Tonio K

by Dan MacIntosh

The great actress Gena Rowlands once said that the most wonderful thing about acting is the chance to live so many lives. The singer/songwriter Tonio K (Steve Krikorian on his credits) might say the same thing. As an artist, he's lived so many lives, the domestic cat world is dangerously jealous.

He signed his first record contract at 16, and while still a young man, was a kind of honorary Cricket (you know, Buddy Holly's backing band). In fact, he stays close to the Crickets to this day. These are just two of his lives, however.

In the '70s, he recorded some fantastic, sarcastic, socio/political songs on the albums Amerika (Cars, Guitars and Teenage Violence) and Life in the Foodchain. Elvis Costello got all the press for being an "angry young man," but Tonio K may have been even angrier at the time. Now there was a memorable life!

By the time the '80s came along, this angry young man began to mix songs of spiritual faith with his bitter venting, and even played a few Christian music festivals supporting Romeo Unchained and Notes From The Lost Civilization. The song "Romeo Loves Jane," with its highly improbable love story, found "Shakespeare and Cheetah crying in their margaritas." It garnered significant airplay on Alternative Rock stations alongside Oingo Boingo and The Fixx. An unlikely life, indeed.

In between and during these sundry lives, Tonio K has always been a successful songwriter. Artists as varied as Steve Jones (the Sex Pistols) and Al Green have covered his songs. He even collaborated on music with Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach and Dr. Dre, which was such an unusual life event, he needed to take a camera to the session to document it.

Such are the days of Tonio K's lives.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I wanted to start by asking you about The Rake's Progress project.

Tonio K: That's the first record I ever made. That was my teenage band in high school; we got signed to Liberty Records as 16 year olds and made one single that came out on Liberty in the summer of 1967.

Songfacts: How do you feel about that kind of a coming out?

Tonio: It came out a few years ago, maybe five years ago. There's a label that you're probably aware of that's run by Bob Irwin, the guy who runs the Columbia/Epic/Sony archive out of a studio in New York. He's the guy responsible for finding and compiling and remastering everything from Bob Dylan records on vinyl to Big Brother and the Holding Company to The Byrds. But he owns his own label, Sundazed Records, that specializes in circa '60s psychedelia and soul music that's purer - whatever he can get his hands on that the majors, for one reason or another, will let out.

They bought some tapes somewhere in the last 10 years or however long it's been, and somebody from there was beginning to write the liner notes and then called me up, got a hold of me somehow. And I said, "Whoa, wait a minute here. What do you? And where did you get this stuff?" There was a bunch of live recordings of that band, The Rake's Progress, session recordings, board tapes, so on, nothing that I owned. I said, "Well, if you're going to do that, let's at least do the real thing." And they said, "Okay. Have you got anything?" And I said, "Yeah. I have studio recordings we did in a garage studio with the drummer's father somewhere in California in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the '60s." So that's what that is. They were going to put it out with or without my input, so at least I could approve of and provide some of what they put out.

My favorite part of that record are the main liner notes, which I wound up writing, which are pretty funny - you should get a copy of that.

Songfacts: When are we going to hear some new Tonio K solo recordings?

Tonio: Oh, I have no plan. Don't know. I just wrote something new with Robert Randolph a few weeks ago and that may or may not come out on his next record. There's stuff on other people's records that I've been involved with, but I haven't made a record and don't really have a plan to make a record at all.

Songfacts: I'm disappointed to hear that.

Tonio: Well, I thought about it. One thing I would really like to do, and he and I have talked about it: my friend and mentor, J.I. Allison of the Crickets, those guys are 10 or more years older than me and really were my mentors when I was in my early 20s, because I was in that band for a couple of years, which you probably knew about.

Songfacts: I did, yes.

