasons that guitar really came alive to me as a musical instrument – is the rhythm. John Lennon’s rhythm is so incredibility consistent, and George Harrison’s little lead flourishes were just perfectly musical. And between those two, they were both playing the same instrument. And I felt this is great. And then classical music, I’d say Bach was my biggest influence. Then old pop artists: (Rolling) Stones, Yardbirds, Paul Revere and The Raiders, Beach Boys. Basically everything for the ‘60s. And then as it went on to get heavier and heavier: Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Credence Clearwater Revival – everything that happened – Cream, Hendrix. I loved it all. Then when John McLaughlin came out with Mahavishnu Orchestra – the “Inner Mounting Flame” album – that really changed my life because I saw them play it live about the same time the album was out. And I started getting more into the fusion jazz stuff. I was also going to school at the University of Miami and was around people like Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. And so many of my teachers were so advanced that I got big exposure to jazz and especially loved the heavy jazz fusion. Somewhere in there, there was some country stuff and Cajun influence. I just basically love music.
MRM: How did you end up migrating to the Augusta, GA area?
Morse: My father moved from Ypsilanti, Michigan, near the Detroit metro area. And he got a job at the Medical College of Georgia. And he was also an educational psychologist as well as a minister, and he was full time doing that. And the only time that I ever saw him preach was when one of the regular ministers were sick or couldn’t make it for some reason. So, yeah, I had a big culture shock going from the North to the South. And, you know, at the age of 12 and a half – going from having all of your friends to suddenly being a stranger and a Yankee to boot. My hair was a little longer than the people in Augusta wore it. So, on pretty much every count I stood out, not in a good way.
MRM: Speaking of your hair, could you tell us the story about when you wore a short-haired wig to school to avoid cutting your hair?
Morse: Well, from the time I was in junior high school, every two weeks the school superintendent came around and singled out the usual trouble makers. It was a few guys like me in every school. Not trouble makers, but actually considered trouble makers because our hair went over our ears or touched the collar of our shirts – Gasp! So, every two weeks I get kicked out, usually on a Friday, and told “If you don’t have your hair cut, you can’t come back to school.” And I would always cut the absolute minimum I thought I could get away with, and then grease my hair back so it didn’t touch my ears and did that for years and years. And at Richmond Academy, my last year there, the principal waited until the last day of school and said, “By the way, you can’t get your report card unless you cut your hair, and I have to inspect.” On the last day of school, just to prove he had the power and I didn’t. And I remember saying, “That’s the last time I’m doing that. I’m going to be 16 over the summer, and that’s the end of that.” So, I was rezoned into a new school called Westside. And the principal there was actually pretty cool. He was actually sort of concerned with learning as opposed to just breaking people’s spirits. And he eventually got the visit from the superintendent who said, “Well, you gotta cut your hair.”
I’m sorry, I skipped a step. Over the summer, I bought a short-haired wig with money that I earned [Laughs]. And I learned this trick from the guys in the National Guard Reserve. They would have to do one weekend a month. And they didn’t mind it; they didn’t have any problem serving their country. They just didn’t like that they had to change their appearance that one weekend a month. So, they’re the ones that told me about it. Augusta is near Fort Gordon, as you know. And, so, when I played gigs, pretty much the whole time I lived there, I always would run into servicemen from all over the county and always had a good rapport with them. So, the guys doing the reserves told me about the short-haired wig trick. And sure enough, I went and did it over the summer. So, when I went to Westside High, I just showed up with this kind of funny-looking, really thick, bushy, short-haired wig. But it worked. And nobody at school every saw my hair. And several other guys in the county, in different schools, had done this too. The principal was cool, I think he knew about it. But the Board of Education passed a special rule that said boys cannot wear wigs [Laughs]. And, so, the superintendent came to our school, and of course, singled me out and then another guy, I can’t remember his name, and said “You have to get them out of here,” or cut hair or whatever.
