Return to Forever: Back, Bold and Badass
By the middle of 1974, Connors was apparently unhappy with the rock-music direction the band was taking. He had fit in well with the band's sound, with an emotive quality and a singing voice, perhaps more akin to Carlos Santana. It was a sound Corea liked, but nonetheless the reality of a member leaving had to be dealt with.
"I don't like to audition people. I like to hire musicians for a gig or play for a week and see how it works out. It's sort of an audition, but not really," says Corea. Based on a tape the pianist received of DiMeola playing in a live setting, a telephone call was placed and the youngster was enlisted, with the chance to sink or swim.
In that frame of reference, DiMeola came on like a shark.
DiMeola was a student at Berklee College of Music and a huge RTF fan. He knew the music. But he didn't know Corea was aware of his existence. It seems a friend of his sent the tape to Corea. Upon getting the call, the guitarist dropped everythingschool, girlfriend, the city of Bostonand returned to his New Jersey home to prepare for a baptism of fire. The first gig he was to play was Carnegie Hall.
"We were recalling it at dinner the other night. Al was recalling the story from his viewpoint of him being this young kid and getting a call to play... Al's first gig was at Carnegie Hall. He was reading music on stage," Corea recalls, chuckling. "He was telling us that his parents didn't believe him, and he had to actually bring them to New York to show them he was playing at Carnegie Hall. It was that kind of feeling."
He adds, "He very quickly took command of his portion of the group, that's for sure."
"It was a wonderful opportunity. I joined my favorite group in the world. It was really a dream come true to be able to do that," DiMeola says. "There was a lot of momentum the group had already started. When I joined, it just continued that same path. We eventually started selling a lot of records and playing very big places."
Clarke was surprised in the beginning, not being sure what the young man was capable of. "At the time, we just needed a guitarist. But after Al joined the band, I recognized it was a step up. The band changed drastically. It was a step up. He brought a lot of things to the band. He could do a lot of things with the guitar. It was very hot, very light. He came to the table with a lot of things."
Recalls DiMeola of getting to Carnegie Hall, "It was interesting because there was a lot of pressure. After three days of rehearsal, there I was at Carnegie Hall with my favorite group. The chance of that happening was one out of ten billion, I would say. I won the lottery.
"The second gig I remember, we played the Houston Astrodome as part of the Newport Jazz Festival. That was also quite a trip. One week before, I was still in college with no thoughts of joining the group. Then I get this great opportunity. We ended up playing Carnegie Hall, Houston Astrodome, Cincinnati Reds stadiumall kinds of interesting venues. It propelled me to notoriety land right away."
That notoriety eventually led to placing DiMeola near the top of the guitar totem pole, considered by those in any genre as one of the finest virtuoso players. He's had associations over the years with people like Jean-Luc Ponty, McLaughlin and others, and with his own successful groups and recordings. But in 1974, naturally, there were nerves. And pressure.
"These guys were already legends when I joined the band, in my eyes. Now that so many years have gone by, we all have done tons of work, a lot of records. Between the four of us, we've probably done 300 records in that span of time. But if you go back to the beginning, I was kind of frightened of the world I got propelled up to. I had to prove myself," DiMeola says.
But he survived.
"You bring all your experience to the band," he says. "The choice of what you play is a result of what you acquired and learned from a child. So whatever that ismy sense of rhythm, I'd say, or my phrasing capabilities and technique. Technique is a very important part of playing with this kind of fusion group. My ability to read music, I think, is essential because of the need to execute these long compositions. I had a lot of that ability. That helped me land that position with the group."
"Al brought a rhythmic fire into the band that I really liked," Corea says. "Billy Connors was a lyricist. He had this beautiful soaring sound. Al came in with a rhythmic fire and also a love for Latin rhythms that matched mine, which then combined with Lenny and Stanley's jazz and funk, or whatever you want to call it. You mix it around and put it in a blender and come up with Return to Forever, I guess."
The addition of DiMeola contributed to its meteoric rise in the music world. Like the other great fusion bands, RTF was playing before younger audiences and at huge venues. But it wasn't just a loud rock band. Corea's composition skills were, and remain to this day, extraordinary. The propulsion of White and Clarke gave an expansive and eclectic cushion on which the band could soar. The band was good. And they knew it.
"It's funny, when you're young and you're out there trying to get better and get more of whatever you don't have, you're never really surprised," Clarke recalls of the band's rising status. "You look back, retrospectively, at your life and you can come up with those kinds of questions. But when you're young, it's all passion and aggressiveness. You expend whatever intelligence you have. You're never really surprised going forward. You play a club. Then a bigger club. Then a small theater. Then a bigger theater. In the case of Return to Forever, playing small arenas, playing electric musicit seemed very natural."
"What I liked about it is we were doing something different," says White. "Back then, it was the credo to do something different, to shake things up. It's gotten to the point now where you don't do anything different. You do what the norm is, status quo, and that way you can get played on radio. But that wasn't the credo back when we were doing it. You had to something that was challenging. If you didn't, then you were frowned upon.
"It felt great. I knew when we were making this music it was going to ruffle some feathers because it was very dynamic, very powerful."
Ruffle feathers they did, as did the whole fusion movement, with some jazz critics and fans feeling they were abandoning the tradition, for music of little value. But improvisation was still extremely important to RTF and the major fusion bands. From this version of RTF spewed the albums Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery and Romantic Warrior. Fans loved them and followed the group in legions that traditional acoustic jazzers could only imagine.
Corea described the experience as "kind of like riding a wave. It happened gradually and constantly. Back then, when we were doing it, we weren't doing anything else. None of the guys had any other projects. We were out on the road all the time. We were hardly home, actually. Then we started to have help from booking agencies and tour managers and other people started to help us out, and the whole things started to grow. I don't know that we ever had a PR company, but I guess we got a lot of mention in the press and people began to find out about the band. It was like a snowball. We started opening for, and actually had opening for us, rock bands. We were playing different kinds of environments than [when] we started out.
"It was a ride, man."