Tonio K has a special relationship with The Crickets, formerly Buddy Holly's backing band. He tracked two albums with founding members J.I. Allison and Sonny Curtis at the beginning of the 1970s. Additional musicians on these sessions also included Ric Grech of Blind Faith and Traffic, and guitarist-for-hire, Albert Lee. Later, Tonio contributed to the 2004 Crickets reunion album, The Crickets and Their Buddies, the "buddies" including Eric Clapton and Graham Nash.
Tonio: Maybe once a year stay with J.I. on the farm in Tennessee and hang out for a week or so. We've talked about doing a sort of Tonio K and the Crickets or just the Crickets - we don't know what we would call it. We've talked about doing a record, but that would require more work than any of us are willing to put in right now. Just way too much trouble. His studio, which is a great studio, would need to be tuned up and fired up.

Songfacts: Well, I'd like to talk about some of your songs. My favorite song is one that you recorded on What? Records, which was the one you wrote, "You Will Go Free." I've always loved that song and wondered, was that written about anybody in particular?

Tonio: It was written about my at the time girlfriend, and then wife, and then double ex-wife. We've been married and divorced from each other twice. So, Linda. It's never exactly "dear diary" and that specific, but yeah, it was inspired by her at the time.

Songfacts: Such a wonderful song. Do you remember the experience of writing it?

Tonio: Oh, yeah. I remember a couch in the living room of my place out by Topanga Canyon and, yeah, you know.

Songfacts: Did she like the song?

Tonio: Oh, she loved it, of course. And then many songs of heartbreak came after that. The funniest one is after our first divorce when "Love Is" became a huge hit. In the divorce proceedings there was a document with a list of songs that I had written while we were married that were community property.

Songfacts: Really?

Tonio: Yeah, that's how that works. Just one of those things, you know. She shared in whatever royalties they've made over the years. But she called up and at some point after that first divorce, which I think was in 1992, she called up and said, "Hey, wait a minute, how come I'm not getting anything from 'Love Is'?" And I went, "Because we weren't married when I wrote 'Love Is,' we were divorced." "But you would never have written that song if I hadn't made you so miserable." [Laughing] "Well, you're probably right," she said. "Apparently it's in the proceeds of that song, so let it go at that."

Songfacts: I read somewhere that you haven't met Vanessa Williams?

Tonio: I never met her.

Songfacts: I don't imagine that you had her in mind when you wrote it. I think I read somewhere that you said Tom Waits.

Tonio: Oh, yeah. I think I may have said it in an interview over the years. The first person I thought of when [John] Keller played me that track and after I had written it, the first person whose voice I wanted to hear singing that was Waits, which is ridiculous - obviously it would have been great. It's not like I knew him well enough to call him up and say, "Hey, you want to sing a demo for us?" So that never even came through on that set. But he is the first guy I thought of when the song was completed. I thought, Well, this song is so beautiful, what it needs is Tom Waits to put an edge on it.

Songfacts: How often do you write songs with particular vocalists in mind, and are there instances where hit songs have been recorded by the person that you had specifically in mind?

Tonio: The second part of that question, no. The first part, often I won't write with anyone in mind that I hope will record it, but if it's just one type of song or another, I'll hear the person singing as I'm writing the words. A perfect example recently is a song I just wrote with Bob Thiele, Jr. He's music supervising a movie that assuming it ever comes out - whether it really will or not, I don't know - starring Katey Sagal called There's Always Woodstock. He wanted a particular song, not for the lead character, who's a young girl, to sing, but for someone else. It was sort of a The Band type track. He sang sort of a la la melody line - no lyric to it - and sent it to me. I loved it and wound up writing something pretty quickly.

And as I was writing that, I heard Rick Danko's voice singing it, I was hearing Rick sing. Not Levon, but Rick. So yeah, that does happen. But obviously I didn't have Rick or The Band in mind to sing it. Rick's dead and The Band is probably officially broken up now. I guess just Garth and Robbie are left, huh?

Songfacts: I think you're right. It's kind of a shame that the original members didn't get to get back together at some point.

