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the Pale

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Who does Obie Clayton think he is?

Claes Johansen

In 1975 major record label DJM released a self-titled album by pianist, singer, guitarist and songwriter Obie Clayton, which has continued to intrigue Procol Harum followers ever since. No one seems to know exactly who or what started the rumour that this artist was a pseudonym for Harum's Matthew Fisher. My own first source was John Tobler's interview with Gary Brooker for Zigzag Magazine in the mid-seventies. However, the misunderstanding appears to go back a little further than that.

From the early eighties onwards I have been in personal contact with Matthew Fisher (see here). One of the many questions I have asked him over the years has been whether or not he ever released a record under the name of Obie Clayton. He completely denied it.

In fact, I only came across a copy of the Clayton album recently. My first impression was that I could easily understand why there was a confusion. The author of the essay Repent Mat Fischer sums up a large number of indications why this could indeed be the Great Lost Matthew Fisher solo album.

Unfortunately, it is not. But I was now intrigued to find out who the real Obie Clayton is. So I set out on a journey which is quite typical for the kind of biographical work I do.

The place of recording was my starting-point. Since the album was laid down at the legendary Sawmills Studio, I contacted the ever-helpful Dennis Smith in Totnes, who runs Dangerous Records, a production company which is part of Sawmills' activities. Dennis knew most of the names on the Obie Clayton album and suggested I get in touch with engineers Jerry Boys and Peter Martelli, who now run Livingstone Studio in London. So I did.

Peter Martelli proved friendly and talkative. In fact, he remembered the recording of the album but suggested I get in touch with its producer Tony Cox, former proprietor of Sawmills and the person to whom Clayton had been signed. Luckily, Martelli still knew the whereabouts of his old pal Tony.

I then got hold of Tony Cox, who knew of the false rumour that there was a mutual identity between Fisher and Clayton. To his mind this mainly came from the fact that Clayton had previously released records under the name of Matthew Ellis.

However, Tony Cox informed me that isn't his real name either. Obie Clayton / Matthew Ellis in fact is called Michael Cox (no relation of Tony).

To add to the misunderstanding, the only two albums known to have been released under the Matthew Ellis name (the latter of them featuring guitarist Chris Spedding) came out in 1971 on Regal Zonophone - Procol Harum's label for their first four albums in the UK.

If Michael Cox wanted the world to think he was Matthew Fisher (which I don't think he did), he couldn't have chosen his timing better. The last Matthew Ellis release (a single) is from 1972. Hence these records could fill a gap in Fisher's career stretching from his last record with Procol Harum in 1969, to his first solo LP Journey's End in 1973. Likewise the Obie Clayton LP (1975) falls between Fisher's second solo album (I'll Be There, 1974) and his self-titled third LP from 1979.

Tony Cox informed me that Michael Cox was "an academic who is now writing and publishing books under his real name." He also told me the county Cox now lives in.

With this information I continued my search. Trying to phone 24 M Coxes in British Telecom's directory over the county in question got me nowhere, and the local record collectors' shop knew nothing of the man. But luckily the library reading room had a writer called Michael Cox (born 1948) in their files with a long list of publications. Since these were all with the same publishing company I approached this firm. This time I was lucky. It turned out that Michael Cox was not just a writer but also an editor working for the company, and I was put straight through to him. The following conversation ensued:

Claes Johansen
I'm looking for a Michael Cox who is a writer and also used to release records in the seventies as Matthew Ellis and Obie Clayton.

Michael Cox
That's me! How on earth did you find me?

Through your old producer, Tony Cox. I've just finished work on a Procol Harum biography and it seems a lot of Harum fans think you and Matthew Fisher is the same person.

How spooky! That's really strange, because I was always a big fan of Procol Harum. They were wonderful, and a great influence on me. I think the two albums I made as Matthew Ellis were a mixture between Elton John and Procol Harum.

Those albums were on Regal Zonophone, so that's probably where part of the confusion starts.

Yes ... well, I was delighted when I was signed to the same label as Procol Harum. That was very flattering, I thought.

Now that I've finally found you can you tell me a bit about your own background?

Well, I was studying at Cambridge in 1969-70 and someone was making a film there, a real "arty" black & white film, like a silent movie. I wrote some music for that and got a little band together to perform it. We played "live" as the film was being shown. There was a record producer in the audience called Jerry Dane, and he asked if I wanted to sign for a deal.

So that was how I got to make the first Matthew Ellis LP with my friend from Cambridge, Chris Walker, writing the string arrangements. After that I played a few gigs on my own as a solo performer, doing support for Barclay James Harvest. But I didn't really like that, so I got a band together instead. That was more or less the group that later played on the Obie Clayton records.

I never used my own name, partly because there was another Michael Cox who'd been recording since the late fifties and partly because I wasn't into the rock star ego thing. I needed to hide behind a false name, and particularly with Obie Clayton that was nice because it was a band name, not just me. Under that name we released one album, quite a few singles, and we also recorded another album that never came out. We did quite a few gigs of different kinds. At one point we were Helen Shapiro's cabaret band!

But then things got more and more difficult and we split up. That must be twenty years ago now. I left rock and roll and went into publishing, but I'm still writing to this day. And there's tons of old stuff lying around on tapes. It's just that I'm now in my fifties and I don't know where to go with these things.

I suggested Michael Cox approach some of the many reissue labels currently active. Hopefully, in the future his music will become more accessible.

Michael Cox is obviously a fine player, songwriter and singer. The Obie Clayton album has some very fine moments. However, at other times it sounds to me somewhat forced, a too-deliberate attempt to be commercial in a typical mid-seventies vein (not exactly a peak in rock 'n' roll history). Perhaps his records under the Matthew Ellis moniker have a less commercial approach. With his obvious talents and Procol Harum inspirations they could be very interesting indeed.

Finally a brief word on the backing musicians featured on the Obie Clayton album. Both drummer Alan (or Alun) Eden and bass player John Atkinson (also a keen master of the crumhorn!) were part of Sawmill's "house band" in the seventies and played on numerous sessions. Eden had been in an early incarnation of folk rock legend Trees and, after leaving Obie Clayton, joined Leo Sayer's band. After that he opened up a drum shop in Bristol. Furthermore, when playing "live" the group included guitarist Ian Wilson (later in Sad Café and The Boss Brothers). All these three players (along with producer / pianist Tony Cox and his wife, songstress Lesley Duncan) can also be found on an LP from 1978 by someone calling himself Bunk Dogger - perhaps yet another pseudonym for Michael Cox (I hear you gasp)?

Incidentally, in 1974 Alan Eden played on an album by The Incredible String Band titled No Ruinous Feud. This album also features Procol Harum drummer BJ Wilson.

So there was a connection after all ...

(Thanks to Claes who is, of course, the author of Beyond The Pale - The Story Of Procol Harum, SAF Publishing, London, available early 2000 - watch BtP for news)

More Features at BtP

The spurious essay, 'Repent Mat Fischer'

Confession of a spurious essayist

Obie Clayton writes to BtP

A Doubting Thomas
writes in …


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