INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
‘Kid In A Big World’
Early in January 1974, Stuart Reid and I flew to Rome. I was to record ‘Casting Shadows’, the song I’d written for the film ‘Open Season’. It was to be backed by a full orchestra playing an arrangement done by the movie’s director of music, Ruggero Cini. It would be usual here to say it felt ‘awesome’ and I was ‘shaking like a leaf’, but neither was the case. In those days, I seemed to readily accept things, face them full on, and just get on with it. With age and experience, I have become far less immediately confident, needing time – and others’ approval – to feel things I do are ok. I guess events which unfolded in my career had something to do with that. They rubbed away the edge of arrogance and utter self-belief which only youth truly possesses.
As we had when we went to Madrid a couple of weeks earlier to view the film’s rushes, we flew First Class. The hotel was again rather splendid. I – less wide-eyed than I’d been in Madrid – sat in my enormous suite wrapped in the softest, hugest white towel dressing-gown I had ever seen, let alone worn. The two-hour bubble bath, quaffing a small bottle of champagne I’d got from the mini-bar, had completely relaxed me.
“This IS the life!” I told myself as I settled on my Kingsize bed, poured some more champers and munched the chocolates from my Welcome Hamper. It had been delivered by a stunningly good-looking porter who had placed it on my coffee table with a perfect smile and a handsome tip. The card attached to the hamper read, ‘Welcome To Rome, John, SO looking forward to the recording session! – Love, Peter Collinson’.
That evening, Stuart took me to a busy restaurant just round the corner from the Spanish Steps, where I ordered spaghetti. ‘When in Rome,’ I told myself rather smugly. To my horror, when it arrived it looked nothing like the spaghetti rings my mum used to serve from the Heinz tin, dished up with chips. I stared at my plate, at the endless strands of spaghetti, woven around each other like some impenetrable bird’s nest, then at Stuart tucking happily into his steak, and wished I’d ordered that.
I felt my face going redder as the unworldly little lad from Ramsbottom emerged from the outer covering of stylish London youth-about-town, which I’d begun to develop since meeting Stuart and Patsy four months earlier. It fell away from me like a poorly-applied new layer of paint. A minor panic began to enfold me.
“Are you ok?” Stuart asked.
“Erm -”, I pointed at my spaghetti, on the verge of tears, “how do I eat this?”
Stuart chuckled and was just about to show me when…
“Can I help you with that spaghetti?” a rich, deep Italian voice said above me.
I looked up at a beautifully dressed, smiling handsome man, cocking his head to one side, waiting for me to say ‘Yes’. Instead I just stared dumbly at him.
“I saw you looking a little, well, puzzled…would you like me to show you how to…get it in your mouth?”
I gulped and nodded as Adonis winked at me. His glorious cologne wafted over as he deftly, like a TV chef, demonstrated how to hold my fork against the spoon and spin it into a neat ring of spaghetti.
“Open wide,” he said, and popped a perfect helping of the delicious pasta into my mouth.
“Mmm…! Thank you!…” I struggled to say, munching away and remembering my mum’s constant mantra, ‘Don’t speak with your mouth full!’.
“There!” He clapped his hands. “Now you try!”
My face burning like a beacon, I carefully spun the spaghetti on the fork against the spoon and lifted it into my mouth.
“Bravo!” Adonis shouted and applauded, and with that his table of friends next to us joined in, beaming and cheering.
I thanked him again, thrilled and embarrassed all at the same time. He took my hand and shook it with a delightful little bow:
“My pleasure! Enjoy the rest of your meal!”
As he joined his friends, who were patting him on the back and joshing him, he winked at me once more.
“You should look helpless more often, John,” Stuart said. “It’s very effective.”
The next morning, the limousine picked us up at nine-thirty and whisked us through Rome, past the Coliseum which had been clad in clear plastic. Covered in thousands of drops of the rain from the previous night, which twinkled like stars in the now sun-drenched day, it looked like a huge art installation.
“They’re cleaning it,” the driver told us flatly when I asked him about it.
‘Oh well,’ I thought, still wishing I’d brought a camera.
At the studio, the small sturdy figure of Ruggero Cini introduced me to the orchestra, and I saw the friendly face of Peter Collinson up in the control room. He waved and Stuart went to join him.
“Would you like to try the piano, John?” Ruggero asked me.
It was a Steinway grand, and as I sat down the musicians began studying the manuscripts in front of them.
“You begin solo, John,” Ruggero told me, “and we come in on the second verse.” He pointed at the manuscript he’d placed in front of me. It had been some years since I’d read a piece of music, but I pretended to know what he was talking about. When he’d walked off, I surreptitiously got my lyrics out of my pocket and put them over the manuscript.
“Shall we try a run through?” Ruggero said to his musicians, then smiled over at me. “Sing it too, John, but this will only be a guide vocal for the musicians at this stage, so don’t worry about singing it very well.”
I played it through, loving the sound of the orchestra as it came in, and aware of Ruggero conducting everything from his rostrum very gently and unobtrusively. At the end, he gave me the thumbs-up, and, after a few quiet instructions in Italian to one or two of the musicians, said into his mike, “We’ll do a take.”
