Drummer and founder member of Shakatak.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
Interview Text or Transcript
Are you a drummer first and foremost?
Are you a drummer first and foremost?
I play a tiny bit of vibraphone. In order to get Grade 8 drumming you had to know theory of music and I really didn’t know anything about chords. So in order to learn about the melodic side I thought it would be a good idea to learn the vibraphone, so I did vibraphone to Grade 5. On piano I can work out chords. I would not call myself a pianist but I do a bit of arranging for my little Jazz trio so I’m kind of familiar with what a C7 chord is, but I wouldn’t call myself a pianist, so it has been drums really.
When did you take up drums?
I’ve probably got Lonnie Donegan to thank for starting drums, like a lot of guys of my generation.
How old are you?
I’m 71, so cracking on a bit now. It was Skiffle that got me into it. Everybody was taking up guitar or washboard or string bass – tied up with a tea chest, and I fiddled around on guitar for a little bit but that hurt my fingers and I thought “I don’t like this too much” and then I got into drumming. I made a pair of brushes out of some bits of broken stick (bamboo things) and played on a biscuit tin . So that’s how I started and fiddled around on that, playing Skiffle music really – do it yourself stuff – and then I was at school, at Buckhurst Hill County High School, another Essex school, and I was kind of into Elvis, Lonnie Donegan, Bill Haley, early Rock and Roll, that kind of thing, and then a guy at school brought in this……
Were you a Teddy Boy?
No not really, I was more of a Mod. Sharp Italian suits, short hair and all that. A kid at school brought in this album, well actually it was an EP by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, and it had Chico Hamilton playing brushes and it totally blew me away and it was like Modern Jazz from thereon until now because that really turned me around. So I got into Jazz drumming a little bit. Eventually took some lessons and kind of got into drum kit playing from that moment on.
Do you remember when you first started gigging Jazz?
Yes, probably playing in little local dance bands, playing the Top 20 of the time. I played in a band that was based in Bishops Stortford in Hertfordshire called the Jay Connolly Quintet and they would be playing two or three gigs a week – little bit of standard dancing like waltzes and fox trots for maybe first half an hour and then Beatles stuff and whatever was in the Top 20 at the time. So I was doing that and at the same time I started to play Modern Jazz. There were a couple of Jazz clubs in Cambridge and I used to drive up to Cambridge and play there, and then there was a pub in Harlow called the Greyhound and there was already a little Jazz group playing there run by a guy called Melvyn Crowle, saxophone/tenor player, and he had a kind of Miles /Coltrane quartet and he played every Sunday lunch time at the Greyhound, which is in the Harlow park, and they were doing it fortnightly, and the publican wanted to do something weekly. They didn’t want to do it weekly and so as I’d got a little Jazz group I started playing there once a fortnight and playing in Cambridge.
Who was in your trio then?
Bass player would have been John Hosey who was a Harlow guy and a pianist called Dave Richards. The alto player was called John Phillips, another Harlow guy, and we had a trumpet player, can’t remember his name now and this would have been very early 60’s. Later on I played with a pianist called Alan Gowen and we had a trio with Alan, John Hosey still on bass and me and then a saxophone player called Alan Bulley, who is still around, and a guitar player called Alan Forsythe, same, Harlow guys again. It was usually myself and John Hosey on bass and then there would be different horn players.
What kind of Jazz music were you playing?
It would be going from what was considered to be Modern Jazz at the time, Miles/Coltrane and that kind of thing..... Sonny Rollins..... and then we kind of got into Ornette Coleman when Ornette Coleman first came on the scene. So it was slightly more into Free Jazz a little bit, so it was pretty 'out there' really but there was an audience for it in Harlow because there were a lot of people that were into slightly left-field art. There were a lot of poets and artists and they used to come along because they were interested in the cutting edge of Jazz, as it was at that time, so those sessions were always well attended.
Were there any other venues around that area at that time for Jazz?
