All Articles: Copyright 2011 Jason Spraggins

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Interview: Judge Sam Amirante, Author of John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster

By Jason Spraggins

In December 1978, a young Chicago lawyer named Sam Amirante was starting his own practice as an independent defense attorney. He had recently left a job at the Public Defender's Office where he'd spent the previous few years "cutting his teeth" and was now eagerly preparing to strike out on his own. Just after moving into his new office, he received a life-changing phone call from a man who would become the first client of his new private practice.

"Sam, could you do me a favor?"

The man on the other end of the call was John Wayne Gacy,a gregarious and boastful 37-year-old who owned a successful contracting business (PDM Contractors) in the Northwest Chicago neighborhood of Norwood Park. Gacy complained that he was being harassed by the Des Plaines Police Department about a missing teenager named Robert Piest. He claimed to know nothing about the boy and insisted that the unwarranted police attention was damaging to his business and image. He needed the cops off his back.

Sam knew Gacy, if only as a passing acquaintance. Gacy, an overweight man of Polish descent, was a minor figure in local Democratic politics, a volunteer clown for children's functions, and a tireless worker who provided jobs to an ever-changing clan of young boys. Sam thought of him as being "nice enough"-a harmless, self-important, braggart. Sam needed clients, so he agreed to help Gacy and thus became his lawyer.

Over the next several days, what started with a seemingly innocent phone call snowballed into a true-crime nightmare of unprecedented proportions. On the evening of December 20, 1979, a haggard and drunken Gacy spent the night in Sam's office talking with his new lawyer. Over the course of several hours, Gacy confessed to murdering more than 30 young men (most of whom he had tortured and raped) and burying many of them under his house at 8213 W. Summerdale Ave in Chicago's Norwood Park neighborhood. Sam was horrified.

Gacy was arrested the next day on a minor drug violation. Meanwhile, policemen armed with a search warrant scoured his house and discovered human remains buried in the crawlspace. In all, 29 bodies were found buried on Gacy's property, and four more were pulled from the Des Plaines River. Most had been victims of strangulation (by a tourniquet method that Gacy would later call his "rope trick").

Gacy was charged with murder, and Sam became the defense attorney for one of the most bizarre and prolific serial killers in American history: John Wayne Gacy, The Killer Clown. The case went to trial in 1980, and Gacy, who pleaded insanity, was convicted of 33 counts of murder (the most in American history) and sentenced to death.

Sam Amirante, who later became a Judge, has now written a long awaited book about his experiences on the case entitled John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster. The book offers chilling insight into one of the worst crime sprees in history and also serves as a testament to Amirante's unflinching dedication to the American justice system and to defending the rights of the accused-no matter who they are.


I was fortunate enough to speak with Judge Amirante by phone as he drove home from the offices of his current law practice in Chicago. We spoke about his book, his love of our country's judicial system, and his involvement with Gacy. The following is the complete transcript.

You are passionate about the American justice system and the fact that every American is entitled to a fair trial and a capable defense in court. You are so passionate about these things that you defended the most notorious serial killer in American history - placing you in a very controversial role. How did you develop such an intense passion for the law?

No one's ever asked me that question. I'd say it started with, and was inspired by, my dad who served in the Navy during WW2 in the island-hopping campaign. He was always a very patriotic guy-was so proud to be an American. My grandparents came over from Naples, Italy and were the type people that helped build America.

Dad was hard-working and taught me to be the same. He talked a lot about statesmanship. Ironically enough, he was also an Archie Bunker kind of guy. So aside from inspiring me, he was also one of these old-fashioned Italian kind of guys who didn't like lawyers and didn't trust the system. In fact, he wanted me to be a doctor.

I ended up following my father's footsteps and serving in the armed forces as a Marine, which also helped strengthen my sense of patriotism. After law school, I'd planned on being a prosecutor, but I couldn't get a job in the State Prosecutor's office. I ended up working in the Public Defender's office where I met a guy name Nunzio Tisci, an Italian American like my dad. He was a very passionate lawyer. He would fight so hard for clients - clients who were already convicted.

We were working in post-conviction appeals, writs of habeas corpus, violation of probation - basically, the worst of the worst. He [Tisci] would go in there and fight to win every single case. I learned so much about being a lawyer from him. He would come up with creative thoughts, creative ideas, and creative motions. He taught me to think like a lawyer - to think on my feet - and to really appreciate the system that we have, the presumption of innocence, and individual rights and liberties. I think I've maintained that passion throughout my years of practicing law and even when I served on the bench.

You waited many, many years to publish a book about your experiences with Gacy. Why?

Well, for a number of reasons…

Number one, I would have never done it while any of the issues in the case were still pending, because I certainly didn't want to interfere with the judicial process and issues. I didn't want to do it back then. A lot of people asked me to, but I didn't want to. Then, as history and time went on, you see all of the rumors and all the different innuendos and speculation about what happened-different things that really corrupted history. 

Amirante at the time of the trial

I had retired from the bench, and I was looking for things to do after retirement. I was practicing law again; in fact, I'm quite busy doing that again. I waited to retire from the bench to do it [write the book], but I always felt that it was a story that had to be told. I wanted to wait until everything was said and done before I proceeded.

When I initially looked for people to help me write the book-I did think about doing it a number of years ago with Bob Motta [the lawyer who assisted with Gacy's defense]-we could never really find anybody who was able to demonstrate that same kind of passion [for the justice system] that you talked about earlier. Most writers and ghost writers that I talked to had the attitude that I represented Gacy begrudgingly-that it was something I had to do. That wasn't the case, and I wanted to show that.

