The Sky Is Crying

by Todd K Smith

The stairs leading from the street level and ascending to Greene Street Recording Studios resemble those of a typical medieval dungeon. Once the blackened door closes behind the unsuspecting guest a strange technological world unfolds. The studio appears to be a space-age cave burrowed deep beneath the frantic bustle of New York City’s Soho district. Producer Steve Loeb, directs me into the production room. "This is it, this is where Rhett did all of his recording with Riot," says Loeb.

Rhett Forrester was the tall lean blonde whose soulful voice and charismatic, pirate-like personality helped launch Brooklyn’s RIOT into near superstar status in the early 1980’s. With Forrester as their vocalist and frontman, Riot played alongside such stadium acts as Rainbow, Scorpions, Kiss, Rush and Aerosmith. In Japan, Burrn! Magazine voted Forrester the number one vocalist of the year. "He combined the commanding presence of Robert Plant with the soulful vocals of Paul Rodgers," quotes Robert Schoen, Forrester’s childhood friend.

The son of a Ballroom dance instructor, Forrester had the looks, the cocky nature and the sweeping locks of golden hair, perfect for rock stardom. With his own inherent grace he quickly graduated from his mother’s dance studio to a star tennis player on his high school tennis team.

His last two years in high school were spent at Sanford Navel Academy in Sanford, Florida. It was shortly there after that the winds of change began to blow. "I had no idea that Rhett had been studying vocal training in school," claimes his mother, La Fortune Forrester. "After he graduated we spent some time together at a resort in South Carolina. I didn’t know this at the time but at night he would sneak out to sing with one of the local bands. After we got back to Atlanta the band kept calling him until he couldn’t take it anymore. That’s when he said,'Mama, I’m going. I hope you’re happy for me ‘cause I’m going.’ I screamed and cried all the way to the bus station."

With Rhett as her only child, La Fortune became the anchor stay for her wandering boy. Remaining in Atlanta, she would live vicariously through him as he drifted from town to town and band to band. Often he would call home from some remote outpost to tell her of his difficulties. "Once," expressed Ms. Forrester, "he called when he was in the middle of a snow storm complaining that the truck had broken down and that he had a terrible toothache."

Finally Rhett Forrester’s big break came. "We were looking for a singer after our old singer quit," explained Steve Loeb (producer and then manager of Riot). We were really impressed with Rhett’s demo tape because it was so professional. He sent it with a photo and bio; everything looked great. And I loved that voice, I mean, he had ‘the’ voice. So, we brought him in and could instantly see the difference he made in the band. He looked great and had such amazing charisma."

"One of the things that you wonder about as a producer, " says Loeb, "is how the final product will come across live. One of the first gigs Rhett did with Riot was at the Spectrum in Philly. They were opening for the Scorpions. When the lights went down Rhett came out like this big monster onto the stage. He just stood there and commanded the audience. I’d never seen that before with this band."

Mark Reale, Riot’s guitarist remembers, "Rhett embodied everything we wanted in a singer. He was amazing. When he joined the band, the band became real. Even though we sounded a bit more commercial with Rhett, it was the first time we had steady rotation on both New York City’s rock stations."

Forrester also brought a professional edge and security to the band. "He was like a big cloak," recalls Loeb, "protecting the band. The other members felt very comfortable with that. It allowed them to do their own thing."

Forrester recorded three successful albums with Riot. They included Restless Breed, Riot Live and Born In America. "Rhett was the kind of singer that was very spontaneous," continues Loeb. "He was a one or two take guy. If you didn’t get Rhett within the first few takes you had to give it a rest. There are singers that render or paint with their voice. Rhett on the other hand was the kind of singer you photographed for the moment. As a producer, I didn’t have to do much with him, he naturally knew. It was instinctive. We would set up, he’d walk in and ‘bam’ lay it down."

Rhett’s instinctive nature was prevalent on stage as well. "Rhett lived for the stage," explained Loeb, reaching for a cigarette. "No matter what he did or where he was the night before we knew he would never miss a gig. That was his life force. It was like he’d been out there for a million years. Had I not known he had a mother, I would have thought he was born on the stage." Plagued with managerial and record company woes, Riot eventually disbanded. Forrester remained in New York working on a number of side projects. They included the vocal tracks on Jack Starr’s solo album, Out Of The Darkness, and the New York compilation, Thrasher.

Then taking a year off he moved to Paris, France to record his first solo album, Gone With The Wind. With his solo career in full swing Forrester returned to the States to record Even The Score, a cult classic which spawned the hit, “Assume The Position”. Recently Forrester had begun work with the talented Texan guitarist, Jonathan Grell in a project they called Mr. Dirty. "Rhett was a natural," remembers Grell. "All I had to do was start playing and he would instinctively know what to sing." After finishing a superb four-song demo, Forrester returned home to visit his mother.

Atlanta Newspapers ~ January 22, 1994
Man dies after being shot at intersection. A 37-year old Tucker man died Saturday morning after being shot in his car at a northwest Atlanta intersection.

Atlanta police stated that two men approached Forrester while he was stopped at an intersection. A witness said he overheard arguing then one of the men shot Forrester in the back. The bullet pierced his heart yet Forrester was able to drive a few blocks where he flagged down a police cruiser. The only words he spoke to the officer were, "I’ve been shot!" He then collapsed and died. Police have no motive or suspects. The murder case is still pending.

In 1996 Executive Producer Todd K Smith and acclaimed Producer Carl Canedy teamed up to assemble a number of demos Rhett was working on in the years prior to his tragic passing. This tribute project was called “Hell Or Highwater” and stands as a fitting testament to one of Rocks greatest voices. This title is now long out of print and considered Forrester’s rarest recording.

That same year Rhett Forrester was inducted into the Hard Rock Cafe in Atlanta, Georgia and showcased in the “Georgia Room” reserved for a select few of the state’s accomplished musicians. Rhett’s mother, La Fortune Forrester organized the display which included two beautiful shadow boxes filled with memorabilia and selected articles commemorating the life of an amazing and gifted singer.

Friends and family of Rhett Forrester at the Hard Rock Cafe induction ceremony Rhett Forrester RIP 1956-1994
Rhett with RIOT 1982 ~ Photo by John Erigo