Former Band Member Spotlight: Crystal Taliefero-Pratt
By Thad Requet
In the early and mid-1980's, everything John Mellencamp touched turned to gold.
Everything he released was at or near the top of the charts and his music was on
the radio about as much as Kenny Chesney or Taylor Swift is today.
The old saying of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," didn't fit John
Mellencamp's description. For John's entire career, he has continued to push
himself and his band to their limits to go in different musical directions, to
reinvent themselves. Mellencamp's music can be described as Rock, Country, Soul,
R&B, Blues and Folk, depending on what song you are listening to, and what
particular arrangement he has developed for that song.
After two straight multi-platinum albums (American Fool, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow)
from 1982 to 1985 that each received critical acclaim, John decided to go in a
different direction musically. He added the fiddle and accordion and brought in
longtime touring backup singer Pat Peterson to the studio and a young, very
talented Indiana University student from Hammond and Gary, Indiana, Crystal Taliefero (now married and known as Crystal Taliefero-Pratt). The additions to
the band gave the refreshing, bluesy, Appalachian sound like nobody had ever
heard before in Top 40 Rock and Pop radio.
Backup singer and musician Crystal Taliefero-Pratt talked with me in Spring 2011 about her experiences
with John and the band during the height of his commercial success.
Just A Small Town Girl
Tailefero was raised in Hammond, Indiana, from the time she was six months of
age until around the age of 13. Her family then moved to Gary, Indiana. Crystal
had played in bar bands since the young age of 11. She would later attend
Indiana University in Bloomington, where she continued playing music and was
able to display her many musical talents.
Asked To Join The Band
Crystal was playing in a band called Kilo back in college. "I was booking a lot
of the frat houses about that time. I was the accountant of the band at that
time and we were playing quite a bit. Kenny Aronoff (Mellencamp's drummer at the
time) used to come and sit in with us along side Shawn Pelton (now with the
Saturday Night Live house band). Kenny used to completely destroy our drummer's
kit. It wasn't fair because we were poor and broke and we were like 'come on
man, you can't be coming in here breaking this stuff, we don't have the money to
be buying another snare,'" she said with a laugh. She added that Kenny would
always bring them a brand new snare or else one of his.
Things got a little better and they got a band house together. "It was John
England, Shawn Pelton, David Randle and myself all in the band house in
Bloomington. It was like $200. We thought it was great. I used to clean this
lady's house and she furnished us with the furniture for the band house. I even
had a little 13 inch black and white TV.," she said. (Photo from the Hard Times for An Honest Man video shoot, Savannah GA 1987)
"So we'd been playing several gigs and Kenny said that John was coming down to
watch us play at Jake's. I was like 'okay, John Mellencamp's coming to watch us,
cool. The other guys were really excited but I wasn't really up on his music
that much so I was excited...but not as excited as the rest of the guys. So
anyway, he was at the gig, and he left after the first song! I thought 'ahh man,
it was so bad he left." Crystal got a call from Aronoff the next day saying that
John wanted to meet her. He also said that John had to leave the gig early the
night before because he got sick. "I was like 'okay, cool, when, in a couple of
days or something' and Kenny was like 'no, in about 45 minutes.'"
Taliefero talked to her brother Charles about meeting him. "I asked him if he
knew who this John Cougar Mellencamp guy was and he's like 'well yeah, of
course.' I told him he wanted me to come out and meet him and he's like 'well
go!'" she explained.
"We were at his place out in the yard and he was telling me how much he liked
the gig and was basically offering me a job. He asked 'how much you make in a
week' and I told him, and he said 'well I can pay you that for the remainder of
the year.' I'm thinking, okay, a steady gig, so little naive me said, 'okay, let
me talk it over with the rest of my band first. He chuckled a little bit and
said 'alright, well you've got until Monday,' and this was a Saturday. "I told
John I didn't know anything about rock-n-roll...the one and three thing. All I
knew was two and four. He said 'well you got a month to learn it,'" she said
laughing. So I went back to my brother and said 'this John Cougar Mellencamp guy
wants me to go on (the '85-'86 Scarecrow) tour with him, what do you think, he's like
'man...go!!!'" she said. "I said, 'what about the band, and he said 'are you
crazy...go!'" she added with a laugh.
