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| A telephone interview with Colin Hodgkinson
recorded by Pete Bell on the 9th January 2003
great to be talking to you, let alone interviewing you, Colin ... Obvious
question, the usual one, when did you first start playing bass?
Colin: I was nearly fifteen. There was a band in Peterborough I saw around that time ..... I suppose in 1958, '59 .... I was pretty young then - I'd be around thirteen or fourteen. And they had a bass player, this band - they were called The Rebel Rousers - and they had a bass player called Rex Gates. And he used to actually play the melody of that tune on the bass.
Pete: Oh right, Duane Eddy.
Colin: Duane Eddy ... which I'd never heard anybody do. And the minute I heard that instrument, I wanted to play it. It was like that.
In actual fact I'm still friends with him, and when I first turned pro he changed to drums. He played the drums in the same trio with me. The one that came up to Redcar when I first met Ronnie. So that's how I got playing bass.
Pete: Was it your first instrument?
Colin: Guitar was the first. The first thing I had really was a kind of ukulele that I'd got .... for Christmas I think it was. I was always into music. I think what got me into playing was seeing Haley and the Comets in "Rock Around the Clock". All that stuff when I was ten or eleven, in 1955, '56, really young. But I saw it, and I went back to see it about seven times. It was just ... ah .. I couldn't believe it! And that was it. It's always been there.
So I started then, and messed around with a guitar. It was all right, but once I heard the bass, that's what I wanted to play.
Pete: Who were the first people you heard, then? Who were your first musical influences ...
Colin: On bass?
Pete: Well, generally, but then on bass, I guess.
Colin: Generally, I suppose the early rock players, those first great rock and roll players like Haley and the Comets, like Chuck Berry, which I suppose is R&B or whatever you want to call it .. Fats Domino, all those sort of people.
Then, when I was at secondary school, I had a friend there and his brother was very much into jazz and blues, and he said, "Why don't you listen to some of this?" I was pretty much tired of the pop thing that was going on, and he brought me three albums. One was a Leadbelly album, and the others were ... one was a Gerry Mulligan, and the other was Dizzy Gillespie. Completely different, but I loved them all. And from Leadbelly I got to Robert Johnson, all the other great country blues players.
But I was very influenced by that early quartet of Gerry Mulligan's, the one without a piano, because he had a great bass player called Red Mitchell at that time, and I just really loved that. I could never get into playing double bass because I'm left-handed ..... it's a bit of a game trying to swap strings over and all that.
When I was playing a bit more, I was playing in a local band doing covers like everybody else, Shadows tunes, Beatles tunes, but I was very much into playing these double bass lines on the Fender bass. I'd learn the solos, and I got into it that way.
Also, because I liked Chuck Berry, people like that, so much, I got into playing the chords. So I'd be trying to do that stuff as well. It was coming from two sides, really.
The thing that really established the way I play was Back Door. For the simple reason that when I started playing with Ronnie, and I'm probably jumping ahead here a bit, but I might as well get it down while I think of it .... we were both in Eric Delaney's band.
I met Ronnie at the Starlight in Redcar in 68, and I'd come up there with a trio, Hammond organ, bass and drums, and he used to play in there every Tuesday night with "Rivers Invitation". You know "Rivers Invitation"?
Pete: They've just re-organised themselves as "Rivers". Some of the same guys.
Colin: Yeah, the original band was Tubby and so on... they were the very first band.
The manager of the club had said "They've got a saxophone player who's one of the best in the country," and I said, "Yeah, right, playing in a soul band." I was a bit of a jazz snob.
And I heard Ronnie and thought, "Bloody hell!"
I talked to him in the interval, and we just hit it off straight away - it was like one of those instant things with people. And I started to spend a bit of time at his place, he lived in Middlesbrough and had a house there. He was teaching me to read .... and we just listened to music, and he said "I'm playing with Eric Delaney, I'll get you for that band if you like."
Pete: You were still with the trio, were you?
Colin: Still with the trio, but after a while I think they had an offer to go on the QE2. So I was going to join Eric, because I knew that Ronnie was such a great player and was really getting somewhere with that. He really wanted to give me a crash course in reading, because it was a real reading job and I couldn't read at all, to be honest.
