“PRODUCED BY STUART COLMAN”
STUART COLMAN has produced 100 artists and had many hits. He tells his story to Spencer Leigh
In 2006, Stuart Colman told me that he had now produced 100 different acts and he thought it might make a feature for ‘Record Collector’. We met for a couple of long interviews and the result was this feature. In the end, ‘Record Collector’ decided it was too long for a producer who was not a household name like George Martin or Phil Spector. This was a pity as I think it contained some great information and anecdotes but then I don’t have to sell magazines. Here it is, presented as a tribute to Stu who died in Cheltenham from cancer on 19 April 2018. Be warned: there are over 10,000 words in this feature so it will take you a good hour to read. Bye bye Stu – rest in peace.
A few months ago, Stuart Colman sent me a list of 100 acts he had produced. It included Shakin’ Stevens, Alvin Stardust, Cliff Richard and The Young Ones, and the hit records he has made with them are well known. There were albums for the 50s stars Little Richard, Connie Francis and The Crickets and, at the other end of the scale, there were artists who remain unknown. As Stu’s work is consistently good, I wanted to know more about them. It was the perfect subject for Record Collector and so, with the editor’s blessing, I invited Stuart to talk through his list.
Stuart Colman has produced 33 UK hit singles, 15 of which made the Top 20.There are two main, related themes to his work: one is the allure of 50s music and the other is the importance of music as entertainment. He says, “I know rock’n’roll should never take itself too seriously. It is not art school and it has not gone to university. It is a fun thing and I try to inject fun into it. The TV producer Jack Good told me that he loved my records with Shakin’ Stevens because Shaky laughs and chuckles in them and you can tell he is having a good time. I was delighted with that comment because that is how I wanted Shaky to sound. The epitome of a good rock’n’roll record is to have fun bursting out of it so that it envelops you.”
Stuart Colman was born in Harrogate on 19 December 1944. He began playing bass shortly before moving to Rugby in 1961 where he helped form an R&B outfit, The Beat Preachers. The group eventually got to record a single, ‘Inside Out’, for Pye in 1965 but the company renamed them The Caribbean; hardly a good move. In 1966, he joined Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours on bass and he arranged and played on their third Decca single, ‘Magic Rocking Horse’. In 1969, they recorded ‘Smile A Little Smile For Me’ for Pye, changed their name to Flying Machine and made the US Top 5. Stuart left the band two years later and he became the presenter of several popular radio shows including It’s Rock & Roll on Radio 1 (1976-1979) and Echoes on BBC Radio London (1978-88). He joined Capital Gold as the presenter of the Saturday Night Rock & Roll Party, and went on to host the drivetime programme. He was with Capital from 1988 to 1995.
Stuart recalls, “I had wanted to produce records since 1971 but neither Decca nor Pye showed any interest in me. In the end, I learnt to produce at the BBC because I had a Radio 1 show that was subjected to needletime, meaning that every 60 minutes of the programme needed 8 minutes of live music to keep the Musicians’ Union happy. I would go to the sessions so I could interview the artist and ensure that they were doing something more inventive than another version of ‘C’mon Everybody’. One week the producer, Dave Price was not available and he asked me to take over. After a couple more weeks, I found myself producing the sessions. The news that I was producing got around and I was asked to produce Shakin’ Stevens for Sony and, at the same time, Ricky and the Cufflinks for MCA. My life was about to change.”
THE LONDON YEARS
It’s appropriate that Shakin’ Stevens (1) should be Stuart Colman’s first act as their careers are intertwined: indeed, Stu plays bass for him today. During the 70s, Shaky had been playing rock’n’roll clubs in Wales and he established himself in the West End with the 1977 musical, Elvis. A few singles followed, but his luck was running out: “The poor guy was very frustrated as Sony were about to drop him. Muff Winwood, who ran the A&R department, was so desperate to get him a hit that he wanted him to change his name. Shaky went purple and said, ‘No bloody way, I am Shakin’ Stevens.’ It is like ‘The Beatles’. When I first heard the name, I thought it was very strange and after a couple of hit records, it became very cool.”