"I ended up going and what an experience. If I had a chance to do it all over
again, I wouldn't want it any other way than to start off with a guy like John
Mellencamp. I grew up under that type of leadership, but not as intense as he
is. My brother was a tyrant. When I was growing up, if I didn't play a certain
type of instrument that my brother ordered me to do, then I'd get beat up, and
that was it." Crystal said jokingly, she continued, "Then he wanted me to get in the all boys band which I
refused, well I ended up in the band. But I'm so glad he did that. That was my
training. So when I got to this wonderful opportunity with Mellencamp, that
changed the whole course of my life, it was like the icing on the cake as far as
discipline...as far as being on time. Lets talk about being on time," she said.
Late To Band Practice
"I'd finally got enough money saved up working with John to buy myself my first
car. I got a co-sign for my grandfather who co-signed for no one...I was the
first. I told him I'd have him paid in two months. So I'm driving my 1970 Ford
Nova, four-door, clean, running smooth, no holes in the floor. So I'm driving to
Mellencamp's studio and I'm on that road that leads to the his studio, running about 20
minutes early, then all the
sudden, BOOM, POP, I had a flat tire. Now I've never changed a tire before in my
life. So my heart is going 'oh my god!' I didn't know what I was going to do. So
I got in the trunk of my car and there were directions with the jack. So I read
the directions and I changed that tire and it was full of oil and dirt and
whatever came off that tire was on me. But I was proud. I looked at my watch and
I was about five minutes late. So I drove on to practice and I was about 15
minutes late. But I was proud because I changed a tire all by myself," she
"I walked in the door and Mellencamp says 'you owe me one week's pay.' I said
'what?' I just changed a tire all by myself, he said 'yep.' I looked over at Kenny Aronoff and said 'has he ever done this before' and Kenny said 'yep,'" Crystal
said laughing. "You know he stood by that, I worked that whole week and I didn't
get any pay. And then he said 'start out early next time. Time is money and
money, that's my time. I was like Ahhh. No more free time for me, I was on time,
45 minutes early, everywhere I went," she said.
Getting It Right (The Live Letterman Experience)
Crystal knows how to play many instruments thanks to her brother Charles and
John Mellencamp. "John is my brother to the 10th degree. He's like 'you play sax
right,' and I'd say yes, and he'd be like 'well then you can play harp.' I was
thinking like the big string harp, and he was talking about a harmonica. I was
saying 'I'm not sure how to play this,' and he's like 'well you've got a week to
learn. We're going to do Entertainment Tonight and David Letterman.' I'd never
been on television in my life," she said. At the taping of Entertainment Tonight
things didn't go well for Crystal. "I bombed Entertainment Tonight. I bombed the
(harmonica) solo (in the middle of "Small Town"). I just wanted to throw up...I
just wanted to die. John looked at me and said 'you're lucky it was taped.'" They
were able to edit the botched harmonica part out of the recording. "The next
week we were doing David Letterman and that was live. He said 'you have one more
chance. You bomb this one, you're going home on the Greyhound'...I love John,"
she said laughing.
"When we get to David Letterman's theater, I just remember it was freezing in
there. Pat (Peterson) and I had these little satin like shirts on. We're up on
stage (during the rehearsal) and Kenny is right next to me and and John and
David (Letterman) were sitting out in the audience. So I'm standing up there and
John's pointing at me...or I could tell he's pointing at somebody. So I'm
looking around and Kenny said 'no, he's pointing at you.' So I looked at John
and said 'me' and he said 'yeah you, you screw this up you're out on the
Greyhound.' I looked at Kenny and said, has he ever sent anybody home and Kenny
said...'yeah,'" she said. "Ahh man, I was shaking in my boots. So, I played it
that night and I didn't miss a note! John stopped singing, and as I finished, he
kind of laughed and started back in...one, two three four...," she said
laughing. "So after the performance I was walking off the stage and my legs felt
like rubber bands because I'd been so nervous. I went up to him and said 'how'd
I do, how'd I do' and he said 'ahh, you were alright.'"
