Roget Pontbriand

Most of the time, the band comes first and the hit song second. But in the case of Bullet -- the band whose 1971 single, "White Lies, Blue Eyes," was a top 40 hit -- the single was released before the band was formed. Roget Pontbriand was a teenager when he was asked to play trumpet and keyboards and sing backup vocals for Bullet. Later he played with KC and the Sunshine Band, Wild Cherry and the Michael Stanley Band. Roget eventually left the world of pop and disco and became a jazz musician, performing with many big-name recording artists. Today he's a university professor of music and a composer and arranger. But first and foremost, Roget Pontbriand is a performer who still loves to play in front of an audience.
Gary Hailey (Songfacts):  At first, I thought your name was "Roger," instead of "Roget" -- I'm guessing that happens a lot.  I'm assuming you're of French ancestry.  Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

Roget Pontbriand: Both my father's grandparents were French, but I was born in Queens and lived in the Bronx until I was 8. Then my family moved to Thomaston, Connecticut. Mine was the first "mixed" generation.

Songfacts: When did you start playing an instrument?  Did your mother or father push you to take music lessons, or was it something you chose to do on your own?

Roget:: I asked my father for a trumpet when I was 5. When he asked me why I wanted a trumpet, I told him I was going to be a jazz trumpeter when I grew up. I taught myself to play the trumpet by listening to jazz records.

Songfacts: Who were your favorite bands/musicians when you were a teenager -- what kind of records did you listen to?

Roget:: I loved jazz and Motown. All my Connecticut friends listened to 70s rock.

Songfacts:  Your became a professional musician at a very young age.  What did your parents think about that?  

Roget:: My parents did not approve of music as a career for me. I began to spend less and less time at home when I was a teenager, and moved out when I was 15. I moved back to New York City shortly afterwards

Songfacts: Tell us about Bullet. How did the band get started, and what was your role in the group?

Roget:: When Ernie Sorrentino recorded "White Lies, Blue Eyes," Bullet didn't really exist. When the song started to move up the charts, a booking agent named John Apostle was asked to put a band together. At that time, I had been playing with Joey Stann and the late George Ruiz at an upper Manhattan club called Churchill's Plum. John knew us and asked us to be part of Bullet along with Sorrentino and a drummer named Mike Micara. Joey played organ and sax, and George was our bass player. I played trumpet and keyboards and sang backup vocals. We shot the promotional photos for Bullet in Central Park the day after we met.  I was only 17 years old at the time.
Bullet's agent, John Apostle, sang bass in the New York doo-wop group, The Capris, but was also a very successful booking agent, personal manager and concert promoter. Apostle managed the careers of The Brooklyn Bridge, The Belmonts, The Crystals, Jay and The Americans, Tommy James and the Shondells, and Wild Cherry, and promoted concerts at Madison Square Garden, Nassau Coliseum and various other venues in the New York City metropolitan area. Tommy James met his current wife, Lynda, at Apostle's offices, where she was working as a secretary.
Songfacts: "White Lies, Blue Eyes" entered the Billboard top 40 on Christmas Day, 1971, and stayed there for five weeks -- it peaked at #28.  

Roget:: We performed it on American Bandstand, the Merv Griffin show, the Mike Douglas show, and several other TV shows.  

Songfacts: What did Bullet do after "White Lies, Blue Eyes"? 

Roget:: We recorded two other singles. "Willpower Weak, Temptation Strong," which had amazing energy and should have faired better, but did make it into the top 100, and "Little Bit O' Soul" (a cover of the Music Explosion's 1967 hit). The group toured for two years -- with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and the Temptations, among others.

Songfacts: Do you have any good stories about life on the road?

Roget:: At our first concert, the roadies drove the truck into a snow drift and got stuck, so we had to rent equipment. Another time we got stuck in a blizzard in Minnesota. Our tour manager had gone ahead to our next stop. We ran out of cash and had to leave a guitar at a toll booth.

Songfacts: After Bullet broke up, I understand you played with KC and the Sunshine Band, which was a Miami-based group.

Roget:: I attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and a state college in Connecticut for awhile, but decided I wanted to get away from New England and the snow. My tenure with KC and the Sunshine Band was short. The valve trombone player had quit -- some kind of power play was going on -- so I was hired by TK Records to replace him. Two weeks later I was offered a position with Wild Cherry playing trumpet, which was my preferred instrument. The former Sunshine Band trombonist was more than happy to return to them, so everyone was happy.

Rob Parissi formed Wild Cherry in 1970. The band, which originally was a straight rock group, built up a devoted fan base in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the upper Ohio River Valley. But disco was becoming popular, and the band's fans started asking them to play more dance music. One night at the 2001 Club in Pittsburgh, a table of black fans asked Wild Cherry if they were ever going to play any funky music, and the group's drummer uttered the phrase, "Play some funky music, white boy," when they were taking a break between sets. The story goes that Rob Parissi borrowed an order pad and a pen from the club's bartender and wrote the song in five minutes. "Play That Funky Music" was a top 10 hit in 1976 in both the US and the UK, and sold two million records.
Songfacts: You were with Wild Cherry for a long time.

Roget:: Yes, I toured with Wild Cherry for 2 1/2 years -- from 1976 until 1979. We recorded far more material than ever appeared on record. Unfortunately, the tracks I recorded didn't make the albums. 

Songfacts: The only Wild Cherry song that most people know is "Play That Funky Music." But they released four studio albums and about a dozen singles. What Wild Cherry song deserved to be a bigger hit?

