Since the '70s, Morse has taken jazz-rock fusion to new heights.
The long, winding road to guitar prowess for Steve Morse started with a group called Dixie
Dregs, which gained cult status in the '70s but suffered from label problems. From there, Morse
had a stint with Kansas and is currently performing with Deep Purple as well as his own
spirited guitar adventures with The Steve Morse Band. Perhaps not as well-known as other modern
guitar heroes such as Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, it's time he is. Morse steps into the
The story of guitar genius Steve Morse spirals into an ever-growing pattern. The wider the loops get, the more in focus his career seems to be. It's a strange phenomenon that exists within the Morse universe, where the laws of the real world do not always apply.
Morse is far from being a household name, but his influence runs deep in the music community. He's a rare musician, always on the go, always testing himself, with more than 30 years of experience and an uncanny-live presence that has, equated to a virtual nightmare for any headliner. Maybe that's why he has been so eager to live by his own rules. No one can seem to keep up with him.
He has made his indelible musical mark with The Steve Morse Band, heavy metal pioneers Deep Purple, and The Dixie Dregs (a.k.a. The Dregs), a jazz-rock fusion band formed by the young, talented six-string gunslinger when he and his friends Andy West (bass), Rod Morgenstein (drums), and Allen Sloan (violin) were attending the University Of Miami's School Of Music, started out as a response to the explosion of fusion in the '60s and'70s.
Artists such as Return To Forever, The Tony Williams Lifetime, Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and Miles Davis heightened the standards of interplay between musicians with their forays into the jazz-rock forum.
Morse had the rare opportunity to see McLaughlin's Mahavishnu at the University Of Miami when he was barely 20 years old. The group's vibrancy had an immediate impact on him.
"Mahavishnu played in our cafeteria," Morse told Goldmine from his home near Gainesville, Fla. "Some people called what they were doing jazz, but it seemed, quite frankly, more interesting than jazz. The approach was jazz-like, but I loved it."
Seeing Mahavishnu may have paved the way for Dixie Dregs to create similar, and in many ways, superior music through impeccable musicianship, spot-on accuracy and melodic, complex compositions. Today, Dixie Dregs, a six-time Grammy nominated band, is an enduring and well-respected U.S. instrumental group as relevant as they have ever been.
In August 1999, a three-date tour in California went a long way. The Dixie Dregs cranked out their first record in six years, titled California Screamin' (Zebra ZD44021-2). The record showcases these capable musicians playing mindboggling riffs, proving that they are still at the cusp of cutting edge fusion. The band toured with two bass players and a double-violin section. While all members were on stage for only three encore songs (most notably the traditional "Dixie," which appears on the record), it was a rare opportunity for the current Dregs lineup to meet the original.
"We were fortunate and flattered when Steve said he would re-form the Dregs," said Ricky Schultz, founder of Zebra Records. "We'd stayed in touch over the years and I was really honored that he approached me about putting this thing together. It took me a less than a second to decide that he should make a record."
Bassist Dave LaRue and long lost four-stringer West (currently a computer software consultant) traded off sets. Likewise, Mahavishnu electric fiddler Jerry Goodman and violinist Sloan, an anesthesiologist by trade, took turns sawing away.
"My involvement in this project was largely to do with the song selection," said Schultz. "Since the Dregs had done a live record before, I felt that they should present material, live versions of songs, that were never recorded live before."
Featured songs consist of a remake of The Allman Brothers' "Jessica," Frank Zappa's "Peaches En Regalia" (with an appearance by Dweezil Zappa on guitar) as well as the original cuts "Freefall," "Wages Of Weirdness," "The Great Spectacular" and "Refried Funky Chicken."
"It was great that Andy and the guys were there," said keyboardist T. Lavitz, now a member of Jazz Is Dead, dedicated to the music of The Grateful Dead. "Hearing this stuff is so inspirational, it reminds me of when I was in college, just about ready to leave and getting ready to go out into the world. Playing those old songs is just such magical stuff."
It's apparent that Morse's musical magic has broken some serious sonic ground in the last 25 years, yet he's been virtually frozen in the visibility department. Morse has been every bit as influential as popular instrumentalists Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson (whom Morse salutes on his new record), and Steve Vai, yet is constantly paying dues.
Morse/Dregs manager Frank Solomon, from his office in Natick Ma., put things in perspective. "With instrumental music the audience is limited," he said "lt's complicated music which doesn't go to the lowest common denominator. And Steve is typically not one thing: Sometimes he's rock, fusion, pop, jazz, country, blues. Sometimes that can be a limiting factor"
Morse has tried to leave the music business twice, once to be a commercial airline pilot, and has gone through personal turmoil including a divorce, band troubles and unlucky streaks with record labels.
"The recording business has not been good to me," confessed Morse. "I've never been at the right place at the right time."
Some anger and dismay comes out in Morse's songs. "Get It In Writing" from The Steve Morse Band's 1992 effort Coast To Coast (MCA, MCAD-10565) and "Just Out Of Reach" from 1995's Structural Damage (High Street, 72902 10332-2) encapsulate Morse's business follies in music.
"I wrote 'Get It In Writing' because I got screwed real bad," he told this writer several years ago. "I literally had six things in a row happen recently where people have let me down, all based on trust. People sell their souls, I can't believe it. It is one of my biggest pet peeves-people screwing their fellow man."
"If you have a really good friend at a label and they are no longer there or something happens to the label, you're stuck with some guy who could really care less about you, your music or getting it out there," said LaRue, Steve Morse Band and Dixie Dregs bassist. "Their priorities change."
Regardless, the boy from Ohio is as persistent as ever, maybe more so because of what he has gone through. Because he's toughed it out, he has seen his career has come full circle. His evolution as a musician engulfed Morse when he decided to record his new record, Major Impacts (Magna Carta, MA9042-2), released in June. A collection of songs written in the style of musicians who have influenced him, Major lmpacts plays like a Who's Who of rock and jazz. Morse's personal journey through his idols' career sent him to the essence of why he began playing in the first place.
You can hear traces of Beck, Alex Lifeson, and Johnson in "TruthOla." Cream floats to the top of "Derailleur Gears." Jimi Hendrix is summoned for the bluesy-psychedelic "Well, I Have." The Byrds take flight in one of the record's liveliest tunes, "Migration." Prog-rock heavyweights Kansas and Yes get the note laden nod in "Prognosis." The spiritualism of McLaughlin comes alive in "The White Light," and Jimmy Page's India/heavy metal mood gushes from "Led On." "From the very beginning Pete Morticelli [founder of Magna Carta] sent me an e-mail asking me, 'What do you want to do?' I told him, and he said, 'Fine, go ahead with it,'" commented Morse.
"I always kept tabs on him to see where he was in his career," admitted Morticelli, who started Magna Carta in the mid-9Os. "We always wanted to do something with Steve, but he was always too busy. Although he had done some stuff for us in the past, namely a Rush tribute album. We didn't want him to play tribute songs but dedicate his own music in their honor."
In mondo Morse fashion the songs were swirling around in his head for a while until he finally recorded them.
'We didn't want to put restrictions on him, and he delivered," said Morticelli. "I think Steve is in that category of musician who can do anything he wants musically. We just let him be himself. I think it ended up in a real good place."