I was aware of Stuart’s face watching me from the control room, looking slightly anxious but smiling through it in case I saw him. Peter on the other hand looked to be in his own private heaven. My voice felt very tight, but it was only ten o’clock in the morning and the song was extremely rangy, as were most of my songs in those days. I used to write in ridiculously high keys back then, encouraged to do so by Stuart, who loved it when I ‘soared’ as he called it. I privately wished I’d written it a few semitones lower at that point.
I put on my headphones and heard the engineer say, “Rolling!”. With a ‘three-four’ count-in from Ruggero, I began to play the arpeggios in the key of A. It seemed to go well, I played without a mistake, though my voice still sounded strained. Ruggero was, however, smiling broadly at me throughout, and as I finished the song the violinists and cellists tapped their bows on their music stands. I saw Peter striding downstairs from the control room to greet me:
“John!” he cried, grabbing my hand and hugging me. “Gorgeous! Simply gorgeous!”
His Gauloise wafted around the room as we chatted about my trip and I gushed about the hotel. Peter made a dismissive gesture, grabbed my shoulders with surprisingly strong hands and said,
“You are a star, my darling. Stars stay at the best hotels!”
“OK,” I heard Ruggero say, and saw him walking towards us, looking at his watch. “Let’s take a half-hour break then we’ll record the vocal!”
My stomach churned. It was still only eleven o’clock! I’d hoped we’d break for lunch then do the vocal in the afternoon. I inwardly panicked that my voice would not be good enough for the take. Stuart appeared with a cup of tea and took me into a corner of the studio. He fidgeted and shuffled his feet as I sipped the welcome and warm Earl Grey.
“Are you going to be alright?” he said, his anxious face and the worried tone of his voice not helping at all. “Singing so early in the morning is never good, John.”
I had no ready answer. Inwardly shaking, I just shrugged and held up crossed fingers. I must have looked much more sanguine than I felt as it seemed to relax him.
By midday, I’d recorded two takes of the vocal, both of which sounded, to me, in places ok, in others rather shaky. But, as we listened back in the control room, Ruggero seemed pleased, Peter Collinson looked thrilled, only Stuart paced up and down, looking like a man who had lost his winning Pools coupon.
“Is that really alright?” I asked Ruggero at the end of the playback.
Ruggero made a circled finger and thumb gesture:
“It’s frail, John, it’s young, it’s rather heart-breaking in fact.”
Peter nodded in agreement:
“Perfect for the scene it will accompany in the movie, John!” he added.
“Truly.” Ruggero agreed. “And we have two vocals to choose from, we can drop in the best parts of each take so we have the absolutely perfect one!”
Stuart looked unconvinced, but smiled at the fact they were happy.
In the taxi back to the hotel, I was still wishing I’d been able to redo the vocal once more when he nudged me out of my reverie:
“I rang CBS while you were recording,” he said. “I told the Head of Legal Affairs that we were in a studio in Rome, where you were recording your new song for the next Peter Fonda movie.”
“What did he say?”
“Well, his parting words were, ‘Please call me as soon as you get back, Stuart!’ Somehow, John, I think he’ll be calling me.”
Stuart had been absolutely right. That nugget of tantalising information had been ‘the rocket up the arse’, as he called it, that CBS needed. Their legal department called Stuart within minutes of him arriving back at his office, asking him to go over there for a meeting to discuss the contract. Later that afternoon, Patsy and I sat in the kitchen, sipping coffee, waiting for news. When the phone went in the hall, my stomach turned over and she went to answer it. I could hear her murmuring conversation with Stuart, with no sign of exuberance or disappointment in her voice.
Finally, she said, “Okay, I’ll tell John.”
She put down the phone and popped her head round the door. Very deliberately and slowly, trying not to reveal anything on her face, she said,
“Well. You are now a CBS Recording Artist!”
We met Stuart at his club that evening, where, looking a little flushed, he poured the champagne and toasted me:
“Congratulations, John! This is the beginning of what I believe will be a truly exciting adventure. I am very proud of you.”
The deal, he told us, was a £10,000 advance, working with a producer of our choice on my first album. If the next option was taken up the following year, then an advance of £16,000 was promised for a second album. Not a huge amount of money, but to me it sounded like a fortune.
Stuart also told me that he would be leaving Chappell’s very soon to join his old colleague and friend, Frank Coachworth, at their new management and publishing company, Mautoglade Music. This answered the question I’d never had the courage to ask – why Stuart had never signed me to Chappell Music. He duly gave me an agreement to read and sign, wherein I would be a Mautoglade songwriter, and as such they would pay me a weekly retainer of £30.
“All I ask,” he said, emptying the bottle of champers into my glass, “is that you come to our house every day and work on new material there.”
It wasn’t a tough ask. I would make the fifteen minute stroll over to Willesden Green from Kilburn every morning at eleven, where Patsy would cook me Eggs Florentine for an early lunch, make great coffee and then leave me to write. She would go out at about 1 o’clock to join Stuart at his temporary tiny attic office in Bond Street, and I would work away to my heart’s content on songwriting for the rest of the afternoon. They would both return at about six-thirty, and I would play Stuart what I’d written, while Patsy made dinner.