Pete: Had you tried?
Colin: I'd just never learnt. He learnt when he started to play, like a lot of horn players. For me, I was self-taught and that was it. So I was spending eight hours a day trying to learn to read .... spending God knows how long on a piece that, if someone had told me what it was, I would have had it in five minutes. It was good discipline, and it was very difficult when I started, but I got into it, and by the time I left Eric's band, I could really spit out anything. To go back to the Eric Delaney thing, we were playing sixteen weeks during the summer season down in Bournemouth ...... the same show every night. And we were very keen and ambitious and weren't into other people's music.
Pete: What sort of age were you then?
Colin: I was about twenty-three, Ron was a couple of years older than me. So we just used to go into the theatre in the afternoon, the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth. My amp was there anyway. He took his horn, I took the bass, and he had a little Grundig tape recorder. So we put it on and we just played.
The tune "Back Door" was one of the very first .... I played bass and he came up with the melody. That's really the way it went right through the life of the band.
Generally speaking, I'd have a riff or run a chord or something, and he'd come up with a tune. It was amazing. So that's really how we got started doing that. And because there were only two of us, I played even more chords. There wasn't a chord instrument. So I started to play almost like the guitar parts, if you like.Tthe bassline would go on, and I'd have my solo. So it was great fun but it was bloody difficult sometimes to keep it all hanging together. It was necessity that made it happen.
Pete: It was during the "Back Door" time that you developed what I guess is your particular style.
Colin: More or less. That same year, when we started doing stuff - we left the band in September and we thought we'd move to London. We were going to get something going, this was the place to be. So we managed to get a job in the same band - we were in the Orchid Ballroom in Purley. It was like a Mecca place, the stage revolves when one band takes over from the other. This was paying the rent, and we shared a room in Earl's Court. Ron was very friendly with Ray Warleigh. You know Ray Warleigh?
Pete: Yeah. I've met him.
Colin: He said he was working with Alexis (Korner), and Alexis was looking for a bass player. Ron said "This guy with me plays really good," so he got the word over and Alexis said "Send me a tape." So what we sent him was the first of the four Back Door tracks we'd recorded at the Theatre.
Pete: Really? From the Grundig?
Colin: Yeah. Because that's all we had. Because cassettes were only just coming out then. And he thought this was great, and he asked me to join, and that's how I started playing with him.
The first gig we did was in Vienna. I said, "When are we going to rehearse?" He said, " I'll sort something out, you'll be all right". There were two thousand people there. I'd never met the band. In the end, there was no rehearsal at all. I just got out there and went on. And he said "You know, a bit bluesy, just follow and you'll be okay." I said, "What do you want me to play?" He said, "Anything you like." I couldn't believe it. So we got playing, and I'm following this stuff ..... I'm pretty edgy of course because I'd never done it before. And then he suddenly said, "Let's have a bass solo." Now I did't really do them, but he just announced it. I'd been messing about with a couple of the Robert Johnsons by then, and I'd been experimenting with '32/20 Blues', so I just did it.
Pete: You just hit into that, did you?
Colin: Yeah. I'm just standing there - I've never met the people but I did it and it went down really well. And I often wondered later, is this great psychology on his part or is he just really loose?
But that got me started, made me believe it could work - the bass on its own - because nobody really did that. They still don't, actually .... not and sing as well. A lot of guys are really unbelievable players now, but to do the singing thing as well, it was pretty unique.
Pete: When you were at that stage with Alexis Korner, had you been doing any singing, or was it purely instrumental work you'd done with Ron, for instance?
Colin: I'd been singing. I sang early on. I never wanted to sing, to be quite honest, in the band I was in. But when we had this trio, we were working, like quite a lot of us did, in the clubs, seven nights a week, and somebody had to sing. And the only things I was singing were like Mose Allison songs. I think I was the least bad of the three of us. So I started off like that, and of course if you do it a few times and it goes reasonably well, you get a bit more confidence. You start off in all the really safe keys, without ever really having to go for it. And then you get a bit more confident, and that's the way I went. So I was really quite enjoying it. But it wasn't something I started off enjoying.
