Stevie Wonder may be blind, but according to Sid Strong, he is one of the most visually aware musicians a designer could hope to work with. Having spent the last three decades lighting scores of different bands, Strong knows whereof he speaks. "Stevie actually sat backstage with me and told me how he wanted songs lit--how he wanted them to feel," Strong explains. "He has a great sense of the emotion he's putting out in each song. He would give me instructions such as, 'I want this song to be really lonely and dark.' Visually, I think it meant more to him because he couldn't see, so he wanted more interaction. Performers can't see themselves onstage in the first place, and if you have a blind artist, well--either way, you're still lighting for the audience, but I swear to God, Stevie could feel the light."
Strong has based his whole career on making others feel the importance of light. His own interest in the medium began when his parents started taking him to the theatre when he was a child in Chicago. "I was always fascinated with the spotlights at shows," Strong remembers. "I was so curious about where the light was coming from that I was always looking back there. My mother would have to keep telling me to pay attention to the play."
Yet by the time Strong had enrolled in Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, IA, he had decided to pursue a business degree. "I wanted to be a manager or get an accounting degree--something responsible," he laughs. "But it took me a while to realize I was no good at it. Theatre has always attracted me, so I started doing school productions. I was doing everything: acting, directing, writing, and doing sound and lighting."
When the theatre's technical manager quit during Strong's junior year, he took over in order to finish paying his way through college. Then, in the summer of '69, Strong went to the Royal Holloway College in London and studied in an expansion program, where he earned masters credit from the University of Saskatchewan. "I saw an average of two plays a day while I was there, and it's funny, because when I was growing up all I could see was the Guthrie, so I thought New York and London must have been twice as good," Strong says. "But nothing ever was. I realized that the Guthrie was always so technically advanced when I was there and that just really excited me. Still, I saw some marvelous productions in London."
After graduating, Strong returned to the Midwest and went to work at Dudley Riggs' Breakthrough Workshop, an improvisation comedy theatre in Minneapolis. "I also did some work for other community theatres around there, but I was basically living in poverty. The improvisational theatre was very good because it kept me on my toes technically--I learned how to handle cues and take blackouts by myself," Strong says. "Theatre taught me a lot of the lighting basics: mainly, what needs to be lit, which is very important. When I graduated, I decided to either go to New York or L.A. New York is too cold; I hated winter, so I went to L.A."
Upon arriving in the City of Angels, Strong joined the I.A.T.S.E. Local #33 stagehands union, and began doing sound and lights for clubs. "I was actually part of the group who transformed P.J.'s into the Starwood club," Strong says. "Then when the Roxy Theatre first opened its doors, I jumped in and applied for the technician position, which included doing sound and lighting. No one was really touring with lighting, but it was a very exciting time. Chip Monck was the biggest name, and Show Lights had just started cranking out their versions of how concerts should be lit."
Strong was given free rein to design and light everything that came into the club. "The Roxy was originally owned by Lou Adler, David Geffen, Bill Graham, and Elliot Roberts, who were four big producers; it was a record company club, so the money was just there," Strong explains. "Neil Young was the first performer there. I was really proud of those shows; I had an open budget, so I could get all the colors and do almost anything I wanted. When the curtain would come down, I'd run backstage, rehang, and then reprogram--just constantly try new ideas out. Different acts would come in and they'd let me just play. I love jazz, and lighting all those acts made that the greatest time of my life. Because jazz creates so much emotion and movement, and is so impromptu, it's a lot of fun to light. Eventually, bands with designers did come to the Roxy and they taught me a lot about color, placement of shadows, angles, and so on. It was a good time."
In 1974, Strong went on the road with Monck, to learn what it was like to tour with The Rocky Horror Show. "That was an interesting experience," Strong says. "Chip Monck did a great job, and it was incredible how much crap we could cram into a room," Strong says. "He had three followspots and tons of lights. We had to have 600A circuits in the dimmer racks."
Then, one of the Roxy's regular acts, The Manhattan Transfer, convinced Strong to hit the road with them in 1975. "The first tour that we did was actually in Dallas, at the Fairmont Hotel, for two weeks," Strong says. "I was using house lights, which was basically all I ever used. Then we did the [New York City] Waldorf gig, in the Gold Room. I rented two Genie towers with 12 lights and two PAR cans, which I used just for floor lights, because I love that look.
"The greatest, absolutely most fantastic tour I ever did was in Europe with The Manhattan Transfer," Strong continues. "They're amazing and they're such good friends of mine. We went through so much together: rainstorms, terrible hotels, customs--they became a big part of my life. I did their sets and the lights, so I used a lot of my theatre background with The Manhattan Transfer. To this day, people comment to me about how great their shows were."