So, I remember my name getting called over the intercom to go to the principal’s office. And I knew that the crackdown had begun. So, I went there, and the principal was just as nice as he could be. At the time I had an A+ average and got along with everyone well – finally at this point. The new school was great. The people were closer to the neighborhood where I lived. So, I had friends. I was even president of my junior class. You know, the student council kind of thing. And he said, “I’m really sorry to do this, but we all have rules we have to live by, and I’ve got to ask you to leave if you can’t cut your hair and lose the wig.” And I said, “I understand. I really want to thank you for not enjoying this as much as the last guy. And, you know, I think you have been a great principal.” So, I cleaned out my locked and left and spent a few days trying to figure out what to do. Like I said, at the school nobody even knew what color my hair was, they didn’t know how long it was. They just knew it was there. Just the fact that they knew it was there, out of sight [Laughs]. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
A bunch of students got together and organized a march and, of course, I was right there with them. And we marched up the four-lane road to the Board of Education. There were a few TV reporters there. I got to say a few words on the TV, and said, “The Board of Education has no interest in education. I’ve got one of the highest grade averages in the school, maybe in the county, I don’t know. But I’m being kicked out of school because they just knew that I just wasn’t exactly the same underneath the short-haired wig” [Laughs]. I said, “This has got to change, this has nothing to do with education.” So, I didn’t cut my hair and finally had to tell my parents. I think I just spent a few days just kind of skipping school and trying to figure out what to do. And I finally told them. They said, “What was I gonna do?” I said, “Well, I’m 16, I think I’m just going to drop out of school.” And they said, “Well, it’s ashamed that you’ve done all of this extra work and, you know, you’ve got these Honor Society invitations and a chance to participate in the summer college early entrance courses, you know, and all of this stuff.”
So, I found out that my friends at Aquinas, a Catholic school, just had to wear a shirt and tie, and they could have their hair any length. I said, “I could live with that.” But it was the money. My parents said, “Well, you’re going to have to pay for it since you’re not willing to go by the rules of the public school system. We aren’t paying for private school.” So, I did. They sort of advanced in mine, and I worked it off with the usual hard luck, you know, chores that teenagers get stuck with [Laughs]. So, and I was doing some gigs. The people at Aquinas took me, it was in the middle of the year, they took me. And sure enough, if you showed respect for the work and the teachers, the nuns usually, and for your shirt with a tire, you were welcomed there. So, it was a good experience with me. My family was Presbyterian, not Catholic. But, you know, it wasn’t all that different from what I was taught my whole childhood. And I was fine with everything. I finished that 11th year and then got into the early program for college courses, and then left and went to the University of Miami. They eventually changed the rule.
MRM: How is your brother Dave, original Dixie Grit drummer, doing?
Morse: He married his high school sweetheart from Augusta. And is still married and has two wonderful girls that are doing extremely well. And he is very active: plays tennis, still plays drums, plays guitar, plays harpsichord. He is a very intellectual, amazing guy. He lives in Mississippi and works at a university in Starkville.
MRM: Do you remember playing with the Dixie Dregs at the Whippin’ Post in Augusta?
Morse: Yes, the Whippin’ Post was a great gig because it had locals that could get in, I think a lot of time they had drinking nights, and the servicemen. And the servicemen who came to the Whippin’ Post were the ones who were really interested in music. And, you know, they felt sort of displaced having to move, you know, going through training at Fort Gordon or being stationed there or whatever. And it was always welcoming to them to hear a rock band. So, we did our mix of original stuff and a few covers. So, people could relate to what we were doing. Anyway, I just remember all good times there.
MRM: Do you remember the time you played with the Savannah River Strings (Bluegrass band) at the Bon Aire Hotel in Augusta? You were filling in for Henry Wynn, who was sick that day.
Morse: Oh, yeah, it was great. I take any opportunity that has ever come up to play Bluegrass, especially if someone will help me on the songs I don’t know by heart. But I just love the genre and the energy, and it’s like heavy metal on an acoustic. It’s great, a lot of energy.
MRM: Did you enjoy when the Steve Morse Band opened for Rush in the mid-80s?
