One-on-One with Prescott Niles of The Knack

T27-02-COL-Denise Ames Prescott NilesThe one-of-a-kind drum beat and bass line of ‘My Sharona’ still encourages millions to crank the volume knob the second it comes on the radio… Soon after joining The Knack, PRESCOTT NILES and the band released their debut album Get the Knack which went to #1; the most nationally requested song was ‘My Sharona’ which ended up becoming the hit single two weeks later and one of the most recognizable songs ever.  Shortly thereafter and two Grammy nominations later the young group began going through some very turbulent times (as Prescott reveals below).

Watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show changed Prescott’s life by pointing him in the direction of music.   As a teenager he borrowed money and made payments to purchase a 1962 Fender Precision Bass from a pawn shop for $90, which he still plays during session work today.  Besides the Brits, he credits Motown and The Beach Boys among his musical influences.

Early on, Prescott honed his chops playing with many bands in New York, Boston and England before moving to Los Angeles in 1971 to record an album with his friend, Velvert Turner. After a two-year move to London, Prescott returned to California and waited a year before The Knack came together.

He continues to play, write songs, teach and compose. Last year, he participated in a few concerts with the Classic Rock All-Stars along with Mike Pinera (Iron Butterfly, Alice Cooper), Goldy McJohn (Steppenwolf) and Blue Öyster Cult’s Albert Bouchard.  Prescott also works with Dale Bozzio & Missing Persons on a regular basis. He is currently in the midst of writing a book combining his journals kept throughout his career and personal never-before-seen photos along with selections of his poetry.

Your first career choice was actually baseball.

I grew up in Brooklyn playing a lot of basketball, football, and baseball was my first love. I was shortstop, the best kid on my block and in newspapers for things like batting 700 in Little League. The Yankees at that time were a Dream Team… As I got older the competition was better and music started to grab ahold of me…

Why gravitate toward the bass?

I wasn’t enough of a narcissist to want to be a lead singer…yet; that developed over time. (Laughs)  Motown was on the radio which had the best bass playing of that era. Paul McCartney, John Entwhistle, James Jamerson and Jack Cassady were my bass player heroes. I thought rhythm guitar was boring, lead guitar took a lot of time to develop skills and I didn’t want to get up there and not cut it. I was in a band within three weeks of playing bass. I ended up loving it and it became part of my professional ‘persona’. I also play classical piano as well as guitar and drums.

How did The Knack form?

I was living in England at the time, my friend [drummer] Bruce Gary was living in California and wanted me to play bass for a band he was in that was touring. It didn’t work out, and then he called and told me he was working with these guys Doug Fieger and Berton Averre, and they needed a bass player. We met in L.A. when they were called 20/20 and the first time we played we knew there was something there. Casablanca Records passed on us, but when we played The Whisky in Hollywood we knew we had something special.

How did ‘My Sharona’ come about?

Berton had the riff, Doug started scat singing over it, Bruce had a beat, and I was playing a little bit of funk on it. Doug was in love with a girl named Sharona [Alperin], but he had a girlfriend, Judy. So he’s singing “My Sharona” in the living room writing with Berton while Judy’s in the other room, crying… Bruce’s drumming was phenomenal; it became the signature of that song. We did not know it was going to be that big of a hit. Capitol Records released the album [Get the Knack}, it went straight to #1 and they let radio decide which ones were the hits. ‘My Sharona’ became the most requested song in America.

And the follow up ‘Good Girls Don’t’?

Doug and Berton had shopped it to Capitol three years earlier but they passed. When The Knack started we did a cooler version of it and it became when of those shadow hits; it got to #6 in America!  But ‘Sharona’ dwarfed everything…

What broke up The Knack?

We were nominated for two Grammys but didn’t go! We had TV show offers, Dick Clark wanted to do a movie with us and we didn’t get back to him; we didn’t even do ‘American Bandstand’!  Management was part of the problem, Doug also had particular peeves against certain people and was playing the hard-to-get game; I think that alienated people. We rushed the second album which we did not have to do; we still had three more hits on our first one. Everybody underestimated the importance of ‘Sharona’; we wound up competing with ourselves. In 1980 we played The Forum and then Doug had a nervous breakdown, alienating everyone. We got back together at the end of that year after John Lennon passed away. We got Jack Douglas who did Lennon’s last record. It was brilliantly produced but they picked the wrong single and it didn’t work so we broke up again. We would get back together for charity benefits and got other record deals, but nothing worked. When Reality Bites came out we toured after that, got another deal and almost came back. Bruce left for good because he was angry about some of the business decisions made and he was dealing with [lymphoma]. Doug was also fighting lung cancer and finally succumbed to it.

You got to work with a Beatle.

I got a call to do a session but they would not tell me who it was with. I went down to Sound City Studios here in the Valley and was told in the parking lot it was…George Harrison! It was for the movie Shanghai Surprise (a Sean Penn and Madonna vehicle). He was very funny and endearing; I was getting married at that time and we actually went up on the roof and talked about it. I was supposed to go to England and record more with him, but he wound up using Jeff Lynne for his Cloud Nine album. There went the dream…

How did you and singer Dale Bozzio start playing together?

I met her in 1975 in Boston.  When Doug passed she called me and told me she always wanted me to work with her. We are currently writing together and I am playing with her band, including headlining Lolipalooza in Echo Park on June 28th.

What else are you up to now?

I am also working with Micki Free of Shalamar and do session work. I also work at Taxi Music where I get to listen to and critique songwriters. Recently I did a show at the Troubadour honoring The Knack and the producer Earle Mankey about a month ago. I played three Knack songs with my kids anchoring the drums and guitar. We were lucky to have Nelson sing with us. They were big Knack fans and I was a big Ricky Nelson fan growing up! Having Doug Fieger’s sister in attendance and Bruce Ravid, who originally signed The Knack to Capitol, was a true honor. He told me after the show, “When I closed my eyes I actually thought it was The Knack playing for a moment!”

Your kids are fantastic musicians!

There is a lot of interest in their band, the Gateway D’s around L.A. right now. Gabe plays drums, guitar and sings. Liv plays lead guitar and bass. Noah plays rhythm guitar and bass. They switch off on lead vocals and they write their own songs.

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