Interview – Grant Geissman
Bruce Kimmel: Hello, Grant Geissman, famous guitar player and bon vivant, and welcome to haineshisway.com, the ginchiest site on all the Internet. Now, Grant Geissman, you weren’t fully formed at your current age – in other word, you have a past and damn it we want to know all about it. Where, for example, were you born and raised?
Grant Geissman: I was born in Berkeley, California, and the family moved to San Jose, California when I was two. San Jose is now the Silicon Valley, the very crowded home of Apple Computer and numerous software and chip companies, but then it was about half houses and half orchards. We used to disappear for hours and go off exploring, something you’d never let your kids do now.
BK: What were young Grant Geissman’s hobbies growing up in a smallish California town?
GG: Starting around the age of eight, I began collecting all kinds of stuff, like comic books (mostly DC), trading cards (I had two and a half sets of the infamous MARS ATTACKS card set that Topps put out in 1963), and MAD magazine. I used to like to build the Aurora model kits of the Universal movie monsters (Frankenstein, Wolfman, et cetera), as well as the Big Daddy Roth WEIRD-OHS kits. We’d build ’em, then eventually we’d blow them up with firecrackers–also something you’d never let your kids do today! Like most kids, my Mom threw a fair amount of my cool stuff away, but I somehow convinced her not to throw away the MAD magazines, which I still have.
BK: When did you first become interested in music, and what music initially shaped your musical world. In other words, rock-and-roll, classical, show tunes? Hold nothing back.
GG: One thing I loved as a very young child was the theme to the MGM movie TOM THUMB, starring Russ Tamblyn. I fell in love with that movie, and you could send away for the single through a special offer I think from Bosco. I remember playing that 45 endlessly. (“This is my song, my very own song, I can sing it short or I can sing it long.”) There is something that’s still great about that! I also loved THE MUSIC MAN, which my Mom had taken me to see on stage, I believe at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. I got a little box set of 45s with the songs from it, which I still have.
When I was in about fourth grade there were some older kids on the block that had a surf band, playing things like WIPE OUT and Ventures tunes. I loved listening to them rehearse, and I was fascinated by the shiny electric guitars.
When I got a little older I started listening to pop music. I really loved the Beach Boys (surfing was popular in San Jose, being just over the hill from Santa Cruz beach), and I had tons of their records. Then when The Beatles came out, I was electrified. I remember one Christmas my aunt got me THE BEATLES SECOND ALBUM and THE BEACH BOYS CHRISTMAS ALBUM, and I disappeared into a back room and did nothing put play those records the whole evening. I think they put some food under the door, but I was in another world! Most people in my elementary school broke into camps after the Beatles came out. It was Beach Boys or Beatles, one or the other. But I still loved both groups, and I couldn’t get why it had to be one or the other; I was one of the few who still liked both and stood my ground.
BK: Now, Grant Geissman, how does a sprig of a twig of a tad of a lad of a youth decide he wants to play the guitar? When did you first take lessons? Was it easy for you to learn or did it take awhile to get into the swing of things, guitar-wise?
GG: A while after that Christmas with the Beatles and Beach Boy albums, I started bugging my parents for a guitar. I’m sure they thought I would outgrow the idea, but after about six months of relentless badgering, the very next Christmas I found a $25 Stella guitar under the tree. My Grandfather actually played the banjo, so he went out and bought three identical Stella guitars at Sears, one for me, one for my cousin Kate, and one for him. My cousin and I took lessons together, but after a month or two she stopped. I had a knack for it, plus I really wanted to start playing all the great stuff I was hearing on the radio, incredible stuff like the Beatles and all the British Invasion bands, as well as Motown, surf groups, and all the rest. An incredible time for music, especially when you are twelve.
The really amazing thing is that, years later, I got to work with my idols. I played a couple tracks on Ringo Starr’s new album, RINGO RAMA, and have worked with Brian Wilson on projects he’s done with my good friend Van Dyke Parks. So you just never know!
BK: Very well, then, did you, Grant Geissman, go to college and if so where did you go and what was your major?
