Kubernik: Bob Conti On Donna Summer and Jose Feliciano

Percussionist, Songwriter, Musical Director, and Record Producer Bob Conti on Jose Feliciano and Donna Summer

Photos Courtesy of Bob Conti and David Chatfield. 

By Harvey Kubernik

     On tour and in the studio from 1967 until present day, Bob Conti has performed, traveled and recorded with artists in nearly every genre of music and in most every country worldwide. From Carnegie Hall with Jose Feliciano to sold-out performances with Donna Summer at the Hollywood Bowl, from the Sydney Opera House, to the foothills of the Egyptian Pyramids.

    In the genre of Jazz, Conti has performed around the globe for decades at Latin and Jazz festivals, Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York and the Blue Note Tokyo. Conti has recorded on over 150 albums, in the genres of pop, jazz, Latin jazz, rhythm and blues, disco, New Age music, experimental music, and has served as lead vocalist, backing vocalist, record producer, songwriter, composer, television presenter and bandleader.

   From the age of 20 to the present time, Conti has performed with artists both in the studio and touring, including Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Gene Simmons, Wilson Pickett, Jose Feliciano, Richie Sambora, Paul Simon, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rita Coolidge, Helen Reddy, Karen Carpenter, Laura Brannigan, Player, Raquel Welch, Steel Breeze, Carmen Perez, and The Brooklyn Dreams, producing, writing and performing on over 150 albums. Conti's percussion work has also enhanced orchestras from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to the Academy Awards.

   In addition to being a percussionist, Conti is a composer, publisher and musical director. Conti was also a network TV bandleader and "2nd Banana" Sidekick, a.k.a., "Bobalou," for Host Brad Garrett (of Everybody Loves Raymond fame), on the ABC late night talk show, Into The Night, where he also wrote the show's theme song.

   Soon thereafter, Conti co-created and served as the host of Road Stories with Frankie Avalon and José Feliciano. The theme song for this series was also composed, produced and performed by Conti.

  As percussionist, vocalist, and writer, Conti performed with a then virtually unknown artist in the United States by the name of Donna Summer. This journey began in 1977  and continued with Donna through all the years until her last two Hollywood Bowl performances on August 22, 2008. 

    For many decades, Conti worked. collaborated and performed with Jose Feliciano. From 1982 until 2016, Conti continued to tour on the road with Feliciano all around the globe from the United States, to Latin America, Southeast Asia, Europe, Israel, Australia, The United Arab Emirates (UAE), South Africa and beyond. Conti's association with Feliciano was not limited to performing and playing percussion. He has written songs for Feliciano, produced several of his albums. In addition to his professional credits with Feliciano, Conti is the godfather to Melissa Feliciano, the daughter of Susan and Feliciano.

Bob Conti and Harvey Kubernik 2023 Interview

Q: You've just entered a music and contractual relationship with David Chatfield and his Harmony Records label. David’s label has  released music from the recording sessions you produced/arranged with the legendary Jose Felicano. You worked with Jose from 1982-2016. Can you reflect on working with him in that period and bring us into the two albums of recordings you produced last decade that are now being issued. Did you also write some original songs with Jose?  

A: I worked with Jose from 1982 (on and off, mostly on) from 1982 -2019 in China. That was my last gig with him. We developed and shared a decades long great friendship together. Over time I would absolutely call it the kind of relationship that brothers share. We would often refer to one another as “brothers.” There was a genuine love for one another.

    Jose and I would stay at his mother’s home in Lares, Puerto Rico. I knew all his brothers and family. We were so close that eventually I was asked to be “Padrino” (Godfather) to his precious daughter Melissa, who incidentally recently gave birth to twins. I watched his two sons grow up. We spoke about them before they were born and now they are performing with him throughout the world as part of his band.

    We toured in and on every continent on the planet. Why did I stay so long you might ask? Simple put, Jose was “one of the boys” and was a complete joy to work with and for. He was and is still a total powerhouse of creativity.

    One of the most appealing things about working with Jose was “jumping the genres”. His ability to go from blues, to jazz, for R&B and Latin. From salsa to rock (listen to Jose Play the Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze”) and then switch to a medley of Boleros. Just a phenomenal musician and entertainer.

    Ask any great musician and they will attest to what I’m saying here. Every show was different. His patter was never contrived or forced and believe me, he could be funny as hell. It was a thing of beauty and something to behold. We never really wrote together because Jose did it all. He wrote the music, lyrics and he knew exactly what he wanted to hear.  I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity. There was never a “set list”. That certainly would keep everyone on their musical toes. He would just start playing and if you couldn’t hang, you were gone. 

