Solo pianist and singer.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
Interview Text or Transcript
It 2013. How old are you Reg?
It 2013. How old are you Reg?
I’m now 66
So what got you interested in music in the first place?
Um, well my father was musical and when I went to school, the fashion was for special schools for the blind, boarding schools, and I just, I was at school with some really good musicians so it was always going on around me and alerted me to the fact that music wasn’t just something that came out of a radio, it was something that you could actually do. And people that I knew could play it and I might not think that I could ever do it as well as that. But you know I hear people playing the piano and the guitar and the drums which I’ve had some experience with and it was possible for me to sort of have a go at it and then my Dad wanted me to do piano lessons, classical piano lessons so I did those at school, not to a very high grade but I learnt a lot of pieces. My music teacher relented and gave in and didn’t make me keep on with Brahms music so used to teach me Revel and Debussy pieces so I used to do that so obviously that’s the kind of harmony, and when I began to hear Jazz and having been listening to Debussy and Revel etc., that was the kind of harmonic structure I was familiar with you know. Bill Evans and stuff is very much in that neo romantic European harmonic ballpark you know.
Oh I see yes, incredible, incredible. So did you have lessons in Jazz?
No, the only lessons I’ve ever had in Jazz is walking up behind somebody that I liked to hear and said “How do you do that?”
Yes, that’s just asking questions, which I’ve always been a firm believer in. Two things, always ask questions and B. always try and play with people better than you are. And of course when I was playing drums at school trying to be Tony Williams desperately, Pete Jacobson was doing a pretty passable impression of Herbie Hancock.
Was he at the same school as you, Pete?
Yes, I was at school with Pete so, and you know we always got on really well, Pete and I, a lot of people kind of found him difficult but we always sort of clicked, because I think we both kind of just got off on music and there was never any competitive think you know, because I hate music as a competitive sport, it drives me completely nuts. So not to overdo the golden rules, another golden rule is never play with people you don’t like and people that are trying to get one over, people are trying to prove that their chops are better than your chops and all that rubbish, trying to moderate my language here!
But you know what I mean. If it’s not fun it’s no good, and obviously you can be quite serious about the music but it hasn’t got to see like, you know some of these people are so tense and doomy you know, really do my head in. Alan Clarke was taking to me about that, he like playing with me because suddenly everyone is having a good time. The good thing about being 66 is you know what you can do and what you can’t do you know, you know you’re not the greatest this and the greatest that and of course that ceases to matter. What matters is that you get there, you give it your best shot and that’s it. And it doesn’t matter if you’re better than him or worse than whatever, it’s the gig.
Yes that’s right, that’s right. What school was that you were at with Pete?
Worcester College for the Blind as it was then called, it’s now called New College Worcester because it has gone to educational since we were there. It was boys only when Pete and I were there. Pete was a couple of years younger than me and unfortunately his lifestyle meant that he left the planet before I did.
Yes, yes, I know, love him.
Yes absolutely. and I mean yes, stupendous musician. There are some people who’ve got so much facility that they end up getting bored, I think. A friend of mine who used to play with Pete a lot said towards the end he thought he was bored with music because you know he just kind of, I don’t know, he didn’t want to be, he didn’t necessarily want to be a Jazz player he had a, he wanted to be a musician in general. That’s what he used to play with Carmina and various other…
Was that a folk band, an Irish folk band?
Yes, and he loved that you see because it gave him a chance to sort of get out of that purist rut.
Yes, yes that’s right, the world’s a not so good a place without Pete here that’s for sure.
So first gigging then: how did all that come about, do you remember?
Yes I do, my Dad introduced me to some of his friends in Chelmsford, a Saxophone player called Maurice Rowley and Maurice had a dance band and I was 14 or 15 probably and I was playing rhythm guitar because he already had a keyboard player. So I went up with Maurice with rhythm guitar to this dance band and in those days it was still ballroom mainly so I was there as the secret weapon to play the odd pop song and in the meantime the keyboard player would be shouting the chords of The Lady Is A Tramp and Lollipops And Roses and God knows what in my ear. And I was learning these tunes you know.
In real time
In real time.