Tonio: Yeah. I have nothing to prove this, but I think Robbie Robertson just couldn't deal with those guys in that band between their drug addictions and their flat out craziness. Once he walked away from it, he never went back, pretty much. And then Danko is one of the craziest people I've ever known, and he went completely mad. I lived at Shangri-La for much of 1978, and we recorded Life In The Food Chain there. Shangri-La is The Band's studio out there, the studio that's in The Last Waltz. The place, I think it was built by Kaiser Aluminum in the '40s. Real cool California ranch style house. I think Kaiser used it to entertain corporate guests, which is to say they used it basically as a brothel. They would send guys out there and send women out there with them, way north of Malibu, at Zuma Beach.

But, anyway, Garth was my neighbor there. He and Molly, his wife, would spend a lot of nights there. They had a farm somewhere further up in Decker Canyon or somewhere. But I got to know him and he played on my first two records, Garth did. And he's pretty trippy.

And then Danko was just nutty as you want to be. So all of which is to say I'm sure Robbie Robertson at some point just went, "No more." That's why that never happened.

Songfacts: I want to get your thoughts on a few songs. One of your near hits was "Romeo Loves Jane," which is a pretty fascinating juxtaposition of two unlikely characters. Where did you get the idea for that song?

Tonio: I don't know. I have no idea.

Songfacts: Really.

Tonio: Yeah, I don't know where those things come from. As you just said it, I just realized for the first time it's actually kind of a logical extension or a phase II of my song "Impressed" that Charlie [Sexton] recorded on his first record. Just all these oddball couples.

I just flipped it. It's funny, I don't know.

Songfacts: And you just went with it?

Tonio: Yeah.

Songfacts: See, that's the thing about you songwriters that fascinates me: I can think of things like that, but I can't build a song around it. Whereas you can get that idea and then you can just turn it into a song, just extend the odd pairing and then build upon it.

Tonio: Yeah. I mean you've heard this a million times from everybody, you just never know where it's coming from. Sometimes you're sitting down fooling around on a guitar and you hit on a chord progression and a sketch of a melody for some reason. And all of a sudden you'll sing one line to yourself and then you're off and running. Or you'll just put the melody down and wait until you have an idea.

Most of the co-writing I do, whether it's with my friend John Keller, who I've written so many things with, or with Charlie Sexton, or with Burt Bacharach, or Steve Jones from the Pistols - I wrote a few things with him for his solo record 20 years ago - but hopefully they're songs that you can track. Like Burt will play me a melody on the piano and go, "What do you think of that?" And usually I'll go, "Wow, I love that." And then I'll just take a recording of the track with the melody, no words, back up here with me to Idyllwild, and just sit in my chair here and listen to it over and over until I get an idea.

At This Time was an unusual Burt Bacharach album for a few reasons. For starters, Bacharach wrote a lot of the album's lyrics, which differed from many of his hit song collaborations with Hal David, the man who wrote all the words in their partnership. It was also political music from a man who, in the past, had spent more time creating love songs like the pre-Mapquest "Do You Know the Way to San Jose." At This Time's "Who Are These People," for instance, is an attack on the Bush administration.

Songfacts: Tell me about your collaborations with Burt Bacharach. Was it a little bit imposing to think that you were going to be sort of the Hal David to Burt Bacharach?

Tonio: Sure. Yeah. This was at a period when he had just written with Elvis Costello. Elvis and Burt had just written "God Give Me Strength" for Grace of My Heart, the movie, which I happened to be writing a couple of things for, too, with Larry Klein who was producing the whole soundtrack. So through that and through publishers, Burt had become aware of me. I seriously doubt Burt ever bought Life In the Food Chain, but he was aware of the Vanessa song and Bonnie Raitt song ("You"), I think. There were a few things I had written; whether he knew I had written them or not, I doubt.

So my publisher at the time, Jolene Cherry, suggested it and Burt went, "Oh, yeah." So we got together and headed off. He laid one track on me and said, "What do you think of that?" And I liked it and brought it back up here and wrote a lyric and then went back and we demoed it and Chicago recorded it ["If I Should Ever Lose You"].

