by Curtis Lanclos
Today, May 2, 2020, is the 70th Birthday of Louis Andrew Grammatico, aka Lou Gramm. Born in Rochester NY, he was the lead singer for the short-lived band Black Sheep in the mid-1970s. The band released their very first single, “Stick Around,” in 1974. They obtained a record contract with Capitol Records, and subsequently released two albums in 1975: Black Sheep and Encouraging Words.
The sky seemed to be the limit when Black Sheep was signed to be the opening act for KISS in late 1975. However, after only one show on that tour (Christmas Eve 1975), their equipment truck was involved in a devastating accident on the New York State Thruway which destroyed all of their equipment. After failed attempts to secure replacement gear for the next show on December 27, they were forced to leave the tour. This led to Black Sheep being dropped by the label, and to their ultimate disbandment.
A few months later, Mick Jones of the band Spooky Tooth was looking for a lead singer for a new band he was forming. He had met Grammatico about a year earlier and, after hearing about Black Sheep’s breakup, invited him to audition. After getting Jones’ approval, he became the new lead singer of Trigger, the band which eventually was rebranded as Foreigner. Grammatico shortened his name to Gramm and the rest is history.
Much has happened in Gramm’s life since that time, including leaving and rejoining Foreigner a few times, a successful solo career and a conversion to Christianity after a stint in drug rehab. Gramm also had and a health scare involving a brain tumor known as a craniopharyngioma. Thankfully, the tumor was benign and it was removed with surgery. However, in the process his pituitary gland was damaged. In the ensuing recovery program, he gained weight and his vocal chords suffered some damage as well.
These days, Foreigner is a very small fraction of the band it used to be. In fact, Mick Jones is the only original member; and not even he performs at every show (leading many to refer to them as a tribute band, or “Faux-reigner”). Even though the mighty voice of Lou Gramm is not present with this incarnation of the group, the songs he helped to make famous continue to live on in their live performances.
Since today is Gramm’s 70th Birthday, I am providing a list of my favorite singles of his with Foreigner. As I did for Billy Joel’s 70th last year, there is one song for each decade of his life…
#7 – “Double Vision” (from 1978’s Double Vision)
In the late ’70s I was the proud owner of a season pass for Six Flags Over Georgia, an amusement park on the West side of Atlanta. The park was only about 3 miles from my house. One night I went to a laser show at the park in an area known as the Lickskillet Pavilion. Lots of hard-hitting ’70s rock played during that show, and it was there I heard Gramm and Foreigner for the first time. It was the title track from their second studio album, Double Vision. It’s a driving rock anthem with an awesome guitar riff on the verses and a dreamy keyboard section during the chorus. A nice alto sax also harmonizes with a few of Jones’ guitar notes. Gramm’s vocals pleasingly penetrate your ears as he sings the lyrics he penned after witnessing New York Rangers goalie John Davidson get knocked unconscious during the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1977. After this occurred, the PA announcer revealed Davidson was suffering from “double vision”; a term which Gramm had never heard before. The lesson here is that sometimes songs which sound drug-related are really not. This song almost made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, but it was beat by “MacArthur Park” by Donna Summer. Every time I hear it, I am transported back in my mind to that particular aforementioned laser show.
#6 – “Cold as Ice” (from 1977’s Foreigner)
“Cold as Ice” is the second single from Foreigner’s first (and self-titled) studio album, and it reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. A nice piano intro leads into Gramm’s lyrics which tell the story of a materialistic and selfish woman whose actions are going to come back to haunt her. Although his vocals are top shelf on this one, equally pleasing to my ears are the background vocals provided by the band (with lots of “ooooo’s” and “ahhhhh’s”). Jones’ guitar solo is very short, and is not so much a solo as it is an additional riff which leads into a slower bridge section. All in all, a great song.
#5 – “Head Games” (from 1979’s Head Games)
The title track from Foreigner’s third studio release Head Games is a yet another song about a tumultuous relationship. However, unlike “Cold as Ice,” in this song Gramm describes a woman who won’t tell her man how she feels, and thus he can’t take it any longer. This song is keyboard-heavy in parts, and is more poppy than many of Foreigner’s previous hits. There is no guitar solo, but Jones’ presence is definitely felt in the verses and the chorus with some tasty riffs. “Head Games” reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
#4 – “Urgent” (from 1981’s 4)
Switching gears, the first single from Foreigner’s fourth studio offering is an R&B style hit (a bit of a departure for them from their previous hits), complete with some great saxophone bits as well as a sax solo. It reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. The troubled couple described in this song by Gramm is different from those in the previous two songs; this time it’s about lovers who by choice aren’t in a commitment of sorts, yet they have an urgent need to be together from time to time.
#3 – “Waiting For a Girl Like You” (from 1981’s 4)
The second single from 4 reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in the week of November 28, 1981. Olivia Newton-John’s single “Physical” topped it at #1 for nine consecutive weeks. Then, Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” beat it in the tenth week on January 30, 1982. In the power ballad that is “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” we finally have a happy relationship story presented in Gramm’s brilliant lyrics. I honestly think of my wonderful wife Christine every time I hear this song. It is very heavy on synthesizer, provided by the one and only Thomas Dolby (before his heyday).
#2 – “Juke Box Hero”
It’s no surprise that 3 out of 7 of my picks for this list are from Foreigner’s 4th studio album. It was an album I owned on cassette and almost wore out. I wish I could share of my love for other tracks on that album like “Break It Up” and “Woman in Black,” but for this list we are sticking with my top 7 singles. “Juke Box Hero” is the third single from 4, and in it Gramm paints a picture of a teenage boy who obtained a guitar from a second-hand store with dreams of becoming a rock star. This probably describes the young lives of many a guitar hero. This song features several tempo changes and nice, driving guitar riffs on the verses. Jones’ guitar solo is a bit fleeting, yet memorable. It only made it to #26 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, but it has definitely become a rock anthem for the books.
#1 – “Feels Like the First Time” (from 1977’s Foreigner)
The first single from Foreigner’s first first studio album is also the world’s introduction to the band (since it is the first song on the record). “Feels Like the First Time” reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, and it is a hit which again discusses a loving relationship which rivals the one covered in “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” but in a rocking fashion instead. Mick Jones wrote the song himself, but Gramm does his best to make it his own with his signature massive vocals. As was the case with “Cold as Ice,” the guitar solo is more of a repeated riff, yet it is catchy. This is a worthy tune to introduce anyone to this amazing band.
I realize I left a lot of great singles off of this list, including “Hot Blooded” and also every hit off of the extremely popular Agent Provocateur album from 1984. Strangely enough, the tour in 1985 supporting that record was the only time I saw Foreigner fronted by Gramm. I don’t dislike any of those songs; they just didn’t make my top 7.
Why not put on some Foreigner right now (even if it’s a greatest hits collection) and relive all of those memories from when you heard those songs for the first time?
Feel free to comment below and share your favorite songs and memories about this music icon, the amazing Lou Gramm! Also, please like us on Facebook!