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Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
Arts & Music

Blues Image musician hopes for do-over

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Mike Pinera once saw Jimi Hendrix cry.

It was 1969 and Pinera’s band The Blues Image, made up of childhood friends from Tampa, was performing with the rock ’n’ roll legend at Thee Experience, a psychedelic nightclub on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Before the show, Hendrix walked into the club’s utility room without explanation. Worried, Pinera poked his head inside and witnessed the meltdown.

“He was looking into a mirror, oblivious that I was there, and talking to himself through sobs,” Pinera recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t be the clown who plays guitar with his teeth. I’m not a clown. I’m a musician.’”

Soon afterward, Hendrix formed The Band of Gypsies, a return of sorts to his blues roots. At the same time, Pinera chose to leave his.

The Blues Image was one of the hottest new bands in the nation. Its hit single, “Ride Captain Ride,” climbed to No. 4 on the charts and received a gold record in 1969.

Pinera quit in 1970.

His story reads like a Hollywood cliché. A talented group of friends rise to musical fame together, move to LA, buckle under the pressure and break up.

Pinera is hoping this story can still have a happy ending.

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More than four decades after walking out on Blues Image, he is touring under the band’s name again, playing its classics at small festivals and fairs throughout the country while working on a new Blues Image album.

He hoped some of his original bandmates would join him. None has taken him up on the offer.

His new band members, he said, are as talented as any, but he would push them aside for a song or a show to play with the original crew — even if they’re rusty.

“I miss my friends,” Pinera said. “I hope one day we can play on stage one last time and feel that old intensity again.”

Tampa radio personality Tedd Webb, Pinera’s longtime friend, said he has mixed feelings about a reunion. He’d love to see it but it would remind him of what might have been.

“They would have been bigger than Led Zeppelin,” Webb said. “And anyone who knows music knows that to be true.”

Hendrix once told the British press Blues Image was one of the most talented bands in the world. Jim Morrison regularly asked to jam with them. And the Allman Brothers have credited them as a musical inspiration.

“Unfortunately they are remembered as a one-hit wonder,” said Ken Weiss of Chapel Hill, N.C., a friend of the band and longtime music producer with 20 gold and platinum records to his credit. “This is hardly a one-hit wonder but a significant musical influence.”

Added Webb, “They made Tampa’s sound cool all around the country. And then Mike Pinera quit and it all went away.”

Born in 1948, Pinera was raised in a small home on Gray Street in West Tampa that his father, a telephone company employee, always worried he would lose.

“He never knew if he could make the next mortgage payment,” Pinera said. “Money was always tight.”

But top-notch entertainment was free.

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The family lived directly across Howard Avenue from the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory, where musical stars such as Elvis Presley and James Brown performed.

With no air-conditioning, the armory’s windows and doors were kept open so the breeze could blow in. The music also blew out, and some nights Pinera would sit on his porch and listen. Other nights he’d grab his guitar and play along.

When Elvis stepped outside the armory for a break, Pinera’s father invited him for dinner. He pleasantly declined.

Duane Allman accepted the invitation, dining on rice and beans and then jamming with Pinera in the garage.

He formed Blues Image in 1966. Besides Pinera, it included singer-drummer Manuel “Manny” Bertematti, singer-percussionist Joe Lala, keyboardist Emilio Garcia and bassist Malcolm Jones.

Pinera went to school with Lala and Bertematti and had met Garcia and Jones through the local musical scene.

None of them were “cool kids,” Pinera said with a laugh. They were chunky, shy, awkward.

But together they created unique music. Pinera brought high-energy guitar riffs. Lala was raised on the Latin beats of Ybor City. Jones was fond of the blues coming out of London. They added the jam band sounds of the time.

“Santana spawned many bands like that,” producer Weiss said. “But in my view Blues Image established the bar.”

Duane and Greg Allman credit a Blues Image show they attended at a Tampa club as the inspiration for double drummers on their song “Don’t Want You No More.”

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Frank “Skip” Konte joined the band in 1967, replacing Garcia, who became a pilot.

In 1968, Blues Image moved to Miami and helped a group of investors open a concert venue called Thee Image, where the band was the regular opener for acts such as Hendrix, The Doors and the Grateful Dead.

In 1969, they moved to LA, launched Thee Image with the same investors and again opened for a who’s who of the music industry, garnering their own fame along the way.

The following year, their album “Open” included “Ride Captain Ride.” The fame catapulted them into A-list status in Hollywood.

The Tampa friends hung out with Hendrix and attended parties at Morrison’s home.

But they were also pulling apart, Pinera said.

They partied too hard, which made the hectic schedule of a musician even more difficult. If they weren’t performing they were expected to work on a new album. There were no days off, Pinera said.

“We were exhausted and we took out our frustration on each other.”

They bickered, often communicating only through their music. And they were not making the type of money that went along with their success.

“We were kids when we signed our deal,” Pinera said. “We didn’t have attorneys or anyone looking out for us. We were playing before big audiences and had a major hit, but were only making $200 a week. It added to our anger.”

It was money that pulled him out of the band, Pinera said. Iron Butterfly, best known for the hit “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” needed a new lead guitarist and made Pinera a deal he couldn’t resist.

He paid off his parents’ West Tampa home. He said that is still the proudest accomplishment of his life.

“It’s a shame,” Webb said. “I think if he had stayed with Blues Image, in due time the checks would have been bigger than he could have ever imagined. But you can’t fault the man. He wanted to help his parents.”

The remaining members of Blues Image were not so understanding, Webb said, and took years to forgive Pinera.

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They replaced Pinera with singer Denny Correll and guitarist Kent Henry and recorded a new album, “Red White & Blues Image,” but broke up before it was released in May 1970.

Each original band member went on to success — percussionist Lala worked with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Manassas; the Bee Gees; Whitney Houston; and others.

Bassist Jones developed Gold Hill Music, through which many of Stephen Stills’ songs were published.

Keyboardist Konte became a gospel music producer, and drummer Bertematti an oil executive with Texaco.

Pinera later performed with Alice Cooper then launched a solo career, but Blues Image was always on his mind.

“Ride Captain Ride” made a comeback in recent years through television and film. It was featured in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “Diggers,” and on Comedy Central’s celebrity roast of Capt. Kirk himself, William Shatner.

To this day, Pinera will not divulge the song’s meaning. Theories abound — the story of Sir Francis Drake’s exploration of the West Coast goes one, and a song about nothing, according to another.

But the song’s new popularity didn’t inspire Pinera to get the band back together.

He said while performing as a solo act, he would get requests from fans for all of Blues Image’s songs, not just the one hit.

“Even their children knew our other songs,” he said. “I hate that people called us a one-hit wonder because all of our music was good. The fans validated that. I thought it would be great to let the rest of the band experience that.”

Lala was open to the idea. Pinera said they performed together a few times as a duo, but then Lala was diagnosed with cancer.

Lala passed away in March. Pinera lost his friend and his perfect happy ending.

Lala’s death also strengthened Pinera’s desire for a reunion with the remaining members. He hopes they contact him.

“I don’t know if the music industry would really care about it,” he said. “But it would mean a lot to me.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

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