The line, "It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside," isn't only the opening of the Elton John classic "Your Song." It's how we feel finally landing an interview with keyboardist Kim Bullard after chasing him for the better part of five years. (We can't blame him, though, as he rarely has a day off)!
Show after show, Bullard coaxes legendary parts from his keyboards as a member of Elton John’s band. On a rare pause during Elton’s mammoth Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, Bullard talked to us about his nearly fifty year career in music, and what it means to accompany a musical legend.
I’ve interviewed a ton of keyboard players over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with such a diverse list of credits. From classic American acts like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Santana, Heart and Eddie Money, to artists as diverse as Nine Inch Nails, Megadeath, Carrie Underwood, Weird Al Yankovic, and of course, your current employer Elton John. All musicians hope to be flexible enough to cover lots of bases, but your discography suggests an elasticity that few players possess. Why do you think you’ve able to cover so much musical ground?
Survival, and continuing education. I left home early trying to survive by only playing music, so I said "Yes" to every opportunity that was in front of me, and I viewed what I learned by doing music jobs as my formal education. For example, in 1977, I had just come off my first tour playing keyboards for Crosby, Stills and Nash, and out of the blue, I got a call from Connie Stevens to work with her in Las Vegas. It was not in my wheelhouse at all, but I was honored to get the call. [Toto guitarist and founder] Steve Lukather had just played with her and it was challenging musically. I was afraid of it, but I knew I would learn a lot, so I took the gig. We would do events with Wayne Newton, Jerry Lewis and all the Vegas cats. It was entirely different from the "rock band" way of working that I was used to. There were complicated charts for everything and I had to get my reading together fast. I met great players, and I loved doing it. Connie ended up becoming family to me, so it was a good thing. I bring that up as an example of how I learned by doing.
When Karaoke first came to the U.S. from Japan, I worked for a music company that was trying to grab American market share, so we produced literally hundreds of titles. I was in a virtual assembly line, recreating hit records that people wanted to sing to. I would do drum programming and keyboard parts, and then someone else would add the guitars, mix, etc. There were a lot of diverse titles, so that gave me a wide musical vocabulary, as well as a great overall understanding of music arranging. I expanded that skill on the records I did with Al Yankovic. With Al, we deconstructed and reverse-engineered so many different records; from Michael Jackson to Coolio to Nine Inch Nails to Dire Straits, legit polka music and more. Both of those gigs were excellent continuing education, and gave me some of the elasticity you mention.
Can you talk about your background and how music factored into it?
The church, in general, had a big influence on me. I spent summers in a Baptist church in Selma, Alabama - the deep south Bible Belt, where my uncle was a preacher. Southern blues and gospel rubbed off on me, whether I wanted it to or not. My mom and her sister would sing in spontaneous harmonies, and as a little boy, the beauty of that really impacted me. How they could just find the right notes out of thin air? Because they grew up with only voices as instruments, they could do incredibly sweet things by just singing. When I was around five years old, I went to a department store with my mother that had an organ department. In those days, mothers let their kids run free, so I ended up by the organs, making little songs up by holding down the chords on the left-hand and playing melodies with my right-hand. She would always find me there, and when she saw that I was having fun doing that, she bought me a little Emenee organ, even though we didn’t have much money at the time. From that moment on, she got behind me playing music. She rented us a piano and started everyone on lessons. They say “To succeed, you only really need one person to believe in you,” and that person was my mother. I took piano lessons from the neighborhood teacher from age five until 10, but found them tedious so I quit taking lessons, but kept playing for fun. A few years later, my best friend put together a band and remembered I had taken piano lessons. He asked if I could join his band. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I had a paper route and had saved some money, so I said "yes." I bought a Farfisa organ and joined his band. That started the journey.
Tell us about some of your first gigs and the keyboards you used on them.
Well, I started with that grey Farfisa Mini Compact, then bought a combo compact (the red one), and stacked the Mini on top of it and made a double keyboard Farfisa. I don’t know why I did that; probably just because it looked cool. It was 1967 and if you were in a band, you had a combo organ and played songs like “Light My Fire”and “In A Gadda Da Vida” as well as soul music.