"It was typical Steve," commented Solomon. "Major Impacts was a challenge to drive him. It was a perfect opportunity for Steve to stretch out a bit and get creative. He said that it was one of the hardest things he ever had to do."
No doubt. The 46-year-old, like any intense musician, works hard for his music and expects the end result to come close to what he had initially envisioned. While Morse was overseas on tour with Deep Purple, Magna Carta mastered the disc. Up until that point, everything was done with Morse's approval, but it was impossible to get a hold of him.
"They put the songs in a different order than what I had handed them," said Morse. "I think I had 'Led On' as the opening track."
When asked why they would have changed the song placement, Morse replied laughing, "That's a good question."
"We didn't want to do anything without his approval," countered Morticelli. "We finally got the record completed, and he left to go overseas. There was no way to get this done any other way"
Song sequence aside, Morse knows that he's got it good at Magna Carta.
"Magna Carta is the most attentive company that I have ever worked with and certainly the best as far as getting things done," admitted Morse. "I'm so used to calling a record company and them saying, 'Steve who?' Everything they said they would do, they've done."
"l think it is impossible for the ugly music business to stomp out someone like Steve," said Morticelli. "Here you have this talented guy who got put through the ringer and gathered himself up. It is key to keep moving forward, and he has."
Perhaps Morse has finally found a label that respects him. It has been a long time coming. His SMB was lopped off his last record label, High Street (once a division of Windham Hill) during a buyout, and he has done major battle for song rights with Elektra records (which has left serious scars).
He has suffered through a Capricorn Records bankruptcy in the late '70s and was ushered out with a corporate restructuring at MCA in the early '90s.
At the time of this writing, Morse was not signed to Magna Carta, said Solomon. Being a free agent suits Morse.
"I think we learned a lot from long-term signings and what it means to be free," said Solomon. "It has given Steve freedom to explore all possibilities without being encumbered by a label. However, Morticelli was great to work with and there is no reason for us to go with someone else."
"l hope he stays," said Morticelli. "I'm looking forward to doing more work with him."
He'll have to take a number. The recently remarried stringmeister will experience some serious afterburn on a national tour that will see The Steve Morse Band (with drummer Van Romaine and bassist LaRue) and Dixie Dregs on the same bill.
"I'm happy with all of the music I've done over the years," said Morse. "Though I never had recording success, I've never felt pressure either. I've got a whole lot of room to fall back on. I've always looked at the recording process as an oddity. My real place is in front of people on stage. I always felt that that was the real deal. I'll continue to make records whether or not people buy them [laughs]. I'm extremely grateful for the loyal following. As someone said at Ernie Ball-that's the people who made my custom guitars-'Steve, you've tried to quit the music business twice, but you're not going to get it out of you. You're a musician. Why don't you just face it?'"
The one thing that has kept Steve grounded has been his love of flying. He's been a pilot for years, owned a plane before he had a car and jets to his own gigs. Who needs a limo when you can land in an airfield?
"Flying just clears your head, especially over the blue skies of Florida," said Morse, who lives on a private airstrip called an airpark. When asked how many planes he owns, Morse gets defensive.
"I always get a little..." Morse trailed off. "I don't like telling people how many planes I own. So many musicians give me shit about it. It's like, 'I have been playing for 35 years. I'm sorry if I have something to show for it."'
Born July 28, 1954, in Hamilton, Ohio, to a Baptist minister father and a musically trained pianist mother, Morse had strong ideas about life, death and art.
"I went to church every Sunday. It was a way of life for me," said Morse. "I would travel with [my father] to sermons out of town. It was cool to see my dad up there talking. Sometimes he'd tell a joke about me."
While his father rooted him spiritually, his mother was supportive of his need to play music.
"She was that way with all creative things," Morse recalled. "She'd encourage me all the time."
Once the young Morse heard The Beatles, the gates opened. Though his father never really permitted pop music in the house, around the age of 11, Morse picked up the guitar.
"He would never suggest that we listen to pop music. I'm sure he didn't think it was a great thing-but he supported me," explained Morse.
Within the next few years, the Morse family moved from Ohio to Tennessee to Michigan, where Morse gigged in Detroit as a pre-teen.
The next year, the family settled in the Augusta, Ga., area. The move would prove integral to Morse's musical growth. While just a teen at the Richmond Academy, a public school in Augusta, Morse met bassist and' fellow 10th-grader West.
"We were playing in a band together," said West, 47, from his home outside Phoenix, Ariz. "We both had long hair, and we were like hippies."
Morse's hair was too long for some.
"At the time I was interested in being an airline pilot, but not in cutting my hair," said Morse. "I was suspended once for long hair. One summer I came back wearing this wig with my hair tucked under it. The school actually enacted legislation outlawing wigs, just because of me. When they kicked me out of school, I said that was it. I was not coming back."
Morse kept in contact with West and the two forged a solid working relationship and formed a band called The Dixie Grits that performed Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Deep Purple covers.
"The 'Dixie' part was a joke that nobody really ever got," said West. "I lived in the North and Atlanta, which was pretty cosmopolitan even back then. Steve came from Michigan."
The band soon broke up, and it didn't take long for Morse to decide to enroll in the University Of Miami's School Of Music, which was getting a good buzz as the next breeding ground for cutting-edge musicians. Morse had seen classical guitarist Juan Mercadel, a University Of Miami instructor, perform in Augusta, and he was blown away by Mercadel's playing. Knowing electric bass acrobat Jaco Pastorius and guitarist Pat Metheny were also teaching there, it was the school Morse had to attend. In 1971, Morse headed down to Florida, expecting to get in, but first he had to pass an audition.
"It was assumed that at the college level everyone could read music," said Morse. "I brought in a piece I had taped, a classical piece that I had learned note by note, you know, 'Every Good Boy...' I wasn't really reading notes as they thought I was. I was getting cues from the sheet music. I was fine with letting them think I could read."
Morse, who hadn't officially earned a diploma from high school but had taken college freshman credits, may have "misled someone as to the whereabouts of [his] transcripts," he said but nonetheless was granted admittance and even studied classical guitar under Mercadel.
West, a self-taught bassist who had started taking courses at Augusta College in cello and theory, later switched to the University Of Miami. As part of their lab curriculum, Morse and West had to perform in an ensemble.
"There was a Rock Ensemble which was very jazz-oriented, so we decided to be Rock Ensemble number two and really put the emphasis on rock" recalled Morse. "We had to rehearse twice a week."
Morgenstein (a.k.a. "Sticks") was a drummer who grew up in Plainview, Long Island, and had high hopes of becoming a jazz pianist through what he would learn at the University Of Miami. It didn't quite work out that way.
"I was in a jazz improv class, and there must have been 10 guitarists in that class," remembered Morgenstein. "All of them had played hollow bodies except this one guy who was playing a solid/hollow hybrid guitar. All I can remember is seeing Steve with this Fender Telecaster with a Strat neck and several pickups. He had such a rock sound and much brighter tone than any one in the class.
"I really didn't know him," continued Morgenstein. "Then one day he came up to me and said, 'Someone told me that you're a drummer. Could you fill in for our group because our drummer broke his arm surfing?' I said "Sure.'"
The group was made up of violinist Sloan (fresh from the Miami Philharmonic), West, Frank Josephs (keys), and Bart Yarnal (the drummer on the DL). When Morgenstein showed up for rehearsal he couldn't believe his ears.
