From The Desk…Drummers? I’ve Known A Few Pt. 1

My Drums by Joshua Davis
My Drums by Joshua Davis

Recent Facebook confabs with the estimable Bobby Taylor got me meditating on the fact that over a fifty plus year career in music, I’ve been fortunate to have had wonderful luck with the boyz with all the noize.

 

Lee Castle and the Barons
L-R: Mel Preston, Tommy Bennett, Lee Castle, Michael Snow

My first band in Liverpool , Mike & The Creoles, had a fourteen year old redhead named Roy Dyke on the throne, and compared to our callow efforts, he played like a grown man. Roy, of course went on to great things: The Remo 4, Ashton, Gardner & Dyke, a session career, and so on.

Next up was the late Lewis (Lew) Collins with The Kansas City Five, and although he made his great mark as an actor in later years, most notably in “The Professionals” he was a very good drummer, and charismatic, to boot.

Lee Castle & the Barons had Ian Broad, followed by Mel Preston, who played on the Parlophone sides. They were both very solid cats, each able to swing as well as rock.

 

Unknown, Michael Snow, Gerry Wood
Gerry Wood, Michael Snow, Don Broughton

When I moved to London in late ’63, it was largely because I wanted to play with a great, yet still underrated, drummer named Gerry Wood. I worked with him in several configurations: West Five, who had a minor hit with the first Jagger/Richards song cut outside of The Stones, but, more importantly, backed Doris Troy on her first U.K tour with The Stones and The Hollies which led to my long association with Mama Soul. She Trinity, which  featured Margo and Carol from Goldie and The Gingerbreads (very talented New Yorker’s who had a funky, jazzy, feel) with Margo kicking bass pedals on her B-3 and playing deep, gritty solos along with Carol’s cool, blue Fender guitar. I was very happy to play rhythm guitar, with Gerry swinging like the clappers, along with a fine sax player, Don Jones, who covered baritone up through soprano.

Barry Reeves While in Ferris Wheel
Barry Reeves while in Ferris Wheel

After that, Gerry, bassist Mick Fitzpatrick and I backed Diane Ferraz and Nicky Scott on that duo’s ill-fated, but interesting assault on the Top 40. There’s always something good to be found, though, and when I joined the Checkmates, I brought Diane in to morph it into Ferris Wheel with the late Barry Reeves behind the kit. A bit of a wild one at that point, as he was rather close to Brian Jones – he was a powerhouse player, nonetheless, and went on to  a successful stint with Blossom Toes, before becoming a fixture with the James Last Orchestra.

Dennis Elliott on his boat.
Dennis Elliott on his boat.

Barry’s exit led to the entrance of another teenage phenomenon, Dennis Elliott, then  a mere lad of seventeen, but frighteningly accomplished, and perfectly capable of executing all the intricate  moves that occurred  on the later jazz/psych stuff we did with the soaring Linda Lewis, who was just sixteen at the time. Dennis went on to anchor The Roy Young Band and England’s greatest jazz-rock band “If”, before hitting pay dirt most deservedly with Foreigner. He set a template for stadium and arena drumming that is still hard to beat. But I betcha’ he could still play a Max Roach groove right now that would make you check your watch.

When I started to supervise all the publishing demo output for R.S.O. we were cutting ten to twenty tracks a month, and Tony Knight helped ease that workload, along with Rob Townsend (of Family), when he was available. Both excellent and versatile drummers.

Putting The Gospel Truth soul and gospel revue together for Doris Troy was quite an undertaking, as it involved anywhere from fifteen to thirty players and singers, including a horn section, choir, percussionists and three keyboard players, but NO GUITARS. I brought in the great Jamaican drummer Byron Lye-Fook for all of that, including the live album “The Rainbow Testament” recorded at London’s Rainbow Theatre.

Byron Ley-Fook
Byron Ley-Fook

Apart from his chops, Byron exhibited an almost preternatural Rasta calm at all times, which I found very reassuring given the volcanic and open-ended nature of the proceedings. I could always be sure he’d have his eyes and ears wide open, watching both Doris and I like a hawk, in case the improv took on unexpected directions.