Roget:: "Hold On," which was released in 1977. It should have been released sooner. The record company wanted to brand us and that song was a rock ballad -- totally different from "Play That Funky Music." By the time it was released we had lost all momentum. It still reached #61 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Songfacts: I understand you got a lot of attention on one of your TV appearances with Wild Cherry.

Roget:: When the group appeared on Dinah Shore's daily talk show, the sax player and I exchanged boots. His left boot was blue and his right one was orange -- with a lightning bolt up the side. So my left boot was orange and my right one was blue. All Dinah could talk about was those boots!

Roget next played with the Michael Stanley Band. Stanley had a couple of national hits -- "He Can't Love You" in 1980, and "My Town" in 1983 -- but was especially popular in the Cleveland area-- he was to Cleveland what Bruce Springsteen is to New Jersey.
Songfacts: Horn sections were a major part of a lot of great rock and soul bands in the 70s and 80s. What were some of your favorite groups from that era?

Roget:: There were so many great groups. Some of my favorites were Earth Wind and Fire, who changed everything. Also Parliament-Funkadelic, Chicago, and Blood Sweat and Tears. Jerry Hey, who played trumpet on many Earth Wind and Fire albums and was also a legendary session musician, was a great arranger -- he wrote the most challenging horn parts. 

After he left the Michael Stanley Band, Pontbriand decided it was time for a change in musical direction. He moved to Los Angeles and enrolled at the famous Dick Grove School of Music, which trained hundreds of professional singers and instrumentalists. The school's teachers included Henry Mancini, Bill Conti, and Lalo Schifrin, and even established stars like Michael Jackson, Linda Ronstadt, and Barry Manilow took classes there. After earning three diplomas at the Grove school and working in jazz and salsa groups in Los Angeles, Pontbriand moved back to Cleveland -- he jokes that he grew tired of all the sunshine in L.A.
Songfacts: What made you switch from pop and disco music to jazz? What have done since becoming a jazz musician?  

Roget:: I became bored with pop music. I went back to college at the University of Akron and earned two degrees -- one in jazz studies, one in music composition. I played in the pit orchestra at a couple of theaters in the Cleveland area, and also composed music for commercials and industrial films. Eventually my wife Lisa and I moved to Nashville. I taught at Middle Tennessee State University for five years, played at Opryland and on the General Jackson, a paddlewheel riverboat that does dinner cruises.

Songfacts: I assume that playing trumpet in a disco group and playing trumpet in a traditional jazz big band are very different.

Roget:: Disco required very articulate tonguing. You had to be very precise. Jazz is more legato, smoother.

Songfacts: Your website lists an amazing number of great musicians that you've played with. Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Mel Tormé, Maynard Ferguson . . .

Roget:: . . . Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jay and the Americans, Leslie Gore, Anita Bryant, and many others. I toured North America with Elvis Presley's backup singers, the Jordaniares. And I spent a season in Branson, Missouri as the lead trumpet in Shoji Tabuchi's orchestra.

Songfacts: Who are some of the contemporary recording artists you admire?  Who are you a fan of today?

Roget:: The Yellowjackets and the Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band are terrific jazz bands. Wayne Bergeron is one of my favorite trumpet players. I like John Mayer a lot. I have to mention Bill Holman, a jazz composer and arranger I've admired for many years -- I had the privilege of subbing in his big band while I was a student at the Grove school in L.A.

Songfacts: I know that you've been a committed Christian for a number of years.  
Roget:: For many years I struggled with faith issues. Many Christians had shared their faith with me over the years, both on and off the road. It was when I was a college student at the University of Akron that I decided I had come to the end of myself. I've worked with many devoted Christians -- including the Jordanaires, Anita Bryant, Nancy Honeytree, and Shoji Tabuchi -- who have helped my faith to grow.

Songfacts: You currently are on the faculty at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida.

Roget:: Yes, I am the founder and director of the popular music program at Palm Beach Atlantic University, which is a nondenominational Christian university. As the theater department's musical director, I've conducted the university's productions of several musicals. I direct the university jazz ensemble, which has performed many of my big band arrangements, and I've been part of the music ministries at several local churches. I spend a lot of time composing as well. I have written over 50 big band charts, a symphony, opera, and many church arrangements for orchestra. And I still play in local big bands, salsa groups, and pit orchestras and tour with the Gaither Vocal Band, which is a Grammy-winning southern gospel group. 

Songfacts: You're the hardest-working man in show biz, Roget. Seriously, you've done a little bit of everything in your career. 

Roget:: It's been an interesting ride. I've played in pop, rock and funk bands, jazz, pit orchestras, salsa group, etc. -- but I still love the energy of disco. I'm still a white boy who loves to play that funky music!

Get more from Roget at Gary Hailey can be found at the outstanding blog 2 or 3 Lines.
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Comments: 2

  • Richard Tortorigi from Madison, Connecticut, Palm Beack FloridaI had the pleasure of working in several bands with Roget. He a gentile kind and giving person who I have admired since first meeting him as we where on tour together with the amazing Carol Fredette of NY City. Roget had been touring with Carol as I entered the drum chair along the way. We had a great time in that band. Years later I was playing in West Palm Beach Fl with my band RIFF. A gentilmen approached me and said I know a musician that you would love, you should give him a call. I called Roget " Funny, when I meet Roget he went by the stage name Roger Boupreanno" Roget was a perfit fit for the band. He brought to the table his outstanding attitude and professionalism as well as his original compositions . Roget helped bring the band to an exciting new level playing both trumpet, flugel horn and keyboards along with vocals. I'm am truly gratefull for our time together on and off the stage. Much respect to you my friend.
  • Virginia Lauretano from Morric, CtVery nice article on Roget, there are alot of items in this article that i wasn't aware of. Very good interview!
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