You have to dig pretty darn deep to find something that Sterling Ball doesn’t excel at. He’s CEO of the legendary Ernie Ball/Music Man company—no small feat in itself—and he still managed to keep a touring band, Biff Baby’s Allstars, together throughout the ’80s and early 2000s (he played bass). He’s currently a traveling professional barbeque chef with a big helping of cooking awards pinned to his apron, and he doesn’t just work the grill—his Big Poppa Smokers offers gear, sauces, rubs, and more to other fanatics. Somehow, he finds the time to give back, as well. His family’s Casey Lee Ball Foundation has raised more than $8.5 million for pediatric kidney research.
But when it comes to documenting his own musical pursuits, the guy is simply tragic.
It took his buddies—bassist Dave Marotta, drummer John Ferraro, and keyboardist Jimmy Cox—to finally compel Ball into the studio at age 59 to record his debut album. The result is the aptly titled Better Late Than Never, a mostly instrumental record that showcases Ball’s deep groove and fierce respect for a song’s melody.
The album is also a tribute to a musical family, as Ball performs songs that resonated amongst his clan: “Oklahoma Hills” because his mom sang it (and who passed away after the sessions), “To You Sweetheart Aloha” because it was performed at his dad’s funeral (and his grandfather specialized in Hawaiian songs through his Ball Music Publishing), “Boom Boom Boom Boom” because he covered it in his the Allstars (which featured Ferraro, Cox, and, sometimes, his brother Sherwood), and so on.
And, wouldn’t ya just know? Better Late Than Never is no vanity project by someone who’s successful in other areas, and simply bluffs through his day as a rock star. Ball’s musicality, phrasing, tone, and taste really shine bright as he plays various basses and electric guitars (all Music Man, of course), a Collings 000 acoustic, and a Collings ukulele.
“I’ll tell you,” says Ball, “I’ve been very fortunate to always play with guys who are better than me, and I think that helps. Every one of those guys on the record is better than me. But I think I’m better than everybody thought I was.”
So, um, you really were forced into this.
Yeah. Basically, Dave Marotta wouldn’t let up on it, and it got to, “Dude, you’ve put this off too long. We have the studio booked. You better get your stuff together.” If somebody gives you an opportunity to test yourself, you take it. What’s the worst thing that can happen?
Why did your friends become so insistent about making this album happen?
In 1984, I started a band called Biff Baby’s Allstars with Ferraro and Cox—that’s how far back we go. It was a band in which I could play guitar, because I’ve always been a bass player. The problem was I told Albert Lee about it, and he said, “Well, I want to play.” So that put me back on bass. Steve Morse toured with us, too. So the guys knew I could play, but what really triggered it was when I hosted a big BBQ event, and I wanted to play guitar at the pre-party. I did a solo version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and I must have done it pretty good, because that’s when Dave said, “Okay, that’s it!”
Now, the first day in the studio, I wasn’t very good, and it looked like a friendship gesture from the guys. So I spent a lot of time thinking about, “Am I going to be some guy who just dabbles, or am I going to dig deep?” I decided to dig. The second day in the studio, I think I surprised them.
You woodshedded that hard in one night?
No. It was about a month, because those guys’ schedules are so weird. We’d grab a day, and then it would be five weeks before we’d grab another day. So that’s the time I figured it out. We ended up with two sessions for basics and five days for overdubs.
Did you do the basic tracks live with the bass and drums?
Oh, yeah. Of course.
Your phrasing and touch are exquisite on the melody lines—every note really counts.
That’s the respect for the melody that I got from my dad and my mom. In fact, it bothers me when I hear singers who don’t respect the melody—who use the melody as an exercise. I think that when you have a great melody, you’ve got where you should stay. Solos are different for me. I think great solos challenge time—that’s what gives them that spark. I interpret solos a bit differently. You might not think I end up where I should, but, in my head, I know where I’m going. I like surprising people.
You also don’t use a pick, right?
No. I hate a pick with the guitar—although I use one when I play bass. I just felt that I could do the things I wanted to do on guitar better with my hands. For me, it’s about being more expressive, and playing with my fingers helps me with that. I also don’t use any effects. My “effects pedal” is a cable.
Any of your famous friends “review” the record?
I don’t want to say much, but I got a nice note from Steve Vai that was really beautiful and encouraging. He said, “You communicated who you were—that’s what resonated with me.”
Despite the fact you finally birthed this baby, what do you feel is the most surprising element of the album?
I think the ukulele surprises more people more than anything. Most guys don’t solo on ukulele. But I’m a big guy with a tiny instrument, and I just love everything about the ukulele.
Blast from GP’s Past
Here’s an insight from the pages of Jim and Dara Crockett’s new book, Guitar Player: The Inside Story of the First Two Decades of the Most Successful Guitar Magazine Ever [Backbeat/Hal Leonard]—a collection of oral histories from the editors, photographers, artists, and advertisers who were in the magazine’s orbit during that era.
“People still talk about and share my Guitar Player interview [March 1973] even today. I was very comfortable with the interviewer, Michael Brooks [mistakenly credited as “Michael Pierce”], which is saying something, because so often I felt challenged by men. But Michael put me right at ease, and just by the sound of his voice, I knew there was respect. I appreciated that. And the interview itself, I believe, gave me more respect in the industry. ‘What? A girl on electric guitar?’ Yup! For a while, it pretty much felt like just me, Bonnie Raitt, and Ellen McIlwaine. That was about it.”