Flashback: Billy Joel's Sax Player (Mark Rivera profile-March 2007)
It is 2:30 in the afternoon at Midtown Atlanta's Four Seasons Hotel and Mark Rivera is pacing his hotel suite bursting with ideas. The task of keeping up with Rivera's thoughts is daunting to say the least. The words explode from him like a Fourth of July fireworks show on steroids. From stories of working with John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Peter Gabriel and most notably -- becoming Billy Joel's ever-conspicuous sax player/backup vocalist, Rivera is on a big, white, puffy cloud every time he conjures up those legendary memories. Who wouldn't be?
The challenge for Rivera on this balmy late-February afternoon is to fit those anecdotes and personal thoughts on the future and state of the world into a half-hour conversation which must conclude before he boards a bus to Birmingham for his role in that evening's Billy Joel show. Indeed Rivera will be back in his Atlanta hotel room in about 48 hours, but there will be no time for follow-up questions. He will be handling other duties like jogging through nearby Piedmont Park or swimming at Georgia Tech's aquatic center. While this might seem like the antithesis for the life of a rock star, it gets even deeper. After a swim at Georgia Tech, Rivera will speak to students on campus. What? A rock star speaking to students? Sure, some of his peers and younger members of the music industry might balk at such a scene, but Rivera doesn't let that bother him. He knows better. After years of playing in front of thousands, if not millions, Mark Rivera is on another level in life. Very much like veteran rockers around his age, he has reached a stage in the game where he enjoys giving back to the world that has given him so much. Feeling ultra-positive and looking fit in his early 50s, Mark Rivera possesses an incredible amount of energy that knows no bounds. Talking to kids about being the best one can be is where Rivera uses that extra mojo in his spare moments while on tour.
It's not just "My Life"
During this particular week, Rivera is basing himself out of Atlanta for a few days to take care of the Birmingham show, fulfill his speaking engagements and then following that up with the Atlanta Joel show. "I have a dear friend at Georgia Tech. He's the women's volleyball coach. I want to speak to the team and try to motivate them," he says. "You see, music and sports are similar. It's teamwork. Besides, the girls respond well to the pop star. Funny, but true." Rivera, who is a college basketball fan, draws heavily on the sports analogy.
Attend any Billy Joel and one can witness the teamwork between the Piano Man and his band, and find out that Rivera's comparison is valid. In his classic New York accent, Rivera explains how teamwork is integral to the current Joel tour. "Billy is like an old quarterback. He can throw a ball and he needs the guys on the line. I'm proud to be on it. We get touchdowns this way," he says. "People want to know this message that they can relate to." But, what does a rock star who has reached for the stars and grabbed them, say to high school and college students? "I tell the kids that you don't have to be a basketball star or rock star, you just have to be passionate," Rivera says. "I love teaching and reaching young people. If we had more education, we wouldn't have half the problems that we have." Is Rivera trying to save the world a la Bono? While he is not meeting with presidents asking for debt relief or for more AIDS funding, Rivera's crusade is a bit more attainable and takes up less time to put it mildly. "I just think it's one of the most important things we as a society can do. Many cultures outside of ours believe in teachers instilling knowledge and wisdom which will turn make their societies better," he says.
While he speaks to students who are fortunate enough to attend such a respected school like Georgia Tech, he gets an even bigger thrill out of going into schools that have limited resources. "I avoid well-to-do areas. Those kids are encapsulated," he says. "I came from public schools and my parents were lower middle class so I feel I can reach them and let them know that if you keep your ears open and eyes open, you might learn something."
Working with "The Entertainer"
The musical light bulb came on in Rivera's head at a young age when a music professor came to speak to his class at a performing arts school in New York. He never looked back. In the mid-1970s Rivera joined the band Tycoon where he met his first music industry mentor, Robert John "Mutt" Lange." That association led to his entry into the band Foreigner in 1980 when they were dominating the Top 40 charts in America. In 1982, he joined Billy Joel's band. "I auditioned in '82 and they needed someone who could play an arena and not go into shock," he recalls. "Believe it or not, but many players freeze. We did triple bills with Loverboy and Bryan Adams in front of 85,000 at RFK stadium." Asked how it feels to perform in front of capacity crowds, Rivera says, "It feels like nothing in the world. The two hours you spend on stage is like paradise and the 22 hours you spend doing things like waiting for luggage is like purgatory."
Family Man balances domestic life and touring
Rivera is married with two teenage boys. While they are musically inclined, he hopes that they will avoid the mainstream music business. "But, they can do whatever they choose to do," he says. "I just want them to be happy." Happily married to his wife for over 25 years, Rivera has kept the family together despite the grueling tour schedules which not only included the Joel shows. Rivera has acted as Ringo Starr's musical director for the All Star Band shows. He has also played with Hall and Oates as well as Peter Gabriel. Recently, he put together a tribute to the band Traffic.
Rivera's wife has been traveling with him on the current Joel tour. They often go for a daily four-mile jog. That companionship is another component that keeps him going.
"Game Day" at Philips Arena
It is the day of the Billy Joel show in Atlanta and I'm trying to reach Rivera. "Mark doesn't talk on game day," says his manager, Chuck Fazio on the phone. "I understand. I just want to see how he works with the band. Perhaps I could attend the sound check?" I reply. "No can do. Security is tight," Fazio says. Immediately after the conversation, I run over to Philips Arena to buy an eighth row seat to witness my fourth Joel show. It will be the closest I will get to the New York piano legend.
Just before the show, I meet up with Fazio and friends and proceed to the floor where Rivera, his wife, friends and band mates congregate with an ease I never would have expected. I apologized to Rivera's wife for the night's rotten weather. "That's OK. We are going home soon," she confesses. "All right, I have to go blow the horns," Rivera says after shaking my hand and taking a photo with me. "Is it possible for Billy to see me?" I ignorantly queried. "No way, he's in an interview," Rivera replies. "Oh well, doesn't hurt to ask," I say. "That's the spirit," Rivera says as he jovially pats me on the back and runs off to the side of the stage.
About one hour later, the house lights come down and Joel and company magically appear on stage to a thunderous crowd. When the spotlights hit Joel, the chills run down my spine as he plays "Angry Young Man." While I'm watching Rivera play to the 20,000-seat audience for the next two hours, I think back to how he stays grounded and doesn't let success get to his head. "When all is said and done, I'm blessed. My resume speaks well, but my real resume is how I raise my sons. That says more about me, than me shaking my butt on stage," he says. "The real deal is being there and spending time with young people."