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Andy Puzder, Donald Trump’s Labor secretary pick, has a rock ‘n’ roll past in Ohio

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CKE Restaurants Chief Executive Andy Puzder has a rock ‘n’ roll past.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Fast-food executive Andy Puzder, who is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to be Labor secretary, could soon find himself meeting regularly at the White House.

That’s a long way from the Cleveland bars where his rock bands played back in the 1960s.

Puzder, 66, the chief executive of Carl’s Jr. parent CKE Restaurants Inc., was once an avid musician. A native of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Puzder starting playing in rock bands in 1965, partly as a way to earn money, according to an interview he gave with the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2009 (conducted by this reporter).

And that’s how a man who has claimed Ronald Reagan as a major influence came to take the stage with the James Gang, the influential Cleveland rock outfit that featured Joe Walsh, who later become a guitar god with the Eagles.

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For a time, Puzder attended Kent State University, the site of the 1970 shootings of Vietnam War protesters by National Guard soldiers immortalized in the Neil Young song “Ohio.” Puzder said in the 2009 interview that the James Gang would regularly play there, and would invite “a few guys to jam” with them at the end of their sets. 

Puzder — who played guitar, bass and sang — was friends with James Gang member Tom Kriss, leading to invitations to take the stage with the group.

“I got up a couple times and played bass while Joe Walsh and Jimmy Fox were playing,” he said in the 2009 interview. “[Kriss] let me come up and take over bass. That was a blast.”

Few people connected to the James Gang, which is probably best known for the 1970 hit “Funk #49,” could be reached for comment. Walsh, who left the band 1971, did not respond to interview requests. And several band members have died, including Kriss in 2013.

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The James Gang -- Dale Peters, from left, Joe Walsh and Jimmy Fox -- performs in 1971.
The James Gang -- Dale Peters, from left, Joe Walsh and Jimmy Fox -- performs in 1971.
(Michael Putland / Getty Images )

But Los Angeles-based singer Gia Ciambotti, who performed on a 2006 reunion tour with the James Gang, was shocked to hear that someone who once played with the band, an outfit known for songs about partying and women, would be selected by Trump for a position in his Cabinet.

“It is kind of bizarre,” said Ciambotti. “I hope that he can bring some of his rock ‘n’ roll roots and lead from his heart. Because rock ‘n’ roll is all about heart and soul.”

By 1971, Puzder had stopped playing in rock bands. He would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Cleveland State University in 1975 and a law degree from Washington University in 1978. After a career as a lawyer, he began working for Carl’s Jr. founder Carl Karcher in 1990. That set Puzder, a longtime Republican, on the path to eventually head CKE, which also owns the Hardee’s chain, in 2000.

Puzder supported the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney before backing Trump this year. He is a prominent critic of the Affordable Care Act, and has argued against minimum wage increases. His selection as Labor secretary would have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Puzder, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request.

daniel.miller@latimes.com

Follow @DanielNMiller on Twitter for film business news.

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