Songfacts: Do you have a favorite collaboration from your time with Burt?

Tonio: Yeah, three of them. The best song we have written is probably "Love's Still The Answer," which Ronald lsley recorded and recently Dionne Warwick recorded on this latest record of hers from a couple of months ago.

Songfacts: Oh, wow. I want to hear that.

Tonio: Yeah. It's a good one. And I think her record is only an import, but I'm sure you can download the one track, "Love's Still The Answer." That's probably the best one. And then my favorite one is a song called "Change My Mind," which no one has recorded. Just a very cool song. I've always loved the song. Very odd, but really cool musically, the sections and the progression and very unconventional, but still great melodically.

And then there's one that he and Brian Wilson and I wrote, the only one he or I have ever written with Brian Wilson that I think is a great song and hopefully somebody's going to record. It was done for Target, believe it or not. They were doing in house records, Target was. "New Music from an Old Friend" was the series, and they'd have Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, Willie Nelson, Stephen Bishop, Kris Kristofferson - lots and lots of different people. They would have a new recording of an old song, and then they would have one new song by these people. And Brian's new song was the song that he and Burt and I wrote called "What Love Can Do."

Songfacts: What was your experience like with Brian Wilson?

Tonio: Brian Wilson's a great songwriter and a very nice guy, but he is quirky as you want to be. I'll leave it at that.

Songfacts: But still a thrill to be able to sit down and write a song with?

Tonio: Yeah. What a trip. He and Burt, I don't know if they even knew each other. They must have said hello over the years at one function or another, but he and Burt I think were seated at the same table at some Grammy function and someone at the table was going, "Hey, have you two guys ever written a song?" They went, "No, actually. We've never written a song together." And I think Melinda, Brian's wife and kind of manager aide-de-camp put it together.

So one day Burt called me up and he goes, "Hey, I'm going to write a song with Brian Wilson. First time I've ever written with him before. Do you want to write the lyric?" I went, "Oh, gee, let me think about that." So anyway, we did.

But Brian had a verse, melody, and background harmonies, which are really cool. Some real Beach Boy kind of background stuff that he already had. He was hoping Burt would come up with a great Burt Bacharach '60s chorus, which Burt did. I'm sitting around with my legal pad, looking at the two of them on a piano bench working it out at Burt's house, and I said, "Burt, you know me well enough to know I don't do this, but I'm sitting here looking at Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson sharing a piano bench as we're writing this song. I've got to have a picture of that. Are you guys okay if I bring a camera tomorrow?" [Laughing] This was pre iPhone. They went, "Sure."

I don't do that, but that one just struck me as something no one was ever going to see again, and I needed to get a picture of it.

Songfacts: Absolutely. Have you worked with Dr. Dre, as well?

Tonio: On Burt's record, yeah.

Songfacts: How did that go?

Tonio: My publisher at the time, Steve Lindsey, was working with Dre, actually giving him piano lessons. Lindsey is the guy who produced Leonard Cohen's The Future and a bunch of Aaron Neville records, and was kind of a producer/publisher around town. Good musician. Son of Morton Lindsey, who was Judy Garland's music supervisor and also the music director of the Merv Griffin Show for years.

Songfacts: That was a wild show, yes, I remember that.

Tonio: Yeah. So anyway, Steve called me up one day and says, "Hey, you think Burt would be interested in working with Dre?" "Yeah," I said. "I've been telling Dre what he needs to do is put up some of his loops and then get some really legitimate music, like Burt Bacharach music." And then Dre says, "Oh, hook it up." And so I said, "I'll certainly lay that one on Burt," that would be interesting. And Burt said, "Yeah, let's see what he's talking about."

