One of my favourite quotes is "It's not work when you love what you're doing." If this is true, then Jeff Neill hasn't worked a day in his life. Neill plays guitar for Streetheart, among other things, and is what I would term a musician's musician. He writes, he plays, he produces, and he manages, anything and everything to do with music.
At the tender age of 11, Neill was playing bass and singing in neighborhood bands. At 14, he switched over to guitar and from that point on Neill was unstoppable. In the '70s Neill's band, Shama, obtained a degree of success in the Western Canadian club scene. It was at that time he met, and became both friend and fan of Kenny Shields and Streetheart. In 1981, he joined the band and "Streetheart" became the band's biggest selling album.
Neill co-wrote all of the songs on that album with Kenny, Daryl, and Spider. It was the first of a many platinum awards he would receive in the decades to follow.
In 1984, Streetheart broke up and Neill became a much sought after session musician. In '86 he went on a three month tour, that lasted 11 years, with Scottish born, Australian rock 'n' roller, Jimmy Barnes. Several multi-platinum records later Neill returned to Canada and his recording studio to work as a writer and arranger. In 2003, Streetheart reformed with Neill back on guitar.
Streetheart: Jeff Neill guitar, Tim Sutton on drums,
Bruce "Jake" Jacobs on bass, Kenny Shields lead vocals, and Daryl Gutheil on keyboards
Streetheart is playing the Great Canadian Bike Rally on July 13 in Merritt and then headlining at Dancin' Barefoot in Peachland on the 14th. So, what's a multi-platinum award winning, world travelled musician doing touring in places like Vernon, Merritt, and Peachland? Apparently, he's having a lot of fun with the band.
Gonzo caught up with him at his home in Vancouver. "We love running around the Okanagan." he said, "It's a beautiful place, it's hot and we get to play rock and roll. It really is that simple. We show up and remind people why they came to see us. All the guys in the band are friends. It is so easy for us to travel together. It is still fun to do and we have had amazing fans for over 30 years."
He continued, "The Okanagan is a beautiful part of the world. Coming to the Okanagan for the summer is a treat for us. Do you know how much money people pay to come to the Okanagan for the summer? I take it for granted a little bit, living in Vancouver, but all the other boys are from Winnipeg and they really love coming out here."
Neill, Streetheart, and Kenny Shields have a lot of projects going on. Shields has a solo CD coming out shortly. "I have worked with him on that one on for a while now. Kenny's voice is just magnificent still. There are probably five tracks on the album that are literally first takes. Kenny is a real singer. We [Streetheart] are all real musicians. We learned the old fashioned way by playing clubs six nights a week, six hours a night, 50 weeks out of the year."
Neill muses about music today and how flawless it is. "There are too many easy buttons for kids to push now. Modern music is great - it's all perfect, but it's the producers, not the band. They [modern bands] don't sound like that live."
As for Neill's career, he knows he's one of the lucky ones. "I've been very fortunate in my life. I've worked hard for a lot of things and I am very grateful for what I have, but in no way am I satisfied. I've been doing this a long time and I appreciate it as much as anyone else in this business. One of my gifts has been longevity; I am in it and have been able to play it for a long time. And I'm not prepared to get out of it."
One of the things that keep musicians like Neill, Shields and the rest of Streetheart going are the fans. "Our fans are so loyal to us. It is a privilege to play. Other musicians that I admire all say the same thing; it is an honour to play for the fans."
Anyone who has seen Neill play knows about his guitar. "I bought my guitar brand new in 1974. Everything on it has been replaced over and over again. It's the one I love. It is durable, stays in tune and has this vibe. Every album that I've made, I've used this guitar on it. I've won all the gold and platinum records with this guitar. The original neck was replaced the first year I had it. I've had a dozen different sets of pickups in it. The little metal plate under the bridge and the body – that's all that is original," he pauses and chuckles. "My buddies call the guitar Frank. Many, many years ago White Snake was recording [in Vancouver] and they came down to Club Soda and one of the guys says "That guitar looks like a Frankenstein" and he's been Frank ever since."
Neill now gets the recognition he craved as a kid. He remembers looking at the old blues players and being amazed at their skill. Now, he gets the same respect from up and coming musicians. "I get young guys come up to me and say, "Dude, my dad played me your record, you can really play," he laughs. " I feel like I've become one of those old blues guys that I used to admire. It is very cool for me to have young musicians come up to me. I know they get it."
Even though he's been in the business almost his entire life, Neill still loves it. "This music [rock and roll] has become a way of life. Our fans want to be reminded that they still matter; they still got juice. That's part of what we do. We remind people of how great and lucky we were to come through this amazing period of music."
As for his longevity, as much as he loves what he does, he still works hard to achieve a level of professionalism that he's set quite high for himself. "Music careers don't just happen, you have to actually work them. You have to make the effort. I wake up every day a very bad guitar player, but by the time I go to bed, I'm good. Like Miles Davis said, it takes a lot of hard work to make it look this easy."
As for the future, Neill is not slowing down. As he said, he is going to be relevant for a long time to come. "I do music for TV series, I write songs, and I produce. Twenty years from now I would love to be going back and forth between my home here in Vancouver to somewhere warm with a studio in both. I might at that point have managed some artist's career into a good position. If I am still excited by music in 20 years, I will be successful."
As for today, Neill sums it up quite nicely. "This has been the best year of my life because it is the one that I am in. This is the year that really matters and next year… who knows."