The day after Kelly Keagy graduated High School, he packed his bags and left home to pursue being a full-time drummer. After years of playing the club circuit, he became the drummer for the San Francisco band Rubicon. Along with fellow members Brad Gillis and Jack Blades, he formed the band Night Ranger in the early 80s.
His biggest claim to fame was Night Ranger’s biggest hit, the power ballad Sister Christian, which has been heard and cherished by generations of rock fans. We had a chat with Kelly about his history with Night Ranger.
Your career with Night Ranger goes back about 40 years to when you first formed that first version of the band with Jack Blades and Brad Gillis, what were you guys looking for when you got together?
I think in the beginning we just wanted to write good songs and present them in a certain way. We love playing live and I think especially back then playing live is what it’s all about. And now we’re starting to realize just how important that is. The fact that we wrote some good songs, we did some good work and then we could continue for that many years is unbelievable.
Every day we shake our heads and go, “This is going on a long time. It’s pretty amazing.” And it’s just because we kept, our focus on playing good music, entertaining people, being in that environment and live performances. I mean, it’s weird, and then you start to develop, you start to get serious about it when you make records. You start to go, okay, what is a good song? What makes a good song?
It’s not just the performance, it’s the lyric and the melody and the whole thing. When you start getting serious about it. In the last like five years, we’ve been making some of the better records in our career just because we have time, you know, we’re not being pressured by a major label, we’re producing this stuff ourselves and we’re really enjoying the process at this point too, so it’s pretty interesting how things kind of evolved.
I was going to say it sounds like you really enjoy the separation from industry?Yes, we do. We realize we need the industry and we need, the certain formats and MP3’s and all that digital stuff. It’s nice that it makes it convenient. It also makes it easy for us to record albums now.
We can send hard drives to each other and everybody can record their parts, and after we write the song and then it just needs to be recorded properly. So we’re embracing that. On the last record, we just got together to write the songs. We got in one room to write the songs, but we didn’t have to be in the room to actually record the parts.
I love that you incorporate everything into your live shows. Hits, rare tracks and solo successes. You’ve got such a large variety of music that you can do that.
We’re very lucky, very lucky. Jack had the Damn Yankees when we took a break, and he had hits, and then we loved playing those songs ‘cause they sound like songs we would’ve done, so we embraced all that stuff. We love it. The fact that we like to get in a room together still and write and record stuff is just, it’s the biggest joy we have other than performing for live audiences.
When you first met Jack and Brad, like 40 odd years ago, what was your first impression?
There was a band called Rubicon that they needed a singing drummer in the band. And so I came up to audition and I knew about the band because it had Jerry Martini from Sly Stone and had some great musicians from the Bay Area. Johnny Colla from Huey Lewis And The News is playing horn in it. And so I was very excited when I met these guys. I was struck by how, upbeat, funny, just didn’t take this stuff too seriously, but at the same time when you got in there and started making music, it got serious, and we all could relate to that. So it was great. But, I just realized that we all got along so well right away.
You’re one of the active songwriters in Night Ranger and of course you scored big time with Sister Christian, but not all drummers really participate on that level?
I think that a lot of times the drummers do participate, you just don’t know how much they participated. But I think as far as the writing of it, I play other instruments and so that helps, I can show somebody a song on the guitar. A lot of drummers aren’t fortunate enough to be able to play another instrument to be able to convey across like, “I got this idea for a chorus, here it goes,” Or sometimes they can’t sing, the idea. And so I was able to do all that and in a hacker sort of way, but the other members got it, and I think that’s what makes a good band too, is that whole communication thing, being able to get your idea across and convey it and then allowing the other guys to come in and mess around with it and make it better.
I mean, that’s what makes a good band, when you allow the other people to bring in their expertise and their ears. Brad Gillis is a guitar player and of course our new guitar player Keri Kelli, those guys are absolutely amazing virtuoso musicians. Not only, can they play solos, but their knowledge of chords and different voicing’s is just, unbelievable.
Eric Levy, he plays keyboards with us, was in a band called Garage Mahal, which was a total jazz fusion, like rip it up, jazz fusion playing in seven four, nines and twelves. And it’s just unbelievable, and is with us, and enjoying playing that kind of music that we’re playing.
It’s been pretty amazing. We found the right combination.
Talking about the collaborations, nobody really ever talks about the collaborations you had with the band on Sister Christian. I’m sure there was something that some of the guys contributed to that?
I wrote the song, it’s basically only three chords, but where they came in was, what are we gonna do for going to a different section, like a bridge or a solo? And that’s when we got in the room together, which we do for every single album, and we start playing this song and then we, well, what if this happens? And what if that happens?
Basically, the song was written except for how was the band going to play it. So that’s how they contribute. And that’s how, most of us contributed to songs that were written by other people, is that we would go in there and we would tear the song apart and rearrange it and everybody had ideas and those things would make it better. So that’s how that happens.
We all know the story. You wrote that for your little sister, but how does she feel about it today? She’s not so little anymore.
I think that her big brother was looking after her, is what it was. And so she always looks at that like, yeah, I was 16 years old and my big brother was watching after me, and so she always looks at that and goes, “That was a really great thing you did. You were watching after me, you gave me a couple of warnings about boys. You got to watch who you’re chasing after,” or whatever. So with just a simple little thing like that, and it just ended up being a great big chorus that worked great.
For you, it’s gotta be a positive song to sing because it’s not like it’s like about an ex-wife or something like that?
Right, exactly. I mean, what’s great about that, it’s not a love song. It kind of is, but it’s just a basic, an idea of asking your sister to take it easy and watch out. So it was a different play, even though it sounds like a love song.