"They were playing Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I love that stuff," he said.
Yarnal eventually rejoined, and Morgenstein stayed on as the group would have an Allman Brothers type double-drumming dynamic. Morgenstein, who would later build his name by playing backward, twisted beats, was far more versatile than his counterpart. When the time came for a Mahavishnu tune Yarnal, who was a solid timekeeper, just couldn't grasp the tricky patterns of fusion. Eventually he dropped out.
"He would wait for the beats to get even again," said Morgenstein. "He sat through changes in the song 'Celestial Terrestrial Commuters' from Birds of Fire."
By this time, people on campus were buzzing about Rock Ensemble II. A student there at the time was future Dixie Dregs keyboardist Lavitz.
"It was the fall of 1974, and someone I had been hanging with said we should check out this student group" commented Lavitz. "Steve had his guitar down low, and no one in those days did that. And then they played 'Jessica' and this original song which would become a Dregs tune called 'Odyssey'. I was just so blown away by Steve. I was there with friends, and we just kept looking at each other. It was a life changing moment."
Upon graduating, West and Morse went back to Augusta, Ga., while Morgenstein finished school. When Morgenstein returned, The Dixie Dregs were born.
"We called it The Dixie Dregs because our old group, The Dixie Grits, I mean, shoot we were the 'dregs' of that group" said Morse.
Following in McLaughlin's footsteps, Morse was bent on making fusion music-different from anything he had ever heard. In many ways, he succeeded. The band churned out a unique mixture of metal, country, bluegrass, rock and jazz. The eager ensemble sniffed around for a record contract, but no one offered.
"We of course sent out our demo record, The Great Spectacular, to all of the record labels," said Morse. "We saved money and we pressed it. Of course we got a ton of rejection letters. Some would send it back with the shrink wrap still on it."
"Nearly 30 labels laughed us out of the offices," recalled Morgenstein. "They said, 'You guys don't sing. There's nothing to dance to, nothing commercial about it.' We were fresh out of music school. We thought what we were doing was commercial [laughs]."
One listen to 1975's The Great Spectacular [DRG 0197-202] shows aggressive and precise players with great command. It has been recently remixed by Morse and features Sloan, West, Morse, Morgenstein, and keyboardist Josephs as well as autographs of the band members. Even in the early '70s, Morse showed glimmers of future greatness. Trouble was, no one seemed to care.
However, good luck was right around the corner. The band hooked up with local jazz keyboardist Steve Davidowski, who replaced Josephs and was a bit older than the rest of the crew. For the guys in the band, Morse, Sloan, West, Morgenstein, and now Davidowski, the gigs were steady but very low paying.
"We were getting $100 a gig, and we would have to drive 400 miles to get to it," explained Morgenstein. "That money would cover gas and hotel."
Their get-out-there attitude would pay off. Within the year, Dixie Dregs were spotted by some influential people.
"We did this show at The Exit/ln in Nashville and two guys from the Allmans heard us," said Morgenstein. "One of them was keyboardist Chuck Leavell and the other was Twiggs Lyndon [later the Dregs' road manager]. They freaked. They loved us."
Morse continued, "Because Chuck was such a favored member of the Allmans and everybody liked him at Capricorn Records, they sent out some guys to see us in Macon, Ga."
Capricorn president Phil Walden heard the band personally and was completely taken by their mix of so many different styles.
"They just said, 'Boys you have yourself a deal,"' remembered Morgenstein.
Just before Christmas 1976, Dixie Dregs signed a commercial contract for three records. Free Fall (CPN 0189), the band's, official debut album, hit the shelves in Spring 1977 to great reviews. It boasted the classic fusion tunes "Cruise Control"- still a live staple for the Morse Band and Dixie Dregs. It was the band's first taste of the big time, but, as West explained, the sound quality of the record could have been better.
"The record company picked the producer," he said. "Listening back to it, I really like that there's a naivete about it, but I think at the time we wanted it to be heavier. It sort of came out light and wimpy. The music was fine though [laughs]."
"I was expecting more of a bombastic approach, like Ken Scott who did Stanley Clarke's 'School Daze' and Mahavishnu's 'Birds Of Fire,"' said Morse. "The producer, Stewart Levine, was good at getting feel. He said, 'Don't worry about technical stuff.' It was more of a jazz approach."
Nonetheless Free Fall made a rock-solid statement and featured Morse's tonal sensitivity and command of a varying range of musical styles from country pickin' and progressive rock to heavy metal thunder, classical, jazz and bluegrass. He showed a mastery of guitar, banjo and guitar synth.
Morse, as the band's sole composer, was one of the few artists in the instrumental "rock" field who was able to create intricate tunes that were not just exercises for young players. Most of the songs were up-tempo with a sly sense of comedic relief. Add in a depth of musicality and The Dixie Dregs were on the musical map, right alongside their fusion forefathers.
Yet, unlike some of the other instrumental bands at the time, the Dregs always knew how to write hooks. Even though Morgenstein hammered away in odd time signatures and Morse was perfecting his blazing triplet feel, the textures of the music went far beyond simple technique.
"The music was just so special," said Morgenstein. "It was different from anything we had ever done."
Still, like so many other bands, the combination of being different and getting signed didn't mean instant success. Gaining fans and getting the word out were the band's priorities. The Dixie Dregs tracked more hours and trekked more miles than before, playing more than 150 shows in 1977, mainly entry-level clubs with the occasional opening slot for heavy hitters such as Styx, Allman Brothers, Heart, and The Marshall Tucker Band, also of Capricorn Records.
"I saw Morse with the Dregs in late '77," said Magna Cartas Morticelli. "It was at a college in upstate New York. They were opening for Chuck Leavell and Sea Level. I had never seen them before, and I just couldn't believe that Steve could take control like that."
After several dates, the band suffered its first setback: Davidowski left the band.
"Keyboard players can get steady work anywhere," claimed Morse. "They can play a lounge somewhere. As long as you can read music you'll be OK. Steve had a few years on us, and he did not enjoy the 'suffering for your art' phase as much as we did."
No matter. The band recruited Mark Parrish, a former member of The Dixie Grits and a capable piano player who had Rick Wakeman, Joe Zawinul, and Keith Emerson leanings. They would prove to be better suited for the band's new pumped-up mentality.
The band managed to score legendary producer Scott [The Beatles, David Bowie, Stanley Clarke, Mahavishnu Orchestra]. The record, done at Chateau Recorders studios in Los Angeles, would become a benchmark achievement for the eager fusion outfit.
"[Scott] was the perfect producer," said West. "He was a master at engineering. He more or less understood what we wanted to do musically."
"Scott was one of my heroes," said Morse, who would later become a producer/engineer himself. "I learned a lot from him. The only thing with that album is that the drums sound too loud, too stark."
The album was titled What If, (CD 831 836-2) and perhaps it was those very same "loud" drums and driving beats that make the all-instrumental record timeless. The drums really power the tunes and give them an almost modern-sounding feel.
The title song, a Dorian mode piece written by Morse when he was still at the University of Miami, is one of the Dregs most image-provoking tunes. Scenes of night and deserts seep into one's consciousness. The driving "Take It Off The Top" features a blistering bass-guitar lick trading session between West and Morse. "Ice Cakes" showcases a powerful and precise performance by Morgenstein, demonic fiddle work by Sloan, and a psychedelic keyboard solo courtesy of Parrish.
