Interview with PETE SEARS
It's amazing, and sometimes shocking, the fact that a musician whose art is prominent, to say the least, on a string of classic records can remain virtually unknown to the wide audience. Such is the case of Pete Sears, a talented British keyboard player and bass guitarist who played with Rod Stewart, among others, on one side of the Atlantic and then made it to the other side to join the creme de la creme of American artists, become an intergral part of JEFFERSON STARSHIP, have his work admired by the likes of Jerry Garcia and John Lee Hooker... Quite a career! It demands a thorough investigation, and there can't be better guide than Mr. Sears himself. Over to him, then.
- Pete, how did you get started in music?
I took about four years of piano as a child. I used to trade lessons for weeding this woman's front garden in south London where my family lived. I got about as far as murdering some basic Bach, as well as "The Blue Danube" and "Fur Elise". I enjoyed playing them a lot... Who wouldn't, even though they were probably painful for other people to hear. Miss Garde was quite strict as a piano teacher, but I will always be thankful for her encouragement. I've played mostly rock, blues, folk, traditional, Latin, soul, all sorts of stuff over the years, and that early musical training has given me a solid foundation to build on.
I switched to guitar when I was about fourteen years old and became immersed in rock and blues. My older brother, John, used to play Dave Brubeck records around the house, so I had some jazz going in also, although I was light years from understanding it. My friend and I formed a band at school called THE STRANGERS. I remember we once played at a school concert in front of parents and children. Terry and I wore suits with Wyatt Earp bow ties. We only had one amplifier between us, but as soon as they opened the curtains the kids leaped up out of their seats and went wild, dancing around while their parents looked on in bewilderment. We played a tune I came up with which was basically a pulsating rock 'n' roll beat played on the bottom two strings of my guitar. I called it "Twist And Twang". I don't think we were very good, but I suppose we sort of represented the rebellious spirit that encompassed this new thing called rock 'n' roll, and the kids responded with a suitable degree of irreverence to authority. Little did we know that the spirit of freedom, experimentation, and questioning swirling all around us that night, would later solidify around the mid-Sixties with bands like PINK FLOYD, Jimi Hendrix, TRAFFIC, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE and THE GRATEFUL DEAD, as well as author Ken Kesey and the psychedelic movement! Our first little school rock band only had two guitars; we had no drummer or bass player and we didn't sing, but the reaction of our peers, especially the girls, I must say, sowed a seed that stayed with me and set me off on a long career in music.
Around 1964, a semi-pro band called THE SONS OF FRED said they needed a bass player and asked if I would mind switching to bass. I did, and we soon found a backer, turned pro and landed a record contract. We traveled all around the British Isles in an old beat-up van, and later a "Mark 9 Jaguar", covered in fans' lipstick, that would slip out of gear above a hundred miles an hour... One of us had to hold the stick in top gear; especially on the relatively new M1 Motorway! We recorded a few singles out at Abbey Road Studios, then called E.M.I; the recording engineers wore white lab coats back in those days, and the studio had a big cafeteria where you lined up for your food like a school or factory. We played several TV shows including "Thank Your Lucky Stars" and "Ready Steady Goes Live". We even got mobbed outside one TV studio, with a police cordon to protect us from having our clothes ripped off by a bunch of screaming girls! Of course, I'm sure they had no idea who we were, but we looked like a rock band, and we were coming out of a TV studio: that was good enough for them, it's what they did in the early days of rock. It was quite something for a young man to experience.
- Having worked on both sides of Atlantic did you see any difference in the English and American approach to playing rock?
The British music scene of the Sixties was mostly influenced by music from the U.S.A: Motown, Stax, the many forms of rock, folk, gospel and, of course, the blues. I remember touring with THE SONS OF FRED. You heard a lot of bands playing "[In The] Midnight Hour", "Johnny B. Goode", "Hold On, I'm Comin'". Like the Sixties scene in the U.S., some British bands also fused folk with electric rock, but with a twist. Consciously and sometimes subconsciously, a Celtic influence often crept into the music - like FAIRPORT CONVENTION, or even TRAFFIC. Just like young white kids in the States who started out copying their music heroes, past and present, British and other European bands made the music their own and forged a new brand of rock. We could never sound like the people we listened to, even if we tried, and we often did try... but it just came out the way it did, like it or not.
