It has been a year since the recording sessions for Songs From the Last Chance Saloon took place. I have played those songs live many times since, either as a solo performer, in an acoustic trio or in a full-band line-up in intimate venues and at various music festivals. Having such constant contact with the songs meant that I hadn’t listened to the album for quite a while. When I played it to a friend the other day, I was struck by how much I enjoyed the contributions from musician friends whom I had invited down to the studio. Without exception, they provided a freshness to the proceedings, a distinctive feature to each of the songs, and yet a subtle understanding of what I was trying to achieve….
My sister, Jules (A.K.A. Tiny Diva) provides harmonies on many tracks but it is her vocal solo on Faith in Myself which still gives me shivers when I hear it. My instruction to her as she entered the vocal booth was “loneliness, despair, desperation and finally, madness.” If she was fazed by this, she hid it well. “Okay,” she said, as if I’d just given her a list of groceries to pick up. She didn’t even roll her eyes. We ran the track, and from somewhere she conjured up the spirit of Clare Torry on Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky. I got loneliness, despair, desperation and just a hint of madness. Marvellous.
The genus for the flute on Heart and the High Moral Ground goes back to last year when I was rehearsing for an appearance at a Suffolk Songwriters Open Mic session alongside my current guitarist and sidekick, Shane Kirk, and Helen Mulley whom I had last shared a stage with back in France in 2003 (both are guiding lights in the wonderful Songs From the Blue House). During a run-through of one of the planned songs, La Mulley ran out of the studio, crying: “I know what this needs. I’ll be back in a mo’”. She returned with her flute in her hands, and proceeded to play a solo that would make angels weep. Later, when I decided that Heart was to be included on the album, I knew that it was going to have a flute motif. In the studio, Helen was so efficient we even had time to coax some heavenly harmonies out of her. Bliss.
Heart is also the first of three tracks which features the effervescent Cad Taylor on violin. She also appears on Paradise South Ealing and Crying for 15 Years. Not only did she have to learn the signature riff to all three songs but Paradise is in two keys, and Crying is in three! I love the thoughtful Celtic-infused flourishes she brought to each track.
I have always loved the sound of the trombone – probably since seeing the Glenn Miller biopic starring James Stewart. I had never had occasion to use one on a recording, but freed from the shackles of band politics I thought it was just what a song like Crazy needed. I only had one trombone player’s phone number – Don Lusher (Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Bennett, Streisand) who had been very kind to me as a young musician starting out in the business but he had sadly gone to play with that great swing band in the sky.
I had only known Richard “Gibbon” Hammond as a bass player but I was assured he knew his way round a ‘bone. We met, I hummed him the sort of thing I had in mind, he wrote it down, and we arranged a recording session. He turned up at the studio and played it just as it had been rehearsed; job done… or so I thought. “Would you like some ad-libs on the final chorus?” he asked. Very much, says I. What he played was perfectly suited to the track. Job done… or so I thought. On the way out, I mentioned that I planned to double-up the bass line in the solo with a tuba to beef up the part. He looked at me and said: “I’ve got a euphonium in the car”. I thought this something of a non-sequitur until he explained that a euphonium and a tuba share a series of low notes which meant that on Crazy, a euphonium could do what a tuba would. He became very excited at the prospect of adding euphonium; for me, the session had gone into uncharted territory but, what the hell, if I didn’t like it, it could be erased once Gibbon had left the building. Thankfully, it was exactly the enhancement that the solo needed, and it is loud and proud in the mix. I love it when spontaneity turns up for a party.
I had been aware of blues harp player Giles King for many years. He is the ‘go to guy’ when a number of US blues players are visiting the UK and need a harp player. I knew that he would be good when I invited him to play on Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay, what I didn’t expect was a master class in professionalism. We had agreed that the song needed acoustic harmonica and not the distorted Green Bullet mic through a Fender Champ amp sound, so Giles turned up with just a couple of harps in suitable keys. We ran the track and Giles tried several approaches until he came up with a riff that I liked enough to make it a signature hook. The rest of the song was embellished with lyrical licks which complemented the vocal. Then came the solo. “What do you want?” he asked me. Whatever, I said. This is you. And he nailed it. You can hear why he is in such demand. And with that, he left. I doubt if the engine on his car had had time to cool down. Absolute genius.
Adam Whyatt and I have done hundreds of gigs together. From across the stage, I have marvelled at both his Hammond organ and piano-playing abilities. When my songs need keyboards, there is no-one else I would trust in the studio. There were two songs which needed ivory elaboration. The first – Run Until we Drop was a routine affair. I was after the kind of thing that US session keyboardist Paul Harris had played on Bob Seger’s Against the Wind. Adam is a very instinctive player, and the years we had notched up sharing stages brought a certain simpatico to the proceedings and the session was a walk in the park. Until we started work on the second song – Cut me.
Cut me (I’ll bleed like any man) had once been chosen by Amnesty International as the charity’s International Anthem of Peace, a fact of which I am very proud. I had recorded it several times over the years but had never ever been completely happy with it. Adam and I had performed it – ad hoc – at a few gigs but it had never had the feel I wanted (there’s a film of Sinatra performing the sublime Harold Arlen / Johnny Mercer song One for my Baby and One More for the Road on his television show in the 1950s – that’s how I’d always heard it!).
To give Adam the feel I was after, I had recorded an acoustic guitar track for him to play along with. The only problem was that, with Adam being such an intuitive player, he reacted to the guitar track and “accompanied” it. When we took the guitar track away, it sounded odd and slightly dislocated. What he needed was a rhythm track to play along to. So I went into the vocal booth, and as I sang a guide vocal, I tapped out the rhythm of the track with all its delicate accents. Without the distraction of the guitar part, Adam was then free to elaborate on his playing while having a path that he shouldn’t stray too far from. It was a weird way to put a track together, and I really put him through the mill that night but the end certainly justifies the means. That piano part inspired my vocal performance – I sang that song like I hadn’t done in years. After 25 years, I finally had the version I had always heard in my head. Thank you, Adam.
I enjoy being in the recording studio. It’s always challenging but great fun. But when you sing and play on your own songs, it’s very easy to get lost in your own musical milieu. I am so grateful to all the musicians who gave their time, talent and expertise in agreeing to perform on Songs From the Last Chance Saloon. They gave it a vitality and a viridity that was the icing on the cake.
I look forward to working with them all again on the next album.