From The Desk – The Real Jungle Room

The Jungle Room by Ed and Eddy
The Jungle Room by Ed and Eddy (Creative Commons –

At Graceland, tourists goggle at the sight of the garish room that Elvis dubbed “The Jungle Room.”

As far as I’m concerned, the real Jungle Room was in Hampstead, London, where Doris Troy resided from 1969-1972, during her time with Apple Records and her reign as doyenne of the British back-ground singer scene.  Befitting her status as a hit songwriter and esteemed performer, and newly signed to The Beatles’ label, she lived in fine style.  A spacious apartment in fashionable Hampstead, with a tennis court, and her Austin Princess limo parked in the back, it had a huge room for entertaining, which she had tastefully decorated  with African motifs and outfitted with enough banquettes and coffee tables to comfortably seat thirty or forty people.

I’d been associated with Doris since her first U.K. tour with The Rolling Stones and The Hollies in 1963, had played with her on all her subsequent European tours, and so, by the time she settled in London, I happily became her full-time pianist and musical director.  I lived reasonably close by, in Camden Town, in a nice third story flat, but because it was only accessible via a narrow, Dickensian staircase, the natural home for my Hammond B-3, when we weren’t on the road, was The Jungle Room.  Being a cool pianist herself, Doris had a fine spinet piano (Yamaha or Kawai, not sure) in there, and also an Afro-Cuban percussion setup.

In this room Doris would assemble vocal groups to rehearse for her myriad vocal session projects and it was where we brewed up the Pentecostal rave-up that became the ground-breaking live album “The Rainbow Testament.” Doris’s Jungle Room soon turned into a “Salon de Soul,” if you will.  Initially, Billy Preston was around all the time, as he was signed to Apple too, and he and Doris were writing and recording full-steam.  I got to spend so much precious time with him … what a warm and friendly man, and so generous … one could learn a lot from Billy P.

Every eminent U.S. touring star had the Troy phone number, and that was often the first call they’d make!  Doris was like the U.S Ambassador for Soul in the U.K, (or more aptly, ” Mama Soul,” as she came to be known there). Her place became a home away from home, and the amazing array of great artists I got to hang out with in that room still spins my head to this day!  Ben. E. King, affectionately called Bennie, Edwin Starr, Maxine Brown, Obie Benson of The Four Tops, Esther Phillips, Junior Walker, Solomon Burke, Rufus Thomas, and a host of others would come by.  The piano, the Hammond organ, and the percussion set-up would usually be too tempting for guests to by-pass, so many an impromptu jam would happen.

It was also ground zero for the many ex-pat Americans in Doris’s orbit:  Pat (P.P.) Arnold and Jimmy Thomas, recently of the Ike &Tina Turner Revue, Rosetta Hightower, Claudia Linnear, Jimmy Helms, and many others got it on back there. Stephen Stills was a frequent visitor and, needless to say, there was usually a sprinkling of Apple illuminati around.

When Chris White, of Zombies fame, signed on to produce “The Rainbow Testament,” he got his first taste of the Pentecostal bomb squad in that room.  By rock’n’roll standards, Chris was a low-key gentleman, arriving sedately with his new bride, but he was rapidly swept up in the contagious atmosphere, only leaving when the last Hallelujah! had been sung in the early hours.  By the time tape was rolling at the Rainbow Theatre some weeks later, Chris had his sanctified hat on for sure!

The band assembled for that live album was a juggernaut, much larger than the regular version of The Gospel Truth (which was usually a 10-piece) so the logistics were formidable .  As an ensemble rehearsal wasn’t on the cards, the great saxman Phil Kenzie, Doris, and I plotted and planned the whole shebang back there in The Jungle Room like it was the Normandy landing. Phil was in charge of the horn section, Doris had responsibility for the choir, natch, and the rhythm section was my pigeon.  Each element was rehearsed separately with the three of us in attendance, and Chris dropped by from time to time to check progress.  By show time the jigsaw fitted together perfectly, as is evident in the finished product.