If it was a good band, fans would often go nuts listening to it; something in the music resonated with the European post-war generation, I guess. There was a lot of emotional pain and deprivation in post-war Europe during the Fifties, and the blues especially seemed to touch a nerve in people. Bands like John Mayall's BLUESBREAKERS, YARDBIRDS, STEAMHAMMER, CHICKEN SHACK, CREAM, WYNDER K FROG, and, of course, THE STONES, were largely blues and rhythm-and-blues-influenced. Bands like THE KINKS had an almost vaudevillian approach to some of their lyrics. THE BEATLES honed their craft playing in the trenches of England and Germany, and that experience, combined with their natural talent, paid off big time... They had the same influences as the rest of us, but came up with an amazingly original sound. THE BEATLES were a part of the Mersey sound, originating around Liverpool, and distinctly different from the London sound. LED ZEPPELIN were blues-influenced and pretty much created a whole genre of rock. MOODY BLUES even introduced classical elements into their music, especially with the invention of the Mellotron. PINK FLOYD took their music out to the edge and reflected a whole new generation of psychedelia and music lovers who liked their musicians to take risks - willingness to risk failing and falling off, in order to find that perfect moment when everything comes together as one.
Playing in the trenches was an important ingredient for most musicians. THE SONS OF FRED played six or seven nights a week, working all over the British Isles, sleeping on amps in the back of an old beat-up van on the way to a gig in the snow, usually breaking down at some point, and setting up on a darkened stage in front of a bunch of rowdy teenagers. Wonderful stuff and a great way to learn the ropes! Most successful bands back then honed their craft by playing a lot of shows at a young age. We played mostly rhythm-and-blues material in the clubs, although our original songs, which we released as singles, came out a bit more pop. We had a gas in that band! My next band was FLEUR DE LYS; I played piano with them. We did mostly IMPRESSIONS and TEMPTATIONS type songs. Then, our singer and guitar player Phil Sawyer eventually left to replace Stevie Winwood in SPENCER DAVIS [GROUP].
I've heard people say that the San Francisco sound was born when folk bands started playing with electric instruments and drums. The U.S., of course, had a whole generation of young white musicians who were also influenced by blues, gospel, soul, early rock etcetera. Michael Bloomfield, Roy Buchanan, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, Paul Butterfield - all great musicians. Musical influences have sort of flashed back and forth across the Atlantic for many years... Still do, I suppose.
- You mentioned LES FLEUR DE LYS. Now theire records are considered minor classics. How do you rate them?
Most of their recordings were cut before and after I played with them, so I'm not that familiar with them. But I love the tracks I have heard. FLEUR DE LYS was a very special kind of band. They definitely represented a certain style of mid-Sixties British music. I was with them on piano for a while, but we only recorded a few times while I was with them. One of the songs was "Amen" and had Jimi Hendrix on guitar; but it was unfortunately never released. [Manager] Chas [Chandler] and Jimi had just arrived in England to form THE [JIMI HENDRIX] EXPERIENCE, and Chas had brought him down to the studio to overdub. I think I'm on one of the FLEUR DE LYS releases, but I don't remember which one... There's a cool new book out about the band called CIRCLES named after one of their songs. It's all in there, I guess. "Circles" actually may be one of the tracks I recorded with them. I remember Brian Epstein, manager of THE BEATLES, coming by our dressing room with a bottle of champagne to wish us luck when FLEUR DE LYS played a show he was promoting in 1966. We played a lot of Motown music during the period I was with them. Well, an English version of it anyway.
- You were a blues fan from quite an early age, and your latest release is a blues album. What did - and does - fascinate you in the genre?