The day after the news of the CBS deal came through, I’d telephoned the Temp Bureau to tell them I would no longer be working at Telephone Rentals. When the girl on the phone asked me what sort of job I would prefer to do next, I just said,
“All sorted, thanks. I’ve finally found the perfect job, and it’s hopefully for life.”
So, deal done and signed, the next thing was to find the right producer for the album. Stuart went through the latest issue of Music Week, perusing the album chart. He made a ring with his pen around the names of the British producers of hit albums, and from that compiled a list of ten, with Tony Visconti at the top. He phoned Visconti’s office, spoke briefly to the great man himself, and was asked to send a tape over for him to hear. Fully confident there would be no need to go further down his list, Stuart took the tape over there himself. A few days later, the tape was returned with a handwritten note saying, ‘No thanks.’ Over the next couple of weeks, the list became a page full of crossed-out names, all of them, with just one left untried, had turned us down. Finally, as we reached No.10, Stuart had good news:
“Chris White, used to be in The Zombies, John, he liked the tape and wants to meet you.”
The Zombies were one of my favourite groups in the ‘60s, their ‘Odyssey & Oracle’ album a classic. Chris had been one of the main songwriters in the group and had also co-written the recent Top Ten hit by Argent, Hold Your Head Up. He’d also produced Colin Blunstone’s lovely ‘One Year’ solo album, which had included the astonishing version of Denny Laine’s Say You Don’t Mind. So I was extremely excited when Patsy told me she had invited Chris and his wife Viv to dinner.
A few days later, the five of us were enjoying a beautiful meal cooked by Patsy, and it was obvious from what Chris and his wife said that they both loved my music. Chris’s eyes lit up when Stuart said that I would play a few songs for them after dinner. I found him a very sympatico man, gently spoken and intelligent. I loved listening to his stories of recording with The Zombies, and especially working with Colin Blunstone, one of pop music’s finest vocalists.
Somehow, we got onto talking about going to America, probably something to do with when The Zombies toured there, and Chris began telling us about his visit to Disneyland, laughing about when they went into Peter Pan World:
“It was fantastic!” Chris enthused. “Pirates were running around everywhere, setting fire to buildings and pillaging the village, it was mayhem!”
Stuart and I laughed with him, Viv nodding enthusiastically at me as Chris recounted his jolly tale. I was imagining the scene, and the atmosphere round the table was truly convivial. A real bond of friendship was developing between us. Then, out of nowhere, with Chris in full flow, an unexpected snort came from Patsy’s end of the table:
“Pah!” she said, staring at Chris. “Pillaging the village? What do you mean?”
Chris stopped and looked unsurely at Patsy, who continued to stare back at him. With a nervous glance at his wife, he stammered,
“W-w-well…yes, that’s what they were doing, Patsy.”
“What? You mean they were actually pillaging?” Patsy snorted again and looked around the table for support. But, as one does when witnessing a car crash, we all just stared, fascinated and yet horrified.
Stuart stepped in to the rescue. He spoke to his wife as one would to a confused and stroppy child who’d wandered half asleep into an adults’ party:
“Patsy, darling, come on now. Why don’t we all have some more coffee?” He beamed round the table and back at his scowling wife, who prodded the table with her finger and sailed blindly on:
“No, Stuart! No! Chris said there were pirates pillaging!” She glared at the poor man, who resembled a scolded child. “That’s what you said, isn’t it, Chris?”
“We-e-ell, yes, but…that was the whole point of the show, Patsy…pirates in Peter Pan’s world, pillaging.”
Another snort from Patsy. Now Chris was looking annoyed:
“Of course I didn’t mean real actual pirates! That would be silly. It’s a show! It’s fantasy. It’s Disney! It’s called using your imagination.”
Patsy guffawed this time:
“More like exaggeration!” she crowed.
Stuart desperately stood up and pushed the coffee pot at Patsy:
“Darling! More coffee. Please!”
Chris stirred in his seat, looked at his wife, who nodded back at him:
“Er – No thanks, Stuart, I think we should make a move. It’s getting rather late.”
“Oh!” Patsy cried, looking crestfallen. “But we haven’t talked about John’s album! That’s why you’re here! He was going to play you some songs! Weren’t you, John?” She looked at me with a motherly pity then beseechingly back at Chris. “You must stay for that!”
“No, I’m very sorry,” Chris replied, standing up, “we really must go. Thank you for your hospitality, Stuart, Patsy,” and shook my hand as I stood up. “John, it’s been lovely to meet you. You write great songs. I’m sorry we couldn’t stay longer. Good luck with your album.”
Stuart bustled from the table, and went to shake Chris’s hand, saying to Patsy en route:
“Darling, could you get Chris and Viv’s coats?”
With a harrumph, Patsy left the room, empty coffee pot dangling from her hand like a rejected artefact. Stuart went into one of his charm offensives:
“Chris!” he said rather too loudly, grabbing both of his hands. “It’s been really great to meet you! I do hope we can work together. John and I would love you to produce his album. Wouldn’t we, John?”
I nodded at Chris but, while he offered a smile, I could see it in his eyes, for him the love had gone.
Coats delivered, a few more social niceties shared, the couple bid their goodbyes and left.
