SALT LAKE CITY — To the casual Utah music listener, Mark Rivera might not be a familiar name.
But odds are that nearly everyone has heard a song that benefited (greatly) from the veteran, multi-inustrumentalist/singer’s contributions.
To Billy Joel fans, he is the man who has been playing the saxophone for Joel for more than three decades. Others may recognize his work on some of Foreigner and Peter Gabriel’s biggest hits (“Sledgehammer” and “Big Time”). Rivera is also Ringo Starr’s musical director and has been touring with his all-star band for 16 years. On top of all that, Rivera released his own solo album, Common Bond, and plays in several bands around New York including the tribute band, GLAD: The music of Traffic, and Mark Rivera’s 67 Chevy, a tribute to “Kings of Classic Rock.”
“It’s the music. It keeps me going,” the very personable and charismatic Rivera told the Deseret News from his home in New York the day after Thanksgiving, and after a morning power walk to “burn off the stuffing.”
On Wednesday, Rivera returns to Salt Lake City along with Joel and the rest of the Billy Joel band. The show marks Joel’s first visit to the Beehive State in 10 years.
When talking about legendary singer/songwriter’s longevity, Rivera speaks in awe as he stresses the fact that 44-years after “Piano Man” was released as a single, Joel is not just touring, but he’s still playing stadiums and arenas.
“We do events. It’s pretty amazing. Everything we do is an event,” said Rivera, who noted baseball stadiums sound better than football stadiums. “It’s an amazing thing what he’s done.”
Since 2014, Joel has established “residency” at Madison Square Garden, vowing to play at least one show a month until there’s no longer a demand. But with 2018 already booked, there seems to be no end in sight. Additionally, Joel will be returning to Europe next year.
Rivera said Joel knows its him that people are coming to see to forget about life for awhile, and he’ll continue to play as long as the regular crowd shuffles in. Right now, that regular crowd is 18,500 people each night.
“Billy takes people away, and thank God that he does that. You go to a concert to forget about life for awhile,” he said. “People need the magic that music offers.”
For Rivera, coming back to Utah gives him fond memories of some of his earliest rehearsals with Joel in Orem at the old Osmond Studios.
“I think about the Donny and Marie cutouts,” Rivera recalled fondly with a laugh of the studio decor.
It was because of his work with Joel that other doors opened for Rivera, including his friendship with Starr, a dream job for a self-described Beatles fanatic.
Being the musical director for Ringo’s band sometimes means having to “tell people I idolized that’s not how it goes,” he said. Such as the time he had to tell Paul McCartney he was playing a song wrong, twice. The key, Rivera said, was doing what his father taught him, be confident but not arrogant.
“By the grace of God I’m here. My world would not be where it is without Billy. But I never expected to be on stage with Ringo,” Rivera said. “It’s a dream. It’s living a dream. Nothing will compare to having a Beatle as a friend. It’s a full circle that my life has gone through,”
What’s a Mutt Lange?
That life began with humble beginnings in Brooklyn, NY, where Rivera, a fan of Jimi Hendrix in addition to the Beatles, began playing guitar about age 6. He attended LaGuardia High School, also known as “the Fame school” after being highlighted in the 1980 film. Today, it’s hard to keep track of the number of instruments Rivera can play. His record for one concert is 11, during a performance with Ringo.
“I trust my ears more than I trust my eyes,” he said of the ability to pickup on an instrument.
One of Rivera’s first big breaks came in the early 1980s while he was playing in the band Tycoon and he friended soon-to-be legendary producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. Only at that time, “We didn’t know what a Mutt Lange was,” he joked.
Early one morning, about midnight or 1 a.m., when Rivera was just getting home from a local gig, he got a call from Lange who was still up recording an album with Lou Gramm and Mick Jones of Foreigner. The group was in the process of recording the 4 album, Foreigner’s multiple-platinum, number 1 juggernaut of rock history. Lange asked Rivera if he could come over right now to help record some saxophone parts.
“Before the phone hit the receiver,” Rivera said he was in the studio, There, he recalls “amazing chemistry” with Foreigner’s two band leaders. The next thing he knew, his sax work was being played on radio stations across the country.
Then in 1982, Joel was looking for someone to replace his original sax man, Richie Cannata. Rivera had played before with Joel’s bass player Doug Stegmeyer and guitarist David Brown. And Joel was looking for someone who wouldn’t be nervous playing in front of 18,000 people, he recalled.
Rivera, who had just come off a stadium tour with Foreigner playing in front of an average of 80,000 fans a night, was up for the task.
He played “Only the Good Die Young” and “Just the Way You Are” for his audition, At the end of those songs, “Billy stopped the band. And I thought, ‘Uh oh. Was it that bad?’ And he walked up to me and gave me a kiss and said, ‘You can stay as long as you want to be in my band.’”
The Billy Joel Band
Thirty-five years later, Rivera is still playing with Joel. In fact, Rivera is the last remaining link between the original Billy Joel Band with Brown, Stegmeyer, Russell Javors and Liberty DeVitto who played on Joel’s classic albums such as The Stranger (celebrating its 40th anniversary this year), 52nd Street, Glasshouses, An Innocent Man and more.
While the original band may hold nostalgia for longtime fans, Rivera said the current lineup with members Tommy Byrnes, Dave Rosenthal, Crystal Taliefero and Chuck Burgi is the “best band that’s ever performed with (Joel).”
“This band can do anything,” he said proudly. “(The original) band was amazing.The character was amazing. We were hitting hard, having fun. It was very fun.”
But that band, “couldn’t do what this band does,” Rivera said.
Using everything from a fine dining experience to a modern luxury vehicle to make analogies, Rivera beams when talking about the current band backing Joel.
“This band has a lot more garlic,” he laughed. “The steering wheel is heated….This band is like putting that pair of jeans that just fit right.”
Going to a Billy Joel concert should be like going to a restaurant that serves up signature dishes that you expect to be a certain way, Rivera said. In this case, the “dishes” are songs like “My Life,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “You May Be Right” and “Movin’ Out.” After all, as Rivera points out, this is the man that Tony Bennett proclaimed as the “Walking American Song Book.”
“I want it all to be great. We’re serving up a Billy Joel signature dish every song,” he said. “If I’m dicing onions, my onions are going to be perfect.”
All of that translates into Joel being “more comfortable” on stage, Rivera said.
“I’ve never seen him coming off stage looking like, ‘I can’t do this,’” he said.
Both on and off stage, he said Joel, 68, who recently welcomed a new daughter into the world with his new wife, in addition to having his own channel on Sirius/XM Radio (best Joel interviews you’ll ever hear) is in a great place in his life right now.
“He’s happy,” Rivera said. “He’s in a place he hasn’t been ever.”
What: Billy Joel
Where: Vivint Smart Home Arena
When: Wednesday, 8pm