- On the phone with David Lee Wilson - Summer 2002
For some, well for me at least, there are stories infinitely more interesting than the ones told by, of or about the easily named characters in Rock music. It is the off center-stage perspectives that really color a story and one can find an extremely full color palette in the example of original Rainbow keyboardist Mickey Lee Soule.
For our purposes we will say that Soule began his professional career with the criminally under appreciated Elf. Elf was a most unique Rock and Roll band whose three discs of Boogie flavored Blues-Rock could in a single listen travel across fields of Progressive-Rock flamboyance only to end in the grandest examples of a three-chord power jam. The bulk of Elf's material was written by Soule and the (pre-)legendary Ronnie James Dio, (Ronald Padavona was the credit on the first album), and produced by Deep Purple's Roger Glover and Ian Paice. Though they were recorded nearly thirty years ago, these discs remain some of the best examples of high-powered Honkytonk ever put to tape. If it was said that the group died far too soon there would be little room for argument, at least until it is understood that by Elf's passing we got something as grand as Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow.
Of course Rainbow chiseled out its own solid niche in Rock music and it is with Rainbow that Mickey Lee's name is most famously connected. That connection, the true story of how it came about, how it all ended and what he has done in the years since recording that group's landmark debut, is detailed below for the first time from Soule's perspective. This is an intimate insider's story told with no agenda to push which, as alluded to already is so much more interesting than any party line previously available.
Soule reentered the touring field as well as the Deep Purple extended family a few years back when he was hired on as the group's keyboard technician. It was during a brief break in touring duties with Deep Purple that Mickey Lee was able to take the call that yielded the following.
DAVID LEE: There are a few different versions of how Ritchie Blackmore first launched Rainbow the most popular one being that Ritchie asked Ronnie Dio to sing on a solo single and then the rest of what was Elf joined in on it, is this accurate?
- MICKEY LEE SOULE: Well, sort of except it was the whole band that was asked. We were the supporting act on a few Deep Purple tours when we, Elf that is, had our first albums out. At that time Ritchie wanted to do a solo project and it was only really going to be a couple of songs in the beginning but then he decided that he wanted to do a whole album so he asked our band to play on the album for him and we did that. It was shortly after doing that that he decided to leave Deep Purple and form his own band called Rainbow. So, it was actually Ritchie's band but he sort of took the whole band Elf along. I was actually the only one that didn't want to do it. (laughs)
K2K: Really? Why was that?
- MLS: Well, we had spent quite a long time slowly working our way up the ladder and we had a couple of albums out and the record company that we had at the time was just getting ready to sink some time and energy into us. We had a couple of full page ads in Rolling Stone and you know, everybody kind of saw the Rainbow thing as instant success or instant money but I kind of looked at it like, "Well, we have been trying so long and so hard to do this on our own and we are very close now." And to be honest, it was the music, I mean, Rainbow and Ritchie's music is pretty much guitar music and I am a keyboard player. (laughs)
K2K: So, you would like to have carried a little of the melody yourself then? (laughs)
- MLS: Yeah, but it wasn't even so much that as it was that in Elf I kind of had wrote half of the songs with Ronnie, we wrote the songs and pretty much gave direction to the band so it was a nice feeling to see a little bit of success come from that and then it kind of went away as soon as we formed Rainbow.
K2K: When you first started into being a group with Ritchie was Elf necessarily dead at that point or did you have intentions of picking it back up after you were done with the Rainbow record?
- MLS: Yeah, it was pretty much dead at that point. As soon as Blackmore wanted to form the band as a "band" as opposed to just a solo project then I was kind of out voted. Everyone else wanted to do it and I kind of didn't so I went along with it and that is how the first Rainbow happened but it didn't last too long in that form.
K2K: Which is one of the things that became a trademark of the band, I mean, I don't think that you can pick up any two successive studio records and find the same lineup intact. There are scads and scads of live records though especially the version of the band with Cozy Powell and Ronnie but I don't think that I have heard anything live with that first lineup. Did that version of the band not tour much?