Thanks to Morse's ability to simplify the complicated, "Night Meets Light" can fool one into thinking that it is a simple ditty in 3/4, when in fact it weaves smoothly through numerous different time signatures-many of them odd.
With the release of What If, some critics compared the band's material to the grandiose compositions of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. With the passing of time, What If is generally seen as the Dixie Dregs' defining moment. The vibrant red cover was also one of a kind. In a horizontal slit toward the middle of the jacket, a wave is shown rolling onto the beach. Look closely-the picture is actually upside down. In many ways, Dixie Dregs were forcing the music world to see things their way-from a totally different perspective.
It was working. What If is generally regarded as one of the best efforts ever to come from the fusion movement and the Rolling Stone Album Guide (Random House) reads: "...the Dregs joined the tightness of fusion to a certain happy thunder, best captured on What If."
Still, the band never forgot just how hard it was to bring their musical vision to the masses. They were pushing 200 gigs a year by this point. One of the stops was Montreux, Switzerland, where they played The Montreux Jazz Festival on July 23, 1978. The set that included the feel-good country picker "The Bash," "Night Of The Living Dregs," "Patchwork" and "Leprechaun Promenade" became the entire second side of the Dregs' next LP, Night Of The Living Dregs (1979 Polygram, CD 831411-2).
Cut at Chateau Recorders and Axis Sound Studio in Atlanta, Night... was also produced by Scott and garnered one of the group's most recognizable tunes to date, "Country House Shuffle" (a catchy rocker with a polyrhythmic drum opening and a piercing violin melody). A marked growth in Morse's writing was felt in the mournful and bittersweet "Long Slow Distance," which showcased the band's ability to move through odd meters with alacrity and sensibility while Parrish's slinky-cool tinkling of the keys contrasts Morse's warm acoustic and electric guitar tones.
The stark acoustic piano intro was Parrish's most memorable work. However, soon after the release, he bought a one-way ticket out of Dregsville.
"Mark was going through changes in his life," Morse explained. "He'd go through phases of not showing up. I've always had a low threshold for tolerance for that stuff. I can't remember the exact circumstances, but he was asked to leave. It wasn't like, 'I hate you!' or anything."
The band found themselves without a piano player once again, but that was the least of their worries. It had been in the wind for a few years that Capricorn Records was having financial troubles. With successful acts The Marshall Tucker and The Allman Brothers bands, one has to wonder how. Yet, there it was. Before the Dregs knew what hit them, Capricorn filed for bankruptcy.
"Financially we were wanting for tour support," said West. "We went on the road using our own money until eventually we called the company asking for more money and the phones were turned off."
"I just remember thinking that I was never going to see my royalties," said Morse. "I'd get 'We'll be sending those to you soon. We've had some computer problems.' From the sales figures I figured out what they owed us, and it was going to really hurt if we didn't get the money I thought, 'I'm never going to be able to pay my bills.' I would bet another record deal that I know how they went bankrupt: They were spending more than they were making.
"I netted 75 bucks because of all the lawyers' fees," Morse continued. "Marshall Tucker and the Allmans got the big percentage of the money. There was nothing left, and somebody still has half my publishing rights."
Perhaps the only two bright spots of the year were a Grammy nomination-their first-in the Best Instrumental Performance category for "Night Of The Living Dregs, and the arrival of Lavitz, a 22-year-old keyboard prodigy who had attended the University Of Miami.
"I toured with them through 1979," said Lavitz, now 44, from his Santa Monica home. "In those days, you learned music by playing it live a bunch of times."
Indeed, on June 17, 1979, the band made a stop at Sigma Sound studio in Philadelphia, Pa., where they recorded before a live audience a concert for King Biscuit. A 12-song CD, King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Dixie Dregs (King Biscuit 88031-2), documenting the concert was released in 1997.
Standard Dregs monsters such as "Cruise Control," "Moe Down" and "The Bash" were played to near perfection. For Morse, it was just another show. "I don't really remember anything special about that night," he said.
Unlike his buddy and bandmate, it was a concert Morgenstein can never forget.
"I broke out in one of the worst skin rashes on my entire body that had me itching worse than any case of poison ivy" Morgenstein was quoted for the album's liner notes. "I was going out of my mind. I remember after the show, going to somebody's house-a total stranger-and just asking them if I could soak in a tub of freezing water just to numb the discomfort."
Regardless of the skin rash, the Dregs and Morgenstein burn on the disc. But that was always the Dixie Dregs. The music was great even if the world around them was falling, sometimes in spite of it. And how their world would crumble. 1979 wasn't done with them yet. On Nov. 16, Lyndon, the band's touring manager, died while attempting to make a parachute jump over a town in upstate New York. Lyndon, an expert jumper, was excited about getting into formation in the air. Morse witnessed the jump.
"It was freezing in New York that day," Morse recalled. "We had some concerns about the wind. The ground was cold and I had to stand behind a bulldozer because it was so cold. It was very stressful to finally be the last guy to make the formation. He was swinging himself back and forth and he was having problems. It was a gust of 20 knots. He had a heart attack."
In the book, Midnight Rider: The Story of The Allman Brothers Band by Scott Freeman [Little Brown Co.], the author noted: ''Lyndon was the veteran of three hundred jumps. He stepped out of an airplane at 8,500 feet, his chute never opened and Twiggs was killed on impact. He was 37.
"Although it was impossible to know, a lot of people suspected suicide. They said Twiggs had never been the same after Duane [Allman] and Berry [Oakley] died, and the irony was inescapable-the airport was in a little town named Duanesburg."
"Anybody who said it wasn't an accident, first of all, wasn't there and is just trying to romanticize this crap," said Morse. "I spent all night driving and talking to Twiggs about everything. I spent a lot of time with him right before he went into the plane. I also spent hours, days, weeks, months talking about parachute jumps with him. I even dropped him out of one of my planes so he could make an appointment. Instead of landing, he would just jump."
Things looked bleak for the Dixie Dregs. They had lost their spiritual guide, a man who "gave [the Dregs] advice about how to tour and hold ourselves and how to be professional," said Morse. They had no record deal.
They were a hitless instrumental band. They couldn't have looked more like a liability to a prospective label. Yet, in 1980, Arista Records took a chance on the southern fusion band and signed them to a three-record deal.
"On a personal level I think it took guts to sign us," said West.
For Lavitz, the recording sessions for the band's soon to be album Dregs Of The Earth (CD 38192, LP B6-8305) were groundbreaking. One tune in particular, "I'm Freaking Out," sticks out in his mind.
"I remember we spent all day putting stuff down on tape," said Lavitz. "We started before MIDI or digital or sequencers. We played with the tape and would reverse it, slow it down to half speed. When we were finished, so much was happening in the song."
For Morse, Dregs Of The Earth was a definitive Dregs album in the way What If was. The band had become a well-oiled machine, and the record marked the first time Morse was credited with being the producer. It had a nice balance of technique, novelty (Morse plays banjo on "Pride O' The Farm"), introspection ("Hereafter") and remembrance ("Twiggs Approved").
