A Conversation With The Babys’ John Bisaha
One of my all-time favorite classic rock bands is The Babys. Well, I’ve got good news! The Babys are back with a new lineup and a new album – I’ll Have Some Of That! – which features some killer material that all classic rock fans must check out.
The lead singer of The Babys, John Bisaha, was kind enough to speak with me about his interesting musical journey, including his influences, what it was like auditioning to be The Babys’ new lead vocalist and how he used to hang out with Karen Carpenter as a kid. It’s a great interview and I think you’re going to really enjoy it.
How long have you been a musician?
I’ve been a musician or at least a vocalist since I was a kid. I started out doing jingles for a.m. radio stations back in the day. Then joined all the local glee clubs and all that stuff. Then joined the local rock bands, did some musical theater, and toured with the group called The Young Americans back in the day. Then I started developing my voice and fronting bands for the better part of half of my life (laughs).
How did the California – or New York – music scene influence your work as an artist?
Well, being from New York, there was a lot of street-corner doo-wop. I was born on an bread on a few things: Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Smokey Robinson, a lot of Motown, The Spinners, The Four Tops – so I had a lot of soul, R&B and Motown in the house…with a lot of 50s thrown into it. Through that I was able to develop my voice. There’s no better teacher than Frankie Valli for learning how to sing falsetto, and from there I graduated to the Bee Gees and what have you. So my early days were dominated by Frankie Valli, Motown and even a little bit of The Carpenters.
I was in a sports organization starting in second grade and one of the kids on my team lived right next door to one of the three houses The Carpenters had in the cul-de-sac there in Downey. His family was pretty well-off (laughs) and the whole team would go over for these parties and hang out The Carpenters’ house, and that’s where I really think I got my buzz. I’d sit down and Karen and Richard were really cool. Karen noticed that I could sing and we’d sing a little bit and she was just a great lady – he was pretty cool too – but she was pretty special, she was just a nice lady.
Wow, that must’ve been pretty special to have a mentor like that to help you hone your craft.
When you have someone of that caliber tell you that you can sing, it makes you say, “Wow!” And I knew early on that I have the ability to carry a tune, but she was just it. We had all the albums, and to be able to meet her and sing with her a bit was just very, very cool. And when she told me, “you should stick with this,” that really stayed with me.
Prior to joining The Babys, what was your proudest accomplishment?
Back in the 80s and early 90s before grunge took over the scene, I had a couple bands and we’d perform on the Sunset Strip virtually every Friday or Saturday night for years – it was a great time for rock ‘n roll. That’s when Motley Crue, Metallica and Poison were coming out and doing their thing. Ratt was pretty big, Guns N’ Roses was pretty big then. So, we all went through Sunset Strip, through all the different clubs; and I guess when it comes to having a crowning achievement, I had a few independent record deals.
Then the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim became a hockey team and I became the voice of the Ducks, that was fun. I was able to do the soundtrack with them, did a bunch of Disney things with them for a while. That was nice because that was when rock died a little bit and everything else was taking over.
And then for 10 years I dabbled in doing a lot of musical theater stuff, including off-Broadway productions and working with some touring companies, including Jesus Christ Superstar. Then a friend of mine who was in one of the shows with me, started penning a rock opera called Destiny Faire. It was a 10-year labor of love and we got that thing up on its feet, did a couple of shows with it and had a good time.But I was waiting for the time when the cyclical nature of the music business would shift and rock and roll would come back.
About five years ago, I was watching American Idol with my wife – it was a great show before The Voice came out…but knowing the chops that I had and that my friend still had made it kind of depressing to know that we were too old to be American Idols. My wife said, “If you’re getting this itch, then you better go ahead and start yourself something.” So I went ahead and got a bunch of friends together – a bunch of great musicians – and created what essentially was a family affair. We called it BISAHA. I had my wife singing background harmonies, playing the rhythm guitar and acoustic guitar and singing. My daughter was singing background, and the four of us had been singing since basically the kids were out of the womb so we had some really tight stuff going on. We were doing a bunch of opening acts for Barenaked Ladies and Tom Morello; we opened for Roger Hodgson and Foreigner at a couple festivals – we had a good time with it.
About two years ago, I got a call from a good friend of mine. He said, “I know you’re doing your own thing, but I’ve got a good opportunity for you.” I said, “All right. Hit me, what is it?” He goes, “Well I’ve got somebody who is really looking for a lead singer.” I said, “OK. I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now but I’d really be interested if it was the 70s or 80s band looking to put out a new vocalist.” Then the guy said, “Yeah, let’s talk about it.” And he started playing the name game with me.
He said, “How about Ricky Phillips?” I said, “OK, he’s in STYX.” I had just seen Ricky with the band and several years ago they had gotten Lawrence Gowen to replace Dennis DeYoung and Tommy is still killing it, so they don’t need a lead singer. So I know it’s not them. Then he goes, “Jonathan Cain.” And I go, “Well, all right, Bad English.” Then I said, “You said 70s and 80s, right? Are you telling me Tony Brock is in the band and Wally Stocker?” And he went, “Yep.” I said, “All right, you need to get me an audition for this.”
