Sam’s Musical Story
For 60 years, I believed I was locked out of the music business. Then, five thousand miles away from my home, I found the key in my pocket. It had been there all the time.
Music brings much of the world together. It is a fundamental and universal language that predates spoken language by thousands of years. Scientists have proven that music gets into the farthest reaches of the human mind like no other experience and for good reason. Listen to the English blackbird; the shaker of a Texas Western Diamondback rattlesnake; the hoot of a midnight owl. All are sounds with meaning. All animals learn those meanings and act upon them. Survival depends on it.
Human beings, being so very much smarter than blackbirds (we hope!), began to synthesize natural sounds with pipes and voices and drums and whad’ya know? Those sounds too, had meaning – and people were moved. It has been observed by the late Professor Paul Robertson and others, that some elderly people with advanced dementia, showing no meaningful contact with the outside world, would tap their fingers when played a tune of their childhood. Some, not quite so disconnected, could sing a tune and even the words to an old song but not remember their children’s names. Music goes deep into the human soul.
I do believe that my first real musical memory was the song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Having a weird literal mind, even then, I found it a very disturbing image. My mind was rushing with all sorts of explanations, but could not settle on one. Even more disturbing shivers. Later I found out it was a Billboard number one by a 13 year old Jimmy Boyd, written, amazingly by a British songwriter called Tommie Connor.
An interesting note about humans and memory. Whenever I recalled the vision of Father Christmas snogging my mum, I remembered sitting halfway down the stairs looking to my left through the vertical stair rails at the baffling scene just below. As it happens I have never lived in a house with a semi-open stair well. I recently looked up the lyrics to the song. Line 3 is, “She didn’t see me creep / down the stairs to have a peep.” My poor brain had reconstructed the ghastly event as if it was real through the lyric of the song. I was six.
Before my school days, my mother took me visiting to her own mother many times. My grandmother lived in a bungalow surrounded by a garden of jet black earth and shimmering dark green plants. I was four years old. I liked to wander. That house had so many darkened rooms but in one of them there was a wind-up gramophone. There it sat. All shiny wood and curves, smelling faintly of furniture polish and lubricating oil. Open the top, and there it was. A magic circle and the incredible multijointed mechanical arm. And that handle! Wind it up and the machine comes to life!
I don’t remember who taught me to use it. Perhaps I worked it out. You lowered the arm onto the record’s edge, and it slipped into the first groove. A steel pin, fixed into the arm that bore into the grooves of the record, was called a “needle”. There was a little receptacle next to the turntable for replacements. And wow. If you open the little front doors, the sound gets louder! Wow. And the little picture of the dog and the horn. What was that all about? My grandmother had a stack of records, some just bought. I went through the lot. From then on, I wanted to visit my grandmother every day. Not possible, but it was often.
My grandmother died of pneumonia way before her time. People did in those times. It must have been my mother who rescued the gramophone from her mother’s property sell-off. She knew I loved it. And there it was in my bedroom! I played the records over and over. I remember Amos ‘n’ Andy. Long since ‘cancelled’ but I thought they were funny.
But the one record and the one side that I played more than the others was “My Happiness” by Ella Fitzgerald. Her voice made the most wonderful sound. It was as if an angel was singing. There was just Ella and her voice and some singers in the background. Then, it didn’t dawn on me that there were no instruments.
“Evening shadows make me blue
When each weary day is through
How I long to be with you
Whether skies are gray or blue
Any place on earth will do
Just as long as I’m with you
Was there ever a song lyric more beautiful? Someone at their workplace sees the sun going down and feels a longing to go home and snuggle with their true love. There is something so universal, something so true of people since the first gatherings of humans. It was a hit on the Billboard Chart. Rightly so. Thank you, Betty Peterson for those simple and lovely words. And thank you Borney Bergantine for the amazing music.
I loved the sound that record made. I read the label over and over. They were magical words, even the 24446 A catalog number. When I saw Ella’s photograph in a magazine, I thought she was even more exotic. In the present day information treasure trove, I discovered that the recording was made during a two-year musicians strike. That’s why there are no instruments on the record.
The Song Spinners were a group of four singers led by the amazing Margaret Johnson. More on this amazing woman in a separate post. If you listen to the record, the first thing you hear is Margaret’s harmony arrangement. I believe those harmonies got into my very young brain. Not long after that I learned that those wonderful sounds came from a magical place called America.
Before I went to school my mother would take a mid-day rest, and we would both listen to a children’s program at precisely 1.45pm called “Listen With Mother”. For 15 minutes there would be a story a song and to end, this lovely piano piece. I loved it very much and would listen until it faded and till the announcer broke the spell at precisely 2 o’clock. The BBC was always precise.
Although she had nothing to do with my musical life (but perhaps she did) I have to mention Lottie. She was my great Aunt Charlotte, my grandmother’s sister. I only met her once. It was at our house in Portsmouth and for some unknown reason we were alone in the kitchen on a cold, dark morning with the paraffin heater between us. She was telling stories and being silly, and I was laughing. There was something strange and irrepressible about her. I always felt there was a huge shipload of music inside her, but I never found out. She was slightly crazy and I loved her very much. Lottie and grandma Rosina had another sister. She was confined somewhere for mental instability. People didn’t talk about such disasters then. Perhaps Lottie was not quite batty enough to be put away. I got the impression that family members were trying to keep me away from her. A bad influence, or something. Well, Lottie, if you can hear me, you meant the world to me.
The other object of my grandmother Rosina’s humble estate that came to our house was the upright piano. It wasn’t much of a piano but I loved it dearly. The piano stool had a seat that opened up to reveal a whole stack of sheet music. I read through them all, not knowing what I was looking at – all those crazy dots.
