Larry Swartzwelder

Right Place, Right Time

In the Fall of 1975, I was a high-school senior playing in a rock band called Mansion. One of us caught an ad in the Harrisburg Patriot newspaper for a concert featuring the Legends, a very successful and popular local rock band. The concert was happening at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. (The picture in the ad is shown to the right). Only our oldest band member, Robin (vocalist), had a driver's license, so he took us to the concert.

The Forum was mostly empty during the concert, which surprised me, given the band's reputation. I didn't know much about the Legends history; but they had played a concert at my high school a few years earlier, during the day. Such an event was called an "assembly." For most of us, it was just an opportunity to skip a class. I do remember the band playing their recent radio single Rock and Roll Woman during the school concert. So the Legends had certainly achieved some local notoriety.

In the Fall of 1975, the Legends were a 4-piece group. While I watched them play at the Forum concert, I was awestruck by the lead guitarist and his incredible guitar playing, great tone, and his ability to replicate note-for-note the guitar parts (rhythm and lead) from the original records. I remember they played the song Movin' On (by Bad Company) and Take It Or Leave It (by Foghat) along with several original songs, which were unfamiliar to me.

At the time (I had just turned 17) my little rock band was struggling to make headway. We practiced every day after school, but played very few gigs. Earlier in high school, I had taken a few guitar lessons, so I wasn't a complete beginner. However, after seeing the Legends, I decided to contact their guitar player and ask for some lessons.

So I visited Wray's Music store in downtown Lemoyne and asked the salesman if he knew the name of the Legends' guitar player I had just seen at the Forum concert. He told me, but he wasn't sure how to spell his last name. I went home, opened the fat phone book, looked up my "best guess" at the surname, and dialed the number. Luckily, it was the right number. Larry Swartzwelder's mom answered the phone and next thing I know, I'm talking to the guitarist for the Legends — the guy who had just blown me away a few nights earlier — and asking if he'll teach me some stuff on the guitar. I had just turned 17 and it felt like I was talking to a celebrity.

The Legends lineup in late 1975 was: Larry Swartzwelder (guitar), Larry Sadler (drums), Joe Calerio (bass and lead vocals), and Steve Szady on keyboards/guitar. They had achieved local fame a few years earlier as a power trio, featuring Dan Hartman.

Dan Hartman

In the mid 1960s, Larry and Dan were bandmates, playing together in the Legends (Dan played keyboards and rhythm guitar) until Larry was drafted into military service and left for Vietnam in the Summer of 1969. Dan would later say in an interview, regarding Larry: "He was a brilliant guitar player. In fact he taught me a lot of what I know."

Larry told me that when he returned from Vietnam, he was amazed when he first heard Dan's improvement on guitar. If you listen to old recordings of the 1971 Legends (power trio) you can really hear how Hartman's guitar playing had blossomed. Hartman was a fabulous talent; but he also had a great mentor in his slightly older Legends pal Larry.

In 1972, Dan Hartman "made it big" and quit the Legends to join the Edgar Winter Group. Larry, having just returned from Vietnam, returned to the Legends lineup. The Edgar Winter Group created top-40 hits in 1972 including Frankenstein and Free Ride (written and sung by Dan Hartman).

House Calls

Anyway, back to my out-of-the-blue phone call to Larry Swartzwelder for guitar lessons in late 1975...

Larry agreed to give me some lessons; however, he preferred to do so in my home, and would only charge $5 for a half-hour. A few days later, 26-year old Larry Swartzwelder arrived with his sunburst Stratocaster (very similar to mine). That first visit, he wound up staying a couple hours but refused to accept more than $5 for his time. He smoked a cigarette and we both drank a Coca-Cola.

Larry was exactly the teacher I needed. He was not a traditional teacher, and had never taught in a music store. So we didn't talk music theory and we didn't use a book. He didn't write anything down. He didn't have to, as I was a sponge soaking up everything he showed me.

Larry was a Jimi Hendrix aficionado and proceeded to show me how to play Purple Haze, Foxy Lady, and a few other Hendrix tunes. He explained in his soft-spoken and humble manner that it was important to explore Hendrix, because so many of the rock star guitarists at that time (Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, etc.) were heavily influenced by Hendrix. I.e., he encouraged me to go directly to the source.

Larry was an incredible guitar player; yet he was totally "down to earth." No arrogance, no pretense, no bravado. Just a meek and genuine human being.

I had a handful of lessons with Larry in late 1975 and in the first half of 1976, before I went off to college in August 1976. I was still 17 years old. Thanks to Larry unlocking so many guitar secrets for me, I was a fairly good player when I arrived at college. In fact, it wasn't long before I formed a rock band in college. And it was called Purple Haze.

Larry Swartzwelder promo photo, the Legends

Larry Swartzwelder

The Legends of Harrisburg PA, Larry Swartzwelder

The Legends, in mid-1975.

