Something that’s always amazed me is how a small country like Wales has spawned such an abundance of outstanding musical talent. Most prominent, of course, are Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, two of the most celebrated forces of nature the world of entertainment has ever known. They deserve to be ranked alongside such greats as Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis and Michael Jackson. These are stars who have helped to elevate and shape modern music, and whose vision and immense talents simply defy rational explanation or analysis.
But the stardust that the Gods sprinkled on Tom and Shirley also touched others such as Dave Edmunds, Mickie Gee, Pino Palladino, Tich Gwilym, Paul Chapman, Geraint Watkins, Hywel Maggs, Myfyr Isaac, Ian Thomas, Terry Williams, Graham Williams, Dick Roberts, Richard Dunn, Terry Bennett, Dai Shell and a whole load of others who make me feel proud to be (half) Welsh. And they’re just the Rock players. The quality of the male voice choirs and opera stars hardly needs mentioning. Apologies to the many others that I have had to leave out, by the way!
Before I moved to South Wales in the late 70’s, I had already met a guitarist/songwriter from Cardiff by the name of Tony Etoria. Tony had just enjoyed success with a chart single in the UK titled ‘I Can Prove It’, which is a tasty disco number that he had recorded in Nashville, of all places. I had met him through a friend of mine who had been the last of the three vocalists with my first band Garbo. Tony was doing a regular weekend spot at a Newport club called the Stowaway. His bass player, Phil Jones (aka ‘Funky Phil’), was the first person I ever knew from Penarth, my mother’s new home town.
I saw Phil quite often during my first few weeks here, and he wasted no time introducing me to what was the hottest ‘live’ music venue in Cardiff, the Inn on The River (aka the ‘Pub on the Mud’) in Grangetown. It was places such as this that made me decide to leave the relative tranquillity of Cheltenham and get into a more vibrant music scene. Besides, my mother grew up in Tredegar, and there were various close relatives nearby that I had grown up with. My younger cousin Frances even lived with us in Cheltenham for a while when we were kids. I remember teasing her about her valleys accent. Try though she did, she could never pronounce the word ‘No’ properly!
Early on, Phil came to me complaining that Tony Etoria had “done the dirty” on him by axing him from his band. Tony had decided to replace him with someone they both knew well, a guy called Pino. My thoughts at the time were that Tony had been a bit harsh, especially as Phil was an exceptionally fine bass player. I had met Pino by this time, and he was indeed something special on the bass guitar. Today, the music world knows him as Pino Palladino, arguably the finest session bass player in the business.
The split from Tony Etoria obviously meant that Phil was ‘available’. To my mind, he ticked all the boxes as far as bass players go. He was technically sound, knowledgeable and had great ‘feel’ for funk/R&B and jazz. My hopes of getting a band together with him were raised considerably at this point but unfortunately that never quite happened. Phil, as it turned out, had his mind set more on the world of music sound reproduction than ‘live’ playing. He had a vision. His intensive research into electronics and acoustics, combined with relentless single-mindedness, led to him forming a company in 1987 called ‘Acoustic Energy Ltd.’
Sunday lunchtimes at the ‘Inn’ (as it was often called) were monopolised by Jazz, and were always jam-packed. Director of Operations was local legend John Silva. John, who played flute and vibes, was one of the Godfathers of Cardiff jazz along with another Docks legend, Vic Parker. John’s band was basically a four-piece featuring three other Penarth guys: Rob Haddon on guitar, Rob’s dad Bill on bass and Vince Roles on drums. When I first saw Rob play, his effortless melodic fluency was both a revelation and an inspiration. Funky Phil often helped out on bass, as did another local star, Dick Roberts, who was already a superb jazz pianist at the age of 21. To witness John Silva, Rob, Dick, Phil and Vince playing together was something special. During his tenure at the ‘Inn’, John Silva used to invite many guests from the British jazz scene to appear on the Sunday lunchtimes. Saxophonist Dick Morrissey and guitarist Terry Smith are just two that I remember seeing there.
