Orleans was formed in 1972 in Woodstock, NY by guitarist/keyboardist Larry Hoppen, guitarist John Hall, drummer Wells Kelly, and bassist Lance Hoppen. In 1973, the band released its first album, Orleans, and followed up with such memorable hits as 1975’s “Dance with Me” and 1976’s “Still the One.”
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Orleans founding member Lance Hoppen who talked about his childhood, Orleans’ rise to fame, his solo recording, and the group’s new tribute video, “No More Than You Can Handle.”
Spotlight Central: You were raised in Bay Shore, Long Island. Did you grow up in a musical family?
Lance Hoppen: Yeah, my parents were players who met gigging after World War II. My father played the trumpet and my mother was a pianist and a singer; she was gifted — really excellent. She was classically trained but could play by ear and could sing like an angel, and my dad was a solid trumpet player, so we were raised with music in the house from day one.
Spotlight Central: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Lance Hoppen: My dad liked big band music and my parents liked the standards so we were exposed to all the stuff from their era. I remember seeing Count Basie in concert and the Glenn Miller Band — and I was trained on clarinet throughout school, so I had traditional training, as well. I got most of my influences, however, from my older brother Larry and from my older sister — the eldest of all of us — and their 45 collections. It was such a wide gamut. On one side, there was Neil Sedaka and Bobby Vinton and all that. Then, there was The Beach Boys and that kind of stuff. And on the other side, there was R&B and Motown — but of course, The Beatles were the primary drivers of things. Larry had cool records like Spirit and Traffic, though, which gave me a really diverse body of influences and I also listened to the radio at the time which played just about everything on one station — anything from Johnny Cash to Stevie Wonder to The Rolling Stones — so it was a very broad education for me.
Spotlight Central: You said you were a clarinetist in school. Did you play in the school band — and when did you start to play the guitar?
Lance Hoppen: My mom was a piano teacher and one of my major regrets is not allowing her to teach me — it just didn’t work dynamically. Larry played by ear and my younger brother Lane studied, but I never picked up those skills from anybody including my mom. But everybody in my house played, right? Larry preceded me and he was a trumpet player. He trained and he was really good. When it came my turn to play, my dad came home from a pawn shop with a clarinet and I remember I cried that day — you know, “Couldn’t you bring me a sax?” I just couldn’t see the clarinet as a very sexy, masculine kind of thing — but I do know some great clarinetists. I never really mastered the tone, but I was still good at it. I was first chair in my band and I went to All County and all that, but once I got out of high school I didn’t continue to play.
And as far as picking up a guitar goes, Larry was very intimidating to be around. He was prodigious. He was three years older and two years more advanced in school so his peer group was five years older than mine. Here I was, just a kid, and he was already playing in bands. It took him leaving for college and leaving a guitar in the closet for me to pick it up, and when I was around twelve years old, I started plunking away on one string to Paul McCartney lines, and that’s how I got started.
Spotlight Central: Wasn’t it just after finishing high school that you went to Woodstock, NY to join Orleans?
Lance Hoppen: Right. Larry went to school in Ithaca. That’s where he met Wells Kelly, along with Wells’ brother Sherman Kelly — the writer of “Dancin’ in the Moonlight” — and they had a band up there called Boffolongo which preceded Orleans. When Wells quit that band, it was the final straw — he quit to join John Hall in Woodstock. They had a couple of other guys, and when they didn’t work out, they called Larry, and that was the original trio that became Orleans in February of ’72. I graduated high school in May or June of that year, they recruited me in October, and by the summer of ’73 we were recording.
Spotlight Central: So you were this band from Woodstock, but where did the name Orleans come from?
Lance Hoppen: You know, it’s kind of a boring story — it’s a story of three guys who don’t know what to call themselves and then Wells blurts out “Orleans.” They were playing as a fledgling group and they were writing songs, but they were also doing a lot of covers, and a lot of those covers were New Orleans’ swampy stuff — The Meters, Allen Toussaint — in addition to a lot of R&B and Memphis and Stax Records kind of music off the cuff as they developed their style.