- MLS: We never actually got out on the road! What happened was we all moved to Malibu because that is where Ritchie was living and we started rehearsals and we didn't get very far at all, actually I don't think that we even started rehearsals and Ritchie wanted to replace the bass player. That was more of, it wasn't a musical choice really it was just a whim of Ritchie's or a personal thing. So, the bass player was replaced with Jimmy Bain and we rehearsed a little longer and then Ritchie wanted to replace the drummer and I was very disappointed in that. He was my best friend and we had gone through a lot together and he was a great drummer. It was just that it was his style, his style was more like the American R&B style of drumming and Ritchie had been used to a different style, you know, Ian Paice, so I was very disappointed in that decision and that is kind of one of the things that led me to leave. It is very hard to talk about really because I don't want to sound like I am bitter about anything. You know, Ronnie and I are still very good friends to this day although we have kind of gone our separate ways and I don't run into him that often anymore but back in those days we were all much younger I guess. A lot of things happened behind the scenes that kind of made me get out of the music business entirely.
K2K: Things with Rainbow or just kind of "things in general"?
- MLS: Well, it started with Rainbow. You know, Elf had been a band that kind of grew up together and we had gone through a lot and it was very much of a family kind of thing and as soon as we got into the Rainbow thing it became very cut-throat and very business like. I was finding that along the way that people were taking all the money that I was supposed to be making and, I don't know, one of the things that happened is kind of a long story....
K2K: I'd love to hear it if you would tell it. (laughs)
- MLS: I don't know if I should tell ya or not because I don't want it to come out wrong. (laughs) Basically the way that it happened was that when the bass player left he hadn't really been a member of Elf as long as the rest of us and Ronnie who was the leader of the band, so to speak, got myself and the drummer aside and said, "Look, Ritchie wants to get rid of the bass player, he wants to replace him and there is not much that we can do about it but we will make a pact between the three of us that we will all stick together." And so I said, "Yeah, OK, sure." But then a couple of weeks later Ronnie approached me and said, "Well, now Ritchie wants to replace the drummer and there is not much that we can do about it but lets make a pact between you and me that we are going to stick together." And then right there I knew that the old days were over.
I had an opportunity at that time to do something different and I went to Europe and played on one of Roger Glover's albums and I did a tour with the Ian Gillan Band and a couple of other things so I basically left Rainbow on my own but I was probably going to be the next one on the list to get the axe anyway. I wasn't getting the creative input that I wanted from it and there were a lot of things going on at that time, personally, in my life. I had just had a son and I was pretty fed up with the business side of things and the way that all of us had been treated by various record companies and things and there was a lot of drugs going on at the time so I basically just got fed up with the whole thing after a while and just got out of the music business completely for almost ten years. I ended up doing some other things, got involved in the theater and whatever but that is basically what happened to the first Rainbow. We never did get out on the road. The drummer was replaced by Cozy and I am not even sure who replaced me, it might have been Don Airey, I can't remember exactly who was next in line but that is why you are not going to hear anything live by that band.
K2K: There it is, mystery solved! (laughs)
- MLS: That's it. (laughs)
K2K: That is a shame too because when people reference the band they will almost always go to "The Ronnie era" and then to the first record. I can certainly understand your feelings about the lack of input that you had on that record and it certainly wasn't the guitar/keyboard battlefield that Ritchie had with Jon Lord in Purple but there were some really tasty bits on that disc, don't you think?
