Select Page

Keyboardist Eric Ragno Shares His Memories of Tony Mills from SHY and TNT

Keyboardist Eric Ragno Shares His Memories of Tony Mills from SHY and TNT

Keyboardist Eric Ragno Shares His Memories of Tony Mills from SHY and TNT

Legendary vocalist Tony Mills passed away from cancer on September 18th at the age of 57. Best known for his participation in the iconic rock bands SHY and TNT, Tony Mills also had an illustrious solo career, his final album Beyond The Law being released earlier this year. Working with Tony Mills on his solo project was keyboardist Eric Ragno (London, Graham Bonnet, The Babys, The Gary Moon Band, Wheel In The Sky – A Tribute To Journey), debuting with their own epically underrated collaboration of China Blue in 2008. In this exclusive interview with Highwire Daze, Eric Ragno discusses his memories of Tony Mills and the amazing sonic art they would create together over the last ten years.

How did you initially meet Tony Mills and what were your first impressions of him?
Wow, this takes me back….Tony came to us through Andrew McNiece of I had an album’s worth of demos, and needed someone to give voice to my story. Tony was always looking to work with new artists, and liked my work. I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t familiar with Tony, so I picked up the albums he had done with SHY. I LOVED Skydiving. His mastery of melody and harmony really moved me. It was so obvious that he was the guy. His performances raised the bar on the album, and gave us instant credibility.

When you look back on your work on the China Blue album in 2008, what do you think of it now?
Half of the songs were written growing up in Jersey with my pal Tom Gasbarro. Tony had different ideas regarding the lyrics and some vocal melodies, but the musical ideas remained. China Blue was my first attempt at putting together my own album, warts and all. I love the album, although I wish it had today’s production. After leaving Takara (with Jeff Scott Soto), I needed to make my own statement. Tony gave voice to it, and I will forever cherish him for that.

Vital Designs arrived the same year as China Blue. What was the difference between the two albums and the dynamic of doing a Tony Mills album and a China Blue album?
I put together the music for the China Blue album, and presented it to Tony to do as he saw fit. Tony did the same with me for Vital Designs. Our mutual trust allowed us to let the other run wild on each other’s albums! I contributed a dark ballad, God Called My Name. He forgot to include my songwriting credit, which became a recurring theme in our partnership. But I loved the guy so much, I didn’t really care. Vital Designs was actually the name of Tony’s favorite tattoo shop. Tony name-checked his favorite tattoo artist in the title track, who then did all of his tattoos for free.

In between the solo albums, Tony Mills did two albums for TNT, Atlantis and A Farewell To Arms and there were a few SHY recordings as well. Were you involved with those albums and what do you think of them in retrospect?
Actually, he recorded The New Territory first – there were three albums with TNT. We were very excited for him, but it delayed China Blue dramatically. I was not involved with the TNT albums; although Tony mentioned a few times that he wished I was! Tony lamented that the first two albums weren’t more melodic – (guitarist) Ronni Le Tekrø had his own vision. A Farewell to Arms came closest to that vintage TNT sound, but by then everyone had enough. Tony hated the Norwegian winters, and being away from his young daughter in England. It’s ironic that after leaving TNT, he would move there! But the situation allowed him to provide for his family.

In 2015, you returned to work with Tony Mills on Over My Dead Body. What was the reunion like and what do you remember the most about that album?
It was a concept album. In 2010, Tony had a serious heart attack in Oslo airport on his way home from a TNT show. He would have died if 200 airport video monitors hadn’t captured it, and if there wasn’t top medical personnel on the scene. If he boarded the plane ten minutes later, that would have been it. I was terrified for my friend, and we didn’t know if he would pull through. Over My Dead Body reflects his experiences of the event. It’s wild. Tony was lucky to be alive, and he knew he was living on borrowed time. He reached out as soon as he came home from the hospital, and we got to work. The album was mixed by the legendary Neil Kernon.

Streets Of Chance came out in 2017 and also featured Joel Hoekstra from Whitesnake on the album. What are you memories of doing that particular album with Tony?
At this point, Tony was relying heavily on outside producers to write and assemble his albums. This process put some distance between us, which was disappointing. But he asked me to pitch in, so I played keys and wrote two songs for the album including the lead track, Battleground, with Paul Sabu. The album did really well.

Tony Mills final solo album was Beyond The Law in 2019. Were you involved with this album at all or have you heard it? You’ve been super busy with your many other projects during 2018-2019…
I didn’t hear about the album until it was near completion. He assumed I was too busy – I do work a lot – but our chemistry wasn’t the same. If we could have worked like we used to, I would have gladly done it. I really missed hashing out ideas with him in person or on Skype.

Were you involved with any other projects with Tony Mills?
Tony would often ask me to punch up the songwriting for certain projects on the side. I was always happy to help out. God, the man could sing. He had me work on a song for the annual Eurovision songwriting contest. I would love to see it get released.

Josh Ramos reached out to me when news arrived that Tony was sick. Josh & I were both travelling, and didn’t connect until after Tony’s passing. Tony finished a song on Josh’s new solo album, which comes out in May. I worked on two additional tracks, but sadly not the one with Tony. At least we appear on one last album together.

Had you talked to Tony while he was battling cancer?
We chatted a bit. One of our China Blue bandmates had reached out to him, and Tony had a lot of negative things to say about it. It was an uncomfortable conversation. I thought about addressing it with him, but you shouldn’t argue with someone in pain – especially someone struggling for their life. Tony told me he had a car accident last Christmas that agitated a hidden tumor in his body. The doctors blew off his symptoms until he was finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It broke my heart, and all I could do was listen. I knew right then that it would be our last conversation.

For those of us who have never met him, what was Tony Mills like and what a cool memory you could share of him?
Tony made me laugh! I loved that about him. He had a real fire for life. During my first trip to England, I stayed at his house for a few days. The China Blue album was nearly complete, and we were mapping the plan for Vital Designs. He made me sit and watch Black Adder, a British sitcom – he laughed so hard! I just didn’t get it. I remember him waking up early to prepare breakfast for his daughter before school. She sat with her cereal, while he drank a glass of beer. I figured this must be how it’s done in England! Then he took me to a local pub in Birmingham – it’s a working class town that gave us Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Robert Plant. The pub reminded me a lot of the local Jersey bars I grew up around – this wasn’t some upscale TGI Fridays! Even with all his accomplishments, he was most comfortable in those same working class environments I grew up in. We would always have that in common.

You have worked with so many artists over the years. What do you think has made your work with Tony Mills so memorable and lasting for so many years over so many albums?
We had a deep respect for one another, both musically and professionally. We had the same ear for melody and harmony, and complimented each others’ styles. We drifted apart as our careers got busier. That’s a sad part of life that I’m trying hard to address.

There’s a magic when you sit with someone and come up with a hook or a chorus. There’s a level of trust, and an excitement that the listener can hear. That’s what the best collaborations are made of. That’s what I loved about Tony.

(Interview by Ken Morton)

Skip to content