Original Alice Cooper bassist tells FBPO the band’s whole story, from the early days as teenage rockers to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
May 2, 2011
Best known as the original bass player in the Alice Cooper band, Dennis Dunaway is among the true pioneers of the “glam rock” phenomenon. Alice Cooper had its first top-ten single, “I’m Eighteen,” in 1971 and eventually earned six gold and seven platinum albums. The single, “School’s Out,” was the biggest selling single in the history of Warner Bros. Records.
Dennis has also recorded and/or performed with other notable bands, including Bouchard Dunaway & Smith (BDS), Blue Coupe and Fifth Avenue Vampires. The original Alice Cooper band, including Dennis, is in the 2011 class of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
FBPO: What kind of musical upbringing did you have?
DD: As a youngster, age 5 or so, I would force myself to stay awake so I could watch the family grownups roll up the carpet in my grandma’s living room and pour salt on the wooden floor so their shuffling shoes could be heard as they danced the two-step. They played their favorite songs with guitars, fiddles and a Lap-Steel and sang harmonies with an authentic old-time Honky Tonk feel. Songs like Hank Williams’ “If You’ve Got The Money, Honey (I’ve Got The Time).”
I took up violin in grade school, but my injured-cat screeching was so miserable that the music teacher made me play out in the hall by myself. That wasn’t very encouraging.
My Dad would only listen to country music. Even though I liked some of it, like Gunfighter Ballads by Marty Robbins, that incessant steel guitar that was in most of it just sounded pessimistic to me.
Every year or so, our family would drive from Arizona to Oregon. During those long, late-night desert stretches, the country stations would go off the air or fade into static, so, to help my Dad stay awake – thanks to a powerful Border Blaster transmitter in Mexico, broadcasting the only audible station – we got to listen to a howling Wolfman Jack spinning “Blue Moon” by the Marcels. I was in heaven!
Back home in Arizona, on rare occasions when my parents were away, I would lie on the cool floor next to the hi-fi record player, watching my babysitter’s and her girlfriends’ poodle skirts flying as they did the Dirty Bop to “Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis. I can also remember that heart-tugging Doo-Wop, with such songs as “In The Still Of The Night” by the Five Satins. Out of those bleak, early days of television came Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, with cool acts like Jackie Wilson and Dion & the Belmonts.
As a high school teenager, I got into soundtracks because that’s what my friends’ parents had in their collections. The sophisticated compositions of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme and John Barry’s exciting music from the James Bond movies were all absorbed into my skull forever. My friend, Vince (a/k/a Alice Cooper) and I shared those discoveries. We also loved the harmonies of the Kingston Trio and the Smothers Brothers until the dirt road of folk got paved over by Bob Dylan. And then came the Beatles!
FBPO: How did you end up as a bass player?
DD: Vince wrote in my ’65 Cortez High School yearbook, thanking me for starting the band with him. I was the last to choose an instrument, which is characteristic for a bassist. Glen Buxton already knew how to play guitar when Vince and I recruited him. Chet Atkins and Les Paul were his heroes. Glen pulled in John Tatum because John knew lots of guitar chords and he could get beer. John Speer was a teammate of Vince and mine on the Cortez High School cross-country team. He was as strong as an ox, so he was built for pounding drums. He quickly managed to scrape up enough cash to buy a kit in a scary part of Phoenix. Vince was a master at losing things. People were always picking up after him, so we figured he could never keep track of an instrument. Since he was the only one that could remember lyrics, he became the singer.
Bass was the only thing left for me to play. I spent the summer of ’64 working on my Grandpa’s farm in Oregon, where the family Honky Tonks took place, to get the money to buy my first bass. It was a short-scale Airline from Montgomery Ward.
FBPO: Who were your musical influences as a young student of bass?
DD: I didn’t learn many of Paul McCartney’s licks, but I paid close attention to how his rhythms varied within each song. Early on, Glen Buxton helped me figure out a lot of Bill Wyman’s unusual blues patterns. I was intrigued by how his parts and the bass drum would work together, independently from the guitars.
My biggest influence was Paul Samwell-Smith of the Yardbirds for proving that bass was free to do anything imaginable. The concept of that approach set me off on a lifelong mission.
FBPO: How did you first hook up with Alice Cooper?