So we went to Dre's studio one day with Steve and Dre laid a half a dozen loops on Burt. And Burt wrote this stuff that I've never heard anything quite like. It's somewhere between Stravinsky and Gershwin with Bacharach top line melodies and Dre loops. What do you call that? I don't know what you call that. Whatever it was, it won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. I've got a certificate - I didn't get a Grammy because I wasn't the artist. It was Burt's record. It was a Burt album called At This Time, and it's all these loops and Burt would write these orchestrations and they would record them live and then Burt's singers from his road band would sing most of them. I believe Elvis Costello sang one and Rufus Wainwright sang one. And Chris Botti played horn on two or three of them, one of which we co-wrote, also.

Dre wasn't that involved other than the day of laying those loops on us - that was pretty much the extent of his involvement. He was back and forth in the studio listening a couple of times. But other than the loop, Burt did everything musically.

This was the first time Burt contributed lyrically to songs, because it was going to be his own record and he had some stuff he wanted to say. So he'd have an idea and lay it on me, and then I'd flesh it out and he and I would edit back and forth until he was happy with it. The one Elvis sang was called "Who Are These People," and was very political. Burt was in the middle of some political thing during the Bush era, and he just went, "Who are these people that keep telling us these lies?" And I went, "Well, there's your line right there, who are these people, keep telling us lies." And then my contribution was, "And how did these people get control of our lives?" And it went from there.

Anyway, it wasn't like Dre was in the studio with Burt or us or went beyond his initial loops that he laid on us.

Songfacts: Right. So he just contributed his part to what you guys were doing?

Tonio: Well, he contributed the loops prior to there being any music in existence. And then Burt took those loops and lived with them and worked with them and wrote with them, and a few weeks later came back with these tracks. Very unusually formatted and arranged stuff, but very cool.

Songfacts: When you think about songs you've written that you're particularly proud of, are there ones that come to mind?

Tonio: Oh, yeah. Somebody called me up about the video for "We Walk On," which I don't know if you've seen that or not, watch that if you haven't. In that conversation I said, "That's probably the best song I've ever written. Certainly not the most commercial, but if I had to pick one song, that's the best song I've ever written, 'We Walk On.'" And if I was to put out one old school 45 with a big hole in the middle, I would have "We Walk On" on one side and "The Executioner's Song" on the other side.

Songfacts: I like that one a lot, too. Is that sort of a personification of the devil?

Tonio: I guess. The devil and his many guises in the Western world. The devil on Wall Street these days. It predates that by 20 years.

Songfacts: When you were in high school, you had ambitions of becoming an architect.

Tonio: Oh, yeah.

Songfacts: A songwriter is a lot like an architect, is it not? Aren't you kind of taking something from nothing and building?

Tonio: Sort of. Sketching out a design, sort of. Not as mathematical. People who are great musicians are mathematical. I don't know that I'm that mathematical. I gave up on architecture when I had to give up on math or start studying. I got through algebra okay without doing any homework or a little homework, but by the time I got to trig, it was, you can't do this shit if you're not going to go home and do homework. You really have to study this.

Songfacts: Did you inherit any of your lyrical gifts from your parents?

Tonio: I wouldn't think so. Sense of humor, maybe. My father was hysterically funny, though you were never sure if he meant to be funny or not. I don't know where the "literary" stuff came from. My mom read a lot. My mom was the assistant to the college librarian, the College of the Desert, in Palm Desert. My mom gave me a copy of The Red Pony, it is the first book that I ever read, the Steinbeck book. I mean, the first book beyond Golden Books, kiddie books. I don't know how old I was when she gave me that, single digits, I think.

But she certainly wasn't a writer that I'm aware of. She had a little bit of an artistic bent when she had time, graphic arts. But yeah, I don't know where that came from.

Songfacts: Have you ever had ambitions to do any fiction writing?

Tonio: No. Because I'm too lazy. On my website, there's reference to this bird book that I wrote about a pigeon - I'm looking at him right now. He has lived with us for 13 or 14 years now. Flew in the window of Linda's photo studio one day 13 or 14 years ago and refused to leave. And everyone who met this bird or heard the story about where it came from and just the wacky stuff he has done has gone, "Oh, you've got to write a book about that bird." So I finally did a few years ago. It's basically a photo album with text. But that's as involved as I've done.