Q: You go back many years with David Chatfield when you did Road Stories. You've worked with David on and off over the years. Right?  A lawyer with a musical vision and 4 decades of experience as a record producer.

A: I met David through his partner at the time in Sound Image Entertainment. David’s partner was a character. He told me he had intentions of doing show about an insiders view of what it was like to be a road warrior, and since I had spent most of my life doing just that, it seemed I was the perfect candidate. I wrote the theme for the show and was the host.

    It was then that David showed up and introduced himself. Immediately we got along. He was very professional but even more importantly he was and still is a good soul. You could feel that and that was important to me. We became better and better friends and more recently combined business and pleasure by participating in the “On The Blue Cruise” which was just amazing. We were able to connect with my good friend and multi talented artist/songwriter Bruce Sudano, Jefferson Starship, Alan Parsons, the Zombies and many more. This brought us even closer and friends and now partners in music. I love David, he’s a good man!

 Q: David Chatfield indicated to me you have a real deep friendship with Jose, and Godfather to his daughter Melissa. But last decade he was at a cross roads regarding his career, and veering away from the record business. And, organically, you steered him back into the recording studio and now we have these sonic gifts from your collaboration with him. How were these recordings initiated and done?

A:  I consider Jose family and that is forever. Many artists reach a point where they may feel that their career is going nowhere and they despair. They may go through a depression wondering why things are not going the way they had hoped or planned. Such was the case with Jose.

    In a telephone conversation we had while Jose was in Connecticut we spoke at length about this situation. I suggested he come out and stay with me and put everything else on the back burner. I was living by myself and had just gone through a divorce so we were two lost souls coming together for all the right reasons. Of course Jose brought his guitar and my percussion was always set up at the house. Well after a while we cheered each other up and got the urge to record some music.

    My great friend arranger and musician Wayne Boyer and I had been making music in his studio for years. The legendary Jimmie Haskell was another dear friend and an amazing arranger… SO, we went to work! I asked Jose what he felt like recording. He was a tremendous Elton John fan. He loved the Beatles and just about anything from the 60’s and that is what we set out to do.  

Q: Can you discuss the Elton John/Bernie Taupin composition "60 Years On" and the Lennon/McCartey tune "I Want to Hold Your Hand" that are currently garnering exposure on the streaming services? You hired the noted arranger Jimmie Haskell on some of your Felicano sessions. Can you mention some of the other titles and the background on how you selected them to be covered?

A: “60 Years On” was arranged by Wayne Boyer as was “I Want to Hold Your Hand” my job was to produce and play percussion. It was a relatively easy job to get a great vocal from Jose. His pitch and emotion is astounding. Not one to want to do too many “takes” he knocked it out of the park every time. Jimmie arranged the James Taylor composition “Fire and Rain.”

   We utilized the talents of a 32 piece Orchestra with some of L.A.’s finest players. Some of the other songs we recorded were: “God Bless The Child” “Compared to What” a song I wrote with Bruce Sudano called “Closer” the classic “My Foolish Heart” a song written by Elton John’s percussionist John Mahon and Elton’s long time bassist Bob Birch entitled “I Will Remember You,” one of Jose’s originals called “Believe Me When I Tell You” and at least ten more. 

    I just presented the songs to Jose that I thought would work and he made the final decision. I’d say it was a very productive visit. Of course these songs were a labor of love and were recorded over a period of time. It was good therapy and a very productive gathering of brother’s and sisters in music with one goal in mind, just to make the best music we could possibly make with one of the greatest artists on the planet. 

Q: Ironically, when former VP/A&R/head of Uni Records, Russ Regan was presented with Elton John's debut LP, Empty Sky for North American distribution, 5 record labels passed, all saying, "He sounds too much like Jose Feliciano." I never heard the vocal similarity. What is unique about Jose as a guitarist and a vocalist that has ensured his global following? You have toured the world with him.

   You last played with Jose in China in 2019 and performed in Japan, and Hawaii to sold out audiences.

    In 2023, Jose was feted at the White House with President Joe Biden, and in May, shared a stage with Bad Bunny at the Coachella music festival.  