From the late 70’s to the early 90’s, there was ‘live’ music at the ‘Inn’ virtually every night of the week. I was soon in on the action, playing on Mondays and Wednesdays most weeks for a year or so. This provided a valuable showcase for me at the time. Some unfortunate soul would be coerced into going round the audience with a beer glass to collect loose change, which was our ‘payment’ for the night’s entertainment. It was just as well we all had day jobs! The stuff we played was a motley mish-mash of late 70’s pop rock material. Regular players included Geoff Thyer (aka Smurf), Simon Groves (Simon the Pill), Brian Thomas (Brian the Snail), Neil Jones (Neil the Horse), George Chick (aka Eddie Trench), John Munro (Mugsy), Ian Moffat (Moff) as well as Rob Haddon and myself. I’m not sure whether I had a nickname too, but if so, nobody ever told me! I owe many sincere thanks to all these guys for welcoming me aboard.
I had a phone call one day from bassist Neil Jones asking me if I’d be interested in a Welsh-language Rock project. Neil was great, the sort of guy that every band needs ... sensible, resourceful, good-humoured, as well as being a competent reliable bass player. An additional asset was his skill with electronics, which was handy if the equipment ever gave trouble. He had already got the nucleus of a band together, with drummer Rob Farmer, and young talented pianist Rob Ford, who played a Fender Rhodes electric piano .... one of my all-time favourite keyboard sounds. I gave Neil a definite ‘Yes’. The fact that none of us spoke Welsh seemed no more than a minor detail, because the frontman, a young singer/guitarist called Gary Prysor, definitely could. The band was his idea, and he named it ‘Astronôt’, meaning erm .... astronaut.
To get started, we rehearsed (quietly) at Neil’s house in Canton, and things quickly came together. Within weeks we had done a TV session for BBC Wales in Llandaff. Very soon after, we did a similar session for ITV Wales at their old studio in Pontcanna. The great thing about the TV sessions was firstly the money, and secondly the fabulous lunches that were all part of the deal. The bad news was that I didn’t get to see all of the final videos when they were broadcast, and haven’t been able to see them since. That’s a shame, because we were pretty hot stuff on the Welsh scene for a year and a half. We were second only to Geraint Jarman, who enjoyed the luxury of Welsh guitar hero Tich Gwilym in his band.
Astronôt was only a few months old when Gary decided to leave Cardiff and move to London to train as a sound engineer. This left us in a bit of a pickle because we needed to quickly find a new frontman who could speak (and sing) in Welsh. Neil (bless him) sorted things out and we soon had a suitable replacement in the form of Welsh TV actor Simon Fisher. Soon after, there was also a change of drummer, caused by the departure of Rob Farmer. Our first replacement proved to be a bit too soft, so we kidnapped Moff, from the Pub on the Mud sessions. To bed in this new line-up, Neil (Yes, him again!) found us a gig-come-rehearsal venue at a Tiger Bay pub called The Paddlesteamer, where we did a regular Tuesday night in exchange for free beer.
The arrival of Simon Fisher brought a more ‘edgy’ feel to the music, away from the softer style of Gary’s material. The jazz-tinged rock style didn’t change much, but Simon’s TV acting experience introduced a more exuberant stage presence to the band, as well as a different style of song-writing ideas and lyrics which, of course, he had to translate for us! The set eventually consisted of a number of original songs and a handful of covers (sometimes sung in English, which did spark a bit of controversy in some quarters). Our efforts soon rewarded us with our third TV session (for HTV). Astronôt looked to be going from strength to strength.
