This lengthy feature was written for publication in the rock’n’roll magazine, Now Dig This, in 2010 and the intention was to publish it over three months. Before it was printed, I thought it would be a good idea to send it to the subject – something I would not normally do – simply because I had found out a lot more about him than I expected and I thought he might embellish some of the stories. Instead, he went mental, threatening to beat me up when he came over for the Beatles Convention in August.
He claimed that he had never gone to jail and that he had not said many of the quotes attributed to him. Well, he had been in jail and he had said all of those quotes to me as I had them on tape from previous appearances at Beatles Conventions and on BBC Radio Merseyside. He also loathed the fact that lesser lights (in his opinion) were passing judgment on him.
Anyway, knowing that he could beat me to a pulp if he chose to, I decided to drop the feature. He still said that he was coming for me though and I wisely kept away from Liverpool that weekend, the first convention I have missed in years. Frankie Connor who hosted one of the events in my place said to me, “What have you done to Tony? He wants to beat you up. I told him you were okay but he said you were scum.”
Why am I publishing it now that Tony has gone? Well, no book on him has ever appeared and I think the public should know and hopefully enjoy his story. I am hoping that the aborted books by Alan Mann (a writer from his home town of Norwich) and Joe Sunseri (his former manager) will now appear. He is a crucial part of the stories of British rock’n’roll and the Beatles and his personality has a lot to do with how the Beatles determined their own career.
More than that, Tony Sheridan was a great musician, a superlative rock’n’roller and he was still very good, if infuriating, almost to the end. There is, I think, no definitive way of looking at Tony Sheridan and rather like Van Morrison, Chuck Berry and Lonnie Donegan, his actions may be viewed differently by different people. Looking at my feature today, I can see that I was gently mocking him, that I was finding his on-stage tantrums amusing, and maybe this is what upset him. I met Tony Sheridan about ten times and I don’t think I can recall him laughing, certainly not at his own expense. He might have been behaving ridiculously on stage from time to time, but that was not how he saw it.
This feature has had a few updates since I wrote it and I would welcome any further information. His lovelife is excessively complicated but hey, this is rock and roll.
Spencer Leigh, February 2013
1. MR SPONTANEITY
“I’m still waiting for my break, man.”
(Tony Sheridan, 2010)
In August 1989 Tony Sheridan came to Liverpool for some appearances in and around the annual Beatles Convention. I’d not met him before but I knew about his wild reputation in the clubs in Hamburg and elsewhere. No one ever doubted his talent but it was untamed. Some said that he was his own worst enemy but I suspected that there were other claimants to this title.
We met for the first time just before a live radio show on BBC Radio Merseyside. Tony hadn’t brought his guitar but he announced on air that he would play live if we could get a guitar. Someone ran round to the guitar shop, Frank Hessy’s, and, amazingly, they lent us a guitar just like that – remarkable, really! – although the shop did go bankrupt a few years later.
The radio show was going well until we talked about the recordings he made in Hamburg. Even though Tony might have been speaking the truth, he clearly libelled someone and I said, “But you don’t mean that?”, thereby giving him the chance to retract. Not a bit of it. “I bloody well do,” he responded, and the following week we had to broadcast an apology or face legal action. Some years later, he signed a CD, “Thanks for forgiving me, Tony Sheridan.” I’m not all that sure that I did.
The previous night Tony had appeared with a pick-up band and I’d heard reports that their performance was rambling and shambolic but his talent shone through. “Last night we had a problem,” admitted Tony. “Everybody’s minds were screwed up because nobody knew what was happening, but that is normal when you’re playing with me. The only way to be is spontaneous. I’ve no time for these guys who plan their shows – that’s all rubbish. Music is all about spontaneity.” That, as I’ve discovered, is a candid and accurate statement of the Sheridan philosophy.
On the Bank Holiday Monday, Tony Sheridan was appearing at the Floral Hall in Southport and I went along. His band from two nights ago had backed off, and this time he was to be accompanied by some twenty-somethings who played rock’n’roll. “That’s okay,” he told them, “There’s no need to rehearse. I’m only doing rock’n’roll standards.”
About 200 people came to the show. Tony Sheridan came on stage in workshirt, jeans and one of his numerous baseball caps. The band wondered what would be first – ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘C’mon Everybody’, ‘What’d I Say’? Not a bit of it. Tony Sheridan walked up to the microphone with his guitar, plugged in and started singing,
“They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within.”
An intriguing opening. Was he relating Leonard Cohen’s song to his own life? More importantly, had the band ever heard the song before?
“I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them,
First we take Manhattan,
Then we take Berlin.”
The band was watching in disbelief: this didn’t sound like Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley to them. They made a half-hearted attempt to back him but they didn’t know where the song (or Sheridan) was going.
The audience was equally mystified. After all, they had been expecting an evening of rock’n’roll and they certainly didn’t want the collected works of Leonard Cohen.
Tony Sheridan continued with the song and finished it on his own, adding an insulting comment about Southport along the way. A few people applauded but mostly everyone was wondering what would happen next; whether indeed there was going to be any show at all.
“This band can’t play,” said Sheridan, “but there must be some guys here who can. Is there anyone who used to know me in Hamburg?” This could have been his intention all along, that he wanted to be backed by old friends.
Fortunately, a couple of Kingsize Taylor’s Dominoes (Sam Hardie and John Frankland) and some other Merseybeat musicians joined him and over the next five minutes, a scratch band was formed and the young lads were sent packing. Tony Sheridan blamed them, Tony Sheridan blamed the organiser, and Tony Sheridan was mad that he had been placed in this position, but he didn’t apologise to the audience who had paid good money to witness this fracas.
Then, comfortable within himself, Tony Sheridan started playing ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘C’mon Everybody’ and ‘What’d I Say’. The only deviation from his rock’n’roll set was Free’s ‘All Right Now’ and even that was okay as it’s like a killer Eddie Cochran riff. He was excellent, spurring on the band to play better. “Come on, John, pull your finger out” and “Don’t vary the tempo, man.” At one point he said, “Time for the saxophone break” but there wasn’t a saxophonist in sight. “Typical,” he said, “They’re lazy bastards. They don’t turn up.”
The evening had been revealing. When you saw and heard Tony Sheridan at his best, you wondered why he had never made it. When you saw him at his worst, you knew precisely why. What was the point of humiliating a young band on stage? After the show, when I confronted Tony Sheridan about his behaviour, he said, “You have to shock musicians out of their lethargy. That is why I started with ‘First We Take Manhattan’. They’ve got to wake up. It makes me nervous to play when someone says, ‘Where’s the set list?’ There is never a set list with me. I will think of a song and we will do it at any given time – and it may be a short version or a long version.”
Surely the audience – not to mention the musicians – deserve some rehearsals. It seemed to me that Tony Sheridan possessed a mean streak that he didn’t hide or correct, but it’s also true that he could be just as critical of himself.
Lee Curtis recalls, “I remember Tony Sheridan being cruel to Billy J Kramer when he went back to Hamburg about ten years ago. Billy got changed into his sequinned blue suit and he looked superb. Tony went, ‘Ummm, nice, but you know something, that ain’t gonna help you out there. You have to do a show and you don’t do it by painting yourself up. They’ll appreciate that you’ve made the effort, but then they’ll think, ‘Can you sing?’’” Billy should have ignored such taunts, but being a nervous guy, it went to his head and he gave a poor performance.
The closest comparison to Sheridan would be with P J Proby, a musician with enormous talent who possesses a similar self-destruct button. P J Proby did have his moment in the sun but he messed it up. I had a feeling that even if Tony Sheridan had had the hits, he would have done the same as Proby and ruined his career.
2. ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS
Some Beatle biographies assume that Tony Sheridan had a privileged upbringing. This is partly because he is well spoken and partly because his full name is Anthony Esmond Sheridan McGinnity. However, his birth certificate reveals that he was born at 38 Glenmore Gardens, Norwich. It is a three bedroom, semi-detached town house and its current value is £130,000: comfortable enough, but not excessive.
Tony Sheridan was born on 21 May 1940. His father, Alphonsus, was an Irishman who had been born in West Derby, Liverpool, close to the Casbah Club in Hayman’s Green where the Beatles started. Alphonsus worked for the Ministry of Labour and his mother, Audrey, was a nurse.
When Tony was only one year old, his father left the family home. “I’m not quite sure what happened next,” says Tony, “but the first few months of my conscious life were in a home for children. When I got to know the first rock’n’rollers in Britain, I found that most of them had been screwed up in some way. That, maybe, is why we all found rock’n’roll so fascinating. I don’t know. It’s a question for a psychiatrist.”
After the war, Tony was reunited with his mother, Audrey, and around 1950, they moved to the village of Thorpe St Andrew, a couple of miles outside Norwich. The upheaval didn’t affect his studies. He was a bright boy, a good swimmer and a cross country runner. He attended the City of Norwich School, played violin in its orchestra and sang in both school and church choirs.
His mother was a good singer and Tony joined her in Gilbert and Sullivan productions. “It was a very good training to be in The Mikado when you’re 11. I was singing a female role and singing madrigals as well. I got so frustrated doing all this shit for six or seven years that as soon as I heard Lonnie Donegan, I wanted a guitar – and freedom!”