A: Jose’s voice has changed quite a bit since his early recordings. In my opinion it has become richer, darker and more soulful. He always had the quality and the musicianship. It may sound “cliche” but like a fine wine or any well made instrument, in my opinion it is greatly improved and that is saying quite a bit. You can’t argue with the success of his early hits buy personally I prefer the rich tones of his voice in his later years and on the recordings we’ve managed to capture. His global following understands and feels his heart and his passion. He pulls you in and then lifts you up. He does what any great artist should do and that is ALWAYS come from the heart and never just “dial it in”. As side men we see the faces of the audience. We see the tears and the joy that he brings and we are blessed to be part of it.  

Q: You've just been filmed for an authorized Jose Feliciano documentary.

A: Actor, singer, documentarian and friend is the one who produced the Feliciano documentary Frank Licari came out with us as an all around positive force. He would dance on stage, look after Jose, help him to eat right and fly right. He was and is a joy to be around.

     He got to know Jose really well and suggested to the CEO of Anthem Records (another terrific person) Helen Murphy that they do a documentary on Jose. It is called Behind This Guitar and features a great new song by Jose entitled oddly enough “Behind This Guitar." They also directed it.

Q:  You toured and recorded with Donna Summer from 1977-2010. She is the subject of a just released documentary Love To Love You, Donna Summer, from HBO Documentary Films, is directed by Oscar® and Emmy®-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams (Life Animated, HBO’s The Apollo) and Summer’s daughter, Brooklyn Sudano. Described as an “unexpected and intimate portrait,” the documentary had its theatrical world premiere at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. It debuted  May 20th on HBO television and now streaming on HBO Max.  

    Your journey with Donna began in 1977 with an audition and an introduction to Donna by her musical director and your close friend Michael Warren. Donna Summer went on to become the number one act in the world. You subsequently met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. They heard your percussion work (live and in the studio), and then was asked to play on the Bad Girls album. You also penned a tune with Donna on that album, ""Can't Get To Sleep at Night." Your worked with Donna through all the years until her last two Hollywood Bowl concerts in August 22, 2008. 

   If at all possible, can you describe working with Donna on stage and in the studio? From a musical standpoint, your role as percussionist was very prominent. It’s obvious to me that your earlier gigs with Motown acts, Buck Ram’s  Platters, Earth, Wind & Fire, Diana Ross, and arrangers like HB Barnum prepared you for this dream.

A: I loved Donna and I will always love her, not just for her talent which was incredible, but for her sweet and good heart. I can’t say enough good things about her.

    I started with Donna in 1977. Mike Warren musical director, Sal Guglielmi on bass, Virgil Webber on keys and synth, Richard Adelman on drums and Doug Livingston on piano. I’m looking forward to seeing Donna’s personal footage in the documentary. We were very close.

    I wrote songs with her husband Bruce Sudano that can be heard on her Bad Girls album, "Can't Get To Sleep, and on “Live and More," and we wrote “Only One Man”… I have enough stories to fill three lifetimes and all I have is love and gratitude for those experiences.  

Q: A general question. In reviewing your fascinating career, do you have a philosophy or a working practice about the role(s) of a percussionist in the studio or touring? Are you a support instrument or does each and every opportunity present a different set of musical muscles?

A: In the studio as well as “touring” the role of any musician should be to lift the music up and make it better. It’s not about YOU, as I mentioned in another song I wrote for Jose entitled  “It’s The Music” … I’m not a “Latin Percussionist” or an American Producer or Percussionist, I just want to lift the music up which will lift the listener up. and do it honestly with the best intentions. You don’t play music or create music to get rich or famous. You do it because you MUST.

    It’s always about the music. If you have love in your heart and you’re a decent person, you want to do wonderful things. You want to find the thing that connects us all. Music that can do that. We sharpen our skills so we can deliver the message and touch the soul like these great Artists I mention do to hungry souls out there, wanting and waiting for us to deliver.

David Chatfield on Bob Conti

     I think I first met Bob Conti at Mastro’s Steakhouse one night when Wayne Boyer was doing his music at the piano there. My partner told me that Bob was going to host the Road Stories concept that my mother and I had come up with. My mother, Emmy nominated television writer Rocci Chatfield, was a big fan of Johnny Carson and Jay Leno when they hosted the tonight show and she was always fascinated by the stories that Leno especially would get singers to tell about what happened to them on the road that no one ever knew about. My mother and I came up with a concept that we presented to my partners at Sound Image and then I was introduced to Bob Conti at Mastro’s as the host of Road Stories.  

