Mar 14, 2024, 06:27AM

The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn

An interview with the multi-talented man from in and around Philly.

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Music is a necessity for a well-rounded, balanced life. Mixed with sentimental emotions and the kind of good vibes energy that’ll make you want to get up and dance. Or at least tap your toes and play air guitar. Ben Vaughn’s a dancer and a player. He likes to make other people dance, too. Vaughn’s a man of many hats. As a recording artist, he's released 14 albums (including Rambler '65, recorded entirely in his car). In the world of TV and film, Vaughn created the musical identity for the sitcoms That '70s Show and 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Tom DiVenti: You started young, playing in bands. Was that mostly in Philly?

Ben Vaughn: I’m from Camden, New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia, so my childhood was spent going in and out of Philly to all the record stores; you know, we had great Do Wop and soul music. It was a very vibrant and great place to grow up. American Bandstand was still going strong, so all the small-time label record hustlers and producers were working it, and radio at the time was phenomenal. We had two soul stations—two Top-40 stations—and we had the Geator [Philadelphia oldies DJ, Jerry Blavat]. When I discovered the Geator it was like being abducted by aliens. Because of his playlists, he never told you whether a song was old or new. He just played records that he loved and thought that his teenage audience would love.

TD: Because they were timeless?

BV: Yes, I didn’t know, or I was too young to understand why the other radio stations weren’t playing these records. They were better, wilder, funkier and more primitive, and I couldn’t understand why the Top-40 stations weren’t playing these records because I didn’t understand the chronology of the history of rock ‘n’ roll. I was absorbed it all in an innocent way. I was 10 years old. I started playing in bands at 12, which was 1967; we still had to play all the old stuff. If you wanted to get hired back at a dance, you had to play music that teenagers would dance to. In Philadelphia and South Jersey, that meant oldies. That’s because of the Geator. We didn’t know they were oldies. He gave us this vocabulary of soulful music; it really is timeless.

TD: Was the Geator a mentor to you?

BV: Yeah. I was a weird kid; nobody understood me. I was so into rock ‘n’ roll; I had these Tourette’s moments where I’d just start blurting out crazy stuff about records and music. I’d turn on the Geator show on, and he was weirder than me. I was drawn to him immediately because I thought he understood me.

TD: He also set up his shows so they’d have themes, and I noticed listening to your show, “The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn,” you kind of do the same thing.

BV: Yeah, I got that from the Geator for sure.

TD: How many bands did you go through in your youth before the Ben Vaughn Combo?

BV: For the dances, I’d join or form different bands constantly. We had a lot of fun making up names for the bands. They weren’t all the same players all the time but we’d change the name of our group for every gig.

TD: Did you play the same set list?

BV: We did, which is a really bad game plan if you look for recognition or branding, but we had names like Johnny Cash & the Registers, Tomato, and my favorite one was Donna Esquanasi. She was a girl who sat in front of me in math class. So we just named the band after her. She was flattered. But by the time I graduated from high school, I wasn’t really playing in bands because of Aqualung and ELP. Edgar Winter, you know big arena rock, and I wasn’t that interested. I was always more interested in getting people to dance. You know, starting out as a drummer was great because you could see what’s working and what’s not by audience reaction. I started out as a dancer; I’d go to all the dances. I grew up in an Italian-American community, and dancing was big because of American Bandstand, and every disc jockey had record hops.

TD: Did you play Baltimore in the past?

BV: I used to play at a place called the 8 ×10 Club. A guy named Dickie Gamerman. He was a character. He reminded me of Angel on The Rockford Files. There was this glint in his eye; you knew he was up to some trouble.

TD: That was Dickie. We had the pleasure of seeing Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention every year on Mother's Day in Baltimore. He’d have guests like Flo & Eddie and Captain Beefheart. We were there every Mother's Day.

BV: I met Zappa in 1970. He played a gig in Philly, and a friend convinced me we needed to hang by the stage door. Finally, Frank came out and gave us all the time in the world; he was just a nice guy. He sent his road manager away, telling him he’d find his way back to the hotel. He wanted to talk to us kids. We talked about do-wop; R & B, Don & Dewey. I recommended a record store that he should go to the next day. I was a do-wop kid. It was a great experience.

TD: Ruben & the Jets.

BV: Exactly. I was the socially awkward kid like we all were, and I’m meeting someone famous. The patience he had with me was a real example of how you should treat your public. And I’ve always thought of that, like, when I meet people, even in my stratosphere of recognition and throughout my career, meeting people that are into my music, I think of Frank Zappa right away, like, What would Frank do?

TD: Do you have any music tours coming up?

BV: Not touring so much, but I go to Spain once a year and tour because my records were really big over there in the 1980s. I have this alternate career there where I’m famous; it’s pretty funny. I get recognized on the street and take selfies with people. But I just got back from Rhode Island, with the band Deer Tick. They recorded one of my songs on their last album, and I just went there to record a whole new album with them backing me up, and we’re getting ready to mix now.

TD: Your radio show is getting syndicated all over the radio stations everywhere now.

BV: My radio show’s on 28 stations now. It’s coming along. You know, world domination is the goal, but I’m falling short of that.

TD: Where do you see the future of modern music heading with all the AI technology happening now?

BV: I don’t know. I just feel lucky to be alive. I don’t think too much about the future. I think even though the world is insane right now, I’m lucky to be alive. I can’t even explain why. I guess I’m an optimist. Even though I’m from New Jersey, I have a really good feeling this is a consciousness-raising moment, even though it doesn’t feel like it. Something is shifting. Like with most things, they get worse before they get better. As far as music, I played a gig last night, and we had a packed house. I’m just so impressed that people will leave home, get in their cars, find a parking space, and go to a bar to hear me play. I’m grateful. Live music is still alive. As far as the record business, I have no idea what happened. I don’t really relate to or really care about it, either. I’m just happy to make music, and if there’s a handful of people who like what I do and respond to it, it makes them happier or makes them glad they came out that night. That's a big thing for me. I’m at that point in my life where I really see things for exactly what they are.

TD: Life, death, heaven, hell, and where do you fit in?

BV: I believe in reincarnation because, what’s real? I like that it inspires me to lead a life of self-improvement, always trying to work on myself so the next person who inherits my soul has an easier go of it. Because I fixed some things in this carnation that will help whoever comes next, and it might be a dachshund. Who knows?


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