This re-formation took place just in time to allow us to feature on a compilation album that was in the pipeline. In the early 1980’s, the Welsh recording scene was dominated by a label called Sain Records. A musician called Jerry Weaver, who owned a shop in Welshpool selling LP (vinyl) records, fancied the idea of challenging this cosy monopoly. He decided to sink a load of cash into a project that involved the recording of a compilation album of unsigned Welsh acts, to be followed up by a tour of West and North Wales. The five acts, including most notably Heather Jones (a long-established star of the Welsh folk scene) each recorded two tracks at a studio hidden away in the mid-Wales countryside. The recordings were engineered by Dave Anderson, a former bass guitarist with well-known 70’s band Hawkwind. Jerry decided to call his new label ‘Legless Records’ .... Ahem.
The tour eventually happened a few months later, and lasted two weeks, for which I had to take time off work. We commandeered my mother’s car (a NSU Ro80) so Astronôt could travel in style and comfort while the band gear and other acts all got around in more mundane transport. All travel and accommodation was financed by Jerry. Each gig featured only four acts, after Heather decided to pull out of the tour at the last minute. Jerry felt that Astronôt had the strongest ‘live’ set, so we always played last. It was quite an adventure and great fun but, unfortunately for Jerry, who was hoping to cover his outlay from ticket and LP sales, the publicity guy was a waste of space. Many of the gigs were played to audiences that could be counted on fingers and toes. Nevertheless we enjoyed ourselves, and weren’t expecting to get any of the money anyway. But poor Jerry ended up losing quite heavily on the project, as I recall.
Just when things seemed to be working out nicely, with a few gigs generated by the tour publicity and so on, cracks began to appear. Keyboard player Rob Ford, whose talents had not gone unnoticed by other Cardiff bands, was seduced by the promise of greater things with Cardiff soul singer Laverne Brown. A knock-on effect was that (bassist) Neil got pulled in the same direction. By this time, we all had other musical outlets that inevitably led to Astronôt’s demise. But we finished on a high, with a stonking gig played to a packed house as support to Geraint Jarman at a club called Canolfan Tanybont, opposite the castle in the centre of Caernarvon. I shall always have fond memories of the ‘Welsh’ scene.
Meanwhile, the Cardiff scene was a bit of a musical merry-go-round. Everybody seemed to play with everybody else at some time or other, or so it seemed. Soon after Astronôt split up I spent a few months playing jazz with John Silva. These gigs were still Sunday lunchtimes but, alas, not at the ‘Inn’ where he used to play to a packed house. Instead, they were at some (forgettable) pub near Cardiff Central Railway Station, the name of which I have... um ... forgotten. It must have been pretty forgettable, because the audience would forget to turn up too, unfortunately! The line-up was John on vibes and flute, me on guitar, my drummer friend Vince Roles, former ‘Inn’ pianist Jonathan Wakelin (aka Sooty), and a bass player... for the sake of convenience let’s call him ‘Forgettable Fred’.
What I do remember is that, once we had set up the gear, John would give each band member a hard-back book, rather like a vicar handing out hymn books at a small church service. During the gig he would call out a page number and we would turn to the chosen page and find the title of the tune to be played, with a chord chart written out underneath. We would then play the tune, including solos. Many of them I had never even heard before, so it was a bit of a challenge to begin with. Not surprisingly, the shortage of punters caused the landlord to ‘pull the plug’ on us before very long. However, we did do one decent gig together. It was a night at the Dowlais Inn, a noteworthy venue in Tiger Bay (aka Butetown). For some reason, Sooty wasn’t available on this occasion so John got Dick Roberts to help out on piano. Good though Sooty was, Dick was (and is) world-class, and without doubt the best musician I’ve ever played with.
The following year I found a more familiar role as guitarist with South Wales legend Cal Newman, who was doing Friday nights at the Inn on the River, in what was aptly known as the Muddy River Band. I had helped out on an LP that he had just recorded, titled ‘Winding Boy’. My very good friend Nigel Philp (aka Legin) was regular bass player, along with a variety of drummers, the best by far being Dave Coates (husband of Welsh folk star Heather Jones).