Finally, I happened to run into Danny Broderick, whom I hadn't seen in a number of years. He had been a young associate of mine when he got out of law school. He knew the kind of passion that was involved in my practice and how I felt about things. He was a passionate lawyer in his own regard when he was practicing. He knew the courtroom. I knew that he had written a book, and I thought that maybe he might be able to write the book the way I wanted it.

Sure enough, he did. So, I think the timing was right, and having Danny Broderick to do it was very important.

Your book opens like a novel. It details the frightening story of how Gacy lured his final victim, Rob Piest, to his home and strangled him. As you point out, Rob was very different from Gacy's other victims. Rob was a popular and well known kid, and Gacy took him from a public place, eventually leading to the arrest. Why, in your opinion, was Gacy so bold or careless in the case of Piest?

One of two reasons: Number one, the most compelling reason: I truly believe in my heart to this day that, subconsciously, Gacy wanted to stop the killing - he wanted to be caught. I think he broke the mold at that point. He was dropping all of those hints to the police. He was doing different things. There was a last bit of sanity he had-sort of like the Jekyll and Hyde from the novel. The evil was completely taking over the good in John Gacy. I really think he broke his MO at that point. It was almost like he wanted to get caught. He did everything differently than he had in the past.

Another thought in that regard is that he was just becoming so… Evil was taking over, and his insanity was becoming so enraging that he couldn't control himself anymore. He did this to Robert Piest. He'd been "smart" in concealing his crimes before that.

I think he was coming to a point, as defined by law in IL, of insanity when you suffer from a mental disease and cannot conform your conduct to requirements of the law or you cannot appreciate the criminality of your acts. I think he was getting to the point in his mental disease - -which we believed he had-that he couldn't conform his conduct or appreciate the criminality of his acts.

The argument of the state was, of course, that he could. It was our argument that he was progressively getting worse and worse. So, I think it may have been a combination of really wanting to stop it with the good side of him and not being able to control himself any more-his illness was progressing. 

Gacy as Pogo the Clown

The murders were becoming more and more frequent, and he was being less and less careful with each one. He was going out to the Des Plaines River with the last four bodies and throwing them off the bridge on the highway. Anyone passing in a car could have seen him.

As Gacy's defense attorney, you spent countless hours sifting through the horrific details of his crimes - all the while having to work with him on a very intimate level. How did you manage to remain professional and keep from being overwhelmed by emotion or revulsion?

I don't think it's that difficult when you are a lawyer or a physician who believes in the oath that you take. A physician takes the Hippocratic Oath; a lawyer takes an oath to protect the constitution. You focus on the issues. You focus on the matters at hand. You don't think about the type of person you are representing. You are not a psychologist or a social worker-you are a lawyer. You are the person protecting that individual.

Just like a doctor, who might treat a person like Gacy at any given time, you're going to treat that person the best that you can, with the best medical research you can, without considering who the person is. It's not a difficult thing. It's a thing you develop.

John Gacy was a man of contradictions. He could be extremely friendly and caring at times, and as we know, he could also be dangerously dark, angry, and violent. Did you ever witness that dark side of his behavior, or did he keep that side of himself hidden from you throughout the ordeal?

Not personally. I witnessed him have a change in personality-a tremendous change in demeanor. But as far as violent acting out, I never personally witnessed that. We tried to get that out. We had alcohol-induced EEG's done. We had a sodium amatol test done and drug-induced EEG's.

We tried all different kinds of things. We never could bring out that violent behavior in him. I saw his eyes roll back; I saw his eyelids flutter. I saw him go into somewhat of a fugue state sometimes. But as far as violence, I never saw it. I heard about it but never saw it.

It is interesting that you say you used sodium amatol [truth serum] on him. He always claimed to have undergone that test, but many people accused him of lying about it.

Yes, we did use the sodium amatol on him, which is truth serum. His personality was so strong that he was actually fighting off the sodium amatol.

Would society have benefited more from Gacy having been institutionalized and studied rather than executed? Why?

I believed at the time, and I certainly still believe that more positive things could have come out of him staying alive. However, when it comes to just him personally-by the end, at the time he was executed, he was actually in total denial over the killings.  

Gacy after his arrest

I don't know how much we would have learned from him, individually, as a person helping out. But I think we could have studied his personality type and his disease with hopes of preventing things like this. It still happens in the world. It wasn't a serial killing, but just consider the mass shooting in Colorado recently. We have preventative medicines and theories on heart disease and other physical and mental diseases.

I'm not anti-death penalty, personally, but I don't know how society ever benefits from killing people.

Killing somebody is always a loss to society in one form or another. Here was a guy that had a wealth of information that we could have studied to prevent something like it from happening again. Even if you save one more life of an innocent person by studying this guy, isn't it worth it? Also, it costs more money to impose the death penalty than to keep someone alive, oddly enough.

To what degree do you believe Gacy's shame of his homosexuality figured into his crimes?

I believe it figured largely. I don't know if there would be a John Gacy-like personality today because of society's norms and values today. He was a classic in-the-closet homosexual. He was really killing himself every time he got involved in that activity. He didn't do it every time he was involved in homosexuality activity, but he hated himself so much for it. He didn't want to be that. The one deep, dark secret he held to his death was that. He didn't want to admit that his was a homosexual. He just lashed out every time he found himself in that situation.

Gacy was a perfect storm of the homosexuality that he denied, his dad's treatment of him being the way it was - everything just kind of came together: him going to jail for sodomy, his dad passing away while he was in jail. All of these different things came together and created the perfect storm which was John Gacy.

I think his homosexuality had a lot to do with it. I don't think homosexuality in general did - other than the norms and attitudes of the times in the 1970s. I think him being homosexual and not admitting it had a lot to do with his crimes.

Have you had any contact with family members of the victims since the trial - especially since the release of your book?