- MLS: Well it is not that I was disappointed in what I played or anything and not to sound wrong but I have always thought that that first album was the best Rainbow album and not just because I was in it but because I just like the songs better. It was just more of a personal thing, it was like the difference of being like a session player where you just kind of do what you are told by whomever is producing the record or has written the songs and being part of the actual creative process yourself. If you have had something to do with the songs then you have some input, it is your vision considered in how you would like it to be played or heard or whatever and that was only part of it. It wasn't any big ego thing, it was just that among many other factors that made me disappointed with the whole scene. But that first Rainbow album, I actually kind of like it. On top of it all, I am basically a piano player and I can play the other keyboards but it is not my forte. There is a whole other technique to playing the Hammond Organ for instance or synthesizers or whatever and I have always liked the plain sound of an acoustic piano. You don't hear that as much when you hear Rock and Roll records anymore whereas back in the old days that used to be a very important part of the rhythm section and that is how I grew up playing. I had all of these people somewhere in the back of my mind, Johnny Johnson who used to play with Chuck Berry and Little Richard and other pianists that I had heard through the years and that is kind of my style and what I love to do so when I was asked to play Organs and synthesizers and Mini-Moogs and all of these different things, I did it but I don't think that I did it as well as I think that others could do it. It is still true to this day, I just don't have the interest in it.
K2K: Were the songs that ended up on the record presented to you by Ritchie or were some of the numbers formed in jams with the full band?
- MLS: They were worked out somewhat but Ritchie would write the riffs or the chord progressions and then he got together with Ronnie and they came up with the lyrics and so it was pretty much the two of them with Ritchie having the original idea for the song and then Ronnie adding the lyrics to it.
K2K: Whereas in Elf it was primarily you and Ronnie?
- MLS: Yeah, though David Feinstein, the original guitarist, did bring in some finished songs for the first record as well. The very first Elf record we kind of gave credit to everyone because the way that we looked at it was that everyone contributed to the final thing, even if it was just a drum fill or whatever, it was part of it all and everyone kind of worked at it in an equal way even though it was Ronnie and myself that might have come up with most of the initial ideas for the songs. Yeah, Ronnie and I would sit through all hours of the night and just play until we came up with something.
K2K: With no offense intended toward Ronnie, was he a very good bass player or was it just that he wanted to be a front man that you hired a bass player and let Ronnie just sing in Elf for the last two records?
- MLS: Yeah, I mean, I thought that he was always a very good bass player especially that he would play and sing at the same time which there is a little extra difficulty in that. He wasn't very fancy but he played very simple, solid bass lines and he is actually a great musician. When he was younger he played trumpet and all kinds of different things. It was actually his choice really, he decided that he wanted to just be a front man. He could spend more time and more of his efforts on singing and not have to worry about the bass and that is why we got the bass player eventually.
K2K: There has been talk from both Ronnie and David Feinstein about an original Elf reunion, is that something that you would want to do?
- MLS: Yeah, there has been a lot of talk about that but you know, it is something that I wasn't completely opposed to if we could do it as fun as opposed to trying to conquer the world or something. (laughs) Everybody has kind of said, "Yeah." Ronnie has said, "Yeah, I would do that" but it has never really gone anywhere and I kind of predict that it never will. I mean, there really isn't a big reason to do it and Ronnie is busy with his own career and you know, it is just one of those things. When I am in Europe I get asked all the time and it is apparently a big rumor over there, it has been three or four years that I have been getting asked and I always say, "Well, there has been some talk about it but there hasn't been any progress on it." I really don't think that it will ever happen to tell you the truth.
K2K: It would certainly be interesting to some, me for instance. (laughs) I love those records. It would be interesting to have all of the people who were involved with Elf be in on it but I think that Ronnie mentioned Joey DeMaio of Manowar would actually be the bass player.
- MLS: That was one idea that Ronnie had but actually the most recent thing was that Roger Glover would play. He seemed very interested in doing it and he produced the Elf records so he is kind of like one of us but I don't know. I haven't heard a word from anybody in quite a long time about actually pursuing it. Deep Purple did an Orchestra tour where Ronnie sang a few songs and I did some traveling with him and we did talk about it quite a bit but even then I didn't really think that it was going to happen.