During this same time frame, my old pal from The Zombies, Colin Blunstone, had a surprise big hit – the Denny Laine song “Say You Don’t Mind” (from his first solo album “One Year”), but performed with only a string quintet for backing. It was brilliantly arranged, like most of the album, by Chris Gunning. Colin had never worked with anyone but The Zombies and had never had to put a band together from scratch. So, he asked me if I’d do the necessary, which involved an electric rhythm section and a string quintet, as he was expected to do The Zombies hits in addition to the new solo material. His management had the very innovative idea of only booking into the symphony halls and opera houses, with Roy Wood’s freshly minted brainchild Electric Light Orchestra as the opening act. Very exciting stuff, except that the tour was supposed to kick off barely weeks away. I didn’t have to worry about the string players, as the guys who’d played on the album were already signed up, but I had to put the electric band together in a hurry.

If you know The Zombies records, they are not pushovers….very jazzy, with complex chords, and we also had to deal with the new material, which required an excellent guitar player, both on electric, but also on acoustic and classical, and a versatile bassist. Of course, the keyboards and conducting end of things was totally on me. God! The confidence of Youth!

It being the start of the touring season, my Rolodex ran dry in a hurry, but I’d heard on the vine about a really good up and coming bass player Steve Bingham, who I’d not booked before, so I called him and he proved ideal at once (these days he’s leading Geno Washington’s very successful resurgence in Europe).

I was still making drum calls, but I didn’t feel this would be Byron’s cup of tea, although I knew he’d be available, as Doris had put the Gospel Truth on hiatus for the summer, with George Ford, Phil Kenzie and other key players otherwise committed, including myself with Colin, and the live album in the mixing stage.

I was still short a guitar player when I had my initial meeting with the string section. Fortunately one of them gave me Derek Griffiths’ number, and he proved to be just the ticket, as he could read, and although more a specialist in acoustic and classical guitar, he was also a capable electric player too……which left drums.

Drumsticks on Snare Drum by Rob Ellis
Drumsticks on Snare Drum by Rob Ellis

So I dropped the dime on Byron….as expected, he was initially dubious, but I had my selling shoes on, so he agreed to come over and listen to the proposed set list. He was familiar with “She’s Not There”, of course, and he got into the syncopation of “Tell Her No”. By the time we’d got to “Time Of The Season” he allowed that it was pretty happening stuff and telling him that he’d have a break when we did the string quintet portion of the set….well, that sealed the deal. By that point we only had a week for rehearsal in the old Ken Colyer Jazz Club, off Shaftsbury Avenue. Two days without Colin, so I could routine the rhythm section, two days with Colin and the section, one day with the string quintet, and two days with the full ensemble, including the finale, an arrangement of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” which I wrote at the last-minute, at Colin’s suggestion, for all nine pieces.

Byron was rock solid from day one and his island nuances really sat well with the older Zombies material. The tour was a great success, and our dreadlocked drummer, possibly the first West Indian to ever play in some of those old concert halls took to it all like the proverbial duck to water. It went so well that at tour’s end we all went into Abbey Road to cut Colin’s follow-up album “Ennismore”, which resulted in the big hit single “I Don’t Believe In Miracles”.

My involvement in Rockin’ Horse was initially strictly as a session player.

The concept was built around the vocal and songwriting talents of the already successful Billy Kinsley (Merseybeats, Merseys, and later Liverpool Express) and a lesser-known artist, Jimmy Campbell, who’d  caught attention for his distinctive confessional writing style and a vocal delivery to rival John Lennon (in The Kirkbys and The 23rd Turn-off).  Billy and Jimmy were based in Liverpool, and their producer/manager  Hal Carter felt that what they had would benefit from building a studio band around the two of them. Jimmy was a more than serviceable rhythm guitarist, Billy, a studio quality bass player, and Hal rounded it out with Stan Gorman on drums, Bobby Faloon on lead guitar and banjo, and I on keyboards and 12-string guitar. The hired guns were encouraged to join in the group-think, and band cohesion built quickly. Stan intuited that a certain flavor of Ringo’ness would suit the overall picture, and we went on to make an album “Yes It Is”, that as a result of  its many reissues over the years has been lauded as “the first Power Pop album” and “the best album The Beatles never made”. Stan’s drumming was a big part of the slightly retro nature of the overall sound, which in 1973 was viewed as passe, but has proved to have staying power.