GG: Not so fast! In Junior High we put a little band together, and won Third Place in the talent show for playing WIPE OUT. Our band was called “Bob Bush and the Bunch,” and consisted of two guitars and drums, with no bass player. I can’t imagine what we sounded like. Then all through high school I played in the school big bands, and put jazz and rock groups together, based on whatever we liked at the time. I had garage bands, horn bands (playing Chicago and Blood, Sweat, and Tears stuff), a Crosby, Stills, and Nash-style band (with three part vocal harmonies), and various other permutations. I was a bit schizophrenic, playing both rock and jazz stuff all through school.
Now you can ask your follow-up question!
BK: Very well, then, did you, Grant Geissman, go to college and if so where did you go and what was your major?
GG: Yes. I first spent two years at De Anza Junior College in Cupertino, a suburb of San Jose. They had an incredible jazz band program led by a great guy named Herb Patnoe. I played in their bands, as well as in a youth jazz band called THE BLUE SAINTS (run by a medical doctor that loved music, named Hugh Upton) that went on amazing trips, like to Washington, D.C., Japan, and Europe. An incredible experience when you’re 18 or 19 years old.
BK: So, obviously you didn’t want to stay in a small town and become a small town guitarist. You wanted to hit the big time, although what the big time ever did to you to deserve being hit is another story for another day. When did you first come to Los Angeles, and why did you make the move?
GG: After a couple years at De Anza, I felt like it was time to make the next step. I knew that I had to come down to Los Angeles to really do it, so I made the move. I spent one semester down at Cal State Fullerton (not far from Disneyland), but I soon realized that it was too far away from the Hollywood scene, being behind the Orange Curtain and all. So I transferred up to Cal State Northridge, which was where the action was. Pro guys used to bring their charts in to the Northridge jazz band to get their charts heard, and you would start to meet people. I began playing with both jazz drummer Louis Bellson and jazz composer Gerald Wilson because of them hearing me at school.
BK: Did you start working right away? Did you do sessions, gigs, bar mitzvahs, what?
GG: I did start to get some work, including some sessions and jingles, even while at college. I also did a fair amount of Beverly Hills society gigs at the time. At the Bistro in Beverly Hills, an industry hangout for the older stars, they used to give the bands that played gigs there these incredible chocolate soufflés. I’ve never had a better one. Not all of the work was glamorous, but it was all great experience.
BK: Back in the seventies, how hard was it for a young guitar player to break into session playing? Was it a pretty closed shop, did you have to bribe people or were you just so darned good that they HAD to hire you?
GG: There was room for anyone that was good. Just like now, there are tiers of players–the established older guys, and the newer guys that are finding their niche. Guitar legend Tommy Tedseco was nice enough to invite me to a couple of sessions he was playing on to observe, and I learned some things at those dates by just watching him that I still use today.
BK: Tell us about some of the people you worked with when you first came to town. What were the best sessions you did, and also the worst?
GG: Apart from certain things that stick in my mind, it’s all kind of a blur at this point. But I remember doing some gigs in Beverly Hills, and being like THIS CLOSE to people like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, and that ilk. Pretty amazing.
When I was in college I got a call to go play with Chuck Mangione. I left college and went on the road about age 23, just shy of finishing my degree in music at Cal State Northridge. The first album we made with Chuck was FEELS SO GOOD, which became a huge hit and went on to sell two million albums. And that song got tons of top forty radio airplay, and happened to feature my guitar solo. “The solo” has taken on a life of its own at this point, and not a week goes by that someone doesn’t mention it. I was with Chuck for about five years at that time, and we toured all of the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan, as well as appearing on just about every TV show like featured music, like the Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Midnight Special, and a bunch of others that are now long gone.
After that, I came off the road and did tons of session work for people like David Benoit, Quincy Jones, Julio Iglesias, and people like that. Among my recent work: for the last three seasons I played acoustic guitar on the underscore to DAWSON’S CREEK for composer Adam Fields. I also played the jazzy acoustic guitar solo you hear on the theme to MONK, the show starring Tony Shaloub.