I think there was a place at the Stowe, above a Chinese restaurant and it was like a bit of a Rock venue at times. Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds I know played there and maybe Georgie Fame, people like that at the time. There was a band called The Naturals as well that came from Harlow. They had a few hits with doing Beatles covers in the early days and I think they played there, and then I think once a month they would have a Jazz thing there. I played there a few times. I think the local branch of the MU used to support that. I would have been in my early 20’s I guess, playing mainly Jazz for fun – no money, and then doing little commercial dance band gigs at the weekends where we used to earn at least a decent wage. The only other thing that I used to do, I did join a big rehearsal band in London that was run by two trombonists from the John Dankworth orchestra. Tony Russell and Ed Harvey used to run this band for student Jazz players and I used to troll up once a week to London – I remember because I was living in Epping, still with my parents at this time and I didn’t have a car, and I built a wheel barrow with two big wheels that I used to load my drums into, then push them up, er.......... anybody who knows Epping, Bower Hill, which is like a 'one in ten' hill......... parked my barrow outside the station in Epping, load two or three drum cases onto the tube, storm up to Tottenham Court Road, get a taxi, load the drums into the taxi - what commitment!- and go to the studio, do my gig, taxi back to the tube and the amazing thing is that I used to leave this little wheelbarrow just outside the station and there it would be when I got back! I think today, that wheelbarrow would be trashed within 5 minutes wouldn’t it? With kids jumping on it and going up and down the road. That always amuses me how those sort of times have changed. Anyway that was when I was perhaps first playing with really top pro London musicians.
At that point in Essex in the 60's were you getting out anywhere else in Essex to check out any live acts at all?
I would probably go out of the county then. There wasn’t a scene as such in Epping. Harlow was really the nearest place that I knew of at that time, although later I began to meet guys. Eventually when I got married I moved to Bishops Stortford and I was running a gig there at the Triad Art Centre and I got to know the guys from Southend who were running Jazz gigs at the Top Alex; Kenny Baxter and all those guys. It was a band called C Level.
C Level? That was in the 80's.
Oh that was much later then.
Tony Sanderman, Gary Plumley and Alan Clarke……
So I was kind of aware that there were other jazz things going on around because at this time I was doing a day job and all my little gigs were either at weekends or in the evenings and I really didn’t get out to a lot of the other gigs. I was actually pretty busy because of the day job and then in the evening I would have my dance band gigs, maybe Friday and Saturday. Sunday would probably be the Greyhound and then I was playing at the Cambridge Jazz Club because there were two Jazz clubs in Cambridge – one run by the University and another one by what they used to call the townies i.e. the non-students, and very often I would be playing there as the local drummer, and so I was playing five or six nights a week and doing a day job. I didn’t get out to a lot of other gigs and if I did I would very often go into London and go to Ronnie’s or the Marquee which was running Jazz in those days as well as Rock ,and I’d go to all the Rock things as well. This was, I remember, the early days of Yes and King Crimson and bands like that, and that was pretty early on - must have gone into the 70's, but early days.
And from a Jazz perspective where do we go from there?
Well I suppose the first venture away from the strict Jazz thing really was that I joined a band with my wife Lorraine, who is a singer. We both joined a band that was called CMU and it was based in Cambridge. The rest of the guys were from Cambridge and it was the first sort of hint, I suppose, of fusion in the sense of the real word, not Fusion with a capital ‘F’ but it was a band that was trying to combine Folk, Jazz, Rock elements and we became reasonably successful. We would do the University circuit. We had a recording contract with Transatlantic - their big band at the time was Pentangle but they had a lot of folky acts, and we signed with them. We made two albums with Transatlantic and that’s when I turned fully professional. I gave up my day job, Lorraine gave up her day job and off we went. But inevitably, travelling around for next to nothing – we were just about paying our way but it was pretty close and eventually we wanted to start a family and we thought “Hang on, this is not happening”. So, not for only that reason but the usual musical differences, personality complexes, the band eventually broke up and I thought “Well I’m going to have to get a proper pro job”, and I answered an advert in the Melody Maker. I went along to a night club in Mayfair to audition for this little band. It was a high class hooker joint really but it was a little band that was playing there and I auditioned and I was offered the job, and that was like a six night a week job, again playing all kinds of pop things.
So throughout the 70's there was no Jazz at all really for you?
