John Platania is one of rock and roots music’s consummate guitar players. But Blues, Waltzes and Badland Borders is not your typical guitar player’s solo album, though it does serve as a tour de force showcase for his musical skills and distinctive playing.
“I don’t consider myself a ‘guitar slinger’ or an instrumentalist,” Platania says. And his stellar resume as a player backs that contention: recording and touring with such master singer-songwriters as Van Morrison, Don McLean, Randy Newman, Bonnie Raitt, Judy Collins and Natalie Merchant as well as his longtime compatriot Chip Taylor, who collaborated with him on the writing and production of Blues,Waltzes and Badland Borders. Platania calls the album “an instrumental concept with narratives,” and as the music unfolds for listeners, it plays like a festival of aural short films or a collection of musical novellas. In short, it’s an album of songs on which Platania’s guitar playing is the primary (but hardly sole) lead voice, if you will.
To wit, Blues,Waltzes and Badland Borders features vocal contributions from Grammy-winner Lucinda Williams and acclaimed eclectic Texas rocker Alejandro Escovedo as well as spoken word segments by the likes of Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight (Taylor’s brother) and Tejano music star Ruben Ramos. At the core of the album are songs with a Tex-Mex and borderlands flavor inspired by Platania’s time in recent years with Taylor in Texas (where Taylor has had a following since his first solo albums in the early 1970s) as well as his Spanish family heritage. Other tracks reflect his experience as a producer and arranger as well as a composer of music for television and theatrical productions. And yes, because Platania is a guitarist, Blues, Waltzes and Badland Borders also features his musical memorial for the late-Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison (“Song For The Quiet One”) and a salute to his six-string inspirations and influences on “Tribute.” All told, it’s an album of instrumental music that doesn’t just play, but sings, speaks, tells stories and paints pictures.
Platania’s musical journey began while he was growing up in the Hudson River Valley of New York State, studying piano at Catholic parochial school. “Believe it or not I have fond memories of Catholic school and Sister Alice, the nun who taught me,” Platania notes with a chuckle. He then fell under the spell of the guitar (much to the chagrin of Sister Alice) thanks to the impact of Elvis Presley on the teenagers of the world. He teethed on the music of Elvis (and his guitarist Scotty Moore), Buddy Holly, Chet Atkins, The Ventures, Chuck Berry and The Everly Brothers as well as such jazz guitar masters as Wes Montgomery, Hank Garland and Jimmy Bryant while also absorbing the musical lessons to be learned from everything from country to rhythm & blues. Once Platania started playing in bands at the age of 15, it all served him well on numerous later hit, best selling and critically lauded recordings as well as many worldwide tours.
His deep and broad musical grounding has also informed his other varied musical ventures: producing four acclaimed albums for blues neo-traditionalist Guy Davis (one of which, Legacy, was named one of the year’s best by National Public Radio); writing and producing the score for the Emmy-winning musical revue None For The Road, a 1983 public service production sponsored by Reader’s Digest to educate teens about the perils of drinking, drugs and driving; scoring theatrical works for the theater company Sail Productions, including The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman, which has won rave reviews; and producing and arranging the music for Whoopi Goldberg’s children’s television show, Whoopi’s Littleburg.
His entry into the music business came in 1967, when he joined the band The Silver Bike, who were courted by and recorded unreleased material for Bang Records, the label that introduced artists like Van Morrison and his band Them, as well as The McCoys, Neil Diamond and The Strangeloves to the world. At the same time, Platania also started making his mark on the New York City studio scene, playing on sessions for everyone from John Cale to songwriting legend Mort Schuman to James Taylor’s first band The Flying Machine.
When The Silver Bike project failed to come to fruition, Platania returned to fronting his own bands. “Though I liked studio work, I really wanted to be on stage, singing and playing my own material,” he recalls. His gigs in the Hudson River Valley caught the ear of Van Morrison, who was living at the time in Woodstock. After auditioning for Morrison in the spring of 1969, Platania began his long association with the rock legend, capturing ears with his guitar work on Morrison’s commercial breakthrough with the album, Moondance, and hit single of the same name. As Platania tells it, Morrison helped refine and refocus his musical approach to serving the song as a player from the perspective of a songwriter. “He was the one who taught me that.” Platania’s guitar work can be heard on four other Morrison studio albums and the live release It’s Too Late To Stop Now. He also co-wrote two songs on Philosopher’s Stone and in 2006 rejoined Morrison’s band for the Pay The Devil world tour.
Platania also started working in 1972 with another master songwriter, Chip Taylor — best known for the classic hits “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning” — playing on such Taylor albums as his 1971 debut, Gasoline, and his landmark 1973 Last Chance record. From the mid-‘70s into the 1980s, he also toured and recorded with Newman, Raitt, Collins and McLean, and made another stab at launching his own act with The Giants, a Los Angeles-based act that released an album in 1976 on Casablanca Records.
“For a myriad list of stupid reasons, it didn’t happen,” Platania says. But the satisfaction of being a creative force at the edge of the spotlight proved to be a fulfilling career.
In 1997, he began collaborating on a project with cartoonist and songwriter Elwood Smith, reworking and singing Smith’s songs for what became the debut Platania solo album, Lucky Dog, which evoked a number of critical comparisons to the work of Richard Thompson. He also toured with Natalie Merchant that year, and also got a call from Taylor, who was returning to performing and recording music after a two-decade hiatus. Platania has since served as Taylor’s right-hand man on his solo releases and duet albums with Carrie Rodriguez, as well as his international tours.
Blues, Waltzes and Badland Borders was actually born on the road, as Taylor tells it. “I wrote an instrumental, ‘In Memory Of Zapata,’ that I thought would be a very good thing for John. I played it for him and he agreed. Shortly after, we were driving to a gig and had some time to spare on the way. I drove while John played guitar and played through a practice amp. We kept a tape recorder resting between us, and for three hours, I hummed and John alternated between jotting down notes and playing guitar. By the time we arrived at the gig we had written six edgy instrumentals. Not a bad day’s work!”
At Taylor’s urging, the two began recording the material they wrote together as well as on their own for a Platania solo album. “Once Chip gets a concept in his mind, he’ll keep working it until it comes to fruition,” Platania explains. “To tell the truth, I’m happy just to stay in the background and be a collaborator. The whole solo artist thing is something I set aside a long time ago. My ego doesn’t need that. I’m a musician whose whole approach is to serve the song, and I’m happy doing that. But I did need to get some of these things out of myself, and Chip was very good at encouraging me to do so.”
The end result on Blue, Waltzes and Badland Borders is a full-fledged album of songwriting where the artist happens to be Platania and his guitars. “First of all, they’re songs. I do what I usually do and the songs dictate where I have to go,” Platania explains. “It’s not a guitar-slinger album, and even though it is guitar city, on a lot of songs they’re orchestrated. But there is also one song where I just play a single acoustic blues guitar.
“What I did was capture the emotions of the songs with my guitar playing,” concludes Platania. “The music is eclectic and all over the map, but then again, my influences are all over the map. I serve the songs like I would serve Chip’s or Van’s songs or those of any songwriter. Once that hit me, it all fell into place.”