Former Bob Dylan bandleader tells of his experiences with Dylan, the “American Pie” session, songwriting and more!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 13, 2009
Manhattan native Rob Stoner (neé Rothstein) has been enjoying a diverse and prolific musical career for over four decades. While a student at Columbia College, Rob was signed to a songwriting contract with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Soon afterward, he became an in-demand session musician, having sung and played guitar, bass and piano on many popular recordings, most notably, “American Pie,” by Don McLean.
In 1975, Rob was hired by Bob Dylan to be his bandleader and opening act for the Rolling Thunder Revue. Rob played and sang on several Dylan albums, including Desire, Hard Rain, Live at the Budokan and Live 1975.
Stoner has also appeared and/or recorded with Chuck Berry, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, B.J. Thomas, Carl Perkins, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn, Billy Idol, Michael Brecker, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Kinky Friedman, T-Bone Burnette, Lou Reed, Richie Havens, Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie, Rick Derringer and countless others. He now lives in New York City and Rockland County, NY, where he remains active on the music scene.
FBPO: You’ve done so many things in your musical career, it’s hard to know where to begin. I think our readers would like to know about Bob Dylan. What was he like to work with? What exactly was your role with him? How involved did he get in preparing the band for performances?
RS: Bob Dylan was very challenging to work with and the most talented and intelligent person I’ve ever met. He always kept me in suspense because you never knew what surprises he would pull.
I was the musical director during my years with him. He would communicate most of his musical decisions to the band through me. Dylan would make the basic decisions about material, keys & tempos and leave it to the musicians to come up with parts.
During rehearsals, sometimes he wouldn’t show up for days at a time, so I would sing his parts for the run-throughs. I would conduct most of the rehearsals or soundchecks and he would give final approval of what we did. Other times he was very hands-on about arrangements, so he really kept us on our toes.
FBPO: Tell us about your songwriting deal with Leiber and Stoller. Many people would kill for an opportunity like that. How did it come about?
RS: When I was at Columbia College (class of ’69), I had a band with some other students, which had regular work at various downtown NYC clubs. We were an opening act for Deep Purple, Sly & the Family Stone, the Jeff Beck Group and many other top acts of the day. One of the guitar players in the band had met Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and convinced them to come hear us at the Electric Circus, where we had a steady gig. Jerry and Mike liked what they heard. They signed us to a publishing deal, bought us a van and even gave us an advance. They took us into the studio with Brooks Arthur engineering, but the sides were never released. For over a year, we used a songwriting cubicle in their Brill Building suite to store our gear.
FBPO: I’ve always really liked the bass line in “American Pie.” Is that you?!
RS: I got the call to play on “American Pie” because I had already played on some other albums for the producer, Ed Freeman. Ed had hired me to play for Tim Hardin, Pete Seeger and other folk artists. Like most singer songwriter record dates, it was a head arrangement, which the musicians worked out with just chord charts. I’m also the harmony singer on that track, doing the high part on the choruses.
FBPO: The artists with whom you’ve performed and recorded read like a who’s who of modern-day music history. You’ve also done quite a bit as a leader in your own right. Would you say you’ve had the best of both worlds?
RS: I’ve been very lucky to have had a career in NYC during a period of extraordinary musical events. My solo albums came about because I can sing and write songs. It’s always an interesting contrast going back and forth between the sideman and leader roles.
FBPO: In looking at the types of artists with whom you’ve been associated, one would guess you’re primarily a rocker, but you’ve also written three off-Broadway musicals. How does that fit in to the spectrum of your musical career?
RS: My writing for musical theatre came about when I met some people involved in that field who liked my songwriting. I was looking for something new to do and found musical theatre to be a great way to have a big batch of songs released within a single project.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
RS: I play on sessions, do gigs fronting my own trio and work part-time with a Dylan tribute band, Highway 61 Revisited. My main gig is giving guitar, bass, voice and composition lessons in my home studio. I have many super talented students.
FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not musical?
RS: I love spending time with my family, especially my grandchildren. I also travel and read a lot, mostly history books.