For their next record, Unsung Heroes (AL9548), the band dropped the "Dixie" from their name and earned another Grammy nomination in the Best Instrumental Performance category. It was also Sloan's last record -though he would return for reunion tours years later. Sloan was replaced by violinist O'Connor, winner of the National Guitar Flatpicking Championship and Nashville's Grand Masters Fiddle Championship, for the band's third Arista release, Industry Standard (AL95881. He could not only play fiddle like a madman but could also support Morse by strapping on a guitar for the band's live shows.
"Allen was starting to get a little disillusioned and he left the band saying, 'I should have been a doctor.' He eventually became one," said Morse. "With Mark in the band there was a level of musicianship that was high, and we enjoyed the tension and intensity of that."
In perhaps their most deliberate commercial move, the Dregs, sensing the need to adapt to the new hyper-corporate '80s climate, employed singers Patrick Simmons (The Doobie Brothers) and Alex Ligertwood (Santana) for a few straight-ahead rockers, and asked veteran Yes guitarist Steve Howe (then in Asia) to participate with his acoustic wizardry on "Up In The Air." (Because of scheduling problems, Morse and Howe had to swap tapes, so they never performed in the studio together.)
Though there are some fine performances on the record, no one could deny that the band, even though they were poking fun at the record business, had become a mechanized part of it. They were being prodded and pushed to come up with hits, not art. Commercialized cuts. Guest artists. The Dregs were now fused with the machine they had continually sidestepped.
"We did six records and played 1,500 shows in a seven to eight year period," said Morgenstein. "It's got to the point where we didn't talk about anything. We just did it."
That was unacceptable to Morse. "People in the band felt a sense of security," said Morse. "We concentrated on other things besides the music. Everybody was taking everything for granted, assuming that the gigs would just be there. I remember towards the end of one tour our edge slipped away. We did three gigs in a row that were miserable."
And much to Morse's dismay, drugs were making their presence known.
"I was a very intolerant person back then," he confessed. "I don't mean that the junk was the main focus of people's lives, it was something that I felt was going to keep the band from going forward."
Morse eventually quit, leaving the rest of The Dregs to throw their hands up in the air.
"I just decided that I would rather cut people's yards with hay cutters than do this."
And with that, The Dregs were no more.
"It just seemed to be the natural thing that happens to most bands," Morgenstein said. "While in the back of my mind l hoped we could get back together another time. I think it was the right thing for everybody at that period. We had nothing to be ashamed of. We beat the music business odds."
West offered another perspective. "Basically [Arista] wanted to change the deal. Steve said he would do it, but he didn't want to. I said, 'If you don't want to do it, then don't do it.' He's an honorable guy, Steve. He will really go out of his way to be open with the people he's involved with. Clearly he wanted something else."
What Morse eventually got was a solo career rife with highs and lows that would increase his stature in the pantheon of great guitar players. But it would be hard earned.
With The Dregs dead and buried, West kicked around with Henry Kaiser (Captain Beefheart's Magic Band) in Kaiser's Crazy Backwards Alphabet, until finally ending up in the computer industry. (Note: He has played on various experimental jazz albums with the band Zazen And The Mistakes.)
O'Connor went on to become an accomplished country and classical fiddler performing with names such as Yo-Yo Ma, Emmylou Harris, and Wynton Marsalis to name a few. Lavitz embarked on a solo career, did sessions and aided Morse on occasion in the studio. Morgenstein was incognito, and Morse did what he said he would: cut hay.
"I was driving a bulldozer in Georgia, cutting hay for people," said Morse. "But the machine kept breaking down and I couldn't make enough money. The farmer has a real bad situation, let me tell ya."
Still, being apart from music was eating away at Morse, and he was itching to get back to the focus of his life. On the strength of acoustic songs such as "Little Kids," "The Riff Raff," "Old World" and "Up In The Air," Morse got a gig as the opening guitarist for the traveling classical-jazz guitar trio dynamo of McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia, and Al DiMeola.
By this time, prog rock was replaced by early techno new wave. Guitar gods such as Eddie Van Halen were playing keyboards. Morse was one of the true guitar heroes left; Unlike so many Van Halen clones who were flashy, pointless players continuously hammering on mindlessly (and missing the point of speed), Morse was unique in that he picked every note. He could play just as fast as anybody, but his lines were cleaner, more distinct, and in a word, classier.
Of course, later in the decade, instrumental stalwarts Satriani, Vai, and Johnson would make their presences felt, but early on Morse headed into a guitar-oriented direction that few dared.
Morgenstein, who was jobless in Georgia after doing a short tour with Paul Barrere, got a call from Morse before he went on tour with the acoustic trio to lay down tracks. North Carolina bassist Jerry Peek, whom Morse called "The South's best new talent" was given a shot. Lavitz joined in and veteran stringsmith Albert Lee (who appeared on classic songs such as Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally") added a royal touch to Morse's new solo project.
"We recorded the drum tracks at Eddie Offord's Mobile Studio-an abandoned movie theater outside Atlanta," said Morgenstein. "It wasn't a traditional layout. It was almost like we were in a concert setting."
Lavitz said he remembers pulling an allnighter to get the performance Morse wanted for a country/American folk stunner called "Mountain Waltz."
"I was going through a really crazy time in my life, and I think getting that performance out of me was like pulling teeth," admitted Lavitz. "It was very painful for both of us. I was into drugs at that time. I've never said that in an interview, but my recreational drug use had gotten out of control."
Morse, the full-fledged producer of his solo album, couldn't get the right feel from Lavitz and offered encouragement.
"I don't remember him turning to me and saying, 'You suck,' it was like, 'One more try. Don't give up on this part. Don't give up the song' I could see Steve's reflection on the studio glass as the sun was coming up."
The actual recording and overdubbing went on for 12 hours straight, estimated Lavitz. It was almost too much for his body to take.
"I was so fried by the time I got out of there," he said, adding that he's now totally clean.
Morse was somehow providing an inner strength Lavitz needed. The song is extremely well timed. Guitar and piano spout off duplicate lines accentuated by Lavitz's crystal clear solo.
The record, called The Introduction (Elektra Musician 9 670369-2), was released in 1984 to moderate reviews, but Morse's fan base increased two-fold as guitar-craved fans turned on to the soaring "Cruise Missile" and the emotionally charged title track.
"I remember listening to the title track and thinking, 'This guy has no limits,'" said Morticelli.
The very next year, The Steve Morse Band released Stand Up (LP 9 60448-1, CD DRG 0297), recorded partly at Morse's new home studio, M.O.R. (Morse Outside Recordings) Sound outside Atlanta. As The Dregs' Industry Standard had tried to do three years earlier, Stand Up recruited top names such as Peter Frampton and O'Connor on the song "Pick Your Poison," singer Van Temple on "Book Of Dreams," and Johnson, who loaned his sleek trademark guitar tonality and breathy voice to the stunning "Distant Star."
Arguably one of Morse's most diverse solo records, Stand Up nevertheless did not turn heads at the label. By this time, Elektra had closed down its "jazz" label Musician, and Morse was moved over to the rock side, to Elektra Asylum, where he didn't belong.
Morse's Elektra debacle would prove to cut him perhaps deeper than his dealings with Capricorn. The rift between him and the company has never fully mended. Morse was not a top priority at the label-which he was used to-but he was not prepared when he found out that he had no future at the label.
