“Every record we made came with pressure from the record company, and it always felt like we were chasing our tails to deliver a hit single. Then from out of nowhere we did that with To Be With You… and things only got worse. The success of that song came as a gigantic blessing, but it was also a curse, because each time they said: ‘We want that next To Be With You, and we just couldn’t do it.”
Talking to Classic Rock, Mr. Big’s chatterbox frontman Eric Martin is mentally reeling back the three decades since his group’s second album, Lean Into It. The early 90s was a memorable era for hard rock, and with the right look, some decent stylists and the patronage of MTV even an average band was capable of shifting a million copies of a record, sometimes even two or three.
Mr. Big’s self-titled debut, released in 1989, had ticked most but not all of those boxes. As well as having Journey’s producer Kevin Elson working with them, the quartet – completed by former Racer X guitar shredder Paul Gilbert, ex-David Lee Roth/Talas bassist Billy Sheehan, and drummer Pat Torpey who had played with Robert Plant and Ted Nugent – were signed to Atlantic Records and boasted a heavyweight manager, Herbie Herbert (another Journey connection), to match those undeniable credentials.
Nevertheless, Mr. Big had peaked at No.46 in the USA, selling a creditable quarter of a million. Back in 1991, an irritated Sheehan told me: “We sell 250,000 copies, and we see corporate record labels draw some guys together who have amazing make-up and hair, they use samples on stage, and they sell five million records. I can’t say that doesn’t rub me up the wrong way.”
“I still feel just the same,” he says today, smiling. “And we still don’t use any samples.”
He’s right. Mr. Big are having the last laugh. While many of those rival acts are long gone, a healthy demand for product featuring Messrs Martin, Sheehan and Gilbert still remains (Pat Torpey, who developed Parkinson’s, died in 2018).
After Mr. Big’s self-titled debut stalled just inside the Billboard Top 50, Atlantic made it very clear that with their second they needed to do better.
“We were lucky to have one of the very best managers in the business in Herbie Herbert to buffer us from those demands,” Billy Sheehan reflects. “Herbie was right in there and fighting for us – sometimes literally.”
However, the fact remains that with their muso reputations and Martin’s soulful vocal delivery, Mr. Big stood out from the pack, musically if not visually. With a self-effacing laugh, Martin chews over the band’s image ‘problem’.
“Back then, everybody in the band had long hair but none of us were prepared to wear make-up,” he says with a smile. “Maybe we were too ugly to be pin-ups. But you know what? We kinda liked our ugliness.”
Given their respective backgrounds, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that Mr. Big had had to deal with the ‘supergroup’ tag.
“At first we thought it was cool, like being acknowledged as the best of the best, though it brought some baggage,” Martin says. “Herbie Herbert was our Svengali and mentor, but we wrote those records completely for ourselves. We really were not trying to chase a trend.”
In stark contrast to so many of the bands they were up against, the Mr. Big line-up had been pieced together in an organic way.
“I got a call from [producer and Shrapnel Records founder] Mike Varney,” recalls Martin, who just before joining Mr. Big was struggling to break through with a soulful direction, despite a major-label deal with Capitol. “I was down in the dumps because it looked like I was going to be dropped – again.”
Although Varney, whose Shrapnel Records label was a home for muso-friendly players, didn’t come clean straight away, Sheehan was silently monitoring their conversation.
“Mike told me to pick a team, to be rock or to be soul,” Martin says. “I really didn’t know what I was doing. I liked the records I made, but nobody else did. So he put his friend Billy Sheehan on the line to discuss my joining this band. And although I had seen him in the [David Lee Roth] Yankee Rose video I didn’t know who he was.”
Billy Idol’s guitarist Steve Stevens and drummer Gregg Bissonette, also of David Lee Roth’s band, were both early members before the arrival of Gilbert and Torpey, but finally the Mr. Big sound – blues-infused yet distinctly hummable arena rock, backed by impeccable technical skills and topped off by a voice that Billboard once hailed as “a cross between Gladys Knight and Paul Rodgers” – was established.
“I was still fairly new to the world of rock music,” Martin admits now. “I felt like a bit of a chameleon. I didn’t want to just sing corporate rock. If we were going to do that I would always add my little-devil soul shit. The guys would say: ‘Hey, Otis Redding, do you want to dumb that down a little?’”
Preparing for their second album, which would eventually be titled Lean Into It, the band knew they had to up their game.
“Our first album had been written in about eight days,” Martin reflects. “It was a good freshman effort, if you like. But with the second one we put a lot more energy and time into the writing.”
To avoid the commute from San Francisco or living in a hotel, Martin stayed at Paul Gilbert’s place in “a shitty, fucked-up, crime-ridden area” of Los Angeles.
“I brought along a gym bag full of cassettes,” Martin remembers. One of theme included the acoustic ballad that would change everything for Mr. Big. “I still remember playing Paul a demo of To Be With You, which he really liked. I had written it many years earlier about a girl I knew who was always looking for her knight in shining armour.”
