Steve Farris, guitarist for the ’80s group Mr. Mister, first learned to fly in Fremont.
Before touring the country as an opening act for Tina Turner, his high school band was playing at Fremont’s own City Auditorium. Before he recorded the solo on Kiss’ “Creatures of the Night”--nearly securing a spot as Ace Frehley’s permanent successor--he was getting guitar lessons at Tom’s Music store on Main Street.
And before he had two number one singles with Mr. Mister--the 1985 hit “Broken Wings” and its follow-up, “Kyrie”--he was watching the Beatles make their U.S. debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, in the comfort of his grandmother’s house on Park Avenue, when he was six years old.
It was that moment in particular that planted the seed for Farris’ dreams.
“I saw the mayhem that was going on from all the fans, and there was something that was sort of unbelievable, especially to a young mind, like, my God, what is this magic potion?” Farris said in a recent interview.
And while Mr. Mister would never quite reach the heights of the Beatles, Farris had his own tastes of that mayhem during his band’s brief jaunt into superstardom.
He recalls, for instance, being on tour in Montreal, killing time before a gig on an island and seeing girls taking boats out to try and meet him and his bandmates. He remembers seeing fans try to scale buildings into their dressing rooms. He remembers seeing mobs of girls chasing after his band’s limousine.
“This is when you go, ‘I’m in the frickin’ Beatles,’” Farris recalled, laughing.
Today, Farris can be found on a plot of land in western Nebraska, a passionate duck hunter and the owner of Farris Hunting Development LLC, which develops hunting land. But his journey there has been circuitous, taking him from Fremont to Los Angeles, encompassing a successful career as a hired gun for big name acts, and culminating in a stint as a number one artist.
“I was a very fortunate man,” he said. “I got to live the dream.”
Farris first picked up the guitar in 4th grade, when he was a student at St. Patrick’s grade school. His first guitar was a cheap, nearly unplayable instrument that belonged to his mother, Kathy.
“My mother would make me practice about a half hour a day, thank god, before I could do anything else,” Farris said.
His parents played a foundational role in his development as a musician, Farris says. They were both artistic--Kathy had a fine arts degree and an art studio in her home. And his father, Roy, was a businessman who had a clothing store in town. But Roy was a drummer at heart, who had even played overseas while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
Farris’ high school band was playing gigs outside of Fremont, sometimes as far as Iowa. It was his mother who wrote the notes to his principal that excused him from classes early enough so he could make it on time.
“I had that kind of support from my parents--not just support, but encouragement,” Farris said. “I was raised with the idea, and I think this is always something you should raise your children with, which is find out what you want to do and absolutely try to be the best at it and go for it.”
Farris took lessons sporadically throughout his childhood, but was mostly self-taught, influenced by ’60s rockers, like The Who, whose 1967 single “I Can See For Miles” left an impact. He would open for them years later when he was playing guitar for Eddie Money. Then there was Jimi Hendrix, who was life changing for Farris-- “a guitar never sounded like that” before Hendrix, Farris recalls.
Farris played his first gig in a band he joined in ninth grade called Sticky Pete, out at a hall in Arlington, and shortly after, made his Fremont debut at the City Auditorium. A year later, he joined a new band called Dog Breath, which played gigs all over the region and practiced in the basement of a church rectory near Midland College--a place that became “party central” for him and his teenage friends.
After graduating high school, a foray into music school and years of gigging with other bands in Iowa, Farris arrived in Los Angeles in June 1979 as a skilled guitar player with dreams to become a hired gun--a session guy who the big acts would call on to play on records or fill in on tours. He spent his first years there aggressively networking. He was writing his number on the backs of hundreds of napkins, jamming with strangers, and playing low-paying gigs--all to implant himself into “the scene,” Farris said.
“I’d be in seven bands at a time,” Farris said.
The pieces first started to come together in 1982, when he nearly won a spot as guitarist Ace Frehley’s successor in the hard rock band Kiss. At the time, Farris was playing in his own band, called the Mambo Jets, and he was approached after a gig by someone associated with Kiss who asked him if he was interested in auditioning. He didn’t hesitate.
He played in front of Kiss legends Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons--who weren’t wearing their iconic glam-rock makeup. They played him a track and told him to improvise over it, recording the whole time. He played two takes. Then, Simmons asked if he would dye his hair black and wear high heels. Farris said he would try.
And that, at the time, seemed like a wrap.
