Front Man For 80's Band Says The Guys Still Love Playing Live
By: Jeff Walker, Entertainment Writer
Although they formed in 1982 under the name City Kidd, it wasn't until they re-branded in 1986 that the rock group Tesla began to take off. Their debut release 'Mechanical Resonance' quickly established the Sacramento, California natives as hard rockers, setting themselves somewhat apart from the glam rock and hair bands of the day.
Nearly four decades later Tesla maintain most of the original members, including lead singer Jeff Keith, guitarist Frank Hannon, drummer Troy Luccketta, and bass player Brian Wheat. Rounding out the quintet is Dave Rude who joined the boys back in 2006. Rude replaced original guitarist Tommy Skeoch. All totaled Tesla have recorded eight original albums, having sold over 14 million records alone in the US. Their latest release 'Shock' came out in 2019.
According to Keith, their love of performing is what keeps them going. "The greatest reward as an artist is playing all your songs in front of a live audience, especially before fans who love your music. I love recording, and jamming in the studio, but the biggest thrill for me is playing live. That's what keeps the flame burning."
The brotherhood the band members enjoy is equally compelling. "We've always had a great relationship. That's what has kept the core unit together. Not a lot of egos in the band. I've always enjoyed the continuity we have in Tesla. We took a break in the 1990's, but I knew we'd got back together."
Regarding the one change, Keith adds, "Of course Tommy (Skeoch) left the band a couple of times. But we still talk. And Dave joined us in 2007. We knew right away it was a good fit. So four out of five of us have been there since the beginning, but the five we have now is a perfect marriage of musicians."
Among Tesla's hit singles are the power ballads, 'Love Song' and 'What You Give', as well as the grittier tracks 'The Way It Is', 'Need Your Lovin' and 'Modern Day Cowboy'.
Their biggest solo hit was the remake of Five Man Electrical Band's 1970 hit 'Signs'. The single was one of 14 tracks on the appropriately titled live album 'Five Man Acoustical Jam'. "That was a fun album to record. Obviously it was a bit of a departure for us, going in with acoustic guitars and not electric. We did a handful of cover songs and several of our own. It was a good mix and gave us a Top 10 hit." Tesla took their rendition of 'Signs' to number eight on the Billboard pop charts.
While it was Tesla that brought Keith to the forefront, he started singing with the group Troubleshooter, along with his brother, before joining the band City Kidd which later became Tesla. During the Tesla hiatus in the 90's Keith and Skeoch formed a short lived band called Bar 7. "I never really wanted to take a break from the music. I like staying busy." Bar 7 would fall to the wayside, with Tesla re-uniting in 2000.
Like many artists Keith held a variety of jobs prior to making it. "One of my best jobs was a burger joint called Bob's Drive-In back in my native Oklahoma. Maybe one of the oddest was driving a septic tank truck slash cement truck. We would make and pour the cement for tanks. So I know how to drive a big truck."
He admits most of his early jobs were okay with his least favorite job coming while a young lad. "I delivered newspapers, and trying to collect money from customers at the end of the month was tough. Sometimes they'd close the curtains and pretend they weren't home."
Does Keith recall a time when he thought Tesla had made it. "I think we always felt successful even when most people didn't know who we were. But with every new album we felt a little more successful. For us, if we were playing music and paying the bills, we figured we were doing okay and moving forward."
He does pinpoint a more definitive time when he imagined Tesla reached their pinnacle. "Maybe with the release of 'Psychotic Supper' in 1991. That was a huge album for us both in sales and industry respect." The release would be certified platinum (million plus in sales) by 1993, and rise to number 13 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums charts.
Hard core Tesla fans were no doubt delighted in 2007, when the band released a double album disc entitled, Real To Reel Volume 1 & 2, whereas the boys covered some of their favorite classic rock and R&B tunes from the 1960's and 70's. Among the 24 tracks are songs from Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Badfinger, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, and ZZ Top.
"We had just decided to bring Dave on board, and we thought a nice way to induct him into the band, was to go into the studio and record some classic songs, from bands that had influenced us throughout the years."
Tesla put their own spin on 'All The Young Dudes' by Mott The Hoople, 'Walk Away' by Joe Walsh, Eric Clapton's 'Bell Bottom Blues' by Derek & the Dominos, and 'Hand Me Down World' by The Guess Who. Paying tribute to Motown, Tesla covered The Temptations 1970 classic 'Ball of Confusion'.
"These were the musicians, artists, and songs we grew up listening too. All of them in some shape or form, influenced us in so many ways. For us to go into the studio and record their songs was amazing. I think it's the ultimate tribute when someone records your songs."
Other than the obvious Keith sees no difference in Tesla 1986 versus 2020. "Maybe were a tad bit older and hopefully wiser. Back then we headlined arenas and went out on bigger tours. The places we play and the tours we go out on might be a little different now, but our hardcore fans have followed us from day one. We're still enjoying it. We have fun when we're out on the road. So not much has changed except we're not in our 20's anymore. On the upside I think we're tighter as a band."
Tesla will be releasing a new live album this year. 30 years after the breakthrough success of 'Five Man Acoustical Jam', Tesla is set to release a follow up anniversary album, recorded at London's Abbey Road studios. "To be able to lay down tracks in the building The Beatles made famous was awesome. Just to set foot on the famed crosswalk was mind blowing. I love doing live recordings. It's just a different feel."
Keith admits he's not sure what the new album will be called, but hints it might be 'Five Man London Jam'. "Sounds like a good working title. Whatever they label it as, I feel certain our fans will thoroughly get into it." The new live album is set to released sometime in March.
One thing for certain Keith says they had a lot of fun recording the album. "It's a lot like jamming. We had a live audience with us. We did several songs from the original album and performed a few we just recorded with Phil Collen (Def Leppard) for 'Shock'. I got the same charge out of it that I did in 1990, except this time around it was Abbey Road studios. Totally awesome."
Over a career spanning nearly four decades, Keith reflects on some highlights. "Putting out our first album was awesome enough. Just the fact that our songs were finding their way on to radio, and we went out on tour with Def Leppard. And then our second album gave us a bona-fide hit (1989's Love Song), and we opened for Motley Crue. We literally went from playing clubs to arenas almost overnight. It gave us great exposure. Of course we played the Cotton Bowl as part of the Texxas Jam. That was cool."
Coming up in the mid and late 80's critics often lumped Tesla together with the glam rock and hair bands of the day, groups such as Poison and David Lee Roth. "Looking back I get it. Bands like Poison and Motley Crue, and that style of music was popular, and we were right there as well. But we never really dressed the part, or used as much aqua-net (hairspray). Don't get me wrong, all of them are great bands, and we've toured with many in recent years, but for the most part we just considered ourselves a rock band that didn't rely as much on a certain look."
No matter how fans categorize Tesla, the five member band, including lead singer Jeff Keith will perform at the Charleston Music Hall on Monday February 17th. "I love Charleston. We played there early in our career." Tesla first performed at the old Gaillard Auditorium back in 1989 with Great White. "We've been paired with a lot of great bands over the years. I look forward to returning to Charleston and playing for our fans there."