When he was 16, Tony Sheridan passed several O-levels and obtained the top grade in Art. He studied commercial art at college, but not for long. In February 1957 Tony Sheridan saw Lonnie Donegan at the Theatre Royal, Norwich and decided to perform skiffle and rock’n’roll. As he puts it, “I wanted to get into the sexual side of music.”
Tony and his friends formed the Saints skiffle group and they performed in a pub by the art college and also at the Red Lion in Thorpe St Andrew. After they won £15, they decided that they might be good enough to make it in London.
As rock’n’roll performers were regularly being discovered at the Two Is coffee-bar in Old Compton Street, Soho, they headed there and impressed Tom Littlewood who managed the place. They found themselves performing alongside Roy Young and the Worried Men. “The others couldn’t take it,” says Tony of his band, the Saints, “They returned home after a week. I was getting 12 bob (60p) a night for playing which kept me in cigarettes and one meal for the next day.” Another member of the Saints, Kenny Packwood, stayed and was to join Marty Wilde’s Wildcats and then Lord Rockingham’s XI.
By day, Tony Sheridan worked in a brewery, shifting beer crates, and he played coffee-bars at night. He bought a Futurama Grazioso guitar. It was a red solid bodied instrument with several knobs and pick-ups and was marketed at the time as “the world’s most advanced electric guitar”. He learnt guitar solos by copying rock’n’roll records.
His first steady musical job came when Vince Eager asked him to join his band, the Vagabonds and he joined Brian ‘Licorice’ Locking on bass and Jimmy Nicol on drums. They went on tour for the promoter, Larry Parnes.
When they weren’t doing anything else, Tony, Licorice and Brian Bennett would play in the Two Is. Licorice Locking remembers, “Tony was a big Buddy Holly fan and we did a very good ‘Rave On’ with Tony on guitar, me on double bass and Brian on drums. We were on when Vince Taylor walked in with his American manager. They were looking for a group to back him and they chose Tony, Brian and me. We added Tony Harvey on rhythm guitar and we became Vince Taylor’s Playboys.”
Vince Taylor also worked for the impresario Larry Parnes. Tony Sheridan: “I was in the Playboys reluctantly, very reluctantly. Larry Parnes controlled the whole business in Britain and if you didn’t work for him, you starved and so I had to be one of the Playboys with Vince Taylor for a while.”
Vince Taylor was an American from Hounslow who wanted to emulate Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent, but he never looked right. There seemed something bogus about him, coupled with the fact that he couldn’t sing. Still, he had an excellent band, who accompanied him on his 1958 Parlophone single, ‘Right Behind You Baby’ and ‘I Like Love’. Licorice Locking: “We did ‘Right Behind You Baby’ on the first take. I was expecting just one 12-bar solo from Tony Sheridan but he took two and the second one was awe-inspiring. It lifted the track off the ground.”
Tony Sheridan: “Everything’s all right on ‘Right Behind You Baby’ except the singer. He had a manager, a nice Jewish gentleman from California who decided Vince Taylor would be the answer to Elvis in Britain because Elvis hadn’t come to Britain. He had nice teeth and looked the part but he couldn’t sing.”
Jack Good was the only British TV producer with a feel for the new music and his ITV series, Oh Boy!, is still revered. At the end of 1958, he had a lapse of taste by employing Vince Taylor, but, for all his shortcomings, Vince was a fine showman. However, it was the Playboys who impressed Jack Good. He signed Sheridan for solo spots and as a guitarist for other singers. Cherry Wainer was a regular on Oh Boy! and Tony played guitar on her cover of ‘The Happy Organ’.
On Oh Boy!, he appeared as Tony Sheridan and the Wreckers. The musical director of Oh Boy!, Harry Robinson recalled, “Tony told them all to dye their hair the same colour. They filled the sink with dye and put their heads in it. The dye went right down over their eyes and when they went on the show, they looked like ghouls from a Hammer film.”
At the same time, Tony Sheridan was the first British artist to be signed by the new Top Rank label. . According to Record Mirror in January 1959. “He’s tall, fluffy-haired and works rather on a Buddy Holly kick.” The same feature talks of his own song with a cha-cha beat, ‘Why (Can’t You Love Me Again)’, being considered for the first single. It had been written with another British rock’n’roll performer, Bill Crompton, who had recorded ‘A Hoot And A Holler’ in 1958.
All this was pointing in the right direction, but there were negative features. Nothing came of the Top Rank contract as Tom Littlewood, who was acting on Tony’s behalf, was demanding too large an advance.
More to the point, Tony was enjoying a bohemian lifestyle with attractive girls everywhere. He moved in with Hazel Byng, a dancer at the Windmill. In the mornings, he preferred to stay in bed and he missed rehearsals for Oh Boy! They married in May 1959 after Hazel had become pregnant. Tony had no regular work, but he joined Marty Wilde for a summer season at the Blackpool Palace. Tony and Hazel’s son, Anthony Sean Sheridan McGinnity Jr, was born on 23 October 1959 and Brian Bennett and Licorice Locking were godfathers.
Not this brought any responsibility. As Sheridan wrote in ‘Sinkin’’ in 2002:
“I knew a honey, gave me all her money
Wanted me to be her man,
But I thought better, got my shit together
Left before it hit the fan.”
A mea culpa song on the same album, Won’t Do It Again, is almost an apology to Hazel:
“Baby won’t you take me back, let me in,
I did a lotta livin’ in sin,
But I’ll never hurt your lovin’ heart again.”
I’ve just heard the news that Lou Rawls has died and I thought I would put my interview with him on the website. It was recorded at EMI in London on 21 February 1990 when he was promoting his excellent Blue Note album, ‘At Last’. It always helps if you genuinely like the new album when you do an interview! The interview was broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside and it sounded great as he had the deepest of deep voices and was in very good humour. The interview has not appeared in print before.
In 1967, you painted a bleak picture of Chicago in Dead End Street. Is that how you feel about it now?
Pretty much the same. There have cleaned it up under the guise of urban renewal, but they haven’t cleaned it out. The bleak story that I painted of it was right on ’cause if you go there in February or March, you will experience the Hawk – that’s the wind off of the lake and that’s pretty bad. But the song’s right. I lived in a city ghetto and that’s what I had to deal with.
How did you come to record ‘Dead End Street’?
I was looking for songs to record and I was told that this was just the song for me, Dead End Street. I related it to the south side of Chicago and I put that monologue on it. I’d say it was one of the first rap records. Joe Tex and Solomon Burke were rapping too but that was more romantically. This was a social statement and I made up that story while I was recording the song.
You put a lot of feeling into ‘Tobacco Road’?
Yes, that too was like autobiography as I could relate it to what I had seen. Tobacco Road is just outside Macon, Georgia and I have walked down it – it is now a landmark. That song also says something about urban living, and it is more a state of mind than an actual place.
Who inspired you the most?
Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke, the Staple Singers and myself grew up together. We went to the same schools and sang in the same choirs. We formed a teenage quartet, but Sam became a professional, singing with an adult group and then recording as a pop artist. Nat ‘King’ Cole was the only big black pop artist then and Sam became a very great pop singer. He’s called an R&B singer but I think he was anything but.
Is gospel singing good training?
The best. It gives you a sense of rhythm, syncopation and tonality. If you are in the tenor, baritone, bass or alto section, your voice goes right to it ’cause you are surrounded by other voices in that realm, providing you have a good ear.
Did you work much with Sam Cooke?
Yes, we complemented each other. I travelled with him and did background vocals on records as well as shows. We did duets on ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, ‘Having A Party’, ‘Only Sixteen’, ‘Win Your Love For Me’ and ‘Chain Gang’. I love saying the titles – Sam wrote a lot of great songs! When the records came out, I could always hear myself, but RCA would never put my name on there because I was not signed to the label.
This interview appeared in Country Music People, October 2005.
Over the last 35 years, John Prine has made thoughtful and, at times, provocative records. He came up as a singer/songwriter alongside his friend, Steve Goodman, and he wrote such familiar material as Hello In There, Angel From Montgomery and Paradise. In the 80s he moved closer to country music and wrote I Just Want To Dance With You with Roger Cook, which remains the only John Prine song to make the UK Top 20. There have been further multi-covered songs with Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness and You Got Gold. Marrying an Irish girl, John Prine became a father when he was 49, but his idyllic life was shattered when he contracted cancer. The treatment has been successful and Prine is back on the road promoting his new album, Fair And Square, on his own Oh Boy record label.
“I’m keeping pretty busy,” John Prine tells me from his Nashville home, “Having just put the record out, I’ve had to get round to all the major cities in the US. I’ve got some dates in the UK but not many and I want to do more. I’m going to be in Ireland for the summer next year and so that’ll be a better time to do them.”
And what can we expect? “I am working with my own band which comprises one upright bass and one electric guitar. Jason Wilber is on electric guitar and actually Dave Jacques comes back and forth between electric and upright bass, depending on the music. I like the upright for the upbeat country stuff. It gives it a bluegrassy feel.”
Both Jason and Dave are on the new album, which features some very strong songs but not one called Fair And Square. “When I got near the end, I realised that there wasn’t a title from one of the songs which would fit the whole collection, so I came up with Fair And Square. I thought that was the original position of the record. It came from a fair and square position. I did think of writing a song called Fair And Square to fit in with the record but then I thought that I would be chasing my tail. It’s a good title though. Maybe somewhere down the line, I’ll write a song called Fair And Square.”