But the pictures on the front of the sheet always showed people being ecstatically happy singing and playing the song that lay beneath that simple fold that spoke in a language I did not understand. But my mother did. Perhaps to stop my infernal plinking on the ivories, or maybe for the joy of it, she would sit on the stool and play. I would select a sheet and hand it to her and she would make a pretty good stab at it. I thought this was miraculous.
Although her mother almost certainly taught her, I asked her how she did it once, and she said she didn’t really know. I thought this was very mysterious, and just watched her hands dancing across the keys and could have stayed there forever. Her favorite was “Love Walked Right In” by George and Ira Gershwin, which she played from memory.
The music of that song will always represent the true essence of my mother. I never got a recording of her playing that song. Perhaps it would have been too sad to listen to all these years later. All the piano versions I’ve listened to have been the Percy Grainger arrangement, which I don’t like much. I prefer the original. My mother’s.
One fine day my mother told me I was to have piano lessons. I had no idea what that meant. Would it mean that I could make my hands dance among the clattering keys like my mother? That would be amazing. Her reasoning had two parts. First, I had showed a great interest in music and that I should be trained formally. The other was that she was fed up with my random plinking on the old piano. Trouble was, I loved that plinking. I could do it for hours. Anyhow, I thought, let’s see what this piano lesson thing was all about.
She was a round, kindly retired lady in a 1920s bungalow. A strange piano. Different piano stool. And in that room is where I learned to loathe sheet music. I cannot remember enjoying a single moment. “The Bluebells of Scotland” was a particularly vicious torture. After a year or, so I tearfully told my mother that I didn’t want to do it anymore. Her woeful disappointment was in two parts. Firstly, her plan to convert chaos into order had failed. Secondly, the piano lessons had cost quite a bit of money. All of it down the sewer. I was in the doghouse. This seemed to be proof to her that music was not really for me. Proper music people learned to play the piano. I began to agree with her but knew only for certain that I hated those lessons. I never went near that old piano much after that. A little while later my father gave it away to a neighbor across the street. I didn’t say goodbye.
One day at school lunchtime break, we found ourselves in the school hall watching a recorder band playing. You know, those Bakelite whistle things that have their own special tone. I thought it was the most marvelous cacophony I’d ever heard. Twenty or so recorders of various sizes in what must have been at least a four part harmony piece. The teacher conductor then told us kids gathered there that we too could be in such a band. All it would take is the production of seven shillings and sixpence from our parents and a Schotts descant recorder would be yours and you’d be in the band. Wow. That’s around $13 (£10.04) in today’s money. I had to have one. I told my mother I really had to have one. She didn’t want to be burned twice. “It’ll be another five minute wonder,” she said. “No it won’t. No it won’t,” I pleaded. Every day, I begged for the money. The new recorder band was being formed without me. That would be a tragedy of limitless proportions. Then one morning as I left the house to walk to school I did something for which I am still deeply ashamed.
It was a cruel, manipulating stunt. I stood on the sidewalk (pavement) and faked crying and distress with all my body and soul. She stood staring at me and glancing with shame at the other neighbors’ front windows. It was well executed. She gave in. She called me back to hand over the money firmly and grumpily believing that it was another five minute wonder. I assured her it would never be the case, tearfully thanked her and busied off to school ready to enter a hallowed and magical landscape of tuneful harmony that would last forever. It lasted two weeks.
I was asked to practice scales on the new recorder. That was very boring but I understood the value of it. What horrified me was the recorder was monophonic. It could only play one note at a time! No harmonies when alone in my bedroom? Unacceptable. Verging on evil. I also loathed the sheet music even more which seemed to be annoyingly inevitable with all things musical. I put the recorder in the back of the lower drawer of my old chest of drawers. I had deserted the band that welcomed me so warmly. Mother was freshly disillusioned with my transient musical enthusiasms. She wasn’t cruel but there were frequent references to five minute wonders and this one had to be the last, she said. I began to doubt myself more deeply. I saw the pattern. Yes, time to stop. But I still have that recorder. It is a special possession.
Soon after, the old gramophone began acting abnormally. I began taking it apart to see what was wrong. It was very mechanical with a large spring which seemed to be edging toward permanent inactivity. I put all the pieces in the bottom of my closet (cupboard). One day I saw the pieces gone. My mother said my father had given it to the garbage men (dustbin men). It was sad. I missed it terribly. Still do.
Perhaps to make up for the disposal of my lovely gramophone, one evening my father got home and presented me with a pair of headphones – the type radio operators used. I have no idea where he got them. I was amazed. They were beautiful. Somehow I connected them to our radio set and lo and behold! A miracle. I could hear music and no one else could! I remember being very taken with “Magic Moments” by Perry Como. One of the first songs that Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote together. I was thirteen.
My father was a trucker (lorry driver). His job at the time was to pick up cases of beer from the bottling plant, where he had worked, and drive them 68 miles (109.44 km) to the East End of London warehouse. I often thought why they didn’t build a bottling plant in London and not have to drive it every day to from Portsmouth to London. I never got a straight answer. Every now and then my father would ask me if I wanted to ride with him to London. It was always exciting in the big cab with my burly father and the noise of the engine and the smell of oil and diesel. He’d taken me many times before but this time turned out to be the most special. About half-way to London father would like to stop at a roadside café. Very rough places. Thirty miles in that slow noisy truck would make anyone want a break. I can’t remember if I put a coin in the jukebox or someone else did, but right there my life changed forever. Blasting through the well-worn rattly speaker came “Oh Boy” by the Crickets.
It was stunning. I asked father who it was. He didn’t know, so I had to read the record label as it spun round. All the way to London and all the way back I just couldn’t get that sound out of my head. The energy sent my senses reeling and a rockin’. Somehow I found out that the singer was Buddy Holly and that they had had another record out earlier that year called “That’ll Be the Day”. I bought the two records and somehow I got a Dansette record player and played and played them both endlessly. There were other favorite records at the time, such as “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard and “Take a Message to Mary” by the Everly brothers. But Buddy got far more plays.