Shutting the door, Patsy said,
“Well, that was very strange!”
Stuart, sounding not a little annoyed said, “What?”
“Just leaving like that! Poor John!”
Stuart just sighed and went into the kitchen mumbling something about the washing-up. Patsy followed him and pushed the door to. All I could hear was the stern lowered voice of Stuart and the anxious protests of his wife. There was a slightly more raised cry from Stuart at one point of, “Why didn’t you just let it go?”, then the inaudible murmurings continued.
Finally, after about five minutes, the door opened and a surprisingly bright-faced Stuart emerged:
“Would you like a coffee, John, one for the road?”
My cue to leave had been signalled, and, duly prompted, I told him I was rather tired, kissed a subdued Patsy on the cheek, got my coat off the banister and thanked them for a lovely evening. As their front door closed and I wandered slowly back to Kilburn, I had an image of the final name on that list being crossed out.
At the end of January, I went to Cannes with Stuart and Patsy for the annual MIDEM music festival. We stayed at the Hotel Mediterraneo, with its lovely view from the patio of the harbour, full of hundreds of millionaires’ yachts bobbing up and down on the sparkling water under blue winter skies. This was Stuart’s opportunity to show me off to the world, the place being full of music business executives, producers, record company heads, songwriters, publishers, and he seemed to know them all. As we sauntered along La Croisette, or sat in The Grand Hotel’s bustling outdoor café sipping Bloody Mary’s, he would introduce me to everyone we bumped into:
“This is my artist, John Howard!”, he’d tell them, and I would shake whoever’s hand was proffered. Once they’d gone, Stu would explain to me who they were, which company they worked for and how useful they might be in the future for us on the international stage. I felt like a moving manikin in an enormous shop window, but enjoyed the feeling. If this was what it took to become famous, I happily took part in the display.
In the evening, we would eat in restaurants dotted around the old town, and again bump into music business colleagues of Stuart, the usual ‘This is my artist, John Howard’ introductions, shaking of hands, then settling down to a fun meal, where we were more often than not joined by Biddu and his beautiful wife Sue, a former model. She was probably the most vivacious woman I had ever met up to that point. She looked like a film star, thick blonde hair cascading round her tanned shoulders, large sunglasses perched on her head, always chatting, asking questions, fascinated and engaged by whoever was sitting next to her. She’d listen intently to what one was saying, nodding all the time as you replied to one of her questions, murmuring, “Right,’ as you waffled on and on, but never feeling you bored her in the slightest. It was a talent. She should have been an interviewer on a chat show. For the time she was with you, you felt like the only other person in the room.
I once told her she reminded me of Jacqueline Onassis, which she did, and she just threw her head back, chuckled, grabbed my arm and said, “Oh John!”, with no sign of either acceptance or rejection of the compliment. I think she was the first person I’d met who seemed entirely comfortable in their own skin.
As she and Bid entered any room, heads would turn towards this gorgeous stylish couple walking into their midst. They sailed through a sea of faces, smiling charismatically at everyone, acknowledging the waves of admiration floating towards them, like pop royalty. I would watch how they carried themselves, aloof and yet connected, a perfect example of how to own a room without doing much at all. Such intangible star-like quality had always fascinated me, but I had never been at such close quarters to it before.
Bid had been talking enthusiastically all week about a new artist he was writing for and producing, Carl Douglas, and how sure he was that the guy would have a hit record soon. Although rejected by Stuart as ‘not a big enough name’ to produce me, Bid was obviously beginning to make inroads of his own into record production.
One afternoon, during one of my La Croisette strolls with Stuart, Dezo Hoffman came wandering towards us.
“Hey, Dezo!” Stuart said, shaking his hand warmly, and gesturing to the panoramic view of the sea and blue skies, “Why not take some photos of John while you’re both here in the South of France?”
So, the next day, I was sitting, standing, pointing, and posing for Dezo in the hotel’s roof garden; mock-steering someone’s yacht whose owner Dezo knew and had persuaded him to let us take some pictures on it; and looking out enigmatically to the horizon from the Carlton Hotel’s veranda. Dolled up in my suit, tie and white fedora, I loved the whole chic of Cannes, and felt enveloped by it like a comfy blanket. It radiated wealth and success, even the old ladies with enormous sunglasses, walking their tiny terriers up and down the street every morning, looked like retired Gloria Swansons.
Another chap we bumped into on one of our morning strolls was a very bright and breezy Tony King. He was an old friend of Stuart’s and they chatted for a few minutes, with the usual “This is my artist…” introduction prompting handshakes and niceties. Tony joined us for a meal that evening and was a really funny and fascinating dinner companion. He had started his career as a promotion man for Decca Records, went on to work for Andrew Loog Oldham and the Rolling Stones, and then worked with George Martin at AIR London. He’d also been the UK Marketing manager for Apple Records and was currently their General Manager in the US. He regaled us with delightful stories throughout the evening, with me completely agog.
He’d recently worked closely with John Lennon on promoting the album Mind Games, which had been released a couple of months earlier. It was Tony who had come up with the idea of a TV commercial for the album, showing Lennon dancing with ‘The Queen of England’ – actually Tony in drag.