Pete: Having to lay it on with "Back Door" develops it a bit, I guess.
Colin: Yeah. Because we were both into the country blues, especially Robert Johnson. We played a lot of that. I loved singing that stuff. Ron played a soprano almost like a bottle-neck. You know what it was like because you heard it, it was very different. It wasn't done to be different, it was just that that was the way we had to do it because of the line-up of the instruments. So it was very natural, what we arrived at, even though it was very unusual.
Pete: By the time I saw you, Colin, which would have been just at the time of the album, the thing that Brian did ...
Pete: 72ish, yeah. Your repertoire was really well-developed, the original material was well-developed then and you'd thrown in quite a few vocals too. How did that process come about if you were with Alexis for a while, Ron was doing what at that stage?
Colin: Ron actually was doing sessions. He's such an incredible reader, he can read anything first time, that's what you had to do to really be successful, and he had no problem there, even though he was very nervous. He'd go up and do sessions, and I'd go up and play with Alexis, and we kept the place going at Earl's Court.
We were both doing okay, but at the back of our minds we thought, "We really ought to give this a shot." We thought that "Back Door" could probably do something. I think what we both decided was that we'd go back to the North-east, we'd go back and do the Starlight and be the house band, and work on the music during the day. We didn't have a drummer at that time. We had a couple of guys, we had Merv Jones for a while, he was with "Rivers", he was "Rivers" drummer .... we had Ronnie Pearson, who was an amazing player. But there was something that only really happened when Hicks came in. Once he played with us we both knew that he was the guy.
Pete: How did you find him?
Colin: I think he'd just come back from Australia. And he came in to the Starlight and sat and listened, and he just said, "Can I have a play?" It was good in those days, you could do that a bit more. Those days are gone forever, I think. And he just sat down and played with us, and it was magic. It absolutely suited the music we were trying to write and play. So from then on, he joined us, and that was it.
Pete: So what did you do? Had you already decided you and Ron were going to organise a trio ..... it was going to be called "Back Door" ..... how did that come about?
Colin: No, not really. We wanted to play together and write stuff together, but the name was settled on probably quite a bit after that, when we'd really gone through a list of tunes asking "What about that?" I think him or me, we were coming back on the train from London when we hit on "Back Door". He said "Because that's the way we usually get into everything". That kind of thing. So that's how we arrived at that.
Pete: It wasn't the Howlin' Wolf tune?
Colin: Not "Back Door Man", I didn't know that tune at the time.
We first met Brian about 71, around that time, 70 or 71, and he said we could do the Tuesday nights up at Blakey.
Pete: Did he meet you at the Starlight? Was that how you met Brian?
Colin: I think that's where, but I really cannot remember. I'm almost certain it was.
Pete: Brian played bass, a bit of bass stand-up, himself, didn't he?
Colin: He did.
Pete: So maybe on his routine at South Bank or wherever ...
Colin: That's right.
Pete: ... late night.
Colin: He usually came to the Starlight, I think. I think that's how we met. And he told us about the pub for a bit, and it sounded fucking amazing. He said what he'd already done with it, and he told us how he'd dragged all the stones off from the bottom and built the fireplace ..... He was an absolute bloody dynamo was Brian. So much energy. He really loved what we were doing, and he said, "Why don't you come and do a night at the pub?" So we put a dep band in on Tuesday nights, up in Redcar, and we drove up and played Blakey.
But you know what it was like when we started .... the first night there were four people. I think we started in winter at the worst possible time. But then it just built up and built up, and it was really quite staggering. People used to come in, absolutely hundreds.
Pete: How did that come about, Colin? You didn't promote it, did you?
Colin: The only thing I used to do, I used to draw a poster myself and go and put it in Alan Fearnley's shop. I'd put a couple of others around Redcar ...
Pete: The record shop in Linthorpe Road.
Colin: It was just that .......and it was such an incredibly atmosphere. It was really just one of those things like ..... I suppose like the Stones playing in Richmond or ... it was just a particular place at a particular time with a particular music. And it seemed to just catch people's imagination.
