"By Bob Andelman"
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Profile By Bob Andelman
(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life, 1990)
"This is like the guy next door that you grew up with," says Russ Albums. "If you wanted to have a best friend, this would be the guy. He's a prince."
It's one of those nights.
Saturday night at Tampa's Rock-It Club and a few hundred people are crowded together, ready to party. Pretty young women in skin-tight half shirts, mini-skirts and teased hair. Rugged young men in tight jeans, leather boots and air guitars strapped over their shoulders.
One man has brought them all together.
Unfortunately, he's got about a million other places he'd rather be right now.
It's not the club, the audience, the pay or anything else but him. Bobby Friss plays rock 'n' roll 300 nights a year -- tonight he wishes it was only 299 nights.
But standing outside in the cool air after his first low-key set, Friss is mentally preparing to give his best when he goes back in, whether his heart is in it or not. That's just the kind of guy he is.
"It's one of those nights," he says with a shrug, that silly grin coming up from under several pounds of blond hair. "You play the same thing so many times. I have played 300 nights a year for 15 years. So playing a Saturday night in Tampa is not an 'I can't wait to do it.' 'Cause I do it every night.
"My days for 15 years have been, get up, take care of business, take a shower and come to work and play music. Just 'cause people get revved up and say, 'I'm going to see Bobby Friss!' -- it's just another rock 'n' roll night to me."
The grin becomes a frown. Friss -- by all accounts the most professional, workman-like musician in the state of Florida -- knows what he's said is the truth but it's also a mood. It will pass -- in fact it already has. "I'm going to have to turn myself up a gear," he says to no one in particular. "A night like tonight, to be honest, I need a kick in the ass. I came in here tonight apathetic."
Trouble is, an average night in Tampa before his hometown fans pales after the experiences of the last few weeks. Overfl ow Spring Break crowds in Daytona Beach and Panama City. Opening gigs for Otis Day & the Nights and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Over 40,000 people in Pensacola. "Then I come to the Rock-It Club on a Saturday night and it's a little anti-climactic," he says. " People don't understand. They work days at a computer, they slow down, take a break. I can't do that. I'm on stage. I control the crowd. If I'm crazy, they're crazy. If I do nothing, they sit there like flounder. I want them to have fun."The Act
"You have to do more. Nobody is blown away by virtuousity. They work all day, they want to be entertained at night. They don't want to see guys getting off playing guitar."
"You have to literally reach out and strangle the audience. There's just too many distractions. I'd love to be Bruce Springsteen, singing just my songs. But you're the sideline at the club, you're not the main act. That's why I've become the guy who jumps on the table, slugs down a beer. Whatever it takes. I can't stand having a room full of p eople milling around, not watching what I'm doing. The only thing worse than playing to an empty house is playing to a packed house that's not watching. Whatever it takes, I'll do.
"Once, a guy at a club had inversion boots. I hung from scaffolding 30 feet above the stage playing my guitar. I've gone across streets and stopped cars and played on their roofs while the band is playing indoors. I invited the whole audience on stage one night at the 49th Street Mining Co.
"I randomly select somebody every night and slide a Miller Genuine Draft down my guitar neck into their waiting hand. I do it every night. It's p[redictable, but everybody gets up to see it. It's like Sammy Davis Jr. doing 'Candyman.'
ART HAEDIKE, owner, Porthole Lounge, Tampa: "He's played his guitar in the parking lot. Once, he was singing in the john with the microphone and you'd hear the toilet flush."
RUSS ALBUMS, WYNF (95 FM) disc jockey: ""He'll sit down and schmooze with the audience and let them play his guitar while he has a beer."
RICK RICHEY, childhood friend: "I rember walking through the parking lot of Mr. T's Club 19 in Clearwater and he was standing there with his cordless guitar, wailing away. I was trying to figure out what was going on."
"It's a 'slap' society. People want something to slap them in the face. You get overlooked if you're subtle."
"We play about four or five originals a set and I better do some damn good cover material in between because these people are too primed to hear it.
"It's too bad. We should be able to just play our own music. But I think even Led Zeppelin -- unknown -- would have a problem doing three sets of original material.
"The bands in Tampa Bay playing one or two nights a week -- I guarantee they're doing day jobs and starving.
"I run a business. The band is on salary. As soon as I decide we're only playing originals, only playing concert-type shows, I take away the tightness of the band. In order to sustain their lifestyles, the guys would have to get day jobs. That's what breaks up bands. Some weeks you don't work, you work one night. The music becomes a sidelight. Right now, this is what we do. No distractions. During the day, we write, we record. We work on furthering our careers.
"Stranger and myself gross the most money among bands in town. That's not to say there aren't a town of other bands that aren't as good as we are or better. The thing is, we're the ones playing cover songs on Tuesdays and Wednesday nights. These other bands don't want to do it. That's great, but they're not going to have the big money, they're going to have to get a second job.
ART HAEDIKE, Owner, Porthole Lounge, Tampa: "When they say Bobby Friss cleans up at the Porthole, they're right: we have him sweep up and he washes my car.
