Whatever way you look at it, guitarist Ray Russell has had an incredible musical career. He’s one of a new generation of guitarists who started out in the 1960s influenced by jazz, rock, and the blues (other notable members of this club include John Etheridge, Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin). Ray’s big break came at fifteen, when he joined The John Barry Seven.

He’s played with Gil Evans, Dave Holland, Mo Foster, Simon Phillips, Tony Hymas, Anthony Jackson, Gary Husband, and Nucleus to name but a few jazz artists. Since the late 1960s, he’s released a string of albums under his own name; formed one of the early jazz-rock bands – Rock Workshop – and the band RMS, with Mo Foster and Simon Phillips. He’s played with Graham Bond and Georgie Fame; worked with all four Beatles; David Bowie, Phil Collins, Freddie Mercury and others; had a long and successful career both as a session musician and a composer of library music, and won awards for his TV and film soundtrack work. And we’ve only just scratched the surface. In this extensive interview with George Cole, Ray talks about many of his musical highlights – as well as some of the lows.

Your lifelong friend and musical associate Mo Foster wrote in his book, British Rock Guitar that you knew from a very early age that music was going to be your career. You have recalled how you sold your Dinky toys [die-cast metal cars now highly collectable] for a guitar. Where did your love of music come from and was anyone in your family musical?

My uncle worked as a stage manager at Collins Music Hall [in Islington, North London] and my Dad played piano, which is where I got it from. I played piano, accordion and ukulele. He taught me what he could and got me interested in the usual rock and roll. I liked Cliff and The Shadows and [drummer] Brian Bennett is now a musical friend.

I had a lot of toys but we didn’t have a lot of money, so I had to make a choice. My parents didn’t force me into any choice – I just said, ‘I’m going to sell these and get a guitar.’ I got an acoustic and later I got an electric Hofner, which looking back wasn’t that great, but it did what was needed at the time. I started playing in school bands and gradually realised that I was taking it more seriously than most people. I got some private lessons, which my parents paid for, and I learnt a lot more about harmony. The guy who taught me, Pete Bergstrom knew all about West Coast Jazz and I started playing that. I became better than average. Today, young people have a far greater opportunity to play with the various colleges of music, but we didn’t have that – we had private tutors and it was a bit of luck that my tutor was great.

I did a lot of small gigs with school bands. There was a teacher called Mr Bean (really!) and he had a son called George, so our band was called George Bean and The Runners! Unfortunately, George died when he was about eighteen. He was a good-looking guy and that band could have been popular. I lost interest in school after that and left as soon as I could [at fifteen]. I was doing small paid gigs, like weddings. But I was getting fed up, and then I had my lucky break with an article in the Melody Maker [music paper].

We’ll come onto that soon, but before that, I want to ask you about two things that happened to you when you were just twelve years-old. The first is your band was on the same as a gig as an early David Bowie band!

It was in Surrey at The Chislehurst Caves and we were supporting a band called Davy Jones and the Lockers. He looked good and sang well. It’s only when you look back at your life that you appreciate the people you bump into along the way.

You also appeared on a TV talent show singing Paul Anka’s ‘I Love You Baby.’ I hear you also fell asleep when the judges were praising your performance!

It was a talent show hosted by a Canadian, Carroll Levis: Carroll Levis Junior Discoveries. In a way, it was a very naïve version of the talent shows of today, but it was good. Everyone said, ‘you should go on,’ so I went for an audition and got on a spot on the show. After the performance, I came down and sat on a settee, and was interviewed. Then I nodded off! I doubt if there are any tapes still around, but if there are, I’d love to see them!

Then there was that hilarious audition with the Eric Delaney Band, when you were just fourteen!

That was so dumb. At the time, I needed a pair of Cuban heels, because everyone was wearing them then, and I was planning to go in them to the 2i’s [a coffee bar in Compton Street, Soho, London], because I was told that was where all the stars went. I was living in Islington and an audition came up with Eric Delaney [drummer and band leader]. I lived in a place called Liverpool Road and a coach, with his name on the side, sometimes passed through our road.

Someone suggested I give them a try. I didn’t know the band but I listened to some of their music and it was dance band stuff, which was a bit beyond me. But I put a few things together, wore my Cuban heels and went to the audition. It was in a dance studio, and as I was walking up the stairs to the audition room, the heel came off my shoe and the nail went straight into the floor – I couldn’t move! My amp was behind me, and there was a socket nearby. So I sat down on the floor and played – it was crazy!

The band could hear you, but couldn’t see you: didn’t they shout down and say, ‘Why don’t you come up here so we can have a look at you!’?

Yes [laughter]. The worst thing was, I then had to do everything in reverse, and that was difficult. You could say I re-heeled myself! It took me a while to get over the rejection, but then I started laughing about it.

Then at fifteen you get a gig with the John Barry Seven. [John Barry also arranged the famous James Bond theme, first heard on the film Dr No] Amazingly, you saw an advert in Melody Maker [music paper] for a guitar audition with the band, which included a telephone number to call. I believe you learnt all the parts by ear and your parents bought a John Barry LP for you to learn the parts.

At the time John had released a Greatest Hits LP and I had ‘Dr No’ on a 45 [vinyl single]. The great lesson is to woodshed [practice] – you listen and you learn everything. If you don’t do your homework, you’re not going to do it. If I had walked in there and not played it properly it would have been a different story. We had a Dansette record player, and one thing I thought about years later – which made me very fearful for a second – was that the record player was actually playing in tune, because they weren’t always. They put a guitar part in front of me and my amp was on. The sheet said ‘James Bond Theme.’ I looked at the shapes of the notes and played it. Then we played ‘Hit and Miss’ [theme to the TV programme Jukebox Jury, composed by Barry], then we did something else. Luckily, I knew everything they put up.

 

Am I right in thinking that even this wasn’t an easy audition situation? You couldn’t get into the place and someone had to crawl through a window to plug in your amp!

It was in the Gaumont Cinema and we were in the foyer, with people walking by outside.

So you joined the John Barry Seven at fifteen.

Bob Downes, who was the band’s tenor saxophonist, phoned John from the cinema and said, ‘This guy’s good; we should get him for the set’ – they were touring the following week.

Your parents must have been amazing people to let you go on the road at such a young age.

They were pretty freaked out. I had taken the bus to the audition with my guitar and amp – don’t ask me how I managed – and the band gave me a lift home. So this reasonably posh car came down our road and stopped at our house. My mum answered the door and saw all these guys with me. I can still see her face – it was beyond anything she had ever seen. I said, ‘Mum I can go on tour!’ and she said, ‘That’s nice dear.’ They came in and they were really nice guys. They were all older than me but were very gracious and taught me a lot of things. It could easily have been the other way round, but they were great.

On Monday, a van called for me, I put my gear in the back and we were off to Manchester for the first part of a UK tour. It was like a variety show – they’d have comedians and people like [rock and roll musician] Joe Brown. It was an interesting mix!

You had a long association with John Barry – I think you did ten film scores with him, including a number of James Bonds, as well as band and solo albums. What was he like as a person and what do you think you learned the most from him?

He was cool – he used to look great on his album covers. He was a Yorkshireman and he never really lost that accent – we got on really well. The [Bond] film The Spy Who Loved Me has a skiing scene where Bond goes over the edge [described by many as the greatest Bond stunt] and the James Bond music was in the background and he said, ‘He said ‘just the riff,’ and then he said, ‘can you do something over this, because it’s not as exciting as I want it to be?’ So I just played some repeat echo and stuff and sort of freaked out and he said, ‘That’s great, just go until they fall [Bond was being pursued down a mountainside by henchmen] and then we’ll cut away.’ So I was doing a kind of little score on my own with just him and an engineer in the studio.

 

 

He was just a very nice guy. I had heard stories of him and he did what he wanted. Unfortunately his health dogged him quite a bit, which was a shame. It was a good period for music and there were a lot of changes going on. When I joined the band [in 1963], four of the guys had just come out of the army band, but I was lucky enough to never have to face action. It was a great period to live in.

Four months into your gig with the John Barry Seven, the band introduces some new material. They put some new charts in front of you and discover you can’t read music! Bassist Dave Richmond helped you learn to read music.

We went to a church where we used to rehearse – it was opposite [drummer] Bobby Graham’s house. I used to stay with him the night before. So, there’s new music which I had never seen before and an arranger! We get our parts and it’s cool. There was a lull where I just kept playing the chords and it sounded alright, but there was something missing, and that missing part was my lead part. Nobody said anything and they were really cool about it. After the rehearsal I thought ‘There’s something going on,’ and Dave said, ‘You can’t read, can you?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t’ and he said, ‘You did bloody well to get in this band without knowing how to read.’ From that moment on I learnt to read in the van with an old acoustic. I used to play it and he would give me things to read.

The funny thing was, we were in Blackpool on a gig with [keyboardist] Tony Ashton – he was a wild one! One of the guys came up with an arrangement for ‘Route 66’ and we played it and got to the middle and the same thing happened to him! Someone said, ‘You can’t read Tony!’ and I said, ‘Glad you’re carrying on the tradition!’ I was so thankful that I got taught to read; it was a lot easier when I finally started doing sessions.

Quite a number of musicians weren’t readers, like Lennon and McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery. There are some who believe you are not a complete musician if you can’t read. What’s your take on this?

What matters is what stirs the soul and changes peoples’ heads. Nothing is ever complete. It’s like saying ‘Hendrix couldn’t play Flamenco guitar, so he’s not a complete player.’ Some of the people who could read came from the dance band era but didn’t have a clue how to play modern music. Music changed during this time. Dance bands played music that was fast, but when semiquavers came up on a slower beat like [hums the riffs from the Band of Gypsys’ ‘Changes’ and Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’], it kind of swung. It was a different age and they didn’t really get the idea of that. Some just didn’t like it. Some of these older guys were fantastic, but some would say, ‘They’re just gimmicks.’

The trouble was that if you didn’t like the music, you didn’t get booked [for a session] because you couldn’t add anything to the music. Quite often, we didn’t have an arranger for the tracking session. So a singer/songwriter might come in and strum something on the guitar and we would work on it together – change chords and so on. It was a very different attitude to the time when you got the music, played it and went home – there was no real interaction. With classical players, it’s not about making things up, so it’s a different world. We were part of both those worlds, and then we were part of the new world; the world that had come up from rock.

Who are your main musical influences? I read somewhere that you’d listen to Kenny Burrell and think, ‘I love the harmonies but I like more of a blues or rock sound.’ And in various interviews various names have come up including Coltrane, Hendrix, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp and Miles Davis.

The dance band guys would play with thick strings and they wouldn’t bend any strings, a bit like Pat Metheny now. He follows that school but obviously he’s playing a lot freer harmonically and in a modern way. But I found that I liked the sound of Hendrix; I liked the sound of blues guitar in a different harmonic context. I listened to John Coltrane very carefully and I could see that when he was playing the quite avant-garde stuff – which many people didn’t like – he was playing the same note but on different pads [tone holes on the sax] and you could do that on guitar.

To play his tunes was really cool and I found that far more interesting than to play chords like McCoy Tyner, the more standard chords. I started to play modal music and it became very clear to me that people shouldn’t rely on the eras that an instrument was made famous for – they should play anything they are comfortable with; it’s only an instrument. It’s your head that’s playing it and it could be anything. It was the guitar for me because it was a traditional folk instrument, it’s cheaper than a lot of instruments, and it was very portable, and you go to many places: it’s a very sociable instrument.

A lot of guys played jazz but having a guitar has been a transcendent instrument for both jazz and rock. If I had played a sax it would have been fun, but not as much fun for me it wouldn’t have been on the edge of both genres. So there was no reason why you can’t play any of the music out there.