I loved The Babys. When Broken Heart came out, that was it for me. I got caught hook, line and sinker. I patterned my music off The Babys. It was a match made in heaven for me.
What was Tony and Wally’s prior knowledge of you before you came in to audition?
I don’t think they had much prior knowledge of what I’d done.
In August 2012, John Waite publicly stated that he wasn’t interested in a Babys reunion and he gave the guys his blessing to find a new lead singer and rock. In early September, I got the phone call to audition. I went out and met Tony and we started a three-month audition process. Tony told me they were around the block when they started, and by the time they got to me they were down to five or 10 people. It was myself and two or three others that really battled it out for about two or three months.
When we first started out they said, “You need to sound as close to John [Waite] as possible, to be able to do the inflections of John; you need to embody that vibe for at least the hits. The people are going to expect that when you sing ‘Isn’t It Time’ and Every Time I Think Of You.’” So most of the three months of auditions was spent on breath control where I could be almost like Arnel is to Steve Perry in Journey.
For me, it was important for me to be able to get to that point and show that I had the ability to do that since I’d been singing Babys’ tunes for a long time. It was really important for me to add my own flavor to it and I think we got there, especially in concert. I have an edge to my voice. I have a clean voice but I have an edgy component to it. I sing 90+ percent, note for note, what John is singing. I may not be singing the same inflections but melodically I’m singing true to those lines because that’s what people expect and I want to deliver that for them. But I deliver that with some of John and some of me.
Some music fans are original or classic lineup purists and they can’t accept bands any other way. Whether it be KISS, Journey or The Babys, some people just can’t enjoy the band they once loved with a new or modified lineup. How do you overcome this challenge as the new lead singer for The Babys?
I totally understand the purists. Without John, without Jonathan…others would say without Michael Corby – there were two renditions of the band, and now we’re onto our third. And some people think without this person or that person, it’s not the band. For me, it almost supersedes the bodies. It’s like the name of your team on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back. For me, it’s all about the music. You never give up your persistence and you just make it happen.
You introduced the new version of The Babys with the single “Not Ready To Say Goodbye.” It was well received by the public and John Waite gave it his stamp of approval. What was the experience like of going into the studio with the guys to record this track?
We brought Joey Sykes in to help write. He wasn’t part of the band at the time but he brought the song in just as someone coming in to help out with the writing and we started hashing it out. We knew Tony was going to produce the song. In my mind it was already a hit and we knew we needed to channel something that The Babys purists were going to like based on those two Top 10 hits. I think we got pretty close.
We only had Wally in for a weekend – he was living in Florida at that time. So we red-eyed him in, got him introduced to the song and the next day he did his parts and the lead and flew out the day after. By the time we had Wally on the song, that’s when it really came alive and we found that we had something special.
You had a Pledge Music campaign for your new album. What was that like and what was the inspiration for it?
There had been a bunch of Kickstarter and similar campaigns out there. And coming back, it’s a different ball game out there today. We announced that we were coming back and we released “Not Ready” and put it out there to a bunch of labels, and pretty much every label came back to us with a great review and said, “That’s great. Where’s the rest of the record? We’d love to distribute this and put you on the label.”
We knew Tony had a studio and we knew that no one was going to lay out he cash for us to get this thing done. Likewise, Tony’s business when he’s not in The Babys, is running a studio. So, when The Babys are in his studio that’s knocking out paying clients. We were trying to find a way to spearhead the campaign where he’s not losing dollars and the studio’s not losing dollars and there’s a lot of other things we brought in. We brought in a lot of musicians to be able to do this. We had string ensembles and horn players, and other players that came in and did stuff – just a bunch of people that we brought in, so there was that.
And at one point we were toying around with Ron Nevison producing this so we knew we needed to get some cash. So that’s why the Pledge campaign came around. At the end of the day, the record cost us a nice chunk of change and none of us had that lying around. So, it greatly helped us out in getting a few things done, including merchandise and shipping. And for fans it was cool for them to have their skin in the game and see their names in print. It was pretty cool. It was why we did the campaign and it was successful and helped us accomplish what we needed to do.
Do you guys plan on hitting the road soon, and will you be coming to the East Coast?
We definitely want to get out there and play. I think The Babys have a strong pull in the East Coast. I’m from New York, even though I live in California, and my wife is from just outside of South Jersey. And The Babys were huge out there. We have a large following out there and in the West. I see a smattering across the country, but a lot in the East. So, we’d love to get out there. We’re definitely looking to do that.
Prior to getting out on a tour, we’ve got a couple agencies looking into getting us some one-offs. I think the easiest way for us to get out there is for us to open up for somebody. Go do an opening for Cheap Trick or Styx, if they’ve got an open slot, or Journey or Alice Cooper. If we can get out on TV, that would be cool. I think we’re still the world’s best kept secret. It’s like a 30-year-old startup again. But once we get out in front of people and they know that we’re back, that’s it. We’ll pick up where we left off years ago.