Even at the best of times, John Prine had a croaky half-sung, half-rasping style. Now his voice is even deeper, but had there been a point when he thought he wouldn’t sing again? “Only before they did the surgery. They didn’t know where the principal point of the cancer was. It could have been anywhere in the throat, the neck or the tongue. Until they found it, they couldn’t tell me. They found it at the base of the tongue and they removed it and gave me radiation for the rest of the area. In the end, my voice lowered a little bit, I think for the better.” John Prine gives a throaty chuckle.
John was encouraged by the example of his friend Steve Goodman: “His whole attitude towards life was unyielding. The doctors only gave Steve six months to live back in 1968 and he lived until 1984. Cancer was at his doorstep all the time and Steve just refused to answer the door.”
John Prine’s songs were so idiosyncratic that it was hard to imagine him writing with anybody else, but his attitude to songwriting has changed with many co-writes on the album. Was this down to the way things worked in Nashville? “No, no, those guys in Nashville are doing it as a business and as I see it, they might as well be working in a factory. They write by volume. At the end of the month they have ten songs written and they hope to have one good one. I’d rather just do that one song as I have plenty of other stuff to do the rest of the time.”
This feature appeared in the February 2007 edition of Country Music People and was heard in a shortened form in On The Beat on BBC Radio Merseyside on 13 January 2007.
Although I have admired Beth Nielsen Chapman’s albums for many years, I expected this interview to be sombre, introspective and difficult. Her outstanding album, Sand And Water (1997), described how she was coming to terms with the death of her husband, while Deeper Still (2002) was made while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Her latest album, Hymns, was sung in Latin.
I meet up with Beth the morning after a show in Bolton. She looks refreshed and happy and is very enthusiastic about her current and forthcoming projects. Maybe her encounters with serious illness make her want to pack as much as possible into her days. She relishes touring and she loves meeting her public, dispensing, it would seem, all kinds of life-affirming tips. You could say that she is on a mission. She believes that everybody is creative and this interview, which is largely about songwriting, will tell you how to unlock the talents within yourself.
Sitting in the hotel lounge, she says, “Can’t we turn this music off? I can’t think clearly when it’s on.” Her tour manager and band member, the ever-genial Maartin (sic) Allcock, formerly from Fairport Convention, finds us a spot away from piped music. “Do you ever hear yourself being played over the tannoy?” I ask. “Unfortunately, yes,” she replies, “and friends call to say that they have heard me at the mall. It’s good to get heard but there must be so many people listening who wish you weren’t there at all.”
I have a list of questions to ask Beth, but I don’t use it as Beth’s comprehensive and informative replies guide the flow of the conversation. “I hope I’m not derailing you,” she says when we break for coffee. “We’re not talking much about country music.” There are anecdotes about Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson and Faith Hill, but I can see what she means. However, country music deals with life’s problems and the songs are about passion, compassion and human relationships, the recurring subjects in this interview.
You have chosen a name which is difficult to remember at first hearing. Why didn’t you just go with Beth Chapman?
When I was signed to my first record deal in 1979, it was the same year as I got married and Capitol Records in America was very keen to have me as Beth Nielsen as they thought that was really good. I said, “No, I want to be Chapman, I’m getting married.” They were not thrilled about that. What’s really funny is how many people think that Mary Chapin Carpenter and I are the same person. Yesterday someone said that they loved the song I wrote, The Moon And St Christopher, and I said, “That would be Chapin.” We are good friends and I have always thought that she is an astoundingly good writer. It has been great to be able to work with her.
You were born in Arlington, Texas in 1956 but your father was in the air force and you moved around a lot. Does that mean that music was one of the few constant factors in your childhood?
I’ve never thought about it in that way, but that is true.. Air force radio was a melting pot of lots of different styles and in the early 60s when my ears were developing, radio was much healthier in terms of its cultural diversity. Moving into different areas taught me, ironically, how people are the same rather than different. Since I was 11, I have had this idea of doing a record where I sing in different languages and I am finally finishing this record and putting it out next year.
I was exposed to a lot of different cultures. I am a Catholic and the mass on the air force base was from 10 to 11, and from 11 to 12 it was a Protestant service, and on Saturday it was a Jewish temple. They rolled the Cross in and out and they put in the different symbols and so I realised that worshipping God resonated with a different frequency with different people. It was an amazing way to grow up, and I can do all these different accents. (Beth mimics various American accents: it is hilarious.) My voice can go all over the place so yes, my upbringing had a big effect on me.
Were you based in Germany some of the time?
I lived in Germany in sixth, seventh and eighth grades and I started to learn German but then we moved and unfortunately Americans don’t place much emphasis on learning other languages. In Europe and the UK almost everyone speaks two languages, which should be the responsibility of every human being. I don’t speak any other language myself although I have learnt to pronounce them phonetically. With each song in each different language I have worked with a scholar of that language or someone from that country. Hopefully, they caught me before I made a fool of myself.
What music do you remember from your youth?
The Beatles came along when I was in fifth grade. I remember being in a friend’s house in Germany and hearing Penny Lane and I was jumping on a bed and thinking that I had to own that. That was the first time that I heard music that I wanted to go and buy.
Before that I was listening to Tony Bennett and Robert Goulet and other records from my parents. I loved any film that had music in it and I knew all the songs in The Sound Of Music. My mum was a nurse and my dad was in the military and then he was math teacher. They both sang in choirs and I can remember standing between their kneecaps and hearing their voices. We were raised in a Catholic family so there are these beautiful old hymns that I knew. As I have gotten older, I have been amazed at how they resonate so deeply with me.
And some of those hymns have survived 150 years.
Yes, and when I do my show, one of my favourite covers is Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke, and I get the whole audience singing with me, which is really great. They didn’t know they could sing that good and I usually follow Sir Duke with Mozart’s Ave Verum and it slides right into it. You would never think in a million years that those two songs could be back to back but my voice is the same voice and it is pulling it through the thread of my way of sounding as an artist. It is still a very different song but it has a context which brings it together.
The Latin Hymns record came out last year in the UK and that was just a tangent I went on after Deeper Still and Look. I was still working on this collection of songs in all different languages and I realised that I needed one in Latin, and I thought it would be easy. I would get a CD that had all the great hymns that I grew up with but the only one I could find was by a priest with a guitar and it wasn’t well recorded. I thought it was sad that I couldn’t find all the songs that I remembered so I made the record on my own and I got my son to sing the tenor parts and my dad to sing bass. It has done very very well. There are a whole lot of people who missed those hymns.
So you didn’t go through a record company?
I was on Warner Brothers for 10 years but for quite a few years, I have been doing my own records which has been wonderful. I will make a licensing deal with a label in the US and another in the UK and I get a more direct relationship with the people I am working with. With Hymns, I didn’t particularly look for a label, I thought it would sell 200 copies and my mother would give it to all her friends. In the States, I put it on my own record company and then I got a publicist as I thought it would be fun. I never expected to get on National Public Radio on a show called All Things Considered. After an 8 minute segment on that show, the CD went to No 3 on amazon.com. I sold out in 12 hours and I was getting emails from nuns and priests who wanted to get it. It was a labour of love and it was just one of those things that nobody had done. My favourite email was from a woman who was a survivor of the Holocaust and she had been meeting with other women who were survivors. They needed some music to play in the background when they shared some time together. She told them that this CD was very soothing and they put it on and they found it was lovely music – it wasn’t about the lyrics and the dogma and what the words mean although that is very important to some people – on a tonal level, they were able to feel comforted by the sound of the beautiful songs. One of the hymns I love is called Shalom Aleichem which is a beautiful Hebrew hymn about peace. Someone from the Jewish faith would know it immediately.
When you heard Penny Lane, did you have in mind that you wanted to be a songwriter?
Not in terms of a profession, no. I thought vaguely that I would like to be a veterinarian. I would sing in folk mass and in folk clubs and then as I got a little older, I was singing at weddings every weekend. I was writing the whole time and I always wrote the melody first. My experience of writing has been that the song is already written and I am unfolding it in layers. I will get a melody out of nowhere, just by stumbling around on guitar. I record what I do as so much of what comes out in the very beginning is subconscious. My creative spirit is taking a leap off a cliff and going – whoosh! My fingers go to chords and I don’t know what they are going to do next and it is magical. Often I will do that for 15 minutes or so and turn the tape recorder off and I will have no idea what I have played. I will get a cup of tea and listen to it, and I am hearing it like a listener for the first time. I will find the things in it that are working and I will go with that and learn how to play it. I have to go, “What was that chord that I went to?” At the some point the melody will be in place but I won’t necessarily have the words. Then I start singing in tongues (demonstrates) and very often the vowels that start coming through with some regularity will be the same vowels that line up when the song is finished a week later, a month later or two years later. I have had songs that have taken me years to finish and yet if I go back to the first work tape, you can hear ‘o a i’ all in place on the line.
Your first country hit was Strong Enough To Bend, which was a great title and a No 1 for Tanya Tucker in 1988.
