In 1993 Jeff Beck (65) and The Big Town Playboys (66) combined forces for a tribute album to Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Crazy Legs. “That was Jeff Beck’s labour of love. I had met him on Saturday Club in the 60s, but I had not worked with him before. He knew my reputation as a rock’n’roll producer and we recorded that album at the Town House in Shepherd’s Bush. It was a large studio with a trap door at the back and in it there was a giant reverb unit which hadn’t been used for years. It took several of us to get it working again. I put Jeff’s vintage Fender amp on its back with the speakers pointing to the ceiling and put some mikes on the ceiling to get the distance. Sound travels slowly: it’s not like the speed of light. We got a delay and we captured the Cliff Gallup guitar sound, and Jeff was delighted, but I didn’t want it to sound retro. I put a violin pickup through a little hole in the snare drum, so you get that biscuit tin sound. There is no real bass drum on the Gene Vincent records, so I got the bass player in The Big Town Playboys to play his parts twice and I layered one on top of the other and spread them across the reverb. We got a punchy, ballsy sound and it was a fabulous record to make.”
The vocals were taken by Mike Sanchez: “Well, after ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ was a hit, Jeff said that he would never sing again! Anyway, we had Mike Sanchez and Jeff said that there was no point in him even trying. I would love to produce Mike Sanchez as a solo act as he is a fantastic, stunning performer, but he more or less looks after himself and he needs great management. He fronted The Big Town Playboys and he rehearses so well that he is ready to do a vocal the second that the red light goes on. That is rare. He is like a seasoned, platinum artist and the boy has yet to have his first hit. He can play piano like crazy. He loves to play guitar too, but I said, ‘The world is full of guitar players, don’t do that.’ Actually, The Big Town Playboys were the last act I produced before I went to Nashville and we recorded a killer version of Brook Benton’s ‘Kiddio’ in Birmingham, a really really great record, which was issued on the Ace CD, Hip Joint, in 1995.”
The World Wrestling Champion and actor, ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper (67), recorded a single, ‘I’m Your Man’, for Epic in 1993. “Roddy was an unbelievably strong guy. After we made the record, he shook me by the hand and almost broke my wrist.” Another media personality, Nick Haverson (68) was starring in the 1993 ITV series, Head Over Heels, set in a girls’ finishing school. Don Black and Richard Kerr wrote the title song, which Stu produced both for the credits and for single release. An actor and guitarist, Rich Sharp (69), recorded four tracks for Jive/Zomba, which were produced by Stuart in 1994: “He was a talented musician who went on to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber, starring in his private production of The Ricky Nelson Story, which was staged before an invited audience in the grounds of his home. You can do that sort of thing when you’re rich!”
A young Liverpool singer, Gavin Stanley (70), looked and sounded like a teenage Billy Fury for the West End production, Good Rockin’ Tonite! Stuart recognised his potential: “He was good and had that moody Billy Fury look when he played him. I produced him just before I moved to the States including a song for a projected TV commercial, ‘It’s A Feeling’. I don’t know what happened to the stuff. Like a lot of things in this business, it drifted.”
In 1995 Stuart played bass for Billy Swan (71) on a tour of Ireland and cut some sides with him in London. “I can’t remember what they were or what happened to them, and you’re making me feel sorry for all those Sun musicians who are asked for minute details about sessions in the 50s. Billy has a great voice and a great feel and I have worked with him at the Sun Studios too. I played bass on a version of ‘Jailhouse Rock’. He’s just moved back to Nashville from LA and so we’re likely to work together again in the future.”
Stuart was a successful producer but he was frustrated. “I was running out of challenges and who I wanted to record with. I wanted to go to Nashville and record with the finest players, the best songs and the best studios. I sold up everything and brought the family over and bedded in about June 1995. It is the best thing I have ever done in my life. I enjoy living there but I commute back and forwards.”
THE NASHVILLE YEARS
Stuart Colman had been thinking of Nashville for some years. “I’d been to Nashville for the first time with Shakin’ Stevens in 1981. I met Charlie Daniels and the music publisher Wesley Rose and I went around Nashville. Then I went in the mid-90s when I was working with Capital Radio, I did a week’s broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium and RCA’s famed Studio B and other points of significance. I fell in love with it and I went to visit a very good friend, Duane Eddy, who lives in Franklin, an old civil war town, about 16 miles south. The downtown street looks like a scene from Back To The Future with a clock and the war memorial in the centre of the green. It was idyllic, so that’s where I live.”