Moving into 1969, things started to shift. I heard Deep Purple, Yes, and then ELP, and they all had that Hammond organ sound. It was kind of magic, and I had to have it. I couldn’t afford a Hammond B-3, so I bought an M-3. And when I couldn’t get it loud enough with the Leslie that came with it, I bought a Marshall amp. With no internet, and very little sense, I spent a week electrocuting myself daily, but finally found a way to tap out of the Hammond and go straight into the amp. The sky opened! I was in heaven. I finally got that tone - that John Lord /Brian Auger sound. Then I borrowed a Fuzz Face stompbox from our guitar player, and it was epic. To touch a keyboard and have that sound was better than sex, and I was 14, so that says a lot! I eventually stacked a Wurly on top of the Hammond, plugged both right into the Marshall, and I was set!
Incidentally, when I was 15, I was doing a gig on the beach in Panama City Beach, Florida and the gear got flooded by a big storm, so I went back to Atlanta with my M-3 full of seawater. I washed it out with a garden hose when I got home and I let it dry for a few weeks, put some oil in it, plugged it in, and it fired right up. I loved that organ. The finish was ruined, so I sanded it down and painted it black. I shipped it out to Los Angeles when I moved there and I used it at clubs like the Whiskey, the Starwood and the Troubadour. Later in L.A. I eventually got a B-3, a Rhodes, and a Clavinet stack, with an original Mellotron and Minimoog off to the side.
What was the first gig you got that made you think, “I just may pull this off and make a living playing music?”
That happened early on. I was looking for freedom, and freedom to me meant earning money, so from the beginning, I needed to make money playing in a band. It was a different time. There were no DJ’s. If you had a party, you needed a band, so bands worked a lot. One of my pals in high school had a band that organized their whole scene like a business. They had their own truck, they had an incredible PA system, they had roadies, they had a rehearsal schedule, and they had fines if you didn’t show up. They were even all on salary, and this was in high school! I thought, “If they can do it, I can do it.” My brother John, who is a better musician than I am, helped me out a lot. We got an agent, and we worked most weekends and came back with a decent amount of cash. I ended up buying an old school bus that was painted “Partridge Family” hippie-style. Our roadie guys lived in it during the week, so we didn’t have to pay them to set up the gear. I kept my paper route, I worked as a cook, as a maid at a hotel, I had the band, and I went to high school. I was very enterprising. I had so much cash in my dresser drawer at one point that my mom thought I was doing something illegal! By the time I was 15, I was earning enough money to live on my own.
How did you keep the work coming?
While pulling out of a McDonald’s in Tucker, Georgia, I met a guy that had cool hair, smoked tons of dope, and lived in a treehouse on a dirt road. His name was Mike Friend and he became my friend. My encounter with him led me to a fully professional band that got a residency at a hardcore biker bar that was owned and operated by the Outlaws Motorcycle Club - the Hells Angels of the Midwest. This was up in Indianapolis. So I left school and went up there. I went from a suburban high schooler to living an outlaw kind of life. A lot of freaky things went on that sent me to therapy later. In that band were some of the members of the band the Swingin' Medallions. Speed had taken most of their teeth, but it was a 100 percent professional band. These guys had no safety net. Every gig was the most important show ever. You did it full on, no matter how many people were in the audience, because literally your life depended on it. That work ethic was a good lesson for me. We kicked ass every night. We had a superstar Mick Jagger/Steven Tyler-type singer, who was a wild man onstage. He was an incredibly sexy showman who also happened to be a Mormon priest. You can’t make this stuff up!
That singer ended up being signed by Frank Zappa’s manager. He moved to LA and took me with him. That changed everything. You grow up thinking life is a certain way, based on your experiences. When you step outside that world and see what you didn’t know existed, your whole world view can change. When I came to LA in the early 1970s, I was introduced to a whole new world. Recording studios everywhere, publishing companies, record companies, songwriters doing demos, people scoring films, etc. There was a vibrant, thriving, legitimate industry around music. In Georgia, musicians I knew were very counter-culture. They were hippies. Whereas in LA, my drummer’s father [jazz pianist and noted Chet Baker accompanist] Frank Strazzeri was a musician. He had a nice house, raised kids, had a pension, and worked in studios. This blew my mind. I didn’t know the full scope of what a musician could be until I came to LA. Seeing all that helped me commit to this idea of being a professional, working musician. It gave me something to grow into; a North Star to work towards.
Who were some of the people that were instrumental on keeping your career fertile and you in demand as a player and arranger?