With his great tales about his times with The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Lennon in LA (during his infamous ‘Lost Weekend’) and Elton John, I was glued to his every fascinating anecdote. He had actually ‘been there’ when The Fabs had filmed their Our World recording of All You Need Is Love in 1967, which on its own would have been enough to raise him to legendary status in my eyes.
One anecdote, which particularly stuck in my mind, was of the time he’d been motoring down an LA freeway with Lennon. The Beatles’ track Nowhere Man had come on the car radio and, at the end of it, John had turned to Tony and said,
“That track is everything I hated about working with Paul, all those fucking harmonies were his idea, took a bloody age. I had none of that in mind when I wrote the damn song.”
Nowhere Man, as all Beatles fans know, is a great track from the group’s Christmas ’65 gem, Rubber Soul, and a classic in our minds with glorious three–part harmonies which actually made it the brilliant recording it is. Lennon’s barb about it to Tony, while surprising, was probably as inaccurate a reflection of how he really felt, as the time he’d unkindly told George Martin he’d never been happy with any of the Beatles recordings, and would love to redo them all. Martin had been shocked and rather hurt to hear that and had replied, “Surely not ‘Strawberry Fields’, John?”, which had brought the Lennon retort, “Especially ‘Strawberry Fields’, George!”. In all the many books I’ve read about John, those who knew him well say that he was famous for saying things off-the-cuff, meant to shock or hurt, but which he would later regret, recant or apologise for.
The final evening of our week, we went to see Stevie Wonder perform at The Palais de Festival Theatre. While he was very good, no-one appreciated being kept waiting until one o’clock in the morning for him to appear. The show was a chaotic mess, with various presenters occasionally walking on stage, vainly trying to fill out the interminable wait by taking forever to introduce acts unknown to most of the audience. By the time Wonder finally appeared, and admittedly sang a strong set of his most recent material from Talking Book and the recent Inner Visions album, I actually just wanted to go to bed.
I’m not sure how much good it did my career going to Cannes that year, but it certainly made me feel like a star waiting in the wings. It also gave Stuart another chance to show me the kind of life he was certain I would soon be enjoying off my own back and future career, rather than as a preparation for the ‘fame to come’.
For all that, back in London as a cold February 1974 arrived, the even harsher reality was that we had run out of potential producers to send a tape to. I’d been turned down by all but Chris White, and he was now obviously out of the running. As always, when down, Stuart came up with an idea…
…Although not on his list, he called Les Reed and asked him if he fancied recording three tracks with me. He promised Les that he would play them to CBS and, if they liked them, he could produce the whole album. It had been a few years since Les had produced those big hits for Tom Jones and Engelbert, but, he was still a name, albeit from the ‘60s rather than the present day, and, with no-one else in the running, it was worth a punt.
A week later, I watched from the control room as Les delightedly conducted his orchestra, while Tony Burrows, along with the pop duo Sue & Sunny, provided backing vocals to Les’s choice of my songs: Goodbye Suzie, Missing Key, and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
Tony Burrows, as many reading this will know, was much more than just a session singer. I had watched him on Top Of The Pops in 1967 with his group The Flowerpot Men, whose Summer of Love single ‘Let’s Go To San Francisco’ had climbed the charts to No.4. Then three years later, he’d been the lead singer on Edison Lighthouse’s No.1 hit, Love Grows. He actually became something of a chart phenomenon in 1970, singing lead on several hit records, the biggest of which were White Plains’ My Baby Loves Lovin’ and Julie Do Ya Love Me, The Brotherhood of Man’s United We Stand and Where Are You Going To My Love, (which also featured Sue & Sunny), and as one half of the duo The Pipkins’ on their sole hit, Gimme Dat Ding. His face became one of the most recognised on pop TV in 1970, and he was, in effect, the most successful pop singer that year, and probably in any year, certainly in chart terms.
So I was really surprised to see him singing backing vocals on my recordings. His was a face I had grown to know – and quite fancy – watching him each week on Top Of The Pops in the early ‘70s, in various guises and with different groups. It was actually only a few months later that he’d hit the Top 20 again, this time as lead singer with First Class on their summer ’74 hit, Beach Baby. Very much a gentleman during those Les Reed sessions, and interested enough in the tracks to come and listen to the playbacks with us in the control room, he was professional to a ‘T’. With no side to him at all, he did the job he’d been asked to do, and it was obviously paying the bills. But it made me wonder just how much money he’d personally made from being the lead singer on eight British hit singles in one year. I would surmise it was probably not as much as his chart success would suggest.
Les’s arrangements were big and lush, typically so when you remember the huge hits he had produced a few years earlier. After the sessions, he shook my hand warmly, praised my performance and told Stuart he’d have the mixes done within a few days.
True to his word, Les delivered the finished tracks to Stuart who took them round to CBS. They rejected them out of hand as “too MOR.” Over lunch, Stu told me that he actually agreed with them, and thought the productions didn’t get across the ‘new exciting singer-songwriter’ tag he was desperately trying to promote. I can’t actually recall hearing the finished mixes and, sadly, they are now lost. When I asked Les years later what had happened to the tapes, he told me Stuart kept them and he didn’t have copies. It seems they’re gone to the great tape heaven in the sky. Although the tapes are gone, the memory of seeing a smiling Les Reed conducting the orchestra, and Tony, Sue and the soon-to-be solo hit artist Sunny – her single Doctor’s Orders was just about to rise to No.7 in the charts – singing with such great gusto on three of my songs, will always be a dear one.