People write songs in different ways and the hardest thing in the world for me is to write from a title. I walked into Don Schlitz’s office and I was thrilled to be writing with him. He said that he had this title, Strong Enough To Bend. I do have a very healthy, loud, obnoxious intellect and my intellect is a know-it-all, and if it gets in charge, it interrupts the good stuff, which is coming from another direction. The creative spirit that flows through every single person won’t interrupt anything that is already there. If there are a lot of other things going in the psyche, it won’t interrupt as it is too self-conscious. So when I started writing with Don, my intellect goes, ‘Oh, we have to figure this out now. “What does Strong Enough To Bend mean?” I said, “Can we just make up a melody, something we can play around with and we will get to the title.” So we started and I went (Sings) “There’s a tree out in the backyard.” We wrote it in 20 minutes and we wrote another song and went to lunch. My head was spinning as I hadn’t written a song in one day before, much less in 20 minutes, but Don would do a morning session and an afternoon session. He calls his songs his children and he said that The Gambler has been to college and graduate school and kept going.
The songwriter and record producer BOB MONTGOMERY talks to Spencer Leigh about Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and “Misty Blue”.
This feature appeared in two parts in Now Dig This, February 2003.
Some people, but not many, have done it all – Bob Montgomery has been a performer, songwriter, record producer and music publisher and he has been associated with some of the biggest hits of the last 50 years. You will know many of the songs, but “Now Dig This” readers are likely to know him for his association with Buddy Holly. Buddy’s first performances were with Bob Montgomery and together they wrote “Wishing”, “Heartbeat” and “Love’s Made A Fool Of You”.
When his son, the singer and songwriter Kevin Montgomery, was in the UK, I asked him if I could contact his father and this is the result of my call to Nashville.
Can we check your date of birth first? Some books say 1936 and others 1937.
12 May 1937 I was born in Lampasas, Texas, which is in central Texas. We lived in quite a few different places as my dad did construction work and went where the work was. We moved to Lubbock when I was in the sixth grade, 12 years old.
Were you in the same school as Buddy Holly?
Not at first. Junior High is where we first met. We had a common interest in music and we were both learning to play guitars and whatever. Buddy had a musical family, his two brothers, Larry and Travis, both played, so it was a natural transition for him. When we started out, we were doing Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs songs, and Buddy played banjo and mandolin for a while. There were a lot of duet harmony records we liked, bluegrass stuff. We started playing in school talent shows and we eventually had our own little radio show on KDAV through Pappy David Stone. Pappy featured local talent every Sunday afternoon, and Buddy and I ended up with our own 30 minute radio show every week.
And did you get paid for that?
(Laughs) Are you kidding?
How did the recordings come about?
Most of those things were demos that we did over in Clovis, New Mexico. There was also a little recording studio in Wichita Falls that we used. We would do some construction work or whatever we could to earn money and then we would go to Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis and record some demos.
Did you both have it in mind that you wanted to be professional musicians?
Yeah, we wanted to be stars, but we were only kids and really it was just a good way of getting girls. (Laughs)
It’s intriguing to find that you, and not Buddy, are doing the bulk of the songwriting.
Well, Buddy didn’t have that much interest in writing songs at that time. He didn’t start writing a lot until he got his record deal with Decca. Jerry Allison was very much a catalyst for Buddy’s writing. He became very prolific in the short time that he was songwriting. He wrote all those great songs in 18 months.
You and Buddy did write a couple of those early songs – “Baby It’s Love” and “I Gambled My Heart”.
Yeah, I think we did, though I had more interest in writing than he did. Quite frankly, I don’t think the songs are that good. We were just teenagers learning to write. When I was in music publishing, I never thought of passing them on to other artists. The best things about the records are Buddy Holly’s performances. I was doing the lead vocals but he was a great harmony singer. He had a lot of innate talent, much more than myself.
The song I like best from the Buddy and Bob sessions is “Flower Of My Heart”. Is there a story behind that?
No, it was just a song that I wrote. I don’t remember what the inspiration was. They had an original song contest at Lubbock High and it won the best song of the year, and that was when we were sophomores.
One song you wrote together is “Down The Line” which, when the Fireballs were added after Buddy’s death, sounds more like rock and roll.
Well, I never thought of it that way. I was dating my first wife who lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I wrote that on the way to Albuquerque – “The white lines flashing on the road below” and all that.
Did you mind the tracks being issued with additional accompaniment?
Oh, they were better in their unedited form, but Norman wanted to use the Fireballs on them. The original tracks were just Buddy and myself on guitars or whatever, with Sonny Curtis on fiddle on a couple. We weren’t the most accomplished musicians.
This interview with Kris Kristofferson was arranged for the time of his sound check at the Palace Theatre, Manchester on 28 June 2004. Kris Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Texas on 22 June 1936 and he came to the UK in the Fifties to study as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.
SL: You’re noted for being a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Did studying Blake help with your songwriting?
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: Any exposure that you have to good literature whether it is Blake or Shakespeare is going to help your writing and I should imagine that it helped me to express myself. The way Blake helped me the most was that he was such a committed, creative artist: he was determined that if you were organised by God to be a creative person, then it was duty to do it. That is what kept me going for a long time when the rest of the world said that I was insane to do it.
SL: Yes, ’cause you were over 30 before you made an album.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: I was about 30 before I even went to Nashville! I was 29 when I went there and hell, Hank Williams died at that age. He’d already made his legend by that age. I didn’t make a record until I was 33. I was ten years older than my peers, all the people that was I was hanging out with, all the people who were trying to be writers at the time. It was a very exciting time.
SL: Is your first album so strong because it contains a collection of songs that you had built up over the years?
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: It was probably because I paid my dues in Nashville. For at least four years I was hanging out with other writers and the good thing was that people helped each other out. The established writers like Harlan Howard and Willie Nelson would be encouraging new writers that they liked.
SL: Felice Bryant told me that you brought the bedroom onto the Opry stage.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: (Laughs) Felice and Boudleaux were awfully nice to me and their secretary gave me the title for the breakthrough song. They had a secretary named Bobbie McFee, and Fred Foster who owned the building where they had an office called me. At the time I was flying helicopters on the off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico every other week and trying to be a songwriter the rest of the time. He said, ‘I’ve got a song title for you’ and it was Me And Bobbie McFee. Since he owned the publishing company that I was writing for, I felt obliged to try and write it. I have never written a song on assignment before or since. But it worked, after about three months of hiding from him. (Laughs)
SL: What about the wonderful line in that song, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’? Does that mean if you’ve got nothing, there’s nothing you can lose, so you’re free.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah, there is a freedom to it but it is a two-edged sword. Some of my songwriting friends wanted me to take it out of the song. (Laughs) They said, ‘You got these great concrete images and then you change to this philosophical statement in the chorus.’ I was looking for the feeling that Fellini got in the end of La Strada, and I love that film. Anthony Quinn has let that little Giulietta Masina slip away from him. He left her on the road when she was asleep. He had killed the fool in the travelling circus and she couldn’t handle that and he couldn’t handle her grief. He let her slip away and later he heard a woman who was hanging washing on the line humming the tune that this little girl used to play in the circus. He asked her about it and she said it was sung that by this little strange girl who passed through here and she died. Nobody knew where she came from and Anthony Quinn goes off and gets drunk and gets in a fight and he ends up on a beach howling at the stars in his grief. That was the rough edge of the freedom. He was free from her but he was miserable.
SL: Felice Bryant meant that your songs went inside the bedroom whereas the country songs before that didn’t. Songs like For The Good Times and Help Me Make It Through The Night are bedroom songs.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: They were both controversial when they came out. The guy that recorded them first couldn’t get them played on the air, but I always felt that they were in the tradition. Country music was more real than pop music at the time. The songs spoke about cheating and getting drunk and maybe they didn’t talk about sex quite as directly as that, but they certainly have since!
SL: Well, that’s down to you!
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: Okay, and Felice didn’t like it! (Laughs)
SL: You love using the word ‘body’ and it is very erotic.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: One of my songwriting buddies in the underground said to me that if they took all the Devils, bodies, shadows and sidewalks out of my songs, they’d be nothing left. (Laughs)
SL: I’m going to play For The Good Times by Aaron Neville. Is that one you particularly like?
Herbert Kretzmer, initially from South Africa, was a journalist and the theatre critic for Daily Mail for many years. He is a superb lyricist and he has written many songs with Charles Aznavour as well as the English lyrics for Les Miserables. This interview was broadcast in On The Beat on BBC Radio Merseyside on 12 March 2005.
SL: You’re known as a lyricist but did you ever want to write the music?
HERBERT KRETZMER: When I began my life as a songwriter in South Africa at college, I fancied myself not only as a lyricist but as a composer. I wrote a few songs for a university show and I wrote a couple of songs for a revue which was put on in Johannesburg at the Library Theatre. The illusion, no, delusion, that I could write music pursued me all the way to England where I came to settle in the mid-50s. For the first time in my life, I started to look very seriously at what kind of work was being turned out by current songwriters in England and I came to the conclusion very quickly that there were 1,000 better composers living in my block alone. It was ludicrous to carry through that delusion from childhood into adulthood. I made up my mind that whatever talent I had as a lyric writer might be successfully exploited but I gave up any thought of composing and I never have again. It was banal stuff I was composing.
SL: And journalism and lyric writing are both using words.
HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, journalism and lyric writing are compatible professions. They both depend upon the manipulation of the English language under very compressed conditions. You couldn’t negotiate with a bar of music to get in a devastating rhyme that will amaze every other lyric writer – if it doesn’t fit the music, if it doesn’t fit the beat, you have to throw it out. Equally in journalism, especially in my day which was the hot metal approach. Every word you wrote became metal within a few hours and then the metal was transfixed and transmitted on to paper through various means. You had to fit the metal’s measurement which was also unyielding so there is a similarity. You have to seek your freedom in both songwriting and journalism within a tight system which will not yield. The bar in the music is well named: you are behind bars.
SL: There is now such an interest in South African music. Have you been involved in that?
HERBERT KRETZMER: Not at all. I have been away for so long but I still speak both the official languages of my youth – English and Afrikaans. I keep a close eye on how things are out there, but I was never involved in the South African scene as such . When I was there I was trying to make my mark as a straight journalist. Songwriting was a hobby, a dream which was put aside for years at a time while I went on being a newspaperman. Then I became involved with Charles Aznavour who demanded a new album every couple of years and you knew that at the end of the labour, there would be a record.
SL: In 1960 you wrote Goodness Gracious Me for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren. It might be thought politically incorrect, but nevertheless the phrase was used for a comedy series featuring Asian performers.
HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, at that time, if anybody wanted to imitate an Indian accent they would usually use that phrase. What it wasn’t yet was a song title. The song has now become part of the national fabric as an example of Indianness. I can’t believe when I wrote She that it was the only title of that name. You would have thought that there would have been a glut of She’s. I suppose I can claim to have invented Kinky Boots. I have seen the phrase over and over again in fashion magazines and so on. That was used for a record by Patrick McNee and Honor Blackman.
SL: Had you written it for them?
HERBERT KRETZMER: No. Kinky Boots was done in half an hour. It was written at the time of That Was The Week That Was, the satirical show that took the country apart on Saturday nights. Ned Sherrin had commissioned some shots of King’s Road on a Saturday with girls wearing thigh boots and high skirts, which was the fashion of the time. It was a two minute film and the whole thing was shot from the waist downwards, a montage of pretty long legs in boots and miniskirts. Ned wanted a tune to go with it as he didn’t feel that it needed a spoken commentary. The little song would be disposable and never heard of again. Some years later we did another song for Patrick McNee and Honor Blackman called Let’s Keep It Friendly, which was a terrible little song in the Avengers personae. They needed a B-side and Dave Lee reminded me of Kinky Boots from several years earlier. Honor Blackman was the girl with leather boots in The Avengers so we brought it out of the trunk, and the rest is mystery.
SL: And yet it took many years to become a hit.
HERBERT KRETZMER: Simon Mayo heard it and thought the recording was terrible, but the whole thing tickled him. Patrick McNee was certainly a very stiff participant in the proceedings. It made for a very odd record and Mayo said, ‘Let’s make it number one.’ It was one of those bets that disc jockeys make with each other. It almost worked. It was popular with schoolchildren for some reason and some people are far more impressed that I wrote that than Les Miserables. You know, ‘Wow, that’s really something.’ They tend to be very young but one must take one’s fans where one can find them these days.
SL: Have you always enjoyed writing novelty songs?
HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, I have enjoyed everything I’ve written but always when it’s done rather than when I am writing it. The process of writing is always agonising and I never feel that I am embracing a song; I always feel that I am facing a song almost in an adversarial way, I am dealing with something that I may not be able to beat, that is the attitude that I have. Sometimes you have a piece of music and someone wants lyrics and you don’t know what it is going to be about. Then you have to listen to the music until a song suggests itself. Certain sounds sit well on certain musical cadences. It is chaos and out of this chaos you have to fashion and discipline yourself to produce finally, maybe 12 or 16 lines of short and tight English words. You are battling chaos and finding order but it may beat you.
SL: But what of the comedy songs?
HERBERT KRETZMER: I have always enjoyed writing comedy songs and one of the songs I most enjoyed in Les Miserables was Master Of The House. It is my favourite song in the show as it is the one song that makes people laugh and that is a very welcome sound, especially during Les Mis which is not rich in laughs, even though it is rich in uplift. Some of my comic songs have come off quite well thanks to Peter Sellers and Rolf Harris. Rolf Harris did some comic songs about animals which at the time was going to be a bigger project than it turned out to be.
SL: In what way?
HERBERT KRETZMER: Dave Lee and I decided that we should do an alphabet of children’s songs using all our skills, not silly children’s words but the themes would be childlike. We decided to do an alphabet of children’s songs: A for Aardvark to Z for Zebra. Peter Sellers heard many of the songs and said that he would do it, so we worked specifically around him. We played him the songs in a flat with a grand piano near the Royal Albert Hall. He was fidgety and kept looking out of the window. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he replied, ‘I have double-parked.’ I said, ‘You have come to hear something that we have worked on for a year and you haven’t got enough time to settle back and hear it. Your mind is on how soon you can get out of here and not how well these songs are written.’ This was typical of him. He was a great 24 hour enthusiast, but his enthusiasm would dry up. Luckily I didn’t need him in my life even though I liked him as a friend. The publisher then sent Rolf Harris round and he picked up a few of the songs but we never got that project going and it remains a dated idea. Kids today are so far ahead of the game. The vision of children sitting quietly and listening to songs about zebras and owls and dodos has more or less disappeared from our society.
SL: So many of Aznavour’s songs were about ageing, which is so different from a British songwriter.
Spencer Leigh spoke to Janis Ian while she was recording a live concert for Radio 2 in Liverpool in October 2004.
SL: The booklets with nearly all your albums contain a message about your guitar being lost in 1972 and you are trying to find it.
JANIS IAN: Well, all of them but the last couple. The guitar was returned about six years ago after it had been missing 26 years – isn’t that amazing? There is an article on my website about it called ‘Of Guitars And Righteous Men’. Somebody had stolen it in Los Angeles in 1972 and from there it had wound up at a reputable shop in San Francisco, and it was bought by someone called Jeff Gray who wanted a D18. He had been working with Jefferson Airplane and it was used on a bunch of their records. He had been thinking about selling it because he wanted a smaller guitar when he read an interview with me in ‘Vintage Guitar’ magazine and the interviewer had put in a note about this guitar of mine, serial number 67053, 1938 D-18 and this feller Jeff Gray had looked at it and realised it was his guitar. The guitar had been stolen from him at one point and he had found it by memorising the serial number and making the rounds. We talked about it and he told me what it was worth and I said that I did have a Martin and I would trade him for it. He finally said, ‘I don’t want to own somebody else’s guitar, that’s bad karma, let me just send it to you.’ I said, ‘Well, send it, I will make sure it’s mine and I will send you this other guitar, just in gratitude.’ Never let hope die.
SL: Was this an important guitar for you? Was it, say, the first guitar you bought with your royalties?
JANIS IAN: It was a guitar that my dad had bought a year before I was born. He was a farmer and he had bought it from a woman whose husband had died. She had found the guitar in the attic and my dad bought it for $25. It was the guitar I learned on, it’s the guitar I wrote ‘Society’s Child’ on, it’s the first guitar I ever played at shows and it’s obviously an important guitar for me, and, as it turned out, it was worth considerably more than $25, although my dad didn’t know until I came home one day and told him.
SL: Your first album, ‘Janis Ian, in 1967 was quite an angry album.
JANIS IAN: Not so much angry as frustrated. It is the characteristic of a 14 or 15 year old to be frustrated by everything. To me ‘Society’s Child’ is more frustration and sadness although that might lead to anger: it’s a sadness that you can’t wave a magic wand at and have the world the way that you would like it.
SL: Was the inspiration for ‘Society’s Child’ something in the newspapers?
JANIS IAN: I wish I knew where songs came from or where inspiration came from but most of the time I have no idea. I assume that it was something in the wind as people were talking about Civil Rights. My parents were very involved in the Civil Rights movement, but I didn’t know anybody going through that and I hadn’t read about anybody going through that.
SL: And it is a very well crafted song: you seemed to have it all there when you were young.
JANIS IAN: That’s the thing about talent, Spencer: you are either born with it or you’re not. You only have five things to work with on stage and that is Entrance, Focus, Energy, Exit and Talent. You can learn the first four but you can’t teach someone the last one. I don’t know why I thought that chorus should lift, I don’t know why I knew enough to make it a two line refrain instead of a chorus, but that’s the talent and that’s the part I try to keep in harness.
SL: Do you still perform many songs from those early years?
JANIS IAN: I do ‘Society’s Child’ pretty much every show, that was the best of the lot for a while. There are others that are all right but they don’t have that clarity.
SL: You then came out of the business for a couple of years.
JANIS IAN: I started recording when I was 14 and a half and I worked steadily until I was 17 and a half. ‘Society Child’ was a very rough introduction to the music industry: it was so volatile and people either loved it so much or hated it so much. Some people hated me so much that it was very difficult. It was before anybody thought about bodyguards and there were a lot of years of getting spat at on the street or as I walked on stage. When I was 17 and a half, I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be in the music business. I thought about becoming a vet or an archaeologist or anything that would not have people spitting on me with such regularity.
SL: And your peers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were that much older.