In 1977, the LD started working with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. He moved to Las Vegas for about a year and a half where he worked alongside other burgeoning LDs. "I did shows for Lola Falana, among others," Strong says. "I worked a lot in Las Vegas--we all did. Peter Morse was doing Mac Davis, Steve Lewis was doing Anne Murray, Chip Largman was with Kenny Rogers and Helen Reddy. We were all there working and learning what was possible. While I was there, one of the lighting designers told me to go see Vic Damone. He sang 'Send in the Clowns,' and the only light on the stage was this spotlight that went right over his head and then straight down. He sang the entire song from this spot until the last line of the song: 'Don't bother, they're here.' He stepped in the light and looked up, and then it faded out. The people just went crazy. It was such a simple thing, but it was so thought out."
After leaving Las Vegas and returning to Los Angeles, Strong continued to work with Valli during the summers and The Manhattan Transfer during the winters. "There would be lots of work or there would be no work," Strong says. "Thank God for my wife. I'd probably have never made it in this business without her--because it wasn't a business then. To make a living at it was insane. The idea was to get in, make as much money as you could, and leave. People really didn't take it seriously."
But when Frankie Valli seriously offered to buy Strong a lighting company, the LD declined. "He had bought MFI for his sound man, Bob Goldstein, but I didn't want to own a company," Strong says. "And besides, nobody knew how long this was going to last."
Adding to Strong's trepidation about his career at that time was his own style of lighting rock shows. "My style of lighting didn't fit the way the industry was going, but Joe Cannon was a great creative influence on me," Strong says. "He created the magic for bands like Alice Cooper and KISS, which was fantastic to see. I got bad reviews for being too theatrical. At one point, I got hired by Heart and they wanted more of a light show than a lighting designer; being theatrical was a curse in this business for a long time. And I didn't know exactly what the term 'theatrical' meant--whether it's dragging too much emotion out, or making things focused a little bit better. To me personally it's fulfilling to use fewer instruments. The shows I did with Rickie Lee Jones, Anita Baker, Toni Childs--they were some of the softer, nicer shows with less lamps, extending the mood. I have no idea why that would be a curse. Except if someone did want a light show, which to some people means a lot of flashing. Thankfully that phase seems to have passed--that preference for a disco look with tons of beams and fog.
"So I didn't think I'd last, because all the shows that I liked to do didn't have any flash," Strong continues. "I always had tough times with managers because I only put in the rig what I use, and I don't include any extras. So it's always tough when they come back and say, 'You have to take some lights out.' I say, 'I can't. This is what I need.' "
Probably no audience has appreciated Strong's resolve in this department more than the Parrot(t)heads--also known as Jimmy Buffett's dedicated fans. It might be a stretch to say that the beer-swilling crowd members--who arrive decked out in Hawaiian shirts and impressive variations of parrot headgear--come to check out the lighting, but every night is an interactive sing-along, and Strong creates the environment where it all takes place. "With Jimmy Buffett, I've got to light the audience," Strong says. "I can't get out of that; they're in the show. Basically, we've got to put these people in Margaritaville, and then cast focus. I'm sure that people love the show. They come back every year. It's been a wild experience and I've been having the time of my life."
Strong has now been creating Buffett's lighting and set designs for eight years, but, "Meeting him and going out on tour with him for the first time was scary," he admits. "It was pretty nuts, because I had seen Jimmy Buffett when he came to the Roxy. He was doing something completely different then. He didn't yet have a following. It was just him with Steve Goodman and Jessie Winchester."
When Howard Kauffman at HK Management approached him, Strong thought it would be a regular club/theatre venue tour. "I hadn't followed his career; I was into jazz at the time," Strong says. "But Jimmy actually called me up after I'd consented to do it, and just wanted to talk to me. He's probably one of the most normal guys I've ever met. As far as entertainers go, stars always seem hard to relate to, but he was a more down-to-earth person. So I talked about my ideas: adding cartoonish elements, making it playful, recreating Margaritaville every night, making sure people have a place to identify with.
"But it scared the hell out of me the first time I went out and sat in the audience with all these drunks," Strong laughs. "It was really weird going in, because I wasn't lighting a new album, which is what you're usually doing. To his audience, every song was a big hit single. They wanted a fresh look, so I just threw myself into it."