There is purity to the music of the early blues musicians... It grew out of poverty, pain and years of slavery and discrimination. Musicians like Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and, later, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Freddie King and John Lee Hooker fashioned their songs into music that reflected their everyday lives and the lives of those around them. Their music had dignity and originality, and they lived life on their own terms... which is something I always thought about John Lee Hooker who became a good friend of mine. He was a very shrewd and intelligent man who, along with his peers, threw discrimination back into the face of society and lived life and the blues on his own terms. Ironically, for a bunch of fellow Englishmen and young white music lovers everywhere, these whisky-swilling, rough-living musicians represented a new freedom in music and a way to express themselves through unconventional paths. Blues has now become a universal language, and can reflect almost any human emotion anywhere on the planet. It will never sound the same as the original black masters of the blues from twentieth century in U.S.A, but it will subtly change with every young musician who rediscovers the blues, regardless of the country they live in. They will make it their own, and it will reflect their own feelings and emotion. Blues, of course, is the foundation of jazz, and most of the great jazz musicians will acknowledge this fact. A close friend of mine, Rich Kirch, who was John Lee Hooker's band leader for ten years, told me the story of how he was the only person present at a recording session in Los Angeles when Miles Davis walked up to John Lee and told him how unique and wonderful his playing was. Can you imagine what a Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker collaboration would have sounded like? Two extremes in style, but with their shared roots, it would have undoubtedly been unique and amazing! Which gives us the message that we should make the blues our own; give it our own slant, instead of trying to emulate the masters note by note... just have fun with it. With a few exceptions like Pinetop Perkins and B.B. King, the original bluesmen have now all passed on, but their music will live on to enrich new generations of music. I suspect those basic one, four, five changes will be around for a long time.
- How did you manage to get John Lee Hooker to play on your record, "The Long Haul'?
John came down to the studio with his manager, Mike Kappus. I had a musical arrangement ready and I was using John's regular rhythm section from his COAST TO COAST BLUES BAND: Rich Kirch, Ron Perry and Bryant Mills. Most people who asked John to play on their records just wanted his distinctive voice, but I asked him to concentrate on playing guitar, which he seemed to appreciate. I also told him he was welcome to sing if he felt so moved, so when we started the track, which was all live in the studio with no overdubs, he proceeded to improvise some lyrics about a woman he had just met called Elizabeth, which became the name of the song. I have a song copyright form with both our signatures as co-writers which I will always treasure. John played some very soulful guitar that day, he was very old and his fingers were stiff, but it was perfect and he really got into it. Mike Kappus later said he was happy to be playing guitar that day. It was actually the last, live in the studio with a band and no overdubs, track John ever recorded.
I became friends with John through Rich Kirch, who also played guitar in my band DAWN PATROL. Rich is this quiet, humble guy from Chicago who has known and played with many of the great old bluesmen over the years. He was pretty much John Lee's right hand man. John would call Rich every day, on or off the road just to talk. I sat in with him a few times; including the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame tribute to John held at Stanford University in 1998; they called it "John Lee Hooker and Friends". Johnny Johnson was also there. I came to know Johnny when I played the Further Festival with HOT TUNA in the Nineties, a wonderful man who quietly fused blues and rock and influenced a whole generation of piano players. His work on the classic Chuck Berry albums, for instance - "Johnny B. Goode" was originally about him. Charlie Musselwhite joined John that day; he also played on "The Long Haul".
The time that stands out to me the most though, was in Oroville, California on May 25th, 2001. I played a whole set with him on piano and B3. There are a few songs from that set that are up on YouTube somewhere, I know it comes up under my name, but you have to wade through a bunch of stuff to find it. It was about the third show before John passed away. I also met his daughter, Zakiya Hooker, through John. I played on one of her albums and did a few shows with her. What a unique, one of a kind talent John Lee Hooker was! You knew it was him the second you heard his first note. His sense of rhythm was astonishing, like in some of his early recordings when he just stamped his foot on the floor as a drum. When John used a band, he would change to the four chords whenever he felt like it, none of this twelve bar stuff. Rich would watch John's foot and fingers, and the band would have to watch Rich to see when to change. He could groove on one chord without changing for ten minutes and move an audience to tears... it's all in how much emotion comes through in your playing, and he was a master at it. John was a real character, as were most of those old blues guys. In his later years, he'd sit around his house all day looking cool in his suit and matching hat, with the thermostat cranked up to over 80 degrees. The rest of us would be sweating like mad. He also liked having women around, and he liked his fried chicken. He was one of a kind. It was a sad day when John passed. I miss him.
- Were you into folk rock, too, to have worked with JADE and then with Judy Dyble?