Etta Britt (72) was the first act that Stu produced in Nashville. “She’s a Kentucky girl who is married to John Fogerty’s guitarist, Bob Britt. She can holler like Bonnie Raitt and we did an album together, Hillbilly Heart, which was issued by Hurrah Ridge Records in 1996. One of the songs, ‘Here Ever After’, was written by a fellow Kentuckian, Tim Krekel, who also wrote ‘Turning Away’, one of Shaky’s hits in 1986. Etta now performs with the equally talented Jonell Mosser and Vicky Carrico as Kentucky Thunder. Apart from live shows, they are an excellent backing vocal unit and I’ve used them on several sessions.”
Stu also cut J T Blanton (73). “He was like Marty Stuart but the stuff never came out. This was frustrating because the guy was really good. Aside of some fine originals, we did a killer remake of Billy ‘Crash’ Craddock’s ‘Rub It In’. I would love someone to put this out as it is a potential smash. J T moved to Florida and he makes night lights for a living.”
Stuart produced an album, Too Much Monday Morning, for The Crickets (74). “We did half of that album at Jerry Allison’s studio which is in a barn on his farm. We would start at 10 in the morning and get about an hour under our belts and he’d say, ‘Time for a coffee, Stuart’ and he’d depart to corral some calves. He lassoed them and brought them into the barn. They started playing again and I couldn’t remember doing that in central London. It was delightful and they are hilarious people. I did a trick that was used on Buddy Holly’s records. You put a pencil mike either down by the end of the Stratocaster or tape it on the back and that picks up the plectrum on the strings as well as the amplification and so when you hear Buddy Holly records, you hear extra rhythm from his guitar. Sonny Curtis said, ‘Hey, that’s a trick I’d forgotten all about.’”
As well as a guest appearance from Nanci Griffith (75), the album gave Stuart an entrée to Nashville publishers. “I was looking for new songs and it was a great way of putting my face around town. As soon as publishers know that you are taking their songs, they will give you time of day, and so I was shopping myself by doing a project. I wanted The Crickets to write some of the songs and they came up with some lovely stuff. We were one short and over the weekend they wrote what became the title song, Too Much Monday Morning. We cut it and the album was finished.”
Stuart’s next album featured Buddy Holly’s songs performed by 50s hitmaker, Connie Francis (76), with the help of The Jordanaires (77). “It was sheer coincidence as it wasn’t my concept. Connie knew Buddy Holly well and that’s why the album is called I Remember Buddy Holly. Larry Knecthel plays the keyboards and wrote the arrangements, but boy, I had to work hard. She would say, ‘I have sung this twice, that’s enough’ and I would use my tried and tested gee-up line, ‘We’re not here to make a great record. We’re here to make a stunning record.’ She would dress up for the studio and I always saw her beautifully dressed and with great make-up. She said that a photographer or another artist might look in and she didn’t want to be caught in sneakers and jeans. She was really sweet. Whilst we were cutting the tracks, someone told her it was my birthday and she arranged for a huge cake to be delivered to the studio.”
Not long after Stu arrived in Nashville he was approached by Tammy Wynette’s brother-in-law and one-time Sun recording artist, Paul Richey, with regard to cutting some tracks with his wife, Katrina. A gorgeous looking lady with a powerful voice to match, Katrina Richey (78) worked as a policewoman for the Metro in Nashville. In his search for some suitable material, Stu paid a visit to Madonna’s publishing company Maverick Music on Music Row. It was a lucky break as he came away with a magical song written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, Robin Lerner and Annie Roboff. “Given the synth backing track that they’d used on the worktape, the song was very much in the pop vein. Even so, I could visualise it being given a country makeover. When it came time for the session, I managed to book most of the famous Muscle Shoals rhythm section: Gene Chrisman played drums, Bobby Wood piano, Bobby Emmons keyboards and John Christopher, the co-writer of ‘Always On My Mind’ was on guitar. I’d hoped to get Mike Leach playing bass, but I ended up playing it myself. When the tracks were mixed, I took a copy of the key song back to Maverick Music in the belief that it might help Katrina clinch a record deal. That was a big mistake because the plugger at Maverick re-pitched the song to Faith Hill using our version as a demo. Faith copied every single vocal nuance that Katrina had done and her version of ‘This Kiss’ went on to sell five million copies. The saddest thing of all is that poor Katrina lost her life in an car crash a couple of years ago.”