But, as George Harrison, who produced records with both Doris and Billy during that time, sagely put it, “All Things Must Pass.”  Eventually Doris returned to the States; I followed soon after, as did Phil.  I sometimes wonder if subsequent occupants of that Hampstead house ever walked into that big back room and picked up a ghostly soulful vibe or two.

From The Desk…Re-Issues

Mr. Bing’s by JOtwell

There was time when re-issues (or sometimes first issues) of bygone recorded music was almost exclusively the territory of jazz or classical musicians, and I would try to imagine the feeling of hearing one’s contributions to music from one’s past. After fifty plus years of recording, I think I now know.

The advent of CDs fueled re-issues on a much larger scale, and like many musicians of a certain vintage I’ve been able to hear music I was a part of so many years ago all gussied up for both nostalgia buffs and newer ears.  Older studio recordings nowadays are almost infinitely malleable, via digital manipulation and editing, but filmed live performances from way back in the day tend to be closer to the bone, I feel, because the sound and visuals have to be in sync, so there’s not as much leeway to change or “improve” things.  To me they are the more interesting things to re-view, or re-hear, so to speak.

What I remember most about the recordings I was involved with in the 60s and early 70s in the U.K., which have been the subject of extensive re-issue, was the fact that I was shit-scared, with my heart in my mouth, most of the time, yet the re-issued records don’t convey anything but calm professionalism on my part, and on the part of everyone else involved.

The live concert records and TV performances I did  from that era, with Doris Troy and, particularly Chuck Berry, are alive with swagger and hot licks all round … living in the heady moment, I guess. Mr. Berry, in particular, used to encourage me to play looong piano solos, and he’d whip the crowd up no end, which I appreciated at the time, and still do viewing the footage today.

When I get a compliment from a younger musician about a certain track I played on, it’s a wonderful feeling, whether a studio track or a live one. My idol and dear late friend Larry Knechtel, who played on so many monster records, told me once … and I paraphrase …”The only record that matters is the next one.”  Wise words indeed, but when one has a less extensive track record than someone of his epic achievements, the opportunity to savor highlights of yesterday are something to be savored.

In Nashville there are legions of players who have played on legions of records, both old and new, and the same goes for the brotherhood in the great recording centers around the world, who all deserve the greatest respect. To my brothers and sisters in arms, I would counsel y’all to smell the faded roses whenever they’re available. They may be fresher than you remember!

Happy Birthday Doris Troy

Doris Troy
Doris Troy from an article by Roger St. Pierre

January 6th. would have been Doris Troy’s 77th birthday….those of you who know me personally are aware of the impact she had on my early career, in so many ways, which I detail in my book ” Mersey Me!”,  from her first tour in the U.K. with The Stones and The Hollies, where she wiped the floor with them every gig, to the glory years of the late sixties, when I served as her musical director and pianist.

She earned the title “Mama Soul”, or ” Mother Soul” in the U.K. , where she spent the most fruitful part of her career, after her classic association with Atlantic Records, which resulted in her string of self-written, much covered solo hits, but also her background vocal expertise on records by Solomon Burke and many others. It was well-earned….in the U.K., she was ground zero for the aspiring vocal talents who arrived from the States, and built a formidable Rolodex of savvy studio singers, who she shepherded masterfully through the sometimes stodgy world of British studio recording at that time.

She knew more than most of the producers did about BGV, ( vocal background recording), both as a leader and vocal arranger, and the list of recordings that she contributed to, either solo, or with her team, is quite dizzying. Try John Lennon and Pink Floyd, for starters, and look the rest up !

Larger than life, both in stature and attitude, she made a huge impact in the gradually expanding London recording scene….a queen bee in some ways; she was amazingly inclusive, at home working with Roger Waters or Zombies guru Chris White, Beatles, Stones and on and on.