Playing with Gil [Evans], he was right in the pocket where I wanted to be and his thinking was so free. It’s quite amazing when you meet someone and you play something, and they play something back, like Tony Hymas or Simon Phillips, for example. It’s like they have heard you and they are going to release another ten notes for you – it’s fantastic and for me it’s something that’s very spiritual. An album like Kind of Blue; all that stuff was fantastic and it made me learn everything. Getting called up to do Georgie Fame; that was like R&B. That was great. It was like bebop, part jazz, and part rock – it was amazing.

The session scene, how did you get into the session scene?

The John Barry Seven was about to go its own way – this was around 1964. We did a couple of sessions for [music producer] Joe Meek as a band called Shade Joey and the Night Owls. We were on the front page on the Melody Maker and it was a picture of us wearing shades and with the bodies of owls! We did a remake of ‘Blue Birds Over The Mountain’ [made famous by Ritchie Valens]. It was a big deal because Joe Meek was a hit producer at the time

We were all at a loose end and somebody phoned up for us to a session in North London. It was a very old fashioned session – we all sat in the studio and nobody spoke to each other. Someone counted us in, we played and that was it. I think it was two-track then. I was getting into the technology, but back then, people weren’t allowed to go back [into the studio control room] and fraternise. That was a great change when you could go back and track, and make comments about the sound and suggest things. In the past, you had to keep to one side of the glass and the engineer kept to the other, which was very strange.

My first real session was playing two bars of the ‘Wedding March,’ which was played very high on guitar. The part was written out so badly that I thought it was a cue. They said ‘Yeah, it’s The Wedding March. So I played it and it was fine, but I thought, ‘I’m not going to get anywhere here,’ but they liked some of my other stuff, the rhythmic playing and they said, ‘Play like that again,’ so I did a few others. My turning point was a session with John Mclaughlin and Jimmy Page [see below]

In Mo Foster’s book, you describe a session musician as half man, half invoice.

The usual fashion was for all of us to hand our invoices in. Film companies usually formed little companies, so if it all went pear-shaped, they could dissolve the company. So it was always dodgy for musicians. Isobel Griffiths was a music contractor – a fixer – who always paid on the day. A guy would come in and pay everyone – it was all cash in envelopes laid out on this desk, which became very important.

During a session, somebody asked this other guitar player to play some effects. He used an ashtray and it sounded terrible and they didn’t use it. When we went out to get paid, the producer asked him, did you do any doubling, which means play another instrument. He said, ‘Yes, I played slide guitar,’ and they gave him another £15. That’s how you got more money. That desk got moved to Denham film studios [in Buckinghamshire]. When we were doing a thing for [composer] George Fenton, I saw the old desk and we lined up by it. When I found out Denham were closing, I called them and said, ‘You know that desk where everyone got paid – is it going?’ They said, ‘You can have it if you can get over here.’ I got someone to give me a lift in a van and I put the desk in my home studio, because it has such history.

I once asked Ray Parker Jr the secret behind being a successful session musician and he said, you obviously need to know how to play, but other things are important, like being punctual and being pleasant, because if you are nice, people will ask you back again. You once said that being a session musician meant, ‘You don’t play for yourself; you play for the song.’

Why are you in the studio? Are you there to be miserable? You play for the song; it’s what you give of yourself to the song. You’ve still got your own sonic signature – it’s you on the record. You’re bringing out something that is uniquely connected to that song. It’s more a compositional way of looking at it – I see it more like that. There’s a turn of phrase ‘turd polishing,’ which means if the material is really bad then you just help to make it better. You might say, ‘Let’s try this or that.’ There’s nothing supportive about a bad attitude. What was great was that there was always something positive. You’d go into a studio and see the engineer getting all the sounds together – it was like creating a painting. You were getting a great lesson in audio. I remember the first time I played with Simon [Phillips]. He had a little kit. He set it up and played and I thought ‘This is amazing’, so you got a big buzz.’ There’s always something good. There’s never anything that is really terrible.

You worked in the golden age for session musicians – the 1960s to 1980s – and I think you said there were around 80 recording studios in London alone. AIR studios [founded by George Martin and based in Oxford Street] was almost your second home. In fact, you were so busy that you needed two sets of equipment – one you were playing and the second set up at your next recording session.

There was a guy called Terry and sometimes it got to three sets, so we said to the [studio] guys, ‘We’ll just use each other’s amps.’ In the end you take your electric guitar with you and everything else is sorted out. The logistics of getting the gear to the studios when it was that busy were hard. They would be sitting in Abbey Road at midnight waiting for me to turn up to do four hours of overdubs – crazy!

It wasn’t all good because it broke up my first marriage. I shouldn’t have been out so much, but then it was very difficult, because if you didn’t go… I remember [harpist] Carla Skanger [real name Sheila Bromberg – she played harp on The Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and Heatwave’s ‘Boogie Nights.’] telling me she couldn’t get to a session because she had such a bad case of flu. The guy called her and asked ‘Where are you?’ She said, ‘He didn’t book me again for five years.’ Anyway, we wanted to do it and we worked too hard, but it was great. We really didn’t recognise it would end. Well it hasn’t ended but it has been cut down by machines. Great things like that can’t go on forever.

What was your basic studio equipment – a Fender Strat, Martin Acoustic and a few pedals?

Yes, and a little Fender amp. I’ve always liked effects, like repeat echo, some octave stuff and some general phasing. A lot of people were using effects and so [on sessions] someone would say, ‘You know that record “That Lady” by The Isley Brothers? You haven’t got that phasing have you?’ So you had to keep current with the stuff.

Didn’t fixer Charlie Katz ask you to bring some ‘gimmicks’ to a session?

He was a really nice guy. I thought ‘What’s he on about?’ and when I mentioned it to my wife, she suggested maybe it was pedals. I thought, ‘Of course!’ The best story was when my wife and I had a rare evening out and somebody phoned about a session the next morning. We didn’t have a diary service then and we didn’t have an answerphone.

Everyone at a session had to queue up by the phone to get their diary messages. And then the pager came in. Our cleaner was babysitting, and when we returned she said, ‘I got this call and his name was Ronnie, and he said, ‘Bring your guitar and bring two sticks.’ So I phoned Ronnie at midnight and said, ‘I suppose you’ve got somebody else now for the session?’ and he said, ‘No, I thought you could do it, because she said your diary was free for the next day.’ It was lucky because she had been looking at the kitchen diary, which had things like ‘Get milk; get bread’ She thought it was to do with my sessions! I said, ‘Okay, but what’s with the two sticks?’ He said, ‘What?!’ ‘Bring two sticks.’ And he said, ‘No, bring an acoustic!’

You once described an incredible day in 1983 which went like this: 8am: jingle session with Johnny Rotten, followed by a six-hour session with Andy Williams, then meet Mo Foster for dinner, before playing a gig with the Gil Evans Orchestra at Ronnie Scott’s. At 3am, you meet Sally – your future wife – and walk to CBS studios, where you record ‘Let’s Stay Together’ with Tina Turner. Home at 5am. You were only 36 at the time, but I’d still love to know where you got all your energy from!

It’s creative energy. The jingle session wasn’t that long and we were all half asleep and drinking coffee. The Andy Williams session was quite hard – they were lovely arrangements, but it was really eyes down. It started around 10 in the morning, which was the right time for that. I was looking forward to the set at Ronnie’s, and that was great, so all the energy I needed came from that. When we walked into CBS studios for the Tina Turner session, she was just doing a second take and the first take was the one they used – it was amazing.

 

I’ve read that in the 70s, some of America’s busiest session musicians used cocaine in the studio to keep going. But I get the impression that by and large, it wasn’t like that in British studios.

There were a few things knocking about; there would be a joint or a bit of coke, but it was very low key, because you never knew who was around. The trouble was that dope just made me feel tired, so I stuck to coffee. I tried coke once and hated it, and never did it again – that went off my list.

You’ve had a few memorable sessions including one with Marvin Gaye!

It was at AIR studios and it was a really good band – Mo Foster, Simon Phillips, [keyboardist] Mike Moran and me. Everyone was excited and it was a funky track. Marvin arrived with four minders surrounding him and they all went into the big control room – we could look in and see him. It was really weird. We were used to going into the control room at the time and vibing, but the engineer said, ‘He doesn’t want you to come in lads.’

We get to about 6pm and I’m supposed to be somewhere at seven, so I phoned Andy McKay [saxophonist from Roxy Music] and said, ‘Andy, this is running a bit late.’ It got to seven and Andy called and said, ‘We could really do with you coming over.’ The track we were recording was going nowhere. Marvin didn’t really know what was happening and I think he just wanted to find out who the best British guys were.

I said to the guys ‘I’ve really got to go,’ and they said they had to too. We were all getting a bit bored, playing the same tune for eight hours. Then I started to wonder, ‘What do I call him – Mr Gaye? Marv?’ I knocked on the control room door and the rest of the guys were shuffling behind me. The door opened and I said, ‘Can I speak to Marvin please?’ So the four minders moved to one side and I said, ‘Look man, as much as I like the track, I really can’t go on any longer.’ He asked why and I told him I had another session and was already a couple of hours late. So Marvin says, ‘I’m going to make five calls to LA and make sure you never work there again.’ And just behind me Mo says, ‘Why not make it six?’ Marvin just looked up and didn’t understand it. Everyone else was falling about, which wasn’t the best thing to do, so we were fired.

On a happier note, there was that amazing session featuring you, Jimmy Page and John McLaughlin.

We were at a session at Lansdowne [studios, in Holland Park, London]. John said, ‘I’m not going to do anymore sessions, and I’m going to leave Georgie Fame’. That’s how I got to play with Georgie Fame – he took me over to Georgie and said, ‘He’s my number one recommendation.’ All Jimmy said was: ‘I’m not going to do any more sessions – I’m going to start a band.’ Someone said, ‘What? You’re going to leave all this to play in a rock band?’ The drummer on the session was Clem Cattini and he was sitting with the fixer, who said, ‘Silly boy; leaving sessions for that!’

There are still many people who don’t appreciate the role of a session musician. They think you come in, are told what to play; play exactly as instructed and then leave. But quite often, a session musician will contribute to the music. When you were working with Heaven 17 on their album How Men Are, they had a Fairlight CMI [a digital synthesiser and sampler]. You played some riffs, which were used with the Fairlight to assemble a track. Somebody said, ‘You co-wrote some of this song,’ but you were quite dismissive about that: ‘As a session musician, you don’t come away thinking, “I wrote that,”’ but don’t session musicians sometimes make a considerable contribution to the song, like [singer] Clare Torry did with the Pink Floyd song ‘The Great Gig In The Sky?’

Heaven 17 and the producer Greg Walsh were one of the first to have a Fairlight. They would get a drumbeat and a key and not much else, and just play a funky riff and put that in the Fairlight. They would make a verse, edit it and then make another chorus. We’d do things like that for quite a long time. In the end you could be clocking up quite a lot of money per day

 

 

A lot of those riffs are used as prominent pieces of the record, but if you say, ‘I wrote that,’ and then someone later says, ‘I’d better book Ray for a session,’ and the message gets back that: ‘He thinks he writes it all.’ They’re going to book someone else. Heaven 17 had these ideas for a funky riff, which they knew I could play. They were very nice to me and they paid me good money, and I certainly don’t feel short-changed. You do the album and suddenly, the Tina track turns up, which I would have done for nothing.

It’s like [the famous bass riff on Lou Reed’s] ‘Walk On The Wild Side.’ [Bassist] Herbie Flowers over dubbed the double bass riff and he said, ‘I got £8.45 – that was the going rate per session.’ I think he should have got paid more, but at the same time, he was at the session, it was a great song and it was very inspiring.

I think it’s down to the person who wrote the song to think, ‘That’s a great contribution, we should reflect that [in the payment], which is what Heaven 17 did. It was a really enjoyable session – there was great freedom and I learnt a lot about the Fairlight. Greg taught me so much about production and so I was getting all these free lessons as well.

British session players are highly talented and vastly underrated.