"I just, that's just not something that I really feel like talking about," said Morse about the incident.
Not even a high-profile tour with Rush, which finished in the winter of 1986, pulled the band out of its inevitable tailspin. Though Morgenstein and Morse were exposed to huge and relatively enthusiastic crowds, it was to no avail. Morse's "falling out" with Elektra led to his record not being released on CD. All that existed was a discontinued LP version that was difficult to find.
Stand Up was eventually released on CD overseas, but that wasn't good enough for Morse. He got the rights back for his own songs, thanks to his manager Solomon, who helped procure the licenses for the ninetrack record.
"It was frustrating to see other people put out Dregs compilations, and I can't own my own music," said the exacerbated guitarist, referring to the three bootleg CDs/records that have been floating around for some time: Sex, Dregs & Rock 'N' Roll on Minotauro (Italy AS 24, 1979); Live In New York from a Dixie Dregs live show in 1981 (Four Aces,-FAR 003, 1981); and Two Faces, a sort of Dregs/Morse Band hybrid collection of songs (Minotauro, AS 23, 1983).
Stand Up (DRG 0297) is available on his own label Dregs Records, and is sold through his web site (www.stevemorse.com) and at shows.
"Frank [Solomon] was real good at getting licenses from people," Morse said. "Frank was reluctant to do it at first, but I kept harassing him. He's great at getting what he needs and not being pushy. He's persistent. So far the response to these records have been great."
Though it took more than 10 years to get the rights, back in 1986 there was no way for Morse to have foreseen this. His Band was on the rocks and he knew it, so he dissolved the trio, leaving Morgenstein to fend for himself, as well as Peek, who would go on to perform at clinics, join the faculty of the Atlanta Institute Of Music and do sessions with various artists.
For Steve, The Steve Morse Band wasn't what he had hoped it would be, at least from the business end. Wanting more security and financial stability, Morse needed to embark on a new career path when, by chance, he ran into an old friend.
While attending a Robert Plant concert, he ran into Kansas drummer Phil Hart.
"I asked Phil if there was any chance to play with them," said Morse.
Hart was quoted in the liner notes to King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Kansas (1998, CDKBF-88042) thus: "I said, 'Come on over.' It was that unplanned."
It was a reunion of sorts since Morse had appeared on Schemer-Dreamer (Kirshner LP 36320), a 1980 Steve Walsh (Kansas singer) solo album. Yet the rock and jazz media did not see it that way. Bad press particularly marred this period of Morse's career. The guitar and music magazines who sang his praises were now wondering why a guitar hero would join an unproven "dinosaur" act trying to regain the edge it had in the mid 70s. Why did he do it?
"I've always been a fan, and I've always liked the way Kerry Livgren composed songs," said Morse.
The first installment of the collaboration resulted in Power (1986, MCA, CD 5838), which was deceivingly complex. Sure, you had Walsh's overblown ego-feeding "Can't Cry Anymore" and "Secret Service," but on the whole, Morse's riffs with Walshs Iyrics made a potent concoction. The band even did a Kansas-meets-Dregs rousing instrumental called "Musicatto" and had a mini radio hit with the ballad "All I Wanted."
Their live show was characteristically flawless and boisterous, and in classic Kansas fashion, a musical monster. Morse, who picked up the violin on occasion, only heightened the intensity of the band's performance as guitar fans came out to see the master play guitar for the violin solo in "Dust In The Wind "
Still, it can be taken as an omen that the last song on the Power LP was misspelled on the label. The song "Can't Cry Anymore" reads, "Can't Say Anymore." Though it was later fixed when the record was put into CD format, for Morse and Kansas it seemed to be a prophetic line, almost a Freudian slip.
Not one year later, Morse started to feel the pressure when the band went into the studio for its second record, In The Spirit of Things (MCA 1988, MCAD-6254) - a concept album about a WWII-era Kansas town engulfed in a flash flood.
"With Power it was just the band left alone in the rehearsal studio," said Morse. "The record company was not in the picture. With In The Spirit of Things, there was a lot more pressure. The record company wanted hit singles and ballads. We had a great producer, Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel), but he aligned himself more or less with the record company. It was just too much for me. I prefer sitting in a room and playing cool stuff and turning to somebody saying, 'Hey, that's neat!"'
Morse waited to the final day of the Spirit tour to tell the guys he was leaving.
Hart commented in the aforementioned liner notes: "We knew it wouldn't last forever, but also knew it would be one hell of a run while it lasted."
Though Morse remained a friend and associate to the band, the experience left the bitter taste of steely corporate rock in his mouth. Morse, who had won Guitar Player's reader's poll five years running for Best Overall Guitarist, finally decided to quit the music business altogether.
"It was time that I pretty much gave up the idea of making a living in music," said Morse. "I cut my hair and I got a job as an airline pilot for a regional airline which will remain nameless."
It wasn't so ridiculous. The guy had the credentials: plenty of flying hours, good eyesight, a college degree and a real need to be somewhere else.
Meanwhile back in Atlanta, Morgenstein got a call from drummer friend Joe Franco about a band named Zeno.
"They were from Germany and they were auditioning drummers in New York," said Morgenstein. "I got the number of the Zeno tour manager, and he said that they had too many drummers already. I hung up the phone and was so depressed.
"My wife, Michele, said that if I wanted the audition I should call them back and tell them in a nice way that I was the man for the job."
Morgenstein convinced the manager to let him play for 10 minutes. Eventually the drum chair was his for the taking.
''I stayed in Hanover, Germany, for a while and nothing was happening," said Morgenstein. "Though we toured with Black Sabbath in England and Ireland, Zeno's record never really materialized. So I went back to Georgia and that was when my wife and I decided to check out things in New York."
Once in New York, his native state, he hit a string of bad luck that didn't seem to end.
"I was up for the Kitaro tour, but he wound up using an L.A. based drummer instead. I was bummed."
Morgenstein, who was given the bad news at the office of Kitaro's manager, heard some music coming from down the hall. As he lingered, he appreciated what he was listening to.
"I asked who that was, and the manager said it was just two guys they were trying to help out, two guys looking for a deal," said Morgenstein.
The two guys turned out to be Kip Winger, then a bass player for Alice Cooper, and young pyrotechnic phenom Reb Beach. Morgenstein introduced himself as the drummer of The Dregs and The Steve Morse Band, but Winger had never heard of him. Beach, on the other hand, was a big Morse-file. When the boys eventually landed a deal, Morgenstein got the call.
"I was initially hired as a sideman for the record, but we had become such good friends I got the job."
Morgenstein would go on to sell millions of records with the pop-metal band Winger and see the world as he had never before. Similarly Morse, as a pilot, noticed aspects of life that had previously escaped him.
"I recommend it to everyone, if they can afford to change their whole way of thinking about their career in life and see what they really like about it and what they don't," Morse told this reporter in a phone interview five years ago. "I really like the people I worked with. I was just a guy. I couldn't do anything for them. There was nothing I could get for them or buy for them. You didn't have to sell anybody. You didn't have to convince anybody of anything. All you had to do was do your job and get paid."
He did that for the better part of two years while still gigging around here and there with Kansas, cutting a few tracks for groups such as Triumph and Lynyrd Skynryd. Then Gary Rossington (Lynyrd Skynyrd) invited him on stage in Atlanta to jam. It was the first gig Morse had had in five months, and it was a turning point.