Danny and I ran into a few of the victims' sisters and moms at book signings that we had. They were actually pretty understanding about different things. Those that we talked to felt that the story should have been told and that we had treated the victims and the story with respect-which we appreciated. In one instance, out in Vegas, we actually stopped a protest. Some guy was selling Gacy paintings out there, and there was a protest being led by one or two of the sisters of the victims.

Greg Godzik's sister was at one of the book signings and asked a couple of questions. We didn't know who she was until after it was all over and she came over and started talking to us. Randy Johnson's sister, I think, was leading the protest in Vegas. After they heard us talk… We were invited there to speak, and Danny and I spoke about the book and about how we feel about different issues. They actually stopped protesting the paintings, which was a good thing.

We haven't had any serious threats or flack or anything from the victim's families. I was surprised, because I thought that we might hear something. Even Greg Godzik's sister, whose mom was one of the most outspoken critics at the time-a critic not only of Gacy but also of the government, police, and so on. She [the sister] was very, very cordial to us-very respectful and dignified. Any experience that we've had with the families of the victims has been positive.

I remember Robbie Piest's dad even, this was an amazing thing, at trial, he came up to me one day-and you know the fear; he might stick a knife in your throat since you are the lawyer of the guy that he hates. But Mr. Piest came up to me and said, "Sam, I just want you to let you know that I have no malice or ill will toward you. I understand that you have job to do, sir, and I had to express that and tell you that." I thought that was the classiest and nicest thing. It was during a time of… It was in the middle of the trial.

I was never afraid of anything or anybody. The only thing that ever bothered me is that if somebody might have wanted to get John Gacy, I might get in the way of a bullet or something. But any personal threats toward me never bothered me.

The toughest thing about a case like that-any case that involves the victims of horrible crimes-is looking at those family members when you're the lawyer defending someone accused of doing that and sometimes even knowing that they've done it. Seeing the looks on the faces of these people and feeling compassion for them is a very difficult thing to experience. That's much more difficult than representing the person-facing the victims.

When was the last time you spoke with or saw John Wayne Gacy? Can you tell me a bit about that final encounter?

Oh boy. One of the last times I ever spoke to him, he was down in Menard. We used to communicate, and I went down to see him a few times. He was in Menard Penitentiary in Southern IL. He was executed at Statesville, but they brought him back up to Statesville.

Anyway, he was telling me about this woman he had met - a woman who'd become his pen pal and would come there to visit him. She wanted to marry him. I said, "Oh John, that's good. Maybe you should marry her." He said, "What? Are you kidding? Are you nuts? I'd never marry that fat hog!" or something like that. He said, "She's got two kids in the joint down here. You think I'd want to ruin my reputation by marrying into a family like that?"

That was typical John Gacy. He just had no clue. As smart as he was - almost genius in some ways - in others, he didn't have a clue. He didn't want to ruin his reputation!

He was always friendly. He would sort of mimic what we would say about the issues. For instance, that's how he got the idea that other people may have committed the murders. Bob Motta and I used to ask him, "Hey John, are you sure you did this? Are you sure you weren't stoned or high or drunk or something and woke up with a body next to you - just assumed you did it? Maybe Rossi did it, or Cram did it?" He'd say, "You know, maybe that's what happened." So, he started believing that stuff himself.

We told him that he had to attack us, because in appeals you have to attack your lawyers as ineffective and everything. But the last time I talked to him, we didn't have any animosity toward each other. One thing I wish - I wish I'd had a chance to talk with him before he died and to try to convince him to show some remorse - to apologize to people and go out in some sort of a dignified way. It never happened; his last words were reportedly, "Kiss my ass." Actually, he convinced his last lawyers that he was innocent, I believe. He was a pretty manipulative guy.

As far as your experience with Gacy, do you have any regrets?

If I have any regrets at all, it's not having been able to spend enough time with my young family while working on that case. It'd be on a personal level. I've apologized to my two young boys, who are now grown men, and my ex-wife - that's probably why she's my ex-wife. I didn't get to spend enough time with them. That bothers me to this day.

There seems to be a new Gacy story in the media every week even today. Why is the public still so fascinated with this case?

For one thing, he is a great manipulator. He is still manipulating from the grave. He's got people thinking that there are other bodies to be found somewhere - which there are not. If there were… I would have known about it if there were; I'm about 99.99% sure. And people have a morbid fascination with things like that. It's one of those things that just doesn't seem to go away.

Just recently, I don't know if you read it in the news or saw it online, but his nephew is on trial up in Henry County here. Someone asked me why they didn't ask me to defend him. I figure his mother thought, My brother got the death penalty! I don't want him! [chuckles] He is being charged… He's on trial on a sexual assault case. He was about fourteen years old, I think, when the [Gacy] trial was going on. That's his [John's] sister, Jo Anne's kid, I think.

I saw that. The nephew and his late uncle share a shocking resemblance.

Wow! Don't they? I looked at that, and I was kind of freaked out. Except, he looks a lot better than John. John was only in his thirties, and he looked like he was sixty. This guy is 49 and still looks like a kid. Still, he looks a lot like John - even built like him.

Recently, there have been stories in the media about two lawyers who are suggesting, based on Gacy's own meticulous record keeping, that he may have had accomplices in his crimes, specifically Mike Rossi and David Cram, two young men who worked for his business and spent time living in his house. Having heard Gacy's confessions first hand, what is your opinion on the matter?

We interviewed everybody at the time. Again, it was my idea, and Bob Motta's idea, that Rossi and Cram may have helped him or actually committed some the murders themselves. We asked John about that and, as John called it, "planted the seed" in his head. He used to talk about "planting the seed."