"It's not hard to sing to John's music. He's a soulful dude. When you hear the
track, you don't think about it, you just sing it," she said. "My time with John
was an awesome experience. I don't know too many people that could handle that
pressure, but if you can handle it, it's good for you...good for the soul, good
for the spirit. It builds you up, gives you courage to take on things that are
foreign to you."
Taliefero said that with all the people she has worked with through the years,
it was best that she started out with John. "The work ethic of
practicing...I've never had anything like that since then. You know, I miss it,
but I think that is unique to John's style. By the time we got up on stage, we
had no choice but to think about magic. There was no 'okay, I hope we get this
right,' we were already in that groove because we had already practiced it up to
the point where it becomes like second nature," she explained.
"You know, we got to the point where John asked me what it was I wanted (out of
music). I said I want to learn how to write. I was shocked that he allowed me
some space for a moment to figure out what I wanted. So he had me sit in his
back yard and I played him a couple of songs I was trying to write and he would
critique them. He was going over some stuff with me. So he said 'take this song,
"Wasting Time," home and see if you can do something with it,' so I did, and I
came back the next day." She had a multitrack recorder and she came back the
next day and they sat in the back yard and John critiqued everything. "He was
really teaching me some stuff, and he said anytime you want to come over, just
call me and come over.
Nobody's ever done anything like that for me before, that
was something special," she said.
Working Alongside Pat Peterson
Another person who taught Crystal and helped her develop was John's longtime
backup singer Pat Peterson. "Ah, that's my sister. She was in my wedding. We
have climbed a mountain top together," Crystal said. "I came in and I was
understudying her and I was learning from her. The energy and the dancing, and
things like that, I learned from her. All the positive energy and stuff...that's
Crystal was able to get a Bee Gees 1991 tour, and she called Pat. "I called Pat in and
she went for it and we were together for this gig. Man, we had such a great
time. It was so cool, because Maurice (Gibb) had asked me, he said 'Crystal, you
have some songs of your own don't you,' and I told him I did. He said 'well we
need an opening act.'" Crystal told him she didn't have a band, and Gibb offered
the Bee Gees band. "I was like...cool!. I said 'Pat, you got some songs? We've
got a band we've got to put together called Bonzai. And we were opening up for
the Bee Gees in Europe. We were playing in front of like 60,000 people, because
they (the Bee Gees) were knocking it out," she said.
Crystal has traveled to Texas to record some tracks for some of Pat Peterson's
work. "I just love Pat. What a beautiful person," she said.
The Story Behind The Paper In Fire Video Crystal talked about the making of "Paper In Fire" video, which may be one of
John Mellencamp's best music videos ever. "We went down to Savannah, Georgia,
and that dress that I had on was the dress I just happened to be wearing that
day. I took my shoes off...I had the idea to take my shoes off because...you
see, they didn't really want us in there. This was their neighborhood. John
asked me to up there and talk to the locals, and I said okay. So I had my shoes off
and walked over, sat down in one of the houses and just explained that we wanted
to be there for a little while and do this video. I can remember drinking a
glass of water out of a Mason jar," she explained. After talking to them for
awhile the people agreed that it would be fine for John and the band to set up
and do the shoot. "John paid them, each one of them, a fee for letting for him
come in there, and I thought that was awesome. So we got in there and shot the
video and I told Pat I was just going to keep my shoes off and get real down and
dirty with it," she said. Crystal explained that the reactions in the video were
all real. The elderly woman with the cigarette in her mouth and both hands out
to her side, just feeling the music as she cocked her head slightly, and John
kissing the little girl at the end. Everything in the video was authentic, there
were no staged reactions to the music.
"That was a beautiful time...and it was hot, so hot and humid. But that was a
real neighborhood and a tight neighborhood too, those people were close," she
Going Different Directions
After the release of Big Daddy in 1989, John took some time off and started
painting. The band wasn't touring and times were slow. "After John decided to
become a painter and explore different avenues, I can remember going up to him
and asking him 'how long he planned to be a painter,' (laughing) I was so naive.