Later that year I had all the singles and EPs that the Crickets had produced. But the new 12″ album was coming soon and it would be special. I saved and saved for it. It came out the following year. I was still thirteen. I bought it in a store in Portsmouth and clearly remember clutching this amazing, magical record on the top-level of the bus on the way home. It got played and played. Family must have been sick of it. I knew every song. Every word. Every note. I had few other records at the time. I never bought many other records and to this day I have a tiny record collection. Nothing could quite match the experience of the Chirping Crickets. When I played the songs I was in the Land of Buddy. It was a perfect place of joy and boyish energy.
As Don McLean said in “American Pie” on February 3rd 1959, there was “bad news on the doorstep”. A friend, who was doing a newspaper round, banged on our front door. My mother called me down. I saw her face. She already knew. My friend passed me the newspaper. It was awful. The shock broke my heart. I was totally alone. In America, just hours before, my bright, shining, marvelous hero was killed in a plane crash on a snow covered field near Clear Lake, Iowa. That’s not what happens to pop stars. They are always laughing. Always playing. Always pleasing. Buddy wrote innocent songs of young love. It just wasn’t right. I was just fourteen years old. I staggered to school.
We all made a line in the corridor before entering the classroom. Someone noticed my demeanor and said, “What’s up with him?” “Buddy Holly just died,” said my friend. “Who’s Buddy Holly?” someone else said. Of the 44 boys in my class at that time, only me and my friend knew of Buddy Holly. Pop music was young and unexplored then. I was even more isolated.
For weeks, I couldn’t play the lovely records or even look at the gorgeous Chirping Crickets album. The last record he released before the plane crash was “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”. People thought it was weird and prophetic, or even suicidal. What nonsense. He was full of life and music and getting ready for a sparking future, and I loved him very much.
Little by little I emerged from what was, in retrospect, an acute depression. I began collecting news cuttings and started a scrapbook of all my favorite music makers. Buddy Holly and the Crickets had pride of place. The middle pages.
There was no substitute for Buddy Holly in the least, but I began to love the records of Eddie Cochran. I bought the amazing single, “Summertime Blues”, and also his first album. I loved his guitar sound. Just 14 months after Buddy Holly’s death, Eddie Cochran was killed in a car accident in England, of all places, whilst on a tour.
That Christmas my parents bought me the one object I craved to own. A tape recorder. I had the exact Grundig model clearly in the most well-lit of my imagination slots. I read the specification over and over. It had push buttons. Push buttons were very cool. This was to be the vehicle of my destiny. The day arrived but I was secretly disappointed. I had the grace to hide it. They had bought me a cheaper model. A Ferguson TR441.
My father said that the man in the shop said it was just as good as the Grundig. But it had no push buttons, just clanky old levers. But there it was, and it recorded sounds. And it had a magic eye record monitor, which was very cool. As it turned out, the machine worked really well, and I got a lot out of it. Sorry, dad, you were right.
I had a cranky old guitar at the time. Can’t remember where I got it. I made up a tune, with chords and everything. I still remember it. I tuned it to E major, for some unfathomable reason. So I had the chords and had the tune. How to get both onto that tape recorder. I took off the triangular cover to expose the playback/record head. I can record the chords – but how do I listen back and record the tune at the same time? I stared and stared at the simple electronics of my Christmas present and just could not figure it out. It was obstinately monophonic. I played the tape recorder and played and sang along with it. Not the same. Meanwhile, in California just a few months earlier, Les Paul had just installed the world’s first multi-track 8 track tape recorder. It was as big as our house.
Things were always rocky with my dad. He was a troubled man who suffered badly from a very poor upbringing. He always tried to cover his anxieties, but sometimes he would snap at people, sometimes sulk. I wrote a song about him. The reference to the cocktail waitress is not that he should have dressed up like one, but if he had, I just wouldn’t have minded. He, too, loved music and once told me he fancied being a drummer. He could have been a good one too. Maybe not in Steeleye Span, but something good. Here’s the chorus.
“You could have been a cocktail waitress
You could have been in Steeleye Span
You could have been a mathematician
You could have been a sailor man”
Someone asked me, or said I should, to go to Sunday School. I have no idea why I went because my parents were not the church going types. Every Sunday afternoon I went off to the Church. It was pleasant enough. One day one of the staff walked slowly down the isle, listening very intently as we were singing a hymn. I remember seeing his ear close to my face. He then pointed at me. He repeated this odd behavior with several other boys. He liked our voices. He offered us a place in the church choir. Well, if I’m one of the few chosen from the rest it might be fun, I thought. We sang various pieces at various times, but religious music can be trying. But anyway, they gave me a cassock and surplus to wear. What a vision of innocence. I can’t remember why I left, but others did too. I think we thought we should be paid, or paid more. I can’t remember which.
In the UK at the time there were only two TV channels. One was the state run BBC. It didn’t transmit for the whole day but started around 5.30pm for children’s shows. Before the transmission started they would show a bizarre test card and play music underneath. It was the same music loop every day and at the same time. One guitar tune caught my attention. I loved it. I sat there staring at the test card waiting for the tune to play again.
I got so obsessed that I would rush home from school and wait for the tune to play. And there it was. So unusual. So complex. Suggesting so many emotions and exotic places in the world. Much later I discovered it was Freddie Phillips who wrote and played the music for many children’s television shows like “Camberwick Green”, “Trumpton” and “Chigley”. I cannot find that lovely tune but I can still remember it, and could sing the melody even now. I found out later that he was using a multi-track tape recorder, pretty much before anyone else in the country. His tune also contained modulations and key changes that I loved.
