During my musical career I’ve been very lucky and privileged to share a stage or recording studio with some of the most influential artistes of the last half century or more. The list is daunting and inspiring – from Jule Styne and Elmer Bernstein to Little Richard and the Damned via Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Sting, Hendrix, Chet Baker and Amy Winehouse. Yet in these next two editions of Music History 101 I want to talk about four extraordinary people I got to know – Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Harry Nilsson and Nick Drake – only one of whom I ever had the chance to play with, and that was only in the front room of another extraordinary musician in front of an audience of two more extraordinary musicians.
I first heard and met Nick Drake at an anti – Vietnam war gig at the Roundhouse in London in 1968 at which my jazz group also appeared. Nick was the only person on today’s list with whom I ever played. Painfully shy of public appearances, he was happy to play his new songs and jam with other musicians in the comfort of John and Beverly Martyn’s front room in Hampstead. John and Beverly attracted a wide circle of talented songwriters including Bridget St. John and Andy Fernbach – they themselves were immensely talented too, and some of the music made in front of five or six people would amaze people today in the age of YouTube and instant videos on people’s phones. As it was I wish someone had brought a camera or a tape machine, but who was to know that within a few years Nick would become a legend? I remember playing flute on some of the songs that found their way onto Bryter Later where Ray Warleigh, later a member of my big band, was the saxophonist and flautist. I also recall playing flute at John Martyn’s flat with Bridget St. John and then appearing with her in clubs and on John Peel’s radio show – but Nick never showed any interest in playing gigs or clubs. His own gigs were usually disastrous – I attended one where the audience talked throughout and he sat and stared at the floor. When I would play with John or Bridget or Cat Stevens or Mimi Farina at the all nighters at Les Cousins, Nick would never perform although he might show up in the audience.
Another who would show up at gigs around this time was Harry Nilsson, then resident in London. Like Nick, he hated performing live – unlike Nick, who would accept gigs from time to time, Harry would NOT appear on stage and in fact never did! Harry wanted to have a good time – all the time! I have to say my heart would sink if he showed up at one of my gigs – even more so if accompanied by Keith Moon or Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Band. One time they ‘encouraged’ our bass player at a showcase gig so much that he slithered unconscious down his amplifier in the middle of the first song – it didn’t quite create the right impression for prospective booking agents. I recall countless evenings at the Speakeasy Club or at Tramps where I literally had to bolt for the door rather than get caught up in some disastrous shenanigans. The great Derek Taylor (of Beatles fame) was Harry’s champion and called me one day to come in to CTS Studios to hear something very special – that’s how I got to be a fly on the wall at the recording of the classic A Little Touch of Schmillson in The Night with the magnificent Gordon Jenkins and the London Symphony Orchestra. Harry had it all – looks, talent, voice, great compositional flair and a truly engaging personality – along with an incredible propensity to self destruct. One unique experience we shared was appearing as Mounties in the Monty Python Lumberjack Song – Harry’s appearance ended more spectactularly than mine – exiting right instead of left, he fell into the orchestra pit and broke his leg!
And yet both Harry and Nick have endured – a new definitive biography of Harry is about to hit the bookshops and there is a terrific documentary film about him. And a new book of wonderful unseen photos of Nick is about to be published. And of course their music lives on and goes from strength to strength with a new generation of fans. I’m very proud to have known them both, and to have been able to find a copy of The Point, with Harry’s brilliant songs, for George Harrison during his last illness. I just wish I’d had the opportunity to make some music with Harry instead of dodging his pub crawls, and the chance to write for and play more with Nick.
In part two I will be talking about my friendship with Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley, two tragically short lived geniuses.
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