Out of the Camp Ch. 5 – Rare Amber
While I was doing all of this I was answering ‘wanted ads’ in the ‘Melody Maker’ and also placing ads offering my ‘services’. The Melody Maker (‘MM’) was the musicians’ ‘bible’ in those days for keeping up with the music scene, reviewing new record releases and live performances, reporting on upcoming tours by recording artists and music business news in general. In addition, it was the classified ads place to go for musicians/artists seeking work, for bands looking for musicians, anyone buying or selling instruments or electronics, or anything related to music. To cut a long boring story short I encountered several groups and combos even flirted with the idea of joining an amateur theater group near the Kennington Oval but thought better of it.
I saw an ad one day in the MM for a blues singer and followed up, which ultimately led me to a pub in Walthamstow, East London for an audition. I think it was a stretch to regard myself as a blues singer although I had sung the occasional blues number but was more familiar with commercial R&B tunes which I’d sung in Edinburgh at such venues as The Place, The Gamp, Bungy’s, McGoos, etc. I don’t recall now how the audition went or whether I had to go back for a second round but, in any event, I got the job.
The line-up of the group which was a 5-piece was, Del Watkins, lead guitar; Gwyn Mathias, rhythm guitar/harmonica/keyboards; John Dover, bass guitar, Keith Whiting, drums and me singing. We’d rehearse regularly at the pub but that came to a stop when the landlord wanted some rent and, to cut a long story short, persuaded our rhythm guitar/multi-instrumentalist, Gwyn, to leave his guitar one Friday as security but when we returned Monday, he’d sold it. The landlord wasn’t someone you’d ideally want to fall out with as he was an ex-fairground boxing booth proprietor. Not quite sure how that was all sorted, but we continued and moved around quite a bit using other premises for rehearsals, primarily in Soho.
We started gigging fairly quickly and were soon hitting the M1 to locations such as the Ringway Casino Club in Birmingham which was memorable mainly because a woman ‘bottled’ a chap with a full bottle of gin in the middle of our set. Another was the Broken Wheel Club in Retford where the promoter told us it was really rough and if we went outside in the interval, he couldn’t guarantee our safety. Then there was a gig in a Liverpool club upstairs somewhere called ‘20-Something’ or ‘Something-20’. They ripped us off for our £20 fee, (1960s remember!) so after we loaded up our van, we grabbed a 4×12 cabinet speaker, dragged it to the top of 3 flights of stairs and bounced it down. Then we took off down the stairs after it, cleared the cabinet in a series of flying leaps and charged out of there into the van, doubtless burning some rubber as we tore off down the street thereby exiting Liverpool post-haste.
Reading University was a gig we were happy with, and one other I remember fondly was at the Crickerers’ Inn in Southend. It wasn’t so much the music that makes me smile when I think of it, rather it was an incident which took place that pretty well brought the house down. During our set I was approached onstage by a barman who asked if I’d make an announcement. Apparently, a boy’s mother was waiting outside the pub to take him home in the car and so she wanted to let him know she’d arrived. Can you imagine his embarrassment when I revealed this to a hall full of teens and twenty-somethings? Bedlam! So, of course I couldn’t resist a little good natured, teasing telling him to hurry up or his cocoa would get cold and that if he kept his Mum waiting, he’d be grounded for a month. Stuff like that! Well, the crowd loved it and were hollering and cheering, and coming up with their own lines; someone yelled that his slippers were warming by the fire. It was a lot of fun and I left that place feeling great and realizing that it’s not always just about the music, it’s about entertainment and sending people home feeling good.
We spotted an MM ad. for a blues band one day placed by “An International Management and Production Company” so we applied along with 62 other groups including ‘Taste’ and ‘Mungo Jerry’ and ultimately, we got the gig. The company was Class International who managed ‘The Foundations’, ‘The Flirtations’, ‘Vanity Fair’ and former Drifters lead singer, Clyde McPhatter.
The auditions were held in a vacant shop in Westbourne Grove, Bayswater directly opposite a branch of the ‘Disci Records’ chain of retail stores which were owned by Barry Class. Above the shop were two floors of his offices. His accountant at the time was a young guy called Michael Levy, who’s office was on the top floor. We had very little dealings with him but the one thing I always remember, is that he always seemed to carrying papers and running up and down the stairs between offices, and in and out of the record shop. Always running! Not too many years later he founded his own company, Magnet Records together with Peter Shelley and they launched the careers of such artists as Alvin Stardust, Chris Rea, Bad Manners, Guys & Dolls, Adrian Baker and Peter Shelley himself as a singer. In the 90s, Levy met Tony Blair and began running his office fund to finance Blair’s run for Prime Minister in 1997. Later that year Levy was created a life peer as Baron Levy of Mill Hill, and for many years thereafter he was the Labour Party’s largest fundraiser and referred to in the media as ‘Lord Cashpoint’.