"He's a good, consistent act. One of the best, if not the best, rock 'n' roll entertainers in Tampa Bay. Bobby works the crowd. A quick wit, lots of extraneous stuff. He gets more money than most of the other bands that play here. Maybe they haven't rubbe d elbows with the right people yet. But they're probably the best club act working. The nights are a little better when he's around."The Studio
Returning to the studio early in 1990 to record his second album, Friss took a long hard look at his first effort and decided it wasn't the best he could be. There were only a few songs -- "Long Way Down" and "Can't Come Back," which has become a local radio staple -- that he is fully satisfied with two years later. It is driving him to do be more critical this time around.
"I learned a lot," he says. "There's good parts, but I don't think, overall, the songs hold up."
There are two roadblocks for Friss on his new record. First, because of his budget limitations, he must once again produce the album himself. Despite the engineering expertise of Morrisound Chief Engineer Jim Morris, that can be a drawback in the experien ce department. "I know what sound I want," says Friss. "But I don't necessarily know how to get the sound."
Another problem is time. Being on the road five days out of every six cuts into available recording hours. That's why the first album was done over four months instead of four weeks. "I just go in and do it when I can,' says the guitarist. "It'd be nice to go in and do a month straight but I can't afford the time." When he's on the road, Friss reviews tapes, making notes and plans for alterations.
Friss will rarely sample a new song in a club before it's been recordedIt's His Band
Note the name of the group: The Bobby Friss Band.
When he first formed a quartet in 1983, one thing was established from the beginning: "It was going to be my band," says Friss. "I make the decisions, the song selections."
Friss likes to be in control. He follows and believes strongly in his own muse, to the point of writing and composing almost all of his band's original material. "We haven't collaborated that much because if we get a record deal, I'd like to get it with my material," he admits. "Not so much for my ego, but I'd like to show I have that capability."
"My career is directed. I know what I'm doing.
Friss's older brother Jay -- a.k.a. "Ray Blade" -- is the drummer in the Johnny G. Lyon Band.
His younger sister, Susie, is a schoolteacher.
His father Dick -- "the oldest rock 'n' roller in the universe," according to Friss -- is the night auditor at the Paradise Lakes nudist resort in Land 'o Lakes. He is also the older gentleman at every Friss Band show wearing a black satin "Bobby Friss Band" jacket.
"They say you must be proud," says Papa Friss. "But if your kid is in sports or music, you go see them play. If you've got a kid who sells socks at Maas Brothers, you don't go see him work. I've got a daughter who teaches school but I've never seen her teach. But why should I sit home and stare at a TV when Bob's in town? I t's entertaining."
Dick and Bobby's mom, Jackie -- who lives in Rochester, N.Y. -- were divorced in 1973.
Michele Wyatt, Friss's new bride, met the musician in Michigan when he was managed by her brother Warren. Warren was reportedly not too happy with the arrangement at first. The Wyatts have a third sibling, Brett, who is quite close to Friss. Growing Up
Music wasn't Bobby Friss's first love. That would be sports -- particularly basketball.
"Bobby's an obsessive kind of guy," says his dad, Dick Friss. "He was not a natural athlete, not gifted. But he forced himself. He shot baskets until after dark. He'd shoot and shoot and he made varsity at Largo High. He was never going to be a built-in basketball player, but he forced himself to get better by persistence. The same thing with the guitar. Nobody said, 'We want you to take up the guitar.' He went into room his with a Sears Roebuck guitar and just practiced."
Dick says his youngest son was not the kind of boy to announce his intentions to the family -- he'd just go out and do things. Like the day he took up pole-vaulting. "I said you're a what? A pole-vaulter? He said running around a track eight times wasn't a s much fun." Or when the Largo Sentinel hired him to write about sports at his high school and the family found out about it by accident -- seeing his byline in the newspaper. Friss was paid by the inch, so he wrote about everything from badminton to tiddylwinks, including describing his own play in basketball games -- "Friss scored 10 points" -- in the third person. "That's just the way he's always been," says Dick, laughing.
"I was really into sports as a kid," says Friss. "I didn't pick up the guitar until I was 17. I missed the Beatles and Motown -- I had to go back to them because I was out shooting baskets."
Rick Richey has known Friss since they were in 7th grade together. He remembers when his pal would take his guitar out to Indian Rocks Beach every summer night and sit on the seawall, playing for the passing crowd. And Richey was road manager for the first Friss band, U.S. Steel, which played its one and only job at an apartment complex dance.
Not that Largo teen life was all dribble and strum.
"My senior year in high school I was not in the crowd I needed to be in," says Friss. ""Let's just say I was experienced with everything. It wasn't a healthy environment. I was probably hanging out with people who are doing the same things now they were then."
"By his own smarts, he rejected the things many people find it hard to reject," says Dick.
After graduating from Largo, Friss packed a pillowcase full of clothes, grabbed his guitar and hitched rides north to Michigan. He moved in with family and eventually enrolled in journalism at Central Michigan University. If he didn't apply his basketball intensity to studying, he at least invested his time well in practicing the guitar.
"I didn't know anybody and the winter cold was ungodly," says Friss. "I stayed inside and played and played. That was the year that secured my love for music -- there wasn't anything else to do."
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