No. I pretty much stopped playing Jazz because I was too busy earning a living so to speak, and then I remember coming back from the gig late at night, I used to put on Radio 2 and late night radio, and they had this band called Nicky North and the Northern Lights that used to do a half an hour late night session and they would just perform the kind of pop hits of the day. I used to listen to them and thought it's a really good little band. Then lo and behold, again in the famous Melody Maker, which is like the musicians’ directory of the time, this advert came up - Nicky North resident act at Stevenage Locarno – 'drummer wanted'. I thought I’d better go along for that. Went along and managed to get that gig. Now that band had Trevor Horn on bass, who later became the famous producer and, Tina Charles who had quite a few hits herself later on, and it was a really good band, like ten piece band, full brass section and that was like a five night a week, full on, pro gig. I was doing that, and it was about the start of Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album which came out – Chick Corea 'Return To Forever'…
So ‘75 we were talking about?
Yes ’75, and I thought this is great you know, it was kind of the popular music combination of the rock grooves and stuff which I’d been playing and the current pop hits of the time I suppose, and also of course the great drummer Steve Gadd was beginning to emerge and he was really the first drummer that kind of successfully and stylistically combined the Jazz with the Funk Rock and every drummer in the world went “Wow!”. Because up to then drummer-wise for me it had been the Jazz guys such as Philly Joe – all the guys that played with Miles, Philly Joe, Jimmy Cobb. Tony Williams of course blew everybody and Tony became a huge influence on me, and then Steve Gadd kind of really came out as Fusion came out and of course all the drummers were thinking – “Hey this is another approach”. I thought I wanted to do this so I said to Trevor Horn, bass player: “I want to get a little band together just to play on our nights off or at Sunday lunch time. Are you interested?” He said he was, because similarly, like me, he was getting hooked on this Fusion stuff. So now at this time I was living in Bishops Stortford, I was married and just down the bottom of my road there was the Triad Art Centre. So I asked around. I knew Keith Winter, guitar player, because the band I mentioned earlier, the little dance band, the Jay Connelly Quintet, was run by his Dad, Derek Winter, who is a vibes player. Keith was a little tot when I first started to play with them but I knew him and I knew he played guitar and he’d got pretty good, so I got in touch with Keith, mentioned about getting this band together, he said “Yes I’m interested”. Now I had played as a guest drummer with a band in Bishops Stortford and a guy playing flute with that band was Bill Sharpe and I asked around for a keyboard player in Stortford and somebody said “You should check out Bill Sharpe” and I said “Yes I know Bill Sharpe, he’s a flute player and plays a bit of guitar” and they said “No, you should hear him on piano’”and I said “Really? OK”. I called him up. OK, so they were all interested in doing this thing, so we formed a band called ‘Tracks’: Trevor on bass, me on drums, Keith on guitar, Bill on keyboards and we played alternate Sundays down at the Triad Art Centre and that went on for about a year. This would have been mid to late 70's I suppose, and it was kind of a combination of what Herbie Hancock was doing with Headhunters and Chick Corea 'Return To Forever' band, particularly the ‘Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy’ album, which was the all-electric one, and of course. Weather Report were coming on the scene as well, so it was all that kind of thing.
Did you ever record?
Yes. At the time Bill was training to be a BBC engineer and as part of his training he used to get 'down time' where he could play around in the studio, and that was an ideal opportunity to get the band in there. We put a few tracks down – about six or seven which we later made up to a white label bit of vinyl and sold it out at gigs. We actually turned that into a CD about ten years ago.
So in the meantime Nicky North and the Northern Lights band is moving around the whole Mecca Ballroom thing in London because at that time Mecca was like almost the main employers of professional musicians, sadly no longer really happening, and we would do the Hammersmith Palais and one in Leicester Square. You know they would move you around every six months or a year to a different place. We eventually ended up at what was called ‘The Cat’s Whiskers’ in Streatham, just down the road from the Hideaway. In that band we got to do a lot of sessions. Nicky North was writing jingles so we were getting sessions doing jingles for radio and TV and he also managed to get a session where there they used to make albums and sell them in Woolworths called ‘Top of the Pops’ – they were not the original versions but copies of the Top 20, and we did all those for about three years I suppose. Every month we would do a session – full day of sessions and that was fantastic experience for me because we’d start off the first session – there would be like a full orchestra, full rhythm section, full band and anything that had been in the charts that needed strings or whatever. We would do all those and then we would kick all the string players out and maybe we would do the next lot that perhaps had horns, because, obviously, to save money you didn’t want all those string players hanging around so it was all very organised. Then we would do all the horn things and anything like Earth, Wind And Fire covers and that kind of thing and then we would turf them out. We would end up at the end of the day with a power trio of guitar, bass and drums and we would do Jam stuff and it was tremendously broad for me because I would be playing on the same session, incidentally with the same drum sound which always bugged me a bit, so I would start off with some sort of cool kind of Christopher Cross or some sort of Neil Diamond kind of thing and a full Barbara Streisand cover or something with full orchestra – L.A. drum sound, you know, and then at the end of the session we would be doing something like Jam or even probably Sex Pistols covers, however with the same drum sound, which didn’t quite work.
