Billy Joel's longtime saxophonist Mark Rivera can't say enough about his boss of nearly 40 years, and how he's treated his band while they've been sidelined during the pandemic. Rivera is the latest sideman profiled in Rolling Stone's “Unknown Legends” series.
Over the years, Rivera has been mainstay on the rock scene for his road and session work with such heavyweights as Foreigner, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates — not to mention being Ringo Starr's All Starr Band musical director for the past 25 years.
Rivera, who along with his wife, battled the coronavirus earlier this year, spoke about the Billy Joel's love and concern for his band during covid, explaining, “I can’t say enough about what Billy has done for this entire … some people call it a community, but it’s a village we have that he’s created. He’s been so incredibly gracious and generous. I don’t have adjectives to describe. . . To be completely serious: a heartfelt thanks to him for taking care of this group of people. Everyone I speak to on the crew and the band feels the same way. I know other situations where guys have played with certain bands for years and they made three-year commitments and the rug has been pulled out from under them. I applaud our 'Piano Man' and God bless him.”
Rivera shed light on Simon & Garfunkel's 1982 reunion tour following the success of the duo's 1981 Central Park concert: “With Paul and Artie. . . it’s unfair to say anything less than Artie has a beautiful voice, but he was in the shadow of Paul’s brilliance as a songwriter. You got the sense that was the case. At rehearsals or onstage, Paul was always happy-go-lucky and really chill. We’d run rehearsals and he’d break a string and be like, 'Let’s take five.' Then you’re gone for an hour-and-a-half.
Amazingly, most people have no idea that the intro to Peter Gabriel's chart-topping “Sledgehammer” features Mark Rivera's most famous original saxophone part: “I swear, on my eyes, the first thing I played was (imitates the 'Sledgehammer' horn part). Swear to God. Peter freaked. We double-tracked and triple-tracked. It went on and on and on. That’s pretty much it.”
Rivera recalled his 1982 audition for Billy Joel, replacing the great Richie Cannata: “At the very end of the solo (to 'Just The Way You Are'), Billy literally stops the band. I was like, 'S***. Did I screw it up that badly?' He comes up to me, gives me a kiss and says, 'As long as you want to be in my band, you’ve got a gig.' He’s kept his word and apparently I’m keeping mine. It’s amazing, thinking back, that I’m the only person still standing from that group.”
When we last caught up with Mark Rivera he set the scene for joining Billy: “When he wanted to replace Richie, he wanted somebody who’d already been on the road; it wasn’t like the first time we go out and (I'm) like, a deer in the head lights. And I’d already been playing, like 80,000 people at RFK Stadium with Foreigner. I did the whole, like, 17, 18-month tour with Foreigner.”