Pete: You had a landlord who was right into the music, or jazz in general, wasn't he, Brian, which helps.
Colin: Yes. All sorts of people came, and it became like an institution then, it was just magic. By this time we'd written quite a lot of music.
Pete: Did you write it down? How did you do that? Did you keep on putting it to tape, and that was your sketchbook?
Colin: Ron would always write down the melody lines. He would always do that. For me, it was all memorised. Everything. Sometimes we'd tape it. We'd still use the Grundig or something else that we had then and put it down. But once we had it, we had it more or less.
But I think he kept a record of all those things, he might still have all that stuff written down, the original music, I don't know. He does tend to keep all his music. We went over and made a couple of demos, there was a little studio in Wallsend then. I'm trying to think of the guy who ran it, I can't remember, but anyway we went there and put down our three or four tunes, and of course we sent it to all the majors. We said this is what we do, and they were completely dismissive.
"You haven't got a guitar player, you haven't got a Hammond player, you haven't got a lead singer... "
Pete: Did you do that yourselves, did you send them off in the post, were you around Wardour Street, all that business?
Colin: We more or less sent them off. We didn't have many contacts in those days .... we did what we could. In the end Brian said, "How much would it cost to do it yourself, to make a record? Let's just make it, found a label, let's work it out". So we found a little place, a little demo studio in Denmark Street. We had enough money to go and record for a day, a day and a half if necessary .... and then we'd have a day of mixing.
Pete: Did you know the studio, or ...?
Colin: No we didn't know the studio. I think that came from someone else. It was probably an engineer who worked there and said he'd come out for the weekend and do it for us. I can't remember exactly how much it cost, but it was about five hundred quid, four or five hundred quid, something like that .... but that was to record it and to press it - everything. We knew the stuff pretty well because we had this repertoire at the time ...
Pete: And you'd been working Blakey for some time.
Colin: We'd been working Blakey, and we were well up to it. We went up there, and I think there were twelve tracks on that first album, and we recorded it in eight hours. Bam, bam, bam, just a four-track Ampex, that was all it was.
So we did it and then we went in the next morning and mixed it in less than four hours. So then we had our master done. I think RCA pressed them for us, I can't remember how many of them were pressed, the original one .... two thousand?
Pete: A thousand I think. Brian mentioned it.
Colin: And that was it. The minute of actually having it in your hand is so wonderful. And then we couldn't really do much more about it.
What we used to do, we'd get in Ron's Mini - he had this Mini that he inherited from his mother, which I think was a '62 or '63 - and it had no heater ...... We used to go up to play Blakey in the middle of winter in it. But with the bass amp in it, and unbelievable amounts of stuff - I still don't know how we did that.
We'd go round the record shops, Alan Fearnley (Fearnley's Records, Middlesbrough) sells them for us, we put some in a shop in Redcar, and we'd go back and say "How many have you sold?" and they'd say, "Well, you know, you've done, like, five." So we'd take the money and go to the pub or whatever, and it was more or less like that. And it's really what we thought it was going to be.
Then we bought the NME, and there was this amazing review from Charles Shaar Murray - "This is the most original thing", and it was incredible, we were gobsmacked ........ we couldn't believe it.
Pete: They were talking about fighting over who should write the review.
Colin: It was incredible. Do you remember Graham Spring?
Pete: The name rings a bell.
Colin: Graham Spring was in a band with Roy Babbington at the Fiesta.
Pete: Another great player.
Colin: Anyway, he went down to manage Drum City. Which was in Shaftesbury Avenue, right at the top of Frith Street where Ronnie Scott's is. And we used to go there and see him. He was a mate and I think he took a few copies as well for us. I think that's how that one got to the NME, or the Melody Maker or whatever.
But anyway, the next thing is we get a few more little reviews, and then we're on our last regular club thing - we were playing at Peterlee at a club called The Senate. I always remember it, because I remember the audition. By this time we really didn't want to do this any more. We walk in there and there's a Hammond organ. Ron sits down, he's messing about, and he's got his sax with him round his neck. So he stands up, and as he stands up, the hook from the horn catches one of the keys in the top manual and breaks it off.
