Jean-Phillipe Rykiel gets his 3 wishes…..
I think I mentioned that to work at the Guitar Center in Hollywood, you had to put in a lot of hours because you got paid by commission only…no hourly wage and we were open seven days a week til 10:00 PM.
One night I came into my keyboard room after dinner and I saw an unusual site. There was a young boy with long, curly, crazy, looking hair and he was touching all the keyboards…not looking at them, just feeling them with his hands. I walked over and said, “Do you need some help?” He said, “Yes, I’ve never seen this keyboard before, how do you turn it on?” I got it going then he started playing some very pretty jazz licks and not looking at the keyboard. I noticed an accent when he spoke, and asked him where was he from. He said, “I’m from Paris, France and I’m just here for a short vacation. My Name is Jean-Phillipe Rykiel and my mother is a French fashion designer, named Sonia Rykiel.” Later, I did some checking and found out that his mother was a big deal in the French fashion industry and famous around the world. Not my world, but, she made some beautiful clothes – especially some very expensive sweaters.
It turned out that JP was staying with the LA Times fashion Editor in a very posh house in Beverly Hills. She was good friends with JP’s mother but didn’t have a clue of what to do with John. I gave JP a lift home and she told me that he didn’t want to visit Disneyland nor any of the other famous tourist spots in Southern California. He just wanted to “see” new keyboards and hear music. “See” was the word he used, but, did I mention that Jean-Phillipe was blind?
I came to find out that when John says he saw something like a new keyboard he means he touched it all over. I said, “Well don’t touch me then.” He laughed and our friendship blossomed. He had a remarkable memory, but, I never got over him saying, “Yes David, I have seen that one.”
I asked him, “Who are three music stars you would most like to meet?” He said,” Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell and mostly, Stevie Wonder.” For obvious reasons.
Dave and Joni Mitchell
Well, as it turned out, I was working with Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa at this time on different projects. Joni was doing a new album at A+M studios called Hjieri and I was helping Frank Zappa with a new guitar synthesizer…one of the first ones ever built. It was using Oberheim expander modules (little synthesizers) and 360 Systems pitch to voltage converters. It was very time consuming and a difficult project but, Zappa really was a real genius. Most people never believe me when I tell them that Zappa never took drugs. Once, I saw him drink a half of glass of red wine. But, that’s it. You would have thought with all of his strange songs and complicated music that he was probably breast fed on acid (LSD).
At this time Zappa was also rehearsing a new band he was taking behind the Iron Curtain for a tour. This would be the first time that these people had ever seen Americans and these were some strange looking musicians. I think it was the first time Terry Bozio played drums with Zappa. Terry was unbelievably good.
Dave and Frank Zappa
Stevie Wonder was another story. I’d never met him, once, and didn’t know anything about his personal life – for all I knew, he could live in Detroit or Hawaii.
I must tell you, too, that this was very rare for me to actually have the home phone numbers for both Joni and Frank Zappa. When I was dialing their numbers I was expecting it to be the wrong number. But, when they both answered it was a real thrill. I was able to ask a favor…to bring my new French blind musician to a recording session for Joni and a rehearsal for Zappa. Both Joni and Frank were very generous with their time and their spirit. Joni was already a big fan of Sonia Rykel, JP’s Mother. Joni said she spends lots of time in France.
I had less than five days to make a young boys musical dreams come true. First stop was A+M Records, to meet Joni Mitchell. She was recording a beautiful song called, “Amelia”, from her new up and coming Hjieri album. I had delivered a new keyboard called an SLM Concert Spectrum and it had beautiful strings and French horns. I recorded a few lines on her Amelia song and I thought they sounded beautiful. I didn’t find out what happened to my parts until six months later. I’ll explain later. Back to JP.
When we came in the studio Joni was talking to my old “Woodsy” friend…Henry Lewi. I think he was the producer. Anyway, Joni had just laid down seven or eight tracks of finger picking on her electric guitar and they sounded beautiful…big, rounded notes. I think I was to come back later and put my synth parts down. I don’t remember putting any tracks down that night. Jean-Philippe was unusually quiet. He just sat and was mesmerized with her music and her presence. I was always spellbound with Joni’s presence as well. She really was “bigger than life.”
