Sitting in Red Rocks amphitheater at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in 1975, I was mesmerized by the Colorado venue’s natural beauty and the rugged rock and roll of the Stephen Stills Band. Then band member Rick Roberts stepped to the microphone to sing “Colorado,” and the night became even more enchanting.
Roberts’ lovely voice resounded off the majestic red boulders with a sweetness that made everyone in the audience proud to be inside the state’s borders looking out over the twinkling lights of the Denver metro area and onto the Great Plains. It was Roberts’ first performance ever at Red Rocks, and he sang:
Hey Colorado it was not so long ago
I left your mountain to try life on the road
Now I'm finished with that race it was much too fast a pace
And I think I know my place Colorado I want to come home
There was a woman but I left her far behind
I could have loved her if I only had the time
But I stopped along the way just long enough to say
Lord I'd really really like to stay.
That song, written by Roberts, was not only one of the highlights in Morrison, Colorado, that night, but also one of the best songs on the self-titled third album of the legendary Flying Burrito Brothers, whom many credit for creating the blueprint for country rock.
Roberts was not a founding member of the Burritos but was brought in to replace lead singer Gram Parsons, who left the group after its first two albums. Parsons was a dominant force in the band, but too often those who sing his hosannas forget the contributions of Roberts and other Flying Burritos, particularly Chris Hillman.
Hillman, one of the original Byrds, formed the band with Parsons and co-wrote six of the 11 songs on the Burrito Brothers’ debut album, The Gilded Palace Of Sin. The 1969 release blazed the trail for country rock and today remains one of the genre’s greatest albums. Hillman was an important vocal presence on the album and played guitars and mandolin, while bassist Chris Etheridge and pedal steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow were also big contributors.
Etheridge left the group before its second album, and Bernie Leadon, who would later become a founding member of the Eagles, and ex-Byrds drummer Michael Clarke joined.
Roberts then joined Hillman, Leadon, Clarke and Kleinow and wrote or co-wrote seven of the 10 songs on the third album.
After its release in 1971, Leadon and Kleinow left the Burritos. Hillman, Roberts, and Clarke added electric guitarist/pedal steel wizard Al Perkins and guitarist/banjo player Kenny Wertz to the lineup for a tour and a live album, The Last of the Red Hot Burritos. Hillman and Perkins were next to depart, joining Stills’ Manassas and leaving Roberts in charge of the Burrito Brothers.
Roberts toured Europe with Wertz, fiddler Byron Berline, and bassist Roger Bush, and another live album, Live in Amsterdam, resulted. Roberts then threw in the towel, disbanding the Burrito Brothers. He recorded two solo albums, played in Stills’ 1975 band, and then, with guitar slinger Jock Bartley, formed Boulder, Colorado-based Firefall, which was a big commercial success.
Roberts was the group’s lead singer and wrote or co-wrote half of the 10 songs on Firefall’s self-titled debut album in 1976. Roberts’ penned the first hit single, “Livin’ Ain’t Livin’,” the hit “Mexico,” and "You Are the Woman,” which vaulted to No. 9 on the Billboard chart. Guitarist Larry Burnett also wrote half of the songs, including the hit “Cinderella.” Clarke played drums, and Mark Andes, formerly of Spirit, played bass. David Muse supplemented the group on piano, clavinet synthesizer flute, tenor sax, and harmonica, and Joe Lala added congas and other percussion.
Firefall’s second alum, Luna, included another huge hit written by Roberts, “Just Remember I Love You,” which reached No. 11 on the Billboard chart. He kept his hot creative streak going on the group’s next album, Elan, which featured his hit song “Strange Way.”
Roberts stayed in Firefall for seven years, and, when he left, Firefall was falling apart from self-abuse and financial and personal problems. Bartley, a local Boulder legend who had once toured with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, revived the band with new members and has kept it afloat, off and on, through today. The group is still a powerful live act.
In 2006, Roberts stumbled on a rug in his home and went headfirst into a kitchen island. He suffered a subdural hematoma that cause him to lose motor control and confined him to a wheelchair. It took years of extensive therapy to relearn how to walk.
Two years ago, Roberts began sitting in with Boulder area bands and got the itch to get back into music full-time. He formed a band, Winter Rose, and it made its live debut in Colorado last year. A full-length record is also planned.
Now, Roberts tells me, “the band is still happening, but we've had to take a rather long hiatus for a couple of reasons. First, there have been some health issues, not in the band, but with our manager.
“One of Firefall's biggest problems was not having strong management. We were more or less on our own and, as a result, made some really terrible decisions—decisions that had major negative effects and consequences in our careers. I made up my mind not to let the same thing happen again. So with our manager incapacitated, we had to do some waiting.
“If that had been the only problem, we could probably have muddled through and kind of cruised along in neutral without making any big decisions. Unfortunately, the other glitch was that we had to replace one member. He was a good player but not the right fit for Winter Rose. That means more rehearsal to work in the new person, and that takes some seed money. We're just getting back to the grunt work in the next month or so. It's been pretty frustrating to have to wait, but we believe the end result will be worth it.”
Roberts says “getting back to making music has been the best thing that's happened to me in years."
“In this long waiting period, I have sharpened my vocal skills. As the years pass, voices change, and mine is no exception. I'm taking lessons from a very good teacher named Kristin Henry and learning how to use my instrument properly for the first time. I never bothered with technique when I was a young guy. I just went out and did the stuff. Don't misunderstand—I'm not turning into a mechanical marvel with no emotion in my singing. I'm just learning how to breathe correctly and how to adjust to my slightly altered range and things like that.”