He said he didn't know and asked what I wanted to do. I had a choice, he could
put me on a retainer, or I could reject the retainer, so I decided not to take
the retainer and go to New York and see what's happening. Well, John said 'you
won't last a week in New York, because you are a country girl, you can't handle
the big city.' I said 'you might be right, but I don't have anything to lose at
this point.' He said 'well if you need anything let me know,' and I said 'well,
as a matter of fact, there is.' He said 'what's that' and I said well 'it takes
a lot of money' and he asked me how much. I figured if I could get a grand a
month for three months, and if I don't get that then right, I'm coming back
home," she explained. John gave her the money and Crystal told him she'd have him
paid back in five months, John told her to take her time.
"Before I left I got a phone call from a guy named Jimmy Minor who used to work
for John back in the day. He had somehow disappeared, and come to find out he
was working for Billy Joel. So he called me up and said 'Crystal, I've been
looking all over for you.' I said looking all over for me, I've been right here.
He said 'we're doing a record and wanted to know if you wanted to come out and
play on this record.' I said 'alright, who is it.' He said it was Billy Joel.
Auditioning For Billy Joel Things were going slow for Crystal in New York and she was getting to the point
where she was needing to pay her loan back to John, and she was afraid she may
have to go back to Bloomington. "So at the 2 1/2 month point, I get a call to
come in and do percussion and vocals for the Billy Joel Storm Front album. I
walked in there with my best digs on. I had on my $30 hat, Gap jeans, a black
and red flannel shirt, black suspenders, with a bolo, and spurs on my boots. I
walked in there...I thought I was sharp. Liberty DeVitto (the drummer on the
album) looked at me like what the...," Crystal said with a big laugh. "They said
'there ain't no cowboys in Gary, Indiana.'" After taking her bolo and spurs off,
Crystal finally got the call that it was her turn to play some percussion parts.
Her percussion rig hadn't been sent to the studio like she requested...so she
thought. "They told me not to worry, they had something I could use. They rolled
in roto toms...all different sizes. I'm standing there. Then they come in with a
set of sticks that are five times as big as a normal set of sticks and three
times longer. So they gave them to me and said 'play.' And they were all looking
at me and the music started and I tried to play these big sticks and finally
told them to stop the music. I told them I couldn't play with those sticks. They
started laughing and told me I had the gig." Then they brought out her percussion rig.
"That was my audition," she said. (Photo above: Crystal on stage with Billy Joel, 2010)
Crystal joined Billy Joel during a time when he had just gone through some major changes. He had revamped has band, firing everyone except Liberty Devitto, guitarist David Brown and saxophone player Mark Rivera. That is when Crystal came in the scene. "We Didn't Start The Fire" was Joel's third number one hit and the album Storm Front became Joel's first number one album since Glass Houses. Joel's next album River Of Dreams also was successful, featuring the title track that reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1993. Crystal had found a home with Billy Joel and his band. Taliefero's talent shined through as she received critical praise for her work with Joel. She also earned more responsibility in the band, as she was the background vocal arranger for Billy Joel. Crystal was on stage with Billy Joel for the infamous "Last Play At Shea" concert, which featured such stars as Tony Bennett, Don Henley, John Mayer, Steven Tyler, Roger Daltrey, Garth Brooks, Paul McCartney and John Mellencamp. That concert was released on DVD and CD last year. (Photo above: Performing for President Clinton with Garth Brooks)
"Crystal Taliefero is without a doubt the most talented multi-instrumental and vocal arranger I have ever worked with. I have been honored to have her as a member of my recording and touring group for over 25 years now," said Billy Joel in a Indiana University article about Crystal. "She has been responsible for many of the more creative aspects of hit recording arrangements and performances since we began working together. There are even some songs that would not have been written without her inspiration. I couldn't even imagine touring or doing any kind of popular musical project without her," he added.
Working with Bruce Springsteen
After "Storm Front"
Crystal joined up with "The Boss' Bruce Springsteen to tour in support of his twin-release of Human Touch and Lucky Town albums. The two albums were released in 1992 and the tour followed. They opened in arenas in Western Europe on June 15, 1992 in Stockholm. They played 15 dates, including five at London's Wembley Arena, before coming to the United States.
