Tony Levin spent time in the recording studio with many renowned artists, but it was British musical great Peter Gabriel who convinced him to come out of the sound booth and on to the stage.
From Sept. 16-Oct. 14, Levin, the Jewish progressive rocker, will join Gabriel on his North American tour (dates and locations here).
After recording with luminaries such as Paul Simon, John Lennon, James Taylor, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Buddy Rich, Chuck Mangione, Peter Frampton, Paula Cole, and Sarah McLachlan, Levin’s career was transformed when he hooked up with Gabriel—the vocalist and flautist of the band Genesis who is best known for his 1986 solo release of the quintuple-platinum-selling album SO, featuring his most popular single, “Sledgehammer.” Real World Records/EMI is set to release a 25th anniversary edition of SO on Oct. 25.
As a child growing up in Brookline, Mass., Levin was always attracted to low notes. Starting on the upright bass at the age of 10, he found the strength to pick up the tuba in high school and soon began soloing with a concert band. When the mouthpiece was at a safe distance, the bald boss of bass also sang in a barbershop quartet.
Despite his talents with these other musical modalities, Levin’s first love remained the bass, and that dedication quickly propelled him to some marquee gigs, including a set at President John F. Kennedy’s White House with Marvin Rabin’s Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra.
After studying at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, Levin continued to put his four-string strength to work as a member of the Rochester Philharmonic. It was in Rochester where he met Steve Gadd, the drummer who introduced the classically minded Levin to other genres, including jazz and rock. Resting the upright bass gently and respectfully on its side, Levin picked up a fender precision bass (“P-Bass”)—and the rest is progressive rock history.
Levin admits that he cannot recall what prompted him to pick up the bass in the first place. But while the roots of his musical exploration may be lost in a classical haze, he says that the results have been rock solid.
“After so many years playing the bass, I am still fulfilled and challenged by just being a bass player,” Levin says in an interview with JNS.org.
Despite the wealth of musical talent at Eastman, Levin found himself the only bass player who had been in a band in high school. As a result, he was asked to join the famed Eastman Wind Ensemble. “I happily did that during my time there,” he recalls.
In his post-Eastman days, Levin rocked with Gadd and also with such legends as Don Preston. Following some time in the studio, he joined Gabriel’s band in the second half of the 1970s, played tuba and bass on Gabriel’s 1977 solo debut album and remaining his preferred bassist to this day.
After 25 years, Gabriel’s SO remains a seminal point in the progress of rock. No wonder, then, that in this age of classic rock revivals in which long-forgotten bands return to the road to rehash old material, a still vibrant elder statesman of music like Gabriel has decided to revisit this classic album—but in a new way. As part of his “Back to Front” tour in September and October, Gabriel and the entire band from the original release and tour of SO—including Levin—will perform the album backwards, adding other fan favorites and personal picks to a set that will always include smashes like “Big Time,” Red Rain” and “Sledgehammer.”
While Levin has been able to go back to his singing and even his tuba as a member of Gabriel’s team, his bass work has remained front and center. As Gabriel continues to push his own musical envelopes, so too does Levin. Whereas most bassists use a pick or their fingers to pluck the strings and propel the song forward, Levin (with Gabriel’s help, he is keen to note) pioneered the use of what he calls “funk fingers,” which are modified drumsticks that Levin attaches to his fingers in order to get a bigger, bassier sound. Levin has also added the “Chapman Stick” to his instrumental entourage.
“I was attracted… to unusual music,” he explains, “and was trying to expand my options for bass sounds…. Right away [the Chapman Stick] seemed live an extremely clear percussive sound on the very low notes, that I couldn’t get from a standard bass, so I took it right into the studio and began using it.”
While he has so many musical options from which to choose, Levin always seems to return to the bass as his baseline.
“The process varies on each album,” he says. “Ideally, I listen to each piece, and decide from my insides what instrument and sound would allow me to contribute something useful to the music I’m hearing… I try to let the music determine all that.”
Levin has become one of the most sought-after rhythm section stabilizers in the industry. In addition to his work with Gabriel, he has performed and recorded with such breakout bands as L’image (in which he reunited with his old friend and classmate Gadd) and the 1980s incarnation of the progressive rock rebels King Crimson (which put him back together with Gabriel bandmate Robert Fripp), with whom he last toured in 2008.
Throughout his famed collaborations, Levin has also been a dedicated solo artist. Among his popular bass-led albums are World Diary, Waters of Eden, Resonator, Pieces of the Sun, and Stick Man.
“I’m lucky to have been asked to be part of quite a few special projects,” Levin says, “and sometimes I start them myself.”
As he looks forward to reuniting with Gabriel—the man who made him such a big name in the bass business—Levin says he always finds “challenges for myself within my music, so there’s plenty of work ahead for me.”
“It’s one of those examples, I think, of the trip being more important than the destination, and I’m very lucky to have spent much of a lifetime doing what I love to do,” he says.