I'd always liked listening to folk, in its various forms, so in 1969, when John Miller, Elton John's producer at the time, asked me to come down to Trident Studios and record bass with a new band called JADE which featured singer-songwriter Marianne Segal, I jumped at the chance. They also brought down Jimmy Litherland, Micky Waller and Terry Cox who played with PENTANGLE. John wanted to fuse rock and blues guys like me with more traditional folk. The album ended up somewhat in the vein of FAIRPORT CONVENTION and PENTANGLE. I've played on over a hundred and fifty albums since 1964... not all good of course, and the JADE album still remains one of my favorites. I understand the original vinyl version has become a pretty valuable collector's item.
As for Judy, guitarist Jackie McAuley introduced me to her. She was FAIRPORT CONVENTION's original singer, before Sandy Denny. The three of us got together and began writing and rehearsing. We came up with the name TRADER HORN, but I left before recording our first album, to fly to the Los Angeles in June of ‘69 to form SILVER METRE with ex-BLUE CHEER guitarist Leigh Stephens and Micky Waller. Judy is still a wonderful artist and has been recording some very cool new material in the UK, which she occasionally sends my way.
I met those guys through a good friend of mine, Pete Brown, who I’d met through Graham. Pete is a poet and wrote many of the lyrics for Jack Bruce and CREAM. Pete also had his own band and I'd see Dick play with them. He was an amazing musician, very inventive. One of Pete's shows that sticks with me was the time he set up on the base of Nelson's Column in London, which is close to 10 Downing Street. Especially when he sang "Politician", one of the songs he wrote with Jack Bruce.
Later, COLOSSEUM was looking for a new bass player and I went down to a rehearsal. I loved their music and Jon's drumming. There were several things in the works in 1969; I was speaking with John Mark about his new band, and rehearsing with Judy Dyble and Jackie McAuley in TRADER HORN - all things I really wanted to do... but the United States was beckoning. I'd met Leigh Stephens in London through my old friend, Micky Waller, and we talked about getting a band together some day. He had torn off a scrap of paper and scribbled a diagram of the Santa Monica Pier in L.A. It had a little arrow pointing to a Merry-Go-Round with some stairs on the side. He said to look him up if I ever got over to the U.S., there was no phone number or anything. So I got some money together, and took a flight there in June of 1969. Fortunately, he still lived there. We formed the band that I mentioned, SILVER METRE.
- Some years before that, you took part in the legendary "The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream" with Sam Gopal. Were PINK FLOYD really that impressive that night as many say?
I unfortunately didn't catch the FLOYD set but I did hear they were very good. We didn't play until something like 5 o'clock in the morning - we'd been up all night hanging around in the dressing rooms or listening to bands. The whole thing felt like we were in "The Twilight Zone"... Of course, there were certain chemical substances contributing to this feeling also. It was held in Alexandra Palace, they called it the "Ally Palley", an amazing place to hold a concert. John Lennon was walking around the halls checking everything out. The whole thing was quite an event with non-stop bands for two days. I recently did a session with producer T-Bone Burnett and he had this book that was called something like "Gigs that Changed the World". It covered all the great rock shows of the Sixties. We found a photo of SAM GOPAL DREAM taken at the "14 Hour Technicolor Dream"... I had no idea the photo existed! There weren't many photos taken of us. We were just a three-piece outfit for most of the psychedelic era: Sam on tablas, Mick Hutchinson on guitar, and I played bass and Hammond B3.
- The DREAM jammed with Hendrix. How did that come about?
Around 1967, SAM GOPAL DREAM played some of the same shows with Jimi. We actually had reports of Jimi filming us from the audience with his home movie camera: it's probably all of Sam on tablas, but I'd like to track down where his stash of film reels are someday - there might be some footage in there. We were playing a show at "The Speakeasy" in London one night when Jimi suddenly showed up on stage with us. Mick gave him his guitar and picked up my bass, and I played Hammond. I remember looking up from my keyboard and watching him slide the mike stand up and down the guitar strings - it was something else to see and hear! Mick and I were very high on purple hearts that night and had been up for many days, I don't think we played our best show to be honest. Mick started yelling into the microphone, which I actually thought was pretty cool as we were usually a serious instrumental-only band. The problem was our manager had decided not to tell us there had been a buzz building about the band, and that several high profile record companies had come down to check us out. We were sort of an early form of punk rock that night I suppose, way before it's time.