The band got a gig and it went well so the club owner asked, “What are we gonna call you guys, so we can have you back?” They immediately had to come up with a name that was always intended to be changed — but once you establish a brand, that’s it — so it never got changed. If I had my druthers, it would be a different name, but it has become what people associate with it. You know, it’s one thing to be Chicago and be from Chicago, and to be Boston and to be from Boston, and to be America and be from America, but we’re an anomaly — we’re not from New Orleans, we’re from New York.
Spotlight Central: After ABC Records released your first album, Orleans, the label decided against picking up your second album, Orleans II. It is said, however, that it was during the last set of the group’s last night performing at Max’s Kansas City in NYC that Orleans was rediscovered by Asylum Records. Is that right?
Lance Hoppen: Yes. We showcased in New York City and we got noticed by Cashman and West, who were producing Jim Croce and such, and they brought us to ABC, but we didn’t want them to produce us. We wound up with Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett in Muscle Shoals recording our first album — which is very raw, and fast — but, to some, the first album is always the cult favorite.
Then we went to make our second record, having had no hits on the first. We self-produced it up in Woodstock at Bearsville Studios — we were just a bunch of young men doing our thing. It had some merit, but it really wasn’t a polished commercial-friendly kind of deal. Ironically, the first recordings of “Let There Be Music” and “Dance with Me” are on that record, but ABC didn’t hear any hits on it. That’s because the production of those songs was not so hit-like — you know, there is a difference between a hit song and a hit record — so they didn’t release the album except for in the Netherlands where, for some reason, we had a very stout following.
We went back to New York City to showcase again, this time at Max’s Kansas City, and we played there for week. And you’re right: as I recall, we played six nights — two sets a night, and three on Saturday and Sunday — and I believe it was the very last set on the very last night that Chuck Plotkin, who was the head of A&R at Asylum, heard us. He heard the band do our songs and, even though our voices were shot, he decided to sign us to Asylum. Then he secured the recording rights from ABC to redo “Dance with Me” and “Let There Be Music” and he put them on the first Asylum album — which was our third album, actually — called Let There Be Music. “Let There Be Music” was the first single and it charted in the mid-40s which opened the door, and then “Dance with Me” came roaring through and put us in the Top 5.
Spotlight Central: You’ve said that Chuck Plotkin was a guy who knew how to take what you guys were doing and turn your songs into hits. How did he accomplish this?
Lance Hoppen: A good producer always causes you to reexamine your own work and raise the bar. Chuck was not a player and he wasn’t a singer, but he was a very good student of music. He had a good feel for it — he could feel if the groove was happening or wasn’t — and he also knew about arrangements and song structure and this and that, right? So at every point, what he suggested wasn’t an oppositional force, but more of a challenge to “How can that be better? What is the right way to do this?”
So that’s what a producer does, and Chuck was great at it. Of course, after us, he went on to work with Bruce Springsteen and a bunch of other notables, so he has a lot credits to his name. But I credit Chuck with training us in how to make hit records and also, specifically, for making “Dance with Me” and then, later, “Still the One” into the massive hits they became, because left to our own devices, I don’t believe that would have ever happened.
Spotlight Central: You once called Orleans an R&B bar band, yet “Dance With Me” — this soft rock/pop song which you called “atypical” for the group — became a huge hit. Was that something you ever expected to happen?
Lance Hoppen: No, you can’t ever figure this stuff out ahead of time. For “Dance with Me,” we were rehearsing in a little garage in a house that I was renting with our roadie which had these mattresses on the cement walls — like that, right? And John Hall came in one night and he had this guitar figure for this new song. And Larry said, “That’s good — you should finish that.” And sure enough, John played it for Johanna, his then-wife and co-writer — and she said, “I think that sounds like ‘Dance with Me.’” And he said, “Nah, that’s too simple.” But, in the end, that’s what it became — and Hall and Hall’s songwriting collaboration became the bulk of our material, actually.
And, yeah, the band, live, would play these three-hour gigs. John would lead the charge and we’d just go improvisationally from one song we sort of collectively knew to another and to another — these long jams — and then we’d play a regular song, and that’s how we did our bar and college gigs. It was pretty loose — you know, “Did we write a set list?” “I don’t care.” “What are we gonna play next?” “Whatever we feel like.”