    The next time I saw Bob was on the set that we built at Sound Image for the pilot of Road Stories. I co-produced, directed and co-wrote the pilots with Bob Conti. Bob knew all of the right questions for Jose and delivered Jose to the set where Jose had a wonderful time, did a funny and very interesting interview with Bob and Jose even made up a song on the set about Bob and the show and sang it on camera. It was a wonderful experience. I spent most of the time running back and forth between the set and the director’s booth, it was a multi-camera shoot. 

    After that, Bob did a second pilot episode of Road Stories starring Frankie Avalon, who Bob had succesfully approached at Mastros and they did a great show that discusses funny events that occurred on the road with Frankie, behind the scenes in movies Frankie starred in and serious subjects like segretation in the south when Frankie was touring with Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, and other musicians of color. Frankie said, “we had to do two shows, one for a white audience and one for a black audience.” Bob’s comment was that “It’s hard to believe that occurred in our lifetime”. 

    Several years later I was doing a latin jazz project that David Foster, then president of Verve Records, had spoken to me about at the Emmy Governor’s Ball after performing with Andre Bocelli. The artist was the fabulous Puerto Rican singer Carmen Perez that I represented and I suggested that Danish producer Carston Lindberg, who I was co-managing at the time, bring in Bob Conti to do percussion on the Latin Jazz project. Bob did a wonderful job and everyone loved him. 

    Early this year I called on Bob to play percussion on the unplugged version of the Steel Breeze hit, “You Don’t Want Me Anymore”, which will be release on Harmony Records in July 2023. I was going through a personal crisis at the time and Bob became a real friend and supporter and we started talking about Bob’s Jose Feliciano recordings.

    Bob played me “60 Years On” and I immediately thought that Alan Parsons had produced it…but no…Bob Conti had produced it. Bob went “On The Blues Cruise” with me and we made a deal for me to do remixes of some of the Jose Feliciano songs for my label Harmony Records and promote them on the streaming services. Thus far, after only a few short weeks, the first single “60 Years On” has almost a quarter of a million streams world-wide and the video of the song, directed by famed Ukranian Director Vladimir Gribol is getting critical acclaim for brining the meaning of the song to life. Of course, Bob Conti provided me with his insights on the meaning of the song to deliver to the director.

    Harmony Record’s second Feliciano single is ”I Want To Hold Your Hand” a Lennon/McCarney song. Jose’s version is very reminiscent of his big hit “Light My Fire”. Both songs were expertly produced by Bob Conti and I edited, remixed, rerecorded and mastered the songs to be acceptable to the playlisters on the streaming services. 

    Bob Conti was Donna Summers’ percussionist, and Donna’s husband and Bob’s sometime writing partner Bruce Sudano, who is a really great guy, was also performing “On the Blues Cruise”. Bob and I enjoyed Bruce’s sets and we had a private dinner with Bruce on the Ship’s Italian Restaurant. A perfect setting for us three Italians. Bruce is a wonderful singer/songwriter and I think he has a couple of potential hits in his set. 

    I am starting to focus on the Latin market in the Americas and Bob and I have spoken about him heading up the Latin division of my companies. Our first venture is my regaetone remix of Julian Shah-Tayler’s new song “Easy” originally produced by Robert Margouleff who I have known since he produced projects at our Sound Image Studios in the Sound City Center. Julian is going to sing the remix in Spanish and in English. 

(Harvey Kubernik is the author of 20 books, including 2009’s Canyon Of Dreams: The Magic And The Music Of Laurel Canyon and 2014’s Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll In Los Angeles 1956-1972.   Sterling/Barnes and Noble in 2018 published Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s The Story Of The Band: From Big Pink To The Last Waltz. In2021 they wrote Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child for Sterling/Barnes and Noble. Otherworld Cottage Industries in 2020 published Harvey’s Docs That Rock, Music That Matters.

Kubernik’s writings are in several book anthologies. Most notably, The Rolling Stone Book Of The Beats and Drinking With Bukowski. Harvey wrote the liner notes to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, The Essential Carole King, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Elvis Presley The ’68 Comeback Special, The Ramones’ End of the Century and Big Brother & the Holding Company Captured Live at The Monterey International Pop Festival.  

    During 2006 Harvey spoke at the special hearings initiated by The Library of Congress held in Hollywood, California, discussing archiving practices and audiotape preservation.

   In 2017 Harvey Kubernik appeared at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, as part of their Distinguished Speakers Series.