Still, Jimi got up, and that was very cool. Don't know if Mitch [Mitchell] was there; he later asked me to play bass in a band he was forming in 1969, he took me down to a show he and Jimi were playing at the Royal Albert Hall. I remember Jimi refusing to play "Foxy Lady" - he told the audience he just wanted to play the blues. Mitch passed away recently, a great drummer! By the way, I don't think Mitch or Noel [Redding] ever really recovered their careers after Jimi passed away. I didn't know Noel, but Mitch was devastated. I talked to him on the phone a couple of days after Jimi died, and he told me the phone was lying on the floor next to the bed he died in, like he was trying to call for help. Very sad... Jimi had so many plans. He had an amazingly distinctive style of playing. Brilliant!
- Having played with Mick Hutchinson in THE SONS OF FRED and GOPAL DREAM, were you ever invited to join his CLARK-HUTCHINSON project?
When Mick and I parted ways with Sam, Mick, Andy Clark, drummer from THE PRETTY THINGS Viv Prince and I toyed around with a band called VAMP. We recorded one single called "Floatin" for [the label] Screen Gems; the band had potential but the record wasn't very good and was never released. So the band soon ended. Then Mick and Andy started CLARK-HUTCHINSON with a different drummer, and I started my own band called GIANT.
- Who was in the line-up?
It was around 1968 or ‘69. The band was pretty short-lived, but we had fun. I put an ad for a bass player and drummer in "Melody Maker" and held auditions at a church hall in London. I sat there in disbelief when about twenty or thirty guys showed up. I don't recall the drummer's name, it's been too many years... John Boswell comes to mind, but I'm not sure, nice guy and a very good player. He brought in bass player Tony Savva who had a Jaguar, which was a great help in getting the band around. Tony was also a good singer, much better than me, so we shared vocals. I played lead guitar and keyboards. We did get a nice mention on John Peel's radio show after he saw us at the "Roundhouse" in Chalk Farm.
The band sort of fizzled out when a misunderstanding with our road manager left us stranded in Newcastle after a gig. The drummer, pretty sure his name was John, and I spent all night hitch-hiking south back to London in a cold wet sleet, walking most of the way - rides were few and far between in those days. But we were young. That walk we made together was a memorable event in my life. Not exactly the North Pole, but it's lucky we didn't die of exposure, drenched through with freezing cold rain and no cars appearing for hours. And when they did, they'd speed on past. I often wonder what happened to those guys. As for me, I got into doing a bunch of session work in London.
- Weren't you in STEAMHAMMER around the same time?
I was never actually a full-time member of STEAMHAMMER; I played piano as a guest on one of their albums, "Reflections", I think. It was 1969. I saw them play some great shows at "The Marquee" club on Wardour Street, and they'd back up Freddy King when he came to England. He seemed like a nice fellow. He was very big and wore this slick blue suite. What a player he was! I had several good friends who were regular members of STEAMHAMMER, including Micky Waller and Martin Quittington, who I later joined on the early Rod Stewart albums. Martin Pugh was a great blues guitarist. Their old manager, Barry Taylor, and I still touch bases every few years.
- Was it through Mick Waller that you got to record with Rod?
I'd met Micky back in 1967 or '68 when I was in SAM GOPAL DREAM. We'd usually play London clubs like "Middle Earth", "UFO", "Happening 44". Somehow I wound up being friends with Micky. I watched him play with Jeff Beck's band around the time of his "Truth" album. What an amazing and unique drummer, very much in the vein of Charlie Watts! He hit the snare at just the right moment and could get so much sound out of a standard small kit... Sadly he passed away recently.
Rod and Ron Wood were also playing with Beck at that time, but I didn't meet them until 1970, when Micky brought me down to Morgan Studios in London and I ended up playing on "Gasoline Alley". I played on two tracks: piano on "Country Comfort" and bass on "Cut Across Shorty". I went on to play piano and a little bass on his remaining four British-made albums, my favorite being "Every Picture Tells a Story", although I must say one of my favorite tracks was "Sweet Little Rock 'n' Roller" from the "Smiler" album. Micky had brought his Boxer dog, Zak I think was his name, down to the session and placed him next to his drum kit. Zak started barking his head off just as Ron Wood began his Chuck Berry-style intro. Rod left it on the recording - pretty funny.