I wish people would look at British players a bit more seriously, because American players seem to get a lot of credit. That’s not a slight, because they played great, but in the era we’re talking about [60s, 70s, 80s], so many records came out of the UK. You had the British Invasion [of America]. You ask anyone of the Beach Boys or [acclaimed session bassist] Carol Kaye and they’ll say they owe a lot to it. But it’s never published. It would just be nice to get something which showed what went on here, because historically, it was very important.

The guys in the American sessions were really known for playing one thing – not that they couldn’t play other things, it was just the nature of things. The Wrecking Crew got a film financed about them, and the BBC has put out things about them. But they haven’t even asked anybody in this country. But the stuff we did, the hit records we’re on were hits around the world. But they have this fascination with all things American.

Their idea of history is wonky. [Tina Turner’s] ‘Let’s Stay Together,’ What’s Love Got To Do With It,’ [Freddie Mercury’s] ‘Barcelona’ – that’s all British. I think it’s wrong to deny your own culture. They are more interested in things that are not part of our culture and don’t look at their own culture and see what there is. So many people came over here and had so many hits, like they use British Orchestras today. There is nothing wrong with American orchestras, so I’m not putting anybody down, but that’s the way it is. The way people read it, the Americans did all the hits. I don’t know what we were doing at the time, obviously nothing. Think about the British Invasion, The Liverpool Sound and all the stuff they weren’t even beginning to sort out in the States.

I’d like to talk about three session musicians to whom you are very close – Simon Phillips, Tony Hymas and Mo Foster. Let’s start with Simon Phillips.

I met Simon when he was sixteen or seventeen.

Was that with the Ann Odell band?

I think it was pre-Ann. It was at a place called Essex Music in Poland Street [London] when we were on the same session. I think Ann was the keyboardist on the session. He played great and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy has really got it.’ We got on really well and when the band was having a break, we were playing together. After the session we exchanged numbers, but we didn’t do another gig until a month later. However, I did see him around and we got on well socially. Ann wanted to form a band and we went around to her house, and when I walked in, there was Simon – I didn’t know he had been invited along too. The bassist Klyde McMullin was brilliant. I thought, ‘This is fantastic.’ We went to a place owned by [drummer] Trevor Morais. It was a lovely barn and we had a mobile [recording studio] and recorded an album there.

Was that the album Grand Slam?

Yes. They were good strong tracks and we did the overdubs and mixing at AIR [studios]. Simon Phillips never fails to amaze me – he is an incredible talent.

 

And Tony Hymas?

I first met Tony Hymas after his gig with Jeff Beck. I met him at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I played with him at the concert Mo [the memorial concert One Mo Time]. I have a rough tape of that gig and he just plays ridiculous stuff [as in, great] – it’s all compositionally-based. He’s a very clever guy – he’s probably close to genius, and I hope he doesn’t mind me describing him like that but he is so clever.

I believe you first met Mo Foster in the back of a Ford Transit van on the way to a Jimmy Helms gig. For more than fifty years, you had this incredible personal and musical friendship.

We both found we were reading Herman Hesse and that philosophical conversation continued. We were like The Odd Couple! If there was a chance for us to do a gig and somebody didn’t have a bass player, I always felt fine about asking Mo, because he was great. And he would do the same. I don’t want to sound immodest, but on the session scene there was an A Team, which included Simon, Mo, Tony [Hymas], Mike Moran and me. We played a trick on Mo and put this really hard piece of piano music in front of him. He’d just come down from near Bristol to play. He looked at the chart, scratched his head and said, ‘Okay.’ The music director counted him in, and apart from a few things, he more or less played it – unbelievable. Everyone was like ‘Fuck!’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcztWfJjOWo

Talking of tricks in the studio, didn’t Mo once completely retune your guitar once?

Simon May, who wrote the EastEnders theme, wrote this musical. Just before we had a break, boredom was setting in. It wasn’t bad music but we had been re-doing stuff. At the break, Mo sneaked back in and perfectly tuned my guitar down a semitone. So after the break, we get counted in and we play. I played and it was wrong. I looked down at my guitar and then I could see Mo trying hard not to laugh! I thought, ‘Right! I have to play everything a semitone up for it to be right’. It was a great gag!

You and Mo composed the tune ‘So Far Away,’ which has been recorded by a number of guitarists including you, Gary Moore, Jeff Beck and Hank Marvin. The Jeff Beck version hasn’t been released: have you heard it?

Yes, it was recorded during the There & Back sessions but didn’t make the cut. It’s a guitar player’s song in a way, but we didn’t have any expectations when we wrote it. It’s one of the songs we were playing over at his place in Hampstead. It was late at night and it happened in one evening.

 

Mo’s last gig was on 23 May 2023, with the band Mo Foster and Friends at the Pizza Express in London. It was barely two months before his death [from liver cancer]. What are your memories of the night and did Mo know he was so desperately close to the end?

I don’t think he knew how far [the disease had progressed] and I wasn’t really aware it was so bad. Before he did the gig, some people told him not to do it, but I said ‘You might as well do it,’ because I felt he might not do another night. There’s a picture of Mo and me [taken on the night] and he looks totally worn out, and it looks like he knows…it’s so weird. I just thought ‘I’m really glad he did it.’ I have got a tape of the gig.

There were a few occasions where he found it difficult, but generally, he loved it. I saw him a couple of days afterwards and he didn’t look well at all. He said the prognosis wasn’t good. He asked me if I wanted to sit down and I thought, ‘Wow, he’s asking me to sit down. How selfless is that?’ Soon after he went into hospital and everyone was keeping vigil. What can you say? Life isn’t fair but I thought that was unfair.

 

Your tribute concert to Mo, One Mo Time [at the 229 venue in London on 27 November 2023] was an incredible night. How difficult was it to organise it and what are your memories of the night?

You have got to see the thing as an era people lived in. These guys [on the session scene] were really like family; closer than family in some ways. Simon [Phillips], for instance, just said, ‘I’ll come over,’ [from the USA, where he lives] and it cost him a bloody fortune. A couple came over from Texas. Judie Tzuke rarely comes out but she turned up. There are the arrangements and I’m taking them down to the copyists – it was all going on every day. I said to someone, ‘You know, I really know my name is Ray after this, because every few minutes you’d hear ‘Ray!’. I loved every minute of it. It got to the rehearsal and knocked everything into shape. The guys were all great – the singer and the players, it was fantastic. There were a few little difficulties and the odd technical hitch, but nothing serious.

What I loved about the night was when things did go wrong, like the Leo Sawyer video that kept appearing and disappearing, or an errant screen that refused to retract, the audience loved it and burst into laughter. It was a wonderful celebration that left you with a smile on your face

I had about three or four days between the first rehearsal and the concert, and then one day between the last rehearsal and the gig. I had all my gear labelled and ready and we got to [to the venue] and everyone walked in. There were fantastic people there and it was such a lovely feeling. My friend George said ‘This is so Mo!’ and I thought we were going to see him any minute.

 

The gig was professionally shot on the night. What’s going to happen with the footage – are there any plans for a documentary, for example?

We’ve got the movie we showed that night, One More Time [about British session musicians], which we’re trying to get people interested. Some of the gig could go on that. The biggest problem is clearing songs [for inclusion] because it costs so much money. It would be nice if the PRS [Performing Right Society] said, ‘Come on guys; it’s for a good cause.’

https://www.onemoretimedocumentary.com/

It was a family affair as your son George played bass with you, Simon Phillips and Tony Hymas

I was very proud of that.

 

Going back to your time with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, is that when you developed as an R&B/Jazz guitarist?

Yes, it was on the way to something I liked doing. After me, Colin Green played with them. Georgie was great and he had that hit ‘Get Away’. We were on tour with Georgie’s band and there was a brass section. There were two of everything except for the guitarist and bass player. I asked Georgie (his real name was Clive) about this and he said, ‘Because there’s no chance of everyone getting back to London.’ It was the most arrested band in the industry. The first time was played at Manchester, I remember [drummer] Red Reece saying, ‘Listen, if you’ve got any dope, this table has got a special cover on the bottom, so you can put your gear in there and they’ll [the police] never find it.’ So, all the guys put all their stuff inside the table. Just before the gig, the police turn up, and the first thing they do is go up to the table and turn it upside down! We did the gig then the police took Red away. He was up before the judge the next morning. We met him outside the court, and he jumped into the van, rolled up a spliff and away we went!

In 1968, you’re twenty-one years old and you get this amazing eight-album deal with CBS. How did that happen?

David Howells was the A&R (artists and repertoire) man at CBS records, and they opened up in Britain big time. The record company wanted to get a lot of British talent. David was responsible for me making records in the first place. It sounds like something from Mars now, but he said to CBS, ‘What we need is some young British talent that’s doing different things.’ He came across my name in the Melody Maker and he called me and asked if I wanted to make a record and I said ‘yes.’ We did three records – Turn Circle, Dragon Hill and Rites and Rituals. David was very interested in Blood, Sweat and Tears and he said to me, ‘You do a lot of sessions and rock stuff, do you want to come up with a band?’ So we came up with Rock Workshop, one of the first fusion bands [more on this below].

Going back to your first three albums – were you given a free hand in terms of the material you played and how you played it?

Yes I was. He just said ‘You probably want to include a couple of tunes that people know; things that are popular in the jazz world.’ [Wayne Shorter’s] ‘Footprints’ came up and [Charles Lloyd’s] ‘Sombrero Sam’, although I was never sure about that. That first quintet [with Ron Fry on piano, Ron Mathewson bass and drummer Alan Rushton] was very much underrated.

We recorded the album in a small CBS studio in Bond Street [London], which was 4-track. We did a couple of tracks of everything and that was it – I don’t think there was much editing. There’s a picture of us on the album, leaning over the studio console. People wanted to buy that old Studer desk. There was a nice piano played by Roy Fry, who unfortunately died eight years later. That was so unexpected, but he had a weak heart that nobody knew about.

Didn’t you describe the music as a combination of free jazz and rock?

Yes

 

It got some good reviews but some purists were not very happy, and wanted a more Kenny Burrell style of playing from you.

The best thing to do is to buy a Kenny Burrell record if that’s what you want. Things were moving very quickly then in music. I got criticism from the other side that there wasn’t enough free jazz – ‘why are you doing this rock stuff?’ If you start breaking barriers – I’m not saying we were, but we were reaching out a bit – there are going to be people who don’t like it, especially that time in jazz. You had a lot of free stuff and people were looking at John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ and his later stuff where he was playing a lot differently. People were saying, ‘I like his early stuff.’ Miles had the same reaction. Kind of Blue is one of my favourite albums, but he moves on and people go, ‘Oh no, I like his earlier stuff.’ Bob Dylan’s electric band caused a lot of uproar.

 

In 2020, you released Spontaneous Event Volume 1, which covered the period 1967-69. Presumably a Volume 2 will appear at some time?

Yes

I love ‘First Sighting,’ which features Dave Holland on bass. How did you two hook up?

That’s a funny one. There was a guy called John Golden, John Golden and the Golden Brass, and he had a band that accompanied acts – people like Lulu and Tommy Cooper. There was this weird convention by the MU [Musicians’ Union] that the pit band must have a day off, so other musicians had to come down in their place, and they had to come from another town. This guy got a band together and Dave Holland was there. We had to play stupid songs, and travel on a train to places like Torquay. Dave was in the band – I think he was in his early twenties – and we got along well. He did some recordings for me and it was great. It was just luck that he happened to be on bass. As you know, after that, he went to join Miles [in 1968].

Spontaneous Event got some fantastic reviews. It must be heartening that all this music is being reissued and rediscovered

That was a BBC broadcast. The lovely thing was that in those times, the BBC was obliged to give the artist a copy [of the programme] and I always asked for a copy. I’ve got two copies of Rock Workshop broadcasts that I want to put out. I’m not sure where they are going to go, but I’d like to put them out. There’s a guy in Japan who has a label called Geocities and he’s got a tape of mine, which he’s putting out. It’s an alternative ICA tape with some outtakes. These things go for ridiculous amounts in Japan.