By all accounts, the LD had his work cut out for him. "Buffett wanted to go to a different level in his career, which I think was very wise, but he had never had his tours professionally handled before," Strong explains. "He had never had a set or as many lights as I wanted to use. I always try to get in as little as possible, but it was still more than they ever saw before--promoters, the crew, some managers. I didn't think anybody liked what I was doing for the first two years."
Yet Buffett was happy, so Strong persevered. "The audience was reacting more, so I got a lot of support from Jimmy. But the 1991 Outpost tour was the first big breakthrough. They were just stunned," he laughs. "I brought in Ian Knight to do the set, because I'd always wanted to work with him. I really respect him, and I think he's really one of the greatest set designers for concerts. You don't even have to spend a lot of money, but the possibilities of what you can do with a theatrical approach are incredible."
Strong demonstrated this technique on Buffett's most recent Havana Daydreamin' tour. Buffett and his friend/consultant Keno Bachelier came up with the idea. "The best shows are when the performers always have bigger input, so when I get more input from Jimmy, it's a better show," Strong says. "Otherwise he just kind of leaves it to me, which is okay--the Banana Wind tour was one of those times where all we had was a cyc."
This tour incorporated two flats and a Morro Bay drop to convey the Havana theme. "I spent three months in libraries looking at books on Havana--reading James Michener's Six Days in Havana--and I took ideas from pictures of the buildings and the colors," Strong explains. "I also rented all the movies set in Havana, and Morro Castle on Havana Bay is the only really distinguishable element you see, so we put that on the cyc. The flats incorporate a lot of the area's Moorish architecture."
Strong worked with artist Michael Ireland to create the desired images and then sent them to Ron Strang at Superior Backings in Los Angeles who painted the flats and the cyc. "He used cellophane to create the waves which glimmer really well and also reflect the moon on the water," Strong says. "It was a great idea and it creates a wonderful effect."
For additional effects, Strong uses two RDS projectors for both front and back projections. More discerning audience members probably caught the overhead fan effect through one of the flat's non-painted windows, and at one point a lighthouse also appears. "The clouds are all painted so we can have different lighting effects change them throughout the show," Strong explains. "There are still a lot of primary colors for that cartoonish look, but it's all theatrically done. The city set is the first half, and then the castle is exposed. It's the most theatrical looking tour we've done since the Outpost tour, which was 1991."
The lighting design's main effects emanate from the rig's 60 Vari*Lite(R) VL5(TM) and VL6(TM) automated luminaires, which Vari*Lite operator Tim Pauer controlled from an Artisan(R) console. Buffett's longtime lighting contractor, Bandit Lites, supplied the system's backbone equipment which included: 82 PAR-64s, 64 Morpheus ColorFaders, four Thomas eight lights, four CCT 5-22 degree fixtures, 14 Colortran 5/50 20 degree profile spots, 14 Thomas ground 6-cell cyc lights, eight L&E Mini-Strips, two Reel EFX DF-50 fog machines, three High End Systems F-100 smoke machines, and one Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console. "Vari*Lites are the best lights ever--great lights and great colors," Strong says. "And moving lights have substantially reduced my rig size over the years. Effects-wise they're great, because you get a different way of looking at things.
"But sometimes a lot of things are overused, and it's kind of sad, because back in the old days crews could take two PAR cans from different angles, and by blending and mixing, fade one out and one in, so it was like three or four different colors," Strong continues. "But when you have one lamp that does all the colors, there's no fading any more between colors. You can do it with the dichroics now, but it's not quite the same effect. Moving lights make a lot of designers look good, which is okay. But if you don't know how to design fixed lighting, you're not going to be that effective designing moving lights. You've just got to remember what the band is doing and why they're up there."
Which is part of the reason Strong has never designed an entirely automated lighting system. "People will often ask me why I don't do that when I easily could, but in the back of my head I can't help thinking that if everything went down, the band would not be illuminated," Strong says. "So my front truss always has fixed PAR cans--just in case, there will still be some light on stage. And it's a fear I will probably always have. Also, running a spotlight is like a key light, so I try to design shows around the fact that they might go down. And a lot of the younger LDs I know don't fear that--they've always had perfect shows. They don't know what will happen."
For this tour, Strong made the leap from his trusted Avolites QM500 manual control board to the Wholehog II console. "The QM500 is probably the best manual board ever made," Strong says. "It was made for designers, and a lot of lighting boards were not really made for designers. They were made for electronics freaks. But the business changes. The Wholehog is wonderful. Michael Strickland at Bandit Lites suggested I try it, and now I'd never do a show without a Wholehog again."