And you know sort of, you know, “Sweet Georgia Brown, G, 1234...” and that’s it and you either do it or you don’t. If you’d got any ears by the second or third chorus you’re there you know and that was sort of baptism of fire and of course then I would be sort of “And now Reggie Webb will sing this rock and roll song” you know so I’d do that and these old boys would try and do that and I would get annoyed if they screwed it up but you know it was all good fun. And of course as a teenager, this got me, this is where I started gigging, and of course I realised that there was the potential to be part of other people having a good time you know.
And of course, if you’re blind and a bit worried about whether you’re going to be useful or not, being able to actually play a very positive role in other people’s lives like that was a huge buzz and it still is. I still enjoy gigging probably as much as I enjoy music per se you know. And being part of something good, and also as a teenager, when I realised that not only was I going to be able to play music but I was also going to get paid and get free food and drink as well if it was a decent function I thought you know that’s it, this is for me you know.
Because there is my poor old Dad going off to do his horrible factory job every day, hating it, and you know there was a possibility, not that I intended to do music for a living, but that was kind of where the gig impulse started for me. And then I sort of went to university and just wandered into playing more piano because there was a lack of piano players in Birmingham believe it or not. So I started to play Jazz, a bit of Jazz in the holidays with Alan Morgan and Dave Meakin, and we used to play the Red Lion in Margaretting
Oh yes, did you? Oh there is a classic venue.
Yes absolutely with Gordon the landlord. Yes, Alan Morgan and I and Dave had the first, the ‘Reg Webb Trio’ which then became ‘Reg Webb Fusion’ because I, I wanted to commercial gigs because I knew there wasn’t going to be any money in playing for Gordon for a sausage and a pint of beer you know.
No, that’s right, because that was the wages, a slice of pork pie at the end of the night.
That’s it yes. Which was OK but you know, if you could go out and play, you know, Vanity Fayre, Beatles hits and get 25 quid, do that.
Especially when everyone says it’s good, “thank you that was really nice” you know.
What year was that would you say that you were at the Red Lion?
Probably late sixties.
And were you there for long?
Just on and off. I came down in the University vacations, I went to Birmingham to do a social science degree in 1966. so I was there between 66 and 69, so I’d come back and have a crack at the...... sometimes I’d just sit in you know, there would be a guy called Brian Garrett, piano player, very Bill Evans-ish piano player, I don’t suppose he’s still alive, he didn’t have the air of somebody who’d survive that long, bit depressed but good player. so I used to go down and listen to him. And they’d got a drummer called Pete Rodgers, who used to be County Council’s photographer actually, keen Jazz fan was Pete. I think his son’s second name was Thelonious. He was a very simple but straight ahead sort of drummer, Pete, and he played at the Red Lion quite a bit as well. And so I did that and then I got myself an electronic organ because obviously, you know, the gigs, there aren’t pianos, there were quite a lot of piano’s in village halls in those days but a lot of them were crap.
Yes out of tune
And there were less of them by the minute and erm, so then I, Alan went from string bass to bass guitar. Dave was the most jazzy of the three of us in terms of that’s what he really wanted to do; he wanted to be Max Roach really, which is fine. And he wasn’t really suited, didn’t really feel happy in a pop band which ‘Fusion’ increasingly became. So then we got Alan Clarke on drums.
When did it form, ‘Reg Webb’s Fusion’?
Oh, so ‘Fusion’ itself as a style of music had only just come out really. What with Miles and all that CTI label and...
I only really started; I only really called it ‘Fusion’ because it would enable us to play what the hell we wanted.
Oh so nothing to do with the music Fusion at the time?
No, nothing to do with that at all. Just because I didn’t want to get....... I‘ve spent my entire life avoiding being typecast and that was…
And then you call yourself a band, and then you call yourself Fusion, (laughs)
And that’s why my latest Jazz trio with Lincoln Anderson and Andrew Dowling, that’s why that was called ’The Three B’s’ which stood for blind, black and breathless.
I didn’t want to say, people say “What sort of music do you play?” as if you can sort of put it in a of box. I say “I don’t know. I just play what I think is going to be a good idea at the time and if you want to come to the gig, you come and have a listen and you tell me what it/where it fits. Because I don’t know, I don’t care.” - laughs.
So was that what ‘Fusion’, ‘Reg Webb’s Fusion’ was all about .