DD: We became buddies at age 14. We both studied art and journalism and ran long distance on the track & field and the cross-country teams together. We were pretty good at all of those things, not much else though. We certainly weren’t too smooth with the girls, although they liked us because we were funny.
FBPO: How did the whole “glitter” and “glam” thing come about? You were among the first bands to do that.
DD: Besides, maybe, Liberace and Little Richard, we were the first band to wear sequins and chrome fabrics. In 1965, I wore a white satin shirt, dripping with tassels, to the draft board. Vince had to report on the same day. He wore a shiny purple and gold shirt. Those were our street clothes. Why? We were young artists and liked how reflective fabrics gained intensity and changed colors under the stage lights. Whenever it wasn’t too hot, we even wore those clothes in the glaring desert sun. The more reflective, the better.
Neal Smith was our drummer by that time. His sister, Cindy, who later became my wife, took that concept beyond anyone’s imagination. She designed and sewed unique clothing out of rare reflective fabrics for the group’s stage shows. Her futuristic designs were feminine, yet threatening, because the sequins were ripped and held together with safety pins. We loved it because it got a reaction.
At the time, Cindy’s clothes were so outrageously adventurous they even shocked Hollywood. We would walk down the Sunset Strip and people would stop dead in their tracks, wondering if they should cross the street. We would walk into a loud restaurant and it would get as quiet as a funeral. The pleasant surprise was that that image attracted girls.
I even used that look on my basses. My green “Frog” bass is on display at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland. The Fender Custom Shop has just replicated my 1970 mirrored Jazz bass, the “Billion Dollar” bass.
Hollywood hated how we looked, so it’s easy to imagine how cowboys were out to kill us. Even cops hated us. And as we finally began to break through that massive wall of negativity, other bands picked up on it.
FBPO: Those early Alice Cooper live shows tended to get pretty violent, sometimes totally out of control. How about sharing a story or two?
DD: There were lots of close scrapes, but the outdoor festivals in the Midwest were the roughest. Lucky for us, the bikers always came to our rescue. I guess they could relate to us as social outcasts. Whatever the reason, it seemed like they would always swing into action whenever the threats got out of control. This happened several times, from New York City to San Francisco.
In Saugatuck, Michigan, we threw harmless things, like balloons and feathers, into the crowd and back came full cans of beer that burst open all over the stage. Glen Buxton called it a tragic waste of perfectly good suds! Eggs and M-80s also came flying and a hammer hit Glen in the knee. By the time he was being loaded into an ambulance, the shoving crowd caused the whole giant stage to collapse. The bikers were riding their hogs back and forth through the crowd, roping the troublemakers and dragging them through bonfires.
Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan was the most aggressive performance on the band’s part. We were exhausted and hitting rock bottom and upset about the club’s poor turnout, so we launched an all out pissed-off assault. Bob Ezrin was in the crowd. Afterward, he said he loved the show and assured us that he would get us a record deal. But he was just a kid, so we didn’t think it would happen.
FBPO: Tell me about your association with Frank Zappa.
DD: When Frank found out that I loved Doo-Wop and electronic music, he spent long afternoons playing records for me. He was as enthusiastic as a kid, and rightly so because his collection was chock full of extremely rare records. Sometimes Moon Unit would be crawling across the floor and Miss Christine of the GTOs would come chasing after her. And Alice would be there to see Miss Christine.
Frank wanted Pretties For You to sound like a band rehearsing in a garage, so he banned baffles in the studio. No baffles meant no separation of instruments. Most everything after the first night was damage control. The bass had leaked into every guitar and drum track. Even if the bass fader was all the way down, the bass could still be heard. It was everywhere. “Living” was an exception because I had broken a string, so Michael, Glen and Neal laid down the track without me. We never found the time to overdub my part. We did, however, find the time to add our guinea pigs, Bert and Ethel, chomping lettuce for the intro of “10 Minutes Before The Worm.” You know, the early bird gets the worm, but we were ten minutes early!
FBPO: How about sharing a few highlights from your career since the original Alice Cooper band stopped performing? You’ve been involved in several bands in the years that followed.