Just as an aside, and at another tangent, I’d met Peter Shelley a year earlier when I had submitted a demo to Decca Records and he, working in the A&R Department at the time, had called me in for a ‘live’ audition. He had me sing a Nina Simone song, ‘I Hold No Grudge’ and Tim Hardin’s ‘Don’t Make Promises’, and I was accompanied at the piano by Ivor Raymonde, now sadly passed, who was a legend in the UK Music Industry and produced or arranged for such artists as Dusty Springfield, the Walker Brothers, Billy Fury, Edward Woodward and many others. He was also father of Simon Raymonde of the 80s duo, the Cocteau Twins. I’ve still got the Decca rejection letter somewhere! Things were handled differently in those days.
But I digress; we began rehearsing daily, almost immediately, and preparing to record our first Album. One afternoon, Clyde McPhatter stopped by and we spent a half hour jamming with him which was great fun as he was quite a character and a wonderful singer. Not too long after that in 1972 he sadly died. He was only 39 years old. Following a regular rehearsal schedule and an occasional gig, before very long we were at Central Sound, a 4-track demo studio in Denmark Street, Britain’s Tin Pan Alley, to record our debut album which was completed in two or three days. It was later decided to re-record the album at an 8-track facility, and in this case namely IBC in Portland Place.
Pretty soon after that we spent a week at IBC Studios and I think the studio was pretty well fully booked because, for a blues album, we had an unreasonably early start at nine am and worked office hours daily, presumably because that timeslot was all that was available. To sing the blues at 9am in the morning is pretty challenging and looking back I guess I might have sounded more convincing if I’d been hung-over. Or maybe not. Whatever! In any event it just so happened that at the same time, The Who were recording their ‘Tommy’ album in the evenings and so we would see them most days as we were packing up, particularly Keith Moon, who always seemed to arrive first and would spend a great deal of time loosening up, dragging flams, playing paradiddles, a variety of rolls and splashes, and generally making a racket.
It wasn’t long after completion and release of the album that we were preparing for our first overseas trip to Germany for a month’s contract at the Café Wilhelmshöhe in Trier. This was by way of a warm-up prior to embarking on a 31-day tour of the US as opening band for the Foundations and World of Oz. The plan was that on our return we’d start work on our second album in the New Year. Trier is a 30-minute drive from Bitburg where there is a large military base and back then there was a contingent of US troops based there who frequented Café Wilhelmshöhe when off-duty, and who appreciated hearing music from the US South. In addition to our own material, we’d cover songs by such artists as Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, BB King, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Otis Spann, and we’d play well into the early hours of the morning. It was a tough gig with long working hours and living conditions that weren’t great to put it mildly and so we weren’t sorry when it came to an end.
When we set off on our return journey to the coast via Luxembourg, our van came off the road in a snowdrift somewhere in Belgium. Thankfully, we made it to Ostend and caught the ferry to Ramsgate and made it home safely to London. After that a lot happened in a short period of time. The band broke up and I don’t remember why, the US tour was cancelled – at least our role in it – and of course there was no second album. I have to thank Gwyn Mathias for filling in a lot of the blank spots in my memory that I couldn’t recall. I’d like to blame my age but he’s not much younger than I am and demonstrated a disturbing ability to recall detail from all those years ago. Incidentally, Gwyn went on to become a highly successful recording engineer and is now internationally known in the business.
(1) Rare Amber album Cover for Polydor-released LP. L-R: Del Watkins, guitar; Gwyn Mathias, guitar & harmonica; John Dover, bass; Keith Whiting, drums. That’s me on the slab! (2) Strange letter from MM mailbag about bassist, John Dover, and Feb. 8, 1969 MM ad announcing our management with Barry Class’s Class International. (3) ‘Disc & Music Echo’ Clip dd Feb. 8, 1969 re our album release; also ‘Discoteque’ plug for my old Edinburgh group, the Dollyrocker Band playing at the Casablanca Club in Rose Street. (not sure how that got in here!) (4) Rare Amber Album review in MM dd March 29, 1969. (5) Café Wilhelmshöhe in Trier, Germany, where we played a month’s residency. (6) Link for You Tube and the 1969 Rare Amber Polydor album.