Two reviewers gave Spontaneous Event a four star rating but if I can quote a couple of things they said. ‘For aficionados of British jazz, Ray Russell is a tantalising if not downright frustrating prospect. A formidable talent who released a handful of albums in the late 60s/early 70s, but drifted away from jazz to make a living as a session musician and composer of TV themes.’ Another one said, ‘This is a precious rediscovery. Russell’s subsequent career as a session musician tended to eclipse how important an improviser he was.’ This reminds me of the criticism George Benson received when he went more commercial

The trouble is that they think you have gone somewhere and they don’t bother to look for you. Yes, I was doing stuff and making a lot of albums. Yes, it was fusion but I was playing with some great people like Simon Phillips, who was doing his thing. But they never saw that. The second guy said ‘was’ and all that means is that he never really bothered to go after me. I get this thing, ‘Oh you sold out,’ but it’s crazy really, because basically, there was never a lot of money in playing [jazz]. The idea is that you do other things and that finances things like the gigs I’m doing now. You never make any money but you can pay guys [in the band] a decent rate. I still get to play what I want to – one finances the other. It’s a strange attitude and it’s more so here than in the States – people do all sorts over there and then they get together and play.

Why do you think some people express disappointment or even hostility when jazz musicians like you branch out into TV or film scoring?

You get some of the old jazz people saying you are ‘selling out’ when you go off and so other things like TV shows. But what they really mean is ‘making a living and financing the music you want to play’, but it never gets as far as that. Gil Evans was MD [musical director] for Bing Crosby. There were a plethora of big bands around at the time and a lot of people joined them because it was hard touring. There was a lot of work. If you wanted to hang around New York you had to be in as many bands as you could, but it wasn’t really very good money. I think that attitude has gone now. When we were recording the Live at the ICA album a certain person in the band started to get very uppity about me going off and doing other stuff – and this was all happening in the foyer, when we were just about to play!

Rock Workshop was a 13-piece ensemble, with a five-piece horn section, Darryl Runswick on bass, plus three vocalists, including a certain Mr Alex Harvey [who later led The Sensational Alex Harvey Band]. How did you put this band together?

There was a musical in town [London] called Hair and he played a bit of guitar on it and did some vocals. Another guy called Mickey Keen, used to play guitar and I was the dep[uty] for him and Alex’s brother. We were also in the Rocky Horror Show. We used to talk and Alex said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to come and sing some stuff and we write a couple of things.’ Incidentally, Universal put out a big release of Alex’s work [Alex Harvey – The Last of the Teenage Idols, a 14-CD collection] which has three songs from Rock Workshop. Rock Workshop also did some radio broadcasts, which I’ve got.

What I find amazing is the energy in the music of Rock Workshop with tunes like ‘He Looks At Me,’ ‘Spine Cap,’ and ‘Forgotten How To Live,’ which is my favourite – it’s got an incredible rhythm track and vocals. It reminds me of James Brown’s ‘Give It Up And Turn It Loose’ in its energy and feel. At the time, did the band get a good critical reaction and audience reaction?

Yes, but one of the problems was that it was such a big band that it took a bit of work to get gigs. At the time, student unions were doing really well with gigs. We got some really nice gigs and the band would suddenly go into one almighty freakout, which was pretty stunning. It worked and we could have taken it a lot further, but the singles never quite made it [into the charts]. We did some amazing recordings and the broadcasts were better in some ways.

 

In 1971, you played with Nucleus and an album from this era, Live in Bremen, was released many years later. It included one of your compositions, ‘Zoom Out.’ Can you tell us about the band?

[Laughs] We did a European tour, mainly in Germany. Chris Spedding had his name on the gig, but he couldn’t make it. I was the dep of the dep, which was fine! We did some nice gigs. That Bremen gig was great – they all loved it. My tune is very close to a Rock Workshop song. They said, ‘play a riff,’ so I played that and they all got into it.

 

The band included Karl Jenkins [piano and oboe], Brian Smith [sax, flute and percussion], Roy Babbington [bass],  John Marshall [drums] and Ian Carr [trumpet]. Ian was a friend of mine, so I’m interested in hearing about your memories of him.

He didn’t really socialise – he was quite serious. Someone called him the ‘DH Lawrence of Jazz’! I really liked him. He always turned out very smart and seemed to be quite a literary person – several times he had a book under his arm. A really nice guy; really gentle.

TV, Film Work and Library Music The top American session guitarist Jay Graydon once said, ‘No matter how good you are as a session musician, one day, someone younger, better and cheaper will come along, and you won’t get the call. So you have got to be looking to move into other areas, whether that’s production, a solo career or publishing.’ You did all three. Was that always part of the plan or did you fall into it?

In Hair and for Rock Workshop, I was writing for brass, so it was sort of arranging. I was always writing stuff. I started doing sessions and Isobel Griffiths was the music contractor. She fixed me a session with [composer] George Fenton, who is still a really great friend of mine. We got into a thing called Bergerac [a crime drama series set in Jersey; it ran for a decade]. He had written a tune and asked me if I could arrange it with a guitar – I supplied the atmosphere on guitar.

 

Wasn’t the first thing you worked together on a BBC cartoon series?

The Great Mahusi; they were like shadow puppets with bamboo stems.

Wasn’t George too busy to write the music, so he asked you to do it, but the BBC wanted George’s name on it, so he agreed to do it as a collaboration with you?

Yes, that’s right. I did the main part and they liked it. After that I was working with him and we did a helluva lot of stuff together.

I’ve wanted to ask you about how you combined music and pictures, because in an interview, you talk about using a VHS video tape, click book and manuscript paper to put the score together. You also have to cue to the nearest frame, which in TV is every 1/25 sec and in film, 1/24 sec. So how was this done before computers came on the scene?

If you look at the beginning of each picture, there’s something they call a white, which is just a mark across the screen in a film, which would give the musical contractor just enough time to raise the baton – there was no click [track], it was all conducted. If he was getting slightly behind, he would just increase [the tempo]. The problem with TV was there wasn’t really the time to redo so many takes, so a Click Book came out. It’s all logarithmic – the easiest is 120bpm [beats per minute] because you can easily do 4/4. There are some interesting ones like 68.7.

I had an electronic metronome [the click], and I would switch it and the VHS on together. Some things would actually fit with strange times, but you could work it out if it didn’t. I used to use that a lot. You’d have the score on the clicks or you when things change. You want to get something that sounds great and looks good on the screen. The eye perceives things a bit late, a couple of frames [1/50 sec] later, and so it’s best to be a little bit late with the sound. George taught me an incredible amount about writing to picture. It was a slog sometimes. The schedule would be on Monday morning and the poor copyist was Andre Gersch, who we nicknamed ‘Spider Man,’ because when he got a bit near the mark [deadline to a recording session], his writing became spidery!

George used to live in Chiswick, West London and I used to go round there – he had two pianos. We would work out our stuff: put it together, listen to it, make a few comments and do a few little rewrites of a couple of things. One week, they were really late with the film and they sent it round by motorcycle courier. I used to meet Andre at the Polish War Memorial in West London [Ruislip] on a street corner. We were very late and George phoned him, ‘We’ll see you at nine,’ and he would go down there and wait for us. But we didn’t turn up. We didn’t have mobile phones back then, so he would have to find a phone box and call us, and we would say, ‘Sorry, we’ll see you at ten.’ This happened three times that night.

I eventually turned up and he wasn’t there! I returned to George’s home and said something has happened to Andre. Then we got a phone call. Andre was at the police station and had been allowed one phone call. He explained that he had been arrested for loitering! He said to the police, ‘I’m waiting for some music!’ and of course, they didn’t believe him! We had to go to the station and show them the music before they released him. At the next session, he was writing music at the back of the studio while we’re playing it.

Today, you have computers, file transfer, email and so on – has it made life easier?

In some ways, but you don’t get that face-to-face interaction, which tells you a lot about what people want. They don’t really have the time to talk to you and you can’t get the measure of someone, or maybe just socialise. A Touch of Frost was ten day’s work and then I had a proper machine that worked in sync. That was easier because you could play along with it. Then I’d send it off and they would say, ‘Great,’ or ‘Can you do this bit differently?’ Then I would go up to the dub [dubbing session], where the music and picture were put together and check it was all okay. I worked with the director John Woods on Dangerous Lady [1985] and The Precious Blood [1986] about the Northern Ireland troubles. That was lovely. I had exactly a week to turn up at the BBC centre with an orchestra to do that. It was an hour and a half programme in a three-hour orchestral session. I think that was the biggest pressure I’ve ever had, but you get over it!

The Composers Cut CD highlights many of the scores you’ve written for television and is incredibly diverse – you have pieces spanning opera, orchestral, blues, pop, rock and jazz. I was especially moved by the vocal performances on Madrigal [ITV 1982] and Lion Queen [ITV 1999]. Do you find it easy to compose for vocalists?

The Lion Queen featured Miriam Stockley, and Madrigal was Catherine Bott, she was great and she’s on The Precious Blood as well. You write something and a singer might say, ‘That’s a bit dodgy. If you just change it, it will be much better.’ In the end, it’s always a group effort.

 

You won two RTS (Royal Television Society) awards for the music to the TV series A Touch of Frost

Touch of Frost was a blessing for me. It was difficult because I was caught between doing that and doing a great tour. I chose TV because it was promised to go on for a while.

 

How did you get the commission for A Touch of Frost?

It goes back to a guy called David Reynolds. He was head of drama at Yorkshire Television. At the time, ITV was split into different regions and part of the remit was they would offer all kinds of different programmes. David Reynolds was very friends with David Jason, and David Jason had done a lot of things with the BBC; things like Only Fools and Horses. They got some scripts, which David liked, and they started doing the series.

They originally asked [saxophonist] Barbara Thompson and [drummer] Jon Hiseman to do some music. I’d known David Reynolds when he was a freelance director and he did one of my first gigs, Bergerac. We got on really well and he was interested in music – good directors have an interest in every facet, including music. I like working in this field because it’s not just music, but a group thing. You are coming up with something which, as they say, hits the nail on the head.

Screen writing is different but something I wanted to do. With drama, you can write anything you want provided you’re telling the story; you can put it in any style.  That makes you do a lot of woodshedding and learn a lot about musical styles. I’ve done a couple of period pieces and you do have to learn about the style, because it can’t suddenly become something else or it can’t have a chord or a run from a different age; it has to be done properly. It just sits behind the scene but galvanises what’s going on. I find it very rewarding when they like it. Part of the underscore’s job is to gently remind people about the story and strengthen it, and make it a little bit more concise.

How did it feel winning the award?

Awards are very funny things because you don’t know if you’re going to get one. For the RTS award, the editor puts together little bits of what they think is the best music and sends it off to the RTS panel, who decides who gets the gong. Everyone sits there on the night wondering who is going to win and the next thing it’s like, ‘Did someone say my name?’ An award like that makes your working life longer – it’s a good thing to have. I enjoyed a bit of recognition. Then we got another award, so we won ‘Best Theme,’ and ‘Best Use of Music in a Programme’ [for A Touch of Frost] which was very nice.

One award that amused me in a nice way was for our library track ‘New Blood’ which became the most-played piece of library music used across America and we got an ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers] award for it. That was a big deal, and one I really enjoyed. It made me feel very humble. I did the score for a lovely film about the New Orleans floods, One Note at a Time [released in 2016]. It got all these great guys, like the late Dr John. It got shown at the Oxford Film Festival [in 2017]. We were doing the after-show Q&A, when suddenly this guy walks up with an award and says we’ve won the best film music award. I said, ‘Does Dr John get one – what about him?’

Your website also talks about a MIP Award for most original theme tune?

I think that was for the [TV series] Rock Follies record we did on Island [Records]. [Producer] Chris Blackwell said it’s not going to be a big hit, and suddenly, he got so many orders that he had to send his staff down to the factory for 24 hours a day, just to get the covers put on the vinyl – it was amazing.