What had been going wrong? “That’s exactly what Shaky asked me. I told him that the songs were wrong; the studios were wrong; the engineers were wrong; and the musicians were wrong; and he had a producer who was also his manager, so there were too many irons in the fire. I got him some great players – Albert Lee, Geraint Watkins, B J Cole – and everybody said yes because Shaky had a good reputation. I found him two or three good original songs and some fine oldies like ‘Hot Dog’ and chose a good studio, which was Eden Studios in Chiswick. I couldn’t produce his first Epic album as he was under contract to Mike Hurst, but I was the intermediary and I remixed ‘Hot Dog’ which was a chart single. ‘Hey Mae’ didn’t sell but maybe it was too earthy for the time. It was a very good, dance-floor rock’n’roll record, even though I say it myself, and then the hits started coming with ‘This Ole House’. He turned to Freya Miller, who was Joe Brown’s manager and could get him on television. He was so good-looking that he couldn’t fail.”
Was Stuart imitating the sound of 50s rock’n’roll? “No, I didn’t try to make authentic records. I didn’t use retro equipment. I have been using the most high-tech stuff ever since I produced Shaky. When Shaky took off, I happened to be in the right place at the right time for the new era of equipment – an SSL desk, Solid State Logic, which had flying faders and computerised mixing. The second one ever built was installed at Eden Studios in January 1981 and I was one of the first producers to use it, and I loved it. I am still that way. I love state-of-the-art stuff. On the other hand, I am sure that Shaky would have been at home in the Sun Studios in Memphis in the 50s with Jack Clement calling the shots instead of me.”
Isn’t one of the tricks of a good rock’n’roll record turning up the echo? “You have to be subtle as there is nothing worse than a rock’n’roll record with the repeat out of time, too much repeat or an unflattering repeat. The echo you hear on Elvis’ 70s stuff like ‘Burning Love’ is horrible as it is the wrong shape and the wrong size. I love the sound of Bradley’s Studio in Nashville on Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee records as the slapback is perfectly timed. It is around 130 milliseconds, which is the ultimate rock and roll repeat. If you go slower or you go beyond that, it sounds corny or end of the pier.”
And which of the Shaky records worked best? “One of my favourite tracks is a cover of an NRBQ song, ‘Don’t She Look Good’ which has extremely odd time signatures. Shaky sang the heck out of it. By then he had learnt to sing from his stomach and I used to get him to sing higher and higher and he was finding new dynamics. He was discovering a range he didn’t know he had. I used to say, ‘Get on your toes, stick your chest out, lick your lips and go for it.’ If an artist has that capability, get them up there. You get the zing and the ping off the top notes, providing they are not singing flat.”
Shaky’s records feature brilliant UK session musicians. “I agree. There are some great solos on the records and my job was to make sure that the records could breathe. The listener is not impressed by a long line of guitar notes, no matter how well they are played, because it becomes linear. Unless you are a jazz fan who gets off on notes flying all over the place, you need some spaces. I would say to Albert Lee, ‘That’s a killer lick but I want you to leave a little hole, so just a chord on the piano will do at this point.’ Left to his own devices, he might think, ‘I’m Albert Lee and I had better do what people expect.’”
For four years, Stuart Colman produced hit records and albums for Shakin’ Stevens. “His schedule was unbelievable and I was chasing after him because he was touring. He was in Australia; he was in Japan; he was all over the world. If I’d had my way, I would have recorded him day after day after day until we got mountains of material and then let him go on tour. It became very difficult for me, so for the good of my health, I quit working with Shaky and started working with Cliff Richard, Phil Everly and Billy Fury. It was a very good thing to do as otherwise I might have fallen off the edge.”
At the same time as he started with Shaky, Stu was producing Ricky and the Cufflinks (2) but they soon got left behind. “They were from Bournemouth and were a good band in the post-punk, early Power Pop band type of thing. I just made the one record with them, ‘Startin’ Line’. They were easy to work with, but I was never drawn to groups. When it comes to mixing, a group wants a different mix for every member of the band. The bass player wants to hear more bass, and so on. On the other hand, you can have a one-to-one thing with a singer. The best way is to get to know the artist socially, sit down over a meal and let trust develop. The singer thinks, ‘What is he going to do for me?’, and I am thinking, ‘Can he handle this?’ That makes a big difference: when you get into that studio, you trust each other.”