In a strange twist of fate, the only touring Rockin’ Horse (or a variant thereof) ever did was a European trek, backing Chuck Berry. It was probably as a result of Hal Carter’s contacts, but it was initially weird, as the gig was purely to back Chuck, which suited me fine. What Liverpool lad worth his salt wouldn’t want that gig? Mr. Berry’s reputation as a difficult cat preceded him, so Hal had wisely set up a warm-up show at the University of Lancaster before the main tour kicked off. Just as well!

I had heard that Chuck preferred to communicate with the piano player, if there was one, so I was duly summoned to his dressing room beforehand. He was silkily courteous, and when I asked what the plan was, he replied that the plan was to play some Chuck Berry music. When I shamelessly name-dropped both Johnny Johnson and Lafayette Leake (his most famous piano cohorts) he replied that we ‘d get on well, which indeed proved to be the case. He demonstrated some physical cues for breaks and endings, and that was it. No set-list, no keys…

Drums by  katharine  shields
Drums by katharine shields

I took this scant information back to the lads, and next thing we were up on stage in the thick of it. Chuck’s tuning was casual at best and he was blasting a stereo Gibson 345 through two Marshall stacks, while the monitor set-up left much to be desired, so considering we were hanging on for dear life, I didn’t think it had gone too badly. Not so Mr. Berry. I was summoned again “You, the rhythm guitarist and the bass player are fine. I don’t need no lead guitarist getting in my way, so he’s gone, and that drummer’s too fancy. He’s gone too. Find me a meat and potatoes guy who’ll stick to me like glue .” Dismissed. This was not the kind of news I wanted to be carrying back to the band room, but when I did, Stan and Bobby seemed relieved, and were probably glad to bail and get back to the studios. Billy was thinking fast on his feet, and immediately brought up the name of Dave Harrison, back in Liverpool, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of Chuck’s work, and fitted Mr. Berry’s description to a tee. There were no recriminations. It was chillingly business-like as Stan and Bobby arranged to ride back to London with the gear and after Billy had a quick confab with Chuck, he, Jimmy and I jumped in Chuck’s limo to make the thirty mile trip to Liverpool right now!

You cannot make stuff like this up…on the ride Chuck was affable, and obviously had a comfort level that all three of us were from Liverpool. He inquired where Stan and Bobby were from, and when we replied London and Glasgow, he grinned ” Naw, I need me a Liverpool band’. We arrived on the outskirts of town at about 2 a.m. and Billy navigated us to where Dave lived, above an auto repair shop he operated. It was a serious lights-out situation when Billy started trying to knock ’em up. There were no mobile phones back then, of course, so we’d just had to fly blind with no warning. I didn’t know Dave at all, so as Kinsley loped over the forecourt, I was watching everything-Chuck in the corner, with a lazy smile on his face, Campbell clenched and quiet.

A light came on upstairs, a blond bloke in his skivvies was shouting, “Whatcha’  want?” I could see Billy yelling up and pointing towards the car. Jimmy jumped out and did a soccer sprint to the scene of the action, and also started yelling and pointing.

Chuck, vastly amused, drawled…”Yeah, this is what I figured Liverpool would be like.”

A few minutes later, Dave came down and opened the front door, with his missus yelling away behind him. Billy and Jimmy walked him barefoot to the limo. He put his head in the open back window, his eyes saucers. Chuck looked at his prominent gold watch, and said “Hi, Dave, these gents tell me you’re the man for the job. You comin’ or what?”

