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the Pale

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Surrealists of Rock : part 1

Steffen Graefe interviews Gary Brooker, 1999

Gary Brooker
Well I was born after the last war, just a few weeks after it, and just outside of London ... in Middlesex really ... quite a nice area. I suppose the most important influence upon my childhood was the fact that my father was a famous musician. He had played ... (microphone problems ... ) ... half a minute. ..

Yes, my father was a famous musician. He played many instruments: he was a very good pianist; I have seen him photographs of him playing trombone; I know that he was in a very famous quartet of singers - called The Debonaires - two men, two women ... the Debonaires, who made records probably in the late 30s.

And by the end ... by the 40s, and after the war Hawaiian music was very popular in Europe, well in Britain anyway, I don't think we knew where Europe, except for the war. I didn't mean to mention the war by the way ... okay? And he was a pioneer of the Hawaiian electric guitar, a two-necked guitar that you played flat; and that band ... he played in a band called Felix Mendelson and his Hawaiian Serenaders. And they were extremely popular recording artists and concert artists. [Recordings by Gary's father, Harry Brooker: see here and here] And that's the kind of atmosphere I grew up in. When I was ... I remember when I was like three and four, being at the side of stages, watching my father play and sitting on beautiful women's knees, smelling their perfume and generally having a rather good time.

Steffen Graefe
Can you tell something about the atmosphere in your family?

Fine ... mother, father, little sister. Everything seemed fine. I mean my father was often away because he toured a lot. Probably ... you know ... you don't notice things like that when you are young. So, everything was fine. I mean I got sent to piano lessons when I was about five. For some reason my father, probably rightfully, never chose to teach me himself, 'cos it probably it wouldn't have worked although he was a great pianist. It was better to go to lessons which I didn't particularly enjoy, piano lessons.

As a teenager did you have some problems with your parents?

No, my father died when I was eleven. He died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 43, which of course was rather young and rather a shock. And being a musician he'd probably spent it all on smoking dope with Glen Miller or something and we actually had ... we probably struggled then ... financially speaking. We weren't prepared, nobody was prepared for my father to die at that age. And things financially weren't very secure. So, my mother then had to work. And she was quite frightened that I was going become ... when I said I wanted to be a musician, she said, 'Don't do it, please. Your father was a musician, and look where we are!'

Okay ... the origin of the Paramounts ...

Well through my interest in being a piano-player, when I was about 13 or 14, and rock-and-roll was starting to become popular, people at school were forming bands, people were getting guitars and trying to play rock music and folk music and things and somebody said, 'Well, you play the piano, don't you, Gary?' I said, 'Well yeah, but not that sort of thing' (laughs). They said, 'Well you play the piano, come and play.' I started ... I was listening to the records anyway, of course, you know. And Elvis Presley for example, usually had a piano on it, so I started listening and thinking, 'Well what's that man on the piano playing? What are the chords? How ... ' And I ended up working it out for groups usually, you know, what the chords were to something.

Do you remember one piece of Elvis Presley ...

Actually I do remember one: A Fool Such as I by Elvis Presley was one particular example because it wasn't simple chords. There was a few chords in it and it was a bit beyond ... you know ... the three chord guitar learning methods of the day so I remember working that one out for everybody and we went a played it. A Fool Such as I'

And how you found the other members of the Paramounts?

Oh we actually were all in different groups in Southend where I'd moved to by now when I was nine. Southend-on-Sea. And there was a contest, a competition, of all the groups in Southend and somebody won, somebody was second, somebody was third, and there was vote-rigging, the ballots were bad, just like today in elections (laugh). But the man that managed the dance hall ... the ball room ... he said, "I've got an idea . We were all talking to him afterwards. He said I am going to take that drummer from that group because he was the best there. I am going to take you. Gary, on the piano and I am going to take Robin and Chris from the Raiders and we'll form a kind of a super-group. This was in 1958 (laughs). Super Group! Which is what we did and he called us ... he named us Paramounts. And we played around Southend doing rock and rhythm and blues. We all had the same tastes in music and that was the start of Paramounts, yeah.

Then ... Poison Ivy?

I'll tell you what. There is a new release out on EMI which is called ... the series is 'Abbey Road' and on that it's got everything that the Paramounts have ever recorded on that CD. I think it's called 'The Paramounts at Abbey Road'. It's just been out a few weeks. And it's got all the Paramount stuff on there.

Evolution of this group Paramounts???

Oh I should think the Paramounts were medium success ... to us, it was great. I mean actually we never really got to make the kind of records that we would have wanted to. You know, two or three times on record we came close to being what we were like on stage. But we were really making commercial recordings for Parlophone. And we got into the charts once or twice in Britain, we were on television. And in those days that was enough. For you to be able to work around England for a year (laughs) ... one appearance on a television show, you were famous, sort of thing, yeah.

And how did life change at that time?

Well it changed from living at home to living on the road.


