One of those lunches proved to be an especially memorable one. Popovich told him, “I’m glad you picked today to come over here. I’ve got something I want to play for you, and I’d really like to know what you think about it.” He put in a cassette and pressed play. Fox heard the sounds of music from a future album that the world would eventually know as Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell. He was astounded.
“It was one of those absolutely rare moments, like when Al Kooper played ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ for me. I was almost speechless. To this day, I don’t know whether that whole album is either a great piece of theater or one of the greatest pieces of rock and roll ever made. I’m not sure which,” Fox says with a laugh. “It’s spectacularly good. And at the time, having heard nothing about it and no preconceptions going in, because I just didn’t know anything, I thought it was one of the greatest pieces of music anyone ever played me for the first time.”
It was hardly an isolated incident. As Ian Hunter shares in a separate interview, if you were to walk into Popovich’s office at Columbia Records, you’d find him working the phones. “There was a phone in each ear. He’s playing polka to one guy and he’s playing rock 'n' roll to another guy,” Hunter says. “He was a human dynamo.”
“He would share 20 other things too within that 20 or 30 minute time period,” says his son, Steve Popovich Jr. “I mean, I got my share of it when I was older, and I can understand it in working side by side, not to mention living with him. It was 24/7, 365 days a year. Music never shut off.”
And music was always right there, riding shotgun alongside anybody else that he might have with him in the car, travels that could be an experience on several levels. ‘
“If you were privileged to ride in his car, his dashboard would be probably ten inches high across the whole dashboard [with] CDs and cassettes, and the volume would be full blast,” Popovich Jr. says. “Not to mention, his driving was horrific. He’d be going 20 miles an hour and then 50 miles an hour then back down to 20 and 50. It was like this nauseous, irritable, loving roller coaster that you couldn’t get off of. It was just wild, man. He was a wild man, for sure. But a lovable one.”
Steve Popovich brought a blue collar work ethic that stemmed from his humble Pennsylvania beginnings in the coal-mining town of Nemacolin into the music industry. When he passed away in 2011, it took more than seven years to settle his estate. Once that had been wrapped up last year, Popovich Jr. was finally able to realize the goal of carrying his father’s vision forward and moved quickly on long-standing plans to reactivate Cleveland International Records, something which he was keenly aware that was near and dear to his dad.
“He always said that the label was his calling card for life that he wanted his kids and grandkids to remember him by. So that to me is really what this whole thing is about. It’s something that he started and created in a day and time when being an independent label in 1977 wasn’t really the hippest thing in the world to do,” he says. “But I think with what Berry Gordy was doing with Motown and what Sam Phillips had done with Sun Records, what was happening with Stax, Philly International, he wanted to adopt that same sort of independence in creating Cleveland International by putting out music that appealed to heartland America.”
Popovich Jr. is actively engaged in making sure that heartland America will continue to have a soundtrack both now and in the future.
A recent reissue of the 1995 Cleveland Rocks! compilation is a concise overview of the history of Cleveland International Records that only scratches the surface when it comes to telling the story of all of the things that Popovich Sr. accomplished during his time in the business, but it’s a compelling one. There’s Ronnie Spector and the E Street Band offering up their take on Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” leading off the collection, opening the door to a track listing that also features radio staples like Southside Johnny’s “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks” and Meat Loaf’s classic “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” alongside blue collar rock 'n' roll bands like the Boyzz and singer-songwriter Joe Grushecky’s Iron City Houserockers, the country rock stylings of “Wasn’t That a Party” by the Rovers and classic '70s R&B from the group Essence and their track “Sweet Fools.”
It’s quite a ride, but Popovich Jr. is looking forward to adding additional chapters to the story of Cleveland International Records. The label’s first signing is the Cerny Brothers, a Nashville-based duo who will release their latest album, Looking For the Good Land, on Friday. The album is a soul stirring collection filled with road songs, tales of late nights, soul searching, new beginnings and ghosts. It’s been an interesting journey for the brothers, who traveled from Sherrard, Illinois, where they grew up, to Los Angeles in search of the musical dream. The times of struggle and the things that they learned as they eventually migrated from L.A. to Nashville are embedded in their lyrics.