Was that still with Trevor Horn on bass?
Yeah, that would have been the early days but probably during that time, Trevor and Tina – well Trevor had the big hit with Video Killed The Radio Star and formed ‘Buggles’ so he left and Tina had the hit with I Love To Love so she departed so there were some changes. A new bass player came in and the new singer was Jill Saward, who was eventually with Shakatak of course, but I will get to Shakatak in a minute. So I was doing all those sessions. When Trevor Horn left, the bass player, Steve Underwood from Bristol, auditioned and got the gig. Really good reader Steve was, and it was a reading gig. You know that’s really the reason I got the gig probably because my reading had got real good from doing the big band stuff with the John Dankworth guys earlier in my career, so I was quite comfortable with all that. Now Nicky was the keyboard player and singer and eventually he wanted another keyboard player, so Steve recommended this guy, Nigel Wright - the Nigel Wright who is now producing people like Andrew Lloyd Webber and doing all the big TV shows in the States such as X-Factor and all that stuff. Anyway, Nigel came up from Bristol as well, joined the band, and in fact he started to write a lot of arrangements for the band, copying the pop hits of the day and writing stuff out for us to do these Top Of The Pops cover sessions. Now a guy called Les Mc Cutcheon, who was a sort of a DJ around Nottingham, and was also involved on the kind of Wigan Pier scene – he had this idea of doing cover versions of Northern Soul hits, and somehow he got in touch with somebody in Nicky North’s band who eventually got in touch with Nigel. Because Nigel was a good arranger, Les McCutcheon and Nigel arranged these sessions trying to imitate really the kind of thing that was popular in Northern Soul music, and we started to do sessions regularly doing that kind of stuff, and then one of the things that they wanted to do was a cover version of Ramsey Lewis Wade In The Water and In Crowd and the pianist who was doing those sessions in those days, probably Nigel himself, thinking about it. Now Nigel, with due respect, is a great arranger and a good producer but he is not really much of a keyboard player so how were we going to cover Ramsey Lewis? Then I piped up “I know a guy who can do that, Bill Sharpe” because I had been working with Tracks back in Stortford. So I recommended Bill to do these covers of Ramsey Lewis. Bill then obviously impresses everybody, starts doing all the sessions with these guys and then there was a piano instrumental record that came out which was quite successful, The Groove by Rodney Franklin - and we didn’t actually do a cover of that but Les said “This kind of music is now happening, and I wonder if we could do some original material in that idiom?”
That’s right your debut single was very much like that wasn’t it?
Thing called Steppin’. So we went into the studio with Bill Sharpe - funnily enough the guitar player that usually did the session happened to be on holiday around the time they wanted to do the session so again, I piped up and said “Keith Winter from 'Tracks', he can do this stuff”. So we went in, me on drums, Keith on guitar, Bill on keyboards and Steve Underwood from the Mecca band on bass and we cut four tracks: Steppin’ was one but I can’t remember the other titles – but they were four instrumentals and Les put out Steppin’ and something on the B side as a 12 inch white label copy just to send round the DJ's.
That was the big thing wasn’t it the white labels?