Cal, who recently passed away at the age of 69, was a classic ‘wine, women and song’ character. He was blessed with a rare charisma coupled to a seductive and memorable bluesy voice. To get some idea, imagine stirring a gallon of honey and Southern Comfort into a large bucket of dusty gravel and you’ll be pretty close! He was in Louis Armstrong territory, living next-door to Tom Waits. He told me it was the result of smoking since the age of nine, which I didn’t doubt for a second, knowing Cal. His song repertoire was vast, covering a diverse range of post-war Blues, Country and Folk material as well as later songs by J J Cale and Dire Straits, for example. He also wrote a few original songs, although I only ever heard him do those on his own with just his guitar.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, with a touch of ambition and good management, Cal could have become a successful Country and Blues star. As it was, he had neither, so spent his career (mostly as a solo artist) playing hotels, bars and pubs across South Wales instead. I was his regular guitarist for over six years, during which time I also played with a band in Gloucester fronted by an old friend Jack Pepperdine (aka Jackie Pep), a former vocalist with my Cheltenham band Garbo. If gigs clashed, Cal usually relied on a promising young player called Simon Kingman, who is today working as Deputy Course Leader for the I.C.M.P. guitar syllabus at the University of South Wales, in Cardiff.
Sometime during 1983, I received a small package by air mail from my stepbrother Richard in Tacoma, forty miles south of Seattle. I had met Richard for the first time during a stay over there in 1974 and we got on great, sharing a love of good music. His best friend from his High School days was a guy called Robert, who played guitar with his own band. I got to meet him one afternoon when Richard and a friend drove me miles out of town to a farm where the band were practising. We found them in what looked like an empty grain silo, and Robert, a tall handsome black guy, was laying down a blues/funk groove on a cherry Gibson SG. After the usual greetings and a bit of chat, Robert offered me his guitar to have a go on, in the generous way that is typical of Americans. I gave it a try but, playing it upside-down, all I could manage was a few bent notes and a bit of vibrato!
Anyway, the package I was looking at a decade later contained a cassette tape of an album that Robert had released. I felt pleased for him, knowing what it must have meant to get an album deal in the States at the time. When I popped it in the deck and had a listen, I was surprised ... and impressed. It was a collection of tasty soul/blues tracks. The thin twangy guitar sound wasn’t totally to my liking, but his playing was excellent, as was his singing. I had no idea whether it was his own material because there were no details on the cassette. The small label simply read ‘Robert Cray Band– Bad Influence’. I was playing with Cal Newman at the time, and lent it to him to have a listen. He was impressed too. Cal and I were probably the first two people in Wales (or even the UK!) to ever hear him. He was just breaking through in the States at the time.
This account might be a bit confusing to Robert Cray fans. Today he is a world-renowned Blues artist, and his background is familiar to many. Born in Georgia, gigged up and down the West Coast, toured with Albert Collins ... and so on. What isn’t so well known is that, (before that) he was living in Tacoma. His father was in the US Army, and stationed at a large military complex near Tacoma, called Fort Lewis. My father’s second wife (and kids) all lived in Tacoma, which is how Richard and Robert knew eachother. Another possible confusion concerns Robert’s choice of guitar. For many years he has only used Fenders, but he was definitely playing a Gibson SG when I met him in 1974.
A few years later, in April 1988, my stepbrother Richard married his fiancée Cathy at a private venue in Seattle. My father invited me and one of my sisters to fly over for the wedding ... an offer neither of us was about to refuse! The ceremony went as wedding ceremonies go, but the reception party was definitely rather special. Among Richard’s guests were Robert Cray, his bass player Richard Cousins and a former band-mate, Curtis Salgado, who is also a bit of a star in his own right. Together with a keyboard player and drummer from Curtis's band, they served up a sumptuous main-course of gutsy rhythm & blues that had the place jumpin’. I last saw Robert Cray when he played at the Cardiff Coal Exchange in July 2002, and met him afterwards for a chat. To gain access, all I had to do was show the security guy the wedding photos!
