Highway Robbery interview with John Livingston Tunison IV

November 24, 2013

Highway Robbery interview with John Livingston Tunison IV

There is not much known about Highway Robbery and thanks to
our dear writer Sébastien André Métens we found John Livingston. As far as we know Highway Robbery came together when Boston Tea Party’s lead guitarist Michael
Stevens departures and began forming a new band, which led to a powerful heavy
rock band. He found drummer Don Francisco, who was part of Atlee and Crowfoot
and John Livingston. 

I believe you were in a band called Manitoba Hugger? Would you like to
tell us more about how Highway Robbery came together and what were you and
other members doing? Also, where did you come together?

I formed Manitoba Hugger in 1969 in DeKalb, Illinois where I
was completing my M.F.A. in Fine Art at Northern Illinois University. I formed the name from Manitoba, Canada
combined with the Chevrolet Hugger, a popular car at the time. My drummer was my brother Dennis and my bass
player was my best friend’s brother Greg Price. I played an Epiphone Casino (currently reproduced as the John Lennon
model) which I painted with Psychedelic glow-in-the-dark vines and Greg played
my 1954 Gibson bass (the same bass used on the Highway Robbery recordings). We played to record-setting crowds in
the University ballroom and a few other gigs locally. We played major concerts for over 100,000
screaming hippies at Stevens Point and Poynette Wisconsin in 1969. The Poynette concert featured us on the same
bill as the early Grateful Dead and the rare poster with our band listed is
generating big bucks nowadays if you can even find one. After the Poynette gig I decided that
teaching art in the college system was not taking care of my needs and I picked
up and headed for Los Angeles to follow my calling as a full time hipster
musician. I immediately ran into Michael
and Don and easily copped the audition In Redondo Beach at a club named Cisco’s
in 1970.
How did the early practise session looked like?
Basically our early practice sessions were at home until we
hooked up with a well-known rehearsal studio on Santa Monica Boulevard (the
name escapes me). We rehearsed down the
hall from some well-known bands like the Rolling Stones and the Kinks and we
actually practiced the entire Highway Robbery album for a year and a half
before we went into studio C (reported to be Elvis’s favorite) at the RCA
studios in Hollywood.
Did you play any shows before you were signed up by managers
Robert Cavallo and Joseph Rufallo (well known managers) to RCA Victor? How
exactly did this happen?
We never played any shows previous to recording the
album. We auditioned managers in our
Santa Monica boulevard rehearsal location and finally settled on Cavallo and
Rufalow, two New York sharpies who also managed groups like Earth Wind and Fire
and John Sebastian.  Rufalow followed New
York hard ass traditions by refusing to let me out of my five year contract even
though Highway Robbery had disbanded. I
still remember him saying “sorry pal ” when I politely asked him to
terminate the remaining four years of our agreement.  I guess he figured he could suck all the
money that I would make in the future so I started using my alter-ego name J.T.
Livingston (a name I still use in certain situations).
Manitoba Hugger at Northern, Il University Ballroom 1969.
Note: Guitar found abandoned in the Woods.
You got a very well known producer Bill Halverson and the
album making began. What are some of the strongest memories from recording your
The truth be said about Bill Halverson is that even though
he produced Hendrix, Cream, Crosby Stills Nash and Young he only took on the
Highway Robbery project for some extra spending pocket money and was quite
bored throughout the entire recording time. He used to ask “does anyone have an aspirin?” as if Highway
Robbery gave him a headache. If you
listen closely at the beginning of the instrumental lead in “Lazy Woman
” you can detect a faulty tape splice that should have been an
often-performed easy job for someone who had worked with the big names. Go figure.
One of the strongest memories of those days at RCA was one
break we had after recording one of our intense tracks. Don Francisco and I briefly retired to the
men’s room and after we took care of business, Don (always one for a sniff)
laid out some lines of Coke on the long steel shelf behind the sinks and we
were  just about to partake when The
entire Johnny Carson house band came in on a break and we had to rush to cover
up the evidence with those little paper towels that they have in those
dispensers. I remember standing there
washing my hands and looking at myself in the mirror for what seemed like an
eternity while the Carson band finally completed their business and we were
able to finish our indulgence.
Would you like to comment each song from the LP?
Here’s a couple of notable song comments: Mystery Rider is
highly metaphysical and evokes a ghostly image/an eternally wandering
entity.  This subject matter is different
than the more relatable tunes on the album. 
Lazy Woman  (one of the two songs
I sing) is notable not only for the before-mentioned tape splice but for some
intense vocal trade-offs between Don and I at the end.  Ain’t Gonna Take No More has what I consider
to be some of Don’s best heartfelt vocals. 
He was quite a player–one of the top singer-drummers I have had the
