Queensrÿche's new singer rises from upholsterer to hard-rock star

twolfrum@bradenton.comMarch 14, 2013 

Keeping time and singing backup five years ago on the St. Petersburg beach-bar scene, Todd La Torre occasionally allowed his mind to wander.

What would it feel like, he wondered as bandmates plowed through selections made famous by Matchbox 20 and Natalie Imbruglia, if he were the one in the limelight.

And what if he returned to his first love, hard rock and metal?

Preposterous.

It was too late, and he was too old.

So when he takes the stage Friday at The Ritz Ybor in Tampa with Queensrÿche, even La Torre will marvel at the series of events that has landed him behind the microphone for what, despite a power struggle that ripped the band in two, remains among the most respected brands in hard rock with more than 20 million albums sold worldwide.

"In a fantasy world, everyone who sings in their car thinks, 'Man, it would be great if I was that guy.' But honestly I never tried out to sing for any band," La Torre said, sipping tea on a tour bus between Dubuque, Iowa, and Toronto. "I would listen to guys sing and be like, 'I can do that.'

"I enjoyed singing. I loved it, but I thought at my age -- I was in my mid-30s -- I kind of missed my window of time. Not true!"

La Torre, now 39, has replaced Geoff Tate, the iconic voice of Queensrÿche for 30 years. The rest of the band fired Tate, along with management provided by his wife and daughter, in 2012 over a dispute about the creative and financial direction of the group.

It's only just begun

How La Torre, a part-time drummer and full-time upholsterer through his prime rock-star years, assumed Tate's job is a curiously unlikely tale.

The story runs through Bradenton and Sarasota via Crimson Glory, the progressive metal band cited as an early influence by Queensrÿche and others of the genre.

La Torre got his first drum kit at age 7 and played with several rock bands through his teen years at Seminole High School. He tried junior college, but left for trade school and, eventually, took up upholstery. He owned La Torre's Upholstery & Custom in Largo for 17 years, playing in bands on the side.

"Music was always my passion," La Torre said. "I always did music, but I didn't want to be the starving musician sleeping on a friend's couch."

The late Matt LaPorte, a longtime guitar teacher at Seminole Music and Sound, got La Torre's rise started. LaPorte played with Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra member Jon Oliva in the band Jon Oliva's Pain. La Torre, a friend, expressed an interest in doing more with his music.

"He gave me a piece of music to write to, and I did," La Torre said. "Then he was really happy with it, so he showed it to Jon Oliva from Savatage. He (Oliva) said, 'Ah, man, you'd be perfect for these guys.' He was talking about Crimson Glory, but I wasn't exposed to their music," La Torre said.

La Torre impressed Crimson Glory leader Jon Drenning, of Sarasota, as one of several musicians who played at a memorial service for Midnight, the Crimson Glory singer who died in July 2009 in Sarasota.

"I was asked to come back the next day and come back the next day. ... I think I was just able to get the vibe and sound that was natural to their music. Jon (Drenning) really wanted to work with me," La Torre said.

Crimson Glory eventually settled on La Torre as its new lead singer in April 2010, and the band embarked on a European tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its founding.

La Torre was a lead singer for the first time at age 36. He had no idea Crimson Glory was merely a steppingstone.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is really great,' " La Torre said. "I've gotten the centerfold spread in magazines around the world and gotten to play for 20,000 to 30,000 people. There was life before the band, and there will be life after the band.

"It's pretty weird. So many people would cut off limbs to sing for Crimson Glory, let alone Queensrÿche."

Still a member of Crimson Glory, La Torre met Queensrÿche guitarist Michael Wilton at a music-industry party in January 2012.

Though the two were acquainted many years earlier, La Torre mistook Wilton for Testament guitarist Eric Peterson and complimented Wilton on Testament's set around a buffet table. Despite the confusion, Wilton asked La Torre to work with him on some music he was creating for television and video-game projects.

When that went well, Wilton introduced La Torre to the other members of Queensrÿche, setting La Torre up to be in the right place when Tate got the boot.

Queensrÿche rode into the hard-rock scene in 1983 on the coattails of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and reached its commercial zenith with the 1990 release "Empire" and its cross-over ballad "Silent Lucidity."

But sales of the seven original studio releases since “Empire” have declined steadily, and band members alleged Tate had assumed total control.

Ongoing battle Tate has formed his own all-star version of Queensrÿche in advance of a November court date that will decide which faction gets to keep the name.

Ironically, though it features three original members, the band that will play Tampa on Friday is often referred to as Todd La Torre’s Queensrÿche to differentiate it from Tate’s group.

Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield helped form the band in Seattle. They’re still playing, along with guitarist Parker Lundgren, who is a fourth-generation replacement for original guitarist Chris DeGarmo.

Both versions have announced studio projects. Tate and his crew will release “Frequency Unknown” on April 23, and La Torre’s band has finished recording an as-yet-untitled project to be released June 11.

La Torre’s Queensrÿche is in the early stages of its “Return to History” Tour. The band is focusing on songs from its first five releases, from 1983’s self-titled EP through “Empire” and including the acclaimed concept album “Operation: Mindcrime.”

“We don’t want to get caught up in the drama,” La Torre said. “We’re just doing what we love. These are three core members of Queensrÿche. They’re a huge ingredient of what shaped the direction of the band.”

La Torre said he has had no contact with Tate and doesn’t see any reason the two should meet.

“He’s got tons of respect from me,” La Torre said. “I was just the guy looking from the outside, saying, ‘What a great singer.’ ”

And fantasizing about getting the same opportunity someday.

Details: Queensrÿche, 7 p.m. March 15, The Ritz Ybor, 1503 E. Seventh Ave., Tampa. Tickets: $39.50 and up. Box office: 813-248-9210 or www.theritzybor.com.

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