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 three 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 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 T.V.," she said.
"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 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. JOKING 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, about 20 minutes early, I'd been about 10 or 15 minutes early when I got there. All the sudden, BUYAOWL!!! 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 explained.
"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. He 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 ethics 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 Pat Peterson."
Crystal was able to get a Bee Gees gig, 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 them, 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 said.
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 she told him she'd have him paid back in five months and he 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 record 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 from John back, 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 gig. "That was my audition," she said.
Other Musicians Crystal Worked With
Between John and Billy Joel, Crystal worked with 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 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, Julio Iglesias along with many others. "It just kind of snowballed after a certain point," she said.
Receiving The Herman C. Hudson Award
She just 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 uplinking 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.