JANIS IAN: They were a lot older and they were very good to me. Joan, in particular, was always wonderful to me. Odetta was great to me and also Dave Von Ronk, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t have much of a connection with people my own age and I needed some time to grow up. I went away for three and a half years and I was working at whether I could be a songwriter, a really good songwriter. I didn’t want to be average, and then I wrote ‘Stars’ and then I wrote ‘Jesse’. When I finished those two, I figured that I could call myself a songwriter.
SL: And ‘Stars’ is about coming to terms with recognition.
JANIS IAN: Yes, particularly early recognition. ‘Stars’ is my longest song, it is seven and a half minutes long and it is my most covered song. I think it is the quintessential performer’s song as it talks about being a performer both from the inside and from the outside. Because I’d had three and a half years out of it, I had some hindsight. ‘Stars’ can afford a gentle view of the whole process without being bitter or being angry, but it is saying to the audience, ‘Look, this is a rough life, but I have chosen it so don’t pity me. If you just put up with the occasional blunder, then I will be here.’
SL:You have had a pretty colourful and traumatic life since then: does that help your songwriting?
JANIS IAN: I don’t think that trauma and pain have squat to do with being a good writer, I really don’t. If nothing else, it gets in the way of the time that you need to be writing. Everybody has a rough life. It’s rough going to a factory every day. My father’s life was rough: his father died when he six and he was trying to make ends meet with just his mom and three kids on a farm. He wasn’t able to go to college and he was drafted into the army. My mother had multiple sclerosis, so my life has just had ups and downs compared to that.
SL: But it comes out in the songs.
JANIS IAN: I don’t know. In ‘Days Like These’ it comes out directly but the older you get as an artist, the more you search for the universal. Your own life becomes uninteresting except in the scope of making your understanding a bit deeper. I know some artists who have led absolutely charmed lives who write fantastic songs and I know other artists who have led horribly traumatic lives and can’t write anything worth beans. When you are a kid, the concept of great suffering making great art is very attractive but you get a bit older and the suffering is not so much fun.
SL: You wrote a song about your husband beating you up in ‘His Hands’.
JANIS IAN: Yes, but I started it before I knew him, so how much direct experience is it? That song has got some direct experience in it but I read a lot and do a lot of research. That sounds awful but that is how I approach ‘Tattoo’ or ‘His Hands’ or ‘I Hear You Sing Again’ on the new album which is from a scrap of a Woody Guthrie lyric. By the time I had received that scrap, I had read three books about Woody and I had listened to everything he had ever recorded. I tried to know him and how he thought and what was important to him as I didn’t want to write the song without any cognisance of him as a man. So a lot of what I do is just plain research.
SL: How did you get involved with that Woody Guthrie lyric?
JANIS IAN: His daughter called me and asked if I would be interested in finishing something and adding a melody. She sent me 11 and that was at the bottom of the pile. I took one look at the first line, ‘If I could only hear my mother sing again’ and I thought, ‘This one’s mine.’ The melody popped into my head and I wrote it in a day and a half. That is because I was prepared. As they say in Nashville, you keep the motor oiled, so when you are ready to take the car out, it moves.
An appreciation of Clinton Ford by Spencer Leigh
This three-part feature with discography appeared in In Tune magazine (November/December 2005 and January 2006). I’m publishing it on the web as Clinton has not have enough acclaim and deserves to have his story told. Whether I’ve done him justice of course is another matter.
PART 1 – FANLIGHT FANNY
“Nearly everything I’ve done seemed like a good idea at the time.”
(Clinton Ford, 2005)
Ask anybody about Clinton Ford and the odds are that, if they know him at all, they will say ‘Fanlight Fanny’. There’s nothing wrong with that as ‘Fanlight Fanny’ is a much-loved comic record, but no one song can sum up Clinton Ford’s vast repertoire. Clinton can sing romantic ballads like ‘Somewhere My Love’, 60s pop like ‘Run To The Door’ and country songs like ‘This Song Is Just For You’, not to mention scores of jazz, pop, music hall and children’s favourites. In the singles catalogues published by ‘The Gramophone’, Clinton Ford is listed as a ‘beat vocalist’ but he was much more than that. Clinton Ford: “I can’t be put in a pigeonhole and when people ask me what sort of songs I sing, I say, ‘The ones with words and music.’
In another sense, though, ‘Fanlight Fanny’ is typical of Clint’s songbook. His preference is for little-known but well-written songs from a bygone age. In concert, he resembles a one-man edition of ‘The Good Old Days’ as you hear songs that nobody else has sung for years. He is a one-man custodian of the Tin Pan Alley archives who is entrusted with bringing these songs to life. He comments, “A lot of these old vaudeville songs are crystallised history. They are about things that happened and they were contemporary songs in their day. Look at the tandem bikes in ‘Daisy Bell’, which is over a hundred years old. I sang that at the City Varieties in Leeds and the whole audience sang along with it.”
Novelty songs date more than most but Clint can take comic songs and restore their vitality and humour. His trick, if there is one, is to revel in the words: he always enunciates them clearly and these days he doesn’t perform songs unless he loves them himself. Whenever he is asked for his favourite song, Clint says, “The one I’m singing.” Like ‘The Old Bazaar In Cairo’, you can find anything and everything in Clinton’s catalogue, and, to my ears at least, this jack of all trades is the master of all.
To me and to Clint’s fans, his versatility was his strength, but it also was a marketing man’s nightmare. Clint reflects, “Should I have gone all comedy or all sentimental? I don’t know. I mixed them up and it didn’t work. People didn’t know what I was going to turn up with next, but that’s me. I couldn’t stick to one type of music. There were too many good songs that I wanted to sing.”
Clinton Ford had the talent, temperament and personality to be a major star and yet, despite several opportunities and a few minor hits, it didn’t happen. What went wrong? The lack of a clear direction is part of the answer but as this three-part feature will show, Clinton Ford has sabotaged his own career. If a wrong turn could be taken, Clint took it, but this is what makes him so absorbing and why his greatest weaknesses are also his strengths.
As I was researching this feature, two names sprang to mind: Lonnie Donegan and George Melly. Like Clinton, they loved music hall and made their living from the songs of the past. They revelled in finding obscurities such as ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight?’ (Donegan) and ‘Nuts’ (Melly). Lonnie Donegan had a stylistic range that was as wide as Clinton Ford’s but, on the whole, he would shoehorn the songs into his own, very personalised style, while George Melly’s primary interest lay in licentious songs – in fact, the bawdier the better, and the songs are in keeping with his image. Given the opportunity, I suspect that Lonnie would have enjoyed going that way too.
Undoubtedly the entertainers had much in common – notably, a shared love for Max Miller – and they all knew hundreds of songs. Clinton, a modest man, told me, “I don’t sing any better than anyone else. I just know more songs than anyone else.” This is probably true. I have seen Clinton respond to audience suggestions and perform a song impromptu, often with the introductory verse. At a guess, Clinton might know 1,000 songs.
Clinton Ford or rather Ian George Stopford Harrison began life in Salford on 4 November 1931: “I was born in Salford but only because my grandfather couldn’t get work on the Liverpool docks. He was a superintendent stevedore and he walked to Salford with his family, pushing my father in a pram. He had no money and he found work when he got there.”
It was a musical family: “My mother was a pianist in the silent film days, and a very good one too. My father was a singer and all my uncles were singers or musicians, and that’s why I know so many songs. ‘I Love Me’, for example, comes from a song album that was in our piano stool when I was a lad. My father taught me ‘Miss Hooligan’s Christmas Cake’ or I should say, he taught me the first verse. I got the second verse from Mick Groves of the Spinners, which was only fair as I taught him ‘Dirty Old Town’.”
That response is typical of Clint’s conversation as he packs information into his answers, which often lead into other subjects. Given the information, I am sure I could write an equally enthralling article about Clinton’s family. “My cousin Fred in Bebington was such a big man that they couldn’t get a hat to fit him,” says Clinton. Don’t you want to know more about cousin Fred?
The young Ian Harrison had the makings of a performer from the start: “I was always the first on stage at school. I blacked up once and this shows you how early I was intending to do all this. I was one of the three kings in a nativity play and I decided to be the black one.” One of Clint’s first heroes was Paul Robeson and he wanted a huge, deep voice like that. While Clint and I were listening to a Paul Robeson record one day, he said, “You could soak a Yorkshire pudding in that voice.”
In the early 1950s Clinton served with the armed forces in Vienna. It was there he learnt ‘Horst Du Mein Heimliches Rufen’, which means ‘Do You Hear My Secret Calling?’ and was recorded by Herbert Ernst Groh in 1940. Clint adds, “‘Cathy I Love You’ is a pretty little song that I thought of when I was on guard duty.”
He arranged shows in the forces and would sing folk songs with his guitar. At one show an officer’s wife sang some country songs by Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams and he was soon tuning in to the Blue Danube Network, the Austrian equivalent of AFN, to hear what he could. He also met American servicement with the same interest.
Returning to the UK, Clinton wanted to work as a professional musician: “I was going on tour in a variety show in 1957 with a group I had formed called the Backwoods Skiffle Group, although it wasn’t really skiffle. I thought that my real name didn’t sound right and someone came up with Clinton Ford, which fitted in with the Backwoods Skiffle Group much better.” Still, he could, quite legitimately, have been George Harrison.