Morse: Yes, I did. It was sort of a calamity for me in a lot of ways. So, I had hired an extra rhythm guitarist and singer and had gotten everybody in the group, you know, Rod (Morgenstein) and Jerry Peek out of their jobs that they were doing and other groups. And the opportunity to play as opening band didn’t pay hardly anything because it was big exposure. And for some reason the record company started by saying, “Yes, we will support this tour. So, you can at least make all of your expenses.” And then a few weeks into it, they said, “Oh, we’re not releasing the new album as a CD and cutting all the tour support.” So, I was just left – should I finish the tour and go into debt, or do we just call it, you know? I said this is a once in a lifetime thing, I’m never going to get an opportunity like this again. So, I finished tens of thousands of dollars in the hole. And sure enough, they never released the “Stand Up” album as a CD. Almost everything that has ever happened to me with a major record label has been a disaster, you know, financially and business wise.
But the band Rush was awesome and very, very amazing people. I’ve just have great stories from that. And they were so generous with their time backstage too. They would always take time to answer questions or just hang out and even went out and had a big dinner together. And Alex (Lifeson) and I flew in my plane from one gig to another once. Anyway, it was a great gig.
MRM: Speaking of flying, do you still fly your plane from gig to gig?
Morse: Well, when I did the (Joe) Satriani tour, I did just fly one leg. But it’s becoming more and more not so easy to do – the cost of flying goes up and the hassle of dealing with everything. There’s a huge ring of airspace taken away around Washington, DC for someone trying to go up north. And I’m flying guys that are dads now, and the liability insurance would have to be that much higher. So, for a lot of reasons, it just is not as carefree as it was when we were young men, you know, we were without families and children.
MRM: Could you tell us what you remember most from your tenure with Kansas?
Morse: Oh, I remember they’re hardworking guys that were really close with each other. And I was a little bit of an outsider, just like anybody coming into another band. But we instantly had a music connection, and it was very organic. The way that I got in the band: I just said, “Alright, you guys are getting back together? That’s great! I can’t wait.” Because I really was a fan. I said, “If you need anything – ideas for songs or want to do a guesting or anything – just call me.” And Phil (Ehart) did call me and said, “Hey, we’re going to get together at my house. We’re gonna try to kick some ideas around. You wanna come?” I said, “Yeah.” So, I started by just jumping in immediately because that’s what I did, by throwing out ideas. And one song after another came together and pretty soon there was an albums worth. We did a recording that came out really well, that was the “Power” album. And Phil said, “Well, we’re going to go on tour. You coming, right? I said, “Well, I’d love to. Yeah, I’ve got to talk to my band.” We hadn’t been doing much, the Steve Morse Band, at that time. So, I said, “Well, I’m going to be doing this for a while.” And I think Rod had moved to New York at that time. And Jerry Peek: I think he got married and worked more of a straight job using his amazing intellectual abilities.
So, yeah, that’s what I remember most – is that the music connection was great. And also it happened around the time that MTV was dictating the new rules of the game. And that’s the one thing I wasn’t comfortable with – was the fact that there was pressure from the record company, the management and elsewhere to become a relative MTV band. And I just kept envisioning the grand juror of the instrumental Kansas stuff. You know, the grandiose, bombastic, heavy, sort of prog stuff. And I was a little bit frightened by MTV – the way it was changing the music that I was so used to. I felt like a fish out of water. I just couldn’t write in the style that the record company wanted for the band, so they were using a lot of outside material. Sort of trying to force fit the band to be a MTV band. And every record company, by the way, since the beginning of time has always tried to get more coverage for their artist. I mean there’s no problem with that, and I’m not putting anybody down for that. I’m just saying hype – I was just going through a strange time in my life. I just didn’t want, didn’t feel like I could do that.
MRM: How did Deep Purple find and recruit you?