Martin recalls that another song that set Mr. Big on the right path with their second album was the psychedelia-tinged Green Tinted Sixties Mind.
“Paul Gilbert really branched out with that one, it was really left-field for us,” he offers. “When he brought that one in, oh man, the gates were well and truly open.”
Martin had “really clicked” with a writer called André Pessis, who had delivered smashes for Bonnie Raitt, Europe and Huey Lewis, and together the pair cooked up four of the songs on Lean Into It, including two of its hits.
Although Gilbert had conceived the riff that drove one of them, the swaggering anthem Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song), Sheehan stepped in to carry it forward, and producer Kevin Elson’s crucial request for a rewrite transformed it into something special. Martin wrote the words not about himself, but in honour of his bass player’s standing as something of a lothario.
“I wasn’t promiscuous back then; I was always married or in a relationship,” the singer says with a chuckle. “Those lyrics – ‘If you’re a red-hot fire cracker, I will light your fuse’, and the part about doing ‘the horizontal mile’ – came from Billy’s vernacular. I don’t want to embarrass him, because since then he’s met the love of his life, but back then he was Lord Byron. The guy had a girl in every port.”
After a journalist had asked Gilbert how fast he could play, he had been moved to tape a plectrum to an electric hand drill, which he then applied to the guitar strings. The idea of transforming it into a song, and then into a part of the live show, started out as a joke, says Sheehan, who did likewise with his bass.
“In the end we got an endorsement from the Makita power drill company,” Sheehan says. “Herbie called them up, they asked how much we wanted as a fee, and when he replied “One million dollars” they actually agreed. True story.”
To the band’s chagrin, it was Atlantic Records who added the suffix of ‘(The Electric Drill Song)’ to the title Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy. “It detracted from the novelty of the real title,” Martin sighs. “You want more sugar to the sugar?” The singer is also furious that the label kept ‘CDFF’, an acronym for ‘Compact Disc fast forward’, in the title of CDFF–Lucky This Time, a Jeff Paris tune they covered for the record. “Why the fuck is that there?” he fumes.
On the road, Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song) became a highlight of the band’s concerts, with Gilbert and Sheehan delighting audiences when they got the drills out. But then one night it all went wrong when the guitarist got his hair caught in the power tool…
“We were playing to twenty thousand people in Atlanta opening for Rush,” says Martin, struggling to stifle a grin. “I was behind the amps, and when we came to that part of the song, I heard ‘diddle, diddle, diddle…’ and it stopped. Then the crowd burst out laughing. Paul was running across the stage like a chicken with its head cut off.”
“One of the crew guys hit the ‘reverse’ button [on the drill], and although Paul’s hair unzipped, it got caught in the other direction,” Sheehan adds. Incredibly, the same thing happened again in Atlanta on their next tour. “Paul decided to wear a wig and recreate that scene as a joke,” Martin says. “Only the drill caught his real hair from beneath the wig. Oh, dude, that was a good Mr. Big laugh.”
The band were playing at Finky’s, “a shitty club in Daytona Beach, Florida”, when To Be With You went to No.1 in the US. Suddenly it seemed like everybody knew Eric Martin’s name.
“Until that point none of the fans knew who I was,” he recalls. “After a show people would ask me to go backstage and get Billy and Paul’s autographs. I swear to God. They’d ask: ‘When is the singer coming out?’ and I’d reply: ‘I’m right here!’ Then To Be With You happened, and the devil inside me went: ‘Hey-y-y-y’.”
“Being Number One was a life-changing moment. I wish everyone could experience that feeling at least once,” Sheehan says with a grin. “To this day we still feel the effects of that point in our lives. Wherever we go in the world, somebody knows us thanks to that song.”
Mr. Big never managed to top the charts again, and in 1999 Paul Gilbert quit. After two albums made with his replacement Richie Kotzen, in February 2002 they disbanded in fairly acrimonious circumstances.
Although the original line-up reunited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their debut, and went on to release a further three records, following the loss of Torpey their current status as a band is uncertain. The three surviving members all have solo careers or are members of other bands. Sheehan, who plays in Sons Of Apollo, is talking to Classic Rock from the writing sessions for a third album from the Winery Dogs. Martin, having spoken the loudest about calling it a day following tours with Matt Starr on drums, is past the grieving stage and open to the idea of making another Mr. Big record.
“Fuck yeah, I would do that in a heartbeat,” he enthuses. “I had this idea of using all of the drummers that Pat liked – the guy from Korn [Ray Luzier], Gregg Bissonette [ex-David Lee Roth], Matt Sorum [Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver] – a different one on each song, though Billy and Paul told me I had lost my mind. I thought that Matt Starr did a great job with Mr. Big, but without Pat, who was the anchor of the band, I’m not so sure about touring again.”
“I would like for us to go out and tell stories and play songs, without a drummer,” Sheehan concludes. “That could be a pretty good evening, I think.”
The 30th-anniversary edition of Lean Into It is available now via EVOXS.