It was a sort of Jazz gigs and earning a living band to start with and then we got a guitar player and I started writing more songs and I got a solo deal with EMI to do a sort of singer/ songwriter kind of project.
Called, an album called ‘Lucy J’ which sunk without trace because EMI had a complete change of personnel at the top as it happens in record companies and all the product went with it. That was about sort of ’71 or ’2 I did that and then Ian Pearce from Southend joined us, guitar payer and he lasted for a while, we did various demos and stuff, um, of my songs and then when Ian decided to leave and join ‘Tomahawk’, uh, Southend and you know, sort of country rock thing we needed a another guitar player and via a series of..... my bass player went off to look for a guitar player from a band he’d heard in Ipswich and er, came back with the name of Nick Kershaw on his lips. I talked Nick out of his day job for the Department of Employment in Ipswich and Nick was my guitar player until about 1980.
Did he travel down, or did he move down to Essex from Ipswich or did he just stay based in Ipswich?
He started off in Ipswich and then shortly afterwards he moved, yes he moved to I think, blimey where did he move to first? Maybe er, Great Yeldham first, um..
Which is where Roger Odell lives.
Yeah and he rented a place in Yeldham while we were rehearsing, we used to rehearse at Chignell St James village hall and we used to play Nick’s songs, my songs and then that got more Fusion - we’d do some Weather Report tunes and career tunes and prog rock so again it was very undefined, just like stuff that we thought, “Oh that’s good, let’s play that”, not worrying about whether Charlie Parker would have played it.
What kind of venues were around in those days for Jazz.
B: Well we were doing commercial gigs, functions to earn a living, and erm, and then pubs, the ‘Traveller’s Joy’ at Rayleigh, the ‘Bread and Cheese’ at Thundersley, the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in Tilbury, ‘Haystacks’, Canvey Island. Out of the county, the ‘Kingfisher’ in Ipswich and the ‘Mulberry Tree’ in Ipswich. The ‘Colne Lodge’ in Colchester was a pretty popular place, it was like a drinking joint that perished in a mysterious fire. I think Colne Lodge is now an old people’s home, it’s been long since gone, but that used to be a Sunday, lunchtime regular for us, um, either three piece with Alan Clarke, Kenn and me or plus Nick on guitar, later. Yes, Colne Lodge used to get packed you know. And er, yeah I mean the band sort of acquired a reputation because, and I think, you know because, you know we’d play things like, in the same gig we might play a song, you know, some songs by Nick, some songs by me, Steely Dan tunes, Gentle Giant was a big favourite of ours too. And so things like, tunes like The Sorcerers from Chick Corea’s Elektric Band you know and that was, because Alan Morgan, Kenn took over on bass from Alan because, you know, I needed to be with people who could feel these sub divisions you know, without, you know, that ‘do’do’do ‘ (makes Jazz music effect sound) and actually feel the sixteen, trying to explain to people who don’t do that naturally that you’ve got to feel the sixteen ticking by, then you can just pick them off and hit the right ones. And Kenn Elson was the next person after Alan Morgan. Ken was more a rocky character and quite an eccentric guy as well. He was a very musical guy you know and so we were sort of aiming to try and just play music really, music that we liked. And then, now, about the time when, I’m just trying to work out the time scale because my chronological memory is dreadful. I know what happened but I’m never sure really when.
Obviously Nick left in ’80 didn’t he?
Yeah, and I then began to do more gigs, more trio gigs, my..... yes that’s right, after Nick left, Fusion broke up and I started playing with Kenny Baxter’s function band.
Oh did you? Ok yeah.
With Vic Wood and various bass players, Dave Bronze sometimes, Alan Foreman and again Alan Clarke. So working with Kenny, then I was doing quite a bit of recording and I got some rock touring stuff with the outfield and things in the mid-eighties and then there was a recession in this country in the mid-eighties you know and the bottom dropped out of the live music thing. And, when I was away in, actually I was in California and I actually had some time on my hands and I’d already bought, I had this idea in my head that if I was going to survive when there wasn’t touring I was going to have to do my own tracks and do solo gigs. You know, I figured that a pub would probably employ me on my own and of there were sort of some decently programmed drums and things happening, it would work. So when I was, Dave Bronze went away, read the manual on this sequence that I had bought from Trevor Taylor and taught me how to use it. So then I came back from touring, started doing solo gigs and then for live stuff, I’ve never minded doing solo gigs, you know, but obviously I just like to have the opportunity of doing both and for the live stuff I’d formed a trio with Lincoln Anderson and Andrew Dowling which as I said was called ‘Blind, black and Breathless’ which again was similar in sort of concept to ‘Fusion’ really. You know we’d play Jazz standards or Michael McDonald or who cares, you know, just songs.