Which he did, and we didn’t even have a name - because this eventually, obviously, is what is leading up to Shakatak. So that went out and it got quite a stir round the club scene. A lot of the DJ's were into it because it was a white label and they didn’t know who the hell it was. They thought it was another American band because our music had an American sort of sound at that time. A record plugger from Polydor happened to hear it, made enquiries with the DJ and the DJ said “I don’t know who it is, some guy dropped it off”. Polygram got in touch and eventually tracked us down and said they were interested in this stuff and “Can we have it?” and the answer of course was “yes!” and they said “Can we sign the band and make an album?’”and well yeah - bingo! So we made an album and that was with that line up. Now we made the first album and it eventually came out as ‘Driving Hard’ and to ring the changes we thought because we didn’t have a singer and because vocoder was coming out then and it was like a voice simulator I suppose, but a weird sort of sound, we used that. Herbie Hancock had done a few things using vocoder and I thought 'That’s pretty effective” so we used that on a few things, and then we thought “Why don’t we get some girl backing vocals?” We did a thing called Brazilian Dawn and that was like an up-tempo Latin track. So we got Jill Saward in and another singer called Jackie Rawe, who was also a session singer at the time. She is a great singer and still singing around now, doing things around London. I think they just sang on one or two tracks at the most. The first album ‘Driving Hard’ was almost an instrumental album. We needed a name. There was a record shop in London called the Record Shack and they sent out our white labels on mail order and sold them to those people that were interested and also pushed it round the DJ's, and so we thought as a nod to them “Let’s use Shack” and then somebody, and to this day nobody can quite remember who came up with it, suggested ‘Shakatak’ which doesn’t mean anything. So we gave this name to a graphic designer and he said “Well let’s drop the ‘c’ and let’s drop one of the t's” you know and put a ‘k’ in and he came up with our logo ‘Shakatak’ which we still use to this day, and again it’s almost a total accident how these things happen. So that was really the birth of ‘Shakatak’. Then we started to get asked to do gigs, and we hadn’t done any gigs at this time we had only just made the album. We were invited to do an all day one and we did one at Skegness. There were a couple of American bands on and that was our first gig but really it was a bit of a hybrid – it was basically the band that had done the album. Of course at this time the brothers Johnson were out, you know, and the slap style was really what we were after so we thought look if we are going to form the band formally let’s make it Bill, Keith, me and the two girls although at that time they weren’t part of the record deal they were just in effect, session singers. We needed a bass player that can do this stuff and so again, good old Melody Maker, put an advert in and we did the auditions at the Triad, Bishops Stortford where I was doing my Tracks gig still and really there were only a couple of guys in England at that time that had got the slap thing happening – one of them was George Anderson and then another guy who came from down South somewhere, Brighton – great players both of them. George lived in London so I thought “Oh come on, let’s go with George”. So really in a way that’s what we think of as really the first proper version – formalised if you like, of Shakatak: the three guys from Tracks plus George and the two girls and that’s what we started doing. The Night Birds album came out and Tracks had ceased to exist because Shakatak was beginning to be a five or six night a week gig. We played everywhere in the UK, we were doing 250 gigs a year and then the track Night Birds really took off in Japan and became a huge hit so we were asked to go out there and we went out and toured throughout Japan for the first time. This would have been early 80's by now and because the Night Birds album was, I think, the biggest selling album by a foreign band at that particular time. Because that was so big and perhaps a year after we made it, we had brought out our third album ‘Invitations’ so the Japanese started to buy that as well, and then they started to check out the first album ‘Driving Hard’, so suddenly we had three albums all in the Top 20 at the same time, which was amazing, and the Japanese, not to shy away from making a buck, decided to put out a ‘Greatest Hits’ album which was simply a combination of the three previous albums so we had four albums in the top 20 of foreign acts – higher than Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’ or whatever album it was at the time, which was pretty incredible - something which we have failed to do again unfortunately. We weren’t known as individuals, it was quite a faceless band in a way because Bill was the star and the girls at that time were only backing singers – a lot of our music was piano and the girls would just come in at the choruses so we didn’t have a front singer. It was very much an instrumental band and was known for that so we could walk down any street in Tokyo, and in the world indeed, and nobody would know us from Adam, but as for the name ‘Shakatak’ almost everybody in Japan had heard the name because of this early success so it has stood