Danny's Blog
Jerry Riopelle talks New Year’s Eve concert, Arizona

In 2005, in fact, Mayor Phil Gordon proclaimed New Year’s Eve Jerry Riopelle Day in Phoenix.

We caught up with Mr. New Year’s Eve to talk about how someone living and recording in Los Angeles became an institution in the Valley, largely fueled by heavy spins the early ’70s on free-form FM station KDKB (93.3).

The roots-rock veteran now lives part-time in Scottsdale and was inducted into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2007. He’s set to headline the Orpheum Theatre for his first New Year’s Eve performance since 2008 with New York reggae-rocker Garland Jeffreys, whose “Ghost Writer” album is an underrated classic.

Question: How do you think you became so identified with New Year’s Eve in Phoenix?

Answer: The first show I did was in ’74. I opened for Dr. John, and I got so much airplay during that year that I headlined from then on. I was doing a lot of other concerts in the state, too, at that time. I would usually do three nights on New Year’s Eve. I would do the two nights before.

Q: You did a New Year’s Eve show on the 29th?

A: We would do the 29th, the 30th and the 31st. What would that be? About 9,000, 10,000 people over a total of three nights. And I’d do three nights in the summer. I would do concerts in Tucson and Flagstaff.

Serious airplay is what happened. On KDKB, essentially. And airplay is magic. I had eight songs in full rotation at one time on KDKB. So it was just kind of crazy. It was a lot of fun, I’ll tell you.

Q: Where are you from?

A: I was born in Detroit but I lived in LA during that whole time. Now, I live in Kona, Hawaii, but I have a place here, too. I lease a place in Scottsdale because I have a business here that I started with an invention of mine called the Beamz, which is an instrument anyone can play. It was built for special-needs kids. So I go back and forth between here and Kona.

Q: You became a Phoenix institution without living here?

A: Yeah. The people in Tucson thought I was from Phoenix. People in Phoenix thought I was from Tucson. And I was just treated, always, like a favorite son when, in fact, I was living in LA, working in film music and things like that. I was doing big concerts here and in LA, I was only able to do clubs. But there’s all that other kind of work in LA. I lived there 30 years.

Q: Was this your best market?

A: Yes. I had European markets that were important — Amsterdam and several different major markets in Europe. But in the States, Phoenix was always the most important market.

Q: Was that because of the airplay on KDKB?

A: That’s certainly what started it, and then the concerts took hold. We worked so hard on them, and I lived close enough, being in LA, that I could work the market pretty regularly. So we put a lot into it. We treated the shows as though they were incredibly important. And we still do. I’m a family man. I decided not to live my life out on the road way back when. But Arizona was close enough that I could work it often. And I did. I built it up. It’s almost like a family thing when I play here. It’s something we’ve done so much for so long that it’s just incredibly good vibes.

Q: How does your New Year’s show compare with a regular show?

A: There’s a couple of things that are different about a New Year’s show. The event itself is important. And people tend to get drunk (laughs). They usually end up drinking quite a bit on New Year’s Eve, so it gets pretty rowdy, although there’s usually a pretty sensitive section in the middle of the show. I have a lot of ballads.

Q: How often do you perform these days?

A: I’m playing quite a bit now. I work on this invention, the Beamz, and there’s over 100 of them now in schools and hospitals and autism institutions. I really love it, actually, to see the look on a kid’s face who never imagined that he could actually play music. This device uses laser beams kind of like strings. And so, if you put your hand through the beams, it causes musical things to happen. It’s really a pretty sophisticated computerized device. So that was a pretty rewarding experience, and it still is. But now, the business can do well without me, and I decided that I’d really like to get back to playing some concerts and recording more material.

I just got back from LA, where I finished the first three songs of a new album. I’m pretty darn thrilled with them actually. I’m working on a musical about a character named Candy Barr, who was really quite a famous stripper from Dallas. I have a song called “Candy Barr” that tells part of her story. And we’ve twice done readings now in New York. We’re honing it down. We’ve just done a rewrite, and I think it’s really strong. Everybody does. So I’ve got a lot of music I need to record for that and a lot we’ve already recorded. Some of that past material fits into it, too. So that’s a big project with me.

And I’m doing some shows. I did a show down in Tucson with Jackson Browne and Keb’ Mo’ and Crosby and Nash for the victims of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. I just did a show in Prescott called Best Fest. It’s a celebration of Arizona’s Centennial. I’m doing New Year’s Eve. And I’m going to continue to perform.

I’m using some members of the band I’ve had for the last 25 years, and then some new members, and in some cases, the children of some of the people in my band — one being my son, Paul. So I’m really enjoying getting back to what I actually do best.

Q: How old are you now?

A: Oh, well, I never admit to that (laughs). I feel great.

Q: All right then. Old enough to have played a New Year’s Eve show in ’74.

A: That’s right.

Jerry Riopelle

With: Garland Jeffreys.

When: 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 31.

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 203 W. Adams St., Phoenix.

Admission: $45-$65.

Details: 602-262-6225, dannyzeliskopresents.com, cdbaby.com/cd/Riopelle.

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Twitter: twitter.com:EdMasley.