Hitmakers of the '80s visit Wabash
Foreigner prepared to rock the Honeywell
Guitarist and saxophonist Tom Gimbel. Photo by John Lappen.
August 29, 2019
Imagine if you will being a teenager in Rochester, N.Y., in the late 1970s. There’s not much to recommend it to the average person, particularly if that person is weather averse.
But it became an unexpectedly glorious place to be in 1977 when Foreigner’s debut album burst upon the scene, featuring the vocals of Rochester’s own Lou Gramm. (Or Lou Grammatico to those in the know.)
Suddenly the Flower City had its very own hometown jukebox hero, someone to light up the lives of those who defined success by the Top 40 charts.
The band needed a guy
And that debut was no fluke. Sure, “Feels Like the First Time” and “Cold as Ice” were instant hits, but the next two albums furthered the cause.
But it was the next album, the aptly titled 4, that really sent them into the stratosphere. With hits like “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “Urgent,” Foreigner secured themselves as one of the power hit machines of the 1980s, and the juggernaut of British icon Mick Jones and Rochester native Lou Gramm had hit their stride for many years to come.
But the band had plenty of personnel changes over the years. By the mid-’90s they were looking for someone to fill a void. Or two.
“I had been playing with Aerosmith for several years, and a friend of mine was playing golf with a guy from Atlantic Records,” Tom Gimbel said. “The guy from Atlantic said that Foreigner needed a guy who could play sax but also guitar, which is not a common combination. My friend told the guy from Atlantic that he had just the guy to do that, and I got a call from Mick Jones’s brother Kevin and said that he heard I played sax, guitar, keyboards, and could sing. I told him, ‘That’s me. You called the right number.’”
Because they were already comfortable with his level of playing after his years with Aerosmith, New Jersey native Gimbel was asked to have dinner with Jones, Gramm, and the current bass player.
Ribbing from the guys
He laughed as he shared his favorite story about Gramm.
“I think they were just looking to see if I could eat a meal and not spill anything on myself,” Gimbel said. “They knew I could play. They just knew they needed someone they could get along with because a band spends a lot of time together.
“So we were having dinner, and I asked where everyone was from. Lou said, ‘I still live in Rochester.’ I’d always been interested in Rochester because I had wanted to attend the Eastman School of Music. So I said, ‘You guys are in the snow belt so you get a lot of snow, right?’ Lou said that they did. Then I said, ‘I was just reading that the snow belt is moving so you guys must be getting a lot less snow than you used to.’ And Lou just looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, it’s almost tropical.’ Everyone laughed, and I just looked down at my lap.”
Satisfying Sax Solo
Despite the minor gaffe, Gimbel passed the inspection and found himself an integral part of a major band. His versatility was incredibly valuable because, despite one extremely important sax solo, Foreigner isn’t exactly the E Street Band.
“Yeah, if it was just the sax solo in ‘Urgent,’ I might have to spend the rest of the night reading a book,” Gimbel said. “But there are other little sax moments throughout the show, and there are also a lot of great guitar moments. Playing those power chords in ‘Jukebox Hero’ you kind of feel like you could knock down a house. And you look out and the whole crowd is singing along. It’s that kind of feeling that really keeps you going.”
But he also admitted that the big sax solo is pretty satisfying.
“I look forward to it, I tackle it, I embrace it,” he said. “But after it’s over, it’s like I’ve blacked it out. It’s as if when it’s over I’m thinking ‘Where am I? Did that just happen?’”
From the time he joined the band, things were moving along pretty smoothly until in 2002 when Gramm left Foreigner, leaving the future of the band in limbo.
“I had been in Aerosmith, and it was exactly the same kind of thing,” Gimbel said. “It was about Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and here in Foreigner it was Mick Jones and Lou Gramm. It was a songwriting team and a two-man club, so there were a lot of similarities. When Lou left in 2002, it was heartbreaking. Mick was sort of lost for a year or so.
“I think we knew eventually he would find a new lead singer, but we didn’t know when that would happen. Mick called and said, ‘Stay in touch, don’t get too far away, don’t go anywhere.’ And I just spent the next year and a half becoming a golf maniac because I think I knew that call was going to come. And in 2004 he called and said, ‘I’m putting the band back together.’”
A hundred shows a year
Since that time Kelly Hansen has taken over vocal duties for the band, and Gimbel said that Foreigner hasn’t missed a beat.
“He has just taken the reins, and he knocks it out of the park every night,” Gimbel said. “He is a home run hitter.”
Foreigner now finds itself touring as much as ever, playing more than 100 shows a year and playing in front of rabid, happy fans who have been listening to their music for most of their lives. He said that keeping themselves in shape for playing into their later years (Gimbel turns 60 later this year while Jones is now 74) has meant a change in lifestyle from their earlier years in the music business.
But those changes demonstrate not only a cleaner approach to life but a sense of humor which has clearly served them all well over the years.
“We play a lot of shows, and just playing like that keeps you in shape,” Gimbel said. “But we also go to the gym, and we eat healthy foods. No salt, no sugar. It used to be sex and drugs and rock n’ roll, and now it’s sex and food and rock n’ roll. I often joke that my wife and I used to do coke. Now we do CoQ10.”