Learn from your mistakes, be prepared when opportunity knocks, and don’t take success for granted.
Those were three principles Phil Ehart, drummer for the legendary rock band Kansas, told a packed assembly room at Lowder Hall Wednesday, March 20.
Ehart’s visit was part of the Auburn University College of Business’ Diversity in Music Speakers Series, and sponsored by the School of Accountancy. The band is best known for mega-hits “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry on Wayward Son” and has produced 14 Hot 100 Billboard hits, 14 studio albums and seven concert albums.
“Our music is not for everyone,” joked Ehart. “It’s complicated music that you can hurt yourself trying to dance to.”
His tale was one of a young rock band that battled the odds and rose to international acclaim – despite early management setbacks and misfortune. In early years, the band traveled by a hollowed out school bus with no heat, and watched its home and everything it owned burn to the ground. Ehart said, at times, band members were making about “$3 per day” before the band was given a shot by music mogul Don Kirschner, who discovered The Monkees, and sent on tour.
“We survived on work ethic,” Ehart said. “That’s all we had – and a dream that nobody was going to stop us. It’s not always rosy out there. When you see a stage – think of the tens of thousands of hours that it takes to get to that place. It teaches you that you had better pay attention along the way. Mistakes have a purpose.”
Paying attention to contractual details robbed Kansas from thousands of dollars years ago. Instead of finding its own attorney as the band was ascending to fame, Kansas used Kirshner’s attorney. What happened?
“We signed away 100 percent of the publicity royalties,” said Ehart. “We didn’t know what that was. We thought it was sheet music. Don would never give it back. We had no manager, no attorney and nothing business-relative to help us make a business decision, so people took advantage of us. We were making money and had no idea where it was going.”
Ehart said he does not begrudge Kirshner’s move today, but uses it as a learning tool.
“It’s hard to whine or complain after selling 30 million records and playing in a band for 40 years,” he said. “If not for Don Kirshner, the band wouldn’t be here right now. You’ve got to watch out for contractual deals.”
Despite the road’s bumpy ride, the group had its share of interesting encounters with a number of other noted musicians.
Ehart recalled a night in 1970 at a night club called The Roach in New Orleans when the band was introduced to poetry … and The Doors lead singer, the late Jim Morrison. The Doors’ front man was at the club’s bar and wanted to “jam” with this unknown, young rock band from the Midwest.
“We couldn’t say a word,” said Ehart. “I was 18. Jim said, ‘play “Light My Fire.”’ So there we are and there’s Jim Morrison singing. It was unbelievable. Then he pulls out this paper, starts reading poetry and walks off the stage.”
However, Ehart told the crowd that The Doors invited the band of unknowns to open for them at The Warehouse in New Orleans on Dec. 8, 1970. They said “yes.”
“We’re punk kids trying to figure out what we’re doing,” Ehart said. “Then Jim Morrison wants us to come out for an encore with them. What an incredible experience we had to play with The Doors. That’s a lot better than Justin Beiber. Four months later, we heard that Jim Morrison had died.”
Then the story gets interesting.
“We read in the article that The Doors’ last gig was in New Orleans,” Ehart continued. “We played the last song The Doors ever played. You take an opportunity that you think will not produce anything. What can come from that? A lot of things.”
Ehart spoke of another encounter months later at a music festival in New Orleans.
“Someone said, ‘Hey you guys were pretty good,’ and I turned around and it was Janis Joplin,” Ehart said. “’Maybe we will hear from you guys again.’
“Things like that push you. You remember a particular moment in life where somebody said something that gives you confidence. Janis Joplin didn’t have to say that. After that, we decided to go back to Topeka and take it seriously.”
Once the band struck gold with “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry on Wayward Son,” years later, it became a major act.
“Now, we’re in the stratosphere,” Ehart said. “Rush and Van Halen were opening for us. But we were 25 and 26 years old. We were not prepared for this kind of success. You are not prepared for it and everyone is telling you how great you are. Be careful you don’t start believing that. Guys in the band started to believe that we were truly unbelievable. Couple that with alcohol and drugs, it starts to spin because you don’t have a reality base anymore.”
Serving as the undercard for Aerosmith, Ehart spoke of issues with that group’s lead singer Stephen Tyler at a tour stop in Wichita, Kan.
“People said, ‘Watch out for Steven Tyler. He will try to unplug you. He will try to shut you down while you are playing,’” Ehart said. “This guy was a problem and we were prepared for it.”
So they fooled the singer.
“We set up a dummy set of wires,” Ehart explained. “We were killing it (on stage). We were doing the encore and the crowd was going crazy. And there’s Steven. He’s (expletive). He goes for the plugs. He unplugs every one and we kept right on going. We had him.
“It was recognizing a problem. We could have ignored it, or be prepared for what could be a disaster.”
Another obstacle the band had to overcome was changing times.
“We sold our records and had our tours, and then came the 80s and MTV,” Ehart said. “Kansas, Journey, Styx … all those bands are gone because ‘here come the hair gods’. As things change, you have to decide what you want to do.”
So Ehart took over management of the band. That was 25 years ago, and he’s still the manager.
“We pulled in expenses,” he said. “Instead of five or six semis, we had one semi. The shows become smaller. Fans have grown up and were interested in other music. Where did everyone go? All of the new people were watching MTV. We played in 60 to 70 dates per year instead of 270. But we were in control. We do our own running of the corporation. Nobody controls us because we paid attention over the years.
“Now, we’re doing better and making more money. You cut away all of those managers and agents and people sucking off of you and what’s left? The music.”
Today, Kansas continues to tour. Beginning Friday, March 22, the band will begin a three-week tour in Salisbury, Mass., that covers four states and Mexico.
“It’s been a heck of a ride,” he said. “No one has twisted our arm. We have a passion for what we do and I would curl up and die if I couldn’t be a musician.”