“It’s both a personal album about just our experiences and our struggles, but also, a bigger album about America and what it means to be an American and how we fit into that,” says Scott Cerny, who plays a variety of instruments, including guitar and piano, on the material. “You know, originally coming from Illinois and then moving to California and then moving to Nashville, it’s kind of being all over and trying to make some sense of it all in a way.”
“Like any adventure, there were so many stories and so many nights of shenanigans and all of that stuff. That’s a lot where this album came from,” singer Bob Cerny adds. “Even the title of it, Looking For the Good Land, alludes to those adventures that we had on the road and all of the different people that we would meet. Especially for an artist, meeting all of these people just kind of gave us all this insight and new ideas, whether it was people on the coast or people in the middle of the country. We got a wide breadth of what people were feeling in different parts of the country.”
Looking For the Good Land mixes muscular rockers like “American Whore” and “Days of Thunder” with more introspective material like the brilliant story song “Tennessee” and the poignant “Ghost.” The album finds the duo at times embracing a more piano-driven sound that evolved out of their experiences working as a two man band when it came to playing live. They experimented with adding additional instrumentation along the way.
“It started growing, almost organically, when we moved to Nashville. And then before we knew it, we added the keyboard into the mix,” Bob says. “Because we both grew up playing piano, but for the longest time, piano wasn’t a part of the band. For no reason, really, I guess we weren’t thinking about it too much. So we added that and electric guitar, so we really started getting a show.”
The Cerny Brothers will give area fans a taste of what they’re all about during their set at the upcoming Cleveland International concert at the Beachland Ballroom on Saturday, May 11, which will serve as a relaunch celebration for the label. As it happens, they’ve played the venue a couple of times in the past, most recently in 2016.
“We’ve had good shows there. We actually have some Cleveland people that come out to the shows, which is cool. You never know what place you’re going to pull people and what place you aren’t. But we love the tavern,” Bob shares. “I think the last time we were playing there, there was an Iron Maiden all-female cover band in the ballroom and it was packed. So we straggled over there after our show and we were like, what is going on over here?”
They’ll be joined by a couple of Cleveland International veterans, including “Dirty” Dan Buck, who will bring the music of the Boyzz back to town after a lengthy absence. He has colorful memories of recording the band’s 1978 debut album, Too Wild to Tame, with Popovich Sr.
In particular, he remembers a phone call that came out of the blue from Popovich as they were in the midst of making the record.
“He goes, ‘Dude, I had this revelation last night. Hear me out. I know it’s going to sound weird. You guys are a Chicago rock band. All of the prominent Chicago rock bands that came before you had horns in their band.’ And I’m like, ‘Where are you going with this?’” Buck recalls with a chuckle. “Man, can’t you see it? You put horns behind this band. This will be great!”
Pointing out that they were a “guitar-driven rock 'n' roll band,” it would take a long conversation to convince Buck to give the idea a shot, but ultimately, he was willing to go along with Popovich’s brainstorm.
After a show in Chicago, Buck was informed by his manager, John Poulos, that there was a plane waiting to take him to New Jersey to oversee the horn section that Popovich had secured.
“I walk in and it’s not just a horn section, it’s the Blues Brothers horn section,” he remembers, still marveling at the memory. “I’m looking at Steve and I’m going, ‘Man, you have a way about you, dude.’ I mean, honest to God, the guy doesn’t just get a horn section. You’ve got to remember, this is in 1978, this is when the Blues Brothers [album] came out. They were the hottest frickin’ thing since sliced bread and I’ve got their horn section rehearsing their parts for my album!”
“I’ll never question you again,” Buck later told Popovich, after the horn sessions had been completed.