 

That was with [Roxy Music saxophonist] Andy McKay. You’ve done a few things with him?

I’ve done a lot of his arrangements. It’s a shame no one really buys his albums unless it’s Roxy Music. He writes some nice stuff.

George Fenton was a phenomenal inspiration to you, but I was wondering whether there were any other screen composers that have inspired you or whom you admire?

Hans Zimmerman, John Williams, Bernard Hermann – he was amazing. John Williams has such a memory for classical works and you can hear it coming out of his scores.

Library Music – Your website – which goes up to 2010 – says you have composed 10,000 library tracks!

If you count the pieces of music up, sometimes, they have been used more than once, but it’s pretty near ten thousand. It’s amazing what you get through. When you write library music, you write different versions and instrumentations, so you might have a CD of 60 tracks and 40 compositions.

How did you get into library music and what’s the art of creating it?

It’s like made-to-measure suits – it’s made-to-measure music.  The production music that does the best is usually something that the TV or film company can use as an underscore [background music that helps set a tone or mood], it’s quite neutral. That’s what sells more than anything else because it’s easier to put it to things. Now, with documentaries – which is the main source of usage – that really has to be quite neutral, because it’s usually under something.

The main thing is to have a very strong subject and worked-out themes. What I do is give myself a subject, say ‘People gathering information for a documentary’ and just work out a theme that will fit that and will go with the underscore. I do versions of that with different instrumentation and that seems to work.

What’s your most successful library music?

My idea of what is a success and what other people think is successful are two different things, but the most successful piece was a tune I wrote with drummer Peter Van Hooke, called ‘New Blood.’ It was at the end of a session and something we just made up. About a month later, Paramount decided they would use it for one of their early evening light shows. America is a big country, so if it gets around all the States, it does quite well. Suddenly this tune was being broadcast every night – it’s like the BBC’s One Show [an early evening magazine programme]. It was broadcast every night of the week for three years – it was incredible. It’s a different world now. I always think that production music will reach a saturation point, but it doesn’t. People are always very hungry for music. Sometimes, people do it now and it doesn’t sound very good. Before my time they had budgets for orchestras and the music was played mainly live. Later on, I’d program things but also have a measure of live instrumentation on it, which has a longer shelf life.

 

You said earlier ‘My idea of success might not be what others think, which implies that commercial success is fine, but is artistic success more important for you?

Yeah sure, totally, but it’s nice when both things happen together. But you only get that with a more sophisticated audience. You will get it if you play fusion stuff – it will go into the charts and be a little popular like [the band] RMS, with Mo Foster and Simon.

You have to be careful about the values you put on production music. You’re writing to serve a genre. It’s not like you’re writing music for a film and the music can only be right for that film. The Deer Hunter theme [‘Cavatina,’ composed by Stanley Myers] wasn’t originally called ‘Deer Hunter;’ it was a library tune. The director [Michael Cimino] picked it up and used it all the way through the film. He was probably totally unaware it had been used before. It shows you that a good thing worth its salt will get picked up and used for all sorts of things. That tune made Stanley Myers an absolute fortune, and good luck to him; it’s a lovely piece. Like ‘New Blood,’ it just hit the spot.

One of my favourite pieces of library music you did is one you composed with Mike Moran, The City Limits, which is great Dirty Harry-style of music.

There used to be a label called Themes, alongside KPM, which stood for Keith-Prowse-Maurice Music – they were one of the first to put out library music. The actual first was a guy called James de Wolfe and the reason why library music started was because there was always a little film put on with the main film called Look at Life, which was like a newsreel. It was very hard to get the right music for it, so they used to write music for various subjects, so they could use it. So people started going to music to find things. It was a lot to do with budget. There was a documentary called Breaking Out, which was about people wrongly imprisoned. I was asked to write something for Themes and they used one of my tracks on the series, and it did really well. They only used about the beginning and ending eight bars of the music, which was just solo piano.

 

Presumably you were in your thirties when you started getting into TV and film scoring, and library music?

Yes – there was a helluva lot going on at that time. I was doing a session with Mike [Moran] and he’d say, ‘We’re doing a session next week, can you have some things ready?’ So you’d record other people’s music and they would record yours, and it would go out on an album quite quickly.

You went pretty quickly from being a 15-year old who couldn’t read music to someone writing for orchestras, and indeed, conducting. Was that a steep learning curve?

I was really self-taught, but what taught me was working with great composers like George [Fenton]. I didn’t learn anything from a book; it was working with others.

Did you find it intimidating working with classical musicians?

I suppose there was a certain level of intimidation. Some of the stuff I was doing needed them to play to the click. Things are changing. If you wanted them to lay a funky riff in semiquavers, they could be a bit late, but they’re into it these days. It can be slightly intimidating, but you’ve written it because somebody wants you to write it and that’s what is needed.

You formed a couple of library music companies?

Yes, The Music Library. That was good and it got me in touch with a lot of agents, who re-distributed it throughout different countries, especially in America, which was great.

In an interview in which you talked about playing on Dave Clark’s Time album, one thing that jumped out at me was when you said, ‘he was one of the first people to grasp the importance of copyright and publishing rights.’ Do you think musicians pay enough attention to the business side of things, like contracts, royalties and publishing?

Intellectual property rights are what everybody wants to grab. It was all very naïve time [the 60s and 70s]. I know Dave and he always wanted to keep the rights to his music – he was very clever about that. He said, ‘I couldn’t play drums, but I did keep the publishing!’ He’s got the rights to the Six-Five Special [a rock and roll TV programme that ran during 1957/8], but the trouble is, no one ever sees it because he’s so worried about it going out and being copied. Intellectual copyright is a very difficult one. With production music, you own fifty per cent. With the Performing Right Society, the composer can never own less than this. More and more want to use the word buy-out, but in the end, the copyright is the thing because the life of a copyright will last longer than a buy-out. It’s normally quite indefensible to try and get that from a composer, but they will try and get that, and because a composer is just starting out, they don’t want to fall out with anybody. It’s understandable, but in the end, it doesn’t do you any good.

You remind me of the story of Dolly Parton’s song ‘I Will Always Love You, and Elvis wanted to record it. But Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker insisted that Elvis get fifty per cent of the publishing rights. She refused and years later, Whitney Houston had a massive worldwide hit with it. On a related subject, what’s your view of people sampling your work?

As long as they tell me and pay me, I don’t mind. When people sample things, they can come up with some amazing things. Some people have nicked things outrageously and you can’t claim ignorance these days, so it’s best not to do it. It’s easy to call.

The next question is purely a self-indulgent one, because I want to talk about a song I love and which you co-composed and performed with Simon Phillips, ‘Force Majeure.’ What’s the story behind it?

I say to people, ‘There’s playing with drummers and there’s playing with Simon.’ He and I always see things in a slightly different way from what other people do, and that kind of forged us together. For ‘Force Majeure,’ I played the first line and he played the second line on piano. Sometimes what he played wasn’t particularly easy to play, but that’s how it was. At the end we just play da-da throughout, so that’s obviously where the drum fills came in.

Those fills are something else.

Simon says ‘The time’s always there; you don’t have to worry about it,’ and a lot of very good players say that, ‘If you can feel the time, you don’t have to count it.’ [Drummer and keyboardist] Gary Husband says the same thing. If you start worrying about where you are, you are usually in the wrong place. Simon could play something now and ten minutes later, you could put the click on and he would still be in the same time.

Who came up with the title?

I think that was Simon. We got it from the insurance clause [for an Act of God].

What are your memories of the video performance of the song, featuring you, Simon and Anthony Jackson?

That was great – it was in Philadelphia. The guy who produced it [Paul Siegel] did a lot of stuff with the Philadelphia baseball players. It was a lovely big studio. I flew over and the next day, we did it and then I flew back that evening, because of the budget. It was fantastic.

It almost didn’t happen. I was sitting on the airplane waiting for take-off. I looked out of the window and saw this little truck appear with two flight cases – my speaker cabinet and amp. He got close to the aircraft and then turned back! I thought ‘this isn’t good.’ I rang the bell and the stewardess appeared. I explained what had happened and she said that I had better speak to the captain. They opened the cockpit door and the crew were all in there smoking on the flight deck! I said, ‘If that gear isn’t on board, I can’t go.’ The captain made a call and the truck returned and loaded onto the passenger door – it was so close!

 

There’s an album listed on Simon Phillips’ website, Live in Bremen which features you, Simon and Anthony Jackson. I’ve not been able to obtain either a digital or physical copy of it.

That was at the Tent Festival. It was a really great band and Tony Roberts joined us on sax. We also had pre-recorded piano, because some of the stuff needed a keyboard. It was a most enjoyable gig, and we did two gigs in two different tents. Goodness knows why it was done in a tent!

In an interview you were asked to name your favourite projects and the answers you gave had Simon Phillips connections – the band RMS, which featured you, Simon and Mo Foster, and Simon’s 1995 album Symbiosis. Starting with RMS, I believe that happened because producer Greg Walsh had three spare days in the studio and asked the three of you whether you had any songs. You all said ‘yes’ and then spent the night composing tunes! The next day, you came in and started recording the album Centennial Park

We were working on an album for an Italian singer and we finished the album early. Of course we said ‘yes’ when Greg asked us. That evening, we went over to Mo’s place to write some of the album. The next day, we came in and put all the stuff down. Then we went off to do some tracks and came back on the Sunday, and it was finished. There aren’t many overdubs: a couple of guitar overdubs and some brass. That’s how the Gil Evans Band at Montreux came about {see below]

It was a long time before we got another RMS album, Live at the Venue [recorded 1982 and finally released 2004]. There was also a video release with Gil Evans out in 2003. I expect it was difficult to keep that band together.

We were so busy with sessions and solo work, plus Simon went off to the States.

 

There’s a lot of good music on the albums, I especially like ‘Truck’, [from the first album] which has an enormous sound and great horn lines.

Yes, that’s a good track.

You also have great memories of the album Symbiosis, and you composed or co-composed fie of the nine tunes. It also features another favourite of mine, ‘Midair Decision.’

I think ‘Midair Decision’ was a result of Simon being on an airplane when he made the decision to move to the States. It’s memorable because Sally came over after we had finished the album and we had a long holiday. The actual recording was great. I came over a week before and we had this little studio – I think it belonged to a member of Toto. It was little wooden outbuildings by a pool. We had a week to write the album, so we just sat down every day. We would have breakfast and talk about what we were going to do and then we did it until we couldn’t stand anymore and then went to dinner and then bed. That was the same for seven days. We did a few nips and tucks in the studio, but it was basically there.

That track [‘Midair Decision’] is in 15/8 and was a little bit more difficult. We spent nearly a day on it, but with most of those tunes, we put down at least three tracks a day – it’s amazing how it came together. We had a really nice engineer [Jess Sutcliffe] and we were using a Nieve desk from Monserrat. It was a simple but great analogue affair –it sounded really good. The other reason I enjoyed it was because we mixed it at A&M Studios, which was the original studio that Charlie Chaplin used. It was all wood – it was ambient and sounded great. It was a great way to make a record and I got to know LA on that gig.

 

‘Biplane to Bermuda’ is another lovely track.

There was something dodgy about the original [guitar] solo on it – I think there was a technical glitch. I had to do an acoustic solo in our old house in Chestnut Road, West Norwood. They sent the track over and I over dubbed my acoustic part.

 

I really like your acoustic playing; have you ever been tempted to do an all-acoustic album or a solo acoustic?

Yes, I am thinking about it.

John Scofield recorded a nice acoustic album, Quiet.

I’d better do one! I like acoustic I’ve done, but I don’t know if I could do a whole album. I think it’s more to do with confidence than anything.