I was 16, and now we had moved across town to another Portsmouth suburb called Farlington. Perhaps someone gave it to me. Perhaps I bought it somewhere, but I was now in possession of a white painted F hole semi-acoustic guitar. With a single pickup! Well, this was it. There was no holding back my musical progress now. My mother definitely did not buy it. No one took much notice. It needed to be tuned, and I sincerely believed it should be tuned to a major chord. I’ve no idea why, but it made perfect sense to me. So that’s what I did. E major, (because the bass string was an E). I thought it was great and made up my very first guitar tune. I can still recall it.
I had moved the guitar and tape recorder into my bedroom and managed to hook it up to a speaker on the wall. It was my first home studio, although you didn’t call it that in those days. Just me messing around with a cheap guitar and a mono tape recorder. My father said one day that my room needed redecorating. I had an instant vision of the horrendous wallpaper with annoying designs of busy noisy patterns and thick lines that went nowhere. I objected. He didn’t understand my progressive design requisites, as everybody else had wallpaper on their walls. “Dad, can the walls be painted? The ceiling blue, this wall green, that wall yellow, that wall purple, that wall red and the door a kind of cream?” Well, it was obvious. This was the new home of my music world and should be colored accordingly. Mother, of course, thought it was a new five-minute wonder. But father, to his eternal credit, smiled and agreed. He loved to decorate. I can still see him use a brush. I’m sure my brush style is just like his. Thank you, dad. It was just perfect.
It was a summer’s day in my bedroom and the windows were open. I had recorded a chord sequence on the tape recorder and was playing the melody along with it. But I couldn’t record the melody! I just knew there must be a way to record the melody line on the same tape as the chord sequence. But how? I looked and looked at the record head on the tape recorder, but it was implacably monophonic. Very, very frustrating.
What happened next was possibly one of the biggest mistakes of my life. There was knock on the front door. My mother called up the stairs that it was for me. Standing on the doorstep was a kid about my age who had heard my guitar playing coming from my open window heard from his back garden. “Do you want to join our band?” he said with a flourish. I was stunned. I had to answer. “No. No. I can’t play a thing!” I pleaded. “Nor can we. We just mess around trying things out,” he said. I was now terrified. “No. I can’t,” I said. “Oh, OK,” he said meekly and turned and vanished. I returned to my bedroom and closed the windows.
I began to realize that the E major tuning was quite restrictive and looked for other design reasons that the guitar was failing me. I must have seen a Gibson F355 on TV, or something. Or the Cricket’s album cover, more likely. I decided that the guitar body was too deep. That is, the distance from the top of the body to the back of the body. So I cut out a strip of rounded wood all around the body of the guitar. I was going to glue it back together, but unfortunately I had rendered the guitar unplayable and useless.
I was sixteen and now working in the Royal Dockyard shipyard as an electrical fitter. It was grim. I chose electrical fitter because in my mind I could see lots of very interesting colored wires ready to be connected to even more interesting devices. The electronic dream did not materialize. I accepted this disappointing existence as fate or maybe punishment for too many five minute wonders. So why fight it? My mates all said the same thing. And then something amazing happened. I was walking through Cosham (a suburb of Portsmouth) and in a window of a small music store, there hanging on the wall was a Fender Stratocaster. Just like Buddy’s. It was the most amazing object I had ever been near. It was beautiful. I was too terrified to go into the shop and just stood and gazed some more.
But the fascination with the Stratocaster did not evaporate. Buying one was out of the question by several interplanetary journeys of time and space. So I decided to make one. I found a lumberyard in the depths of old Portsmouth and bought a piece of mahogany around 3 feet (90 cms) by 2 feet (60 cms) by 3 (8 cms) inches. I balanced it on the handlebars of my bicycle and rode home with it. Several of my friends saw this apparition and laughed heartily. They called it a railway sleeper (railroad tie) and the even funnier part was the thought of me making an electric guitar with it. They were right, of course. I remember drawing a vague Stratocaster shape on the wood, but got no further. In London, at almost the same time, Brian May of the band Queen, was making his famous electric guitar, The Red Special, with his dad. Clearly, I had a father unversed in creating electric guitars from railway sleepers. Total bummer.
On the radio sometime at work in the dockyard I heard “For No One” by the Beatles. When Alan Civil’s horn solo rose in the air like a magic balloon, I became a lifelong Beatles fan. Up to then, they had been the teenyboppers’ favorite. I resisted, but their sheer talent at arranging and writing broke me down.
Around this time I was becoming more and more disillusioned with working in the dockyard. It just seemed so repetitive and pointless. But I could see no exit door. Later, the urge to leave that environment became even more pronounced and confrontational. I was dreaming of a musical life, but couldn’t see clearly.
Soon a door would open but it would be the wrong door. Again. I was seventeen and was invited to a party in north Portsmouth. What I witnessed totally astonished me in an utterly transformational way. There were some young guys playing acoustic guitars and singing folk songs. Everybody was happy. This was the period in British music called the Folk Revival. And these guys were rocking it. They were surrounded by excited pretty girls who joined in on the choruses. The young men at the party looked on in animated admiration. I thought this was it! This was definitely – it. The revelation was complete and obvious. Sometime in the evening I discovered that these musical heroes were teachers. So that’s it? Be a teacher, learn some folk songs, pull all the women, be admired by all the men and life becomes exciting, rewarding and full of music. Being a teacher couldn’t be hard. Walking around a classroom, basically. And I would be clean all day and not covered in grease and filth. And in the evenings, hit it with the folk singers. Oh, and the holidays were long. More time for musical jollities.
But how do you become a teacher? I found out that I needed a minimum of five “O” Level certificates. They are a single subject exam up to a certain level. “O” means ordinary. So, let’s do the hardest ones. That would be Math, English Language, English Literature, Geography and History. Cool. Let’s start with the two easiest ones in that list. I entered, and paid for, two examinations in Geography and History. My mother had some old books that she must have got from her mother. Almost Victorian. I found a slim History of England and a ragged General World Geography book. So, if I read these through, I could pass these “O” Levels. Two down, three to go. I read both books, remembered very little, and failed the exams abysmally.