Pete: Oh no.
Colin: So he says to the manager, "I can't play this instrument, it's incomplete." The manager said, "I can't understand it, I'm really sorry about that." Anyway, we did the audition, and we really didn't care if we got it or not, but we got the job. And it was probably because we slipped a few Back Door tunes, and played old rock, and just didn't try to do anything remotely commercial ...... and the crowd for some reason really seemed to like us. It was all going really well.
Then we got the call from Pete King at Ronnie Scott's bar. He said "Would you like to come down and play with Chick Corea for two weeks?"
Pete: Blooming heck. It went like that? It was Pete King who ...?
Colin: I'm sure it was Pete King who rang, rang Ronnie I think, because Ronnie knew Ronnie Scott - Ronnie played with Ronnie Scott on two or three gigs.
Pete: Did he?
Colin: Yeah, and we actually got him up to - do you remember the Top Deck?
Colin: We got Ronnie Scott up there. He actually did a night for us, a kind of a different thing. Ronnie had been in Ronnie Scott's group for, I don't know how many shows he did, he did a few with him. This was at the time we were in London.
Pete: Late sixties?
Colin: Yeah. Sixty-nine. And that was it of course.
Pete: That was just at the time that Scott's club was coming through as well, wasn't it. He had the old place and the new place.
Colin: The new place was like ..... the first electric or fusion bands were coming in there.
So we said yeah, wonderful. We gave our notice in at the Senate in Peterlee, and the guy said "Don't go, they love you. All the people love you. If you stay, I'll buy you band suits." We had black loons and Drum City t-shirts. This was the uniform. So we thanked him politely but declined his offer. So that was it.
So we came down, and there was a whole bus-load came down from Blakey - Brian and Gordon and everybody - for the first night. It was just an unforgettable night.
I also became the most nervous I've ever been about playing anywhere because of the associations of the place. I been there a few years before and watched Sonny Rollins and Wes Montgomery and people like that. I never dreamed I'd play there. That kind of feeling.
We started there, and it was really a terrific kind of mix, us and Chick Corea's first band, because Stanley Clark wasn't playing any electric bass, only on a couple of tunes. He played double bass ..... and Joe Farrell, it was magic. It went so well.
Pete: "Return to Forever" time.
Colin: "Return to Forever". They extended it for another week, so we were there for three weeks in the end.
So during this time, all the people who'd turned us down in the record companies were now coming and saying, "We love the band, will you sign with us". We were being managed by the guy who managed Alexis Korner, because we needed someone who would take care of us, and he seemed like a good bloke ..... in the end that's when we signed with Warners.
We did go down to the Manor and met Richard Branson, and he was just starting the Virgin thing. I think the reason we wanted Warners was that they were successful - this other guy seemed really nice, but he had no track record.
So we signed, and the first thing they put out was the Blakey one, which was very good, because they could issue an album and put all the reviews on it before it came out. They'd all come from the first one, the Blakey label issue. From then on, you probably know the story more or less.
Pete: How was your relationship? How did that develop? It must have been quite a change from the studio just on Denmark Street to Electric ...
Colin: Electric Lady ...
Pete: And an engineer that you'd presumably just met, to Felix Papallardi producing an so on.
Colin: Everything happened so very quickly at that time. We were very excited about going to New York of course, all the sort of musical associations .... We'd go in in the evening and record, and then the days we'd have off. And it sailed by ...... and we did it, and we thought we'd got a good second album from it. Because in actual fact there was a lot of stuff there that we'd been playing live as well. But at the time I was never really happy with the mix of it. I thought it was all a bit distant, a bit too far back by the time it came out.
Pete: Did Papallardi understand the stuff, the outfit?
Colin: I think he was sent the first album, with a plain label on it, and just "Would you like to produce this band?" and he said yes. We got on okay, but I didn't really know him. It was a funny feeling in a way.
Pete: I like the album. A lot of people do.
Colin: Well, now it's out on CD again, and I can listen to it, and Ronnie said "That's really good what we did there." And I like it much better now than I did at the time, to be honest.
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