About two years before this time, and, before I ever met Joni I was paralyzed from my knees down to my toes on both legs. That’s another story…and a very frightening one. I lived in a hospital bed for eleven months and music was one of my saving graces. I used to listen to Joni’s music every day. Her music’s beauty gave me strength, especially her song called “The Gallery.”
A+M Studios was very busy that night. In the studio next to us was the Carpenters. I’d always heard a rumor that Karen Carpenter, the girl with the unbelievably beautiful voice had a mouth like a sailor. At one point that evening I heard some yelling coming from next door. I left Joni’s room and snuck into the Carpenters session and Karen was yelling at her brother, Richard. I know I liked listening to Karen’s voice singing “Close to You” a whole lot more than I liked listening to her yelling at her brother.
Several great musicians stopped by to say hello to Joni and ask if she needed any help. I think she made a couple of appointments with a couple of players. The studio was always very friendly and creative when Joni was there. After a few hours, I didn’t want to wear out our welcome and I think John was getting tired. It gets pretty intense when you spend the whole night on one song.
Oh yeah – about that string/french horn part I recorded on “Amelia”….. Well, when JP and I left that night I didn’t see Joni again for over a year. I was in Tower Records or some record store in Hollywood, six months after our session with Joni, and the manager said, “Hey Kimber, Joni Mitchell’s record just came out.” I said, “Does it have a song called, Amelia, on it?” He looked and said ,”Ya, want to hear it?” “Yes”, I said.” I was excited. My musical lines on Joni Mitchell’s record! The song sounded great…..but when it got to my part, no more strings nor french horns. They had replaced them with a steel guitar! I liked my parts better. Oh well…ya’ win some, ya’ lose some. And an odd thing happened. It seemed like wherever I went that day (and night) Joni’s new album was playing and it was always playing “Amelia” – without my parts, which I kept hearing.
When we left the studio JP asked me if I had figured out a way to meet Stevie Wonder. I said, “No”, and told him about the next night. I had called Zappa and he said, “Yeah, sure…bring the kid over.” JP was excited when I told him but I could see that he was really disappointed that it looked like he wasn’t going to meet Stevie Wonder. And Jean-Philippe was leaving in only two days*
Before I tell you about JP’s wonderful night with Frank Zappa and his new touring group, I want to tell you about my search for Stevie Wonder.
I am a great believer in fate and karma and have always felt that if you are doing a selfless act or a good deed, just because you can and are not gaining any profit from your deed, the universe will help you make it happen. Well, that’s exactly what happened to me. I had two days to make something happen with Stevie and Jean-Philippe. I was in my keyboard room at Guitar Center and a black guy walked in the room. I didn’t recognize him and he said, “Are you Dave Kimber?” “Yes I am”, I said. This guy said, “My name is Billy Wonder and I was told that you are the only guy in town that has the new Oberheim Synthesizer. I said that I did have one and I pointed to it. I said, “Are you related to Stevie?” “Yes, he’s my brother and we’re recording his new album, “Songs to the Key of Life”, at Chrystal Recording Studio a few blocks away.” He asked, “Could I rent the keyboard for a couple of weeks or until the the recording is over?” I said “No.” Billy said, “Why not?” I said, “Because, I’ve got a better deal for you.”
I explained all about JP….how he worshiped Billy’s brother and how it would be fantastic if JP could come to a session and meet his idol. Billy said that Stevie’s sessions were very closed. I told him that if he could make this happen I would give him the new Oberheim Synthesizer for 3 weeks at no charge.
Billy left and a half an hour later he called me and said, “Bring Jean-Philippe by the studio tomorrow night…Stevie’s recording vocals. FANTASTIC. Tonight we see Zappa and tomorrow night we go see Stevie. I was giddy and a little weepy. I also decided not to tell Jean-Phillipe. I thought I’d surprise him with the good news.