You know, we investigated Rossi and Cram. What they did… They were a couple of kids… They were young kids who were under Gacy's spell so to speak. They were like his little sex slaves, and they would do anything he wanted them to do. He basically had them digging trenches in the basement-in the crawlspace-knowing that he was probably going to use them for graves and telling them that the trenches were for drain tiles because there was always a water problem in that crawl space. And he had them digging down there.

Bodies being recovered from Gacy's home

Did they think he was up to no good? Yeah, I think they thought he was up to no good. Did they think he was a hit man of some sort? Because that's what he told them-that he was a hit man for the mafia and that he used to help kill people and stuff like that. Did they ever participate in any murder with him? I really don't believe so. I won't say it's completely hogwash, but I just… There is absolutely no evidence of that whatsoever. Did they help him bury the bodies? I don't think so. Did they dig holes that bodies were in? Absolutely.

I suppose the holes could have been their own graves had things not come to a head.

Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm sure they knew something was going on but sort of turned their heads to it. Because, you know, they got gifts from him. They got items from kids who used to work for him-kids who they thought-who he told them-had run away.

I think they may have suspected something. Even in the end… Well a lot of things Cram told the police are in the book. The night after Gacy was in my office, John went to David Cram and told David-he said, "I was with my lawyers all night, and I told them I killed all these people; I've killed over thirty people. I just wanted to let you know that I might be going away." Cram didn't know what he was talking about other than he was supposed to be a "hit man."

The kids, Rossi and Cram, were helpful to the case?

Yes they were-to the state. Rossi went and hired a lawyer-a former state's attorney. He kind of kept Rossi's mouth shut after a while. He basically, what they call, "lawyered up". So he [Rossi] didn't help anybody too much. Rossi may have known a little more than Cram, but I don't think either one of them participated in the murders at all or murdered any other people.

Can you tell me a bit about the Missing Child Recovery Act of 1984?
It was 1984. I was running for the state senate. People, you know, didn't like me because I'd been Gacy's lawyer. I was looking for some sort of platform to show the kind of person I really am-I'm compassionate. I had asked the jury to do something-to keep him [Gacy] alive and study him. It didn't happen. No one had ever really done something about the Gacy case and what's happening. I was a lawyer in it.

I happened to be watching a movie about Adam Walsh, the kid who was missing in Florida, it was called "Adam," I think. I watched the movie and went to look at my two young boys who were sleeping in bed. I thought,My God, what would I do if my kid was ever missing like that or like one of the victims in the Gacy case-missing? I'd go crazy. What would I do?

I was sitting in court the next day waiting for my case to be called. It was a drug enforcement case where they had specialized drug units to enforce drug laws. I thought, "If they do this for drugs-why can't we do this for missing children?"

So, I sat there in court and wrote this entire law which did three things. It ended a 72-hour waiting period. Police used to wait… It was an unwritten rule that police used to wait before they would start engaging themselves in looking for lost, missing, or runaway children. It had always been 72 hours. In that 72 hours kids, could fall through the cracks-literally go into the crawlspace and never be found. So it ended that. I wrote a thing for the legislature to end that 72-hour waiting period-to order police departments to act immediately on missing child reports for people under 21 years old.

Secondly, it started a state-wide, central computer system for all information regarding profiling of people. It might be profiling pedophiles and so forth. It included information about missing kids: fingerprints, photographs, dental records and so on. It would all go into this state-wide computer system.

Thirdly, there would be special units created which would specialize in finding lost, missing, and runaway children. These three things were really needed and answered some of the horrors of the Gacy case.

It was drafted into bill form and passed unanimously in the IL state legislature and became ISEARCH: Illinois State Enforcement Agency to Recover Children. It would ultimately become a blueprint for the national version and the forerunner to the Amber Alert.

Early on [in Illinois], after a couple of years, it was responsible for 3,000 children being located and returned to their families. So, it turned out to be a big success. There was state funding for it until the economy went bad and some funds were taken away. There are still some ISEARCH units available.

That was the silver lining to the Gacy cloud. Even with horrible, horrible cases like that-horrible crimes-something good can come of it. I've always said, "If you can save one person, it's worth the effort." Hopefully a lot of kids were saved and a lot of families were saved a lot of grief by the writing of the law. Ironically enough, the John Gacy case was responsible for that.

Lastly, what does the future hold for Sam Amirante?

Well, there is a documentary coming out in the fall based on the book. I don't know where it is going to be right now. There is a paperback version coming out on October 6. A director and producer in Hollywood bought our movie rights, and they are planning to do a big screen movie. It's not going to really be a horror-type movie. It's going to go into legal history-in the genre of In Cold Blood-a true-crime type thing that carries a message with it but could be entertaining too.

On my front, I'm retired from the bench. I have a young family again; I'm married again. I have a six-year-old daughter who is going to be the first Italian-American president of the United States! Now that I'm older and not involved in a case like that, I'm still working hard, but I'm spending a lot of time with my young family, which is what I should be doing. I'm still going into court every day and defending the rights of the accused.

*Read more about Judge Sam Amirante:

*John Wayne Gacy was the son of an abusive father. In 1968, John was convicted of sodomy against a minor (a young boy) and sentenced to ten years imprisonment in Iowa. He was released early on parole in 1970 - having served just over one year. His killing spree occurred after his parole- during the years that he had originally been sentenced to prison.

Though he confessed to the murders to police at the time of his arrest in 1978, he later denied responsibility and maintained that stance until his death. He was executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994.

Seven of his victims were never identified. Below is a list of those who were. Included with each name are the victim's age and estimated date of death. When covering this sad case, it is important to remember these young victims of violence.

