By Todd Houston
For Rockford Rocked Interviews
Let’s face it, if you lived through and survived the 1980s you deserve some kind of an award. Period. If you not only survived the 1980s but also made it out with your dignity intact? We’re now talking Starbuck’s gift card, inscribed watch and maybe one of those creepy, reissued Teddy Ruxpin bears.
Former Fierce Heart lead guitarist Rex Carroll survived the decade of decadence. The decade that should have made him and his band household names. Yes, his guitar playing was and still is that good! We caught up with Rex just before The Fierce Heart reunion show earlier this month to see how it all happened or, uh, didn’t quite happen as it were.
Rockford Rocked Interview: I understand that Fierce Heart was put together sort of by accident. Weren’t you originally wanting to audition for Whitesnake when that whole thing came together?
Rex Carroll: Well, in 1982 I contacted the Mirage/Atlantic record label. I read that Whitesnake had fired both of their guitar players and was looking for somebody new. I wrote a letter, included a cassette tape of myself playing a straight 12-bar blues pattern and simply mailed it to the address on the back of the album.
Three or four weeks go by and Jim Delehant who ran the A&R department of Atlantic calls me on the phone; I completely freaked out! My hand started shaking uncontrollably and I dropped the phone to the floor; I’m surprised it didn’t shatter into a million pieces. He told me that David Coverdale already had his man, (some guy named John Sykes, laughs). But in his words, “why don’t we put together a band around you?”
RRI: From reading previous interviews and stories it sounds like Jim Delehant took you under his wing.
RC: Yeah, He was very generous with his time, and would frequently mail vinyl albums to me of Albert King and Gary Moore with explicit instructions on the exact licks he wanted me to study. I don’t know what he saw in me, but I would mail my songs to him and he would critique my playing and give me songwriting pointers as well.
RRI: Vocalist Larry Elkins sounded so damn good on the Fierce Heart album! Sort of like David Coverdale and Steve Marriott on steroids! How was it that you found him?
RC: First off, I couldn’t seem to find a singer, and I was having nightmares about it. I thought I might lose my chance. Then a guy named John Douminian contacted Jim about a vocalist he had discovered (Larry Elkins). John had spent the previous decade managing Humble Pie, and then Peter Frampton. He came to Jim and said “what should we do with this singer?” and Jim suggested he’d be a perfect fit with me. The bass player on the FH album is a great Chicago area guy named Tom Heslin. After all these years Tom and I are still friends!
RRI: In the early ‘80s you had bands like Ratt, Motley Crue and Twisted Sister coming up. Was there ever any pressure to sound like what was coming out of Los Angeles at the time either by Delehant or anyone else?
RC: Mr. Delehant became our producer and hired a hot shot up-and-coming young guy to be the engineer and co-producer of our record. He had a strange sounding name, Chris Lord-Alge. Back in those days Chris played everything at about 115-120 db all day long, and every, single, day, the UPS truck would show up with new speakers to replace the studio monitors that Chris had blown up the day before. (No problem…it all went on our studio bill!) My ears were splitting open continually, but I was green, just a dumb kid from the suburbs dropped into Times Square in the summer of 1984 and trying to keep up and I didn’t know any better. Chris’s younger brother Tom Lord-Alge was also in the studio with us every day, as Chris’s assistant engineer. The thing that’s amazing to me about Chris, both then and now, is, he simply doesn’t care about anybody else’s opinions. He’s not impressed by how big your record label is or what band you’re in or any of that, he just makes the music sound the way he wants it to sound, and that’s that. And, he’s got a way of looking you in the eye and practically daring you to even think about disagreeing with him. (Laughs)
RRI: This is getting interesting! Your guitar playing is top notch and you certainly fit right in with the guitar heroes of the era so there was no problem there. In your mind why wasn’t the Fierce Heart release a major hit? You had all the elements and ingredients for a gold album.
RC: Our record finally came out in 1985 and almost didn’t quite work out. Of course, there are multiple reasons when a record or a band ends up not working. I’ve identified several reasons in the case of Fierce Heart. One thing that has been acknowledged by all parties as a mistake was the extreme over-use of the Fairlight drum computer. In 1984 the Fairlight was a primitive drum machine with a price tag of about $160,000. Compare that to today when your $900 Apple laptop ships with thousands of drum loops already installed for free with Garage Band (laughs). And there were other things, too. To put it mildly, Larry Elkins the singer, and myself, famously did not get along. That’s a whole other story. Eventually Larry went back to Virginia, and Robert Reynolds became the lead singer.
RRI: I want to touch on the Christian-based bands King James, Rex Carroll Band and Whitecross. Sometime after Fierce Heart you became a full fledged Christian, giving your life to God. Tell us more about how that happened and why if you would.
RC: Actually I was “full-fledged Christian” as you say, since I was 17. I always loved bands like Black Sabbath, as they say themselves, their songs are a “warning against evil” to quote Geezer Butler. And that’s totally cool, I was a huge fan. I still love the song ‘War Pigs’. But, I wanted to take it one step further. I always thought it would be awesome to see a band go one more step and actually give God his due. So, myself and several other people around the country had the same idea at approximately the same time and next thing you know, bam! Here’s this new style…all these bands writing positive messages and giving God his due praise. So, for lack of a better handle, it got labeled as “Christian rock” and that explains Whitecross (which often got compared to RATT) and King James. The Rex Carroll Band, by the way, is actually a mainstream blues/rock band. In my alternate reality. (laughs) I love Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddy King, Albert King, Gary Moore, and all the great blues players so from time to time I also like to get in to those musical areas.
RRI: Be honest. Have any of your bands ever played Rockford?
RC: I had a cover band in 2015/16 that played in Rockford a few times but that’s all. (laughs)
RRI: On May 4 Fierce Heart reunited to play at Melodic Rock Festival at the Home Bar in Arlington Heights, IL. What are you thoughts on this reunion and who put it together?
At the time of this interview, that gig is now completed and my hats off to Andrew McNiece for putting it on, my FierceHeart record label AOR Blvd Records for getting us in, and the fans for coming out. For me personally, it was truly amazing! I loved playing with the Fierce Heart guys, what an amazing band! We made great connections to the audience and I got to meet a lot of great people. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about anyways – people coming together over a shared love of music. I was happy to be there Todd, and happy I got the chance to do my part. R.
Photo By Music Made Photography