By Bruce Rosenstein
Ben Vaughn‘s multidimensional life encompasses playing music, songwriting, producing, radio, TV and films. He formed the Ben Vaughn Combo 30 years ago, and in the mid-1990s started a parallel career as a TV and film composer, hitting it big with his work on NBC’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, and later That ’70s Show, on Fox; as well as other series for different networks.
Ben grew up on the South Jersey side of the Philadelphia area, and though he has long lived in California, the Ben Vaughn Quintet will join the terrific lineup at the 52nd Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival in August. His eclectic weekly radio show, The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn (the name of one of his LPs), originates on WEVL in Memphis, and is heard in Philly on WXPN. I’ve known Ben since the late ‘70s, and in 1980 he designed the logo for Ambition Records, the label Steve Leeds and I formed to release the compilation album Declaration of Independents.
Can you give me an idea of your current musical activity, both solo and with a band?
These days I only perform when the situation looks like it might be a lot of fun. I always loved playing for audiences but it’s even better now that there’s no “career” attached to it. I basically left the record business in the ‘90s to pursue TV and film work. When I came out on the other side of that the music business was unrecognizable to me. I had no idea where I fit in. But I still wanted to play. So I let it be known that I was ready to perform again and some really great opportunities have come my way.
I play solo in intimate listening rooms, in dive bars with an electric band and larger festivals with my Philly guys, the Ben Vaughn Quintet. We’re doing the Philadelphia Folk festival this year. I have a lot of songs at this point so I can mix things up and stay fresh. I’ll be going to France in October for five shows with French musicians backing me up. They are members of a Ben Vaughn cover band, if you can believe that! I’ll be taking my accordion player Gus Cordovox from the Ben Vaughn Combo with me. We’ll be celebrating 30 years playing together in August.
How do you choose the music for your radio show? How much did your background listening to Philly-area radio stations influence what you do on the air now?
Choosing music for my radio show is both a conscious and unconscious process. There are some things I know I want to feature but I also choose songs based on key, tempo, production values and mood. Sort of like sequencing an album. That part of it doesn’t involve the brain much. My main objective is to turn music lovers on to stuff I think they might embrace. Stuff that never gets played on the radio. My playlist goes back as far as the 1930s but for some reason stalls out right around 1980. I don’t know why that is. I’m sure there’s great music beyond that but it feels natural to stop there so I don’t question it.
I’m deeply influenced by free-form Philly radio from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. DJs like Michael Tearson, David Dye and Dave Herman. They really ran the gamut back then and everybody dug it. They were curators and the listener felt lucky to be in on the nightly collection. I was also crazy about Philly AM radio as a kid, especially the Geator With The Heater [Jerry Blavat] and WDAS, the soul station.
Are you doing any producing now, or is anything planned for the future?
I haven’t produced anything in a while. The last record I did was Marvelous Clouds by Aaron Freeman. Aaron was the lead singer of Ween. It’s a collection of Rod McKuen songs. It came out great. Rod loves it too, which is nice to know.
Are you doing any TV or film soundtracks, or are any planned for the future?
I retired from TV and film work when That ‘70s Show finished its prime time run. If something intriguing came my way I could see doing it again but it would have to be REALLY intriguing. I spent 11 years working in Hollywood and it was great but 11 years felt like enough.
Any roots-oriented bands or solo artists that you recommend?
I’m not really aware of what’s out there roots music wise these days. It’s funny. The latest record I heard that blew my mind was Get Lucky by Daft Punk, not a roots record at all. I like the new Stooges album too. James Williamson did a good job producing it.
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