Yeah, just going back to the California thing again, I remember when you went over there because there was a big fuss around town that Reg Webb’s going off to try and make it in LA so tell me a bit more about that.
Oh well,I was married to an American and we went to live in San Francisco for a while and Dave was living just up the street because he working with Robin Trower you know. And then, but , I mean, I enjoyed that, I did a few illegal bar gigs over there because I couldn’t get a green card, and then the relationship with Heather started falling apart so I came home and left her. She was working for Maria Muldaur as a personal assistant and she had a job and I came back home and just got back into the swing of stuff over here you know.
So you didn’t go over there with the express idea to make it out there?
Well I did go over to get a green card but, because obviously you can’t work in the states without one on a permanent basis. When I did the touring of course, you go in on a temporary work permit, as you know, but I couldn’t get permanent status and Heather ended up not being prepared to stay married to me long enough to get it so I clearly wasn’t going to make it on a permanent basis in the States as a legal person and you can’t survive on illegal bar keys really.
No of course you can’t
So I decided to, there was, and I knew dear old Kenny would always find me a gig in his ‘function’ band so I thought oh well, let’s come back, I’ve never really worried about what I play rather than who I play with you know. And playing with people like Vic was just a sheer joy you know, just enormous fun apart from anything else.
Yeah, and just world class wasn’t he?
Yes exactly, but that’s, if you can, and I don’t, as I’ve probably said before, I don’t really care if I’m playing at Wembley Arena or Renouf’s Restaurant, if you’ve got players of that quality around you, that’s it you know. And you get enough to live on, see that’s why I’m sure, if I’d been a more motivated, kind of grand strategy kind of guy, I will do this, you know, I’m sure I could have probably made more bread but I don’t think I’d have had as much fun.
And that’s you know, just the variety of you know, I never know what’s going to happen next. And even at the age of 66 I don’t know what’s going happen next really. And you know, I’m working with a young singer called Laura Jepp, that band’s called ‘Short People’, again, me trying to avoid labels at all costs. And we do Soul, Motown and Pop music really, just to play for parties.
So in a way, you’ve done what Pete Jacobson always wanted to do. You played the variety of music that he never had the opportunity to do.
Yes that’s right and of course he specialised more and of course he was brilliant at that and then all power to him but of course Pete wasn’t a vocalist and that is an enormous help, I mean that, I think, Pete would have quite liked to been a singer but he just wasn’t, you know.
No, no, and you certainly are.
Well, yes I mean that, I’m so grateful; you know that I’ve been able to maintain that at this blistering age and still it seems to work and I just think that, it’s probably the corniest remark of the day but I mean, talent is such a privilege you know. As I said, I never forget my dad and his fucking boring factory job. And it’s like he had to do that and he was a very proud man and he was determined to support his family and he was going to do that if it killed him and it kind of did that. In the end and he died at the age of 46 so he’s been gone since 1966, Dad you know. And erm, it’s just, I’ve been so lucky that I, you know, if you’ve got that, and all these, hear all these people with talent belly aching about whether they’ve got the right colour M&M’s on their rider you know, it just makes me really angry.
Of course yes. That’s right, that’s right. So you came back from San Francisco and where did you go from there.
We were doing the trio gigs and doing solo gigs and then in the 90’s I did some touring with Lenny Kravitz and Vanessa Paradis and then Suzi Quatro and then I got together with my next wife Kate, who's a good singer. We formed Short People and that ran for like thirteen years or so until Kate and I split up. And then I got hold of Laura to do them, to take over from Kate as the other half of Short People so Laura has worked out very well and I, as I say, I didn’t , I just did sort of trio gigs with Andy and Lincoln and then we do gigs at the 606 every three months or so.
Yes, I love that club.
