Rob Parissi was 25 and playing guitar with his rock 'n' roll band Wild Cherry when he jotted some lyrics on a server's drink order pad. The words would make him a star. It was 1976 when Play That Funky Music topped the charts and later stuck at number 73 on Billboard's Greatest Songs of All Time. Parissi, 62, spins smooth jazz in New Tampa and has a new song that's on the charts. Over a martini at Cassis American Brasserie in St. Petersburg, he and his fiance, Ilona Bellamy, told Times reporter Elisabeth Parker how the song came to be and how he ended up in Tampa.
So, what's the story behind Play That Funky Music?
We were a heavy rock band in Pittsburgh. We played songs that would bring in the good-looking girls. If we got the good-looking girls, the guys would be there. But the girls were starting to go to disco.
One night, I got the band in the dressing room and I told them: 'We've got to play more of this disco stuff.'
They went nuts: 'We don't want to be a disco band.'
We had been playing on off nights at a bar where some black people would tease us: 'Are you white boys going to play some funky music?'
The drummer reminded us of that. On the way back out to the set, I grabbed a drink order pad and started writing: Once I was a boogie singer, playin' in a rock and roll band.
It probably took me five minutes to write the whole thing.
On your website, there's a warning that scam artists are trying to book under your band's name at clubs around the country. You warn that Wild Cherry isn't touring and the FBI is looking for these scammers. What's that about?
That's the thing about a band like Wild Cherry. The recording company didn't want people to know we were white so they didn't put our pictures on the album cover. They wanted to sell more records to blacks. A lot of people don't know what we look like.
And later Vanilla Ice also recorded your song?
Yea, that was in the '90s. Vanilla Ice told everybody he wrote it. That was fun.
Yes. Things like that make me laugh. He paid me almost a million dollars. He was wrong. I got 85 percent of everything he made on it. He made it gold. I was suing him all the time. At one time, MTV asked me, 'Don't you hate him?' I said, 'No: I want to adopt him.'
How did you end up here in Tampa?
I fell in love with this place. My accountant said one day, 'Why aren't you having any fun? I came down, found a condo, made an offer on the way back to the airport. I owned it by the time I got back to Pittsburgh.
I met Ilona in New Tampa. We have three dogs: Vito, an Italian greyhound, Peanut, a chihuahua and Roxie, a Pomeranian. We split our time between our two homes. Monday through Thursday mid morning, I'm in New Tampa, working in my studio. Then we're in St. Petersburg, where we have a house on the water. Three and a half days each place.
You have a new song that's doing well?
It's called: Right Beside You. It's on the top of the adult contemporary chart for the second week in a row.
It comes from the poem about footprints in the sand. When you go through hard times, someone will always be there with you.
How have you handled your fame?
I never wanted that part of it. People get so excited when they find out who you are. Starstruck. If you like my work, what I do, great. My dad was a diesel mechanic in a steel mill. I'm just a regular guy.
I try to keep as low a profile as possible. I'm sure Paul McCartney wants to go somewhere and have dinner.
With this new single, at this point I can still go out and nobody knows me, but it's inevitable. It's going to happen, again. Back in my hometown, Steubenville, Ohio, they're naming a street after me. It's the longest street in my town. I hope I live up to it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.