She was godmother to my daughter Celeste, and always sent gifts at appropriate life landmarks. Celeste visited her in Vegas not long before Doris passed, and I treasure the phone call, which I taped, of that visit.

She lit up my life in so many ways, with her humor, bravery and great talent. It will always be my honor to have known her. Happy Birthday, Angel Face!

From the Archives…Doris Troy & the Gospel Truth perform at the Rainbow Theater in London


This article was written about the “Rainbow Testament” concert and live album. Major ass was kicked that night, I assure you, and by the time the group picture was taken there were probably 40 people onstage…that pic is only a small part of the choir!


More articles by Phil Symes


On The Fly…The Skelly’s Thoughts on 20 Feet From Stardom

Doris Troy
Doris Troy


I just watched a showing of ‘20 Feet From Stardom’ the much praised documentary, and rightly so, which puts the spotlight on the whole sub-culture of female background singers. It was wonderful to see Claudia Linnear and Mary (Merry) Clayton still alive and well, along with so many other of the legendary voices, but I wish they’d have touched on Doris Troy’s amazing contribution, especially when those girls came to the U.K., where Doris was both fixing agent and den mother to those ladies, along with Rosetta Hightower, Madeline Bell, Barry St. John and Liza Strike. It was always a great thrill to get the call to provide one of the male voices on so many of those sessions…and in retrospect, a great honor too. Viva Las Divas!


From the Desk… Visualize It

12-01 Doris

A discipline I learned many years ago from my mentor, Doris Troy, was the technique of composing away from my instrument of choice. She was a pianist, and over the years, when there was no keyboard available, she’d trained herself to visualize a piano part, rehearsing it in her head, so that when she got to a piano, she could play the new piece unerringly at once. It might seem obvious, but at the time it was a new concept for me;  at that early point of my career I always wrote with either a guitar or a piano, but Doris believed that one’s instrumental technique could stifle the flow of compositional imagination.  She didn’t put it in so many words, but that was the gist of it.

There’s a temptation for the hands to follow tried and true patterns, and many writers do, indeed, have rudimentary instrumental skills. That doesn’t mean you can’t  write great songs, but it can mean that sameness may creep into the melodic and chordal end of things. Bobby Russell was a fantastic writer, especially as a wordsmith, but was a limited guitarist. “Little Green Apples” and “Honey”, Grammy winners both, pretty much encompassed his entire repertoire of chords, so in later years every new song sounded like a retread. I was working for him at that time, and tried to convince him to ‘visualize it’, but he considered that rather an uptown concept (which I guess it is if your uptown is Harlem, as it was in Ms. Troy’s case).

The advent of transposing electronic keyboards upgraded the Irving Berlin model (the great composer could only play in F#, and had a rigged piano which effectively transposed), and the capo fulfills the same function for guitarists, but freedom from an instrument can lead to a greater melodic freedom, overall.

Composing a melody chord-free can lead one to wonderful places, and then the chords can be shaped around the melody, rather than vice versa.

Composers and arrangers who use formal notation do this all the time, as they have the written chart as their equivalent of an instrument, but  less experienced writers might find themselves trapped, either by instrumental limitations or by too much in the way of chops. It’s a fine balance, but the private space between the ears is a perfect and peaceful place to get all the ideas in order, before you go to the instrument.

Try writing something away from your instrument of choice; i.e. write it totally in your head. It may take a while to feel totally comfortable, but work on it, until you can create a whole piece without tape,  cell phone or any other aide mémoire. And the bottom line is- if you can’t remember it afterwards, it wasn’t worth remembering.

Having a piece organized mentally can make the realization of said piece much easier when the instrument is introduced, because then one can choose the chords that will best serve the melody, rather than the chords dictating where the melody can go.


More on Doris Troy in Mersey Me! A Liverpool Lad on the Loose in the Swingin’ 60s