Solo Work – Let’s chat about your 1977 album Ready or Not, which I understand was down to producer Kaplan Kaye. He’s an interesting chap: he has been an actor, singer, A&R man, manager and so on. He asked you to record a solo album

Yes for DJM. I was doing some sessions for DJM and he said, ‘Have you got anything I might like?’ I said ‘Yes, of course!’ You never say no!  At the time, we were working with a producer called John Punter – it was with Judie Tzuke. I was doing sessions nearly all the time, and Simon and Mo were around. Kaplan said ‘Can I hear something?’’ so I went home and with a 4- or 8-track recorder, I wrote some stuff and he liked it. There was some vocal stuff – he was managing a guy called Moon Williams, who also did the One Mo Time concert.

 

As was Denny McCafferty, who’s also on the album.

Yes, nearly forty years later, everyone turns up to do all the whole nine yards, which was great. I really enjoyed making that album.

 

The outtake of ‘The Clapping Song’ sounds like a lot of fun in the studio!

Yes, and we got it released [on the album’s reissue]. I still had the tapes.

 

Was that the first time, you, Mo, Simon and Tony Hymas all played together? That trio later formed the core of the Jeff Beck band.

That’s right. I remember some time later meeting Jeff and the guys – who were off on tour to Japan – at Terminal One at Heathrow. We all ended up in the same lounge together – that was weird!

Were you influenced by jazz-rock fusion bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever?

Sure, and with a band like Weather Report. But you have got to be careful when you like something so much that you don’t end up sounding like it – you have got to do your own stuff. But they were very intoxicating – it was mainly Jaco [Pastorius], I suppose. I suppose you have just got to be yourself, although with sessions, you sometimes have to be somebody else, but still yourself. You’ve still got to have your own signature or it won’t work for you.

Did you really say about John McLaughlin, ‘I like him a lot, but he’s not very experimental’?! [Ray – ‘Must be a misquote!’]

Did I?!!! It’s alright, because I have redeemed myself! That is a funny thing to say. I did also say in an interview that out of all the guitar players, he has the best sense of harmony. I think at the time I said that, he probably decided not to speak to me again! But it doesn’t matter, because when you get that good, it doesn’t matter. You get to a stage where you have your own sound and people might love John’s playing, but might hate mine, or they might love both. When you’re playing guitar, you are giving it the best you can and, when people are listening to it, they listen in different ways.  Gary Husband gave me a CD, Turn it Over which had John, Jack Bruce and Tony Williams, and it sounded great; John was pushing his amp and getting more distortion.

What’s your take on tapping?

I don’t do tapping and [Pink Floyd guitarist] Dave Gilmour hates it. He says, ‘Where’s the pocket?’ and I have to agree with him. You listen to ‘Money,’ it’s a commercial record but it’s one of the classic all-time riffs and the pocket is so in. It’s like Queen’s guitar player [Brian May] is great, but the tapping is cadenza-based, so it’s not based on a grove or a pocket. Allan Holdsworth had a fantastic technique – the gold standard for what people call tapping. His harmonic knowledge was amazing – he’s one of Gary Husband’s all-time players – what he doesn’t do is give a pocket so much. The basic thing about playing with drums is that you’ve really got to get that rhythm down, even if you want to play from the roof-top or whatever. The understanding of what’s going down there is an important part of the process.

Being with Gil Evans – I understand that [the late trombonist] Malcolm Griffiths got you the gig with the Gil Evans British Orchestra? You also became personally very close to Gil, taking him om sight-seeing tours to places like Stonehenge. What was Gil like both as a person and a band leader?

He was like a Buddhist monk. He had some notes on manuscript paper and he tore it up into strips and gave everybody a piece of paper with one note on it, and he said, ‘This is your note, and if you don’t like it, you can change it.’

Gil sounds like a lovely, decent man – a great human being.

He was a bit like a spiritual father to me. We would talk about lots of things. My wife and I would go with him, looking at the folklore in the West County, because he was very taken by that – Stonehenge, Glastonbury Tor and places like that. One funny but sad thing happened when we stopped at an Indian restaurant – he liked Indian restaurants. I said, ‘Gil, I’ve got to ask you one thing about music’ – we would never talk about music. I asked him about how he spilt a chord up for a band – I think it was about Porgy and Bess. He got a serviette and wrote a piano stave on it and showed me what the basic chord was and how that would follow. It was really interesting. I turned away to get something and when I turned back, I watched the waiter take the serviette away, plonk it onto a plate and take the plates away!

Did he ever talk about Hendrix or Miles?

We spoke about Jimi and he had all the stuff [for a recording with Hendrix]. Sadly, Jimi died shortly before the project was about to start] That’s why we did the Montreux gig [in 1983] because I was playing the parts he had written for Jimi. It was sad but great to do that.  I said to Gil ‘you hear about Miles being a mean cat’ and he said, ‘No, he was great with me.’ There were very few white guys around Miles, and he loved Gil’s arranging – he was a big fan of Gil’s. Miles had a complete block [of homes] going towards Broadway, and he had four addresses. He would rent it out to the band and Gil had an apartment there – a very nice place. It was small but comfortable. He had a piano, which took him eight years to pay for.

He was like a man about the town earlier on – he was doing jingles; he was MD [musical director] for Bing Crosby. He stopped all that to get involved in jazz. We recorded together [in New York] and that was really nice. It was great that I knew him as a person, and Sally loved him. I heard a story that Gil had all these scores piled by the side of the piano – things like Porgy and Bess – and he took them around the back and burnt them, because they were taking up too much space!

Picasso did a similar thing when he was a young, struggling artist in Paris. He would burn his paintings in order to keep warm in the winter!  Going back to the British Gil Evans Orchestra – it had an incredible line-up of British jazz talent [including John Surman, John Taylor, Stan Sulzmann, Mo Foster, Guy Barker and Malcolm Griffiths]. The opening concert was at the Roundhouse in London on 14 March 1983, which I believe was filmed.

Thames TV filmed it and there is a VHS of it somewhere. I’ve got to look through Mo’s stuff and I think he had a copy.

 

 

Will you also be looking out for a VHS recording Mo made of the 1980 Jeff Beck tour?

Yes.

The Gil Evans British Orchestra also played in Bradford, Glasgow and Ronnie Scott’s. What are your memories of those gigs?

In Glasgow, none of the amps worked! I think the favourite for me would be Montreux, because the vibe was so great, and you had Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie – a fantastic array of musical talent. We played in the band Gil Evans featuring RMS. He plays one note and looks at you and it’s just transmitting to you. You play a response and before you know it, everyone is into it. ‘I just gave you a question and you answered it.’ He was very clever and it was very Zen.

RMS were offered a gig at the 1983 Montreux Jazz Festival and you needed to include a guest musician. You asked Gil and he said ‘yes.’

That’s right.

You had Henry Lowther and Malcolm Griffiths from the Gil Evans Orchestra in the horn section, Mark Isham [keyboards and trumpet] and Ronnie Asprey [saxophone]. It was a very enjoyable gig and nice to see Gil do his famous clasping hands gesture at its conclusion.

I really enjoyed it. I phoned him up when he was in Japan. I asked him about doing the Montreux Jazz Festival in July. Gil consulted his dairy and then said ‘Yes, we can do that. I’ll see you there.’ But what he meant was ‘I’ll see you that afternoon before the evening [concert]! So we hired a place, got everybody together and played the tunes. He turned up at four o’clock in the afternoon, and we had a two-to-three hour run through and that was it.  It was a tight ship – everybody was really watching him! He was cool and just sat there and played in his very casual way and we all got through.

 

It’s great that it was captured on video.

Yes, I’m very pleased about that.

The concert includes a lovely performance of ‘So Far Away’ and on ‘Juna The Last,’ you really rock out on that! Where did the title come from?

It came from my youngest son – he was about twelve when he wrote a piece of music and called it that. I asked him why it he said, ‘I think because it’s the last day in June, King Juna.’ We wanted something slightly mysterious in the middle [of the set] and that’s how that got there. I quite enjoyed that.

 

Which son wrote the music?

Robin.

You have quite a musical dynasty; your son George plays bass; Charlie [aka Eric] plays drums and creates soundscapes.

My daughter Amy plays double bass – she likes to play bebop.

Did you encourage or try to discourage your children from going into music?

If you’ve read the Jack Kerouac book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – you do what you do and you don’t want to force kids into it. They’re just there and they get into it. George used to play around with instruments and really interested in the bass. I sent him to music school to learn about harmony and stuff.

You have played with Charlie and George in a trio.

Yes, and George puts his own stuff up online.

 

Going back to Gil, was it sometime during late 1987/early1988, that you and [engineer] Simon Smart went to New York to record with Gil at RPM Studios?

It was close to when he died [March 1988] – he died while I was on tour. As far as I know, he didn’t have any major illness – he contracted something [Gil Evans died from peritonitis after prostate surgery].

I had this record deal with Polydor and the guy wanted a new age/jazzy album. I did some stuff at home – it was done in bits. It was all on multi-track [tape], this was a little before digital [recording]. We used to cart ten multi-tracks through customs – it’s unbelievable! We got to New York, arrived at the studio and the guy [studio manager] says, ‘You’re a day late!’ The time difference had messed things up.

I phoned Gil and apologised and he said, ‘Don’t worry. Give me an hour and I’ll be down.’ Suddenly, he walked through the door laughing – he thought it was a great joke! We just started playing – it was amazing. In fact, after that trip, Simon Smart got married in New York and he still lives there. After we finished working with Gil, I went to LA and recorded with Mark Isham to finish it off.

In the liner notes, you mention using Gil’s Spanish tenor guitar on ‘The Pan Piper.’

He brought it along and asked me, ‘What do you think of this?’ It was really nice and I said, ‘I’ll use it on this.’

 

You did ‘The Pan Piper’ with Gil, and another tune, ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat,’ which appeared on your [2006] album Goodbye Svengali. Is there any other material sitting around from that session with Gil?

We did [the Gil Evans tune] ‘London’ and that was it unfortunately. Just being in the same room as Gil Evans and recording with him must have been an incredible experience. I could hardly believe it.

Was that the last time you saw Gil?

Yes. I saw Anita [Gil’s widow] the following year and his son Miles – he was also in the Big Band.

How did you get to connect with Mark Isham?

He was a friend of Peter Van Hooke’s – I think he was going out with Pete’s wife sister, and he played a bit with Van Morrison. That’s how we got to know each other. He was fantastic in the RMS Montreux band. He used to be one of the busiest film music writers.

The 1988 album Why Not Now included two Gil Evans performances and has an incredible line-up of musicians: Mo Foster, Simon Phillips, Tony Hymas, Frank Ricotti to name but a few. It also marked the recording debut of your son George, who was two at the time! Is he pleased to be immortalised on record? [he’s on the track ‘Childscape’]

Yes. That was done in my place in West Norwood. I had a flat at the side of the house, which was my home studio – we had a very nice Neotek recording desk. A guy had an idea to put curtains in front of the monitors. George came in and somebody was singing behind the curtain and we were using reverb and echo. George heard this and said: ‘Is that the voice of God?’!

 

You must be pleased with how the two Gil Evans pieces, ‘The Pan Piper’ and ‘Sketches of Gil’ and turned out.

The ‘Pan Piper’ was just overdubbed guitars. ‘Sketches of Gil’ was Gil doodling with a couple of things added to it. That’s a really deep track that gets to me.

 

Can I ask you about two musicians who appear on the bonus tracks: Ray Warleigh [who plays bass clarinet on ‘Avian’] and Tommy Eyre [keyboards on ‘Snow (A Passing Phase)]?

Tommy was a great pianist – he could also play a lot of complicated classics. He had amazing technique. He was a great guy with lots of humour. He used to be the musical director for Wham! Unfortunately he had a bit of a drink problem that did it for him [he died in 2001]. The first time I played with him, we had the violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with Bob Dylan – they say his song ‘The Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ is about her. Tommy and Scarlett got married and blamed me! (joke) It was a great shame when he died. But I can’t dwell on the negative side – he was great on ‘Snow (A Passing Phase).’