K2K: When it came to your leaving Rainbow, how did you handle telling Ronnie and Ritchie?
- MLS: Well, like I said, I had a couple of opportunities and I just approached Ronnie one day because he was my friend and I told him that I really wasn't happy and that I had a couple of other opportunities and I thought that I would leave. After I talked to him a little bit, I told Ritchie and there wasn't really any problem. Nobody was really pissed off at anybody or anything. It was just a very smooth event.
K2K: They have reissued both the Rainbow and Elf catalogs in various forms and then several times...
- MLS: Haven't seen a dime.
K2K: You knew right where I was going! (laughs) Nothing at all?
- MLS: Not a cent.
K2K: How does that happen?
- MLS: Well, in the past I have tried to find out some things but, you see, what happened was, it is a very complicated situation. Deep Purple's original management in England was like two partners and there was one that was an accountant and through the years that partnership split up and the accountant has died and he took with him a lot of information. It is very hard to track down and if we were talking about huge amounts of money then it might be worth trying to chase it but I don't think that it is huge amounts of money or anywhere near it, at least for me so I haven't really pursued it that much but when I am in Europe I see all kinds of things over there, the various ways that records have been repackaged, Elf and Rainbow, and I don't know anything about any of it. (laughs) I haven't received a cent. Now, granted we were given a fairly good advance in the beginning to do the Elf records, so I saw that money but as far as getting any royalties from writing or performing, it just hasn't happened.
K2K: Wow, that answers a lot. I have seen Ronnie be handed things to sign from the Connoisseur label by fans and he will almost always say something like, "Thief" or "Bastard" and now I know what that was about! (laughs)
- MLS: Yeah. (laughs) Well, I believe the Connoisseur records, I believe, that is owned by one of the partners that was in the original Deep Purple management and they actually became our managers as well, when we first had the record out on Purple Records. Like I said, it is so complicated to try and chase down because this partnership has been split up and part of the records are not even available for anything back that far and it is just a nightmare to try and figure anything out. I did consider trying to hire a lawyer once to chase it down in Europe but I just don't believe that there is that much money involved to warrant hiring a lawyer, at least for me. We had some success but we didn't sell like a billion records or anything. On the Rainbow stuff, I didn't have any writing credit, so it is more just the Elf stuff. All of the Rainbow songs were actually written by Ronnie and Ritchie.
K2K: All right, so you were done with Rainbow and then you went on to other things like Gillan, I think you are even mentioned in his book?
- MLS: Yeah.
K2K: Then you went into theater? What kind of work did you do in that field?
- MLS: Well, I kind of got out of the business completely. I had just had a new son. I actually went back to school for a while and I got involved in theater in school. I went to graduate school for directing and I actually lacked my thesis because I ended up moving to New York with a girl and, I mean, a lot of things happened. I split up with my wife and so I was in New York and I did some off-off Broadway acting and I directed a couple of workshops for this one company and I office managed for a while and got quite involved in it and really loved it but it is very difficult and it is like the music business in a lot of ways, especially in New York. There is no money in theater unless you happen to get involved in some production that is successful. I finally ended up going out to California and stayed at Ronnie's house for about six month's and just tried to find a new direction after a while and eventually, it was about six years ago I guess, I went down to Florida where my son lives. It was his last year in High School and I went down there and I was still very good friends with his Mother and so I stayed down there for a while and I heard that Deep Purple was in town recording. I found out where it was and I just kind of showed up there one day unannounced and I hadn't seen anybody in like twenty years and everybody's mouths just kind of dropped open! (laughs) We went out to a pub later on and they eventually asked me what I was doing and I said, "Well, I am down here helping out my ex-wife with her business and I am here for my son's last year in High School and he is graduating soon and I will probably find something else to do then." And they said, "Well, we are getting ready to go around the world and we can find a spot for you if you want to come" and that is how I ended up getting into the technicians thing. I enjoy the lifestyle and I did kind of miss the music, just being around it so I have been doing that for about the last five or six years. I have just recently started to work on a project of my own but time will tell if that bears any fruit. (laughs)
K2K: Is this like a solo record or a band project, what is it all about?