Timothy McCoy (15) January 3, 1972
John Butkovitch (17) July 29, 1975
Darrell Sampson (18) April 6, 1976
Randall Reffett (15) May 14, 1976
Samuel Stapleton (14) May 14, 1976
Michael Bonnin (17) June 3, 1976
William Carroll (16) June 13, 1976
Rick Johnston (17) August 6, 1976
Michael Marino (14) October 24, 1976
Kenneth Parker (16) October 24, 1976
William Bundy (19) October 26, 1976
Gregory Godzik (17) December 12, 1976
John Szyc (19) January 20, 1977
Jon Prestidge (20) March 15, 1977
Matthew Bowman (19) July 5, 1977
Robert Gilroy (18) September 15, 1977
John Mowery (19) September 25, 1977
Russell Nelson (21) October 17, 1977
Robert Winch (16) November 10, 1977
Tommy Boling (20) November 18, 1977
David Talsma (19) December 9, 1977
William Kindred (19) February 16, 1978
Timothy O' Rourke (20) June 16-23, 1978
Frank Landingin (19) November 4, 1978
James Mazzara (21) November 24, 1978
Robert Piest (15) December 11, 1978

*John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster will be available in paperback on October 6, 2012.

Article first published as Interview: Judge Sam Amirante, Author of John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster on Blogcritics.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday, August 27, 2010

Interview: John Mahon- Sir Elton John's Percussionist

Interview: John Mahon- Sir Elton John's Percussionist
The musician talks about his time with the EJ band, his side projects as a session player and songwriter, and the hobbies he enjoys when not on the road.
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Near the age of twelve, John Mahon picked up a pair of drum sticks with the aspiration of becoming a drummer. As an adult, John has not only realized his dream by becoming a professional musician, but he has built a stellar performance resume that is filled with A-List names in the music industry.

Mahon, a percussionist and vocalist, has worked with artists such as Brian Adams, Sting, Phil Collins, Mary J. Blige, Ray Charles, Cher, Tina Turner, Bonnie Rait, and many, many more. For the last several years, John has accompanied music icon Sir Elton John on his journey down the Yellow Brick of Road of Rock and Roll, serving as a percussionist and background vocalist for the Rocket Man's legendary stage and studio band.

John was kind enough to take some time while on vacation from his heavy tour schedule with the EJ Band to talk with me about his life as a musician, his experience with Elton John and his band, his side projects as a songwriter and session musician, and the hobbies he enjoys when off the road.


I understand that you chose to become a drummer at around age twelve when your father took you to Canton Ohio Police Boys Club and you signed up for the Drum and Bugle Corp. I also understand that, throughout your young years, you were extremely active in the performing ensembles offered by your schools. How did these experiences shape you as a music fan and as a performer?

Participation in the school music programs broadened my musical experiences. I was exposed to many different genres of music that I would never have heard or played if not for the school bands. Of course, we played marches but there were classical pieces and even some contemporary compositions. Another part is the choir which was a good way to learn pitch and ensemble singing.

These programs teach a musician to play with an ensemble, take constructive criticism, and be motivated by your fellow band members.

Do you come from a musical family? If so, please tell us about it.

My father was the musical side. He sang and played trumpet. My Uncle was a big band singer, and my grandfather played guitar. Everyone in my family played an instrument of some sort, and most of us sing. That said, my younger brother was unexpectedly asked to leave a McCartney concert recently - it's likely they heard him singing!

When and how did you make the transition from amateur to professional musician?

When I was still in high school, a friend asked me to play with his band and perform at parties. That was the start of getting paid to play. I always worked a day job and did gigs at night until I was about 23. Then it was full on music- -although I had to get a part time job for a while when I moved to LA to pay the bills- - driving a delivery truck! Back in the late 70s and 80s, bands were playing everywhere every night. It was easier to make a living as a musician then. Clubs and Hotels had dance bands 5-6 days a week. It was a great time - no DJs!!!

Who is your biggest influence as a drummer? A vocalist? A songwriter?

I love funk and jazz drumming, so there are so many. I'd have to say, Tony Williams, David Garibaldi, Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, Clyde Stubblefield, Peter Erskine, Danny Seraphine, Lenny White - just to name a few.

Vocalists - Larry Williams of Tower of Power, Marvin Gaye, Steve Perry, Stevie Wonder, Sinatra, Bennet, Otis Redding.

Songwriters - Steely Dan, Elton John, The Beatles, Led Zep, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea. Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, James Taylor. But I love new bands as well-- U2, Radiohead. So many!!

How did you come to be part of the acclaimed Elton John Band?

I met Davey Johnstone after he heard a recording I was working on with Bob Birch whom I have known and played with for many years since moving to LA. I did some recording for Davey and Guy Babylon, and not long after that session, Davey asked me to audition for Elton's band.

I've read on your personal website that you spend some of your free time writing and recording your own original songs. Can you describe how you approach the mysterious task of songwriting and tell us a bit about your original music?

My music, I suppose, is pop based with a soul/jazz influence. I like to write lyrics first most of the time. Sometimes I will just come up with a musical motif or loop that I like writing around. I write all kinds of music - soundtrack, electronic, organic - even some kid's music. I think all these influences have put me in the musical blender!! Of course I love drums and percussion based music - who doesn't?

Several years ago, your band mate and fellow singing drummer, Nigel Olsson, released a solo project that was quite good. When can we expect a solo project from John Mahon, and what sort of a project will it be?

I might be asked to come up with some ideas and then Elton, or whoever is producing the session, will pick what they like. Maybe they will change it a little or even suggest something completely different. I would not call it freedom because every note you play will be scrutinized and criticized so you better be ready to play anything and understand how to take direction. It can be really fun or it can be very challenging. Most of the time when you hit on something it will just work - that's the magic part.

Do you play any instruments aside from drums? If so what?

I play the keyboards some and strum the guitar. Drummer/Percussionists need to know another instrument so we can talk with the really smart musicians!!