And then you get to the stage of being groomed and polished and all that. And so it was in making that third album — which was still primarily rock and R&B stuff — that “Dance with Me” hit the radio, and once it did, we knew we had to adapt to that image. The agency put us out on tour — not with Little Feat or another group like that — but with Melissa Manchester, who attracted a MOR — or what we used to call a “middle of the road” — audience. And we did well with that; we adapted to it. So what was kind of raw and organic, funky and wild, eventually got tamed in a way, and polished, and then we ended up having a different set of strengths which are the ones we’re known for these days.
Spotlight Central: In 1976, Orleans did the album, Waking and Dreaming — which had a cameo by Linda Ronstadt on vocals — but no one was sure what song was going to be the new single. Apparently, after some discussion, it became “Still the One,” which not only rose up the charts, but became a theme for the ABC television network in 1977, and over 25 years later, was used by both the Democratic and Republican parties in the 2004 presidential election! When you were deciding what song to release as the single from that album, did anyone ever have any idea that particular song could go that far?
Lance Hoppen: Here, again, you can’t just predict these things. “Still the One” was a song among songs that we had slated for the Waking and Dreaming album — some didn’t make the album and some did. We had been playing that one live, but I think we approached it — I know I did — more like, “What would Little Feat do with this song?” So the groove wasn’t what you hear these days — it was some other kind of stop/start thing — and it was Chuck Plotkin who took that song apart and along with our drummer, Jerry Marotta, created that specific drum pattern and the parts that go over it. Then, we just went from there.
So again, it was just one song among many songs, but I’m sure Chuck heard it as a single and they put it out and, yeah, the rest is history. In a way, it enabled John to leave the band in ’77 because he got this big deal from ABC-TV to use it as their theme song — for two years, actually — and then, from there, it’s among the most-licensed songs ever for commercials of all kinds, for political campaigns, for movie soundtracks, for TV shows. So, no — nobody could have predicted all that.
Spotlight Central: Back in the late-70s, we were college students, and we were in the audience for the unbelievable concert you did with Heart at the Hatch Shell in Boston. After you and Orleans performed, but before Heart was finished playing, we walked over to the John Hancock building — which was one of the largest skyscrapers in Boston — and took the elevator up to the observation deck just so we could look down and get a bird’s eye view of the crowd we had just been a part of. For us, it was — and still is — the largest concert we’ve ever been to in our lives. By any chance, do you have any particular memories of playing that show?
Lance Hoppen: Oh, yeah! Most gigs tend to blend into other gigs, but that one stands out because of the setting and just the sheer enormity of the crowd. I think the park’s capacity is, like, 50,000 maybe, and they were double that or more — I don’t know the final number — but it was astronomical. Later on, we played Woodstock 94, which had similar numbers, but I guess that one was probably on par — it was definitely one of the largest crowds we’d ever played for.
And that whole tour, including an aerial photo of that event, is in a book called Life on the Road by our then sound mixer — a legendary guy in his own right — Dinky Dawson. He chronicled a lot of tours he was on — Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, The Byrds — and he chronicled that tour, which was mostly with Jackson Browne, but was also one which included that particular show.
Spotlight Central: After recording with Asylum, Orleans continued on the Infinity label with the Top 20 hit “Love Takes Time” in 1979, and in 1982, your younger brother Lane joined the band. Later, during the 1980s, you and your older brother Larry formed a side group, Mood Ring, with Robbie Dupree — your roommate in Woodstock, NY — later known for his hit, “Steal Away.” What was the impetus for that group and what kind of music did you play?
Lance Hoppen: Let me take you back to that time period: John quit Orleans in 1977. Everything was in turmoil, but Larry, Wells, and I regrouped along with two other guys, RA Martin and Bob Leinbach. We made the Forever album for Infinity and “Love Takes Time” became another hit. At that juncture, you have to remember the oil crisis, inflation, cassette tape — all these things — weighed heavily on the industry, and rosters got cut and sales went down because people were taping songs instead of buying records. All that happened and our label Infinity — a subsidiary of MCA — went out of business. We were hoping MCA would let us out of our contract, but they didn’t. We wound up making another self-produced album — Larry and me at the helm with Wells — but everybody who was ever in the band ended up playing on it: John Hall, Jerry Morotta, his brother Rick Marotta, RA Martin, Bob Leinbach, and Lane — so that took us into the early ’80s, which were not kind to us at all, and we ended up going through some roster changes for a few years.
