WNY's love affair with John Ford Coley
Despite a missing guitar, the musician still performs often, both locally and nationwide
Whenever John Ford Coley visits Western New York, he still holds out hope of finding his guitar that was stolen here back in 1972. As a solo artist, Coley performs songs he recorded as part of the 1970s soft rock duo England Dan and John Ford Coley, as well as his newer music.
“It was a Martin D28, and I’d had it for about a year,” Coley said of his missing guitar. “I put a brand on it so it was very identifiable. We were traveling with Seals and Crofts and went up front in the theater. When I came back, my guitar was gone.”
Time has blurred memories of the venue or exact date when the theft occurred. A quick internet search failed to pin down where this happened. In fact, in the ensuing years, three more of Coley’s guitars have been stolen from other places.
Like so many experiences in a long career, Coley, now 70, jokes about it today. And he keeps coming back to Buffalo, so he isn’t really bitter. When he played the Riviera Theater in North Tonawanda on June 29, opening for Pure Prairie League, it marked his third Western New York concert in less than two years.
Clearly, his music still reaches a wide audience.
“I think part of it is the melody of our songs,” he reflected. “There is a great joy in being able to sit down and sing along. There were so many songs during that period that had a memorable quality to them. The focus then was on the song, not so much the artist.”
England Dan and John Ford Coley had a string of hits in the 1970s, including “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,” “Nights Are Forever Without You,” “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again,” “Love is the Answer,” and “It’s Sad to Belong.” The pair split in 1980, and each continued making music separately. In the 1980s, Coley drifted into acting, performing supporting parts in TV and film. His former partner, “England” Dan Seals, passed away in 2009. Today Coley continues recording new music while touring the world.
A 1976 video with introductions by Wolfman Jack. Coley is playing piano.
“I enjoy playing by myself,” said Coley. “I don’t even use a setlist. When I’ve got a short set, people want to hear the hits, so I have songs I know I’m going to be playing. But sometimes I’ll think about a song I haven’t played in a while, and I’ll try that, just playing something that pops into my head.”
These days, Coley lives in Charleston, S.C., and until recently, spent part of the year in Nashville. His concerts are mostly relegated to weekends, so he flies out and returns home within a few days. It is one illustration of how the industry has evolved over time.
A Changing Business
“When we were trying to get songs on the radio in the 70s, you’d go out for two or three months and you’d never see home,” he recalled. “The excuse the label used was it’s too expensive to bring everyone home. So you’d play all the time, and visit radio stations and try to get as much traction as you possibly could.”
Today’s market requires a different reality. When Coley was compiling his latest album, 2016’s Eclectic, several people offered him songs, promising a melody strong enough to earn radio airplay, perhaps even become a hit. Coley just laughed.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m not trying to pull that slot machine anymore. Nobody’s getting on the radio. I’m not even going to attempt to do that.”
As a musician who reached the top of the charts and continues to work more than four decades later, he understands the fickle nature of the music business.
“When you’re young, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. At a certain point, success plays out, and they’re on to the next guy. You have the songs you’ve recorded; no one can take those away from you. But when they discover the new kid in town, you recognize that you’ve been relegated to the past. You didn’t plan it that way, but that’s exactly what happens. If you think you’re going to stick around forever, you’re really not.”
Coley has made peace with that. His easygoing, self-deprecating personality have served him well.
“It’s one thing to laugh at other people, but if you can laugh at yourself, that’s even better,” he said. “I was trained that way. My mom used to laugh at herself. I’ve had people say, you shouldn’t say things like that about yourself. And I reply, why not?”
To illustrate that, he is quick to point out that there’s no reason to know him after 1980. Still, he’s been mistaken for other celebrities like Sonny Bono or Jimmy Buffett. His response is to wonder why no one thinks he resembles Kevin Costner or Tom Selleck.
“He’s one of the good guys in the business,” said Dave Fillenwarth, executive director of the Riviera Theater. “He’s down to earth and humbled that people want to hear his music. The times I’ve booked him, the crowd response has been tremendous, so I keep bringing him back.”
Fillenwarth formerly worked at a theater in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where he first met Coley several years ago. The musician made an immediate impression.
“Before the show, we were going to dinner at a restaurant called Beefeaters,” Fillenwarth recalled. “As we were heading inside, a car pulled up and the door opened. There was an older gentleman, probably in his 80s, struggling to get out. Without thinking, John ran over and helped him.”
Coley learned the man was a veteran who intended to meet his family inside for dinner. During the meal, Coley approached their table, then returned to ask Fillenwarth if he could supply complimentary tickets for his concert that began in a few hours.
“He made it a point to treat the whole family to his show,” Fillenwarth said. “Between songs, he asked the man to stand up so he could get a round of applause. To me, this was unheard of. I’ve never seen anything like that by a major star, to take time to acknowledge common folks. It was a classy move by John. He’s more than just somebody who performs songs onstage.”
When he lived in Los Angeles, Coley worked as a record producer. He would contact musicians and introduce himself simply as “John.” A friend suggested he add the “Ford Coley,” believing that name recognition would open doors.
“But then I moved to Nashville and encountered young people working the front desks,” he said. “Their musical history doesn’t go back any farther than the Foo Fighters. When I said I was John Ford Coley, they asked how to spell it. You realize, okay, your time is up. That’s the way the nickel drops on the cement.”
Coley authored a book, Backstage Pass, in 2009, about his experiences as a musician and bit-part actor in the 1980s, relaying anecdotes about his life and career. During his last visit to Buffalo, the limited copies he brought were snatched up by fans.
Coley has a strong enough following in Western New York that he keeps coming back. Before last weekend’s concert, he headlined an acoustic show at Samuel’s Grand Manor on November 11, 2017, then opened for the Greg Kihn Band at the Riviera Theater on September 8, 2018.
At the meet-and-greet table in the theater's lobby, there was a long line of customers buying Coley's CDs and books. Many asked if they could have their picture taken with him. Others simply wanted to chat, and the musician was pleased to do that.
Coley enjoys playing here, but at the mention of Buffalo, fond memories don’t immediately spring to mind.
“I’m hoping the guy who stole my guitar is still up there somewhere,” Coley mused. “I don’t have any sympathy for thieves. I’m going to find him one day and he and I are going to have a very serious disagreement.”
A song from Coley's 2016 release:
© 2019 by Jeff Schober
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