- How come you ended up with not only a piano but also a bass part on Rod's tracks?
Well, going back to 1964, I've always played either bass or keyboards, depending on what was needed. I mostly played piano on Rod's material, and Ron played bass as well as lead guitar; he'd play lead on the basic and overdub bass later. Ron had been the bass player in Jeff Beck's band, although lead guitar was his first instrument. I played all my piano parts live on the basic. Ian MacLagan mostly played organ while I played piano, but on every Rod Stewart solo album, Rod would use THE FACES to record on one song as a band, and Ian would usually play piano and organ B3 on those tracks. THE FACES made their own albums on a different label, and they would tour as a band - usually playing some material from Rod's solo projects as well as their own material.
- "Lochinvar" from Stewart's "Smiler": was this piece of yours a part of something larger?
Rod asked me to come up with a short interlude piece to go between tracks. They had a harpsichord in the studio, so I went out and improvised something on the spot... I ended up calling the piece "Lochinver", after a place in Scotland my parents loved. The piece is only about thirty seconds long, and is apparently used as ring tones in parts of Europe, which makes sense for a harpsichord sound. Glad it was good for something!
- Rod produced Long John Baldry. Did you join his band on Stewart's suggestion?
We were finishing up "Every Picture Tells A Story" over at Morgan Studios in Willsden then. John needed a bass player for his first U.S. tour, so he and Rod asked if I'd like to do it. Micky was the drummer, with Sammy MitchelI on guitar and Ian Armitt on piano. Ian was a wonderful piano player, he used to work with the HUMPHREY LYTTLETON JAZZ BAND. The band sounded great and was very well-received. We covered most major areas of the states. John was an amazing blues singer and onstage personality. Man, we had some adventures on that tour!
- How did you hook up with Kathi McDonald? Was it you who introduced her to Baldry, who later had a big hit with Kathi?
I met Kathi in Marin County around 1971-72. I worked on producing some tracks for BIG BROTHER and also played some shows with them up in Seattle. Kathi began playing with John sometime after I finished co-producing and arranging Kathi's "Insane Asylum" album at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. I couldn't take her on the road to promote the album because I had to get back to England to work on Rod Stewart's final British-made record, "Smiler". Kathi is an amazing vocalist, one of a kind with a lot of soul in her delivery. I lost touch with her after I joined JEFFERSON STARSHIP in late ‘74. She and John must have been a cool match.
- What it was like to record with other great female voice, Betty Davis?
Betty was an amazing talent, and very ahead of her time with her vocal style. She was the ultimate funk vocalist, she oozed cool from every part of her being. And of course, she was extremely beautiful. She also had a great sense of humor. We became pretty good friends back then but I lost touch with her after 1972. I speak in past tense because it's a bit of a mystery what happened to her - she stopped making records at some point, which is a shame. She was on the cutting edge of funk. I suspect she was swallowed up by disco, along with many of the other true funk artists. I'm proud to have been a part of "Anti Love Song" from her "Betty Davis" album; some consider it one of the seminal funk albums of the time. Many great players: Larry Graham, Greg Errico, Merl Saunders, Willie Sparks, THE POINTER SISTERS. I played acoustic piano on the track. Many feel Betty's marriage to Miles Davis was largely responsible for Miles' foray into non-traditional forms of jazz. She had that much strength of character.
- What memories do you have of Janis Joplin?
I actually never saw Janis perform live on stage, only since in film footage. I was aware of her singing through recordings I'd heard in England before I made it to the States. Great voice and she obviously put everything she had into her performances. I met Janice in 1969 when I was with SILVER METRE. We hung out together one night at her house in Larkspur, we were both pretty high at the time. She had some gear set up in one of her rooms and we jammed together for a bit; I did some Indian ragas on the bass, and she hummed along. Later that night we were sitting together in her living room when she picked up her acoustic guitar and sang me "[Me And] Bobby McGee", very soulful. I hadn't heard the song before. She was a great talent, but beneath her flamboyant party persona, a bit of a tortured soul I think. We finished off a bottle of "Mathews Southern Comfort" together. We had a great time that night - we were young!
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