"They said, 'Here's a guitar cord. Go plug in," said Morse. "It brought me to thinking that the music business would be OK for me."
Perhaps taking some time off from commercial music was just the right medicine. Having decided that he would come at his music from a new approach, he traded in his wings for strings in 1988.
"I just realized that it was still fun to play," said Morse.
Quickly moving on his solo project, working to all hours of the night, tinkering and perfecting his tunes, he invited the gang (Peek, Morgenstein, and Lavitz) to his Atlanta home for recording. He cut the tracks using his new Ernie Ball MusicMan Steve Morse model enhanced by a Roland guitar synth to get a bouquet of sound. His old Telecaster axe, on its last legs, was finally laid to rest.
To top off Morse's musical recovery was The Dregs reunion tour of the same year. The band featured Morgenstein on drums, Lavitz on keyboards, and a new member, LaRue who hailed form East Brunswick, NJ.
"I got called to do a record date, and T. Lavitz was on the date too," said LaRue. "We both got hired to play on this record and T was a lot of fun to play with. We stayed in touch, and I got him to play on my band Stretch's record. He hired me to play on his solo record. Morgenstein was on T's record too, so now I met the both of them. When the Dregs thing came up and Andy didn't want to tour anymore, they both said, 'Check out this guy from Jersey."'
Morse called and asked LaRue to send him a tape of recorded performances, and LaRue was hired. Then came the hard part: Within a few days, he had to learn the catalog of Dregs tunes.
"It all happened pretty quick, but I think I had a few days to chart it out" said LaRue, a Berklee College Of Music grad. "We rehearsed for a day or two and we just started playing gigs. I learned the stuff directly from the sheets I had transcribed myself."
Sponsored in part by Ensoniq, the two month tour showed that Morse still had the fire, and his new bassist had a real burning funk edge: The Dregs made available at the shows a two-song CD/cassette promoting Ensoniq equipment called Off The Record (ENS- 1001), which included scalding remakes of "Leprechaun Promenade" and "Take It Off The Top." Notably, West, Sloan (on "Leprechaun Promenade") and O'Connor (on "Take It Off The Top') made appearances. Just months after, Morse finished his solo album, titled High Tension Wires (1989 MCAD-6275). It was unlike any other album Morse had done. Though the SMB and Dregs components were present, the axeman went heavy on the Celtic angle, giving the material a bit more of a spiritual, cleansing quality. Morse's cathartic outpouring came out in rainbow colors-an unexpected result of all the bile that had been built up in him.
While tunes such as "Tumeni Notes" (a thumbed nose to classically trained heavy metal guitarists) were branded by sheer brute force, most of the record was multifaceted, evoking musical images of country lanes, bright sunlight, summer rain and tall grass. Songs such as "Highland Wedding," "Third Power," "Endless Waves," "Modoc" (a single classical acoustic piece Morse recorded direct to master) and "The Road Home" were subtle masterpieces.
"I was VP Of Jazz A&R at the time when Steve was signed to MCA in the mid-80s," said Schultz, now head of Zebra Records. "I had the opportunity to work with him for the High Tension project. I had suggested to him that he use the acoustic guitar a bit more. I've always been a fan of the kinds of sound layers he could get with that instrument. I was very anxious to hear what Steve would do in that context. I give Steve a lot of credit for being open-minded enough to try it. I think it is one of Steve's finest projects."
Morse hit the road behind the record but without Morgenstein, who was still busy with Winger.
"In 1989, when it came time to tour with Steve, he asked me to be part of his trio and then in the same breath he asked, 'Do you know a drummer?"' said LaRue, laughing. "I recommended Van Romaine, who had been with me in Stretch. A friend of mine who worked at the Birch Hill in Old Bridge, N.J., said we could use the place for an afternoon. What we did was I picked up Steve from a Kansas gig, he was still playing with them and doing a gig in New York, and we drove to New Jersey and met Van at the Birch Hill. We played for an hour and a half and pretty much could have done a show at that point. Then I took Steve to his gig in Philly. So we had this audition on the way to his gig with Kansas [laughs]."
Romaine was a hard-hitting player with finesse who combined the most outstanding aspects of Tony Williams' and John Bonham's drumming styles. He had done session work and jingles in New York City and was touring with Blood, Sweat & Tears. Not surprisingly, he had also gone to the University Of Miami and graduated nearly a decade after Morse and more than met Morse's expectations.
"For the audition I think I had listened to "Odyssey," "Ice Cakes" and "Night Meets Light," said Romaine from his New York apartment. "I was going, 'Oh, boy I have my hands full with this.' But it was really relaxed. It didn't even feel like an audition, like there were three other drummers after me. I guess it went pretty well 'cause I got the job."
Over the next three years, the trio redefined The Steve Morse Band direction by fusing rock, funk and country while dabbling in classical and jazz, into a concise groove-oriented package.
The band had done extensive touring to build its muscles and to feel each other out. They tested Morse's new material live before ever recording it, until finally in 1991, Southern Steel (MCAD-10112) was released.
"I think with Southern Steel Steve went from an artistic, crafted approach to something in the order of arena rock," suggested Schultz. "To me, if Steel had a lyrical frontman, I think it would have been huge."
Many saw this new stripped-down direction as a clear response to the radio successes of guitarists such as Satriani and, in particular, Johnson, who was burning up the airwaves with his Celtic-instrumental blues-rock songs "Cliffs Of Dover" and "Trademark." Morse claimed to have been influenced by Johnson a long time ago.
"The Dregs did some dates with Eric when he was with The Electromagnets in the '70's" Said Morse. "I really loved his voicing of chords and the care he would take in the fingering of a line. I was inspired by his neverending patience and quest for perfection."
Regardless of influences, there were some gems on the record: the peaks and valleys of "Vista Grande," the catchy "Simple Simon" (which was featured on Howard Stern's morning radio program right before commercial breaks) and "Sleaze Factor" a funky little number reminiscent of the old Dregs tune "Bloodsucking Leeches."
"'SIeaze Factor' was actually written around the beat," said Romaine. "The guitar kinda went with that groove. After we were done Steve said, 'What are we going to call it?' I said, 'I don't know, it sounds sleazy,' and the word just stuck."
For the most part, Southern Steel was written with the input of the rhythm section. 'That was in stark contrast to the 1992 album, Coast To Coast. Finished in record time, Coast To Coast was perhaps done with less thought. All three members had short timeframes to record, and Morse had basically written the songs in anticipation of the crunch. Morse, the perfectionist who was then living in Sacramento, Calif., allowed LaRue to step behind the console to co-produce.
"I helped with getting drum sounds and whatever we needed to get done" said LaRue. "Steve after a while let me work alone. He knows I wasn't going to give him something that wasn't working."
As the record came out, MCA was being bought out and underwent a corporate restructuring. Whether the songs were "working', or not was irrelevant. Morse was once again caught in a label shuffle.
"When an artist gets signed there's typically a champion of that artist at that label which gives the individual support," said Schultz, who left as a result of the restructuring. "If one or two people at the label believe in the power of the artist to sell records, then they can act as a cheerleaders. If those people are no longer with the label, even if the artist has a long-term contract, he can be overlooked or fall in the cracks or get assigned to somebody who doesn't understand the artist."
