Jock Bartley is the one member of Firefall who has been with the band through its 40-year run opening with a debut album that produced enduring radio hits like “You Are the Woman,” “Livin’ Ain’t Livin’ ” and “Cinderella.”
Over those years, he’s seen band members pass away, leave and return. Original bandmates David Muse and Mark Andes have been back in the group over the last four years, but it’s a relative newcomer, Newport News native Gary Jones who may make the biggest difference.
Jones and Bartley go back a couple of decades in Nashville, but Jones didn’t join Firefall as its lead singer until a couple of years ago. Original vocalists and songwriters, Rick Roberts and Larry Burnett, aren’t up to touring, Bartley says.
Jones, though, brings the band back to the days of those early hits, making Firefall another long-standing band that’s found a new lead singer who lets fans close their eyes and imagine.
“To have a guy who sounds like Rick in the band is really great because we’re sounding like our records except it’s 40 years later,” Bartley says on a call from Colorado, his longtime home. “There’s still an incredible amount of energy. It’s really cool to still be doing this. We all know how lucky we are.”
So the band has found its groove again? “We’ve been in the groove, but the groove is definitely more pronounced,” he answers.
Firefall was a comet in the universe of Southern California soft rock, releasing a debut that dominated the airwaves then slipping away into the night sky.
Bartley looks back at how important timing was for him and the band. “So many bands never get a chance to go out on the diving board and jump in the big pool and see if you can swim,” he says.
Firefall, which appears at The Neptune Festival on Oct. 2, had a winning few laps in the deep end with the debut album’s hit and later winners like “Just Remember I Love You,” “Mexico,” “Strange Way” and “Goodbye, I Love You.”
Why has the band endured?
“That’s easy. Looking back over 40 years, it’s all attributable to the songs. There are hundreds of thousands of great bands out there who just don’t have the songs. And sometimes they have the songs, but don’t get the right break. All the other things have to lead to that point,” he says. “But it really all starts with the songs.”
Those songs came from Burnett and Roberts. Roberts, a former member of The Flying Burrito Brothers, had worked with Bartley in Boulder and was contemplating a third solo album when the band formed. Burnett was driving a cab in Washington, D.C.
“Rick would write commercial “You Are the Woman” type of things,” Bartley says. “He really knew about the game and getting radio airplay. His stuff was melodic and wonderful, but it was a bit formulaic and destined to get airplay.”
“Larry Burnett wrote songs that purged from his gut,” he adds. “Their songwriting styles were so different. One of the reasons we made great records was the difference between the two songwriters and their songs. It was magical.”
Bartley’s journey into the group involves a bit of magic as well. He attended the University of Colorado and settled in Boulder. By the early 1970s, many of the big names of the SoCal rock scene had moved into town. Caribou Ranch Recording Studio was there, the recording home to Chicago, Carole King, Rick Derringer, and Elton John (who named an album after it), among others.
Stephen Still, Chris Hillman, Richie Furay, Dan Fogelberg, and Willie Nelson spent time in town. When Firefall was forming, it wasn’t uncommon for Stephen Stills, Joe Walsh, or Fogelberg to sit in at a live show.
Bartley got his break a few years earlier when Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The first stop of their 1973 tour with The Fallen Angels was Boulder, where they were booked for three nights. The band was woefully unprepared on the first night. Parsons promised changes. On the third night, Bartley sat in with them. Parsons hired him on the spot.
“The next day I was on the bus, learning the songs and trying to play the James Burton guitar parts,” he says. Burton, Elvis Presley’s guitarist, had been hired to play on Parsons’s album, but the ill-fated songwriter couldn’t afford him for the tour.
Their next stop was another three-night stand in Houston, where Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young joined the band on stage. “Oh my god,” Bartley says. “I was not able to pay rent three days ago and now I’m on stage with Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young. The finish to that story is a lot of things happened that are fated to happen.”
Parsons completed the tour and his next studio album before dying in September 1973. Bartley returned to Boulder after meeting Rick Roberts during a Fallen Angels show at Max’s Kansas City in New York. They played for a bit in Chris Hillman’s band.
In 1975, they got together there with bassist Mark Andes, who had been in Spirit, and invited Burnett to join them. For the drums, they auditioned a bunch of locals, but finally settled on Roberts’ old Burrito Brothers compadre, Michael Clarke, who had been in The Byrds.
Roberts took the name from Yosemite Firefall, a summer tradition of dumping flaming embers off Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park.
Signed to a deal with Atlantic Records, they recorded the debut in a month at Miami’s Criteria Studios (Caribou was too expensive at the time). Stephen Still was working on a record there. So were The Bee Gees.
Bartley recalls playing his big solo on “Mexico” in the studio, telling the producer after that he wanted to go back and clean up a few things. No need. Just come into the control room. He walked in and there was Eric Clapton, enjoying the session. “Had I known before I was playing for him, I couldn’t have even held a pick,” he says.
Their debut, “Firefall,” became the label’s quickest release to one million in sales, effectively giving Bartley and the band a lifetime career. “It’s a privilege to still do this,” he says. “Music becomes such a big part of people’s lives. It’s just so great to have meant a lot through our music to millions of people throughout the world.”
Clarke died of liver failure after his bouts with alcohol in 1993. Andes left then returned. Burnett and Roberts went on to solo careers and no longer tour. Jones joined fulltime in 2014. He grew up in Seaford. His first concert was The Statler Brothers and Mel Tillis opening for Johnny Cash. He soon picked up the guitar and eventually played in local bands. He first crossed paths with Firefall watching them play a 1977 show at William & Mary Hall. By 1996, he’d moved to Nashville where he met Bartley. He sat in once with the band in 1999, but didn’t become a member until 2014.
Now, he’s the Firefall frontman for a new generation.
Bartley says he’s always surprised signing autographs after shows when fans in their 20s and 30s come up for autographs.
“The music is still vibrant,” he says. “We still enjoy playing it.”