us in good stead ever since, and of course we have continued to go out there annually and tour because of it. We were very, very busy in the early days and then our guitar player fell ill and we stopped touring and recording, waiting for him. We thought he would get better in a couple of months, then it was six months, then it was a year and then it became two years and then we thought that we'd have to do something, and we had a chat about it with Keith and said “Look we’re going to have to go out without you I’m afraid”. So we started to do that and make albums and initially on the albums we would hire a session player. Actually we used Frederick Carlson from Mezzoforte in the early days and Keith would come to the session and Keith would say “This is what I would do” and he couldn’t do it and they would sit in the corner and Fizzy would try and echo what Keith would do and we did about three albums like that and inevitably that was really hard for Keith to do emotionally and in the end he said “Look get a session guy in. Sort it out yourself, I’m cool with that”, so that’s what we did and we started to get back into it, making albums and that stuff and doing a little bit of touring and Fizzy played live with us a few times but he was also doing Mezzoforte. Eventually we ended up with pretty much what we’ve got now. Also at that time we had personality conflicts. Basically what happened was Jackie Rawe left the band at the same time as we had really, I suppose, our second really big hit, which was a track called Down On The Street, which was a top ten hit in the UK and not so big in Japan funnily enough, but very big round Europe – Germany, France etc, and of course that was a lead vocal with Gill so we really ended up with what Shakatak is now which is a combination of kind of what you might call straight ahead songs which feature Gill as a lead vocalist and also the kind or more instrumental girl chorus type thing – straight instrumentals - that we do as well. So what we do now is that we’ve got the four of us: George on bass, Bill on keyboards, myself on drums and Gill plays percussion and sings. So sometimes she’ll sing if it’s just a backing vocal type thing, she’ll sing it from a little perch rig, and then if it’s a lead vocal number she will go stage centre and sing it. So we also have another backing vocalist although she’s been doing our gig for 16 or 17 years now, Jackie Hicks, who also plays a little bit of saxophone so that is very handy – so she is a backing singer, and we also have a guitar player now called Alan Wormauld who is also been with us for the same period of time. But of course, unlike the four of us, they are free, if they’ve got another gig they can go and do that. We’ve got a number of people now who can step into their shoes, so really that’s the Shakatak that records – the four of us, and then we’ll either use Alan or Jackie for recording and we’ll get other people involved as well and that’s pretty much what we do now, and in a way that brings us full circle. As the Shakatak thing started to be not quite so frantic I started to re-develop my interest in Jazz. I was totally not known as a Jazz drummer. I didn’t have any contacts in the Jazz world so I thought I’ll be crafty, I’ll start my own Jazz club. So myself and Lorraine started to put some stuff on in Ridgewell, which is in Essex next to Great Yeldham where I live, and we formed a local rhythm section - got a local bass player - he comes from Suffolk, the piano player actually comes from Norwich, myself on drums and, as I said, my wife Lorraine Odell was a singer, so what we do is: we do half an hour first set with Lorraine singing and us as accompanying and then the next half an hour and the final hour of the evening we book a top London Jazz musician to come and play with us and we started doing that probably 12 or 13 years ago, and we’ve now since then moved to a pub called the Cherry Tree which I’m never certain whether that is in Essex or Suffolk because it’s smack on the border in the village of Knowle Green, but it’s right next to Belchamps St Paul – the address is The Cherry Tree, Knowle Green, Belchamps St Paul - and we do that once a fortnight and since then because I’ve met a lot of other musicians doing that it’s led to me playing at the Norwich Jazz Club and I’ve played at the Ipswich Jazz Club and broadened my horizons a little bit and met a load of the local Jazz musicians, and really my life now is a combination of still doing the Shakatak thing (we go to Japan in a couple of weeks) and my little Jazz activities. Something I really enjoy and it keeps my busy and the fact that I do it with my wife.
Do you get about across Essex at all much?
Because I’m right on the north border of Essex, I go to the Saffron Walden Jazz Club occasionally, I go to the Ipswich Jazz Club – I visit the Stoke by Nayland Club, The Fleece. I know a lot of the guys that still live in Essex, the Jazz musicians. I go over to the Marigolds in Harlow – there’s a Jazz club there and I’ve played there four or five times over the last 5 or 6 years. I don’t think there is a Jazz scene as such in Chelmsford, at least I haven’t discovered it. High Barn I go over to if there is a Jazz person there – High Barn at Great Bardfield in Essex. It’s a fabulous venue and deserves great crowds but because it is so tucked away it does suffer a little bit. It’s a shame because if it was in a bigger town like Dunmow or Chelmsford I’m sure it would be really well supported.