Of all your many accomplishments as a musician, of what are you the most proud?

I come from a very humble upbringing in a small town. Playing and recording with an icon like Elton John is quite an accomplishment. Not many musicians, or people for that matter, get to experience what I have. The travel, the concerts, the amazing audiences.... I am very fortunate indeed.

Aside from music, what other interests and hobbies do you have that might surprise us?

I love mountain biking and cycling in general. I've also been playing a bit of tennis. I just like being outside. I don't mind some home improvement projects — which I'm not bad at, and I guess I like photography but that has just come out of my travels. I really love recording too. When there is no pressure it is like painting... adding colors and creating freely - It is very rewarding to me.

Do you have a favorite city or venue to play in?

New York City is amazing. Rio was great. Anywhere in Ireland has the best audiences. I have to say American audiences are the most fun overall — they love to rock out. Playing Hyde Park was great as well as Rome in front of the Coliseum — and lately the Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza, Mexico.

What do you like most about your current touring job? The least?

I enjoy the camaraderie of the crew and band. We are a big family and it's fun to be around them all. I do enjoy going to some great cities and getting a little sightseeing in. Then, of course, there is the music part- - playing the shows is always the highlight of the day. I loath airports, airport security, airport food, and the smell of airports. Did I say I hate airports? Finding a consistent meal and cup of coffee are the most challenging thing to me on the road. Oh yes, I need good water pressure!!

Now a few questions for John, the fan...What is your favorite Elton John song? Album?

My favorite song might be "Levon" - mainly because I used to play it as a kid. I love Madman Across the Water, Captain Fantastic, and the Made In England album.

(Aside from those from your boss) What are your three favorite albums of all time?

That's not fair! Steely Dan Gauchos. Herbie Hancock, VSOP, Chicago II.

What future musical projects are on the calender for John Mahon?

Elton is touring almost constantly. I plan to continue writing lyrics and songs. I just played drums and percussion on some smooth jazz tracks for a new artist "Ja Nya Sol". I'm producing and playing some music with a friend in Ohio, David Marchione who is extremely talented. We are doing experimental soundtrack music right now. As always, listening, learning, and keeping the darn computer working!!

Visit John Mahon's website:

Article first published as Interview: John Mahon: Sir Elton John's Percussionist on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sharon Robinson Releases Remixed Live Track from 2009 Cohen Tour

Sharon Robinson Releases Remixed Live Track from 2009 Cohen Tour
Mrs. Robinson has recently remixed a live recording from 2009 and made it available for free download to her fans via her website.
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Friday, February 19, 2010

Interview: Actor Robert Englund- the Original Freddy Krueger

Interview: Actor Robert Englund- the Original Freddy Krueger
With Robert Englund busy promoting his memoir and horror fans anxiously awaiting the new Nightmare installment, an interview with the original Freddy Krueger seemed appropriate.
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With a remake of the horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street in post-production and scheduled for theatrical release in late April of this year, Freddy Krueger, the infamous villain of the franchise, is poised to once again terrorize the dreams of movie goers. In this new re-imaging of the original Nightmare movie, Krueger’s trademark hat and razor-clawed glove will be worn by a new actor (Jackie Earle Haley) for the first time. However, it is impossible to forget Robert Englund — the man who first brought the sinister character of Krueger to life and who helped to establish the fictional serial killer as a permanent part of pop culture.

Mr. Englund, a classically trained actor, first portrayed Krueger in the 1984 original installment and continued to play the role in eight subsequent slasher films, as well as in various TV appearances. In fact, Englund and Doug Bradley (Pinhead from the Hellraiser series) are the only actors to have played a horror character eight consecutive times. He last portrayed Freddy in the 2003 movie Freddy vs. Jason.

Outside of his famous work with the Nightmare franchise, Englund has also starred in numerous other film and TV roles and has worked as a director on films such as 976-EVIL and Killer Pad. Most recently, Englund has written a memoir entitled Hollywood Monster: A Walk Down Elm Street with the Man of Your Dreams with co-author Alan Goldsher. The book was released last fall and is an account of his life in the movie business.

With Robert Englund busy promoting his memoir and horror fans anxiously awaiting the new Nightmare installment, an interview with the original Freddy Krueger seemed appropriate.
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to pose questions to Mr. Englund about his experiences portraying Freddy Krueger, his other projects as an actor and a director, his favorite horror movies, his thoughts on the possibly participating in the new incarnation of the Nightmare movies, and his future in movie business.

You are an established icon of the horror genre. Were you always a fan of horror movies, or did your involvement in them come by chance?

I remember watching Frankenstein on TV as a kid and being very scared. Back then, movies were shown largely uncut to fill time. It freaked me out.

My involvement came by chance. I was starring in V as Willie, the good alien and thought I would be forever typecast as the lovable sidekick. My agent called me to go on an interview for Wes Craven, whom I'd heard of. It sounded interesting and a nice change from Willie so I went. The rest is history.

As I understand, you are a classically trained actor. How, if at all, did that background influence your performance as Freddy Krueger?

Freddy's physicality, his gunslinger swagger, is influenced by stage acting and my classical training. Most straight acting is really reacting. So Freddy gives me a chance to be more broad.

When creating the role of Freddy in the original Nightmare movies, were you given a great deal of freedom by director Wes Craven, or was he very specific about how he wanted the character to be portrayed? Also, if you were given freedom with the role, what were your inspirations as you created it?

Wes created the character and had many ideas. I brought his vanity (he hides his bald head under a hat) and in later movies his humor and sexual threat. I was influenced by Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu and a pocket book cover for The Shadow with a man in a fedora.

Your role as Freddy opened the door for you to star in and/or be involved with a number of other horror films outside of the Nightmare franchise. Which is your favorite of those films and why?