Chuck Berry Performs at The Speakeasy in London with Rockin' Horse as the backing band.
Chuck Berry Performs at The Speakeasy in London with Rockin’ Horse as the backing band.

“Give me half an hour to pack a bag and get the drums out of the shop,” he replied. There was room in the trunk for his kit, as all the rest of the gear had gone south with Stan, Bobby and the road crew. Given the circumstances, Dave conducted himself pretty calmly, which was a good sign, and when we arrived in London, he had a free day to rest up and adjust. Again, the only rehearsal was me showing him Chuck’s body cues, and when he asked about the duck walk,  I replied “That’s when you get your head down and drive it hard,” as the walk was usually the signal for some heavy guitar/piano soloing.

Dave’s debut and the official start to the tour was seamless, and he played all the dates, including live T.V. concerts in London and Germany, with great distinction. Chuck was happy, we were happy, and a good time was had by all. When it wound up, the guys went back to Liverpool on the train with their gear in the luggage car, and I never saw Dave again, but he had his moment and rose to the task magnificently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From The Archives…The Ferris Wheel

The Ferris Wheel
The Ferris Wheel

Clockwise from center front: Linda Lewis, George Ford, Dennis Elliott, Dave Sweetnam-Ford, Bernie Holland, Michael Snow

This photograph from 1972 shows the final personnel of Ferris Wheel.

This line-up recorded one album for Polydor (UNI in the U.S.)

Click the links for more info on these great musicians!

From the Desk … “I gotta desk, you gotta desk, all god’s children got desks, baby … Thank you, Lord!”

Mersey Me!

Ferris Wheel had good reasons for calling a halt:  We’d ridden the crest of the “soul boom,” and had fun doing it; we’d traveled all over the UK and Europe, played festivals with the likes of The Who and Cream, solidified our reputation as a fearsome live act, and survived a possibly fatal change in personnel, to reinvent the band and give it a second go-round.  So there was a certain professional pride in quitting while we were ahead.  Linda and Dennis were at the thresholds of their careers, full of talent and ambition, George and Dave had been on the road since the late fifties, their children were now adolescents, and George wanted to pursue a “stay-at-home” career as a session musician and hired gun, and Terry Edmunds’ indisposition had left us playing with a string of fill-in guitarists in the last few months of the band’s existence.

For me, there had been significant changes, both professional and personal over that four years. After Patti Dyer returned to the States in the autumn of ‘65, I’d started writing to her, at first with no reply, but after a while I did get a casual note or postcard now and then.  Over time, as I mounted a blitzkreig campaign of letter-writing, basically begging her to return to England, her replies were as brief and succinct as mine were long and effusive … I felt I wasn’t doing too well.  Then, in the spring of ‘67, I received a note asking me to meet her at Heathrow Airport on a certain day in the immediate future, just like that!  From that moment on, we were a couple, and were married on 31st August 1967.  Three years later, to the day, our first child Celeste was born.  With a baby around I didn’t want to be away all the time, which would have been reason enough to get off the touring grind, but I was also increasingly drawn to the “back room” world of songwriting full time and the studios, both as a player and, hopefully, a producer.  I knew that to achieve any of that, I had to be in town.

The other factor was that Doris Troy was back in London, with a mews off Baker Street, a recording and publishing deal with Apple, no less, and George Harrison set to produce her.  She had been in touch before she came over to check if I was free to become her musical director/pianist, which I couldn’t commit to at once, but of course I wanted to renew our musical partnership, and needed to be free of long-term commitments in order to do that.

The band had been very up front with the Gunnells, which was always the safest way to deal with them, and as I was signed to them for publishing as well as management, they offered me a job as professional manager of their publishing division, St. George Music, so I could learn the ropes of publishing and the studio and have some guaranteed money coming in, while giving me a schedule flexible enough that I could freelance some, and also prepare a solo album (the singer/songwriter vogue being the “next big thing”).  It was, in retrospect, an extraordinary gesture on their part, and I was determined to justify their faith in me.  We’d always got along well with those guys, despite their scary reputation, and rather than being pissed off at losing a solid commission earner, it was very cool of them to approach the situation the way they did.