Meanwhile in Woodstock we were thinking, “What are we gonna do while we’re broken up?” I was living in a band house — it was a big house, but there were four, five, six, seven people in the house all the time — and I was the guy who was doing well, so I held the tabs on everybody. And Robbie Dupree was in a band called The Striders and he was also in the house, and we were — I guess you could call us — “barhopping mates” for a few years in there. This was before “Steal Away” became a hit.
So we put together a band in Woodstock — Larry, myself, Robbie, and some other locals who were good players — and we played mostly R&B covers. There was a tongue-in-cheek flavor to what we did — a lot of humor — and we played gigs that were fun to do. We actually got to go to Hawaii and a couple of other places, but mostly it was just a thing to do between other things.
Spotlight Central: You started Orleans in the early ’70s and the band is still going strong, but back in 2016 you recorded a solo album, Conjuring. Was that your first solo effort?
Lance Hoppen: Not exactly. I haven’t written a lot of songs, but I’ve written some over time. My first song on an Orleans album was on the 1981 album, Orleans — I had a couple of tunes on there, and they’re not bad, but they’re not really great. And then it wasn’t until the ’90s — the Ride album, in ’95 — that I’d written some better songs and was singing better. So eventually I found my voice, and came into that when I was in my 40s, I guess, and by 2016, I finally had a lull; I found myself with time, money, and a catalog of unrecorded songs.
But let me backdate the story first: Prior to this, in 2010, I’d written a song called “Start From Where You Are” with a friend of mine, Shawn Gallaway, and it was submitted to this organization called emPower Music. Every year, they give out awards — sort of unsanctioned Grammys — called the Posi Awards. That stands for “positive music” — higher-consciousness music — and various subcategories of that. Usually, it’s about lyrical content more than style, but our song not only got submitted, it made it into the finals. I was going to go to this event as a nominee, but I had no product, so I collected 10 or 11 cuts — some from Orleans, but most of them from outside Orleans — all of them being songs I had my stamp on as a writer and singer and player. So that was my first album, you could say, but it was really just a collection of things that had already been done.
I started working on the Conjuring album in 2016 when I had time, money, and a catalog of unrecorded things. This was my time to document these things— not so much for making money or expecting a lot of sales, but just so they didn’t disappear. I had a very small cast of characters — Charlie Morgan on drums, John Jorgenson playing most of the guitar parts, and Catherine Styron Marx who is great on keys — and we put that record together as a quartet with some additional cameo performances. There were 15 tracks, and some of it was Orleans stuff we reworked a little bit, but most of it was not. I’m very proud of it, though, because I got to play, sing, produce, arrange, and do what I do — which is embedded into the Orleans’ collective sound, but it’s not necessarily attributable to me, right? What I did was always in there, but people would tend to gravitate to Larry and John — either to Larry’s voice or John’s playing and writing — so that was a time for me to step forward and say, “This is who I am.”
Spotlight Central: Due to the current suspension of concerts, what have you been up to these days? We’ve heard you’ve been working on a brand new video which is about to be released very soon.
Lance Hoppen: Actually, we’re releasing it today, and this is a very important story to me. In 2010, there was a management push to have Larry and me find some hit Nashville writers to collaborate with so we could possibly get a deal in Nashville — kind of a country-crossover/country-pop thing a la Restless Heart or Diamond Rio or Little Texas or Keith Urban — all the people who can get on pop radio, but who are on country radio, too. And that’s kind of where we live anyway, not by intention, but how things are today; you can find a lot of modern country acts which are really pop acts that have been influenced by stuff like Orleans.