- MLS: It is music that I have written, and is sort of based around a piano, but I have some other musicians that are helping me out with it. I give them as much input as they want. At this point I don't even know what it is going to become. I don't even know if anybody is going to be interested in it but maybe a band project or maybe just a solo project.
K2K: The thing with Purple is interesting especially on this summer tour that you are doing because it is like six degrees of separation completely negated . (laughs) You have at least four or five guys touring with this package in some capacity that were once members of Rainbow.
- MLS: Yeah, it is pretty amazing how things have worked out. It should be interesting. I mean, Ronnie and I had a lot of fun together last time and it is like everything from the past is forgotten. I certainly don't blame him for any choices that he might have made and it is just kind of fun to be around somebody from the old days like that. We practically grew up together and we had a lot of fun. Then I have just gotten to know Don Airey recently because he took Jon Lord's place and he is a very nice guy. We get along fine but it is strange, the connection there. There are even a couple of people on the road crew who were around from the early days of Deep Purple that are now with Dio or somebody.
K2K: Yeah, Willie, Ronnie's assistant is an old timer too.
- MLS: Yeah.
K2K: Ritchie Blackmore's attitude toward his band mates and people in general is legendary, with all of the people who have suffered Ritchie in the past on one tour is this kind of like the Blackmore Anti-appreciation society sometimes? (laughs)
- MLS: Well, you know, there are a lot of people here who knew him. Ritchie is a very difficult person to be involved with on any level. I don't dislike him or anything, and back when I was in Rainbow I got along personally with him fine. I didn't really agree with a lot of the things that he chose to do, but he always treated me fine, and I never held anything against him in that respect. As far as music goes, he is an amazing musician and I sort of give him the right to be eccentric. Many of the great artists of all time have that as well, they are eccentric and maybe that is just part of it but that doesn't make him any less difficult so practically anyone that I know. It is like it is almost unsaid but we all know that Ritchie Blackmore is what he is. The whole world knows it now. But like I said, if I ran into him today, I would shake his hand and buy him a drink. I respect the man even though he seems to be from another planet.
K2K: What is the atmosphere of the band with Steve Morse in it? Much more laid back I would assume? Is it an easy gig to have now, working for Deep Purple?
- MLS: Oh yeah, it is amazing how things have come together as far as the whole organization is concerned. It is really a good time, it is a big family. Occasionally someone will leave here and there but it has got the same general people that were in it and we all get along great. It is a lot of fun, we all respect each other. Everybody goes out of their way to try and help each other as opposed to being difficult.
K2K: The leaving of Jon Lord, is that something that you had known about for some time?
- MLS: I knew that it wasn't going to go on forever. I think that Jon still enjoyed the music and being involved with it and everyone else in the band but I think that he just got tired of touring. He had an opportunity, I think that he has a classical deal in the works or something in Europe and that is his first love anyway. I kind of thought that it was only a matter of time and I kind of heard a little bit ahead of time before it was officially announced that that was what was going to happen and it was too bad because Jon and I had kind of a special relationship but Don Airey has worked out great for the band. He has got the right kind of style, he has the classical background and he can be pretty flashy on the Hammond Organ when he wants to be and it has really worked out well.
K2K: Yeah, I think that I read that Lord left his Hammond and all the Leslies with the band. Is Don using Lord's equipment now?
- MLS: He is using Jon's Hammond and then the other keyboard's are Don's. They wanted to retain that Hammond sound which you can't really get from anything but a Hammond so I don't know if he is going to use that exact same Organ but I am sure that there will be Hammond of some sort there.
K2K: It seems as though you are just as content to work behind the scenes as in front of it?