DD: The Billion Dollar Babies Battle Axe show would have been Alice Cooper’s theatrical masterpiece. The band had agreed to take a necessary break to recuperate from exhaustion and we had all agreed to get back together by the following year. When the time came, even though Glen wasn’t yet healthy enough to join us, Neal, Michael and I started creating what was to be the next Alice Cooper theatrical extravaganza. Not being able to get a phone call through to our singer forced us to alter those plans. Pulling it off without our management or our record company meant we were facing a monumental financial burden. Despite all that, we forged on and brought in guitar gunslinger Mike Marconi and keyboard player Bob Dolan.
We recorded the Battle Axe album and delivered four dramatic live shows, revolving around the theme of futuristic gladiators battling to the death in a boxing ring that hydraulically rolled out from under Neal’s drum riser. The Battle Axe weapon was a clear axe-shaped guitar with a nasty, jagged steel blade on the headstock. It was plunged into the fallen gladiator and remained stuck in the stage as the ring disappeared into the fog and back under Neal’s drum riser.
Next, the house lights came on, corks popped, champagne sprayed and out came the winner for a confetti-filled celebration of victory. That was the Billion Dollar Babies glorious money-consuming sacrifice to theatrical presentation, our most dramatic spectacle of all.
Afterwards, I spent several years writing songs and brainstorming theatrical ideas. The Dennis Dunaway Project, featuring Rick Tedesco on vocals and guitar, Ed Burns on vocals and keyboards, Russ Wilson on drums and me on vocals and bass, released an album of those songs called Bones From The Yard, with special guest Ian Hunter on piano and support vocals.
The 5th Avenue Vampires is a current band featuring Richie Scarlet on guitar, Russ Wilson on drums and Joe Von T. on vocals. Our conceptual music is dark and eerie, but with an explosive rock edge. Our album, Drawing Blood, is a journey into the broken ways of vampires.
Blue Coupe is a band featuring the Bouchard brothers of Blue Oyster Cult fame. Joe is on vocals and guitar, Albert on vocals and drums and me on vocals and bass. We just released an album called Tornado On The Tracks. Tish and Snooky of the Sick F*cks of CBGB’s fame sing background and special guest Robby Krieger of the Doors plays guitar. Performing with all of these accomplished musicians keeps me happy.
FBPO: Congratulations on the original Alice Cooper band having been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame! How does it feel to be reunited with the guys after so many years?
DD: For a bunch of teenage friends who set out to show the world a new way of doing things, this induction is the ultimate dream come true! The recognizable elements that make up the iconic figure known as Alice Cooper, from the executions to the makeup, the lyrics and the music, in every detail, truly are the result of years of shared invention, sacrifice and hard work by the original band, Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper, Glen Buxton, Neal Smith and me. Our artistic determination nurtured those concepts from obscurity to notoriety. I tip my hat to the Rock &Roll Hall of Fame voters for having the insight to properly recognize Alice Cooper as a band.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
DD: My continuing love of an instrument with four growling, percussive strings and all of the music that continues to swirl around inside my head keeps me very busy. Besides my wife and daughters, it’s my true purpose in life.
FBPO: What’s this I hear about you writing a memoir?
DD: Yes, artistic expression comes in many forms. As a child, I was an artist who drew elephants and rabbits on a little chalkboard and everyone would go “ooh” and “ahh.” In grade school, nobody knew my name. They called me the artist. Later, I developed a deep love for abstract painting. After that, I became a musician with a passion for theatrical invention. A decade or so ago, I heard another loud knock on my skull. I answered it, and low and behold, it was writing.
Would you like to ride in a beer-soaked station wagon with the Alice Cooper group as we travel to every dive across the country? Would you like to be on stage as a rowdy stadium full of people is shocked into silence? Would you like to know how five guys could grab a billion parents by the throat and shake their children loose? The story belongs to the five members of the Alice Cooper group. Every true fan should hear it, but I think it’s also a story that anybody can enjoy.
Focusing on the bonds of friendship, I paint vivid word-pictures of five teen-dreamers through our long, hard crusade in pursuit of a shared artistic vision. In other words, it’s about the purest intentions of a band known as Alice Cooper, before outside and personal interests took over. And so the closing chapter depicts the night Alice Cooper could finally say we made it: The Hollywood Bowl. I’m looking for a publisher.
FBPO: What else would you like to accomplish in your career that you haven’t already achieved?
DD: My darkest musical masterpiece and the most ambitious stage show ever conceived.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
DD: A puddle.