Across the road was a teacher at the local Technical College. She advised me to take evening classes, which would be twice a week, while still working in the Dockyard. It was hard. But I stuck with it, sometimes taking three classes in a week. During that period, I bought a Hopf nylon string guitar because I thought Bob Dylan was playing one on “One Too Many Mornings”. I discovered later that he didn’t. I discovered standard guitar tuning and learned several vital chords. I remember learning “Home on the Range”. I still have that guitar. Eight years of grueling evening-classes later, I won the five “O” Levels and was admitted into a teacher training college. I was 25.
Around this time I had been blown away and down the road and off into the distance by the incredible Jimi Hendrix. He seemed to show us all how the future was going to be. There was nothing like the things he was playing. The most famous guitarists of the world were open-mouthed. He is one of those rare musicians that could never seemingly play a bum note. I loved everything he did. “Purple Haze” was transformational. And he used a Fender Stratocaster, just like Buddy. Three years later he died of asphyxiation brought on by a self administered sedative pills. It was another terrible shock.
But there was a pattern appearing. The first names of all these rock ‘n’ roll casualties had the same “ee” ending to their names. Buddy, Eddie and Jimi. Sam was pretty safe, I thought. I don’t want anybody calling me Sammy!
I loved the first year at college. Lots of women. The ratio was three to one in favor of us guys. The art classes were good fun, too. My first subject was English Literature, my second was Music. It was second on account of my inability to read music. In any case, Music was dropped after the first year. I found out later that I am mid-level dyslexic. I read at the same rate that I would read aloud. So sheet music didn’t stand a chance. Never did.
My final music test at the end of that first year was to play a piece of my choice on the instrument of choice. I chose Bourrèe, a guitar piece in E minor by Bach, played on the old Hopf guitar – with standard tuning, of course. I got the dreaded sheet music and worked out each note one by one and figured out the fingering. Took me ages. It felt like cheating. Proper guitarists just read and play.
We had lectures from the head of the music department and sometimes he took us to the local church to demonstrate the mighty windy organ. Once he played Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor”. It was revelatory. It was loud, crashing, immodest, brave and quite beautiful. In some parts of the fugue, his feet looked like they were dancing on the pedal bass notes.
The one marvelous, glorious privilege I had as a music student was access to a practice piano, in a real, tiny closed off practice room. It was so good to be back among the black and whites. Old friends from long ago. I felt that there were some original tunes bursting to come out of my fingers.
Another major event of that time came from some sort of annuity or something my parents signed me up for, I can’t remember. I could take out the cash or leave it for the future. I elected for cash which was £120, or $2000 (£1,500) in today’s money. What to buy? A guitar, of course. James Taylor was my new favorite (don’t call him Jamie). I had a copied tape in my cassette player which I listened to all the time.
But the very first song I wrote came out of the old nylon string guitar with an odd tuning. Around about this time I found out about alternate guitar tunings. Wow. That would be amazing. No, not E major. So I made up a new one. It goes like this. From the lower 6th string – G then G (yes, it’s the same note) D G B D – it’s a kind of open G major. I loved the sound it made using just two fingers up and down the fretboard. It was inspiring. To me, the discords and clashes mirrored the complexity of human emotions. So now I had a system. Standard tuning on the new guitar, weird open G tuning on the nylon.
I had a relationship with a woman in another town on the south coast of England. I was convinced we were the perfect couple. She was not convinced. She was right. Thinking about the pain of a love affair not working out, brought out my very first song. I was 28. If you are reading this Jeanie (which wasn’t her proper name) I am very sorry for being a lunatic. You were, and I’m sure still are, an amazing woman.
I traveled to the town to Jeanie’s place and played it to her. She was impressed. But not with me. I was pretty unstable at the time. I later wrote another song about that affair called “One Last Cigarette” (I smoked cigarettes from age 13 to 33).
The “Jeannie” song was a breakthrough and around the second and third year of college I was on a roll. I started a song book called “Songs 1 to 50”. In a year it was full. I wrote out the words in the book with the same fountain pen in the same color, of course. I was very careful to write the characters in the same size throughout. The punched holes on each sheet were carefully reinforced with little hole reinforcers. I started a second book incorrectly labelled “Songs 50 to 100” (there aren’t two 50th songs) I have another book labelled “Unfinished Songs” and another jam packed with words and notes. It has no label.
Then an amazing thing happened. I met this fellow student called Tony Clothier. Tall with very long hair and a great guitarist. He had been asked to get a duo together to play at a pub called “The Martlets”. This time I said yes, but was still terrified. We decided to play some of our own songs mixed in with some Cat Stevens numbers and a few old American folk songs. It was my first band, albeit a duo, and it was good fun every Saturday night. We weren’t paid very much but got free beer. I remember one of my songs called “Amy” was very popular. I was 30 years of age.
The twelve-year-old dream of performing music with pretty women admirers at a party atmosphere was finally coming true, it seemed. But after a few months it ended. Tony went on his way to follow his teaching career, and the Martlets decided to entertain the locals in other, cheaper ways. I didn’t really object.
College was now over and I got my first teaching post in a primary school (5 to 11 year olds) in Sussex, England. It didn’t feel right at all. The children weren’t right. The staff weren’t right. I began to think that this teacher thing was a huge mistake. I was living in a bedsit (single room apartment) and felt very isolated. I found an office space called “The Teachers Centre” that had materials and other assets for lesson planning. And there in one corner was a tape recorder. Oh, wow. The rarity of a recording device today seems unimaginable, but then those things were rare and expensive. I made my very first lonely recordings in that office, late into many evenings.
