Friday, February 17, 2012

Ron "Byrd" Foster

Byrd Foster (in the light shirt) with the Houserockers

If Pittsburgh had a Hall of Fame for its rock royalty, there's little debate that Ron "Byrd" Foster would be the first choice to sit behind the kit.

From the seventies through the nineties, Foster provided the beat and vocals for the Eruptions, the Igniters, Marshmallow Steam Shovel, Roy Buchanan, the Silencers, the Mystic Knights of the Sea, Sweet Lightning, the Iron City Houserockers, Red Hot & Blue, Extension 8 (an eighties cover band that Byrd named) and the Hell Hounds, forerunners of today's Jill West and the Blues Attack. He also was a popular session player, sitting in with other groups on stage and in the studio.

Foster did more than just pound the skins. Beside being an accomplished singer with a gritty, Stax-style R&B voice, he also churned out tunes as a writer, primarily for Buchanan. And he played a pretty mean rhythm guitar, too.

Born in Mt. Oliver, Foster had migrated to Seneca Valley High by the time he first summered with a band. He replied to an ad posted by Michael G and the Eruptions. They were looking for a drummer; their guy couldn't go to Wildwood, a Jersey resort town, for their extended vacation run. Foster could, and did.

Through the Eruptions, he met Frank Czuri, then of Penn Hill's Igniters, a group that had just signed a deal with Atlantic Records. He joined up, and in short order the band became Jimmy Mack and the Music Factory. The group released a double-sided single in 1968 for the label, a cover of the Marvelette's 1966 hit "The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game" and "Baby I Love You," which charted for the Ronette's in 1963 and was a Top Ten hit for Andy Kim in 1969.

It was during that period when he got his nickname. Bandmate Rob Abberzizzi caught a glimpse of Foster getting out of bed with his mop sticking straight up in the air, ala Einstein on a bad hair day, and announced that he looked just like a "baby bird."

While "Baby Byrd" never quite made the cut, "Byrd" stuck (and no, we're not sure why the "y." It's probably just a novelty of the times.) The nickname seemed appropriate for a guy who was well known for his cutting up and generally being the life of the post-gig party. It's probably a good thing for posterity that Abberzizzi never saw a baby loon in the morning.

After the Igniters split in 1969-70, Foster kept busy. He played some locally, then spent a six year gig as drummer and vocalist for blues guitarist Roy Buchanan, recording five albums with him between national and international tours. There was a marked Pittsburgh connection with the blues band. Vocalist Billy Price, keyboardist Freddie Delu and bassist John Harrison all played with Buchanan during that era.

In 1979, buds Dennis Takos and Czuri recruited him to join the Silencers, along with former Diamond Rio member Warren King. "Roy heard the recordings and told him to do it," Czuri told Scott Mervis of the Post Gazette. "He said 'This is your shot.' "

The new wave Silencers recorded two albums for Precision/CBS ("Rock 'N' Roll Enforcers"/"Romaniac") and its vid for the "Peter Gunn/Remote Control/Illegal" mashup was on MTV's 1981 playlist, getting air love on the station's very first day of broadcasting.

When the Silencers went their separate ways after failing to break into the big time, King and Foster became the core of Red Hot & Blue, a hot R&B bar band. He was a member of the Houserockers, replacing Ned Rankin, for that band's fourth and final MCA LP, "Cracking Under Pressure," cut in 1983. They folded a few months later.

Foster joined with King again, forming the Mystic Knights, an all-star band that consisted of Decade regulars. Joining them were guitarist Bryan Bassett, of Wild Cherry, Molly Hatchet, and Foghat fame, and keyboardist Gil Snyder of the Houserockers.

After playing with a couple of other local bands, Foster made the move to Orlando in 1991. He joined King as a session player at Kingsnake Recording Studio, home of the blues/southern-fried rock Alligator Records label.

He and King also played for the Midnight Creepers, a band of Kingsnake session men that performed on the local Sunshine circuit and recorded 3 albums. He later gigged with the DBS All-Stars after King returned to Pittsburgh in 2007. Foster also backed a couple of dozen studio releases as a session player.

He did make a couple of working trips back to the 'Burgh. Foster was part of an all-star cast of players that backed Chizmo Charles' "Up All Night" LP in 1998, and in August, 2010, he joined an Igniters reunion gig, his last hometown performance.

In 2004, he was found to be suffering from cirrhosis, to go along with diabetes. His bride, Carrie Smooke-Foster, told the P-G that "He was living in pain for years." It got worse; in the spring of 2011 he was diagnosed with liver cancer.

In January of 2011, he performed for the last time, backing Georgia guitarist Eric Culberson. On June 30th, he passed away in Deltona, Florida, at the age of 61. Foster left behind nearly 40 LPs that he played on as his legacy, along with a lifetime of great performances and better memories.

We can take solace in that he and Warren King are back together again. Rock 'n' Roll heaven sure does have a helluva band.

Ron Foster with the Silencers - Agent OO Soul

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