In 1997, Stu cut an album in Nashville with a swing/jazz foursome, Nine Parts Devil (79). It was called Cheetah Chrome, in honour of the lead guitarist of The Dead Boys. The sartorially elegant George Lively (80) is a Harry Connick-styled crooner and fine songwriter, who released an album of swing and jazz originals called Swazz, in 1997.
Around 1999, Sire Records were recording some roots artists and Stuart produced two albums for them. Linda Gail Lewis (81) was a natural for Stu, but there were problems in making an album. “She and her brother don’t play the piano the same way. Jerry Lee Lewis is much more flamboyant. Linda Gail is a chord player and that doesn’t translate well to records, although it looks good on stage because she has the histrionics that go with it. I didn’t feature her piano much and I had to temper her vocals down. She can holler, really holler, and because she is so used to the road, she oversings a bit. Linda Gail Lewis is a good album and it did well. I might be working with her again as she would like me to do something with her youngest daughter, Annie, who is a very good looking kid, and they sing bluegrass together. One of the background vocalists was Jeff Bates (82). I did some tracks that helped him get his record deal and he is a big country star on RCA now.”
Despite its cartoon cover, Here’s To Country Music was by Don Walser (83), a western swing legend, although age had caused him to restrict his yodelling. The album featured bygone country hits and was made in Nashville with the musicians, Buddy Emmons and Buddy Spicher. There are some noted guests on the album: Crystal Gayle (84) and Teddy Wilburn (85): “Don Walser is a big, broad truckdriver kind of guy. They love him in Texas as he is a classic example of the western swing style. Crystal Gayle is absolutely gorgeous and she was laughing and joking the whole time. She sang so damn high without me even asking. She knew her range and she would go on tiptoes and sing. Teddy Wilburn of The Wilburn Brothers had had a stroke and so I had to computerise his voice very, very carefully, tuning it and then speeding it up or slowing it down. The end result sounded fine and he was delighted.”
Stuart has produced The Osmonds (86), being in this instance, Jimmy, Merrill, Jay and Wayne. “They had their own studio and theatre in Branson, Missouri so I did the tracks in Nashville, the vocals in Branson and the mixing back in Nashville. They were lovely to work with and so professional and it was like a boy band album by the first of the boy bands. It was their answer to New Kids On The Block and I thought it was great.”
The tracks were issued on the US version of Keep The Fire Burnin’, which was otherwise a solo album by Jimmy Osmond. Stu produced ‘This Much I Know Is True’ and ‘Bring Back The American Dream’, a British song written by Kenny Denton, Danny Saxon and his father, Al, a 50s pop singer. The musicians included Scotty Rogness, the keyboard player who wrote the score for the Tom Hanks film, That Thing You Do.
The Liverpool singer, Sonia (87), came to Nashville to cut three or four tracks with Stuart. “She was real Scouse, like Cilla Black but not as tall. She could sing very good blue-eyed soul, but I think the babyfaced, cotton wool image went against her. We cut the tracks at a studio located on the delightfully-named Granny White Pike. A couple of years later Sonia took part in Reborn In The USA. I was going to get involved in that series but I was out of town with Shaky.”
When a young country singer from Yorkshire, Adam Couldwell (88), received a million pound recording contract, it made the TV news, but nothing really happened. “It turned out that we had both attended Grove Road Primary in Harrogate, albeit several years apart. I produced him in Nashville for Acuff-Rose but I don’t think the songs that they gave me were very good. Then I got a call to produce him in London and we did a countrified ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ for a TV album about six years ago. It was called Country and it was on Universal and it was certified gold. It was a coincidence that Dwight Yoakam also did a country version at the same time. I’m not sure that Adam really was country and I suspect he had been pushed into it.”
