The founder, director and professor of FAU’s commercial music tells of his days as a rock star and disco pioneer in the ‘60s, ‘70s –– and where he is today
The first thing you notice when you walk into the office is framed on the far left wall. About six feet up sits the sheet music for “Tomorrow,” the famous song from Annie. Right above the music? A picture with the song’s composer, Charles Strouse, with a note written on it:
“This song would have been nowhere without you,” it reads. “I love you ––Charles”
On the other wall is an array of framed awards and albums with his name on them. Michael Zager, a 69-year-old professor of music at FAU, has the 50 Cent album — Bulletproof — framed on his wall. The background from that album’s “I’m a Rider” is a track from Zager’s 1970s band, Ten Wheel Drive.
Zager, who started the commercial music program at FAU in 2002, sits in his office, Room 111 of the Arts and Humanities building, thinking about his lifelong journey through music. But at age 69, he’s still not quite ready to quit.
“I’m always hustling,” he said. “You have to be aggressive and competitive. It’s difficult to be successful in music, but you have to pound, pound the pavement.”
Zager toured the country with his platinum-selling 1960s rock band, played at the same New York City club where Jimi Hendrix jammed several nights a week, played with the American Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, spent five years in Thailand teaching commercial music to students there, and can tell stories about playing shows with Janis Joplin during her wild hay-day.
Zager’s story, though, traces back to the Vietnam War. Before he got drafted, he tried using his allergies as an excuse to not serve. He heard that might work. But he got drafted anyway. He went through seven years of training, and miraculously, music, he says, kept him from being sent overseas.
“I never went to Vietnam,” he said. “Music saved me from going”
During his basic training, there were Army bands that would come by and keep them entertained, something Zager had no idea existed. He sat in the front row at one of the shows and wondered if joining the band might spare him from the terrors of war. He immediately called his father and asked him to find out if the National Guard Unit in Elizabeth, New Jersey needed an oboe player for its band.
“The next day I was on the rifle range with a bayonet learning how to kill people, how to stick a bayonet in and kill, kill, kill. Musicians don’t like to do that,” Zager said. “So as I’m standing there, a Jeep pulls up and a guy says, ‘Zager, you’re coming with me to audition for the band,’ and the sergeant went berserk. But of course they had priority.”
The audition went worse than expected. He told them he hadn’t played oboe since high school, but they wanted him to play then and there.
“It’s a very hard instrument, and you have to practice, so when I tried to play it, I couldn’t even get a quack out of it,” Zager said. “Literally nothing came out. I could just see myself going to Vietnam at that point.”
The band ended up giving him an aptitude test, which tests his ability to read music. Two weeks later, just after turning 21, he joined the band as its oboe player.
Being a soldier in the Army kick-started his whirlwind of experiences through the music industry, and now he applies that knowledge to the commercial music program — something his students value.
“When you’re sitting in the room with the guy who did that and knows Grammy-nominated producers and stars, whatever he says is almost like law,” said Abraham “Abe” Oleksnianski, vice president of Hoot/Wisdom Recordings.
Zager’s students learn the logistics of music production and essential lessons about the industry, but they probably don’t know their professor’s back story. Like the one about his little band that toured for five years, recorded four albums and headlined Carnegie Hall in New York City:
In 1968, while still in the Army, Zager started a funk/rock band called Ten Wheel Drive with Aram Schefrin, a friend with whom he had played music since they were kids. Schefrin, a Columbia College and Harvard Law graduate, and Zager got picked up by Polydor Records. Schefrin wanted it to be a rock band, but Zager would only agree under one condition: that the band incorporate a rhythm and brass section (such as trumpets) to give it a jazzy feel.
And so Ten Wheel Drive took off, recording its first album, Construction No. 1, that launched them on their first national tour in 1969. The band’s lead singers were Schefrin and Genya Ravan, whose previous band — the all-female rockers known as Goldie & The Gingerbreads — had recently broken up. Ten Wheel Drive played at the Atlanta Pop Festival that year with big-timers like Joe Cocker, The Byrds, Janis Joplin and BB King, two weeks before the famous Woodstock Festival.
Zager recounts another one of their shows at a popular New York club called Steve Paul’s The Scene, where Jimi Hendrix famously hosted late-night jam sessions often in the late 1960s. The Scene was open to many other famous rock acts like Ten Wheel Drive, and one of their shows turned into a jam session with Joplin in 1968.
“She sang with us all night until about 6 o’clock in the morning, drunk as a skunk,” Zager said about Joplin. “She used to drink Southern Comfort like it was Coca-Cola.”
Ten Wheel Drive recorded four albums and toured for five years. In 1971, the same year they released their third album, Peculiar Friends, they were commissioned to write a rock opera based on The Battle of the Little Big Horn, to be played at Carnegie Hall in New York with the American Symphony Orchestra.
“I was really scared because I didn’t know how to write for strings and some of the other instruments,” Zager said. That’s why, after the band split, he decided to learn more about arranging by taking classes at Juilliard, and ultimately enrolling at Mannes School of Music in New York.
Zager took up writing music for commercials and theatre. But he also cashed in on the disco frenzy going on in the ‘70s. He and his partner, Jerry Love, decided to start The Michael Zager Band, which was a studio band, in 1976. It ended up getting signed to Columbia Records, and its first hit single, “Let’s All Chant” in 1978 was a worldwide sensation, selling over 5 million copies.
The Michael Zager band’s songs featured several different artists, like “Don’t Sneak On Me” sung by Luther Vandross in 1980. At the same time, Zager produced for different artists, like Cissy Houston’s gospel records, which led him to discover Whitney Houston when she was 14 and feature her first professional recording, “Life’s a Party,” on one of the Zager Band’s albums.
In fact, after the film Annie came out, Cissy recorded its famous “Tomorrow” and released it as one of her own singles. Her producer for this track? Zager.
Since then, Zager has composed and produced over 400 songs for commercials, including one for Bounce in 1986, for which Whitney Houston recorded the vocals. He composed the theme song in the third Friday the 13th, which was in 3-D, with composer Harry Manfredini.
Now, Zager serves as director of the commercial music program he pioneered when he noticed students were lacking an opportunity to learn the ropes of the music industry.
President of Hoot/Wisdom Recordings, Brittany Miller, doesn’t work with Zager much, but she knows she can consult him with questions about the music industry, production, recording or even when any of them needs a contact.
“It’s just nice to know that someone’s running the department who knows all these aspects of the industry because they’ve actually been a part of every aspect of the industry,” Miller said. “He has more of a real world perspective on things.”
Love said he visits some of Zager’s music production classes at FAU and is fascinated by his partner’s course, his talent and his unwavering passion for music. He says their age is not going to stop the dynamic duo from working in the music biz today.
“To me age is just a chronological matter of reference,” Love said. “Music keeps you young and it’s how you feel about life and what you’re doing that keeps you young, too. And I’m still 35 years old.” He’s actually 77.
Zager believes in the talent at Hoot/Wisdom, and says the best part of being the program’s director is that the students are independent, motivated and hungry to learn more about and be a part of being music industry, a hunger that he recognizes from a younger version of himself.
“Students that want to go into the music industry really love it,” he said. “So it’s not like other courses where they feel like they’re forced to take them. These are students that are really passionate about the music industry and really love what they’re doing. These students have a lot of potential. A lot of potential.”