I had a relationship with an amazing woman called Trudy. This was the first time that I had collaborated with anyone regarding songwriting. She wrote poems and showed them to me. I have to say that the music came real quick. We must have written ten or so songs together.
Through Trudy, I met Martin Bury. He was a bass player and we became good friends. He seemed to have a sixth sense on exactly what bass line to put with my songs. It was great. I never questioned him. He was very keen to go out and play. I kept saying we should get a keyboard player. Anyhow, we did play out several times. It went down well, but I still nagged Martin about the getting the elusive keyboard player. Martin had spots with other bands in town and soon stopped asking me to play.
About 20 years ago, he had a heart attack and died. I was very upset. I wrote a song about him leaving, called “Farewell”. Thank you, Martin. I’m sorry I let you down.
I left that first school and got another post in a small village in central Sussex. The atmosphere was much better. Just one large room and two classes. It felt better. Teaching was not such a mistake, perhaps. A few months later we all moved into a new school, still in the village, but just down the road. And what do you know? There was a new school upright piano and I had the key to the school! Many evenings were spent plinking on that beautiful instrument. And then my very first piano song came to life. It was called “Haven’t Got a Dream”. I had all sorts of plans for it. I could hear children singing the middle eight bars. Well, I was in a school. Why not try to record their voices? I cannot remember the recorder I used or even how I recorded it. I attempted to get the children to sing a two part harmony. It almost worked.
Through another friend I met a guy called Jimmy Brooks. We met at his house and guess what? He had a FOUR TRACK TAPE RECORDER! Oh my goodness! Yes, indeedy! What was better, was that he fancied himself as a record producer. I volunteered to be his singer-songwriter and we went to work. I had just come up with another piano song written on the school piano called “Maybe I”. Jimmy insisted that it should be played by a professional and found one of his friends to fit the bill. I can’t remember who that was or how we recorded it, but I thought it turned out great. I remember carefully and precisely teaching him the chords. When he played, he made it flow beautifully. It was my very first studio collaboration.
The beginning of the second year in the village school gave me an awful shock. It was to be life defining. The term I was about to face seemed to be identical to the first. I felt claustrophobic, trapped and useless. I felt that I could have been absolutely anyone capable of filling that position. But music still was not my destiny. It was just hanging there in perpetuum, like an old friend occasionally visited. It was what I did when I wasn’t at work. A hobby.
Jimmy was interested in going to London and getting a record deal with my songs. We put a cassette demo tape together and hot footed it to the Big Smoke. A nice man in the record company was very polite but wasn’t interested. I sent several cassette demos to several other record companies, but no one wanted me. I gave up easy. Back to hobby land.
I was in touch with Martin again, and he suggested we get a band together. He had a couple other guys who were interested, and we rehearsed. We played out a few times in bars (pubs). The guys called the band “Sam”. For some reason, it came to very little. Strangely, I have no photographs of band number three.
School life was becoming intolerable. So I grabbed at the first chance of re-deployment without being a teacher. That was over. The dream was kaput. A residential children’s home wanted staff. So I took the job. So now, I was a Residential Social Worker. I was 32. Being residential meant that I had my own room with no rent, free food and two days off per week. I read somewhere that a workshop in London was selling new TEAC 4-track tape recorders converted to 7 inch reels. This made it cheaper. I got a credit card, and came back from London carrying my entire future in my tired arms. I can’t remember how I got all the other parts, but it would have required lots of to and fro and favors. At last, I had my very own home studio number two. Laughable in today’s bright world, but I was very proud of it. I recorded loads of songs.
The wife of a friend of mine knew some record people in London. She said this guy at Sonet records in London was looking for a Green Peace kinda thing, particularly when it came to whales. And did she have anything? I said I could write something, but then I had this song without words yet. Should I do it in synthesizer voices? I did it, he heard it and the Sonnet guy loved it. It was to be a single. What? I’ve arrived. Could the original, true dream be finally here? I remember being sick with anticipation.
Then it came to present the final mix to the Sonet record guy, he said that he wanted me to go to an 8 track studio and re-record it. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to use the tape I had made. It was a good mix, I said. I explained that the synthesizer had no preset storage, so I would have to program each sound again in the studio. I would not sound quite the same. But he insisted that I go to the studio.
I took two guitars, the Korg synthesizer and a huge keyboard thing called “The String Machine” I borrowed from Jimmy Brooks. There was a producer in the studio as well as an engineer. The session went well, and I managed to make it sound almost like my mix. Some weeks later, I made another damaging mistake. I began to fret about the fact that the producer at that session really didn’t do that much. I called the Sonet guy and said I would like to be credited as producer on the record. After a conversation, he agreed. I thought I was happy about it, but on reflection, it was mean spirited and over-anxious. Music collaboration is all about relationships and generosity. The music business isn’t really a business, but a network of people who know each other and know everybody’s reputation. If you’re not liked, you won’t work. I knew I’d done wrong, but did nothing to put it right.
At the time of the release I was very nervous about the seeming oncoming and inevitable success. I tried to imagine being with other musicians. Tried to imagine interviews. Tried to imagine the crowds. I couldn’t. The Last Whale was sounding more and more silly.
Angela got me a picture and an interview in the local paper. The Sonet guy got the record played on national television. I think it was a Saturday morning children’s show. But chatter and updates from the Sonet guy grew less and less, until months later we came to the doleful conclusion that the record had flopped. I let it go.
After four grueling years at the children’s home, Jimmy Brooks called me and said he had built a professional recording studio on the upper floor of his house. And would I like to come and work there as an engineer? Pay wasn’t great but could get better. I couldn’t get there fast enough! Bye-bye, children’s home.
A funny thing happened when I told my Dad about the studio job. I thought he was going to give me one of his noncommittal short responses to this yet-another-career-change. Instead, he was really enthusiastic. There was no sarcasm in his voice or on his face. At all. Perhaps deep in his soul, he knew that I was getting nearer to my true place in the music world. Perhaps. I’ll never know.
When I walked into that studio, it seemed like I was coming home. Everything was familiar and yet there was so much to learn. A guy called Richard Sharples turned up one day with a 2″ multi-track tape under his arm and asked us if we wanted to promote and sell the studio to all concerned. We all had around four years of fun and hard work, making over 200 records for mainly local bands and musicians.
The negative aspect of working 8 to 12 hours in a studio is that my own music making took a serious back seat. I had been working on a darker project called “The Antichrist” which took all the free time I had. Nevertheless, we recorded whole chunks of it in the studio and various local musicians came by and added their expertise. Once “The Antichrist” was finished, I worked on a scrapbook style accompanying material. I took it to London several times to record companies and publishing companies, but nobody wanted it. I really liked some songs, but the weird noises and track overlaps made it hard to hear. I knew it wasn’t commercial, but I kept on trying to push it.
The studio began to slow down eventually, due to the saturation effect of working with pretty much every local band. I needed more time for myself and my music, plus I was earning very little and living in rented apartments. No way to spread out the home studio. I said goodbye to the studio. Besides, computers were beginning to impact my life. It had started when I was working for the children’s home. I bought one of the first home computers imported into the UK from America called KIM. I then began a long obsession with Atari computers. I believed they were the greatest for everything. I opened a store in the local high street to sell Atari computers and to train people how to use them.
Then along came Lizzy. She was born in New York to an American father and an English mother. Her mother wanted to return to England. We met in the studio. She was an amazing singer. We formed a relationship and talked of writing and recording together.
There was an attempt to form band number four. People called it the local supergroup. I have to say with Lizzy’s voice and songwriting ability and the other amazing guys (Martin was there) the band had huge potential. But there were some personality clashes. I remember the guitarist wouldn’t play a particularly challenging chord sequence I had written. I was insistent he played it. There was no real way forward. For this, and other reasons, the rehearsals stopped.
Then Lizzy left to go to London which, among other things, effectively ended our personal relationship. She got a record deal with Arista Records and recorded several of her songs and one of mine called “I Hear the Wolf a-Calling” which became a single. It didn’t make it. I’ve recorded this song so many times over the years I’ve lost count.
I got a mortgage and bought a converted first floor apartment of a house (ground floor flat). Soon after, I split it into two even smaller apartments and sold one of them. I sold the computer business. I was back living in a bedsit (one-room apartment) with few prospects I could think of. I put the music studio on two trestle tables, which took up most of the room in the bedsit. But now I had discovered computer quantizing, which enabled me to correct any timing errors in my keyboard playing. I thought that this was miraculous. I have neither perfect pitch nor “time” which is the ability to play instruments or drums in near perfect pitch or time. The Atari computer was helping me make music. I was 48 years old.
I decided to move to London. I rented a flat (the semi basement of a Victorian townhouse) in West Hampstead which is west of the City of London (downtown). I set up the studio equipment in pretty much the same way with the trestle tables. Lizzy could come over, and we would record some things. I worked for Chrysalis TV for a while, which enabled me to get a mortgage to buy a flat in West Hampstead in the next street over.
I was accumulating more recording equipment and changing the way I recorded. I think the failure of the whale record was weighing on me. I couldn’t figure out what went wrong. I lost the job at Chrysalis because the contract with the client had ended, and the latest recession was beginning to bite. It was a hard time. I was 50 years old. Sometimes Lizzy would come over, and we would write and record. We did some excellent stuff together. Then she moved back to the south coast. I wasn’t going to follow her this time. I was writing songs, parts of songs, compiling many cassette tapes of demos and finished songs. I had around 30 tapes, each with an hour of material each side.
I would be up in the wee small hours whisper-singing into the mike so that neighbors to the left, right and above would not be disturbed. But I turned those dark days into good songs. And then the Internet happened. It was a major distraction. I was also distracted by screenplay writing, which I thought was the way forward. I began to lose faith that the dream would not be reality. I had also given up on relationships. There didn’t seem to be any point to going through the same old motions with the same old endings. Then I started to make short films with cheap cameras and borrowed software. It was more distraction. The music dream was fading. But in spite of all that, songs were still coming out. I was accumulating more recording equipment. Most of it borrowed or donated by good friends. Then things started getting worse.
I was spending money on recording equipment and tapes instead of paying the mortgage. I ignored the warning letters from the mortgage company and was taken to court. So there I stood in front of the magistrate seated at an ornate dark polished oak chair that looked more like a throne. By my side was the mortgage enforcer who had a sack truck (hand truck) filled to the top with mortgage repossession documents. This guy wanted the keys to my flat on this very day. I was about to be made homeless. Then an amazing thing happened. The magistrate looked me in the eye and said something like,”I expect you are very interested in being inside a court?” “Oh yes, sir,” I quickly replied. “Very important.” He paused and glanced at the mortgage enforcer, then back at me.
“Then this I must ask you,” he proceeded. “Will you pay this mortgage company the sum of ten pounds a month?” ($13) “Oh yes, sir”, I quickly said. Enforcer made an objection. The magistrate acknowledged him with a slow nod, then turned again to me. “Do you promise to pay this mortgage company ten pounds every month?” “Oh, yes, sir. I certainly will,” I said with all the sincerity I could muster. “Then I think this case is dismissed,” said the learned gentleman. Without another word, enforcer dropped my paperwork on top of his pile, spun the sack truck around and exited the door. I thanked the judge once more and followed that laden conductor of mortgage payments and looked for the exit.
There is a little garden right next to the Courts. I sat on a bench and breathed a very deep breath. How I had just avoided disaster, I couldn’t work out. My parents were in their 80s and living in a one-bedroom bungalow. I couldn’t see that working out. And I’d be without my music equipment. But I’d be without it anyhow, as everything I owned would be in storage. I could sofa-surf. That wouldn’t last long. Homelessness is very easily come by. Dear Lord, thank you for this deliverance.