And I get off on writing liner notes to things, like the blues record. I wrote the booklet on that. I did all the research and wrote the booklet. That was my big contribution as a producer of that, obviously. The thorns were the songs, and Charlie [Sexton] produced the two new tracks that are on there of old songs. But I picked the song ultimately after consulting everyone beginning with Charlie, and then I did the research and wrote the booklet. So I like doing that kind of stuff.

As far as doing a longer work of fiction, I don't think I have the patience. I can say what I want to say in 16 lines, and if I can't, it becomes a grander work like "We Walk On," or I forget about it.

Songfacts: So when it comes to writing songs, are you constantly writing or do you need a project in order to inspire you to write?

Tonio: These days I need a project. These days I'm so busy and lazy, and the business is so screwed up. I suppose now and then I'll just have some undeniable thought that must be written down. I keep a little notebook, and if I have an idea for a couplet or something, I'll write stuff down. But half the time I won't even bother getting up to walk over and write it down.

So when a project comes up, I'm all over it. The Robert Randolph thing I did, T-Bone Burnett called me a few years ago and said, "Hey, I'm producing a record for Robert Randolph and he's got a bunch of tracks and licks, but no songs. Do you want to get involved?" And I went, "Sure." So that was a whole thing that went on for over a year.

Songfacts: I like the stuff that you've done with him. I think he's just a brilliant player.

Tonio: Oh, man, he's Jimi Hendrix on a pedal steel guitar. What a story. His grandfather was the founder of the sacred steel tradition in Florida in the '30s, so he learned from him and from another grandfather or uncle or somebody, and basically played in the church until 10 years ago and started doing other stuff in the clubs around New Jersey and everyone went crazy.

Songfacts: Are there other songs that you've written that we can look for on upcoming albums?

Tonio: No. There's that movie thing, whenever that comes out, the Woodstock movie. There's the Dionne Warwick record that just came out, I guess you could call that something to look for. But other than that, it's all whatever's on the discography is what's going on. Someone may have recorded something today that I don't know about. But I'm not working on anything that I plan on releasing.

I'm writing a song in Nashville with Glen D. Hardin, who was kind of a Crickets keyboard guy from Lubbock, and then went on to be Elvis's piano player in the Hot Band with James Burton and Jerry Scheff and Ron Tutt and those guys. He and I are writing our first song ever, which just came up because I went to the Crickets induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last summer. They were finally inducted, but they refused to go to Cleveland. Jay and I made the Hall of Fame come to him in Lyles, Tennessee, 40 miles west of Nashville.

But anyway, Glen D. and I just started talking about, Hey, we should write a song, we never did. And so we started one and I don't know what'll come of that.

Songfacts: You should have your friend T-Bone commission you to write a song for the Nashville soundtrack, the TV show.

Tonio: I've submitted a few things for that, not directly to T-Bone, but through Buddy Miller, and they haven't used anything yet that I know of. He's a very hard man to get a hold of these days.

Songfacts: I'll bet he's very busy. But you work with Buddy Miller at all?

Tonio: You know, I never have. I know Buddy, I've known him for a long time. Knew Julie. Love him. But I've never really worked with him on anything. I see him whenever I'm in Nashville and he's kind of the point man on this Nashville show. He's actually in the studio producing a lot of those songs and acts. I've sent him a few things, but they haven't been used. I haven't seen the show, I don't own a television. So I've never seen it.

Songfacts: Oh, really?

Tonio: I agree with I think it was Malcolm Muggeridge who said, 50 or 60 years ago, that whenever anyone turned on a television, he could hear the devil hiss.

May 21, 2013. Get more at
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Jon Fowler from Saratoga Springs, NyI also want to say thanks for the interview. Been a big fan of TK for many years.
  • Glenn Spatola from Seattle, WaThanks for posting this great interview. It's the first new Tonio K interview I've seen in 20 years...
see more comments

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