Undeterred, the slightly embattled Stuart continued to beaver away. He was determined to get some promotion and profile for me, regardless of the apparent cul-de-sac from which he was trying to escape, and, against the odds, secured me a BBC radio session. I was booked to record two songs to be aired on the David Hamilton Radio 1 show. We picked Goodbye Suzie and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner as the best representation of both my ballad style and the more quirky side of my songwriting. The station provided a drummer, guitarist and bass player for the session, and Stuart got ‘top lines’ – basically the melody and chords written out on sheets of manuscript – done by a friend of his in Denmark Street, which was the new larger location for his publishing company.
On the morning of the session I woke up with the most awful head cold, and was concerned it would affect my performance. But oddly, I sang mainly rather well during the recording, apart from a slight crack in my voice on the final chorus of ‘Suzie’. I’d thought I should do it again but time was running out, so I let it go. The small combo read ‘the dots’ and played the songs solidly and professionally, while not particularly inventively. They were there to do a job as well as they could, with songs they had never heard before, not to give me an exciting new sound. The tracks sounded workmanlike to me but ok for a ‘live’ radio session.
A couple of weeks later, we all listened round the radio, in Mautoglade’s spacious new 2nd floor office, to David Hamilton introducing me with his cheery Radio Wonderful voice:
“A new name on the music scene for you now, this is a very talented young songwriter called John Howard, and here’s his first song of the week, which he’s performing just for us today, Goodbye Suzie.”
The performance sounded good, though that crack in my voice on ‘Suzie’ niggled me. Stuart said that it sounded like emotion on a very sad song. He seemed convinced. I wasn’t. I wished I’d insisted on doing the vocal on that chorus once more, and vowed never to let things like that pass again.
The next afternoon, Hamilton played the second song I’d recorded for his show:
“Many of you wrote in to say how much you liked John Howard’s performance yesterday of his song Goodbye Suzie, so here’s another one of his compositions, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – well, thanks for the invite, John!”.
Again, it sounded fine, everyone in the room seemed pleased, Stuart’s secretary making me a congratulatory cup of tea.
I’d rung my mum to tell her when the songs would be played on Radio 1 and she had recorded them off the radiogram onto a cassette (which I still have). When I called her the weekend after the broadcasts, she told me she had cried during Goodbye Suzie, but wasn’t as keen on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – “it’s a bit of a weird song, that one, love.” Amazing how relations can always be certain to bring one’s feet back onto the ground, just as you’re beginning to slightly float above the pavement.
The Radio One plays gave me a bit of a fillip for a few days, but the fact was, on the recording front, things were not looking good. Despite Stuart’s attempts, we still had no producer for my album. The CBS cheque for £10,000 was waiting to be spent, stuck stubbornly on Stuart’s office wall where he had proudly pinned it when it had arrived in the post a few days earlier. It was now becoming something of a nagging reminder that we had no-one in place to spend it.
Then, early in March, Stuart rang me to say that he had met Tony Meehan at a music business function the previous evening, had mentioned me and, Tony having shown interest, had biked a tape round to Meehan’s apartment in Maida Vale that morning.
“He’s just called, John, he loves your songs and would like to meet you!” Stuart told me. “He’s coming round to our house tomorrow afternoon at 3 o’clock. If you arrive about one for lunch?”
Tony Meehan had, as everyone knows, been the drummer in the first incarnation of The Shadows in the late 1950s. He was only fifteen when he began working with them, playing on such early ‘Cliff & The Shads’ hits as Move It, Living Doll, and The Young Ones as well as The Shadows’ own No.1 smashes like Apache and Kon Tiki. He became something of an icon to burgeoning young drummers after his appearance in the movie ‘The Young Ones’ in 1961, although by the time the film was released, he had left the group.
He had gone on to work as an arranger and drummer for producer Joe Meek, appearing on hit records like John Leyton’s Top Twenty smashes Wild Wind and Son This Is She (I actually bought the latter single at the age of eight, loving its ‘B’ side, Six White Horses). He then forged a fairly ground-breaking deal as an independent producer for Decca Records. It was Tony who had produced The Beatles’ infamously unsuccessful Decca audition tapes in January 1962, recording for posterity Brian Epstein’s first, albeit failed, attempt at getting his ‘boys’ a record deal.
Keen to get back into recording as an artist in his own right, Tony teamed up with another former Shadows member, Jet Harris, to enjoy three Top Five hit singles with him in 1963. The duo’s biggest hit Diamonds ironically knocked The Shadows’ Dance On! off the top spot. And, ironies abounding, as Diamonds was dropping to No.3, The Beatles’ Please Please Me leapfrogged it to No.2! Cruel irony continuing, three months later, Harris & Meehan’s second hit, Scarlett O’Hara was kept off the No.1 spot by The Beatles’ From Me To You. In September, as The Beatles’ She Loves You was at No.1 and Cliff Richard’s It’s All In The Game was stuck behind them at No.2, Harris & Meehan’s final hit, Applejack climbed to its chart peak of No.4. Tony’s last hit was a solo Top 40 entry, Song Of Mexico in January 1964, falling out of the charts just as The Beatles were conquering America.