Victoria Shaw (89), in the booklet for her 1997 self-named album, thanks Stuart Colman for doing “that voodoo that you do so well”, but the record couldn’t get radioplay. Stuart comments, “I thought we were onto a winner with Victoria Shaw, who has written hits for Garth Brooks. I did half an album for Warners and the other half was produced by Jim Ed Norman. We nearly had a hit with a remake of ‘Different Drum’, but she is tarred with the writer’s brush, and American radio is funny in that way. If they have marked somebody down as a writer, they will not consider them as an artist.”
Stuart has worked with up and coming talent in Nashville. He recorded some big-voiced demos that helped Jamie O’Neal (90) obtain her record deal, and also recorded the girl duo, The Two Iguanas (91) and the versatile UK pianist, Ben Waters (92). He has also been making demos with Patty Loveless’ bandleader, Tim Hensley and the songwriter Wade Wisdom. “These are all talented people with plenty of potential. Tim Hensley is a delightful gentle soul who sings in a high lonesome bluegrass style. I cut him on a cute song called ‘You Ought To Pay Me Rent’. Wade Wisdom is a good songwriter who works as a maitre d’ at a restaurant in the smart part of Nashville. When I completed his tracks, he invited me to the restaurant and laid on a top class dinner with fine wines.”
Such good meals notwithstanding, Stu prefers recording in Nashville. “As much as I like recording in England, I much prefer recording in Nashville. They have a numbers system for arrangements, which was invented by Neal Matthews of the Jordanaires and only exists there. It is a very fast way of working as you can change the key in an instant. I wish English studios and musicians would go down that road.”
In 1998, Ray Herndon (93), the former lead singer of McBride and the Ride, fronted The Nashville Playboys (94) for a line-dance album on Carlton. “Ray is multi-talented and he played all the guitar solos as well as doing the vocals. I shall never forget the sessions, as we were mixing the afternoon that a tornado barrelled down West End Avenue in Nashville, causing structural damage to studios all over town and killing a student who was sheltering under a tree.”
In 1999, Stuart produced four heavy rock instrumentals for Gretchen Wilson’s lead guitarist, Lisa Purcell (95). “She is a dynamite player, and I thought it would be different to mould her as a femme version of someone like Lonnie Mack, doing instrumentals rather than vocals.”
A handsome Brazilian soap star, Leandro Beling (96) made a mini-album, The Heartbeat Of Life, which did well in his home country in 2001. “He is from Sao Paulo and he was something of a Ricky Martin figure. The horn arrangements, which were extremely complicated, were written by Jim Horn. The trumpeter that Jim booked for the session, Mike Haynes, wore a neck brace in order to keep his muscles taut so he could achieve the ultra-high notes.”
Stuart is very pleased with the way things are working out. “I don’t come from a technical background and I find myself arranging the songs upfront or on the spot. I have an engineer Scott Kidd who is allowing me to make some of the best records I have made in a long time. He is only 29 and he is one of the hottest talents in Nashville: he was working on Rascal Flatts and he engineered their double platinum album. He has worked with Keith Urban and George Strait and he likes working with me because I am coming from a different angle to the standard Music Row producers. I’ve brought something over from England, I suppose.”
In 2002, Stu produced an album, Devils In The Details, for Sulcer Evans (97), a male country artist from Louisville, Kentucky. “The album is out and selling well and it is contemporary country. He could get up there with your George Straits.” An album by the Canadian country singer, Tracy Fiddler (98), has been doing okay in Canada. “She is like Pam Tillis meets Gretchen Wilson,” says Stu, “I was going to form a production company with her manager, but he quit the business after losing ten of his friends in the 9/11 tragedy.”
At present, Stu is working with the singer/songwriter Jenny Bolton (99), who, as Jenny Jay, was Carmen in the TV series, Bread. He has just completed an album with the singer/songwriter from Birkenhead, Dean Johnson (100), who has been everybody’s favourite opening act of late. The album, Home From Home, was made partly in Nashville and partly in London and to quote one of the titles, Let The Dream Live On.
My thanks to Stuart Colman for spending so much time on this feature and to Jon Kutner for checking out the details.