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Artists in the Dark

Ringo Starr: ‘I Got Lucky When Mark Joined the Band’

Sideman to the Star(r)s: Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Mark Rivera takes us inside his incredible career
Mark Rivera and Billy Joel perform at Madison Square Garden on February 12, 2022. (Credit: Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

In this new series, we interview renowned session musicians, giving them a moment in the spotlight. 

It’s 1975 Brooklyn and 22-year-old musician Mark Rivera is loading his car with a bass, a sax, an amp, a gig bag, and a suitcase to go play some gig he’s not too excited about, wearing a cheesy-ass monkey suit, no less. Mark was gigging seven nights a week. Whether it was bass, sax, guitar, or even vocals, Mark would do it, even if he wasn’t getting paid. He opens his suitcase and takes out a joint that was hiding in between a pair of socks and underwear. It was going to be a long drive, but little did he know he was about to embark on the high of his life–the musician’s life—one that would eventually have his name associated with such legends as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Billy Joel, Foreigner, Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, Hall and Oates, and Peter Gabriel.

It was clear from a young age that Mark had music in his blood. Always tapping and keeping rhythm. He even had a rhythm to the way he walked, purposely dragging one foot. He was obsessed with counting and numbers, especially the number five, which made learning and playing the sax come naturally to him. In his teens he was offered a rare opportunity to be a part of the Brooklyn Borough-Wide Band practice where he played sax every Saturday for two hours. Mark also played his sax in the hallways of his apartment where he grew up, allowing the reverb to take over his entire being.

But the true catalyst to Mark’s pursuit didn’t come until he saw Sonny Rollins live on stage. The young teen was awe-struck by Rollins, the crowd, the sidemen and from that point on Mark knew he was meant to be a musician. “I’d only been playing saxophone for a couple of years, but something inside was telling me that I wanted to be like this man—to stand on stage, surrounded by great players and in front of an amazing audience, and just put it out there,” Mark says.

Fast forward to today, in February Mark released his book Sideman: In Pursuit of the Next Gig chronicling his incredible life as a musician. To give you an idea of how far he’s come, Ringo Motherfuckin’ Starr wrote the forward.

We got a chance to chat with Mark about his incredible journey.



Most recent live show/tour: 

Billy Joel’s Madison Square Garden Residency. Opening up Fallsview Casino. Getting ready for SOFI with Billy & Stevie Nicks.


What or who inspired you to pursue a life in music?

The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, The Young Rascals, The Four Tops.


Tell us about your training:  

I started playing my Father’s Spanish guitar when I was about seven, then started playing saxophone at about eight. Studied throughout elementary and junior high school and attended the High School of Performing Arts (the Fame school). I left two weeks before graduation to play in a band (at 18) and my mom picked up my diploma. (That made her very happy.)


What were your goals and dreams as a kid?

To be in a band like the four guys on The Ed Sullivan Show (February 9th 1964)… 


With Steve Lukather and Ringo Starr at The Greek Theatre, July 21, 2012 in Los Angeles. (Credit: Chelsea Lauren/WireImage)


Your first “big break” in the business: 

Playing with Sam & Dave in 1974, performing with John Lennon 1975 and then when I met Robert John “Mutt” Lange in 1975 (tycoon)…


We’d love to hear a story that exemplifies what life’s like on the road…

Foreigner 4 Tour 1981-82.

Thanks to Mutt Lange I was introduced to Mick Jones and Lou Gramm of Foreigner. This was one of the most amazing shows that I remember. Foreigner, Lover Boy, Scorpions, and Iron Maiden: A Day On The Green, July 18, 1982, Bobby Mayo and me sidemen… We flew into the venue in two separate helicopters. The pilots were VietNam Vets and Dennis Elliot asked the one that we were in to pull a “90 Degree” which means to kinda fly in sideways and he was happy to oblige.


What are the top three things that you can’t perform without?

Top Three Things I need EVERY NIGHT:

  1. My Yamaha Saxophones.
  2. Billy Joel’s crew, the greatest crew ever assembled! We’re Nothing without them. 
  3. And gratitude.


Where does your energy come from?

My energy comes from the spirit my parents instilled in me, as well as my faith. And without a doubt the thrill that our audiences give us every night. 


Performing during Billy Joel’s residency at Madison Square Garden in 2018. (Credit: Myrna M. Suarez/Getty Images)


Any writing/producing credits that make you feel especially proud?

I’m proud of the fact that Ringo played on a song that I co-wrote on my album Common Bond: “Money, Money, Money.”


Musicians you’d like to collab with? 

I would Love to work with Stevie Windwood. He was and still is one of my biggest influences. I’d also LOVE to play/work with Dave Grohl and Tommy Shaw.


How can we hear/see your work?

I’m putting together a bunch of Q&As for my book Sideman: In Pursuit Of The Next Gig which will include a bunch of friends performing with me. Those dates will come up on my website as well as my Facebook (Mark Rivera Music) and Instagram (@markriveramusic) pages.


Any advice for young musicians?

For any young (or older) musician all I can say is, follow your heart and listen closely to where it’s leading you. There’s no right or wrong… 

Hey, as Mick said “It’s Only Rock n‘ Roll”.  

What are some of the records you worked on, what was your favorite?

Foreigner 4,  Billy Joel’s Innocent Man,  and my favorite Peter Gabriel’s So.


Who’s a genius in the studio?

The two that come to mind that I’ve had the pleasure to have worked with are Phil Ramone and Robert John “Mutt” Lange. They both just seemed to know exactly what the song needed to be complete. I think that the truly great producers know when the song is “done.” 


What’s the craziest experience you ever had in a recording session?

Back in 1981 I did a session with Benny Mardones at Right Track Studios. The song was “The Dreamer.” It was another one of those times that I was home just for three or four days and got the call. So i show up around 9:00 p.m. and we were just catching up (for a couple of hours) so it was looking like it was gonna be a LONG night…

Benny’s vocal was powerful and he kept trying to get me to challenge his intensity.

This went on for over an hour and he’d have me come into the control room with my horn and he’d scream some ideas into my ears and I’d play it and l’d lose the “vibe” once I walked back out to record.  Finally, Benny came out and joined by the mic and said, “We gotta set up some speakers and have you play to them out here.” So we DID. Now I’m playing harder and he’s singing scats challenging me as we go. As it turns out, it’s probably my favorite solo…