Morse: Well, I think discovery-wise there was a little bit of exposure because BBC One Radio show used “Take It Off The Top” from the Dregs to open the radio show for a long time. And Roger (Glover) had seen the Steve Morse Band play when they were recording in Florida. So, after Ritchie (Blackmore) had left, they finished the tour in Japan and Europe with Joe Satriani who was – he was a big enough name to make any promoter say, “On no, this isn’t going to fly not without Ritchie Blackmore.” And Joe was such a big name that it really helped kind of set them up to say, “Alright, alright, alright. Give it a try.” And he did great. But the time came to think about the next album and the future of the band. Of course, Joe was going back to his solo thing. They wanted someone to replace Ritchie that wasn’t an exact clone of Ritchie. So, I guess Roger spoke up and said, “This guy definitely has his own style. And does a variety of things, and we should check it out.” I got a call from my manager who said, “How do you feel about Deep Purple?” And I said “Why? [Laughs] Does somebody have something bad to say to me from Deep Purple?” He said “No, no, no. They’re looking to replace Ritchie permanently.” I said, “Well, do they want me to look like something or be something I’m not?” He said, “No, they actually know who you are.” And I said, “That’s interesting actually.” So, we agreed to do four shows, and it took months before the shows got booked, and we did them.
I had met Roger. And Roger and I took a photo together, and they pasted it onto a photo of the other three guys. And that was our band promo picture for the first four shows. And I didn’t meet them all until we got to Mexico in Mexico City. And we had one rehearsal at the gig in Mexico City, and it was surprisingly good. The band was playing much better than I had expected. So, I was happy, and they were happy and went from there. So, I got the call in ’93, played in ’94. So, it has been about 20 years.
MRM: How was it working with the legendary producer Bob Ezrin for the newest Deep Purple album “Now What?!”
Morse: I was familiar with Bob because the last album I did with Kansas was called “In The Spirit Of Things,” and Bob had produced that. So, I thought Bob was an incredibly clever guy – very, very fast thinking and able to keep track of many things at once. And he was very good at pushing people to get things done and to come up with something that he didn’t like. He would say, “I like this song, but this chorus I don’t like, let’s fix it.” So, he was a really complete produce, from beginning to end, from pre-production to the very end of the album. So, I was in favor of working with him. And the other guys hadn’t worked with him. And I was afraid if I had suggested to work with him, then the band wouldn’t want to [Laughs]. So, I kind of kept my mouth shut and waited for a common period and said, “Yes, I think he’s great.” Instead of pushing him. We’ve been lucky to work with all great producers. Everybody I’ve worked with has been amazingly talented and the musicians too. So, I generally remember all of the good things about everybody.
MRM: In your opinion, why doesn’t Deep Purple tour the United States more often?
Morse: Well, I think it’s because I’m the only one who lives there. They don’t see it as a priority. Business-wise, it pays much less than the shows we get everywhere else. Begrudgingly, we’ll do a tour every once in a while. Actually, they like visiting the United States. It’s just harder here. Remember the band was broken up briefly during the time that MTV was taking hold, you know, while a band like White Snake and Def Leppard became MTV classic bands – Deep Purple didn’t. Deep Purple did in the sense that there are “Highway Star,” “Woman From Tokyo” and “Smoke On The Water,” got a lot of air play. But as far as having that video presence, it really burns it into people’s memories. I don’t think it happened here. So, I think that’s a big part of it.
MRM: What does it mean to you and Deep Purple to finally be getting recognition from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Morse: Well, it means somebody’s been busy. And I certainly would thank people like Lars (Ulrich) from Metallica and fans that are actually very powerful people in the music business. As far as actually getting into the Hall of Fame, I think it’s a lot like the Grammys – out of how ever many choices there are, the one that has the most name recognition will mostly likely win – because you don’t have to turn in news worthiness or ad selling ability or revenue generating ability at some point. Plus, what would they do with a rock band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
MRM: Any word on the status of your group Living Loud?
Morse: Yeah, I’m in constant touch with Bob Daisley. In fact, I just bought his latest book “For Facts Sake.” If you say it with an Australian accent, it sounds kind of funny. We’ve got a few songs we started for a second album and never actually have gotten together to finish. It’s just a scheduling and distance problem. I know Jimmy Barnes, he’s really busy and Bob. Lee Kerslake is having health problems, and I haven’t seen him on the road in a while. So, it just gets difficult. Like I said, we’ve got a start on it.
MRM: Any word on the status of your duo Angelfire?
Morse: Well, Sarah (Spencer) is living up in Nashville, and she’s writing a lot with her boyfriend. And we haven’t gotten together to do anymore shows. I think Bill Evans was talking about another video. So, when he comes to the United State’s we’ll see if that is possible.