Skiffle was soon confined to a backwater but rock’n’roll, also a product of the mid-fifties, was here to stay. “I liked Josh White and I loved blues, folk and country music. A lot of the original rock’n’roll was blues-oriented and so it wasn’t offensive to me. I loved Fats Domino doing ‘I’m Walkin’’ and ‘When My Dreamboat Comes Home’. I worked with Little Richard on television and he was a wild man, a marvellous performer. I usually don’t mind whom I’m following on stage, but I don’t think I could have followed him with any success.” The show in question was ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ for 13 October 1962. The line-up was Little Richard, Dion, John Leyton, Marion Ryan, Terry Lightfoot’s Jazzmen and Clinton Ford.
Clinton Ford worked as a Redcoat at Butlin’s for three years and he fronted a skiffle group in a TV commercial for the holiday camps. Sometimes he would dress in a cowboy outfit and sing western songs, his long, lanky frame working in his favour. After working in Butlin’s Pwllheli in 1957, he came to Liverpool and went to a new club, the Cavern. “I had family in Bebington but I had never really been to Liverpool until I went to the Cavern. I sang ‘Ace In The Hole’ with Ralph Watmough’s band and then someone asked if I could sing with the Merseysippi Jazz Band. Their pianist Frank Robinson said, ‘Not another one’, and I’ve been singing with them on and off ever since. I like the sound they make and they are good to sing with. Most of them do a little vocal or two and although they have had permanent singers, I am their longest serving singer even though it is only spasmodic.”
Frank Robinson admits he had reservations: “I was apprehensive about Clinton because most people who want to sing with the band don’t have much idea of keys or intonation. As soon as he sang, I realised that there was no problem with Clinton: he had good intonation and good diction and you can understand every word he sings.”
Ken ‘Nobby’ Baldwin, the Mersey’s guitarist and banjo player, also remembers that audition: “We were playing at the Cavern in 1958 and this guy came through the door. It was Clinton Ford but we didn’t know him and his face was hidden by a pair of sunglasses. I thought he was a poser – you don’t wear sunglasses in a cellar – but there was a reason for this as he had two black eyes. He had just finished a summer season at Butlin’s in Pwllheli. He sang in the bar every night and he had become friendly with one of the girls who worked there. He had taken her to his chalet but she happened to be the chef’s young lady who sussed out where she was. The chef duffed him up and he still had the shiners when we saw him. He didn’t create a good impression at first but as soon as he sang with the band, things were different. We realised he could sing. He knew a few jazz numbers and he had a good voice. His first love was country music which he does very well and then in the nightclubs, he’d be doing ‘Fanlight Fanny’. We love playing with him and we know a lot of his numbers.”
Around the same time, Derek Vaux, a subsequent member of the Merseys, played Butlin’s in Filey as part of that Noel Walker Jazz Band: “We got into the same sort of trouble as Clinton. Clinton told me about the soothing effect that singing had on young ladies, especially holidaymakers, and he just had to visit them at three in the morning to console them. At least, that was the story he told the camp manager before he was evicted.”
Clinton Ford remembers his first songs with the Merseys well as it was the night the trams finished in Liverpool. He sang at the Cavern with them and sometimes slept there overnight. He was a dosser at the Pier Head before he found lodgings: “I had a little bedsit in Canning Street for fifteen shillings a week. It was a marvellous little place. Ron Rubin, who’s worked with everyone, had a bedsit opposite to me, but his was smaller than mine and only ten shillings a week. Somehow he got a piano up there. I played my guitar in my room and did write some songs there. I recorded one of them, ‘Now That You’ve Gone’. I liked playing the Cavern with the Merseys but it’s hard to convey how squalid it was. When it was packed, the moisture would rise and settle on the ceiling. It would condense and drip down your neck. It was an awful place but we loved it.”
Ken Baldwin: “Clinton Ford played with us in the winter and we learnt a lot of his songs. We were semi-pro and playing two or three times a week. We weren’t making enough for him to live on, so we knew that he would never stay with us.”
In 1957 a Butlin’s Redcoat, Russ Hamilton had a million-seller with his Oriole single, ‘We Will Make Love’ and maybe Clinton would do the same for the label in 1958. Clinton wanted to record a catchy song that was going up the American charts for Marty Robbins, ‘The Story Of My Life’, but Oriole wasn’t interested and the song was a UK No.l for EMI’s Michael Holliday.
Instead, Clinton fronted the Hallelujah Skiffle Group, which was not a bunch of friends but a group of session musicians. Ernie Shear, soon to play lead guitar on Cliff Richard’s ‘Move It!’, was on guitar and Clint was joined by members of the Mike Sammes Singers. Three singles were released, one under Clinton’s name and two as the Hallelujah Skiffle Group featuring Clinton Ford. They didn’t sell, one reason being that skiffle was on its way out.
Clinton made his first radio appearance on ‘Follow The Stars’ on 27 April 1958. The producer, David Doré, filed the note, “This engagement is only for a ‘Discovery’ spot in the programme – he still has to pass the BBC audition.”
A week later another producer notes, “I have heard Ford’s commercial record – as far as one can usefully label this sort of thing, he is a rockabilly merchant. Would Jimmy Grant please advise whether he would be more appropriately judged in the skiffle or vocalist channel? I can’t help feeling that few singers of this style would pass the vocalist test.” How intriguing that the BBC had two channels – one with lower standards for skifflers.
Because Clinton had a contract with the Oriole label and the Merseysippi Jazz Band were with Esquire, they could not record together. Or could they? In May 1958 they recorded a single for Esquire and Clinton sang with them on ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. It was released under the name of Al St George. Clinton recalls, “It was not the best of names, and I wished they’d put Alexander St George on the label which was much better. One reviewer said that I would have more success chasing dragons. With a bit of luck, he’ll have thought it was George Melly rather than me.”
Considering his versatility, I would have thought that he would have been ideal for the cover versions on Oriole’s subsidiary, the Woolworth’s label Embassy, but Clint didn’t record for them. “I would have said the opposite to you,” says his Oriole labelmate Chas McDevitt, “His voice is so distinctive that it would be hard for him to use a pseudonym. He was a real live wire and the reason he knew so many songs was because he covered so many styles. Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor knew hundreds of songs and may have known more than Clint but they were confined to one genre.”
Clinton often worked with the Harry Leader Orchestra and in October 1958 Harry Leader, acting as his agent, wrote to the BBC and asked if he could be considered for ‘Mid-day Music Hall’. He wrote, “He is a first class performer who accompanies himself on guitar and needs no orchestra. He specialises in country and western songs. Clinton Ford has already recorded for Oriole and has been signed for another two years. In a fortnight’s time he will be recording some of his own titles. His age is 23.” Er no.
What Harry Leader didn’t know was Clinton had had a BBC audition for ‘Guitar Club’ and ‘Saturday Club’ the previous day. He had played ‘Lovesick Blues’, ‘Back Street Affair’, ‘Someday You’ll Call My Name’ and ‘Nellie Dean’, and John Kingdon reported, “A country and western singer of great value to us in this day and age. Result: Yes.” From then on, Clinton was to work regularly on the BBC and as we shall find next month, perhaps a little too regularly. His first TV appearance was with the Merseysippi Jazz Band on ‘The Ken Dodd Show’, which was from the Central Pier, Blackpool in 1960.
Also, Harry Leader’s letter puzzled the BBC: “Evidently Mr. Ford’s right hand doesn’t know what his left hand is doing as I have received by the same post, a letter authorising Forrester-George to act on his behalf.”
In January 1958 the Merseysippi Jazz Band played at the Royal Albert Hall – at four in the morning. John Lawrence: “It was one of those multi-band concerts where each band would try and upstage the others. You always started with the loudest and fastest tune you could manage. In complete contrast, the Graeme Bell Band started with a very slow Duke Ellington tune and brought the house down as nobody else had thought of doing that. We had been waiting to play since 10 pm because an all-night session was quite a novelty, and there was a huge crowd. We had Clint with us and there was a song at the top of the charts, ‘Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me’ by the Johnny Otis Show, which had a Bill Haley flavour about it. Clint thought it was a good tune and that we should try it. It was an easy tune and we played it well but a song that was at the top of the hit parade was anathema to the serious jazz fans, even if it was an oldie. The stage at the Albert Hall is pretty high so, as with the Proms, the stage is chin high to the people who are standing. One die-hard shouted out, ‘You’re not fit to lick Ken Colyer’s boots.’ We thought this was hilarious so his whole outburst misfired completely. Why people should get so worked up over what they think is authentic music, I don’t know.”
In 1960 Clinton did record officially with the Merseysippi Jazz Band on a vo-de-o-do EP for Oriole. The EP is very good indeed and I particularly like ‘Wana’ which is a close companion to ‘Baby Face’. Cornet player John Lawrence: “We recorded ‘I Wish I Was In Peoria’ with Clinton, which is an American vaudeville song. We also recorded ‘Get Out And Get Under’, which was written when motor cars were beginning to emerge and they were breaking down all the time.” “I still do Get Out And Get Under,” adds Clint,”That’s a beauty. We were doing ‘Peoria’ wrong for 26 years as the Merseys were changing key for the chorus and they shouldn’t change key at all.”