Frank Zappa was rehearsing a band to go on a tour behind the Iron Curtain and visit countries who had never seen Americans before. And, Zappa had assembled quite an array of crazy looking Americans. When JP and I arrived at the big rehearsal studio, Zappa came over and said to me,”David, is this your new friend that you told me about?” “Yes”, I said and Zappa took Jean-Philippe’s hand and shook it and said,
“Hi, I’m Frank.” And, JP said, “Hi, I’m Jean-Philippe and I’m French,” to which Frank replied, “Well, good for you.” we sat down and listened to a tune I didn’t recognize but Jean-Philippe did.
The band took a break and one of my old friends was the long-time sax player in Zappa’s groups, Napolean Murphy Brock. He was a great player and a very funny guy. He took me aside and asked me if I wanted to have a “smoke.” I said, “Yeah, okay…..” He said, “We have to be very cool cause Frank will kick me out of the group if he catches me smoking…” I said, “Well, then, let’s wait until after your finished.” Everybody called him, “Nappy”. This was before that word became a bad word in our race relations. I think it was Don Imus who used the word in referring to a black girls basketball team.
Dave and Napolean Murphy Brock
Jean-Philippe and I went back to listening to the rehearsal. The band rehearsed, “I’m So Cute.” They rehearsed the song for several minutes and finally Frank said, “Come on guys, this little rat over there wants to hear the song.” And they played the whole song.
We didn’t do any work on Frank’s guitar synthesizer. I came back the next week for that, after John had returned to Paris. The night was getting late and we said our good-byes and Frank was very gracious to Jean-Philippe. On the way home, JP told me that he had wondered what on earth he was going to say to the great master when he first met him. Well, it turned out to be. “Hi I’m Jean-Philippe and I’m French.” JP thought of all the things he might have said and, yet, that’s what came out of his mouth. He was still pretty buzzed about meeting and speaking to another of his idols. On his way back to his temporary home in Beverly Hills he asked me for the hundredth time: any luck with getting a hold of Stevie Wonder??? “No,” I said. “And, you leave the day after tomorrow, so, I’m afraid we’ll have to think of something else to do tomorrow night.” I wanted this to be a big surprise to Jean-Philippe.
Before I tell you about the heartfelt meeting between Stevie Wonder and Jean- Philippe let me finish the Zappa story. I saw Mr. Zappa a few more times having to do with his guitar synthesizer. Mainly, we were trying to get the tracking to be more accurate with the help of Bob Easton’s 360 system’s pitch to voltage converter. Zappa’s band went on their tour and I didn’t see any of them until about 6 months later. I bumped into Nappy at a crazy party at Frank Zappa’s beautiful house in Laurel Canyon in the California hills. When I arrived at the house there was a girl – I think it was “Suzie Creamcheese” from the Mothers of Invention – and she was handing out different colored popsicles only they were shaped like penises and she said, “Would you like a cock-sicle?” When I walked inside everybody was sucking on a shrinking “cocksicle”…..
Later on I ran into Nappy again and I asked him how the tour went and he said, “Let me tell you about the opening night. I think we were in a high School gym in Romania and the first three rows were reserved for the foreign press. Before we were introduced, Frank gave all of the musicians at the front of the stage mouths full of canned, cream corn. When the band was introduced all of the guys let loose with the creamed corn, spraying it all over the foreign press.” I had always heard that Zappa had gotten the whole L.A. Philharmonic to burp on cue. I once asked Zappa if that was true and he said, “Yes he did and they were wearing tuxedos.” There will never be another Frank Zappa.