My touring life began in the mid 1970s with the French singer Veronique Sanson, who made me her musical director and took me with her to France for a few years. After that, it was Stephen Stills. His belief in me changed my life. I owe him a lot. He, David [Crosby] and Graham [Nash] were very loyal to me. The early CSN days were incredible. This was back when music meant something. CSN not only reflected the times, they were a part of the times. Their music had cultural relevance; they carried a message to a generation. It was special to be a part of that. Joe Vitale, Chocolate Perry and I were the band behind the three guys on my first few tours, and we went to new places with the music every night. We played outside of our skin. Stephen, Graham and David under-rehearsed intentionally because they wanted unexpected things to happen on stage, and they did. Those three guys were absolutely amazing back then. It was a true supergroup that deserved to be the most popular band in America at the time. The 1970s with Crosby, Stills, and Nash was a great slice of rock and roll heaven.
Craig Doerge and Mike Finnigan from that camp were early mentors and friends, and still are. Craig brought me into Art Garfunkel, who I toured with for years. For studio work, Paul DeVilliers was a mentor. He's a gifted producer and engineer who, unfortunately for the record business, retired from it quite early. For me, he was the Leonardo da Vinci of ‘80s music. We did a lot of things together, including the band Yes. Being a keyboard guy and working with Yes gave me a stamp of approval that made it easier for other people to hire me.
There were many other people. I came up with Joe Chicarelli, who has been a friend and mentor forever, I worked a lot with Ron Nevison and Richie Zito in my early “session” days. I met Chris Lord Alge when he came to L.A., and he's been a good friend ever since. Studio musician friends like Gregg Bissonette and Tim Pierce helped a lot too. I can trace more than half of all my session work to recommendations from Tim or Gregg. Julian Raymond became a close friend, still is, and connected me with many projects. He signed an artist on my production company roster to Hollywood Records. I did a lot of stuff with Ted Templeman, who was always helpful. Then it was George Drakoulias and Dave Bianco, who connected me to Rick Rubin. A very special guy named Tal Hetzberg introduced me to Howard Benson, who I did many projects with Howard. Robert Irving, Michael Boddiker, and Brett Tuggle have all recommended me for things. And all throughout, I've had a really fruitful production career in Japan as well, through Susan Goode and "The Goddess of Japanese Rock," Ann Lewis. There are a lot of other people that helped me along. It’s a people business, and I am really grateful to my friends for looking out for me.
Many of your credits list you under “keyboards and programming.” How were you introduced to synths and recording technology?
“Keyboards and programming” is an early days misnomer. It could mean a lot of different things, including arranging and maybe even co-producing the whole thing. You did some drum beats, put some arrangement ideas together, created some signature lines, made things sound groovy, creating a full production that you could mix and release, and it all got lumped under "programming." These days, it's called "doing the beat," and guys get songwriting credit for that. In terms of synths and technology, when I bought my first synth, an ARP Odyssey, I bought a book the same day called “Understanding Synthesis” or something like that. I read it cover to cover which brought me a solid understanding theoretically of what was going on in sound synthesis; what a filter was, what an oscillator was, what the voltages were doing, all of that. I used everything I learned from that book, and still use it today, even looking at soft synths.
In terms of recording, I was in the band Poco, which self-produced some records, so I got some exposure there, but it mostly stemmed out of my keyboard work for other people. I would have a sound on my Roland Jupiter-8 that sounded amazing in one session, like a pad that had the perfect amount of "zing" in it, and it would fit perfectly in the track. I’d save it, go to the next session, use the same patch on a similar song, and it wouldn’t work at all. Why? What was the engineer doing on that first session when it sounded good? I wanted to know, so I started asking people like Keith Olssen, Trevor Rabin, Ron Nevison, Elliot Shiner, Joe Chicarelli and others to show me what they were doing, and they would. In addition to that, they would show me how to get good vocal sounds, how they got the drum sound on that Led Zeppelin record they recorded, why they used that particular limiter on that Who record. Or on Fleetwood Mac, what reverb plate was on the vocals. I think that because I was a keyboard player, not another engineer, these guys were happy to share their knowledge. Short answer, I got into recording technology by asking a lot of questions about how to make my stuff sound cool.
You must have realized early on that knowing your way around gear as well as music would be an important calling card.
Absolutely. I was always keen to bring value to what I did, because I wanted to keep working. While I had a certain value as a player, I knew that I had more value as a player who also engineered, programmed cool sounds, did vocal and string arrangements, edited and tuned vocals, had a great studio, and did production stuff. I liken it to the guy who is in the band because he owns the van and the PA! In my session days, besides playing, syncing stuff up, making sure sequencers were locked with analog tape decks, stuff like that, was all part of the job, too. Early on, I was really into synthesizers, which in general were mysterious to people, and required professionals, so I got work for knowing gear in addition to being a player. No one knew this better or capitalized on it better than Michael Boddiker. I met him shortly after he moved to L.A. and we have been friends ever since. He was gracious enough to always pick up the phone if I had a question (e.g. hours spent on pulse width modulation for the perfect string sound), and would kindly recommend me every now and then for things he couldn’t do.