Yeah, me too, and I’m trying to get more of that, and now I’ve started working with Any Staples and Zak Barrett and his wife Holly and Tony Sandeman, because they are all quite local to me here you see. And I’m trying to get........ we did a gig at ‘The Bull’ in Colchester and that was one of the most enjoyable gig’s I’ve done for ages and I really loved it from start to finish.
Is that a new Jazz venue, ‘The Bull’?
Well, it’s a music venue and they’ve got a sort of room out the back called the Sound House and basically people put their own gigs on there, so it’s either acoustic, singer/songwriter or whatever you know and there is a regular Jazz jam thing that goes on. I just phone up the guy who runs it and said “Can I do a sort of Steely Dan type Jazz gig?” you know. And that was fine so, and it’s basically, they provide a sound system and you just go in and do it so it’s, it’s not a big room but it’s a good sound and , as I say, I loved it, it’s great. So that’s definitely given me the incentive to get more of that stuff together. So that was, actually, I’m still working with that, still working with Andrew and Lincoln, it’s kind of just happened out of the blue.
And that’s been since the 90’s you’ve been working with them is it, those two?
Well that’s a good relationship you’ve got there then as a trio.
Oh yes definitely, when I do the 606 now, I usually don’t use Lincoln because Lincoln has got a busy day job and he really..... you know, driving from Harwich where he lives to Chelsea on a Friday night is you know.
Oh, God, that must be hell on earth, oh dear.
So, you know what it’s like along the embankment on Friday night so Lincoln says “Nothing personal but I’m not doing it”. Fine, understood!
And since I’m not going to be driving it’s hardly for me to start having a view about that. But Andy Staples lives in Tiptree just up the road here so Andy did the last one, so yes the usual mixture of practicality and music you know.
Yes, and that’s the Three B’s is it?
Yes, the three B’s is still working, Andrew and Lincoln, we are doing a gig at Lowestoft Jazz club shortly. We don’t do as much as we did but then again, as I say I do have this thing about getting some more Jazz gigs. I’m not dead yet.
No quite, quite. Did you find there was much going on Jazz-wise through the eighties because we’d had the Jazz Funk boom. That had kind have been and gone hadn’t it by the mid-eighties I guess.
Yeah, not for me there wasn’t. I used to do the occasional trio gig, but again I was never really involved with anyone doing a pure Jazz thing.
Yes, that’s a good thing because that’s kept you working.
Yes, kept me working. So the Ship and Star in Sudbury used to do music gigs, it was mainly Rock bands but they used to take me in there because we were sort of, we were fairly Jazzy but we were also very loud so that was alright. We fit the bill you know.
So did you go back into the....... you're obviously a Jazz player, did you go right back to the roots in the same way a sax player would go back to Coleman Hawkins and find out and see where it all came from as it were?
Well music has always been a sort of series of parallel tracks running at once for me. I started with my Dad who was interested in folk music, particularly Black American folk music, so he used to record these radio programmes for me on tape, things like Alan Lomax field recordings of, you know, Delta Blues Guys and spirituals and harmonica players and things like that so I was aware of the Blues and when I got to school at Worcester, one of the first things I heard was, one of the kids there, I was about 10 I guess, this guy was probably about 15 or 16, playing boogie woogie piano. And then I got into Ray Charles of course and Ray Charles was in his sort of Bluesy phase and there were guys at school who were actually playing and singing that kind of stuff as well so and then, and the Jazz thing crept up on me from a number of angles so I was always aware of that’s where it had come from, if anything I probably missed out on the New Orleans bit and the only New Orleans guy I have really related to musically is probably Bix Beiderbecke I think because he was such a music, you know, and actually talking about Ravel piano music, Bix Beiderbecke wrote piano music very much like Maurice Ravel. Bix Beiderbecke recorded In A Mist which I must learn how to play one day; he was a very talented guy, there’s a lot more to Bix Beiderbecke than King Porter Stomp and so yes, I didn’t sort of do a Sonny Rollins type thing and revisit it, it was all kind of going on at once and various times, like of late, there’s a British guy lives in New Orleans called John Cleary who is piano playing on very much, you know..... Dr John obviously, and every now and again I kind of get a kind of .. for that kind of thing and start listening to that again, but like my life, it is not very systematic, it just kind of wanders along and you start off at one end and who knows where the other end is.