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Jukebox hero: Mick Jones talks about his 40 years with Foreigner

If writing and recording "I Want to Know What Love Is" was the only thing Mick Jones ever accomplished, the rock guitarist would still have a place in popular music history.

The powerful, gospel flavored ballad by Jones' band, Foreigner, sold millions. In 1984, it hit No. 1 on the charts in seven countries – the United States, England, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden – and Rolling Stone magazine recently picked it as one of the 500 best rock songs ever.

As Jones recalls it, the emotional song came to him "from a higher power, from somewhere up above" early one morning as he sat in his London apartment. He envisioned Foreigner recording the song with a gospel choir. All these years later, it still means a lot to him when he looks out at an audience and sees people in the front rows with tears in their eyes, singing along with the chorus.

"It's remarkable. I feel blessed that this song came to me. I was the conduit for it," Jones said in a telephone interview, as he prepared for Foreigner's 40-year anniversary tour. "I feel very lucky."

Backed by a choir of 25 students from Williamsville East High School, Foreigner will play its biggest hit on July 21, when the band appears at the Darien Lake Amphitheater with Cheap Trick and the Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience.

"I Want to Know What Love Is" is just one of more than a dozen major hit songs for Foreigner, a band that Jones and former King Crimson musician Ian McDonald assembled back in the 1970s. Jones, the only original member still in the band, looked back on a career that dates back to the early 1960s. Back then, he was a guitarist in groups that opened for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other rising British stars.

In early 1964, Jones was the guitarist for Sylvie Vartan, a French singer who opened for the Beatles for 18 days at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. Each night, the Beatles would stand behind a curtain and take the stage just after Vartan finished her set.

"One of the first nights, I somehow got my guitar snagged on the curtain. I almost fell down. I was cussing and swearing to myself," Jones recalled. "John Lennon came up behind me and said, 'Hey lad, we didn’t know you were English. We thought you were a Frenchman. Come out for a pint with us after the show.' "

Jones said he went out to pubs and cafes with the Beatles for about the next 10 nights and it was clear that the Fab Four were headed for superstardom. Gushing young women chased them everywhere they went.

"It was absolute bananas. Just like all those scenes in 'A Hard Day's Night,' " Jones said. "This was just before their first Ed Sullivan show. They were an amazing band. I'd stand there and watch them with tears in my eyes. That's how good they were. This was my first real glimpse of the big time."

And Jones has done pretty well for himself since then. According to recording industry figures, Foreigner – with guitar-driven, radio-friendly hits such as "Juke Box Hero," "Hot Blooded," "Urgent,"  "Feels Like the First Time," "Double Vision," "Cold as Ice" and "A Girl Like You" – has sold an estimated 80 million recordings, making it one of 75 top-selling rock acts of all time. Jones wrote or co-wrote all of the band's biggest hits, including several he worked on with Lou Gramm, a Rochester native who was the lead singer for many years.

Jones also has recorded with George Harrison, Billy Joel and Carly Simon. He produced one of Van Halen's biggest hit albums, "5150," and Billy Joel's "Storm Front." He also wrote the song "Bad Love" with guitar hero Eric Clapton.

But he's mainly known as the leader of Foreigner, and Jones said he's excited about the tour celebrating 40 years of hits. His current band features singer Kelly Hansen, bassist Jeff Pilson, guitarist Bruce Watson, drummer Chris Frazier, keyboard player Mike Bluestein and multi-instrumentalist Tom Gimbel.

"There will be a special guest visiting with us that night," Jones said. When asked if the guest might be Lou Gramm, he said, "wait and see."

Jones said he especially enjoys it when local choir groups such as the one from Williamsville East sing the gospel vocals on "I Want to Know What Love Is." Twenty-five students from Williamsville East, led by music teacher Maureen Reilly, won a competition against other local schools to sing with the band.

"That's something we've done with local performers over the past few years, and I think it's terrific," Jones said. "The kids get really excited and I love seeing the looks on their faces. Most of them do a really good job."

When he was asked for his age, he laughed and said, "You can Google that." Most rock music websites list him as 72.

How many more tours does the rocker have left in him?

"Right now, things are great," Jones said. "I've had some health problems in the past, but I'm in good health now and really enjoying getting out and playing for the fans. Really looking forward to touring with the Tricksters and Jason Bonham, who is like a young nephew to me.  I guess you could say touring keeps me out of trouble. I'll keep doing it as long as I don't look stupid."

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