I remember you talking online about your early rig with the band Poco that consisted of a Prophet-5, a Minimoog and a Yamaha CP-70 electric grand. My condolences to that roadie!
Oh yeah, I did love my Prophet-5. I had all kinds of modifications done to it. Incidentally, Dave Smith is still making fantastic gear. I also had a Yamaha CS-80 with Poco, at the beginning. Yeah, poor roadie, indeed. Sorry, Terry!
What were some of your other favorite pieces of gear back then?
There was an inventor named Bill Beer who, according to legend, made a fortune designing tools for oil and gas exploration. After that, he designed unique modifications for Hammond organs through his company Keyboard Products, but scratched the identification marks off the parts he used to prevent reverse-engineering. To this day, no one knows exactly what he did, and he has been dead for a long time, so few people can really service his stuff. But the organs he modified sounded really cool. My friend Jimmy Greenspoon, rest in peace, used one with Three Dog Night. I still have my Hammond C-3 from the old days, which is a Bill Beer modification. It has extreme percussion that you can put on any and every drawbar (normal Hammond percussion is only on two drawbars, that you have to use separately, second or third), it had a ring modulator and a percussion repeater, so it could sound like a sequencer going on top of a pad. And it had a form of distortion. That organ is a beast. I need to immortalize it with some kind of sample pack.
You’ve spoken numerous times about the art form of playing in a band - embracing what it means to lift other people up. Can you talk about that concept of playing not for attention but for musical elevation?
A good band is greater than the sum of its parts. Humility and generosity are required. When I was a kid, The Allman Brothers did free shows at Piedmont Park in Atlanta on Sunday afternoons. They would lock into these grooves where everyone was elevating each other. That has always been the magic for me. It’s not five guys being flashy, it's about being part of a family, a team. Everything in life gets better when you aren't in it just for yourself. When you have a superstar in front of you, and you are in a band that focuses their collective energy, intention, and musical power on that star so he or she can shine brighter, the superstar’s glow bounces back on you and creates a positive feedback loop. Everyone gets better. This is what I love to do, to play with the intention of making everybody else sound good, while always being ready to shred if needed.
Let’s talk about Elton John. You stepped into that gig after the untimely death of his longtime keyboardist Guy Babylon.
Touring organizations turn into big families, and this family had experienced a major trauma when Guy passed. I was honored to help out, and I was happy to be playing with such a great band, but not happy about why I was there, so I approached it more as a service position. [Guitarist] Davey Johnstone is our bandleader, and we rehearsed together in LA, so I only met Elton in Moscow at our first gig. He called the band and crew into his dressing room to address everyone because of Guy’s passing. What he said was really beautiful. So straight away, I got to see how he cares deeply about the people around him. Without ever meeting me before, and without ever playing a note with me, he wrapped up his talk by welcoming me, in front of everyone, with a big vote of confidence. They say it’s the small things that matter, and that really mattered to me. That showed me how big-hearted and generous he is. So yeah, I wanted to play the classic string parts, to make music with this great band and all of that, but after that simple exchange, I really wanted to do great for him, personally. I really wanted to win, for him.
What was your first gig with Elton like? It must have been surreal covering 50 years of legendary keyboard and orchestral parts with your two hands.
That's a good word for it. To be touching the keys, playing Paul Buckmaster’s string parts, while Elton John sang “Tiny Dancer” in front of me to 15,000 people in Moscow was surreal, and terrifying. It's one thing to rehearse, and a whole another thing to deliver under pressure. You have to hold your nerve, not let fear and emotions take over. You still feel it, but you have to manage it. Being able to do that is a whole separate talent. It was unnerving because every song is one of the most famous songs in history, everyone knows the parts, so the expectation is pretty high. It's classic rock. I didn’t want to be the guy who screwed up "The Bitch is Back!"
What is a gig with Elton like?
Its so much fun! There are no backing tracks, no clicks, or anything like that. It's very much a live show. Elton plays differently every night, as we all do. Seriously, we have done 150 shows so far on this particular tour, and he has never played the rhythm on "Take Me to the Pilot" the same way twice. I didn't know there were 150 different ways to play it! There are quite a few songs that we get to stretch-out on, so that keeps everyone on their toes. I listen to Elton’s piano really loud in my earpieces. His energy, feel, and dynamics inform me of everything I need to know. Like any champion, Elton elevates everyone around him. He brings it, 100 percent, all the time, at every show. He expects you to be great, to nail it, so you do.
What’s it like to perform such a legendary song catalog night after night?
It's amazing. There is always a relationship between an audience and a performer, but with an artist like Elton, that relationship is a long-term one, and it's very personal. All of these songs have so much meaning to people. When they see him perform, they are watching a movie of their lives. And when you see the looks on their faces, it is what I imagine a heavenly experience looks like. This tour is especially poignant because he is coming to all these places specifically to say "Goodbye." He gets choked-up, the audience gets choked-up, and there is a lot of love exchanged. Being privy to that every night is a special place to be.
I saw your show with him last year at Madison Square Garden in New York City and Elton was playing more piano than I had ever seen or heard him do. He just keeps getting better.
You’re right. He's on fire. I think it’s because he is still so passionate about it. People may think of Elton as an icon, which of course he is, but above all, he is a musician. As you can see in the movie "Rocketman," he has a deep, special relationship with music. It really has been his best friend for his entire life. He makes time to do a weekly radio show. He doesn’t have to do that, but you make time for the things you love. We listen to records together sometimes, and he just lights up when something is great. It's incredible to share the excitement and joy that he experiences when he listens to good music.
[Editor's Note: For details on Kim Bullard's keyboard rig with Elton John, read our companion piece at MusicRadar]
With your 40 plus years of playing, programming, producing and performing, can we look forward to a solo release from you down the road?
That would be cool to do one day, for sure. But I have such a good time being the guy that helps others, I’m not sure when I will get to that.
What’s left on the horizon that you still want to do musically?
I just finished a Broadway musical with Elton entitled The Devil Wears Prada, where I helped out with some of the conceptualizing of the songs and arrangements. It came out great and we had a ball doing it. That kind of writing, for a specific purpose, is such a delicious puzzle. I will be doing more of that, for sure, along with more film work. I am also helping [singer and songwriter] Katy Rose with some of her new releases right now. Check her out at katyrosemusic.com. I’m really pleased with the way that stuff is coming out.Incidentally, if people want to stay in touch with me, they can find me at kimbullardmusic.com.
What are you listening to these days?
I bounce around, like the kids do, mostly listening to individual tracks, not full albums. The last album I sat and listened to top to bottom was My Funny Valentine by Miles Davis. It’s a live record. Herbie [Hancock] was only 23 years old. Miles destroyed the vibe of the band before the show by telling them that he donated their pay to charity, that they were not getting paid, and he actually did it! He didn’t pay them. I think that’s hilarious. They were all pissed-off, and thought the show sucked. The up-tempo songs were unsettled, but when the label assembled My Funny Valentine, they only used the slow songs, and those songs were absolutely some of the best live recordings ever. The band had to perform sad, beautiful songs while they were actually quite pissed-off, and you can feel the tension between anger and sadness. There are lots of kids who can bang together a bunch of stuff in Apple Logic and make it sound good, and I like that too, but when music is played live, and transcendence happens, there is nothing like that. It changes the air in the room and changes your body chemistry to listen to it. That album really captured something special.
Tell us about some of the gear you couldn’t live without.
My Hammond C-3 organ modified by Bill Beer, my black face Universal Audio 1176 compressor, my Neve 1073 preamps, my vintage Telefunken chrome top U47 microphone, my Wurlitzer 140b electric piano, my Sequential/Dave Smith Prophet-6 synth, and my MacBook Pro computer. I know, readers don’t want to hear about a freaking laptop, but I make a lot of music with that sucker!
If a young artist came up to you to ask for your advice in this changing musical climate, what would you tell him or her?
I always say music chooses you, you don’t choose it. So if you are constantly excited about music, if it stirs something in you that you don’t get anywhere else, if you have no other choice, put in your 10,000 hours, and get great at what you do. Remember you are always planting seeds, so plant good ones. It’s a people business, so be a good person. Be a person people can trust. Be memorable. Be professional. Be more concerned with bringing value to something than asking, "What am I getting out of this?” You have to get paid, of course, but the relationship is always more important than the money. Go out of your way to help your friends succeed, then be truly happy for them. And lastly, keep doing it. When I’m not touring, I play with a Journey cover band at the Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas, CA. I work with whoever I am lucky enough to get a call from. Have a big “YES” over your head. Show up. Put that same excitement that you feel about music into everything you do. Passion is contagious. It's how the magic happens.