MRM: How was the supergroup Flying Colors formed?
Morse: Well, that guy I mentioned, Bill Evans, worked with Kerry Livgren and the band Transatlantic with Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy. Anyways, Bill said, “You know, I’ve got an idea of sort of making a prog band with real heavy writing but with commercially accessible vocals. Would you like to be a part of that?” I said, “Well, yeah.” And Kerry was originally going to be one of the guys, and Kerry had serious health problems come up during that, and we couldn’t work together. But Neal Morse and I did. He actually came to my studio and wrote for a day and a half. Ideas were everywhere. We were just so happy, got so much stuff done. And we took that further, and he suggested Mike Portnoy, and I suggested Dave LaRue. All four – and Bill Evans – got together and talked about vocalists. And Portnoy knew Casey (McPherson) from the bands Endochine and Alpha Rev and thought he was great because he was a great writer and different kind of vocalist, not just a high screaming, you know, heavy metal stuff. He thought he had so much personality and want. Anyway, Bill was the producer and still is. He’s the guy who gets stuck with doing a lot of stuff that makes the band happen. And we do the music. We’re getting together in about 10 days for another session for the second studio album.
MRM: Can you tell us about Flying Colors’ new CD/DVD/Blu-Ray “Live In Europe?”
Morse: Yeah, it’s a show that we did the last day (Tillburg, Holland) of our very short European tour. And it’s very, very high energy. And you can sense that the band is enjoying themselves and having a good time. We did everything on the first album, on the Flying Colors album, and then everybody did like a little solo bit that the band participated on. For instance, I did “Odyssey” from the Dixie Dregs, and Mike Portnoy did “Repentance” from a Dream Theater album, and Neal did a Spock’s Beard tune, and Casey did a song, I think, from Endochine, and Dave did a bass solo thing. So, we all did things like that to add more time to the show since we only had that one album to pick from. And, so, that makes up the live DVD, and there’s a bonus track of a fun encore that we did of a Deep Purple tune too [Laughs].
MRM: Why do you like being in so many projects at one time?
Morse: Well, I don’t necessarily like doing it all at one time [Laughs]. But I like the variety. The guys in Purple believe that it strengthens the band by having everybody involved in interesting things, things we are motivated to do. It makes the band that much stronger when we do come together. And I agree with that. I like, of course, I like the challenge. That’s just like if you just ate one thing every day, you would want some variety. And I think scheduling is always going to be the hardest thing about doing that, trying to have enough time off and enough time to do everything. It’s always a struggle when you’ve got five people that do different bands.
MRM: How has your playing progressed and evolved over the years?
Morse: Well, I think phrasing-wise, it has gotten better. Technique-wise, I probably reached a peak about the time I joined Purple. And now, I guess, I’ve got to be smart and make the best musical choices. You know, I don’t have the reflexes of a 20-year-old in hindsight, but I can still play. You know, the big challenge is finding the music, and with each year, I get more and more aware – to know choices and making melodies by far is the most important thing I could do.
MRM: What is the secret to your youthfulness and energy?
Morse: I think I have a high metabolism, and music tends to keep you young to a certain extent. It’s stressing you out in some ways, the business does. But the music is always rewarding and makes you smile. And I ask how many people get to do something and base a career on where they smile a lot. I don’t smile when I’m waiting in line, and the luggage is lost, like what happened just a few days ago and stuff like that. But I do smile when I go on stage, I love to play.
MRM: When are you scheduled to be back out on the road again?
Morse: Well, I’ve got the Flying Colors thing and going to the NAMM show in January and a few days after that, Deep Purple is going off again in February. I’m off in March. In April we’re going to Japan, I think. There’s more dates. They don’t give us the dates written down in advance, they just give us a few general ideas because they’re always adding and changing things this far out. February and April are already booked, I think.
MRM: Thanks for calling Music Recall Magazine. It has been a pleasure to speak to a living legend like yourself. Thank you very much!
Morse: Thanks for your time. I appreciate you doing it. Very good questions.