pleasure of playing with to this day. Promotion Man allowed me top out with Don
at the end and we had another one of our intense emotional interactions. As far as songwriting, Michael wrote all the
tunes but Don and I added considerable input on arranging and vocal parts.
What gear did you guys used in the studio?
Michael used a cherry red Gibson Less Paul SG (two pointed
cutaways) played through a Marshall double stack and I played that 1954 Gibson
bass through a double stack Ampeg SVT with a 300 watt head (biggest rig at
that time).  Michael used an Echoplex and
we recorded all the tracks live and then overdubbed the vocals. Don played a stock set of Ludwigs if I
remember correctly. We recorded on a 16
track machine. (The first 24 track
board came out, I believe, in 1975) Don
invited me down the Wally Heider’s in Hollywood to the unveiling of that 24
Did you do any promotion tour or shows after the album was
out? With who all did you share bills?
We did one notable gig after the album was nationally released. It was in San Diego and Cheech and Chong were
on the bill. I’m not sure of the number
of copies RCA produced but I know the album was nationally released.  I have an original copy of the album and a
very rare copy of that single 45. I also
have a very rare outtake instrumental track from the original RCA sessions that
I subsequently added lyrics that I wrote, but I am not releasing this tune
until I am secure with the knowledge that it won’t be stolen.
Three blocks from the Landmark Motel (Janis Joplin’s Demise)
I heard, you are also a painter?
I paint and draw and do anything artistic. I quit college when I was 13 hours short of a
doctorate in fine art because at that point I was extremely burned out and when
I got to Los Angeles from Illinois they told me I would have to take 3 years
more of college just to be able to substitute teach. I stuck with music and never looked back.
What happened after the band disbanded?
We did an audition that was
set up by our managers. It was in a club in Hollywood and there was at least a
dozen of the top booking agents in LA in the crowd. We came on and performed a nightmare set that
would have embarrassed a high school garage band. I did things like step on my cord and pulled
it out / knocked over my mike stand / Michael and Don also performed the same
kind of antics and all the booking agents passed and the rest is history. The day after this disaster Michael called
and said “it’s over”. In those
days it was common in the music scene in LA to just go on to some different
project. After that I must have played
in 300 different bands for the next ten years and I got a invaluable musical
education in gigging / roadwork / recording / writing / arranging / producing /
etc.  I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
After the band fell apart I continued to do session work and
constant local gigging (LA had at least
200 clubs, most of which ran five to seven nights a week until the new DUI laws
took effect). Don went on to join
Linda Ronstadt (you can hear his great
voice singing the high harmony on her version of “ Tracks Of My Tears“. He later joined ex Eagles bass player Randy
Meisner’s band and the last time I saw him was in San Francisco with Randy in
1980. He was unrecognizable because he
was so gaunt from Coke abuse and he was constantly wiping his nose as a result
of his abused sinus cavities. I have not
been able to get in touch with him and I think his substance abuse had the last
word.  Fortunately I totally avoided any
drug activity to this day even though I was always exposed to it. Michael sort of drifted off the map although
we finally made contact a couple of years ago and I always have thoughts
somehow of a reunion of sorts.
What are you doing these days? Are you still musically
I have always been working throughout the years (mainly on
4 and 5 string bass) and I play a total variety of styles along with lead and
backup vocals and I have done a few CDs. I play guitar (Strat and Tele) and I drifted into the country scene
after Highway Robbery’s demise. I also
dabble on keyboards and actually play occasional drums and mandolin. I have recorded a whole bunch of unpublished
originals plus many cover tunes from the 50s to the 70s-80s, and I am putting
together a video studio as we speak. I
am currently playing 5 string Fender bass in a hot country/variety local band
and I just continue my musical education on down the line and never look back.
Thanks for taking your time. Would you like to share
anything else with It’s Psychedelic Baby readers?
I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell
the REAL story of Highway Robbery. Thanks again Klemen,     

John  Livingston Tunison IV
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2013
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2013
  1. kingcrimson1973

    Awesome. This blog never ceases to amaze. Shame about Don Francisco - his voice and work with Crowfoot always was impressive. Pops had "Find the Sun" by them so I always saw his face but when I found out he was on this I flipped. Seems like there's private press psych-rock coming out dime a dozen now...but these guys will always be up there as some of the underrated kings.

  2. John Bishoff

    That photo of The Intruders Included Bob Roell, Steph Ginsburg, Jim Clarke and Myself, John Bishoff. We played many college gigs in the mid 60s and did a tour to Key West in 1965.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *