INTERVIEW: Jools Holland looks ahead to upcoming tour which calls at Walton Hall
This is Jools Holland here, and I’m delighted to be chatting today about my forthcoming tour with my Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, and exquisite hand-picked guests.
So Jools, you have another packed schedule coming up. It never stops, does it?
There’s an old expression that says if you want to get something done, give it to somebody busy to do it. I’ve always seemed to stay busy even when I mean to not be busy. But I’m very lucky because I enjoy what I do. The job of being me is the job I really enjoy doing. I like touring, I like playing. The best bit of touring is the fact that you get on stage, and of course that’s the shortest part of it. The longest part is travelling to where you’re going. I don’t mind the travelling and seeing stuff but the highlight is being on the stage and hearing different people in my orchestra, hearing the guests, being able to try and figure out the mystery that is playing the piano each day. Sometimes you feel as though you get a bit better and sometimes you feel as if…for every five steps forward, you take four back, and you keep going on like that. So it’s a lovely enigma to plug into all the time, really, the whole act of touring, and the whole act of playing.
A lot of these upcoming venues are ones you’ve played many times but there are some new ones in there too.
Now I do more shows than I’ve ever done before, I think. So I was out throughout February and March in Europe, going around small venues there and playing theatres and shows. And now we’ve come back for our summer ones in Britain and a lot of the places where we’ve been before, and it gets even better. The atmosphere in some of the places is just great and they become a bit like home. Some people come every year or every couple of years, it’s the same people, and then you get new people as well, who don’t know what to, what sort of experience they’re going to have. But I think as it goes on, you go back to places, there’s a certain warmth of atmosphere and you’re all at home together because you all know what’s going to happen, sort of. The contents will change but you know what the parameters are.
There are some eye-catching outdoor shows in the itinerary, too.
One of the great things about the summer, and playing in the summer, is playing outside. I think the atmosphere of playing outside is just great. I think it’s probably one of the ancient things in the human psyche, actually. Having music and dancing outside in the summer must, you know, inevitably leads to feelings of wellbeing and maybe even amorous feelings. It’s a great thing to be playing outside in the summer and one of the places we do is Hampton Court, and Hampton Court Palace, which is a royal palace. And the atmosphere there is electric, it’s extraordinary because you play, or the show is set, in one of the courtyards that Henry VIII would have strutted around and bellowed at people from, no doubt, surrounded by the corridors where Anne Boleyn ran screaming once she realised what was going to happen.
It’s got quite a gloomy history but the building is sensational, and the position is sensational, and this courtyard is great. One time we played in Hampton Court Palace, I think it was about four years ago, and we played the show and the audience faced us in this tiered seating and there’s a sort of gate tower that looks inwards towards the part where we play. A brick, Tudor gate tower, and at the top of it there’s a small mullioned window with lead work that you can see through, diamond leadwork. And throughout the show there was this person dancing away, I thought that was really great, that even the security person was having a bit of a dance at the window.
So when we came off and finished I said to somebody in the band, whoever was in the horn section, ‘Did you see that person?’, and they said ‘Yeah, wasn’t it great, that person dancing at the window?’ We said this to [them], and the security people there are all royal policemen type of thing, and they said, ‘But there’s nobody up there. That’s completely sealed off, the security there, there’s no way there’s anybody up there.’ But we all saw somebody up there.
They say it’s the most haunted building in England. We certainly had the ghost of boogie-woogie dance there. Even the ghosts get dancing. I think there’s something, as well, about being outdoors and having the sort of music…when we’re playing, a lot of what we’re playing is an expression of joy. We once did a record called Swinging the Blues, Dancing the Ska and that sums up a lot of the music that we’re playing.
The set-up of the orchestra harks back to the days of the great bandleaders.
We’ve got a whole big band, which is unusual; it’s not just like a horn section, it’s a whole five saxophones, three trombones, three trumpets, organ, singers and all of that. Drums, guitar, bass, led by the piano. And that is the same configuration that people like Count Basie or Duke Ellington would have had. So it’s a big configuration, a very dynamic configuration, because when all the horns play, it’s like a really exciting thing, and we’ve got, as well as playing our own modern things, we’ve got things from the past just boogied up a little bit more, like Lionel Hampton stuff or ska music that kind of gets you wanting to dance, and I think it sounds magnified by putting it through a big band, which outside is just even better.
You often add “new” old songs to the set, don’t you?
All the time we’re edging new pieces of music in because that keeps us alive and it keeps the band excited. Sometimes we’re playing old things and sometimes there’ll be a spot where we’ll do a blues song and we’ll just play a different blues song each night because we’ve got a whole repertoire of them. Or a boogie song, we’ve got different ones we sling in. And I think we’re always trying to update the shape of it. Not the shape of it, but the things within the shape of it. So you’ve got boogies in there and ska numbers, and then they change and get updated. Some of them, it’s interesting when you play them, We’ve started doing a Skatalites tune called President Kennedy, which the listeners, when you hear it, it is actually the tune of ‘Yeh Yeh,’ you know [sings]. Anyway, as soon as we started doing that, you could see people, as soon as we played it, the audience lit up, and it got everything fired up.
Also, of course, it’s a great way of showing off the soloists in the band, and we’ve got Michael ‘Bami’ Rose, who’s one of the great original ska players from Jamaica, so it’s a great vehicle to let him rip out on it. And it’s great when we just try something once or twice in a rehearsal room, but our real way of playing it is playing it to the people, because then when you’re looking into their eyes, and you can see them starting to involuntarily move, then you know it’s working.
Where does the idea for an addition like that come from, is it you always looking for ideas?
Yes, I’m always searching at the songface, and particularly, I would go through…I mean, some of it is kind of rare, because I’m going through stuff for either films, or they’re on YouTube or records. So I listened to all the Skatalites things, I kept coming across that one and thinking every time I heard it, I thought that’s great, so if we did it, it would sound great. But they’re all really, it’s like the music that I write that we do, it’s got to fit the orchestra, and if it feels right. If I love it, then I hope other people will love it. If I didn’t love it, I don’t think you could get somebody else to love it.
There’s another one of that type, finding an old one, that we did: there was this great bandleader called Lucky Millinder, who people don’t really know of now, but he was in the ’40s and he used to have Sister Rosetta Tharpe with him, and they were really early boogieists, because they would do a boogie in the ’40s before it became rock ‘n’ roll. There’s one that he did called ‘Let It Roll,’ and I’d seen it, it exists on film somewhere, there’s him doing it on a film with this female singer. But I realised it wasn’t on record anywhere. It’s only on the film. There is a version of it on a record but it’s not the same as the film, so we all had to…I think I had to put my phone up to the television, to record it off the television and then play it to the band so we could all learn it. Yes, I’m giving you all the behind the scenes stuff here, the trade secrets.
We’re like monks going through ancient manuscripts to bring out the greatest thing to the people, and hopefully that works. But also that informs and inspires what we do ourselves, so when we play our own music, which is a lot of my own things that I’ve written, from my own catalogue, then you’ve listened to how the people did it, in the ’40s or before, and you can transmit your music in the same way.
The autumn tour will also offer one or two new destinations for you.
It’s always interesting as well, of course, to go to somewhere you haven’t been before. We just did one in a place called Heerlen, in Holland. What rather amused it, as we drove back from it, we had a show in Amsterdam the next day, and we were driving from it on the motorway and we hit this industrial zone, either side of us, with these huge cooling towers and chimneys and metal things that contained something important, and pipes and things, like a vast industrial plant. And it went on both sides of the motorway for about five miles, and we got to the slip road, which was a slip road off to it, and it was called ‘Chemalot’ [laughs]. This is one of the best things I’ve seen for years. Lot of pleasure in touring in places you haven’t been.
And this autumn, for instance, we’re going to be going to the Peterborough EOE Arena, because we’ve never done that one before, that’s a great one to do. We’re going to do Windsor Hall in Bournemouth, because we didn’t go to Bournemouth last year, and of course the Brighton Centre…the Royal Albert Hall is always a very special one, because the atmosphere there is great. And Brighton’s got a special atmosphere to it. I mean, all of these places, it’s not the places it’s the people that give it the atmosphere, and of course it’s the people responding to us, and us responding to the people. That’s what brings it. You could actually put the things, you could propel us all to outer space, us and the people, it would still be alright. But the atmosphere in some of these places is just great. The towns are just great, I suppose. People are great.
The Royal Albert Hall, of course, is almost like your back yard.
The Royal Albert Hall is a very special place, because I do think anybody that has…for instance, if anybody’s got an old piece of furniture that was their grandmother’s or something like that, things can contain, by being around a lot, certain spirit, you know.
If you have a venue that’s had lots of amazing stuff on it, or like if you’ve got a musical instrument that’s had lots of amazing people play it, then there’s no question that there’s an atmosphere that’s already, it might be psychosomatic or in your mind or whatever, but there is an atmosphere. And in a place like the Royal Albert Hall where you’ve had everybody from Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Muhammad Ali, you know, you name it, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Barbra Streisand, whoever. Everybody has been there.
It definitely has a very strong atmosphere, and it used to be, I suppose, when we played these places 20 years ago, I was almost quite nervous, and now, although there’s a bit of nerves, because you’re quite sure what’s going to happen, or how it’s all going to work out, I rather look forward to going into the fight, if you see what I mean, because it’s got such a great atmosphere that you build on that atmosphere of the people who’ve been there before you, and then you’ve been there a few times and it builds up even more. Yeah, the Royal Albert Hall is a very special place indeed, and it’s also in songs, it’s an iconic place. There’s something so iconic and eccentric and British about it, that’s what’s great about it.
Eric Clapton, I think, holds the record for living there, and also the other thing, which I learned from him, because of course Eric Clapton is the master, is you have to play to the room. When we first played there, we just played whatever our set was. But now, I think we know that with a room like the Royal Albert Hall, you’ve got to play in a particular way. Certain songs will work better because of the acoustics in there. If you play too loud it’s no good, and you need to use the dynamics of the place more. So that’s the other thing, I hope why the shows are better than they’ve ever been is because we’ve learned to play to the room a bit, you know.
“Outdoor vs. indoor” would be a very hard choice for you, wouldn’t it?
Well, I think it’s fitting the show to the space and the atmosphere. When we go on, we have a set but I’m often diverging from it. You can sometimes see all the people in the horn…we’ve got 13 people in our big band horn section and there’s 18 of 20 of us altogether, but you can see sometimes I’ll call out a song and they’re all kerfuffling with the bits of music in front of them, because we might not have played it for two years and they’re all desperately looking for it. Of course nowadays, a lot of them can do it on their iPads, they’re zooming through that. So they’re not checking their Instagram or their Facebook, they’re actually whizzing through, desperately trying to find what one I’ve called out next.
Because if you’re playing in an open-air place, and hopefully the weather’s the great and it’s all fine, but say for instance suddenly there’s a bit of rain, then we’ll suddenly pick out something because you’ll think no, we’ve got to get the people moving here, because we don’t want them cold and wet, so you’ll play for that. And if it’s really so hot, you’ll change it again to try to cool them down, you know. Some places, for instance there’s a show we do at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff, people are up dancing from the beginning. You want a bit of dancing, from halfway, but from the beginning…so you play for them as well. So it’s great to be able to try to respond to the room, and because we’ve got such a big repertoire, and the orchestra are so quick at learning things, or quick at doing a switcheroo, then that’ll work.
We played a special birthday celebration at Ronnie Scott’s, which was tiny, and we could hardly fit in. There’s a part where everybody goes off the stage except me and Gilson, the drummer, who of course was in Squeeze with me, and we just do a little bit together with the two of us. But it was too small to get the band off the stage, so we had to just bluff something where they could play along with it. But that was all fine as well, and that’s the fun of it. I think if I go and see a show, and when the people see us, they enjoy the fact that they can see it’s all being spontaneous and made up, more than if it was perfectly rehearsed and we were playing the same thing.
This is an underrated skill of yours as a bandleader, to be thinking on your feet all the time about what comes next.
Yes, I think you do have to be thinking, and you’re thinking in advance, so when you’re playing one, you’re thinking ‘At the end of this, are we going to be going to what we’ve got in the set, or should we move away from it?’ And the other thing of course is that I’m sometimes aware that if I change it around a bit, it means that certain people…it’s important to hear everybody’s voice in the orchestra. In other words, each person has a solo, even if it’s only a short solo, so you’re aware of who everybody is. It also means that as the set goes on, there’s always something new happening in the orchestra, which is great. If there’s not a new guest coming on, there’s a soloist who you haven’t seen. Sometimes if I change things around at the last minute, it gets all that out, so you then have to get somebody out to do a solo on something that they wouldn’t have done, and it all gets a bit [of a] complicated system of pointing, so I look like a bookmaker on a track, tapping my shoulder and holding three fingers up and all of that, to say what the key is.
But that’s the pleasure of it. It’s not chaos at all, but the spontaneity brings a thing, and the band like that as well, I suppose because it’s a lot of the same people in the band for a long time, they’ve grown with that. I think some musicians would start to fall apart with that. ‘Why aren’t you doing what we’ve written down now?’ ‘Here’s a plan, now we’re not going to do it.’ Dr. John once said to me that a lot of musicians are fantastic live, and their best side is never caught, because their best thing was doing a gig, and it’s never caught on record, so they were really amazing as live artists and that was their thing. Other artists were really great on record, and some people it was great because they kept, somehow, both sides of their artistry was captured, both on record and playing live.
I think it’s a funny mix of doing those two things, so I’ve learned a lot by looking at old films of people that had big bands. The sounds of big bands I like, but I suppose with us I wanted a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section with a big band horn section bolted on the top, which is sort of what we’ve got. But I learned by looking at the films of them that things like the soloist had to come to the front to do their solo, otherwise you didn’t notice that they’d done a solo sometimes, so you have to help guide the audience through it. And of course a lot of the great bands that I liked, the earlier ones, were led by piano players, whether it was Count Basie or Duke Ellington, or Lionel Hampton on the vibraphone. But even somebody like Paul Weller, he’s a great bandleader, because he organises his band to play what he wants. Van Morrison is a great bandleader, Eric Clapton’s a great bandleader, They’re all people that direct the musicians.
Sometimes you get musicians that are really great, you don’t want to direct them, you just know because they’re great that they’re going to do something sympathetic to what you’re doing. But it’s picking that person, that’s part of it. And I think that, for me, if people have got a great talent, you want it to shine, and it’s a symbiotic thing where if you’ve got two people…as an example, Rico Rodriguez is now no longer with us because we lost him a few years ago, but he was one of the great legends of ska and reggae music. So when he played, we had to find, I wanted to find things that would magnify his talent, because he was so great. It was Rico that got us to do ‘Enjoy Yourself,’ in a bar one night he started singing it. This is like 30 years ago, he said ‘We should do this live, Jools.’ So it’s a two-way thing sometimes, some people you’ve got on there because they’ve got such a great sound that they do, and you want to hear a bit of that, and also it means that I’ll have written something and in my mind I’ll be thinking ‘This is going to be so great for so-and-so to do a solo on,’ you can almost write something with them in mind, you know.
And ‘Enjoy Yourself’ has become one of your theme songs.
Yeah, it’s sort of become our own, really, because through Rico, it’s become our own thing, and it’s a very old song, you know, it goes back to the ’30s. Actually it’s really ancient, the idea ‘Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think’ goes right back to the ancient Greeks, I think.
Even for people who come to see you often, there is always a new element in your special guests.
So what has evolved with the big band and their shows is, of course, the guests. Ruby Turner is the first person, one of our guests, and she’s become part of the orchestra because of the strength of what she does and because we’ve written so much together. So she finishes off the show but is so amazing, she’s like a person from another age, in having that gospel and blues and boogie-woogie sensibility that was around in the 1930s, that beginnings of it and the greatest flowering of it, in many ways. So she has that sensibility, so we close the set with her because she just lifts everything up, and it’s the perfect person for the orchestra. And I realise when we’re playing the songs, more than half the songs we play are all the ones Ruby and I have written, because when we’re writing, we know what we’re writing for, we’re writing for the audience that are watching us, that are going to be at gigs. We’re not sitting in a room thinking ‘What would people on the radio like?’ It’s ‘What would people in the gig like?’
So that’s a staple part of it, and also Louise Marshall is an incredible singer who’s been part of us, who’s fantastic at singing some of the songs that I’ve written with other people. There was one I wrote with Gregory Porter, for instance. I can shout my way through the blues songs but a big song like I wrote with Gregory, it needs somebody that’s got a very skilled voice to do it, so Louise is the person to do that, so she’s great at bringing to life songs that I’ve written with people that I couldn’t bring to life myself. And also, she just has this way of this energy of bringing things to life and is a brilliant backing vocalist. So she’s a special part.
We also on this tour have other different backing singers like Mabel Ray and other people who will bring great things to it. But then we have the special guests, and they’re the ones that change all the time which bring another element again. We had Marc Almond, we had José Feliciano, we had Solomon Burke, we’ve had some amazing people with us come out as guests over the years. Alison Moyet, we had, and Lulu and people. And this year, we’re having somebody who’s worked with us before, but they bring out this great element of us, which is Selecter. Specifically, it’s Pauline Black, the singer, and ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, who works with Pauline, and they’re perfect for us because they represent the British take on ska music, the 2 Tone thing. Although I wasn’t part of the 2 Tone thing, I was part of British ska music, that’s part of my heritage and part of the thing my orchestra have been doing for the past 25 years, so we’ve always been playing that music. So it’s perfect for us and the effect they have on the audience, it’s like everybody jumps up straight away, as soon as they hear them doing ‘Train To Skaville,’ it’s just like such great music, and they do it so fantastically, and with a particular British take on it, which is great. It’s really electric to hear them doing it, and they are the originators of that British take on ska music, like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones were the originators of British blues, in one sense of it, they are the originators of British 2 Tone ska. So it’s great having them there, and they like being with the orchestra because being with a whole big band, it magnifies it and makes it even bigger, and has just a fantastic jump up effect.
Also, I’m very proud of my British pop music history and credentials, because you know, I started off with Squeeze, as did Gilson Lavis of course, the drummer in Squeeze, who’s there, who gets better and better, and Chris Difford, who I’ve written with quite a lot, different things over the years, but also he comes as a guest with us, and it’s great when he’s with us, because there’s something very, what’s the word for it, very laddish that comes out when we play with it. There’s a great life that comes out, so it’s always a joy. So Chris Difford is playing with us in Carlisle and I think it’s the only one on this tour, he comes out with us sometimes for the whole tours, but it’s the only one on this particular one that he’s able to do, and we’re delighted to have him there, it’s always a treat to see Chris and his magnificence, and strutting his stuff. So when Chris is there we play a couple of old Squeeze songs. I think if he does ‘Cool For Cats,’ he says ‘Here’s the song that paid for my first divorce.’ I’m giving too many trade secrets away now, but he’s great on stage and doing that music, and again that transfers into, I suppose there’s me and Gilson playing on it, and him, so that’s three-quarters of it, I suppose.
With the guests, you want a certain simpatico, as the Italians would say, so you want it to be people that you feel you’re going to enjoy being on tour with, and they’re going to enjoy it and be part of it, and somebody that gets the broadness of the music we’re doing. Some people make great music, but would it really fit in with us? I don’t know, but I think we’ve been very lucky to have people, for instance, somebody like Alison Moyet, she makes all sorts of records, she’s like a great big band singer, so she could do that. The different people we’ve worked with over the years, it’s been great. We just had a year with Marc Almond, who was great and we did a record with him. But it’s also quite an enjoyable challenge for some of the guests, because they don’t always work with a big band, and so it’s a different dynamic, and they have to be pretty strong to be at the front of a big band, they’ve got to be pretty tough and confident to get in and be able to deliver the strength of what they do over a big band. So I think they enjoy doing it, and also it’s quite nice for them, because they just come out and do four or five songs, and then…rest! [laughs]
How do you go about adapting the guests’ big hits for a big band?
I wouldn’t want to force things into a big band style for things that weren’t going to work, so sometimes you have to play things in a different way. Most things you can take back to the piano, because I suppose 70 per cent of songs — I’m making up figures, there, everybody does it these days — anyway, a lot of songs were written on the piano, or the keyboard. Or just on a guitar, one instrument, so they’re not written with a big arrangement. So if you strip it back to that and then build it up again, you can normally make something work. If there’s something that sounds like it’s not naturally going to go with a big band, but anyway when you bring it down to just the piano, it tends to work, and the big band can creep in.
What are the logistics of running a big band?
There aren’t really any rules to it, and it’s been fantastic, people say ‘How do you do it, having a big band and touring all over the world and doing all this sort of thing?’ But the truth of it is I don’t do a lot of that. I’ve got a fantastic manager, I’ve got a fantastic tour manager and people in the office who sort out all of the touring things and sort out getting us, so I really am very lucky, because I pretty much just turn up and play the piano and say ‘Let’s play this.’ But also, the orchestra have been together for quite a long time so it’s like a family, so if somebody’s ill or something, we’ll take care of each other, and there’s a certain amount of that, because we’ve all known one another for a long time now and worked with one another for a long time. And if people are ill, other people come in and step in. It’s harder for me, although I did hear the other day, there’s that fantastic man on Radio 2 who does a fantastic impersonation of me, so I thought if I got ill, I could get him up and he could just be behind a screen at the piano doing the announcements.
Being on the road with a band you’ve known for a long time makes it quite a social thing too, doesn’t it?
One of the things for us is, there’s a lot of us, so you’re never alone. There used to be that advert for a cigarette called Strand, and the advert was ‘You’re never alone with a Strand.’ And it was such a disaster because everybody thought ‘Well, I don’t want to be alone.’ So they went out of business. But it’s a bit like ‘You’re never alone with a big band because wherever you are, there’s always…if you arrive in a town, I see Bammi, because like me he studies the horses, going into a bookmaker’s on the high street. There’ll be somebody else coming out, you’ll see. It’s like we’re alien spores that have been dropped in whatever town it is, and I recognise us as I’m coming into the town. In the hotel afterwards, there’ll be a couple of people having a drink. We often, at the show, because it’s easy, we all have a big curry for all of us, that’s quite jolly. One of the things that is great is that everybody’s got a great sense of humour in the band and they’re funny as well as being good players. So that’s a good part of it. Also, in the daytime, I’m a keen tourist, I like looking at stuff, so I look at gardens, I look at old buildings or whatever. There’s always something to look at, always something new to discover, so I think the world of touring is not bad. If you have to do endless ten hours of flying a day, then it could wear you out a bit, but that’s just a small price to pay.
The list of dates is not daunting for you, is it?
If any of us looked at a list of things you’ve got to do in your life, I think a lot of people would just drop dead there and then. But I think if you just take it one day at a time, it’s alright. But I’m quite a positive thinker, so I don’t see the, when I look at this and I see that we’re going from, we’re in Hull and Edinburgh, I think ‘Ah, well there’s a great part of Hull you can walk around, that old part of Hull is great,’ so I’ll be thinking of that, and there’s a nice place where we can go and have something to eat in Edinburgh. So I see that rather than the huge mileage in between them [laughs]. I think as well, you get into the routine. I’ve been touring, Squeeze first started touring like this, when I was 17 or 18 or something, and we used to literally travel in the back of vans and stay in freezing cold chicken sheds. So now, travelling in a big comfy car and staying in a nice hotel is easy.
If push comes to shove, could you name your favourite live moment you’ve ever been involved with?
Well, I think, curiously enough, sometimes on the ‘Hootenanny’ we get great moments, I think that something I’ve always really…there are great moments there, which is a live performance there, because all the people in the room, we’re playing live. Sometimes as it gets towards the…there comes a point halfway through the show, roughly, everybody gets up and starts maybe having a boogie, and you feel the whole room taking off. There’s something in that, but it would be hard to pin down one particular one. I think Glastonbury, we played the main stage at Glastonbury a couple of years ago, and that was great, the rain held off and we got everybody singing along to ‘Enjoy Yourself,’ and that felt really great. Ideally, you want to be at one with the audience, it’s not like us here on the stage and you down there listening to us. You want it to be just ‘us’ altogether, becoming as one. When all the people are singing and clapping in time to ‘Enjoy Yourself,’ that’s great. When we were doing it at Glastonbury, and you’ve got whatever it is, 100,000 people all singing it in unison, that feels nice. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m too much of a football yob [laughs].
What are the differences between presenting on TV and on the radio?
Television versus radio, yeah, I enjoy doing the television, and I suppose I work best in a spontaneous situation, rather than working off a script or something like that, improvising as I go along, and people get the overall intention of what I’m rabbiting on about then, or gesturing with my hand. I think you can do much more with a hand gesture, and with a slight raise of the eyebrow, than you can with a thousand words. But that bit doesn’t work on the radio. I’ve tried the old raised eyebrow, but it doesn’t really work. So my television programme’s great but you’re entirely dependent on people who are alive, whereas on the radio, you can of course go back into some of the great people who are no longer with us anymore. What I enjoy with my radio programme particularly, I spend a lot of time, very enjoyable time, going through early records back from the ’20s, up until you know, the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s. ’50s even, ’60s or whatever, to go back and find great stuff, because there’s so many records that get passed by, and rare stuff: live recordings from churches, b-sides that might have been a-sides that just never…and there’s some fantastic stuff to find. So I like trawling through that and getting it on my radio show, that’s a great thing.
There’s a bit on my radio show where we choose a rare record, but actually most of them are pretty rare records, you don’t really hear them a lot. So I enjoy doing the radio because you can play records by Bessie Smith, but you can’t get Bessie Smith on my television show because she died in 1937. Also, my band are there and we play with a guest, and you have half an hour with a guest as well, which is nice. I have half an hour of playing the old records and then half an hour with a guest where you get to know them, and with half an hour you can. With ‘Later,’ you can have two minutes with somebody, at the most, and you can’t really in two minutes get to the bottom of somebody. On chat shows, they have ten, 15 minutes with a person, but with me it’s hardly any time at all.
So having said that, on ‘Later’ of course you can see the greatest new people and the greatest legends and the greatest people of today and everything, and that’s great fun as well. And you don’t realise that at the time, nobody knows it at the time, people go ‘Oh, he was quite good.’ Rag & Bone Man, I was thinking the other day, what a great voice he’s got. I remember when he came on, and they said ‘I think he’s going to be big,’ and they said ‘Why’s that,’ and I said ‘Because his voice is so fantastic, listen to his voice.’ So it’s great to be in a position where you can see people close up, for me, and then the audience can see that. Again, if I can enjoy seeing someone close up on ‘Later,’ people at home can too.
In your case, your nan’s piano was crucial to your musical upbringing, wasn’t it?
Yes, my nan’s piano was really an essential thing because it was in her front room, as people had in the 1930s. It was a gift to her by her mother Britannia in 1937, and I would hear them at Christmas, when I was very small, all singing songs. Everybody had their own song that they’d sing at the piano, and it was also a pianola, so you would pedal the pedals and you would hear, and a piano roll would go round, Fats Waller playing ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ would come out of it, which was great, so I got to learn those songs early on. But also, it was great because my uncle, who was a young teenager when I was small, would play boogie-woogie piano on it, and from that, that really got me going and fired up and made me learn by ear what he was doing, and learn the blues from day one. And I did discover since, that what he showed me, the left hand that he showed me, was the same left hand, because I met and talked to people about this that Ray Charles was shown by an old man in his village, that Ringo Starr, strangely, learned, that I think Mark Knopfler knows it as well. All these people, the first bit of piano they learned, and Dr. John, very strange, they were all drawn to this one little riff. So when people say ‘Show me something on the piano,’ I show them that. It hasn’t worked so far producing the next Ray Charles, but you never know. But it was all the same little boogie-woogie left hand, the same one, the same little figure, a little sort of ‘baa-baa…’ [sings].