Joe Grushecky had a similar experience, when he was in the studio with Popovich and his longtime counterpart, Marty Mooney, who co-produced the first two albums from the Iron City Houserockers. The pair were credited on the records as the Slimmer Twins, a humorously sarcastic nod to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ similar moniker of “The Glimmer Twins.”
“They were both heavyweight champions of the world at that time. They were like a couple of sumo wrestlers,” Grushecky laughs. “They were living the good life on the record company tab [in those] days. When Meat Loaf joined them, they were like the defensive line for the Steelers.”
The singer-songwriter shares one of his favorite Popovich stories that went down while their second album, 1980’s Have A Good Time (But Get Out Alive) was in the works.
“We were recording a song called 'Struggle and Die.' Being a young guy, I had co-written it with one of Steve’s friends and that was the song. We just thought, ‘Oh man, this is the shit,’” he laughs.” When we were doing our demos, we thought, ‘This is a song to build a record around. It’s going to be the crowning point of the record.’”
But things took a turn, in more ways than one. “Steve and Ian Hunter basically hated it and they tore it apart and completely restructured and it ended up being this balls to the wall rocker.”
Popovich had another idea up his sleeve to further flesh things out on the track (which was eventually renamed “We’re Not Dead Yet”), as Grushecky relates. “Steve decided at some point to bring in people off the street of New York City” to add some additional gang vocals. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re ruining my song. This is killing me!’ I was fucking distraught. The next day when we played it back, I said, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good!’ It ended up being one of the better songs on the record that we loved to play live.”
“This crazy idea, the ‘Whoa Whoa Whoas’ were always a signature part of the song when we played it live,” Grushecky says now. “[But] I can remember him actually going out in the street of New York City. We were at Media Sound, I think it was on 57th Street, and [he was] bringing people in, complete strangers, to sing on our record. I was mortified at the time!”
Their 1979 debut, Love’s So Tough, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and was recently reissued by Cleveland International, making its debut on digital download and streaming. It’s an incredibly confident piece of work, especially when you consider that according to Grushecky, although the songs and their stage show were polished, the members of the Iron City Houserockers hadn’t seen the inside of a studio prior to entering Cleveland’s Agency Recording to begin work on the album. Grushecky and the band will revisit material from the album during their Beachland set, in addition to other favorites from the catalog.
“I just started listening to it again. I thought it was pretty good. You listen to it with different ears. I’m not a nostalgic type of guy. I don’t go back and listen to my stuff a whole lot, but there’s songs on there I haven’t played for years, so you know, you want to learn them and do them justice. But I thought, you know what? This is a pretty good record. And really, it sounded like the times,” he explains. “Because we were a bit older when punk rock hit. At that time, there was a lot of complicated studio, endless overdubbing stuff on the radio. We wanted to get back to the basics.”
Popovich Jr. is currently hard at work overseeing a forthcoming documentary that will cover his father’s life and career. Since the film is still in progress, he says it’s likely that the film will emerge sometime in 2020. More than 30 interviews have been completed for the project so far.
He’s got his hands full with plenty of upcoming plans for Cleveland International as well. The label has already reissued a number of titles to digital and streaming services and there will be “probably another six or seven reissues from the back catalog in July and August,” he says.
The Cerny Brothers are the label’s “flagship artist” for this year, but he says they’re looking at expanding the roster with additional signings in the near future. “Right now, we’re a small army, so we’re pushing quality over quantity and them being the main focus for us here this year,” he explains. “But we’re talking to several other artists and bands to potentially sign down the short road.”
“We’re excited about what we’re doing. We’re obviously still keeping the spirit of Cleveland International Records, with a lot of the legacy artists that were home to the label,” he continues. “We definitely want to keep that aspect of the label going. But also, we want to look at bringing on new talent, new artists that appeal to heartland America and that represents the label.”
Cleveland International Records Relaunch Concert with Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers, Dirty Dan of the Boyzz, Cerny Brothers, 8 p.m. Saturday, May 11, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $18 ADV, $22 DOS, beachlandballroom.com