Ray Warleigh was a great player. He was quite traditional – he wasn’t into modal music like late Coltrane. He preferred music with lots of changes, like bebop. We had a little band with a trombonist Derek Wadsworth and we used to play at the Bulls Head in Barnes. He plays bass clarinet on ‘Avian.’ I heard a classical piece – it might have been Ravel – and it had a bass clarinet muttering in the background, and I said, ‘This is what I want.’ He took a little while to get it, not so much the performance, but as a colour. He never owned a bass clarinet but a guy up the road from him was a musician, who had one and Ray used to borrow that! I think that album was a good coming together of the right match of people.

 

 

In 2013, you released Now More Than Ever. A lot of people have commented on how you have a massive gap between albums – this was released seven years after Goodbye Svengali. Is it a case that you are just so busy doing other things or waiting until you have something to say?

I think it’s a bit of both. I want to do stuff but don’t always have a chance to do it and getting people together can be difficult. There won’t be that gap again, because I don’t think I’ve got that much time left to leave a seven-year gap, so I think I’ll be doing some stuff. When someone says ‘It’s seven years,’ it doesn’t feel like it. It’s not so much the playing – and this is probably where I differ from other people – I do feel that it’s more compositional rather than playing. I could make an album any day if it was spontaneous music, but I would find it very difficult if I had to write different compositions. That’s the reason why there’s a gap – I want to make sure that the compositions have changed. I try and take a leaf out of Gil’s book – it’s like a river with a flow and people make the rest up. I’ve given people this direction or signpost and that’s what they make up, but what I don’t want them to do is think ‘That’s a bit like…’ and do the same thing again.

The album is dedicated to ‘Children who have lost their lives by the gun.’

It’s just outrageous. I’m not personally involved with anyone who has suffered from that, but I am so outraged by it. I don’t get politically involved in things but it just upsets me so much that I thought I should put it on there.

The opening number ‘The Island’ was composed for Gary Husband and was inspired by the TV series The Prisoner.

On stage, he’s Number Six and I’m number Two! It had an interesting flow to it and Gary played lovely on it.

 

The album has an amazing line-up of bassists – Anthony Jackson, Jimmy Johnson, Mo Foster and your son George makes his bass recording debut. Are there any bassists you would have liked to have played with like Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller or Stanley Clarke?

Marcus – oh sure. And Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden and Ron Carter. – people like that. I have been lucky because Jimmy is fantastic and Anthony is my all-time favourite, he damps the strings and fits in with the piano. A lot of double bass players I never got the chance to play with because they are obviously not here, but you listen to the clarity and the intonation of those guys and it’s just incredible. I asked George if he wanted to play and he looked at me as if I was crazy! I said, ‘I think you can do this.’ He woodshedded [practiced] and came back and played it.

In 2015 you worked with Henry Kaiser on the wonderfully titled Celestrial Squid.

[Laughs] Oh man, that was beautiful – he was great. Henry has a very green footprint. He spends half the year recording the movement of things over the Antarctic as a deep sea diver. The studio we used has now gone [Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California,] but it was there at the beginning of rock and roll – it was a really old wooden studio. It was a lovely place. I wrote a couple of things and the band was out on the floor all live – it was amazing. If there’s one place I could live it would be the Bay Area. The Grateful Dead recorded in the studio. I was in Las Vegas doing publishing business for two days and then the next two days, in San Francisco doing an album – it was so bizarre. Then I would go back to Vegas. I was thinking, ‘I need two brains here!’

 

In your seventies, you embarked on a PhD thesis on improvisation at Leeds Beckett University, called Fluid Architecture. What prompted that?

A guy who used to do a lot of engineering for me, Steve Parker, had a studio. One day he said to me, ‘I’m off to France to do up this cottage.’ I didn’t hear from him for ages and then one day he called. He was now at Leeds Beckett University and asked me to come up and talk to the students. I ended up going up every three months for three days and it was lovely. We did organised sessions so the students learnt how to work with other people, like engineers. It’s a little bit of a lost art now, because so many people make music by themselves. This went on for a couple of years and I noticed he had a doctorate. He encouraged me to do a doctorate. I thought about it a lot because I’m not academic.

Joni Mitchell had half that phrase from Goethe Fluid Architecture [‘If music is liquid architecture then architecture is frozen music.’] and so I started writing things down. Dr Bob was great and he said I had to pace myself as a thesis is around 120 pages in length! The best thing was I did more reading about people and discovered there is so little about the cognitive aspects of playing together. There was one book Playing in the Band, which was interesting and there were stories about Thelonious Monk. The telepathy of how people play together, which is really what we do. It’s what I call the ‘golden era’ because it won’t happen again, because technology has changed – people playing together under pressure to come up with something. I thought ‘People need to know about this.’ It took me five years to write.

I was sitting in front of the accreditation] board and one of the panel members says, ‘There’s one thing I’d like you to write about is the [the Van Morrison album] Astral Weeks?

I said, ‘I didn’t do Astral Weeks,’ and so he asked about an album we did at The Manor [studio]. I said, ‘He’s an incredibly talented songwriter but he doesn’t express his disposition really well to others. He’s not a great communicator – he expects you to understand him, a bit like Bob Dylan. They both have hand signals and you’re supposed to learn fifty numbers without the music in a couple of days and know where you are going from all the hand signals. But it could be so much better if you had a few rehearsals. It’s cognitive creativity, and adaptation is a great power. That’s why I didn’t work with him again, because a guy who can’t use the power of adaption doesn’t feel right to me, even though he’s a very talented guy. So, they passed my thesis and no one was more surprised than me! We celebrated with fish and chips.

Who did you interview for your thesis?

Simon [Phillips], Ralph Salmins, Anthony [Jackson], Mo [Foster] and a few others. I asked them what they felt about improvisation and overdubbing, because that’s an interesting art.

Is the ability to improvise well an innate talent or something you develop the more you play with others?

I think it’s the more you listen and the more you have a chance to play – it just grows. Without sounding too fancy, it has to intertwine with other people. When people are into something, they have physical movements and they change their body movements. People say, ‘A lot of people play with their eyes closed,’ well they do, but they’ve always got half an eye open for what’s going on. You watch out for people and can see when they are really going to do something and you take your cue from them. It’s a psycho/physical response. Ian Carr was like that – I could see his leg moving a certain way. You get to know people’s mannerisms.

The album of the same name [released in 2020] includes your two sons George and Charlie, and Simon Phillips. An album reviewer I read said you were the first guitarist to use a pedal board! Is this correct?

Apparently so. I always used pedals in sessions. I knew at some stage someone would say, You know The Isley Brothers song ‘That Lady’? ‘Do you know how they got that effect?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, it’s flanging.’ [mixing two signals together], and they’d say, ‘We’ll have that one the record.’ I realised that instead of getting pedals out of my bag, it would be easier having them all-in-one. At the time, people weren’t into making little transformers that would transform AC into DC, so it was a bit of a pain. The other problem was hum. I got it together and the industry caught up. A friend of mine – David Lunt is a very good tech and was a great help in eliminating hum.

You must be proud to have developed the pedal board, but when you look at some of the enormous rigs today, you must think ‘I’ve created a monster.’!

Oh yes!

The opening number ‘Escaping The Six-String Cage’ inspired you to go back and sample some of the 1971 ICA concert?

That was a great line and I thought very apt. I wanted to create an amalgam of that tape and Charlie putting a loop on it and it also having overdubs. So it’s past, present and future – not in real-time obviously, but the loops can be very rewarding and it goes on top of something that happened forty years ago. It shows that anything can work with anything else.

The track’s soundscape seems to fit well with the album title, because it gave me the feeling of being inside a massive cathedral. ‘Six In, Six Out,’ also has a great feeling of spaciousness.

That’s great – I’m glad you felt that. I was trying to get that feeling of you didn’t know where it was coming from.

 

Is ‘Endure’ your first joint composition with George?

Yes. We have got some others, and I’m happy we can do stuff together.

Quite a few songs on the album are personal titles – ‘Moon Dog’ is the name of a dog you rescued from  Afghanistan; ‘One For Geoff’ is for the late Geoff Castle; ‘Conversation’ refers to a meeting you had with Jimi Hendrix. When a song has a personal connection, which comes first, the music or the title?

I start playing something and think ‘That would be a good tune and it reminds me of…’

I believe you met Jimi Hendrix a couple of times. The first time he walked into the room with his manager Chas Chandler and he borrowed your guitar. And you met him again on a tour with Cat Stevens in Sweden, when Jimi was the support act.

I joined Cat Stevens and I think The Walker Brothers were on the show too. Jimi opened because he was the least-known at the time. He was just about to have the monster hit of his life [‘Hey Joe’]. We were standing at the side of the stage [watching Jimi] and going ‘Wow!’

We were all staying in a little hotel and I was lying in bed with the curtains open and I noticed someone outside jumping up and down. I realised it was Jimi. He still had his [stage] gear on. I opened my window and he said ‘I’ve locked myself out.’ I let him and he came into my room and we had a cup of tea. We talked about various things, like getting laundry done, and that was it. He said he’d go and get pass key for his room. I saw him on the plane the next day. I didn’t think much about it until much later and people would say, ‘You did what?!’

Can we clear up a mystery about a lost album of yours? When the 606 Club advertised a gig of yours in 2019, the publicity blurb stated that ‘Ray is on the cusp of releasing a new album Imaginary Conversations, a tribute to favourite musicians and friends.’ What happened to it?

Really? I don’t think anything happened! I must have palmed them off with that! It was something I was thinking about and was asked about it. You’re probably the only person who remembered it! It’s a good idea and would be a good thing to do.

You played on Mo Foster’s album Time To Think [released in 2008], virtually an all-acoustic album, recorded in St Michael’s Church, Oxford. What are your memories of the album?

It was a lovely place. We had a very good time making it. Frank Ricotti was on percussion and Simon Chamberlain played keyboards The acoustics were amazing. We had a few small problems but it was done very quickly – in two days. I think Mo might have dropped a couple of bits in that was it.

 

You’re probably best known as an electric guitarist, but do you enjoy acoustic guitar sessions?

Yes, if it’s what written out that way, it’s great. I do enjoy it. We just played in that acoustic mode; Mo was the only one who played an electric instrument. He had a bass guitar and amp but it felt like an acoustic; it was very quiet. The songs were nice, free-flowing acoustic tunes.

I’ve got to ask you about the album The Running Man [released in 1972], which featured saxophonist Gary Windo.  I love the tracks ‘Spirit’ and ‘Another’

The idea for the album came from a guy called Olav Wyper. I don’t know what he was doing in that job [commercial director at RCA records], because he was a painter! He did the original ICA [album cover painting]. We called it The Running Man from the film [1933, directed by Carol Reed]. We did some tracks at Trident and CBS [studios] and it turned out really well, I thought. We did the Medicine Head track ‘All The Fallen Teen Angels’ as our single. It didn’t do a lot.

Gary was his own life force – he was like a hurricane through a forest. He did what he wanted to do, but he was great; a fantastic player. We had him because he was just so unusual. He would suddenly go into some free jazz over a rock thing and it sounded really good – he was a great guy. He had a bit of a drug problem, which he was cleaning up from. A lovely, warm-hearted guy.

I’ll tell you a story about Gary with Labi Sifre. He had a horn section and Gary was part of it. There weren’t any arrangements, so I had to write some for the next day. Gary didn’t play half of the arrangements and was tootling along doing his Archie Shepp stuff!  He said, ‘It’s too static. What would you say if we have the band do ‘Footsteps’ and stand up a play?’ Labi said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ I thought ‘Oh no…’ He said, ‘Follow me,’ and he marched everyone around the studio playing! The next day, Labi informed me that the brass idea wasn’t a great one!

 

How did you end up playing the long bass solo at the end of ‘Another’ rather than the bassist Alan Greed?

For some reason, he wasn’t there, so I just played it. I thought he would re-do it, but we just left it.

 

 

Are you tempted to play more bass?

No, I leave it to the professionals.