Because horror is international, Freddy really opened the door for me to star in movies internationally. Il Rittorno Di Cagliostro, directed by Cipri and Maresco was an amazing experience to film. We shot in studios and villas around Palermo in southern Italy. The film received a ten-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival.
Of the Nightmare films, which is your favorite and why?

New Nightmare really holds up. It is so clever — a deconstructed horror movie, a wink to the fans of the genre. Wes is a smart guy. Plus it was fun to be reunited with actors from the original cast.

During the years that you portrayed Freddy Krueger, the character gradually took on a bit of a jokester personality that wasn’t as prominent in the original two films. Was this by your choice, or did the idea come from the writers and directors? Also, what is your response to those who have criticized that change in the character?

I blame the editors. Often when filming a scene I would give the editor the choice of a dark moment or a laugh. For better or worse, most of the laughs stayed in. Also, it is easier to scare the audience if you catch them off guard. Humor and horror go hand in hand for that reason. Critics are always going to criticize something, right?

What is the most frightening horror film that you have seen? What makes it so terrifying?

When I was eight or nine I went with some friends to a movie for a birthday party. The mom dropped us off. We were supposed to see some kid's matinee but instead saw the grown-up WWII movie The Naked and the Dead. In it there is a scene where a GI gets bit by a lime green snake and dies horribly, writhing in pain and foaming at the mouth. I have had an abiding fear of snakes ever since.

Aside from acting, you are also a talented director. What has influenced you the most as a director and why?

My classical training taught me to respect the word. I read the script and try my best to tell that story.

The Nightmare franchise is being revived with a new team, and I’ve read of your excitement about the project. If this new revival produces sequels, would directing a future Nightmare movie (and the new Freddy, Jackie Early Haley) interest you at all?
Not particularly. I would prefer to direct small stories about people rather than big budget FX extravaganzas.

You have finished your autobiography. Was writing it an enjoyable experience?

I am pleased that it is finished. I worked with a ghost writer who helped shape it. It will be coming out in Spanish soon.
What projects does the future hold for Robert Englund as an actor and/or a director?

I have a few projects lined up that are shooting in Spain. I don't want to jinx them by saying more.
Robert Englund's new memoir, Hollywood Monster: A Walk Down Elm Street with the Man of Your Dreams, can be purchased wherever books are sold. You may visit his website to learn more.Read more:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Interview: Grammy Award Winning Singer/Songwriter Sharon Robinson

Interview: GRAMMY Award Winning Singer/Songwriter Sharon Robinson
Leonard Cohen's critically acclaimed producer and collaborator discusses her career and debut album as a solo artist.

 For more than thirty years, GRAMMY winner Sharon Robinson has been a part of the musical journey of the legendary singer/songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen. During this time, she has taken on many roles in the music industry, serving as a background singer, a songwriter, an arranger, and a producer.

Aside from Cohen, Robinson has worked with a plethora of artists, including Stevie Nicks, Aaron Neville, Morris Day, Robbie Kreiger, Thelma Houston, Brenda Russell, Jennifer Warnes, Randy Crawford, Hamish Stuart and Matthew Wilder. She co-wrote Patti LaBelle's hit song, “New Attitude,” winning the GRAMMY for Best Soundtrack Album (Beverly Hills Cop) in 1985. Her music has also been featured in films like Wonder Boys, Natural Born Killers, Pump Up The Volume, Stakeout, and Wim Wenders’ The Land of Plenty.

Most recently, Robinson has turned the spotlight on herself by releasing her first album as a solo artist. The recording, Everybody Knows (named after the song she co-wrote with Cohen in the late 1980’s) includes ten soft, introspective and soulful tunes that keep the backing soft, placing Robinson’s sensual and rich alto voice at the forefront. In addition to singing lead and backing vocals on the album, Robinson also played most of the instruments, provided the computer programming, and created the arrangements.

Serving as a writer on all of the tracks (having written a few of them with Cohen over the years), she was able to explore a creative voice that she has developed during her many years as a “behind the scenes” player in the business. The result is phenomenal.

Everybody Knows is a classy, mature, and seductive recording that is far more artistic than what you will find on today’s Top 40 radio and that, despite it’s gentle, contemplative vibe, resonates with emotive power. It combines the feel of new-age ambiance with the lyrical and melodic prowess of a refined and inspired singer/songwriter. The effect is intoxicating.

Recently on break from performing on Leonard Cohen's extensive world tour, Sharon Robinson was kind enough to discuss her background as a musician as well as her long-time collaboration with Cohen, the process of songwriting, her new solo album, and her plans for the future. In this interview we gain insight into the creative life of an extraordinary talent.

Has music been a large part of your life since childhood, and can you tell us about your earliest experiences with music?

I started taking classical piano lessons at a very young age, something I went after myself, and from that point on I was always either in the school choir or doing piano recitals. I started writing songs early, complete with arrangements and multi-tracked parts. I guess without really thinking about it, I always wanted to be a singer and songwriter and record producer.

Who are your greatest influences and inspirations as a vocalist? A producer? A songwriter?

I was at an event recently at USC here in LA at which Lamont Dozier spoke, and I was reminded of all the great R&B hits he wrote and how I grew up knowing every word and every note of those songs. I also recently met Roberta Flack, who I listened to so much growing up. And I listened to tons of Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Chaka, Stevie, Joni Mitchell, Getz/Gilberto to name only a few. There was so much great music, and I lived on it.

At what point in life did you make the decision to pursue music as a career, and what brought on that decision?

I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to pursue music as a career. It’s something that kind of happened by default. And I’m really glad it did. When I had to start making a living, it was music, because that was what I could always do. And in my heart of hearts, it’s what I very much wanted to do.