BK: You’ve done several solo albums, with a terrific group of musicians. Tell us how those came about, and tell us if they are available. We, you and I, have also done a whole slew of solo albums. Tell our readers about those. We always have a great time, you and I, and I’m sure they’d like to know the process. (You can split this into two questions if you like)
GG: I was approached to do my first album in 1978 by Carl Jefferson, who had Concord Jazz Records. That first album, GOOD STUFF, was more of a jazzy kind of project. I have since done a total of eleven solo albums as a leader, the most recent being IN WITH THE OUT CROWD on Higher Octave Records.
At some point in there I began playing as a session player on some of your album projects, and one day you asked if I would like to do a project of my own for you. Which was interesting, because I don’t think you had ever heard anything I had written or arranged. Even more interesting is that I never played you any of the material I had put together for that project, which was called BROADWAY ’97-’98. We just showed up in the studio and you hit the red button. An amazing leap of faith, when you think about it. But the album was a good one, even though I still think it should have been called BROADWAY DU JOUR, a much better, and less datable title.
BK: Now, Grant Geissman, we have a lot of musical theater lovers on this here site. Have you ever played in the band for musicals? Start way back when and take us into the present with some of the more interesting shows you’ve played.
GG: I have done some theater gigs here and there. Some years ago my girlfriend was in a company of ANNIE, and I went in and subbed on that show a bit. And did a lot of subbing more recently in the Los Angeles production of THE LION KING, which ran here more than two years. That was very challenging, because in addition to guitar you had to play ukulele and two different kalimbas, a kind of African hand piano you play with your thumbs. I recently subbed on 42ND STREET here at the Ahmanson. It’s fun and quite a nice challenge to come in and out of them, but quite frankly I don’t know how people do the same show day in and day out; they must be made of stronger stuff than I am!
BK: Before we go on, you, Grant Geissman, have heretofore been known as one of the most fanatical of fanatic EC Comics and MAD Magazine fans. Is this true, yes or no? So, tell us how you got interested in EC, and then tell us about the collection you recently sold, which was one of the largest MAD and EC collections in the world and environs.
GG: Yes, it’s true, it’s all true!
I had loved MAD and the 1950s EC comics (the connection is that both were published by William M. Gaines) since childhood. By placing ads in antique journals and trading with other collectors, I had amassed a huge collection of MAD and EC material. I went on to write two books on the subjects, COLLECTIBLY MAD (1995) and TALES OF TERROR! THE EC COMPANION (2000). The collection was starting to overtake the house, so I weeded out a huge chunk of it to make space. And then, of course, started right back in collecting. Once a collector, always a collector!
BK: Tell us how it was to work with people like William Gaines and the Mad Mad People at EC.
GG: I have gotten to know a lot of the MAD guys on a personal level, which would have totally blown my mind if I could have seen into the future at age ten or so. We just held a kind of retirement party at our house for MAD editor Nick Meglin, a really great guy who has been with MAD since 1956. A lot of the MAD guys live in or near Los Angeles, so it was quite a fun evening! And I did get to know (and interview) MAD and EC publisher Bill Gaines before he died in 1992–an incredible guy with high morals and scruples, very unusual in the publishing business in the 1950s and 1960s!
BK: Have you ever done any transcriptions of your albums – you know, sheet music for aspiring guitarists. If not, does that interest you?
GG: I send out copies of some of my songs if people specifically ask. I also have a transcription of the FEELS SO GOOD solo, which I get asked for all the time.
BK: So, Grant Geissman, you and I have just finished working on a brand spanking new CD entitled Jeepers Creepers: Great Songs from Horror Films. Tell our dear readers how it was to do the album – start at the beginning and take us through the process.
GG: We met over chips, salsa, and Mexican food at Casa Vega, the classic hang out in Sherman Oaks. You pitched the project to me, and little by little we went through all the suggested tunes and whittled the list down to what would work and what probably wouldn’t. Then I started arranging the stuff in my studio. There is a massive amount of material on the album-including several medleys-and putting it all together and getting it ready for the singers turned out to be WAY more work than I thought it would be. But the project did come out very well, and sounds big!
