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When you’ve reached the peak of fame as a rock and roll star, what’s left? For Blue Öyster Cult co-founder Joe Bouchard, a return to his high school band instrument in a group of beginners and returning musicians is keeping his chops fresh. (Photo by Elizabeth Reinhart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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By happenstance, Joe Bouchard has turned his musical focus back to the trumpet.
“I went to this guy’s house and he had a large display of brass instruments,” Joe says. “He says, ‘Here, take this,’ so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll take a free trumpet.’”
Although he played in high school, Joe admits, “In high school [band], I was the last chair…never any good.”
But as co-founder of the rock and roll band Blue Öyster Cult, and one who sings and plays numerous instruments, Joe says, “it was the one instrument I thought I could get better at.”
After purchasing a coronet and attending the Community Music School’s (CMS) annual fundraising gala last spring, he was intrigued by the opportunity to play with CMS’s New Horizons Band.
“I just love playing in bands,” Joe says. “The New Horizons Band has been so much fun. Once it comes together and all the individual players have their parts down, it’s magical.”
Joe grew up on a farm in Clayton, New York where he says “the winters are long…We played music or ice skated a lot.”
Another way he and his five brothers and one sister filled the time was to turn a barn on their property into a dance hall.
“We were the thing,” Joe says. “We charged 35 cents to get in. We thought we were rich.”
When it came time for Joe to decide on a future, he says, “It seemed like a real natural thing to choose music.”
Joe, who mostly played guitar, performed with different bands in college, graduating in 1970 with a degree in piano from Ithaca College’s School of Music.
“When I graduated, I said [that] I was going to attempt a career as a professional musician,” Joe says.
With his brother, Albert, already working with a band, Soft White Underbelly, Joe seized his opportunity to join their group as a bass player.
“I went to Long Island and within a week Elektra [Records] dropped us,” said Joe. “I was so disappointed, but it only fueled my determination.”
The group’s first set of demo recordings were met with lackluster praise, however, after performing in upstate New York and parts of Pennsylvania, a second set of demo recordings would spark the interest of Columbia Records President Clive Davis.
“They wanted us to do a live audition,” said Joe. “We set up the equipment on one side of the room and there were five chairs on the other side…this was in a conference room at [Columbia Broadcasting System].”
“We played five songs and were signed by Columbia Records,” Joe adds.
The hardest part, thereafter, was agreeing on a new name.
“We locked our two managers in a room, saying we would accept whatever they came up with,” said Joe. “They came out of the room and said, Blue Öyster Cult. We said, ‘Oh, no,’ but we had agreed.”
Joe acknowledges that the group, at the time, was “just a bunch of guys…not thinking of it as a brand,” he says.
The name Blue Öyster Cult was derived from a poem written by manager Sandy Pearlman about a group of aliens that came down to earth to change the course of history.
Blue Öyster Cult “gave us an idea of what we should sound like,” said Joe. “It was the end of the hippie era…more Black Sabbath era.”
In its early years, the band toured with artists such as The Byrds and Alice Cooper, altogether releasing 14 albums for Columbia Records, and seeing financial success with nine gold and two platinum records.
The rock band’s top 20 hit single “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” which was featured on their 1976 album Agents of Fortune, was propelled into infinite stardom by the Saturday Night Live sketch “More Cowbell” in 2000. The sketch gave a positive boost to the rock band’s music into the following century.
Joe left the band in 1986, long before the sketch aired, to take his career in a different direction.
He worked for the Forman School in Litchfield for eight years and during this time, he earned a master’s degree in music composition from the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music.
“It was fantastic,” Joe says of earning his master’s. “It was the first time that I composed a lot of music that did not have to be in song form.”
But his talent as a songwriter would resurface when the heavy metal band Metallica covered Blue Öyster Cult’s song “Astronomy.”
Now working for a musical publishing company, Joe says, “I was sitting in a cube and saw Metallica was going to cover one of my songs…So, I quit my day job.”
To date, Joe has released five solo albums. The sixth will be available this summer.
He also writes songs and performs with different bands including Blue Coupe, a trio consisting of brother Albert (also a co-founder of Blue Öyster Cult) and Dennis Dunaway, a founder of the Alice Cooper Group.
In 2010, Joe toured with classic rock band the Rock and Pop Masters in Iraq and Kuwait.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into…The contract said, ‘If you die, you cannot sue the U.S. Government,’” Joe says. “I thought it would be a Hilton in Baghdad…but, no ballroom…it was on a flatbed truck in July…126 degrees…at night in the desert.”
Other venues for his performances are closer to Killingworth, his home since 2014. They include Parmelee Farm, the Bijou Theater in Bridgeport, and Café Nine in New Haven, among others.
Joe finds collaborating with other musicians very rewarding.
“I am always looking for something that is going to bring that magic out,” said Joe. “It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does…it’s exciting, fulfilling.”
Awaiting the small, unexpected surprises that making music can sometimes bring is key to Joe’s professional success and happiness in life.
This, and a sense of humility.
“I’m just having a good time,” said Joe. “I never thought I could play the trumpet as good as I can now.”
The New Horizons Band meets Mondays and Thursdays, 10:45 a.m. to noon, at the Community Music School, 90 Main Street, Centerbrook. For more information, visit cmsct.org/programs/performing-ensembles/new-horizons-band or call 860-767-0026.
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