Gary also played on your album [1973] Secret Asylum. The sound he gets on ‘Spinetree’ is out of this world

Oh yeah. He was a fantastic player – he was an original. When a sax player is screaming/over-blowing, everyone says ‘he sounds like..’ but everyone sounds different – Shepp sounds different from Coltrane, and Gary sounded very different – he was fantastic. The problem he had was that he couldn’t really settle down and be in one place, or announce anything or talk to anybody about keys. It was like he was just on all the time, but when he played it was great.

https://cuneiformrecords.bandcamp.com/track/spinetree

I’d like to talk about you joining the Graham Bond Organisation (GBO), which I believe was in August 1967. An article in Record Collector described the band you joined as ‘the last stable, original line-up.’ Graham Bond was an incredible talent and anyone who forms a band that includes John McLaughlin, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker must have had something going for them.

He was a very strange character and he believed he was Alastair Crowley’s [an English occultist] grandson. He was a tall guy and so when he put a hat on and all his gear, he looked awesome. He had a cape and a gown and a book that was all about magic. He used to walk around in his gown, holding this book, which had a lock on the front. We did a gig in the south of France at a place called La Papagayo – it was right in the harbour of Saint Tropez. We had the usual travelling-in-style – a Bedford van, while he got on a flight.

We got down there and the accommodation wasn’t very nice – there were ants everywhere. It was a good gig, but when it came to near the end of it, he had spent all our money! I said to Graham, ‘Are you going to get paid, because we need some money.’ He said, ‘I was going to fly back tonight,’ and I said, ‘We haven’t even got any money for petrol for the van!’

He said, ‘Don’t worry about the money,’ but he never paid us properly – he just gave you some money. He stayed overnight and I got up in the middle of the night and went to the loo and he was sitting on the toilet with a needle sticking out of his arm. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I pulled the needle out and he grunted. Fortunately, he was okay. The next day, he was totally out of it – I had never seen anything like it. He had the horrors and tried to hide under the bed. He was so tall, his boots were sticking out of the end of the bed! Me, one of the roadies and our drummer Alan Rushton, pulled him out and got him into a car, and he was driven to the airport. How he got on the flight, I will never know.

We returned later that day and we were driving stupidly fast up the motorway and got stopped by the police. We found out that the van was on Interpol’s stolen vehicle list! Graham had driven the van out of the hire place and not paid for it!

How long were you with the band?

I stayed about a year and then it got too much with the money. It was a good playing experience. He died not long after I left; he was standing on the platform of Manor House Station and he fell on the line – no one knows if he jumped or if he was pushed.

We’ve already talked about you being on the same gig as David Bowie’s early band, but didn’t you also play on the hit ‘Space Oddity?’

It was an unusual session. There wasn’t a lot to play and I just played acoustic bits and they seemed to like it. We all got on well. I haven’t got much to say because I can’t remember too much – I was really busy at the time.

You also worked with Bowie on the Labyrinth soundtrack with Trevor Jones.

I knew Trevor Jones quite well and he used to book me for things. That was a good gig. These things are done so quickly.

Did you have much interaction with Bowie?

Only hello and stuff. He knows what he wants and just tells you, and you do it. He was very straight, business-like and very friendly. When he put his vocals down, if it went to a second take it was surprising – he knew in advance exactly what he wanted.

He must have had the best ever background vocal line-up ever on the project – Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, Fonzi Thornton, Danny John-Jules, Cissy Houston and Robin Beck.

He got all the faces in – he’s got all their numbers. It’s lovely when you can call people and they say ‘Okay.’ Things like that are great because you see how the star network works. When people are without their managers and entourage, it’s just great; they’re fantastic people and really nice and never talk about money or business, just music. If you know creative people on their own, they are still the people who want to be creative.

You have quite a few Beatles connections – you’ve worked with George Martin, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

I also did a track with John Lennon with Phil Spector producing, and Ringo was on it. Johnny Gustafson played bass. I forget the song, but it was like a jam at Trident [studio]. Ringo was a very nice together, straight-ahead guy. It’s so difficult when people that famous walk in – it’s amazing. But when you get down to it, music is a great leveller, because you want to do the thing. People can bullshit about anything but when it comes to music, it has to be done and that levels it all up.

You did the Sgt Pepper soundtrack with George Martin.

Which many people hate! I didn’t stay for the vocals. I did a bit of acoustic; a bit of electric and a bit of 12-string. It was overdubbing. He was lovely to work with. I did a couple of things with him. There was a guy called Larry Adler [a harmonica player] and we did an album, which was nice [The Glory of Gershwin, 1999].

 

On your website it says you also played on the James Bond Live and Let Die soundtrack.

It was the first one that John Barry wasn’t involved. I didn’t do the title song [featuring McCartney and his band] but some of the other music.

 

You played with Paul McCartney on the Music for Montserrat benefit concert in 1997, which included Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Mark Knopfler.

Paul asked me through his management. Mo was on it and he probably suggested me. We played a song – I can’t remember it – and there are there were no guitar parts. George [Martin] said ‘Just play some fills’ so I did and Paul turned around to me and said, ‘Oh man, I enjoyed what you did there,’ which was great. I like Paul. By the way, Mo’s got a great video that is unseen at the moment, of him talking to George Harrison, who is listening to tracks on the first day of the Anthology Project.

 

 You got very close to George Harrison.

I feel sad that George went so soon – he was a very creative guy. He didn’t write all the hit songs, but Handmade Films [which he formed], The Life of Brian, come on! A Fish Called Wanda – I played on that. John Williams did the acoustic [guitar] and I did all the electric. John Du Prez did the score.

 

He gave you that Bartell fretless that appeared on the [BBC programme] Antiques Roadshow.

That was unbelievable. The pressure was immense but I enjoyed it. You can’t leave something like that in your front room. It sold for £190,000. One thing I learnt from these auctions was how only The Beatles stuff sells for that money. There were items from a couple of well-known bands that didn’t sell.

Phil Spector – who worked with The Beatles on the Let It Be album – is another one on your list. This was back in 1965 with The Ronettes. What was it like working with him?

He wanted to make a track for Ronnie’s birthday [Spector’s wife] and put it out as a single. It was recorded at Trident. He taught me one very important principle for overdubbing. He said, ‘I’m going to record you all; remember what you played, and then I’m going to record you all again, and remember what you played.’ We got the take he wanted and he said ‘I’m going to record you all again.’ We had two multi-tracks running in sync and the first was just eight tracks with the band. He more or less balanced it how he wanted it. So we played a song – a medium tempo rock piece and he said, ‘Play the same again.’ Some people said, ‘Just use it twice,’ and he said, ‘When overdubbing, it makes a big difference.’ So we played it all again and everything was in sync. Someone asked if we could listen to it and when he played it, it was great, it was like a wall of sound. Then he said, ‘We’ll do another one.’ That’s how he got it.

He didn’t point any guns at you did he? He was notorious for having guns in the studio.

No, but my gun episode was when I was working with Frankie Miller and Jack Douglas was the producer. Aerosmith were in the next studio and they came in, got their guns out and started pointing them around the Record Plant in New York. Jack said, ‘Everyone, just get under the desk.’ I crawled into the live room and hid behind a baffle and then I saw the light: ‘Yeah, that will take it [the bullet]!’

That gig was the first time I went to New York. I was on the same flight as Frankie Miller and was like his minder, which was ridiculous. We got into a cab and went into town and Frankie said, ‘These Americans think they’re hard; they’re not as hard as people from the Gorbals in Glasgow.’ I said, ‘Be careful Frankie; you’ve got to sing tomorrow. Whatever you do, don’t start a fight.’’

We reached 42nd Street and Frankie said to the cabbie, ‘I’m going to walk.’ He got out and I said to the cabbie, ‘We’ll follow him in case I need to grab him back in.’ Frankie strode down the street with his arms out and not moving aside for anyone. He got to the end of the street and climbed back in the cab, and said, ‘See?’ I thought, ‘Sheer luck.’ We get to the hotel and the cabbie said, ‘Have a nice day,’ and Frankie went to grab him and snarled, ‘Don’t you tell me what to do!’

You’ve worked with Phil Collins.

I’ve done a few dates. He normally uses Daryl Stuermer but there were a few dates he couldn’t do. So Mo, Barry De Souza, who played drums, Phil, who was on keyboards and me, played ‘In The Air Tonight’ and ‘You Can’t Hurry Love.’ We did a couple of mime outs and a couple of other gigs.

These were TV appearances?

Yes, and Phil had his keyboard on a Workmate. He’s a lovely guy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roNw-n_kHww

He has had to retire through health issues. I don’t think many people realise that musicians can get all sorts of injuries, like tinnitus and carpal tunnel syndrome. Simon Phillips had a debilitating back injury. Have you been afflicted with any conditions as a result of playing an instrument?

I’ve get a bit of tinnitus now and again. But while I’ve still got a pulse I can play and it hasn’t affected me.

You also worked with Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé on ‘Barcelona.’

[Sighs] What can I say about Freddie? We did a couple of tracks at Abbey Road but I don’t remember what they were. Freddie was quite dark, so I didn’t really know him. The track sounded good and he was a great singer, and that was a great band. The things he asked me to play were just the same as he had always had.

We went to Spain [for the concert] and the King and Queen were there and half the world was watching on TV. We had an orchestra and just the afternoon to rehearse. Dionne Warwick was coming in at quarter to five and so we had fifteen minutes with her. We end up in a little room doing it acoustically, and Dionne was singing was great – she was lovely and saw the funny side of it.

We got on a big stage with a big orchestra and Montserrat Caballé. She was fine because all she knows is live- everything is a performance. But Freddie started to getting jittery and worried about doing it live. So with just five minutes to go on, he decided to mime – he swapped it all for a tape. It was a little bit disastrous because it was a quarter-tone out. We all had to end up miming. It was a stupid thing, but he was very insecure, which I guess accounted for a lot of his problems. It wasn’t the best thing but everyone seemed to enjoy it, and it was an experience.

 

You worked with Scott Walker on his album Climate of Hunter.

Brilliant. He was a very quiet guy. He was just singing along and getting the feel, with just a few bits of paper- there were hardly a part to be seen. We just played along with it. He was an intuitive guy; he would just hum something and then listen, and say, ‘I like that, let’s carry on like this.’

The solos you played on the tracks ‘Three’ and ‘Seven,’ where they multiple takes?

When it came up, I just played something. I might have re-done one, but usually it all fitted in.  Later on with recording, it changed, and there was an assumption that if you played a solo, it wouldn’t be the right one they wanted. The thinking was, ‘We’ve got all this time and the whole studio; we can do it all then’. But sometimes, the actual feel of what’s needed is on the original track.

 

What do you recall about working with Van Morrison?

There’s the joke: ‘There are two kinds of people: people who have bought his records and love him, and the people that have worked with him’. He’s very talented and writes great songs, but to me, he was very rude. I did a few songs in a week and at the end of it I thought ‘Fuck me. Is that really the guy that wrote Astral Weeks?’ Next time he asked me, I said ‘No thanks,’ even though it was quite good money. You got all these restrictions. He apparently said to a guitar player: “When you’re playing a blues, I only want the root of the seventh and nothing else – don’t get clever.’

Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Evita soundtrack. It also involved Mo Foster and Simon Phillips and took about a month. You described the experience in one interview as ‘Exhausting.’

You can say what you like about Andrew Lloyd Webber, but he did put British theatre back on its feet with all his musicals. The conductor on those sessions was Anthony Bowles, who was like a negotiator between the orchestra and the rhythm section. Getting the downbeat right between the two of them was hard. The engineer Keith Grant has an amazing sense of humour – I think without him, there would have been lots of walkouts. We all had to buy our own copy of the album! We were invited up to Andrew’s office and asked to pay £7 for a copy! It was actually cheaper in the record store around the corner!

 

Many thanks to Ray for all his time and patience. All images are courtesy of Ray’s website https://rayrussell.co.uk/