When I picked up JP the next night I said that I was sorry but I couldn’t arrange for him to meet Stevie Wonder. He was very disappointed and because he was blind, and in a different neighborhood, he didn’t question where I was driving and didn’t see the sign that said “Crystal Recording Studio” – “Closed Session Tonight”. I parked the car and he said,” Where are we?” I said I left something at the studio the other night. “Let’s go in”, I said, “Maybe Jonie’s still there.” We both pushed on a huge wooden door to the studio and JP said, “It smells different.” And right then a booming voice said, “Who’s there?” I said, “This is Dave Kimber.” He said, “Hi David, this is Billy Wonder. Did you bring your friend, Jean-Philippe with you?” “Yes, he’s right here.” Billy said to John, “Where are you from, Jean-Philippe?” JP said,” Paris, in France.” Do you have brothers and sisters?”, asked Billy. “Yes, a big sister”, said JP. Billy said,”Oh, and she is beautiful?? “Uhm…I don’t know…well, I mean,” JP said. And Billy laughed and said, “Well, of course, I was not prepared for that.” And, we all laughed.
Jean-Philippe said something to me in French. It was either “thank-you” or “you fooled me”. I know I won’t be able to remember the entire night but JP’s sending me a couple of pages of his memories of the magical evening. After JP shook Billy Wonder’s hand he said to me, “I’m one hand away from him…the Master.”
This is what Jean-Philippe wrote to me about the night:
“After I shook Billy’s hand, I find myself in a large wooden room….the cabin probably. It becomes silent. It is David who speaks now. “Jean-Philippe, can you feel the presence of Stevie near you?” I raise my right hand gently. Someone takes my arm and directs it with his. There is no more noise and I cannot speak. Now the heart controls, not the mind. And the Master speaks,”You know what could be interesting…? It would be that you two come and see the gigantic synth on which I work. It is called ‘The Dream Machine’. Come, come….”
Stevie played the string parts on two new songs that no one would hear until his new album,”Songs in The Key of Life” came out later. I recall thinking this this new album would become his most popular – a huge success. And, in fact, many hit singles came from that album.
The “Dream Machine” was really beautiful. It was pure white with three keyboards and made by Yamaha. Stevie had the only one in the world. Stevie said to JP, “Here, come and play a little.” And he stood up and JP sat down in the Master’s place. This was a great privilege.
Billy Wonder came into the room and said, “Come on, he’s recording a new song. Let’s go watch.”
Again, from Jean-Phillipe:
“The intro begins. It was the song, “Another Star”, and I hear Stevie’s voice through the studio speakers. There, I think I almost cried. He was singing for me, I was sure of it. Sometimes in the same musical sentence his voice can instill in your soul, sadness, devotion, joy, anger, indignation, sensuality, serenity and love. I had heard “Another Star” before anyone else, and, I cannot describe the emotion I had when I put that record on my turntable a few months later.”
Jean-Philippe and I were about to take our leave and when we said good-bye to Stevie and the gang. Stevie said, “Oh no, you’re not leaving now. I want to show you my calculator.” It was new and it was a talking calculator for the blind. This was the beginnings of what would become the speech synthesizers that computers and phones use, today.
Ray Kurzweil, who worked on many of the speech machines also invented one of the very best keyboard/synthesizers using sampled sounds, for every instrument, and it sounded fantastic. It is called simply the “Kurzweil”, for obvious reasons. But I know that Stevie Wonder was working very closely with Kurzweil while he was developing his sounds and voice recognition machines. When I went to Australia I was the music director of a Late Night TV Show and I used a fantastic Kurzweil Keyboard in the band, for the show.
Well, as JP would say,”That’s it, that’s Stevie.” He devoted a couple hours of his life to us while he was recording this legendary album. What a magical evening. I am so glad that I could make this happen. It makes me feel all warm inside. I can’t begin to think how these people who work at the “Make a Wish Foundation” must feel on a daily basis.
Jean-Philippe and I left and said our goodbyes and I drove JP back to his temporary house for the last time. I received a very nice letter from JP’s Mother, Sonia Rykiel, and a beautiful sweater which she designed. JP and I have talked occasionally over the years but have never seen each other again. One of my wishes is that we could meet again. When I moved to Australia we talked a few times.
Over the years JP has become quite a force in “World Music”. We haven’t seen each other in forty-four years. Maybe we’ll do it again, soon. He’s probably got another three famous people he’d like to meet.
Coming up next: Hangin’, Jammin’, and Laughin’ with John Sebastian