Over the years, you have played many roles in the business: back-up singer, writer, producer, and now solo artist. Of these different roles, which do you find the most challenging? Which is the most fun?

Producer is probably a bit more challenging than the others, but it’s hard to say what’s the most fun. I love singing harmonies. Plucking an idea out of thin air and writing a song is great. And having total freedom to express myself as an artist by doing all of the above is about as good as it gets.

A major aspect of your musical life is your long-time collaboration with the famed songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen. How did this friendship come about, and why has it remained intact and productive for so many years in a business that can be so fickle and challenging?

I first met Leonard when I auditioned for the Field Commander Cohen tour in 1979. It felt like a friendship from the start. When we started writing, it was uncomplicated and easy. I guess that’s been the overriding tone of things since, no matter what kind of work we’re involved in. I think that’s partly what sustains it. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to show Leonard my work in the first place, and that he liked it enough to want to work with me.

As a musician, I know that the process of songwriting is a very mysterious thing—even to the writer. I wonder if you could shed some light on how the process most often works for you? Also, how is writing alone different from your collaborations with Mr. Cohen?

You’re right. It’s mysterious. Sometimes if I haven’t written for a while I wonder if I can ever do it again! But usually the application of some discipline works. Set aside the time. Put yourself in front of the dreaded blank page. For my album, Everybody Knows, I decided to approach it the way Leonard and I usually write, by starting with the lyrics and breaking with the pop songwriting convention of starting with the music. I liked that approach a lot for my own stuff and will probably use it again. Of course when I’m working with Leonard, he writes the lyrics, so I’m focused on the melody, the chords, the structure, and the arrangement that best suits the words and his voice.

In 2001, you gained a great deal of professional prestige when you were given such a prominent role in the creation of the critically acclaimed Cohen album, Ten New Songs, sharing writing credits on all of the songs, serving as producer, and even being featured with Mr. Cohen on the cover. Can you briefly tell us how this album (the first from Cohen in nearly a decade) came to be and how you came to play such an influential role in the creative process?

I was with Leonard at a family occasion in 1999 after he had recently left the monastery. Out of nowhere that day, he asked me to work on a record with him. At that point the extent of my role in the record was not clearly defined, but over time Leonard just really liked what I was coming up with, both in terms of the writing and the arranging. So my job description expanded as we went along. Of course we had already written some songs together, a couple of which were among his best-known songs, like "Everybody Knows," so I guess it all made some kind of sense.

With the album, Everybody Knows, you have stepped out from behind the scenes and Mr. Cohen to become a full-fledged solo artist. What made you decide to take this step? Has it been frightening, even for such a seasoned performer as yourself?

After we made Ten New Songs, Leonard encouraged me to make my own record, as did my lawyer and friend, Gary Gilbert. It was clear I could make a record without depending on a record deal or a huge budget. I had my own studio and could do a lot of it myself. So really, it just seemed like the right time to do something I had always wanted to do. There was a certain apprehension at first, but I tested the record out on a few friends and got some very encouraging feedback. Gary turned me on to manager Seth Keller, who was well versed in Internet marketing and new business models, and whom I knew would be able to get it heard. So I was able to have some confidence in it, release it, and let the rest take care of itself.

When choosing the songs for Everybody Knows, how did you approach the task and make the decisions? Also, the album has a vibe that is similar to Ten New Songs. Was this purposeful?

I tried to choose songs that were honest and from the heart, knowing that we all are dealing with many of the same things at those depths. The vibe was definitely intentional. I wanted it to have an edge and a mysteriousness to it. I did use my work on TNS as a model for my album, especially in terms of how it was produced. As a songwriter in the pop marketplace, I had been trying to serve many masters before Ten New Songs, so that period during and after TNS was an extremely welcome change and one that deeply informed me as an artist in my own right.

Since the release of your solo album, you have been on an extended comeback tour with Mr. Cohen and his band. Has it been difficult being part of this live show and working to promote your own release at the same time?

I see the concurrence of the tour and my album as an extremely fortunate set of circumstances. I’m getting a lot of exposure with the tour, and Leonard has been generous and gracious in his introduction of me to his audiences. The tour naturally gets a lot of press. And that, combined with great reviews and support my album is getting from bloggers and DJs, my fan base is continually growing. So when the time comes, I’ll be able to do some live shows.

The Live In London album you recorded with Mr. Cohen and his band last year is truly remarkable, and your influence on the music is very evident in the arrangements. Are you enjoying being on tour again? And are the crowds responding well to a show headlined by a 70-plus-year-old man who has been out of the spotlight for so many years?

The show is doing amazingly well and I’m thrilled to be part of it. Leonard’s persona, his songs, voice and delivery—together with the band and the whole production—are pretty magical. The best part is when people tell us their personal stories of how the music and the concerts affect them. To be part of something that touches so many people in that way is the experience of a lifetime. And I’m very proud to have contributed to it as a writer and arranger.

In your line of work, you have always been fair game for music critics. If you are given a chance to look back on your own work, with what single song, album, performance, or tour are you the most pleased? With what are you most disappointed?

It’s hard to pick one of anything, because I really try not to put something out unless I really like it. As far as the disappointments, in light of the above statement, most of them are still on my shelf.

What does the future hold for Sharon Robinson? Any new projects? Will you continue to work as a producer, writer and solo artist? Or just focus on one role?

I’m very excited about the future right now. I plan to write and record another album, do more stuff with Leonard Cohen and, when time permits, get into a couple of projects I’ve got on the back burner. I can’t separate the different roles now. It’s all part of the same thing. This is the balancing act that is my life. And I’m definitely not complaining!

In one sentence, why should music fans rush out and buy or download Everybody Knows?

I tried to do something really honest and from the heart.

Sharon's album is available here - ... amp=211189

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