Stuart also recorded Geraint Watkins (3) as a solo performer. Says Stuart, “I am really proud of a single on the BBC label, ‘I’m A Fool To Care’, the Joe Barry hit, though the song goes back to Les Paul and Mary Ford. The session came together at the very last minute but there is magic on it. We got the most valid Louisiana, Creole sound that you could possibly get out of British players. Geraint also recorded an updated version of the Joe Jones song, ‘You Talk Too Much’, with me for Stiff, which was released under the name of Otis Watkins.” Also for Stiff, Stuart cut some tracks with Nigel Dixon (4), the former lead singer of the rock’n’roll band, Whirlwind, who had featured on It’s Only Rock & Roll, but they were never released.
In 1980, the Cornish rock’n’roll band, The Shades (5), recorded ‘Rockin’ Red Wing’, which had a sax solo from Alan Holmes, who played with Sounds Incorporated. Stu also produced a talented boy/girl duo, Stroke (6), who recorded several power pop/punk rock singles and made an unreleased album for Sony. The girl singer, Barb Jungr, became a noted and adventurous cabaret singer.
Stuart made singles with a singing roadie, Tommy J (7), and his 1981 version of NRBQ’s ‘Ridin’ In My Car’ on RAK Records almost made the charts. “Mickie Most had asked me to join him in a production venture for RAK, but after he missed his chance to make that record a hit, I wasn’t impressed and I backed out. Tommy is still ferrying bands around as he is the tour manager for McFly.” Mickie Most also commissioned Stuart to record four tracks with Chris Tarrant’s sidekick, Kara Noble (8), but they were not released. “At the time Kara was running the most successful ‘singing telegram’ company in town. When she cut the songs, she brought her Blondie lookalike to the studio, and my engineer promptly fell in love with her!”
Also in 1981, Stuart made an album, Cy-Clone, with the British country entertainer, Pete Sayers (9). “We did it at Eden Studios with some of his players and some of my studio guys, and it was largely his originals. The single of the Bobby Edwards song, ‘You’re The Reason’, very nearly made the UK charts. When Pete died a couple of years ago, I dug out the album and it sounded lovely. It has stood up very well. He had a BBC2 country show and I played bass for him with both Roy Clark and Crystal Gayle as guests.”
The British songwriter Paul Kennerley (10) recorded two concept albums, White Mansions (1978) and The Legend Of Jesse James (1980), featuring such noted American performers such as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris. A&M wanted to establish Kennerley as an artist in his own right and Stuart was invited to produce him. “It was a wonderful session as we had Terry Williams from Dire Straits on drums, Paul Carrack on organ, Albert Lee and Billy Bremner playing guitars, and myself on bass. We cut six backing tracks and Paul loved what was going on. I said, ‘Time for some vocals,’ and Paul freaked out. He said that he couldn’t sing as well as the musicians were playing. There was a huge lack of confidence and I had to talk him into it. I got him to sing three vocals and he wouldn’t do the others and so the backing tracks sat there without finished vocals. A single called ‘Feels So Right’ came out and it was a good record. I lost touch with Paul but he has written several country hits and he moved close to me in Nashville.”
The neo-rockabilly band, The Jets (11), were working in the same field as Shaky, and Stuart produced their Top 30 hits, revivals of Johnnie Ray’s ‘Yes Tonight Josephine’ (1981) and Perry Como’s ‘Love Makes The World Go Round’ (1982) as well as their album, 100 Per Cent Cotton. “The Cotton brothers, Bob, Ray and Tony, were 18, 17 and 15 when I started working with them and I loved it as the guitarist, Ray, came up with this great style which was so different to Shaky’s records. It was very like Les Paul’s in that we would work out little runs and speed the track up and then he would play harmonies over it. You could also tell a Jets record from The Stray Cats or The Polecats or Dave Edmunds.”
Strangely, ‘This Ole House’ and ‘Green Door’ for Shaky and those Jets’ successes were revivals of 50s pop hits rather than rock’n’roll ones. “Yes, but they put their rock’n’roll touch on them and we turned them into rock’n’roll records. They all were songs that had radio strengths. They had good hooks and distinctive melodies.”
