17/11/2006

 ROCKING WITH FREDDIE LEE

L
àROCKING WITH FREDDIE LEE

In 1982 things were slowing down as far as the Russians were concerned. We’d brought out a single "  NO TITLE " which we were proud of, but didn’t set the world on fire. It was time for a change and a small ad in the local Chronicle And Echo newspaper pointed the way forward.

Legendary English rocker FREDDIE FINGERS LEE was looking for a bass player for a forthcoming French tour : I instantly knew I was the man for the job.

Freddie had come into the music business in the fifties and his mad boogie woogie piano style was back in the limelight thanks to constant giging and the occasional spot on the television. Listening to the Clash had, in a roundabout way brought me back to my rock and roll/ blues roots. I’d also recently got into listening to the likes of Hank Williams.

I called the man right away. We knew each other through being on the same bill a couple of times and we also frequented the same music shop in Northampton. An appointment was made, I put on my jeans and drove over to Freddie’s home. The audition took place in his basement studio, where I played unplugged ,accompanying one of his live recordings. I guess I played on three numbers and the audition was over inside ten minutes. I felt I slipped into the role pretty well , but Freddie was not to be pushed into any decision too quickly. He did, however ask if I could be free for a tour starting in less than two weeks ! You bet I was.

A couple of days passed and no news came and in the meantime I’d been offered a job as assistant chef in an oil company restaurant. Being below the bread line, I felt obliged to take up the offer, if for nothing else, there would at least be a regular wage and some free food. The fist day put things back into context. The work was so easy I was embarassed. I could have finished for the day by ten thirty. I figured that after a week I could cruise along without breaking into a sweat and spend the majority of my time hiding in the store cupboard. By three P M I was on the phone to Freddie telling him I was the only man for the job and to stop beating about the bush. He said he’d think about it. The next day he came over to my way of thinking and took me on. The next day I called the restaurant to tell them I was finished with cooking and not to bother with my wages for two days work.

I said we should get down to a few rehearsals seeing as the French tour was now only a week away. He agreed but said he still hadn’t decuded on a suitable drummer. Round at his studio we played with his first choice, but it was evident that he wasn’t up to the task. He’d come from a rock and roll based pop group but right from the start it was plain he didn’t know what swing was all about. ,The rhythm was leaden and firmly nailed to the floor. A couple more rehearsals confimed that this was a dead end and Freddie was not going to risk his reputation with a dodgy rhythm section. With five days to the tour it was back to square one.

The next day I found myself in the same studio with long time Freddie sidekick Wild Bob Burgos. Wild Bob transformed the feel of the music, we were flying. Freddie’s manic boogie took off. Wild Bob was free for the gig. We were on our way to glory. At this time I was introduced to rock and roll rehearsal techniques. Or at least Freddie’s . The main thing was to get in the right key and then let rip. This was the real thing ! We had one more rehearsal and that was it. I figured that Freddie ‘s playing was as dirty as mine and Wild Bob was firmly in the same vein. So who was the other guy standing in the corner ? I’d been so concerned with getting my playing right I’d forgotten there was a guitarist in the band. His name was Colin, a young firebrand with a quick temper and a blond quiff. He looked the part right enough and his guitar playing went well with Freddie’s piano. He’d already been on a two month tour with the great man so one rehearsal was enough to get things straight.

Two days later we were on a hovercraft crossing the English Channel . I was drinking a glass of beer next to Freddie who seemed happy to have got a band together just in time.

The wages were £30 a night plus all expenses paid. For someone like me, used to endless rehearsals, gigs, sometimes far away, coming home with nothing in my pockets but always hoping to pull off a recording deal, this was a change. I realised that somehow I was putting my ambition on the sideline, but this was a proper musicians job, actually making some money for each night’s work. That night we were drinking in a café in Paris, tomorrow was to be my fist gig, in a town called Roanne in central France.

The first gig was something of a surprise. After booking in to a hotel, eating a nourishing meal and sitting around for a while, we arrive at the municipal theatre to absolute silence. Until now, my musical life taught me to deal with raucous crowds in noisy pubs and clubs in the U.K. The municipal theatre in Roanne was brightly lit, no bar, the stage curtains drawn, the audience sitting calmly in their seats. It was obvious that any excitement would have to come exclusively from the stage.

Going from silence to loud rock and roll is a bit of a challenge but I was in the company of a solid professional. Freddie hit the stage, kicked over the piano stool and let the people know he wasn’t there for the bucks. The man was not to beaten by adverse circumstances, I saw this time and time again in the two years I toured with him. Within five minutes he was climbing all over the hired grand piano and the audience was lapping it up. The one thing that bothered me in all this was the difference between a couple of rehearsals in Freddie’s studio and what was going on all around me on stage. We’d talked vaguely about putting on a show, I’d been told what I should be doing at one or two specific moments, but generally the word was "  Just watch me and follow ". That’s what I did. I’d seen Freddie on stage a couple of times in England and knew that he was that strange British mix of rock and roll, music hall and punk, but here I was in the middle of it and not really in control of the situation. For the first time in my career I was an employee. This meant that things went along at the pace of the boss, and my task was to keep up with him.

Freddie was not a hard man to work for. I managed to get through the first gig with no great problems coming to the surface. Except one : at one point in the show, Freddie moved away from the piano, crossed the stage, turned to face the keyboard and crouched like a runner ready to start a sprint. We’d touched on this at a rehearsal, but up on stage things were’nt quite as simple. In the basement studio there wasn’t enough room to actually do the trick, so we’d just talked it through. Now, we were in front of an expectant audience and all of a sudden it all seemed much more complicated. The trick was that Freddie would run across the stage, do a handstand on the piano stool and play a solo in an upside down position. My role was to be on top of the piano, catch his legs as he went into the handstand and steady him as he performed his trick. The first problem was that our talk through was based on the assumption that the feat would be carried out on an upright piano. Here in Roanne we were using an immaculate baby grand, so all the geometry was changed. I had to stand on top of the piano in order to do my job, and as the owner was standing next to the stage and already in a state of anxiety due to the punnishment his pride and joy was receiving, I decided to take off my shoes before mounting. I lost no time because of this, but my socks on the shiny surface meant I was a lot less stable than I would have liked to have been.

Freddie ran towards me, jumped into a headstand and I duly grabbed his legs to steady him. So far, so good. " Let me down ". He shouted. I dropped him. He gave me a scowl. Just part of the show, I thought. A second attempt met with the same result. Freddie was looking angry but the crowd were loving it. At the third attempt our communication problem was solved by him shouting "  Just lower me you … " . I hung on to his ankles and he completed the turn with a marked frown on his face. The crowd weren’t bothered with our little difficulties though and the end of the show went down a storm.

In the dressing room afterwards I was pretty inconsolable, feeling that I’d let the side down on my debut. Freddie understood at that moment that I was a sensitive soul, and after an apology said not to bother and in general I’d done well. I kept on saying I was sorry for another day or two and at this point Freddie showed himself to be a decent man, telling me I could work for him as long as I wanted to.

We had a lot of adventures over the next few months. Some were fun, some were less so.

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