SALT LAKE CITY — To the casual Utah music listener, Mark Rivera might not be a familiar name.
But odds are that anyone interested in music has heard a song featuring — and benefiting — from the veteran, multi-instrumentalist, singer's skills.
For Billy Joel fans, he's the man who has been playing the saxophone for Joel for more than three decades. Others may recognize his work on some of Foreigner and Peter Gabriel’s biggest hits like “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time." Rivera is also Ringo Starr’s musical director and has been touring with his All-Star Band for 16 years. Additionally, Rivera released his own solo album, Common Bond, and plays in several bands around New York including the tribute bands, GLAD: The Music of Traffic and Mark Rivera’s 67 Chevy, which is billed as "A Tribute to the Kings of Classic Rock 'N Soul Music.”
“It’s the music. It keeps me going,” the very personable and charismatic Rivera told the Deseret News from his home in New York the day after Thanksgiving, and after a morning power walk to “burn off the stuffing.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 29, Rivera returns to Salt Lake City along with Joel and the rest of the Billy Joel Band. The show marks Joel’s first visit to the Beehive State in 10 years.
When talking about legendary singer-songwriter’s longevity, Rivera speaks in awe as he stresses the fact that 44 years after “Piano Man” was released as a single, Joel is not just touring, but he’s still playing stadiums and arenas.
“We do events. It’s pretty amazing. Everything we do is an event,” said Rivera, who noted baseball stadiums sound better than football stadiums. “It’s an amazing thing what he’s done.”
Since 2014, Joel has established “residency” at Madison Square Garden, vowing to play at least one show a month until there’s no longer a demand. But with 2018 already booked, there seems to be no end in sight. Additionally, Joel will be returning to Europe next year.
Rivera said Joel knows it's him who people are coming to see to forget about life for awhile, and he’ll continue to play as long as the regular crowd shuffles in. Right now, that regular crowd is 18,500 people a night.
“Billy takes people away, and thank God that he does that. You go to a concert to forget about life for awhile,” he said. “People need the magic that music offers.”
For Rivera, coming back to Utah gives him fond memories of some of his earliest rehearsals with Joel in Orem at the old Osmond Studios.
“I think about the Donny and Marie cutouts,” Rivera recalled fondly with a laugh of the studio decor.
It was because of his work with Joel that other doors opened for Rivera, including his friendship with Starr, a dream job for a self-described Beatles fanatic.
Being the musical director for Ringo’s band sometimes means having to “tell people I idolized that’s not how it goes,” he said. Such as the time he had to tell Paul McCartney he was playing a song wrong, twice. The key, Rivera said, was doing what his father taught him — to be confident but not arrogant.
“By the grace of God, I’m here. My world would not be where it is without Billy. But I never expected to be on stage with Ringo,” Rivera said. “It’s a dream. It’s living a dream. Nothing will compare to having a Beatle as a friend. It’s a full circle that my life has gone through.”
What’s a Mutt Lange?
That life began with humble beginnings in Brooklyn, New York, where Rivera, a fan of Jimi Hendrix in addition to the Beatles, began playing guitar about age 6. He attended LaGuardia High School, also known as “the Fame school” after being highlighted in the 1980 film. Today, it’s hard to keep track of the number of instruments Rivera can play. His record for one concert is 11, during a performance with Ringo.
“I trust my ears more than I trust my eyes,” he said of the ability to pick up on an instrument.
One of Rivera’s first big breaks came in the early 1980s while he was playing in the band Tycoon and he befriended soon-to-be legendary producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. Only at that time, “We didn’t know what a Mutt Lange was,” he joked.
Early one morning, about midnight or 1 a.m., when Rivera was just getting home from a local gig, he got a call from Lange who was still up recording an album with Lou Gramm and Mick Jones of Foreigner. The group was in the process of recording their soon-to-be multiple-platinum, No. 1 album "4," a juggernaut of rock history. Lange asked Rivera if he could come over immediately to help record some saxophone parts.
“Before the phone hit the receiver,” Rivera said he was in the studio. There, he recalls his “amazing chemistry” with Gramm and Jones and the next thing he knew, his sax work was being played on radio stations across the country.
Just a year later, in 1982, Joel was looking for someone to replace his original sax man, Richie Cannata. By this point, Rivera knew and had played with Joel’s bass player Doug Stegmeyer and guitarist David Brown and Joel was looking for someone who wouldn’t be nervous playing in front of 18,000 people, he recalled.
Rivera, who had just come off a stadium tour with Foreigner playing in front of an average of 80,000 fans a night, was up for the task.
He played “Only the Good Die Young” and “Just the Way You Are” for his audition. At the end of those songs, “Billy stopped the band. And I thought, ‘Uh oh. Was it that bad?’ And he walked up to me and gave me a kiss and said, ‘You can stay as long as you want to be in my band.’”
The Billy Joel Band
Thirty-five years later, Rivera is still playing with Joel. In fact, Rivera is the last remaining link between the original Billy Joel Band with Brown, Stegmeyer, Russell Javors and Liberty DeVitto who played on Joel’s classic albums such as "The Stranger" (celebrating its 40th anniversary this year), "52nd Street," "Glasshouses," "An Innocent Man" and more.
While the original band may hold nostalgia for longtime fans, Rivera said the current lineup with members Tommy Byrnes, Dave Rosenthal, Crystal Taliefero and Chuck Burgi is the “best band that’s ever performed with (Joel).”
“This band can do anything,” he said proudly. “(The original) band was amazing.The character was amazing. We were hitting hard, having fun. It was very fun.”
But the older band, “couldn’t do what this band does,” Rivera said.
Going to a Joel concert should be like going to a restaurant that serves up signature dishes that you expect to be a certain way, Rivera said. In this case, the “dishes” are songs like “My Life,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “You May Be Right” and “Movin’ Out.” After all, as Rivera points out, this is the man who Tony Bennett once called the “walking American songbook.”
All of this translates into Joel being “more comfortable” on stage, Rivera said. “I’ve never seen him coming off stage looking like, ‘I can’t do this.'"
Both on and off stage, he said Joel, 68, who recently welcomed a new daughter into the world with his new wife, in addition to having his own channel on Sirius XM Satellite Radio is in a great place in his life now.
“He’s happy,” Rivera said. “He’s in a place he hasn’t been ever.”
If you go
What: Billy Joel
Where: Vivint Arena, 301 S. Temple
When: Wednesday, Nov. 29, 8 p.m.
How much: $49.50-$149.50