There aren’t many rock stars whose band’s debut album sells nearly 20 million copies thanks to eight tracks that continue to get played on rock radio more than 30 years later. And there are even fewer who are so anonymous they could slip by most people unnoticed at the mall or even at one of their own concerts.
But that’s the story of Boston singer Brad Delp, who on Friday died at age 55 of undisclosed causes after leading one of the most understated rock and roll lifestyles of all time. Delp was the man who lent a muscular voice to Boston’s 1976 self-titled debut, a tour de force that went platinum in three months on its way to becoming the fastest-selling debut album by any American group in history. The LP spawned such rock-radio staples as “More Than a Feeling,” “Peace of Mind,” “Foreplay/ Long Time” and “Rock and Roll Band.”
But despite Delp’s signature bombastic vocals, it was the band’s founder, perfectionist musical mastermind Tom Scholz who became the group’s star and media focal point in the ensuing years. Delp, who was working at a factory that made heating coils for Mr. Coffee machines and playing in Boston rock clubs in the early ’70s before joining the band of the same name, was, by all accounts, an unassuming nice guy who lacked the splattering excess associated with many rock godheads of the past.
And despite the group’s stunning success, Delp never became the kind of household name or recognizable pinup face as other 1970s rock sensations such as Peter Frampton or Queen’s Freddie Mercury — or even the more anonymous REO Speedwagon and Styx. The latter at least had the benefit of the burgeoning video revolution of the early 1980s to get some belated face time with America.
Part of that superstar anonymity was simply a matter of timing, according to Geoff Mayfield, director of charts and senior analyst at Billboard magazine. “They were not unlike a lot of other bands that came up after them, at a time when the record companies became focused on selling albums rather than primarily singles,” he said. “Boston was also one of the first beneficiaries of radio consulting, when rock stations began getting programmed by outside companies and that album tested really well.”
And, whereas outrageous behavior was the key ingredient to the personality of many rock bands of the ’60s and early ’70s, Mayfield said Boston were harbingers of an era when that was less important.
Another part of Delp’s anonymity might have had to do with Boston’s erratic career. Due to Scholz’s notorious meticulousness in the studio, the band didn’t release a follow-up to its smash debut until 1978 (an eternity at that time), and following a tour for Don’t Look Back, the band went into hiatus during a prolonged battle with its record company.
By the time Boston’s third album, Third Stage, came out in 1986, rock’s musical landscape had completely changed and new wave had taken over from the studio-overkill rock sound of the ’70s. The album — with Delp and Scholz as the only original remaining members — was a lesser hit and Delp eventually quit when it was clear a follow-up would be years in the making.
Delp bided his time working on albums with former Boston guitarist Barry Goudreau in the side project RTZ, then rejoined Boston in 1994 for the tour in support of the band’s poorly received fourth effort, Walk On, which was the first not to feature Delp’s vocals. He was back at the helm for 2002’s Corporate America, which was another dud on arrival. Though the band was rumored to be working on a new album with Delp on vocals as well as a summer tour, Delp had been gigging in between as the lead singer of a Boston Beatles tribute band called Beatlejuice.
Another reason Delp may not have reached instant face or name recognition was the simple fact that he was never featured on the cover of one of the group’s albums. Artist Roger Huyssen, who painted the iconic image of a laser blasting alien-spaceship guitars on the band’s debut album — a motif that would continue on subsequent albums, though not by Huyssen’s hand — said the band simply didn’t have the name recognition to appear on the cover at first. “The cover became an icon for their music and there was never any talk of putting them on the cover because they were new and they had no say,” said Huyssen, who only met the group briefly before turning in his cover idea.
Huyssen, who has designed hundreds of album covers, as well as posters for “Saturday Night Fever” and “Star Trek,” said he still gets calls in the middle of the night from fans “of a certain age” who consider Boston to be rock gods — even if the most prevalent image in their head is of giant glowing guitars and not the bearded Delp.
Some of those super-fans would come out to see Delp play in Beatlejuice, which must have been one of the most low-key side gigs ever from a guy who toured the world and sold more than 30 million records. For the past decade, the group would play the Somerville, Massachusetts, bar Jimmy D’s every few months. In fact, Beatlejuice were slated to perform last weekend and had already set up their equipment when bar manager Eric Pierce got the call Friday afternoon about Delp’s death.
“Some people knew he was in the band [Boston] and some didn’t, but the first thing anyone ever said about him was he was one of the nicest people you’d ever meet, a sweet, quiet guy,” Pierce said. Even when playing Johnny D’s, which holds a few hundred patrons — not the thousands or tens of thousands he once commanded with Boston — Pierce said Delp wouldn’t talk up his Boston connection and could often go unrecognized by many of the bar’s patrons.
“He was definitely kind of anonymous,” he said.