- MLS: Oh yeah, definitely. They all let me get away with murder! (laughs) I mean, I just have to make sure that everything is up and running. You know, they have local crews nowadays and as long as you find a way to get it done, you know? The other guys on the crew help me out as far as if I have technical problems because they are much more proficient at fixing them then I am but then I help them out in other ways so it is a pretty easy gig for me except for the actual traveling part of it which can get to anybody. This last one that we did, we were in Russia and it was probably the most difficult tour that we did, probably the most difficult tour that I have ever been involved with. The conditions where bad.
K2K: It was winter too, wasn't it?
- MLS: Yeah although it was a fairly mild winter compared to what it usually is during that time of the year over there. We started out in Moscow and St Petersburg and we had done those places before and that was fine but then the tour went to some smaller places in Russia and we went to Siberia and we went to the Ukraine and I can't begin to tell you how difficult that it was.
K2K: Places that are still new to electricity and running water? (laughs)
- MLS: Yeah, kind of like that. (laughs) I came back from that completely exhausted and you know, I am not as young as I used to be so I don't know how long I am really going to last at this. (laughs) Sometimes it can be a breeze and sometimes it can be very difficult and it is not like when you are twenty years old and it is just partying all the time. Now it is like, "Just get it done so I can sleep."
K2K: Are you all beyond the practical jokes and shenanigans that younger bands and their crews play on each other?
- MLS: Oh, not too much but there is still some of that that goes on but nothing like the old days. I was involved in a couple of scenes in the old days that were straight out of, well any story that you have ever heard. (laughs)
K2K: Give me one?
- MLS: Oh, Geez, well we got thrown out of a whole city in England once. We checked into a hotel and the bar was closed, this is the whole Deep Purple and Elf crew and bands. They had this kind of metal gate that came down and covered up where the booze was and we immediately broke into and proceeded to pass it all out and everybody got very drunk. They were taking fire extinguishers and knocking on people's doors in the middle of the night, I mean, other guests, not members of the band parties or anything...
K2K: Completely innocent victims?
- MLS: Completely innocent, and eventually the cops came and threw us out of there. Not only out of there but also we had to go on our bus outside of the city limits! We found a place to park and spent the rest of the night there. That is just one example but you know there are still some things that go on but nothing like that. We have all outgrown the destructive stage I guess and we only destroy each other now. (laughs)
K2K: Right. I guess Ritchie kept his freak flag flying right up until he left Purple and was still dropping couches out of hotel windows so it seems that it is a quieter band now, offstage anyway?
- MLS: Yeah, well. (laughs)
K2K: Is there a single memory from anywhere along your career in music that made you glad you chose to do this as opposed to being a pharmacist or something?
- MLS: That is hard. I can't see myself as every having done anything differently really but there was a couple of times where I have looked back at the way that I kind of gave up the music business and kind of regretted it but that was only a couple of moments when I was real down on my luck and now I kind of look back and am glad that I made the decisions that I did and I am real happy now. I have gotten to the point where I can actually make music again with the right attitude. I look at it like, it is fun, I know how to do it. I was given a certain talent and I am just trying to make the best use of it as opposed to becoming rich and famous. I just feel very lucky that I have had these opportunities to not only play in bands and record but to even just be a technician with Deep Purple. I have been all around the world and I have seen places that I never dreamed that I would see so I have actually been pretty lucky. To sum it up in one thing, I couldn't do it.
K2K: To be happy that you made the trip at all is something a lot of people never feel.
- MLS: Yeah, people have asked, people in the band and everything, why I haven't tried to get back into it in a musical way and I don't know. I guess it was some kind of demon that I was fighting that I can't really describe but I am kind of over that now and I can sit down and try to make some music. It is really fun for me now and when I am home I sit in with a blues band that plays around a little bit and it is a lot of fun and it keeps my chops up and I run into interesting players. So, right now, things are going pretty well and hopefully soon I will be able to play you some new music.
- Written by David Wilson