BK: Your charts for the album are great – did you have any formal training in orchestration or do you just make it up as you go along?
GG: Thanks! I’m glad you noticed! And both. I’ve had quite a bit of formal orchestration and arranging study, plus a lot of plain old “seat of the pants” figuring it out over the years.
BK: You’ve also played guitar on many of my albums, and you’ve done charts for several as well. Did you enjoy, for example, working with Guy Haines? He’s very mysterious, you know.
GG: Guy Haines is an unsung hero of the Broadway stage, perhaps because he’s never been on one.
BK: The Sherman Brothers Album was not a happy experience for some of us – how did you feel about the way in which the two tracks you arranged were used?
GG: I haven’t heard it, and I don’t want to hear it. The way I sometimes work is to send out a “skeleton” track for the singers, enough for them to perform well to, but not the final, fully orchestrated finished version. I think whoever released that project just slapped the singers on the skeleton track and stuck it on the album. Nobody ever asked me for anything or ever consulted me, so I guess they thought what they had was the way it was supposed to be. Guess what? It wasn’t.
They didn’t pay me either, so they got what they paid for, anyway.
I feel bad, because I hear the album is pretty awful. And Richard Sherman is a very nice guy who deserved better.
BK: Tell us about your work with one of our favorite gnomes, Mr. Van Dyke Parks. Haven’t you done several film and television assignments with him?
GG: Van Dyke is one of my favorite people in the world! I really believe that he is one of our national treasures. I have played on a lot of his film scores and solo albums, including ORANGE CRATE ART and a live album, MOONLIGHTING/LIVE AT THE ASH GROVE. And I was lucky enough to produce his incredible songs for the HBO animated series HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON, for which we got nominated for an Annie Award. I also assisted him on three film projects: THE PONDER HEART (HBO), CALL ME CLAUS starring Whoopi Goldberg (TNT), and MONDAY NIGHT MAYHEM (TNT). I love Van Dyke to pieces!
BK: What other film and television projects have you written for? Weren’t you even up for a fershluganah Emmy or something?
GG: John Henry, Ali Olmo and I were nominated for an Emmy a couple of years ago for a song we wrote for the daytime soap opera PASSIONS; the song was called “No Puedo Olvidar.”
And I’m very exited at the moment, because I’m working on a new CBS sitcom called TWO AND A HALF MEN, which stars Charlie Sheen and John Cryer. I co-wrote the theme with my friends Lee Aronsohn and Chuck Lorre, and my other friend Dennis C. Brown and I are working together on the underscore. (These are really great people who are very dedicated to their work.) It’s a really, really funny show, and it debuts in the middle of September, on Monday nights following EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. So tell all your “Neilson family” friends (the ones that have the boxes that survey ratings) to be sure and tune in!
BK: I just have to mention what a treat it was to have you, Grant Geissman, play at my very own darling daughter’s very own wedding. Did you have fun doing it, or do you loathe doing those sorts of things?
GG: Well, to be honest, after so many years in the old days of doing casuals, I wasn’t looking forward to it. But, of course, I ended up having a great time, and it was a lovely wedding and a very fun weekend! And it was very nice of you to invite my lovely wife Lydia and my equally lovely daughter Greer to the occasion. Let’s do it again! Ooops….I mean, not the wedding part, but, well, you know what I mean.
BK: If you had your druthers, where would you see yourself going, career-wise, in the next few years?
GG: I like doing all sorts of things, so really just a lot more of what I’m already doing–TV stuff, my own albums, projects for insane people like you, and like that. Plus I’d like to write another book or two, in my spare time.
BK: Well, Grant Geissman, you’ve been an absolutely sparkling guest and we at haineshisway.com salute you with our official beverage, Diet Coke. And now that you are through, you may help yourself to our official food, cheese slices and ham chunks. Do you have any last thoughts for our dear readers?
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