Looking back at his musical career, Roberts says he has had many satisfying moments.
“Way back in 1970, I heard myself on the radio for the first time. “Colorado" came on the radio just as I was walking out of the place where I was living. Coincidentally, I had taken some mescaline that day. The album hadn't even been released yet, and I didn't know that they gave advance copies to DJs. So it had quite an impact on me.
“Playing at Carnegie Hall was a biggie, and so was getting our (Firefall’s) first platinum album. More recently, I've really gotten a charge out of learning that I could translate my songwriting abilities into writing prose. My second book just came out last week. It's called Lame Brain, and it's about my alcoholism, my brain injury, and my recovery from both.
“I also just found out that my first book, Song Stories, is still No. 62 on the Amazon rock book chart. It's gotten a lot of really good reviews on Amazon, but charting on a booklist unfortunately doesn't coordinate with sales like it does on a Billboard record chart. Not that I'm expecting to make a lot of money from writing the books, but sales connect to exposure, and I'd like to have the books read. Particularly this new one. It's basically a comeback story, and I'd love it if some people who are in situations like I was could find a little hope and encouragement in the pages.”
Roberts knows that circumstances in life can change very quickly and he has come a long way since August 1970, when he “was sitting next to the door, playing with a bucket in front of me for tips at The Free Press Book Store in Westwood, California."
“By the end of September, I was the new singer-songwriter for the Flying Burrito Brothers. For the next two years, I toured the US and Europe and did two albums with that band, but it’s a lot easier to get up there on stage when you have a few other guys to cover you. When the Burritos broke up and I went solo, it was pretty scary. Going up there alone is a whole different story, and, depending on the circumstances, can be downright terrifying. I can tell you from personal experience that, when you are a solo balladeer who writes love songs and opens the show for the Steve Miller Band every night, things sometimes don’t go exactly how you hoped they would. As it turned out, my agent was also Steve’s, so, for a while, I had to do that. I found out that balladeers don’t usually appeal that much to an audience who came to boogie. It helped me a lot to see Jackson Browne perform and know that it could be done.”
Roberts says it’s difficult to pinpoint one live show that most influenced him, because “I have undoubtedly been influenced by more artists than I can count.” But then he remembers “one show sticks out in my mind.” It was by Jackson Browne in a tiny Greenwich Village folk club that still exists, The Bitter End, in New York City in the summer of 1972.
“I had heard Jackson’s first album with all the wonderful tunes so beautifully enhanced by Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and many others. I had also just finished my own first solo album with some of those same people and Jackson playing with me.
Jackson was up there (on the Bitter End stage) without anything but his acoustic guitar doing the songs. I was just starting my own solo touring and was feeling quite insecure about how my music would go over up there by myself without all the bells and whistles. As I watched Jackson do his show and totally mesmerize the audience, it gave me a large boost in confidence that it could work. It also brought home a bottom-line truth about it all. You don’t need to have a dazzling show or all the extra window dressing if you’ve got the goods. The quality of the songs is where it all starts. If you have superior material, you don’t have to dance or wow them with all the glitz. You just go up there, play your music, and show who you really are through your songs, and it will all work out just fine.”
Similarly, Roberts says he has seen so many concerts that it’s not easy to say which one was the best he ever attended. Then he remembers the Hollies’ performance in the mid-1960s at Curtis Hixon Hall in downtown Tampa, Florida. The hall alongside the Hillsborough River, which seated up to 7,000 people, was demolished in 1993.
“I was only 16 years old, but music had become my driving passion. I was consumed by every detail of what made a great performance, hoping to find some secret formula I could use for myself. The danger was becoming too analytical and missing the very thing I was so intent on finding—the magic. When I saw the Hollies—with the nearly original lineup, including Graham Nash, Tony Hicks, and Allan Clarke doing all the vocals and harmonies—they first impressed me with their nearly flawless renditions of their material. I was also impressed, because, in an era that was leaning heavily on the concept of big equals good, their sound columns were comprised of about 12 six-inch speakers in each column. It gave their vocals a bright, extra crisp sound, which was perfect for the tight harmonies they used. Before they had gotten through about three songs, my analytical needs were satisfied, and I found myself simply swept away by the beauty of what they were presenting.”
The geographic beauty of Boulder, Colorado, also swept away Roberts, as well as other musicians and this columnist who lived through Boulder’s burgeoning music scene in the 1970s. Stars like Stills, Hillman, and Dan Fogelberg lived in the mountains outside of Boulder and sometimes would drop in and jam with smoking local bands playing in small clubs with no admission charges.
“Boulder in the '70s was an amazing place,” says Roberts, who now lives just outside Boulder in Longmont. “The music scene was like no other I have ever been in. There was so much unknown local talent here, and it was enhanced by all the nationally known artists like Stephen Stills, Dan Fogelberg, Chris Hillman, Joe Walsh, Richie Furay—and the list goes on and on.
“But everybody around here was so calm and collected about it, because it was just norma,l run-of-the-mill stuff to us. It was like being in the eye of a hurricane. I feel like that magic has been lost over the course of time. Even though Boulder is still a great place to be and live in, it's not quite as special for me as it used to be. Of course, I'm not quite as young as I used to be, and that might color my outlook.”