Yea. We got a van and just went out, ten days at a time. Sleeping in little guest houses. And playing all around Britain.

So then the splitting of the group?

Well I think, we were always playing covers. We were always playing other people's songs. Playing the songs that we liked. You know it may have been done by Ray Charles or Bobby Bland and we evolved, you know, we followed the blues. We followed interest in soul. But by about 1966, the actual singers themselves were visiting Britain quite regularly. You know. And who wants to really ... no good going to see the Paramounts doing a soul number when Otis Redding is on, down the road. Or Sam and Dave, or something. You know we admired all this stuff but by now the world had caught up with ... you know ... with travel, media, people much more aware of the music that was available and we kind of felt that we'd ... done all we could. I was a bit tired of playing all this stuff and so we retired at a tender age of nineteen.

Then you got in contact with Keith Reid?

Yes. I'd already met Keith through Guy Stevens, who was a famous London DJ and Keith had given me an envelope and inside it was maybe twelve lyrics. And Guy had suggested that ... Keith wrote words, that I write the music. But I said, 'Well I've never really written any music. You know, never really written any songs.'

You have not written for the Paramounts?

Well ... we wrote three or four B sides. But ... then, we were in a studio, we'd spent two hours making the single and there was thirty-five minutes left. "Write a song, boys, for the B side". And so you just write something ... really that quickly, and record it all within thirty minutes. So I'd never considered that ... any thought into that. The words were rubbish. It was alright, we played it well, but it wasn't what I called sort of ... . song writing. But I had met Keith just as the Paramounts were ... sinking ... and after when I'd retired, I went home, sort of looked at the walls. I looked at the walls for a few days.

Just hanging around?

Just doing that, yes. Staring at the walls thinking, 'I have retired. What should I do now?' And I found this packet of ... this envelope with the words in. I got them out. And the first one I put on the piano and I thought 'Oh, it's interesting ... and so I wrote a tune. I thought, I'll write a song. So I wrote a song to it. It was called Something Following Me: it ended up on our first album. But the very next morning ... 'cos I mean I didn't have a telephone actually, either, we didn't have a telephone, the next morning I had a letter in the post, from Keith Reid who said, it was very nice meeting you the other so-and-so ... month ... and I am wondering if you'd done anything with any of the lyrics. And then he quoted from one of them on the bottom. He had written two lines from one of his lyrics on the bottom of the letter. And it was the same song I had just written yesterday. So, I rushed down to a phone box. Keith did have a phone number, I think. And I called him up and said, "Well, nice to hear from you, Keith, I just wrote one yesterday". He said, "Well I'd like to hear it. So we got together and he thought it was great. He had actually ... finally, his lyrics that he worked on probably I think, Keith had been writing just in his head and on his own for couple of years with no ... and nothing to do with them. Nowhere to go because he didn't sing alright. And he was overjoyed that his lyrics ... he could hear his lyrics sung which is what he always intended for him. We started working together immediately. We wrote over the course of ... um ... I should think three months ... probably wrote sixteen songs ... getting together occasionally ... and ... so that's what we thought of ourselves as ... songwriters.

We would sit down and we would go ... "This one would be good for Dusty Springfield. Right, yeah, we'll try and give it to her. This one is for the Beach Boys." But when we got down to ... although I had a lot of friends in the industry from the Paramounts, um ... they kind of liked things but they didn't see any ... see where it could go. I think it was something like Conquistador actually which I wrote for the Beach Boys. (Laughs) I don't know why I thought the Beach Boys would do it. But I always hear them doing harmonies and things and making a go of it. But of course I was a bit off ... off of target there because when I played it nobody else could see how the Beach Boys could do it, let alone where the Beach Boys were; and Dusty Springfield never said, "I'll do that song.' So in the end Keith ... in fact I said to Keith, "This is not working." I said, "I think I'll have to get a job." I had an interview with IBM, 'cos I had got a few qualifications of different sorts and ... er ... oh no, by a strange coincidence, I know what happened: there was two choices. Either we carried on writing songs, or I joined Dusty Springfield's band. She wanted me to join her band as an organist. And I was really tempted because I didn't have any work or money. And I said to Keith, "This is the crossroads here," I said, "mate! We'll have to ... " He said, "Well why don't you sing?" I said, "But I'm retired. I don't want to come out of retirement and start singing." He said, "Well, you're the only one who can do it." So I said, "Well ... " so we had a little meeting with Guy, the DJ, Guy Stevens ... Yeah. The three of us had a sit-down. And by the end of it, they'd talked me into coming out of retirement and we'd thought about what kind of band, what kind of group or ensemble would play these songs in the best way. And the combination we wanted was drums and bass, bluesy guitar. Me on the piano and an organ ... And, so we went about finding people to play, you know, that would fit in.

More of this four-part interview

Gary presents his own choice of music on the same radio station

The German text of the broadcast based on this interview

Visit Steffen Graefe's website (English version) or mail him

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