Strong also hopes never to do another show without Eric "Rock" Schafferman. "Rock is the greatest technician I've ever worked with in my life," Strong says. "The only reason the show looks good is because everything works every night. It does not fail." The rest of the tour's key production personnel includes: tour manager Charlie Fernandez, production manager John Vanderslice, assistant tour manager Mike Mooney, stage manager Tom Battista, Bandit lighting technician Chaz Martin, Vari*Lite technician George Keim, FOH audio engineer Mike Adams, monitor engineer Bob Delson, rigger John Gill, head carpenter Gary Edwards, and video director Kevin McGrath.
A key non-human element that makes sure that the show goes on is the addition of a generator. "We travel with it now because Jimmy will never stop a show, and no one ever leaves," Strong says. "He's very dedicated--never cancels, never gets sick. There is never a time when he does not want to go on stage and have fun."
Having fun at one of Buffett's shows this July at Cincinnati's River Bend Amphitheatre were two unlikely Parrot(t)head candidates, Winds of War author Herman Wouk and his wife. Buffett and Wouk co-wrote the musical Don't Stop the Carnival, which opened in Coconut Grove, FL, last year. If they receive the necessary backing to launch the show on Broadway, Strong may be returning to his roots to light it. In the meantime, he's planning to write a book about lighting basics. "I just feel that there are a lot of up-and-coming LDs who are not familiar with the very basic theories of stage lighting," Strong explains. "The curse of overhead light will be the first chapter! I hate it when people do that, and yet I see it fairly often. It doesn't do any effect. It doesn't shadow, it doesn't illuminate. When you have people onstage who perform and dance, you need side lighting. There are certain rules that ought to apply everywhere. Opera lighting is some of the best out there, because it's all side and back angles. That's all it should be--back, side, and front. At every concert, I always try to use as little as I can. One spotlight. Every time I try to go to one light, and I always try to light without color as much as I can. I only light because I have to! But if I don't have to light them, I don't. That's been my basic theory."
While Strong no longer has to worry about the viability of his career choice, he's now concerned with the industry's avarice. "About 10 years ago people started taking concert production more seriously--record companies started counting their money," Strong says. "Now it's to the point where they're counting too much money, it's more important to have a hot video than be on stage. I'm also trained in video lighting, but it's so very different from what you can do live.
"Still, it does feel like I've never had a real job, but I've been blessed with the groups that I've lit," Strong continues. "I've been very fortunate to design people I really love. I hope that they can see in their minds exactly how a song should be lit because I try to do that as much as possible."
While Strong enjoys his collaboration with Buffett, there are other challenges he would like to tackle during each tour's hiatus. "There are a lot of people I'd love to light. I'll hear someone's music and think, 'Come on, come on, let me light you.' A lot of times I actually visualize how I'm going to light a song. I can really almost see it, which is a lot of fun."
1989-present Lighting/set designer for Jimmy Buffett
1983-1994 Lighting designer or director for: Anita Baker, Chicago, Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Alice Cooper, Lola Falana, Heart, Julio Iglesias, Rickie Lee Jones, Peggy Lee, Melissa Manchester, Anne Murray, Poison, Pointer Sisters, Take Six, Stevie Wonder
1977-1990 Lighting/set designer for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
1975-1991 Set/lighting designer and director for The Manhattan Transfer
1974-75 Lighting director for The Rocky Horror Show
1973-77 House lighting designer for Los Angeles, CA, Roxy Theatre. Artists designed include: Neil Young, Richie Havens, Cheech & Chong, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, The Temptations, Linda Ronstadt, Sons of Champlin, Crusaders, Patti Smith, Mahavishnu, Eddie Kendricks, Roger McQuinn, Kenny Rankin, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Rick Nelson, The Dells, The Stylistics, Billy Paul, Dramatics, Gil Scott Heron, Joe Cocker, Suzi Quatro, Flo & Eddie, Elvin Bishop, The Manhattan Transfer, Jean-Luc Ponty, Smokey Robinson, Herbie Mann, Tom Scott and the LA Express, Taj Mahal, Phoebe Snow, Janis Ian, Stan Getz, Jose Feliciano, Emmylou Harris, Chuck Mangione, Dr. John, Waylon Jennings, Sarah Vaughan, John Prine, Donovan, Bill Withers, Bobby Short, Marc Almond Band, J.J. Cale, Gato Barbieri
1972-73 Stagehand with I.A.T.S.E. Local #33 Los Angeles, CA Sound and lighting consultant for Dave Kelsey Sound
1970-72 Technical director, Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop Improvisational Instructor, Minneapolis Free School