I had been aware of Tony’s name cropping up in the music press during the latter part of the 1960s and early ‘70s, when he’d produced the Apple Records group White Trash, and albums by P.P. Arnold and Roger Daltrey. So I was more intrigued than excited at the prospect of meeting him. He wasn’t The Big Name I had thought CBS and Stuart were looking for to produce me, but Tony did have a pedigree as someone who had tasted chart success and worked with big artists.
On the day Tony was due, once Patsy had cleared away our lunch things, she made fresh coffee and sandwiches for our expected guest, while Stuart sat listening to me play a new song for him, Gone Away.
“Great song!” Stuart declared, his eyes full of the fire he’d had when he’d first heard my Chappell’s demos. “It’s times like this that I actually love you, John.” His eyes welled up with tears. “You’ve got to play that song for Tony!”
The doorbell duly rang at a few minutes past three. As Stuart brought Tony into the sitting-room, the first thing which struck me was how petite he was. I’d only seen photos of him sitting behind his drum kit back when my sister had pictures of Cliff & The Shadows all over her bedroom walls. Still youthful-looking but now with flecks of grey hair peeking through, he said a polite “Hello” when I shook his hand (‘Firm handshake, John’ I told myself) and settled down on the sofa while Patsy brought in the tray of coffee and sandwiches.
“Oh! I didn’t know we were having lunch as well, Patsy!” Tony said, laughing, and I noticed how attractively languid his laugh was, with something of an American ‘hip sexiness’ about it.
“Just a little something for coming all this way,” she joked back, knowing he had only travelled a short way on the tube.
Stuart began by saying how pleased he was that Tony liked my songs and suggested I play a few on the piano for him.
“Well, I have heard the demos, Stuart,” Tony said, sounding a little surprised.
Stuart smiled around the room:
“But John is such a great performer, Tony, you have to see him in action to get the full picture of what he’s about.”
“Absolutely,” Patsy agreed, sipping her coffee, as she settled into her armchair and studied Tony over her cup.
“OK,” Tony said, munching on a sandwich and sitting back.
“Play Tony Gone Away, John,” Stuart told me, then turning to Tony, “Great new song, Tony, John only just wrote this one, so it’s not on your tape!”
“Ah! An exclusive!” Tony said, brightening up and chuckling to himself. Draining his cup, he got out an old dicta-phone from his pocket. “I always carry one of these,” he said, laughing again and holding it up. “You never know when you’ll need to get something on tape!” He fiddled with the machine then looked over at me and said, “Whenever you’re ready, John.”
I trilled out the song, which was greeted at the end with a cheer from Stuart, smiles around the room from Patsy, and applause from Tony as he checked it had been recorded okay.
“Isn’t that great, Tony?” Stuart enthused, as the tinny recording of my new song played out of Tony’s cassette player.
“So good!” Patsy concurred, blinking across the room at me.
“Yes, it’s a good song, Stuart,” Tony agreed. “Anymore new ones, John?”
“Do Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, ” Patsy said, without waiting for my reply.
“Oh yes! Another fabulous song!” Stuart cried.
“Yes, but that’s on the tape you sent me, isn’t it, Stuart?” Tony was now looking a little baffled.
Stuart ignored him and gave me an encouraging nod. I duly gave them a belting rendition of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, with Patsy doing her on-the-spot bop and Stuart beaming across at Tony.
“Er -” Tony said as I finished, “Very nice, John. I’m sorry, Stuart, but would you mind if I went and bought some cigarettes?”
It wasn’t quite the reaction The Reids had anticipated, and they both looked at each other a little bewilderedly as Tony got up and walked into the hall:
“I won’t be long,” he said, and popping his head back through the doorway, “John, you do write great songs.”
Turning to Patsy, he asked her where the nearest newsagent was. With a sigh, Patsy got up and walked into the hall with him:
“Left out of the door, walk up the road, turn first left and it’s there, it’s only about a five minute walk.”
With a relieved “Great!” Tony was gone.
As we heard his footsteps disappearing down the path, Patsy exclaimed,
“Well! What do you say to that?”
She wasn’t addressing anyone in particular, but Stuart replied with a shrug:
“Odd behaviour certainly. Maybe he’s not feeling well.”
“I think he’s on something,” Patsy declared to the room.
“He probably just needed some air,” Stuart said, trying to calm an emanating sense of panic. I shut the piano lid and tried to steer the conversation back from its teetering brink:
“Maybe we should end the recital and just chat to him about the album when he gets back?”
A discontent pervaded from the other side of the room, which, forty-five minutes later, when he still hadn’t returned, had become a black cloud of despondency.
“Where IS he?” Patsy cried, rushing out of the kitchen where she’d been banging dishes into cupboards for the last quarter of an hour. She stormed to the window and peered round her net curtains, as though that would somehow make him miraculously reappear. “This really is too bad!”
