When Dennis Quaid was growing up in Houston, his grandfather bought him a guitar from Kmart, on which he first learned to play the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” “It was all about getting girls,” says Quaid, “because I was too small to make the football team.”
Quaid, 63, went on to an underrated career as a Hollywood film star, appearing in movies (“Breaking Away,” “Traffic,” the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic “Great Balls of Fire!”), and the current TV series “Fortitude.”
Intermittently, he played in bands, fronting the Eclectics in the ’80s, and, since Halloween 2000, the Sharks. The Sharks, who play the Arcada Theatre on Saturday night, specialize in what Quaid terms a “junkyard of American music,” a mix of originals and covers encompassing roots rock, country, soul and Sinatra-style lounge pop.
In a phone call from his Los Angeles home, Quaid, who is quick to laugh and slow to take offense, talked about making music, making movies, and surviving the twin demons of cocaine and Jerry Lee Lewis. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation:
Q: Whenever I interview famous actors-turned-musicians, they talk about the skepticism they sense (from audiences), like, “Oh, great. An actor with a guitar.” Do you have to win people over in a way a regular musician wouldn’t?
A: Yeah, somewhat. I used to feel that more than I do now, and that’s all fine. Come and see the movie star, and stay for the music.
Q: The night the Sharks (were born), Harry Dean Stanton invited you onstage.
A: That’s where it began. I went to see Harry, a good friend of mine for decades. Our (current) keyboard player and our bass player were playing with Harry, and I got up and did “Gloria” and “Not Fade Away,” and we connected with one another. Harry was gracious enough to share bands, and we just took off from there. Harry Dean passed away last week at the age of 91. (Bandmate) Jamie James and I were at his bedside, and I brought my Bluetooth and we put on Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” and Harry kind of came to and mouthed the words with us, and sang his last song. It was really extraordinary. Harry was a great teacher.
Q: Before that night, you had put music aside for a while, right?
A: In the ’90s I did. I was, you know, one of those people who really loved cocaine back in the ’80s. I got my act together with that and sought help, and for 10 years I kind of hung it up with music, and concentrated on being a father, and really had self-examination, let’s call it. After 10 years of that, I was ready to come out. Going to see Harry that night just kind of rekindled a fire that’s always been inside me with music. It’s been very therapeutic, and it’s just something I love to do. It’s just a part of me.
Q: Did you get the sense during your break that, if I like coke, I don’t want to be playing nightclubs? Was it just too much temptation?
A: Yeah, I think that was part of it. I think I had to withdraw from certain parts of the world to get my act together, and then re-enter that world later on, once I’d had some time behind me and it’s no longer the obsession that it was back then. I associated drugs and music back then. I found that you don’t have to do drugs to have a great time. Music is a great drug on its own.
Q: Did you have a lot of interaction with Jerry Lee Lewis when you were making “Great Balls of Fire”?
A: Oh, yeah. He was over my shoulder the entire time, saying, “You’re getting it wrong, son!”
Q: I was going to ask if you had a lot of positive interaction, but I guess you didn’t.
A: I had a great time doing that movie, so they tell me (laughs).
Q: Did he really not want to use your voice on the movie’s soundtrack?
A: I can understand. He’s a real singer, very unmistakable voice, plus he has a really large ego. It’s his music, and he’s entitled to it. There was some discussion about it, but in the end, he did it. I learned to play the piano for it, and he was very helpful with me for that. He was one of my teachers.
Q: A great thing about also being a musician is that you have some latitude, right? There’s no director telling you what to do, it’s immediate and it’s yours.
A: That’s true, until you go to the recording studio and have a producer telling you what to do, just like a director (laughs). It’s a collaborative thing when you play with a band, that’s what’s wonderful about it.
Q: Have you been in the studio?
A: We’ve been in the studio for the last three months. T Bone Burnett has been helping us out, he’s a friend of mine. We cut 19 new tracks, and we’re planning to start releasing it before the end of the year.
Q: Once you have the stamp of approval from T Bone, no one will mess with you.
A: Well, I don’t know, people still mess with me. But I’m really lucky to have known him.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Arcada Theatre, 105 E. Main St., St. Charles
Tickets: $39; 630-962-7000 or www.oshows.com
Allison Stewart is a freelance writer.
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