Zebra in the Wolf Den
Knock away the cobwebs - either in your brain or your record collection - and dig back to 1983 when Atlantic Records came out with the debut self-titled album by a melodic hard rock trio called Zebra. Behind an astonishing hit single called "Who's Behind the Door?," "Zebra" became the fastest-selling release in Atlantic's storied history.
For many folks, this might resonate in that "Oh, yeah, now I remember those guys!" fashion. Because, for a variety of music industry reasons and in spite of its flamethrower start, Zebra never really took off in the manner perhaps expected.
Still, in the same way it took Zebra eight years to score the Atlantic deal - basically after they'd given up hope that such a thing would ever happen - the band continues to persevere as a committed entity. Members release very occasional but consistently strong studio albums and they embark on small tours in friendly markets, the sort of junkets that bring them Sunday to the Mohegan Sun's Wolf Den.
"It sounds simple, but our fan base is what keeps us going," says Randy Jackson, the band's lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter. "We still have a lot of fans and the three of us still love to play together, so it's a perfect marriage. Our feelings are, if people want to show up to see us, we're more than happy to play for them."
Along with drummer and vocalist Guy Gelso and bassist, keyboardist and vocalist Felix Hanemann, Jackson formed Zebra in New Orleans in 1975. The band, whose fusion of Zeppelin's progressive hard rock with Moody Blues-y melodicism - and Jackson's admittedly Robert Plant-esque voice - quickly carved out a devoted following in the competitive Gulf Coast club circuit. Then, intrigued by a music scene in Long Island that was attracting a lot of major label activity, Zebra established a base in the Northeast. For years, alternating between New Orleans and Long Island, the band came frustratingly close to stardom. But when their demo recordings - ignored by record companies - began scoring heavy airplay in the New York area, one radio station program director called an artist and repertoire agent he knew at Atlantic and told him the label needed to pay serious attention to Zebra. A deal suddenly ensued.
"Frankly, a label contract happened when we least expected it," says Jackson, speaking by phone from his Long Island home. "We'd actually sort of forgotten about the demo tapes because we'd sent them out for years and nothing happened. We were just going to keep playing because that's what we did."
Paired with producer Jack Douglas - Aerosmith, John Lennon, Cheap Trick - Zebra recorded a masterpiece first album. Along with "Who's Behind the Door?" and songs such as "The La La Song," "Tell Me What You Want" and "When You Get There," "Zebra" sold 75,000 copies the week it was released, and the band hit the road opening several arena shows.
In 1984, the band came out with "No Telling Lies" and followed in 1986 with "Zebra 3.V." Both are damned great albums, but by then the fickle industry had opened its ears to New Wave and other more "modern" acts. Zebra lost its deal and became largely forgotten by all but hardcore fans.
And while, by necessity, Jackson, Gelso and Hanemann all found outside income sources, Zebra never broke up and Jackson continued to write stellar material.
"I think creativity comes from the same place it does before you got your record deal," Jackson laughs. "We hit bumps in the road and sometimes it's hard to stay positive - but at the same time, sometimes that's when the best music emerges. What we went through was never detrimental to the creative process."
Over the same time, though, the whole "major label" template became only one of many options open to enterprising artists willing to explore the possibilities presented by technology, social media and the Internet. In that spirit, every member of Zebra - within the band or in various solo projects - is a consummate and working musician. Jackson says they've each come to appreciate the reality that they can make a living doing what they love.
In addition to a live album released in 1990, Zebra also released the Jackson-produced "Zebra IV" in 2003. It's not exactly a prolific output, but the quality of every Zebra release is inarguable. In total, Zebra has sold more than 2 million albums worldwide - a fine legacy.
"As a band, we'd discussed the strategy of putting out a record every year or two on our own or on a small label, knowing we had the fan base that would support it solidly," Jackson says. "And there are plenty of bands from our era that might have 30 albums out or whatever. But when I listen to those records, I sometimes wish those artists had been a little more selective. I've written tons of songs, but some have never seen the light of day for a reason. Quality is very important."
Speaking of quality, Zebra in concert is a dazzling and powerful experience. Their sound is so much bigger than seems possible for three people, and the concert stage is an equally important aspect of the band's legacy.
"I think, for us, even with a respectable amount of albums sold, we've been more about the live performance from the get-go," Jackson says. "From our perspective, we think of the records as promotional material for the live shows. That might seem like a counterintuitive way to look at it, but it works for us."
IF YOU GO
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Mohegan Sun Wolf Den
How much: free
For more information: (888) 664-3426
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