So Larry and I wound up writing two songs, and one of them was with Sonny LeMaire from Exile. The song is called “No More Than You Can Handle,” and it was a title Larry brought to the writing session. He’d written a lyric that Sonny and I hated, really — it was about the BP oil spill at the time — and it kind of centered on that, but we didn’t want to go there. We loved the title, though, so the three of us wrote a song around it, and the song has become a lot of things. For one, it’s the title track from our Orleans double-disc “Best of 40 Years” collection. It’s also a mainstay in the Orleans live show. Further, it’s the kind of song that touches the heart in a big way. It has a message of hope under duress, and really, I think, has found its time with the pandemic, isolation, economic distress, social unrest, and a moment when people are feeling under pressure — so it has this message of stamina and faith and perseverance, without being overly happy. It’s an important piece, I think — in fact, I’ve always felt it was the most important song I’ve ever been involved in — and it has my stamp all over it.
So that was 2010 and, of course, Larry passed in 2012. And we never really answered the question, “Well, what was that? How did that happen? What did he die of?” — we never went there publicly. It’s not a secret at this point that he took his own life; it’s just that we’ve never really dealt with it in a public manner. And so we’re coming up on the eighth anniversary of his passing, and everything that means, and all he was to the band, and the irony of the title, “No More Than You Can Handle” — the lyric being, “God never gives you more than you can handle” — and him being the one who couldn’t hang. That’s never been lost on me — that irony. There are a lot of other ironies — like his departure left a big big hole to fill — and I believe we’ve managed to do that, but the irony is that without that hole, we wouldn’t have had the growth individually and collectively that we have had because it would have been a different environment. So you look for the good where you can find it. It’s not how we had hoped things would turn out, but I have to look at these things with a long-term view.
Anyway, now that we’re in isolation with the pandemic — and, as you know, every act has tried to do something from home with live-streaming and solo concerts — it’s very difficult as a band of musicians who live in five different places to do that, so you have to do it remotely. In other words, everybody does his piece of the puzzle and then it gets sent to the center, and eventually it comes out as one thing. And that’s what we did with “No More Than You Can Handle” as a fledgling adventure into that realm, learning as we went how to do it.
And I have to tell you, it’s exceeded all expectations. The audio is great, and I found the perfect video editor who took the raw materials I sent him and created this piece that’s — you know, I can’t tell you how many people have cried over it, literally. The piece is great in its own right — if I may say so — in terms of its production values and the performance and all that, but in the end, it really is a memorial to Larry, right there in plain sight. And, also, it’s a message to anyone who is struggling, too, in that it provides them with a suicide prevention lifeline telephone number, so it has an even higher purpose.
Spotlight Central: And where can people find it?
Lance Hoppen: Anyone who wants to see it can find it on our YouTube channel — which is Orleans Online, and it’s also on the Orleans Music Facebook page. Additionally, it will also be going to a suicide prevention organization and to anyone else who can use it — but, you know, that’s kind of the point — so, yeah, the agenda here is to be seen, but it’s really to help.
Spotlight Central: In wrapping up, is there anything else you’d like to add — notably anything you’d like say to all the fans who are looking forward to hearing Orleans perform live again?
Lance Hoppen: Some of the concerts we had scheduled fell out from March forward — we had a cruise and a couple of other things — and some of them got moved into the fall, and some of those fall gigs are now moving into the spring. That’s just the environment we’re in — along with a lot of the clubs and the smaller venues, which may not come back. There’s a big petition right now going to Congress to help the smaller promoters and venues in the concert business.
Our next event is supposed to be in Ohio on August 15, but it’s shaky. And that presents one last irony if that gig doesn’t happen. We are definitely going to be playing in Deadwood, South Dakota on August 28th, which would be our reemergence into playing after six months. Ironically, that is the same event which was our reemergence into playing after Larry died exactly eight years ago to the week.
So, yeah, we’re gonna be rusty, and maybe we’ll have to get our sea legs again just to get out there, but we’re definitely eager to do it.
To learn more about Orleans, please go to orleansonline.com. To learn more about Orleans’ concert with Poco and Pure Prairie League currently scheduled for Saturday, May 1, 2021 at BergenPAC in Englewood, NJ, please click on bergenpac.org.
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