The Gunnell Group had been a completely independent entity when they signed Ferris Wheel, but a couple of years in, with the profits resulting from their near-monopoly of the soul touring circuit making them a prime target for a takeover, they’d merged their operation with RSO (The Robert Stigwood Organization), which was riding high with The Bee Gees and Cream.  So when I first reported for work, it wasn’t to the slightly frayed Gunnell office in Chinatown over a takeaway, but rather to the grandness of Mayfair, directly opposite Claridge’s at 46 Brooke Street.  No. 46 was actually completely Gunnell turf, while the main Stigwood office was up the street at No. 67, which was fine by me as I was a Gunnell man through and through, and I had little dealings with the RSO operation at first.  I had my own office, and my first (modest) expense account as I set about using all the time no longer devoted to traveling to writing, pitching songs, cutting demos, and familiarizing myself with the catalogue, which represented the compositions of John Mayall and Manfred Mann lead singer, Michael D’ Abo, some Georgie Fame titles, and various other odds and sods in addition to my stuff.

I got lucky early on, because there still wasn’t any strictly formulated way to pitch a song, and certainly no book to tell you how to do it.  The network of Denmark Street/BBC connections was closely guarded, so I just hung in the clubs until I saw some artist I knew, then I’d go over and slip ‘em a tune, which back then involved a 45 rpm acetate, so you had to have big pockets if you were off for a night on the pitch.  I ran into Colin Blunstone one night at the Speakeasy, and after a drink or two, during which he told me he was back in the music game after a spell as a civilian, following The Zombies sad demise, I gave him an acetate of a Michael D’ Abo song called “Mary, Won’t You Warm My Bed,” which he went on to record on his brilliant solo debut “One Year.”  Needless to say, that was a feather in my fledgling cap, when the album became a critical favorite, and a big seller, due to the single, the astonishing string-quintet version of the Denny Laine song “Say You Don’t Mind,” which made the top ten.  That pleased the brothers Gunnell, thank god, so I felt I was doing OK right there at the start of this next chapter.

I had a free hand with supervising the St. George demos, so as Patti and I had moved to Wimbledon, after our first idyllic year in a lovely Victorian garden flat in Putney, I started to book demo sessions into R.G. Jones, which had been the first serious independent studio some years before, and was literally around the corner on the next street.  Old R.G. had long ago blown out his ears, and while a lovely bloke, was deaf as a post.  But his protege Geoff was a very able young fella, and we got on famously, especially as I soon made St. George a significant account for their business.  That studio had also become the favored rehearsal space for The Stones, who all lived in that neck of the woods, more or less, so I would occasionally wind up a session as Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman (always the first!) would be getting set up, and very nice they were, musos first, no bullshit, and up for a chat and a laugh.

I started putting together a bit of a session team, as I knew that the great recording centers in the US all seemed to have studio “house bands” and the only real equivalent, within the newer breed of session musicians, was Barry Morgan’s team in North London, who would go on to record as Blue Mink, featuring Roger Cook and Madeline Bell on vocals.  George Ford was naturally my first choice on bass, and depending on availability, Dennis Elliott, Rob Townsend from Family, or Tony Knight took the drum chair.  I shared guitar duties with Steve Kipner of Tin Tin, and I handled keyboards.  The office was pleased with the heightened quality of the demos, so I started supervising demos for No. 67 as well.

Doris, being Doris, had got herself installed in her own office at Apple, and one day, soon after I started at No. 46, she called me, inviting me over to see her new quarters.  I took the pleasant stroll from Brooke Street over to Savile Row and was ushered into her office.  Resplendent in a high African head wrap and a floor length dashiki, she stretched her arms wide … “I gotta desk, you gotta desk, all god’s children got desks, baby … Thank you, Lord!” Summed it up, really.

To read more of the chapter – get the book at www.michaelsnowbooks.com