Tony Levin spent time in the recording studio with many renowned artists, but it was British musical great Peter Gabriel who convinced the Jewish progressive rocker to come out of the sound booth and on to the stage.
After recording with luminaries such as Paul Simon, John Lennon, James Taylor, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Judy Collins, Carly Simon and many others, Levin’s career was transformed when he hooked up with Gabriel — the vocalist and flautist of the band Genesis, who is best known for his 1986 solo release, “So.” The quintuple-platinum-selling album features Gabriel’s most popular single, “Sledgehammer.”
In advance of the Oct. 25 release of the 25th anniversary edition of “So,” Levin has joined Gabriel on his North American tour, which includes a stop in San Jose for a Tuesday, Oct. 2 performance at the HP Pavilion.
As a child growing up in Brookline, Mass., Levin was always attracted to low notes. He started on the upright bass at the age of 10, and picked up the tuba in high school. He studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and was asked to join its famed Eastman Wind Ensemble.
But Levin’s first love was the bass, and that dedication quickly propelled him to some marquee gigs, including a set at President John F. Kennedy’s White House with Marvin Rabin’s Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra.
It was in Rochester, N.Y., where he met Steve Gadd, the drummer who introduced the classically minded Levin to other genres, including jazz and rock. Levin picked up a Fender precision bass (“P-Bass”) — and the rest is progressive rock history.
Following some time in the studio with Gadd and others, he joined Gabriel’s band in the mid-1970s, played tuba and bass on Gabriel’s 1977 solo debut album and remains his preferred bassist today.
Even after a quarter-century, Gabriel’s “So” remains a seminal point in the progress of rock. As part of his current “Back to Front” tour, Gabriel and his band will perform the album backwards, adding other fan favorites and personal picks to a set that includes smashes “Big Time,” “Red Rain” and “Sledgehammer.”
Levin admits that he can’t recall what prompted him to pick up the bass in the first place. But it doesn’t matter. “After so many years playing the bass, I am still fulfilled and challenged by just being a bass player,” he says.
While Levin has been able to sing and go back to his tuba as a member of Gabriel’s team, his bass work has remained front and center. As Gabriel continues to push his own musical envelopes, so, too, does Levin. Whereas most bassists use a pick or their fingers to pluck the strings and propel the song forward, Levin (with Gabriel’s help, he is keen to note), pioneered the use of what he calls “funk fingers,” which are modified drumsticks that Levin attaches to his fingers in order to get a bigger, bassier sound.
Levin is one of the most sought-after rhythm section stabilizers in the industry. In addition to his work with Gabriel, he has performed and recorded with such breakout bands as L’image (in which he reunited with his old friend and classmate Gadd) and the 1980s incarnation of the progressive rock rebels King Crimson (which put him back together with Gabriel bandmate Robert Fripp), with whom he last toured in 2008.
“I’m lucky to have been asked to be part of quite a few special projects,” Levin says, “and sometimes I start them myself.”
Levin says he always finds “challenges for myself within my music, so there’s plenty of work ahead for me.
“It’s one of those examples, I think, of the trip being more important than the destination, and I’m very lucky to have spent much of a lifetime doing what I love to do.”