The deal ultimately fell through, however, because Farris’ singing voice was not up to par, he says. But the audition was still significant--the recording of his second take was used as the guitar solo on the Kiss song “Creatures of the Night.” And while he didn’t make the band, the opportunity helped stoke his reputation as a reliable session musician.
Farris ultimately had a successful career as a session musician. He has played live with and recorded with more than 150 artists, touring with Whitesnake, Rod Stewart, Dolly Parton and more.
When he returned from a tour with singer Eddie Money the same year as his Kiss audition, he heard that well-known session musicians Richard Page and Steve George, who had been recently toiling away in a commercially unsuccessful, yet peer-respected group called Pages, were looking to start a new project.
Farris met them at Page’s house for auditions and felt a quick connection. Pat Mastelotto came on to play drums. And after a bass player who wanted the part couldn’t make it to the audition, Page picked up the bass to fill in, and the band decided to have him both play bass and sing permanently. That’s when Mr. Mister was born. Farris recalls instant synergy.
“I had played with a zillion people at this point,” Farris said. “You just knew: this is frickin’ good man.”
In 1983, the band signed with RCA Records. The band didn’t find commercial success until its second album, “Welcome to the Real World,” which, with its number-one hits, “Broken Wings” and “Kyrie,” reached the top of the charts as a top album in 1985.
Farris remembers watching “Broken Wings” slowly start climbing the charts while on tour as the opening act for Tina Turner. At the beginning of the tour, the seats were empty when Mr. Mister took the stage. By the time “Broken Wings” hit number one, the venues were packed.
“We were told that we had went number two; Rich and I get on a plane to fly to Atlanta, I remember he and I had bought a drink, and we were toasting each other, like, ‘well we got number two, man,” Farris said. “We get off that plane in Atlanta, and our road manager picks us up. He’s there at the gate and he says, ‘congratulations you got the number one hit.’”
Tina Turner sent champagne to their dressing room that night. Farris, battling an ear infection at the time, spent the night in his hotel bathroom with the steam running, calling up high school friends to celebrate. Soon, everything changed. Autograph signing events that once yielded embarrassingly few guests now had lines four blocks long.
“I was borrowing money from my brother to help pay my rent in October and then I’m buying a house in March,” Farris said.
He came back to Fremont for the fourth of July of that year. Things had changed there, too, he says.
“People were coming to our house there on Phelps and Clarmar, knocking on the door looking for autographs,” Farris said.
The dream wouldn’t last forever, though. The band’s follow up album, “Go On…” had little commercial success in 1987. And in 1988, Farris left. The band would break up in 1990.
He says creative differences, particularly during production of “Go On...,” after the album was recorded, ultimately drove his decision to leave. He says he was happy with the band’s playing and writing on the album, but it was while putting the final product together when he started to have disagreements.
“When we got done with the album, I really was unhappy with it. The final product--not the playing and not the writing,” he said.
He felt that Page started to exert more control, and that the record company was beginning to see Mr. Mister as less of a band and more of a singer-driven group centered on Page. ”Not to fault [Page], we’re all artists and we all like to do our own thing,” Farris said. But it wasn’t what Farris wanted. So that led to his departure.
Farris eventually pulled back from the music scene--and he’s found new success in his most recent endeavor developing hunting land, which requires an array of work, including developing and restoring wetlands. Since childhood, he’s always been drawn to the outdoors, especially duck hunting.
“I wanted to buy hunting land as a toy,” he said. “That’s my Ferrari.”
He fell in love with a plot of land in western Nebraska, but was nearly discouraged by its lack of wetlands for duck hunting. So he figured out how to develop wetlands on his own, and has since turned it into his business, and also runs an elite hunting club. He has purchased and developed six different properties into hunting lands. He’s worked as a consultant in four states. And he’s worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, developing a 25-acre wetland restoration project in Oregon.
But most surprisingly, his hunting development business has become a new creative outlet.
“It’s like I’m drawing on the earth with a big-ass 60-foot boom in front of me instead of painting a painting or listening to playbacks in the studio,” Farris said.
But he never forgets the music, and still plays regularly in the comfort of his living room. And more importantly, he never forgets where he came from, or his days growing up in Fremont.
“I always attribute a lot of my success to where I came from,” he said. “I wasn’t crazy--I probably did a few crazy things when we were successful--but I had that grounding that came from the great upbringing of my parents, and it played a massive role in my life.”
Editor's Note: This story and more will appear in the "Dodge County Guide," a magazine that can be found inside the July 24 edition of the Fremont Tribune.