Did you have records in the house at home?
We couldn’t afford a piano, but we had a record player, and a radio, and my parents liked classical music and jazz music, and so I would hear a lot of that, and I think it opened my mind to a lot of that, so I still like it very much. I say jazz music, like Bessie Smith or Jelly Roll Morton, things like that. Then at my grandmother’s house, there was a record player as well, so I would get records and then play them to death. The first record player I had was a 78 record player, with a great big wind-up needle, which is the worst thing even to play 78s on, the one with the big metal needle. I had a Beach Boys record and I worked out that if I slowed it right down, the Beach Boys sounded vaguely alright, for about five times, then the big metal needle took everything off the vinyl face off the record, so that was the end of that. But eventually, my dad got me an Alba record player, and we could have a good listen to whatever records were out at the time. I think I had a Glenn Miller one, which got worn out, but the first proper LP I had was ‘For Once In My Life’ by Stevie Wonder, I liked that, and I think I had ‘Lady Madonna,’ the single, by The Beatles, because I tried to learn the piano part on it.
‘Lady Madonna’ as inspired, and later covered, by Fats Domino, of course.
Fats was a really great artist. I’m going through a box set of his at the moment, and it’s often the little things that nobody knew were hits, which they could have been hits if they’d put them out. We’re doing one now called ‘You Done Me Wrong,’ and he wrote them all, and the band sound so great, they sound so particular, New Orleans band. But he’s just great, Fats, because he was very open-minded about music, he just played his music, and he used to say, something I heard him saying once, he said ‘I play the fast blues music,’ which was like the rock ‘n’ roll, he said ‘And I play the old songs, and the old pop songs,’ but he was talking about like 1930s pop songs, like ‘Blueberry Hill.’ But he said ‘I just play them in my style and people seem to like that.’ It’s right, and if you mix them all, and I really learned from that, it’s just play the nice songs, but in a way you can play them. When you play something, you don’t want to play it the same as somebody else, you want to play it in your style. And when you hear Fats, it’s all in his style, so I just really like Fats, lovely man.
What’s your favourite record you’ve ever played on?
Yeah well, I’ve been lucky, I’ve played on a few different records. I played on one with B.B. King and Van Morrison, it was a record for B.B. King with people doing tracks with him, and Van was singing a track and I was playing piano on it. They played this thing and they counted in, and the first intro is two leading notes on the piano. The band starts singing and B.B. starts playing and neither of them have played it before, and it just was ‘This is just great, wow, it’s really magical.’ I got the record back and it’s just lovely, yeah.
You’re not one for looking back, but do you ever stop to think about the life you’ve led in music?
No, I think sometimes it’s time to look in the rear view mirror and take stock, because there are some fantastic moments. I’ve been very lucky, both either on record where we recorded with George Harrison, or written with Dr John, or Dionne Warwick covered a song that San Brown and I wrote. I can’t believe it sometimes, all this stuff that’s happened. Then also sometimes when we play on ‘Later’ or on the ‘Hootenanny’ and people play with us, you get some amazing thing [that] happens sometimes. The atmosphere is just great when it goes. I think now, it’s not like it used to be where a record is that. Now, the record is if you get a great live performance and somebody’s filmed it, maybe millions of people will watch that on YouTube. Then sometimes it’s just being in the dressing room doing a warm-up with somebody at the piano. I remember being in the dressing room with Amy Winehouse and her just singing something at the piano. And you’re thinking ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ So it doesn’t really matter whether it’s live on the television, on a record or in a dressing room, or at home or at a gig, you’re plugging into the same thing and it’s an amazing thing, I’m so fortunate to have plugged into it and been very moved by it. The more you listen to stuff and the more you play, the more you can play and listen to stuff, yet the more mysterious it all becomes, and that’s the great thing about it, you can never figure it out.
So the adventure continues?
The adventure continues, I hope, that’s right, and it’s great fun to do it, it’s a great pleasure to keep playing, and you never know quite what piece of music is around the corner that you can embrace or attack, depending on which way you look at it next.