"Once that stuff was going down we just asked to leave," an aggravated Morse told this reporter at the time. "I mean if they can't get it to the radio, at least get it to the stores. It can't be that hard, can it?"
Without a country he decided that the South should rise again. Egged on by Capricorn president Walden, Morse conjured up the Dregs, stuck Dixie in front of it, and hit the road. Sponsored by a rejuvenated Capricorn Records, The Dixie Dregs went on a short tour that garnered the band a live release called Bring 'Em Back Alive (1992 CD 42005).
"We rehearsed for a couple of days and then were on the road for about 10," LaRue remembered. "We recorded the album at Center Stage, Atlanta, and we toured a bunch after that. Allen Sloan was there for a while and then Jerry Goodman replaced him."
It seemed one circle of Morse's life had just opened. Goodman, the original violinist of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, was welcomed into the Dregs fold with excitement.
"I know we were a great influence on those guys as we probably were on a lot of instrumental musicians," said Goodman. "I remember the first tour I did with the guys. It was just always Mahavishnu talk."
"We were all sort of freaked out to have him with us," said Morgenstein, whose Winger gig was effectively killed a year earlier due to the changing music business and success of '90 grunge bands such as Nirvana. "If it wasn't for the Mahavishnu Orchestra , there would be no Dixie Dregs."
"I just thought it was so cool to play and look over and have the Mahavishnu violinist playing with me" said Morse.
With Goodman in the band, The Dixie Dregs cut Full Circle (Capricorn 42021) in 1994, an album full of musical twists and turns: from the Nirvana-inspired "Sleeveless In Seattle" to the Western Swing of "Goin' To Town."
"I think the title has something to do with the fact that they were on Capricorn again and I was in the band," said Goodman.
Even though the album won a Grammy nomination, it wasn't enough to keep Morse from shutting out Capricorn. Refusing to be pinned down by a long-term contract again, Morse closed up the Dregs shop and opened himself to a flurry of activity, personally and professionally.
He found himself in the middle of a divorce with his first wife; he moved back to Florida, outside Gainesville; he appeared on various artists' albums; he cut Structural Damage (10332-2j for a new record label, High Street Records, which was a return to the diversity and care of the High Tension Wires period; and he was hired to replace Satriani, who took over for Ritchie Blackmore, in Deep Purple.
Morse, who used to play covers of Deep Purple tunes in high school, seemingly joined the legendary outfit overnight and was soon playing gigs with them in Europe. It was a complete change of pace from his usual heady, stressful gigs.
"It's so cool to play with them. It is instantaneous communication," said Morse at the time. "I do a lot of interplay with [keyboardist] Jon Lord, who has tremendous ears. Instead of having to look over your shoulder, someone's behind you, covering you. You know if you want to take chance musically, it's not-you're not going to be left hangin'."
The Purple princes liked Morse so much they invited him to cut a record with them titled Purpendicular (CMC International, 0607686201-2). Writing with the legendary rockers was very easy.
"For 'Sometimes I Feel Like Screaming,' I had this idea to play a part on harmonics and outlined the chord changes, and later that day we recorded it," said Morse.
While still active in Deep Purple, Morse began recording another Steve Morse Band album, StressFest (1996, High Street 10345).
"I always looked at that one as sort of a brother record to Structural Damage," said Romaine. "We started to look at the arrangements as a trio. A lot of songs in the earlier records had keys and a lot of guitar overdubs. But with StressFest it was easier to go on the road with those songs."
It was a good thing, too. Again the victim of corporate restructuring, Morse's High Street contract dried up, and the band toured without support of StressFest for more than two years. When, in 1998, Deep Purple came a-knockin', Morse eagerly traveled to Altamonte Springs, Fla., for the recording of Abandon-his second Deep Purple record in three years.
"With Deep Purple I come up with ideas easily. It is just natural," said Morse, who was finishing up a new record with the band as of this writing. "What's neat is how little needs to be spoken. [Drummer] lan Paice will steer the tune towards some feel it needs to have. They are great. They play so solid it is a sheer pleasure to be with them."
By this point LaRue, who had moved to the same town in Florida as Morse, was busy producing artists and teaching bass technique. Romaine did work with German pop star Nena. They came back together to play with Morse as The Steve Morse Band, this time accompanied by The London Symphony Orchestra, for the Deep Purple record, Live At The Royal Albert Hall (Spitfire 15068) recorded in 1999 and released in the States in 2000.
Today, Morse's overload continues. Just before getting married to new wife Jacqueline, his second spouse (he now has two step kids and three children total), he and the Dregs crew released the live California Screamin' in late January of this year.
Because everyone has been so busy, they have relied on Solomon to get things moving.
"I am the sun these guys orbit around," joked Solomon. "We always touch base. Morgenstein is one of my closest friends. Dave, the same thing. Jerry Goodman. Andy. People are bouncing around questions about playing. When the sun, moon, stars line up and they are all available in this eclipse, I'll pop the question: 'Are we ready for some Dregs music?' That's basically how that record came together."
"A large part of the credit for us coming back has to be given to Frank Solomon," said Morgenstein, who accompanies Lavitz in Jazz Is Dead and has two side projects: Rudess/ Morgenstein (with Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess) and Platypus (featuring King's X guitarist Ty Tabor). "He's one of my best friends. I teach at Berklee part time, and when I first started working there I lived with him. He's the reason we got the record contract with Capricorn. He got us on the road. He followed up with Full Circle. To his credit, he got us some dates in late August of last year."
Behind the power of California Screamin' (recorded over three nights at The Roxy in Los Angeles), Dixie Dregs went on to tour with prog rockers Dream Theater in early 2000. It was a good chance for crowds to see seasoned professionals pass the prog-rock torch to younger musicians.
"John [Petrucci] is such a brilliant musician, and he is one of the most dedicated and advanced guitarists I know," said Morse. "To have somebody that good name me as an influence is a real honor."
While most of the band considers the tour successful, others gripe about the time allotted for their set.
"We only got to play for about 45 minutes," said LaRue. "It was a little frustrating."
The boys won't have that trouble when they tour on a double bill consisting of The Steve Morse Band and The Dixie Dregs this year. The shows begin in August in the East and will continue throughout the year, said Schultz at Zebra Records. LaRue and Goodman, minus West and Sloan, will be covering all of the bass and violin duties, respectively.
When asked if pulling double duty will be hard, LaRue commented: "Nah, not at all, we love playin'. Looking forward to it."
...my personal note...it turns out Steve broke his left wrist before the tour began, but he played anyway, with a cast! (JDS)...
These days it seems Morse is always on the run. He takes his axe and straps himself into his plane and he is gone-off to the next show. Morse just finished a slew of shows with Deep Purple, having traveled from the end of 1999 through early 2000 making stops in such places as Germany, Russia, Asia. In October, Morse goes to Europe again with the band.
It makes one wonder whether Morse wants to remain constantly on the road to avoid dealings with record companies. Possibly inking a contract with the flexible Magna Carta may be just what Morse needs in his career right now, but for the moment he is enjoying the freedom. When asked if he would do another Major Impacts album, he replied: "I thought Major Impacts was a great project. I really enjoyed doing that record. It was a real challenge for me. I figure that if you have fun doing something, it gets passed on to people who listen to it."
Transcribed by John D. Smith