When people criticise country music, they often say it is because the songs are about dead dogs. What they are referring to is ‘Old Shep’ and maybe Clinton set the cause of country music back in the UK, rather than advancing it. Clinton Ford: “Nearly everything I’ve done seemed like a good idea at the time. Even ‘Old Shep’. Red Foley had written it and Hank Snow had recorded a definitive version. Elvis Presley made a lousy version and I’m sure the Jordanaires are out of tune. I had done it on stage and seen the reaction and I said to the Levys who owned Oriole that I wanted to do it but they didn’t like it. I talked them into letting me record it but they wouldn’t release it. They said it was too slow, too dreary and too long. Reg Warburton was a beautiful pianist, who backed David Whitfield, and he got Gordon Franks to do the arrangements for the orchestra and he put two altos on it. I said we needed a steel guitar and a little choir, but no, they did it with a rock’n’roll group and two saxes. Terrible version, terrible.” To me, Clint’s vocal isn’t too good either: he is taking the lyric too deliberately, almost like a choirboy.
But Clint was determined that ‘Old Shep’ should be released: “I said, ‘If you don’t release ‘Old Shep’, I’m going, I know it’s going to be a hit.’ I went in to terminate the contract and Reg Warburton said, ‘Before you go any further, ‘Old Shep’ is being released next week.’ I said, ‘Okay I’m staying’, and it was a hit until Elvis Presley’s version was issued on an EP and that killed it.”
The other side of the single was even more improbable, a rock’n’roll version of ‘Nellie Dean’: “Oh, that was just a joke. When I was at Butlin’s some drunk asked me for a rocking ‘Nellie Dean’ and I just went into it with a guitar. It went down all right so we put it on the B-side. In fact, that was the A-side at first because Oriole didn’t believe in ‘Old Shep’, but I did and I was right.” Ray Charles breathed life into ‘My Bonnie’ and Bobby Darin into ‘Clementine’, but Clinton falls flat on his face with ‘Nellie Dean Rock’.
Being a good-natured bloke, Clinton said he would give his royalties from ‘Old Shep’ to the Battersea Dogs Home. It made the charts and poor Clint missed out. And this was one song which didn’t have royal patronage – Clint heard that the Queen told a member of her household to turn off ‘Housewives Choice’ because the presenter was playing ‘Old Shep’ as she had lost one of her corgis.
With ‘Old Shep’, Clinton became the first British artist to have a hit with a country record. It was not a one-off as Clinton was determined to make more country records. He says, “Oriole didn’t really have a clue how to make records or how to sell them, but they were nice people. I liked them. I wanted to go into country music and I tried to explain to them what country music was and they didn’t understand. They remembered Big Bill Campbell before the war and it sounded terribly corny to me. It wasn’t real country music and they spoke about rocky mountains and everyone walking around with spurs and check shirts and dancing round bales of hay. It wasn’t much to do with real country music: they were laughing at country music. By now I had discovered Hank Williams and all the great country artists, and Oriole wouldn’t let me record the songs. I had to sing rock’n’roll and go with the trend.”
However, the follow-up to ‘Old Shep’ did come from Hank Williams’ repertoire, ‘Lovesick Blues’, although Clint wasn’t happy: “‘Lovesick Blues’ was a labour of love and I shouldn’t have done it. I should have left it to Hank Williams. Frank Ifield deserved a No.l with it as that was a good record.”
Clint’s foray into the seasonal market was with ‘Red Indian Christmas Carol’: “That is a very good, poetic song. It was written by a Christian missionary who wanted to get the Christmas story over to the Hurons, a tribe of Red Indians. They are still Indians to me: whoever heard of playing Cowboys and Native Americans? I was fascinated by the Indian imagery in the lyrics.”
* * * * *
This interview took plac when Madeline Bell was in Liverpool for the Ultimate Divas concert at the Philharmonic Hall in October 2004. Madeline invited me for a breakfast meeting at her hotel so this interview took place over toast and coffee. Transcribing the interview has been great fun as there were discussions on permanent markers, Flora and fry-ups along the way as well as several breaks for telephone calls, particularly as some orchestral parts were lost in the post. Madeline may live in the music world, but her friends are around at 9am. The interview was broadcast in On The Beat on BBC Radio Merseyside on 29 January 2005.
SL: Let’s talk about the Ultimate Divas concerts first.
MADELINE BELL: The first time I did this it was Three Divas at Kenwood House in London, and it was myself, Sheila Ferguson and Ruby Turner with the BBC Big Band. It was wonderful, but it was just a one-off as far as I was concerned and I had no idea what it was going to turn into. The idea was to pick songs from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, but over the past two years it has been changed to Ultimate Divas because there are more of our own hits in it. This time there is Pat (P P) Arnold and Sheila and myself, and I am the only one of the three who hasn’t had a hit. They are singing their hits but I’m okay. I figure I can sing anything.
SL: You did have hits with Blue Mink.
MADELINE BELL: Yes, but we don’t do them. Everything we do everything we do has been made popular by a female.
SL: You started in a group, I think with J, who was the J in R&J Stone.
MADELINE BELL: Yes we were both 16 and we were in the Glovertones: my cousin was Joanne Stone, then Joanne Williams. We were at school during the week and then at the weekends we might go 500 miles to sing at a church. We were singing and getting paid, but it was very little. So many of us from the church were from New Jersey like Dionne Warwick and Gloria Gaynor. I was born in 1942 and I grew up in Newark, New Jersey. We didn’t call it a ghetto but that is what it was.
SL: I first came across your name with Black Nativity in 1962, so how did you come to be in that show?
MADELINE BELL: I was singing with Alex Bradford’s group, who was a very popular gospel singer in the late 50s and early 60s. I had been with them for a year and a half and he got an agent as he wanted to spread his wings. They put us with Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith, who had been part of the Clara Ward Singers, Black Nativity opened off-Broadway in November 1961 for a month and it was sold out every night and on the very last night, this Italian gentleman spoke to the producers. He put on a festival every year in Spoleto and he wanted to take the show there. We would be in Spoleto for four weeks and some of us had never been on a plane before. It wasn’t a direct flight as we had to change three times. After Spoleto, we were going to London to record Black Nativity for Associated-Rediffusion and while we were there, Michael Dorfman – you see, my long term memory is really good! – saw us and he wanted to put the show on at the Criterion Theatre in London for two weeks with two shows a day. I was 19 or 20 then and the show just snowballed. It got bigger and bigger. We were supposed to be in Europe for six weeks, but we came in June 1962 and eventually went home at the end of August 1963. We played all over Europe and we played London four times and when everyone went back, I stayed.
SL: I’ve brought the album for you to sign.
MADELINE BELL: Oh my goodness! (sings) ‘Wasn’t that a mighty day, a mighty day.’ I think I’m singing Joy To The World as Marion Williams had left the studio. There was one song that we hadn’t done and so I did it. We recorded this album before the show opened and so a lot of changes were made.
SL: You’ve been involved with some similarly uplifting projects over the years like The Young Messiah.
MADELINE BELL: I did The Young Messiah with a Liverpudlian, my best friend Vicki Brown. We recorded that in 1979 and it was just a session. Six or seven years later we got a call from Tom Parker, who had put it all together, to say that The Young Messiah had been picked up in Holland and they wanted us to go over for a television show and some promotion, and it got bigger and bigger to the extent that we were playing halls that held 4,000 or 5,000 people. The Dutch are probably more musical than any other country, they like live music, jazz, pop, classical, gospel, all kinds, and they are a religious nation too. The way that The Messiah had been done interested them but it never picked up anywhere else. After The Young Messiah, we did Young Amadeus, Bach and then Verdi, and they were all popular in Holland, and nowhere else. Not even in Belgium which is just down the road.
SL: Did you meet Vicki through being a session singer?
MADELINE BELL: No. I met Vicki on my first recording with Norman Newell and Geoff Love. This was late 1963 and the backing singers were the Breakaways from Liverpool. Then we started doing sessions and they were so friendly to me as I didn’t know anyone at the time. Vicki was my best mate.
SL: She did No Charge and didn’t get a credit.
MADELINE BELL: I know, and that is why she was only shown in profile on Top Of The Pops. Good for her! (Sings) “For the nine months I carried you”. Good song though. All she got was the session fee but she was really popular in Holland. She eventually left the New London Chorale, the Tom Parker project, and she was doing concerts on her own. It was Vicki and a 1,000 voice male choir. It’s so amazing to look at the pictures and see her standing there in a white dress.
SL: There were a lot of great female session singers in the 60s – you, Vicki, Doris Troy, Kiki Dee…
MADELINE BELL: And Kaye Garner whom I still see. There were also the Ladybirds and the Breakaways, and I had a different sound. Mine was thicker and more Gospel and that is what Dusty wanted. The first thing I did with her was In The Middle Of Nowhere. That was me and Doris Troy and Lesley Duncan who now lives in Scotland but we keep in touch.
SL: Do you regard Dusty Springfield as a British Aretha Franklin?
MADELINE BELL: Yeah, and also Dusty was the main cause of Motown breaking in Europe. She brought them over and she talked Vicki Wickham and the producers of Ready, Steady, Go! into doing a television show when they were doing a European tour. Dusty presented the programme and nobody had heard of them but Dusty said, ‘You have to bring this show over.’ She adored Motown.