They played an amazing 11 consecutive dates in New Jersey's Meadowlands Arena. They then took off through the United States and Canada for 61 total dates. After a three month winter break, they played 31 more dates in Europe, with the tour finishing up on June 1, 1993.
"The band consisted of a bunch of session players. People who played in the studio. They were very good at what they did. They just nailed things the first time," Crystal said. She fit in just fine with the group. When Crystal wasn't strumming a guitar, she was wailing on the saxophone on such things hits as "Born To Run" which were normally done by Clarence Clemons.
Although the critics were mixed with Springsteen and the "other band" throughout the tour, Crystal seemed to always be singled out as being a top performer from the group. Lars Lindstrom reviewed the first show on the tour for Back Beat magazine and stated that "the musicians have not yet become a band - and they lack the moments of total togetherness both musically and physically. Only singer and percussionist Crystal Tailefero and singer Bobby King have the undisputed chirisma." USA Today music critic Edna Gunderson singled out Crystal, praising her on her performance alongside Springsteen. Jon Pareles of the New York Times called Crystal a "sassy female foil." Crystal's era with Bruce is documented by the 1992 live project MTV Plugged which was a full band electric version of the MTV Unplugged franchise. The special was released on CD and VHS. (Photos above: On stage with Bruce Springsteen 1992, Los Angeles Times tour article & photo)
Other Musicians Crystal Worked With
In the '80's and 90's, Crystal worked with several other note worthy artists, including Bob Seger. She was in the
studio with Seger when he recorded "Little Drummer Boy" for the first edition of
the Very Special Christmas album, which also features John's version of "I Saw
Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" on it. Crystal was also on Seger's 1986 American Storm
tour. After Billy Joel, she also worked with Joe Cocker, Ritchie Sambora, Julian
Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Brooks & Dunn, Tina Arena,
Enrique Iglesias along with many others. "It just kind of snowballed after a
certain point," she said. We have an extensive list of Crystal's album and touring history at the bottom of this article. (Photo above Crystal and Pat with Bob Seger 1986)
Crystal has also performed and produced musical scores for the highly acclaimed videos "John Henry", with Samuel L. Jackson as narrator, "Children: All the Colors of the Earth" and "Candles for Kwaanza" with Alfre Woodard narrating. She has also done "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" with Weston Woods. She has received world-wide recognition and praise for the positive and motivational example she has set for young people. Along with the children's books, she has been a supporter of VH-1's "Save The Music" campaign.
Receiving The Herman C. Hudson Award Crystal recently received the prestigious Herman C. Hudson Award for her
outstanding contributions to the Arts. She is an Indiana University and Soul
Revue alumna. The award was established in 2005 as part of the anniversary
celebration commemorating 30 years of the African American Arts Institute. She
recently worked with the IU Soul Revue. Crystal mentioned Dr. James E. Mumford,
Portia Moseby, Cheryl Keys, Charles Sykes, her vocal instructor Camilla Williams
and David Baker all as being influential to her during her time at Indiana
University. "Those were the people I was under and they basically started me off
and got me going." She is quick to point out that she was an understudy with the
IU Soul Revue. "I didn't make the team. I had to sit on the side and learn. And
that was a good thing for me. There is an advantage with that, you get to sit
down and see everything and what's going on, if you look at it from that
perspective. You can't feel sorry for yourself, you've got to learn," she said.
Coming back years later and working with current students in the Soul Revue
really moved Crystal. "It freaked me out...I was crying, I cried all night. You
know, it was a great experience," she said, talking about being honored.
Life Off The Stage
Crystal Taliefero-Pratt has a new life now. She does a lot of uploading of files
and sessions from her home studio. She was married last fall to a man she has
known for 17 years, and is very happy. She also has a nine year old daughter who
she said is "nine going on 14." "She's really smart, in the third grade doing
sixth grade level work. Science is her thing and she wants to be a judge. She
told me she wants to go to Harvard or Yale. I said 'why there,' Indiana
(University) is a good school. Crystal pushes her to keep her grades up and is
passing down the work ethic that she has instilled in her life for so many
successful years. Crystal was presented the Key to the City
in East Chicago in February of 2009. This was a great honor that meant a lot to