By now, she was even more convinced he was on some acid trip, and Stuart, no longer trying to be reassuring, was considering ringing his apartment. Then, like the sun breaking through after a storm, the doorbell rang.
“Hallelujah!” Patsy cried and went to answer it. I heard her saying less than sympathetically, “Are you alright?” and Tony’s faint voice replying, “Yes, sorry about that, I got rather lost!”
His languid laugh was countered by a huffy “Hm!” as they both walked into the sitting-room.
“The wanderer returns!” Patsy announced.
“I’m very sorry about that,” Tony said, smiling at us all. “I hadn’t realised the time. Unfortunately, I really must go, I’m afraid.”
“Oh!” Patsy and Stuart said in unison, looking equally aggrieved.
“But, you’ve only just got back!” Patsy protested. “We haven’t discussed anything!”
Tony looked cutely abashed:
“No, well, we will, I’m sure.” He looked over at a stricken Stuart. “I’ll call you, soon. And thank you for your hospitality, Patsy. Very kind.” He walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Thank you, John, for playing me your music, it’s very good. Now I really must go. The sandwiches were lovely Patsy.”
More mutterings in the hallway followed, and, with a close of the door, Patsy walked in and threw herself into an armchair, looking pleadingly at Stuart:
“What are we going to do?”
Stuart shrugged, poured himself a whisky, offered me one, and sat next to me.
“I’ll call Tony tomorrow, John,” he said, clinking my glass with his, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”
Patsy, who hardly ever drank alcohol, stomped over to the drinks tray and poured herself a brandy.
“Well, we’ll see about that, won’t we?” she said, throwing it back in one.
“Oh dear!” Stuart said, mugging at me, “Black marks for Mr Meehan in Patsy’s little book. Very few in there are ever redeemed.”
To my surprise, I got a call from Stuart the following day with the news that Tony had, in fact, called him and said he’d love to produce my album, preferably at Abbey Road Studios. He wanted me to visit him at his apartment to discuss the songs he’d like us to record.
“On my own?” I asked, rather surprised I wasn’t getting a chaperone.
“Yes, Tony specifically said he wanted to chat to you alone. Let me know how it goes, though. Here’s his address.”
Tony’s apartment was just off Maida Vale and he welcomed me in with a hug and a glass of red wine. He was so much more relaxed than he had been at Stuart and Patsy’s, and I said so. Tony laughed at that and said,
“First of all, John, I’d like to apologise for my rather odd behaviour there.”
I laughed too, telling him that it hadn’t worried me, but Patsy was rather put out. “Yes, I’m probably not flavour of the month with her right now.”
“Possibly for longer than a month,” I replied.
He clinked my glass, offered me a seat and said,
“Quite honestly, John, I’m afraid I found the whole situation at their house extremely claustrophobic. They were like two mother hens round you, and treated you, I felt, like a performing seal. Doesn’t it get on your nerves?”
“They’ve been very good to me, Tony.”
“Yes, I know, and I can see they’re very fond of you, and rate your talent very highly. They’re good people. But things are about to change for you, John.” He became suddenly quite serious and sat forward as though he were about to tell me a secret. “You’re about to make an album for a major record label, and it’s likely to change your life. I’m afraid the music world won’t want to know about all that – all that ‘our clever little boy’ stuff. They’ll want to see and hear someone with an edge, someone who stands alone with something different and exciting to offer. I’m worried that they could blunt that edge.”
“But Stuart got me the record deal.”
“And well done Stuart for that. But he needs to stand aside now. Your songs are great, you have a wonderful voice. But you also have a certain style which could become…” he looked at me, unsure if I was ready for what he was about to say, “…well, too set, too pat, too easy, and I want to stretch you. I know what Stuart wants…he wants an album of production quality versions of the demos on his tape. But I’m not going to give him that.” He sat back and poured himself more wine, studying my reaction.
I said, “I’m willing to try anything, Tony, but…Stuart and Patsy…”
“Are your managers! They are not your record producer, they are not your record label.” He lit up a cigarette and took a long drag, blowing out the smoke as he continued. “You know, Brian Epstein never told George Martin what he wanted The Beatles to sound like. He trusted the group’s record producer to find their sound and make it work.” He looked at me and I nodded. “We are now the team, John,” he continued. “We make the creative decisions. Not Stuart. Not Patsy.”
With that off his chest, he handed me a list of the ten songs he wanted to record, Maybe Someday In Miami, Gone Away, Missing Key, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Kid In A Big World, Goodbye Suzie, Family Man, The Flame, Spellbound and Deadly Nightshade. He had marked the first five with a red-felt-penned tick and the words ‘different arrangement’ written against them. I looked up at Tony and raised my eyebrows. He refilled my glass and said:
“Stuart has employed me to record a great album with you. And I will. It just may not be the one Stuart’s expecting.”
The recording sessions were booked to start at Abbey Road studios in April, just after my 21st Birthday. After I left Tony’s flat, instead of going to the nearest underground station, I walked over to Abbey Road and stood in front of those famous Beatles graffiti covered walls. As I strode across that zebra crossing on my way to St. John’s Wood tube station, I felt that, finally, all the pieces were falling into place. I couldn’t wait to get started.
Copyright John Howard 2016