In the same vein, Stuart produced The Inmates (12), who had made the charts with ‘The Walk’ in 1979. “They were a pub rock band from London, who had been signed to Warners. We made a very good album called Heatwave In Alaska, and I’m glad it’s out on CD. Their previous producer, Vic Maile, recorded the band at Jack Jackson’s old studio in Hertfordshire, which was where Motorhead recorded. Jack Jackson had made his radio programmes from there in the 50s, so talk about being ahead of your time. He had moved to the Canaries and he kept the money rolling in by leasing his studio. However, I brought The Inmates into the tried and trusted Eden Studios, which was my second home for many years.”
Brian Copsey and the Commotions (13) were a good band, but they failed to excite record buyers: “They were on Chrysalis. They came right out of the blue and they were very hip for a short time. Brian Copsey was a Bryan Ferry with a bit of the lounge lizard about him and they were a good rock band. Although Brian wrote a lot of material, Chrysalis wanted me to cut the band on the Buddy Holly song, ‘Love’s Made A Fool Of You’, which became a single. Other titles included ‘Shavin’ With The Lights On’, ‘King Of The Hop’ and ‘Shirley In The Rain’, but not everything was released. They didn’t last long and I stole the drummer, Chris Wyles, to replace Howard Tibble in Shakin’ Stevens’ band. I would chop and change players like that, so everything has a benefit in the long run.” Similarly, Marshall Doktors (14) revived ‘The Worrying Kind’, without repeating Tommy Sands’ success. “He was a good-looking youngster, managed by Harry Barter, who was a well-known figure around London in the early 80s.” And then when it comes to obscure singles, Stuart cut the anthem, ‘We Are The People’ for European release with the African band, Massai (15).
From time to time, Shakin’ Stevens dipped into the Billy Fury (16) songbook and so Stuart was delighted to work with the real thing. Stuart picked ‘Love Or Money’, a US success for the Blackwells, and he recalls, “The sessions were a sad state of affairs because Billy wasn’t well. He was frail and he had so many health problems over the years that I think he had a death wish. His voice was immaculate and he was in wonderful form. When we cut ‘Devil Or Angel’, he said, ‘I didn’t think I could sing like that anymore.’ If you listen to the first middle eight, he sounds exactly as he did when he was 18 and he was amazed that he could do that. I said, ‘It’s a simple thing. It’s a question of finding a song you like and then, when you sing it, you feel relaxed.’ ‘Devil Or Angel’ could have been a big record had he been around to promote it. He was getting erratic towards the end. I was booking studio time and he wouldn’t turn up, partly because his confidence was ebbing. I was going to him with the machinery rather than bringing him to the studio, so he was becoming a problem.”
The acting brothers from Liverpool, The McGanns (17), were good vocalists who were signed to Chrysalis. They released a single, ‘Shame About The Boy’/’Red Light’, in 1983. “The most frustrating things for me about the business are the records that could have been hits and yet never got released. We did a killer version of ‘Pink Dally Rue’, which is a song like ‘Woolly Bully’ that I had always wanted to do. Chrysalis made a very bad A&R choice with the single and anyway, they weren’t behind the band. The single is good but ‘Pink Dally Rue’ is much better.”
Phil Everly (18) made a solo album, Phil Everly, with Stuart in 1983, and Stu comments, “Once the word got round that I was going to make a record with Phil Everly for Capitol, the phone never stopped ringing with musicians wanting to guest on it. The first person on the phone was Mark Knopfler and he was huge at the time. We had Terry Williams on drums and Pete Wingfield on piano. Cliff Richard (19) wanted to be on the album and he had a ballad that someone in his publishing company had written, ‘I’ll Mend Your Broken Heart’, and that was okay because it was a lovely song.”
‘Louise’ made the Top 50, but the big hit from the album was the duet between Phil Everly and Cliff Richard on the John David song, ‘She Means Nothing To Me’. “I had it on a demo and I was playing it in my car all the time. It reminded me of that song in The Student Prince, (sings) ‘Drink, Drink, Drink, da da da’, and John David may have got the idea from that. When I played it to Cliff and Phil, they loved it. I asked John David to play the beat-up guitar he had used on the demo. He thought I was nuts because I had Mark Knopfler around, but I wanted that sound, and he did recreate it. Phil said, ‘I used to make records in two takes and I’ve never sung a song so many times.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s the 80s now, and I don’t want you to make a great record, I want you to make a stunning record.’ Artists like to be flattered and he said, ‘Okay, I’m party to that.’ It worked out great.”