One evening in the spring of 1984, I was at a friend’s flat chatting to former Astronôt member Rob Ford about life with Laverne Brown’s band, among other things. Rob went on to describe bizarre symptoms he had been experiencing whilst playing keyboards, where his fingers would suddenly do strange things beyond his control. Understandably, this worried him a bit and had caused problems during rehearsals and gigs. Various doctors had been unable to pinpoint the cause, apparently. I wished him well, hoping that the problem would sooner or later be diagnosed and sorted out so he could get back to normal.
That was the last time I saw Rob. Some weeks later, I bumped into our former drummer, Moff, at the Inn on the River. Straight away he said “Have you heard about Rob?” I gave him a puzzled look. Moff then stunned me with the tragic news that Rob had died two days earlier of a brain tumour. A few days later, I took the afternoon off work to attend his funeral at St. Mary’s Church in Whitchurch. It was impossible to park my car anywhere near, such was the attendance. All funerals are sad occasions, but Rob’s was especially so. As well as his family and relatives, dozens of musician friends were among the crowd that packed the church. We were all in a state of shock and disbelief at having lost such a gifted friend and colleague, at the age of 24.
By 1988, my musical activity had fizzled out somewhat. The Gloucester band had split up, and Cal Newman had decided to concentrate on solo gigs. This was no big deal because I was more pre-occupied with my passion for sporty Italian cars by this time. I owned an Alfa Romeo as a daily driver, and a 1961 Maserati that I’d bought as a restoration project. During that summer I took the Alfa to an Italian Car meeting in West London. The weather was awful, but it was a worthwhile trip because I had arranged to meet up with my old friend Funky Phil, who had his ‘Acoustic Energy’ company office nearby in Ealing. Phil had disappeared from the Penarth and Cardiff scene some years earlier, and we had rather lost touch. By now, he had designed and marketed a series of compact and ultra high-quality Hi-Fi speakers (AE 1’s) that had caused a sensation in the Hi-Fi press. Any audio buffs out there will know what I’m talking about.
We ended up at his office. Eager to show off his new creation, he sat me in a small room in front of two of these tiny-looking speakers, which were hooked up to a CD player via a high-powered Technics amp. He then stuck on a Michael Jackson track (‘Bad’) at high volume ....... and I was absolutely astonished! It was the sort of volume that would normally have me clasping my hands over my ears, but it was completely comfortable, such was the amazing sound quality. It was like being in the studio listening to the track actually being recorded. The depth and clarity of the bass was just incredible. When he told me the speakers could handle over 300 watts each I was gobsmacked. It was clear at that moment that I was in the presence of a man worthy of the word ‘genius’. I have never ever heard music reproduced like this anywhere, before or since. It was astounding.
Phil’s ‘AE 1’ speakers won the British Hi-Fi Award in 1991 and 1992, but he decided to sell the company and move to the USA to continue his mission to create world-beating sound quality. Today, he splits his time between his homes in the USA and China, where his company ‘Phil Jones Pure Sound' runs a huge factory churning out state-of-the-art bass amps, guitar amps and other high-tech goodies for audiophiles and musicians. Phil enjoys a reputation in his chosen field similar to that of Bill Gates in computer software. Not bad for a humble kid from St. Cyres School in Penarth. He’s the most ‘driven’ person I’ve ever known.
In April 2015, Vince Roles contacted me to say that Phil would soon be visiting Penarth for a few days. Vince had been able to keep tabs on Phil with overseas visits and so on, but I hadn’t seen him since the London trip in ’88. Myself and a bunch of old friends including Rob Haddon, Vince Roles and Dave Goddard (aka Batman) enjoyed a rare get-together at the Windsor in Penarth, followed by an ‘Indian’ for Rob, me and Phil. It was an occasion that left me with much to reflect upon, particularly the memories of those early days.