There were more distractions. Making friends and enemies on the new international chat pages, which had just started, took up a lot of time. Making short films was a continued expense of time. Then something unexpected changed everything. I was awarded a filmmaker’s prize in Houston, Texas. I don’t know how I got the money for the fare and the hotel. I think I wrote some software and sold a computer, but I found myself, for the very first time, in the United States of America.
It was April and the weather was wonderful. I stepped out of the hotel after a Texas breakfast and stood and grinned and felt I’d come home. The sun felt so good. I could smell blossom. I walked around the grid pattern streets and didn’t get lost. Wow. I love this country. Right there on that morning, the vision was forming in the distant realm of impossible dreams—move to America!
And then I met Heather. Online. When she was living in Canada. It’s a long, complicated story for another post, but after seven years we got married. I was 60 years of age and married for the very first time. But it seemed that the music dream had slowly faded to a cozy place of quiet personal achievement. I should be happy that I tried. Then Trudy sent me two CDs of guitar songs that I recorded back in the day. Heather loved them and begged me to start recording again. I didn’t take much convincing, just a little support. I have Heather to thank for many things.
I put together a custom-built PC system with a very cheap sound card, helped by David, my neighbor. Although rudimentary, it was my first all digital audio workstation or DAW, as they like to call it. It was what I had dreamed about. No waiting for tape machines to rewind. No fighting tape hiss. No printing a mix onto cassette tapes. And I could record as many tracks as I wanted, not just three, like the previous system. Begone, dusty analog equipment.
Now I started to write songs again and record again. It was a fresh start. It was here that I began my on-line presence. I joined a website community called Fandalism. In all, I posted 50 songs to that site and got a great response. I made some good friends too. It was a great confidence boost. But I had not forgotten America. It was coming up fast. I have no idea why America loomed so large in my mind at this time, but the draw grew stronger. Many strange things happened next which deserves its own post, but we entered the Green Card Lottery.
After two nail-biting years of unending paperwork and expensive tests, at 11am on the 8th of January 2014 Heather and I stood behind a grilled window within the US Embassy in London and were told that we had passed all the tests and been awarded Green Cards. The nice man also told us to be in The United States within six months or the cards would expire. It was an unforgettable moment. And I didn’t need the deadline. We did it in four months. Farewell to friends and family. Sell the basement flat. Give away things that we couldn’t take. We found ourselves at Heathrow Airport. I had turned 69 just four months earlier.
Touching down at the airport in Austin, Texas to actually stay and live was surreal to say the very least. I had been waiting for this moment my whole life – at least since Ella Fitzgerald had entered my musical consciousness. I was at last in the land of Ella and Buddy and all other kinds of musical magic.
With the very excellent exchange rate at the time, I was able to put together a new digital studio. In its own room. We lost a bedroom but gained a studio. Well, that’s my story.
I covered 80% of the walls and ceiling of my 10′ x 11′ 10′ high room in panels of 3″ foam. I made four 5′ tall by 13″ deep by 2′ wide bass absorption cabinets. I made two speakers stands. I made the main console out of 1″ aluminum tubing and MDF panels. Phew! I built the main custom PC and installed all the other outboard devices. A year and a half later, I was ready to record. Having a professional digital studio for the first time in my life was breathtaking. But a reckoning was coming.
We were living in Austin, Texas and the time had come. The moment was at hand. We said we’d go and now we were going – to Buddy Holly’s home town of Lubbock Texas. After a 6-hour drive of 375 miles (603.5 km), we were standing in the Town of Buddy and the Buddy Holly Center – in Crickets Avenue, of course. As soon as I walked into the large space of artifacts and photographs I felt like crying all over again for this wonderful man. It was too much in so many ways. Behind glass were his internationally famous black rimmed glasses rescued from the plane wreckage. I could smell airplane fuel and the stench of dirty laundry burning. I felt sick and needed air. It was good to get back out into the Texas sun. I turned around and looked at the exhibition room. Somewhere in there was Buddy’s Fender Stratocaster. I couldn’t bear to see it.
And then a new building appeared. It was as if a humble 1950s one-story house had dropped from the sky and nestled itself into the arms of the modern styled Buddy Holly Center. I approached the front door along the garden path as if I was a 1953 teenage visitor. It was Jerry Alison’s house saved from development destruction, put on a truck and moved right here. Jerry was Buddy’s childhood friend and drummer with the Crickets. I stood in that living room and looked at that sofa upon which those two boys wrote “Oh Boy” and “That’ll Be the Day”. I was a magic moment. In the next room was Jerry’s drum kit (actually set up by Jerry himself). Jerry’s mother had actively encouraged both boys to rehearse in the house and frequently told them they could succeed if they wanted it. Parents are important. Do I have to tell you?
Back in the clear Panhandle air, the forces of chaos and order were staking their claim on my sanity. In the awesome reaches of Caprock Canyon, the clear calm of truth overcame. Since the bad news on the doorstep in that grim February morning, I had unconsciously associated success in the music business with death. It had scared me witless. For all that time, the music business had not been rejecting me, I had been rejecting it. Whenever success came near, I would unconsciously find some way of scuppering the opportunity. It was shocking, clear. I thought of throwing all my songs into the deepest reaches of the Colorado River. But the songs weren’t delusional. I was. The songs are innocent and true. But now, because of that sofa, I could be free. Late, maybe, but free.
I am now 77 years of age, and I am not afraid to climb upon a stage and wave my arms at you, my friends, and play my music of the ages. I am so looking forward to meeting you all. Sign up for the newsletter, follow me on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube and I will share with you all my latest music and my progress day by day and week by week. It would be fantastic to have your company on the journey.
Never stop dreaming – SAM