Joe Calerio, Larry Sadler, Steve Szady, Larry Swartzwelder.

From an ad in the Harrisburg Patriot newspaper.

Spanish Castle MagicLegends, 1976
00:00 / 01:04

This audio clip is the 1976 Legends lineup playing a Hendrix song. Larry sings lead vocal and plays screaming guitar.

Wray Music House logo receipt

Wray Music was a fixture in Lemoyne for many years.

old phone book white pages

This is how you found people in 1975.

Dan Hartman, Larry Swartzwelder

Dan Hartman, upper left. Larry Swartzwelder, lower right. Mid 1960s.

Larry Swartzwelder

Larry, during a lesson in my home.

Playing my guitar. Early 1976.

Jimi Hendrix Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Jimi Hendrix, performing in Philadelphia.

Larry told me he attended 2 Hendrix concerts in Philadelphia. He said it was "so loud, it felt like your ears were bleeding."

Lessons

When Larry visited for a lesson, he'd always stay a couple hours. I remember he showed me how to play Play That Funky Music, Walk Away, and many other songs. Sometimes I'd put a record on the turntable, and he'd figure out the guitar parts while I dropped the phonograph needle, picked up the needle, and dropped it again. He certainly encouraged me to use my ears.

Larry also explained his amp setup for gigging: he had two 50-watt tube amplifiers, one sitting on top of the other, and both "flat out" — turned up to 10. By pushing the amps to the max, he felt he got the best tone. (Having said that, Larry, like most guitar players I've known were forever on a "tone quest" — always trying new amps and pedals, looking for a better sound.)

Larry and I would also jam and record during lessons. I still have a few clips of us jamming.

Multitrack Recording

A real watershed moment for me was the day he brought over some of his original songs he'd recorded at home (in the small bedroom of his Swatara Street home in downtown Harrisburg). On these recordings, he played and sang everything (except drums) by overdubbing and "bouncing" between two 4-track reel-to-reel recorders. I also had a 4-track reel-to-reel recorder, and by late 1976, I had two of them; so that I could do the same multitrack recording of my original songs.

Building a Drum Track

In the mid 1970s, there was a popular nationwide songwriting contest known as the American Song Festival (see ad to the right, featuring Teri Garr). Larry submitted a couple songs to the contest and had received an "honorable mention" for one of his songs, called "In My Lifetime."

One of the stunning facts about this and some other home-brew recordings Larry made was that he would build a drum track by recording a small clip from a vinyl album and then splice-and-repeat that small clip over and over... the entire length of his original songs! On top of that, he would add crash cymbals. Keep in mind, this was LONG before the days of digital audio; so the process began with a record player, recording the drum clip onto a reel-to-reel tape, and copying that part to another tape recorder, then using a razor blade to cut and splice all the identical tape clips together in serial fashion. I remember two particular songs where he got drum parts: the intro of "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin and the intro of "Freeway Jam" by Jeff Beck. (Listen to the two examples to the right.)

I was incredibly impressed and inspired by his ingenuity, which was partly driven by the sheer prohibitive costs of renting a professional recording studio, let alone paying musicians to add parts. In addition, by doing it all himself, he was able to experiment and refine each guitar, bass, keyboard, and vocal part.

All of this inspired me to do the same thing: compose songs and play every part, at home (which I've been doing, to one degree or another, ever since Larry showed me the way).

Larry was also well-versed in electronics. In fact, he built me a small guitar amp, which I took to college, to practice in my dorm room. Later, he built me two 4-channel mixers, which I used on my early multitrack recordings. An excerpt from one of his schematic diagrams is shown to the right.

American Song Festival, Teri Garr

Ad for the American Song Festival.

In My LifetimeLarry Swartzwelder
00:00 / 01:04
Lady of the IslandLarry Swartzwelder
00:00 / 01:04

Clips from two of Larry's songs. Each utilize a hand-spliced drum track from a commercial album.

mixer schematic diagram, larry swartzwelder

Larry's hand-drawn schematic diagram

for the mixer he built for me.

Postlude

Larry and I have stayed in touch over the years. We have both lived through and often discussed the transformation from analog to digital technology as it impacts music and recording.

We almost played in a band together, back in 1985. I was playing in a top-40/variety band called Freelance, and was switching from guitar to keyboards. We needed a guitar player and Larry was all set to join us when his fiancé nixed the plan. She wanted to see Larry play "live" every weekend at public gigs with his current band Memory Lane; however, Freelance was doing only private gigs (thus spouses, girlfriends, etc. couldn't attend).

Eventually, Larry retired from playing live music, as have I.

We still talk occasionally. I have thanked him 100 times for mentoring me, inspiring me, teaching me. I could thank him 100 more times, and it wouldn't be enough.

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