Mike Rimmer interviewed veteran singer, guitarist and "musician's musician" BRYN HAWORTH
If there's one cliché that follows veteran Bryn Haworth around it is that he is a "musician's musician," in other words, a muso recognized within the guild as a musical maestro. The critical acclaim, and down the years countless recording sessions, resulted, of course, from Bryn's superlative slide (or "bottleneck") guitar. Developed by pre-war blues and gospel giants like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, slide guitar has today become one of the most emotive sounds in popular music and Bryn is an acknowledged giant of the style. But more than that, Bryn has quite simply developed his own, unique slide guitar sound. Critic Roger Hill wrote, "[Bryn] seeks not to imitate the ominous quality of Muddy Waters or the frenetic attack of Elmore James or the piercing sting of Lowell George, discovering instead a gentler, mellower approach which sounds like nobody else and which beautifully compliments his highly melodic songs."
The first time I remember seeing Bryn was before I was a Christian and he made an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, the BBC's hugely influential TV rock show. I remember being impressed by his dazzling guitar playing. Now here we are decades on welcoming Bryn and his wife Sally into the Cross Rhythms radio studio. As well as clutching his trusty acoustic, Bryn has also brought with him a batch of recordings rare enough to make the eyes of any reader of Record Collector magazine shine with excitement. For one of the things Bryn has come specifically to speak about is his early years in music. Rimmerama kicks off and soon Bryn's fascinating musical and spiritual saga is underway.
Raised in the Lancashire town of Darwin, Haworth's father was a school teacher and Bryn attended the school where he taught. Haworth was 11 when he first picked up the guitar. He laughs, "I really wanted one for a couple of years and I used to go around the house playing egg-slicers; anything with strings on, you know; just plunking things like tennis rackets and saying, 'Please mum, I want a guitar!' 'Dad, can I have a guitar?!' But they didn't think I was serious and so they made a deal with me: 'If you get a guitar then you HAVE to go to lessons and you can't have one of those electric ones,' which was what I wanted! So they bought me this really uncool classical guitar but it was the only way I could get a guitar. So I went to lessons for a year and it was the best thing I could have done because the teacher was good and he got me fired up about the instrument and what it could do, much more than I was hoping actually. So it was exciting."
Like tens of thousands of other young hopefuls, Bryn cut his musical teeth playing in obscure local bands, including The Mustangs, The Railroaders and The Mike Taylor Combo. Then, at the tender age of 17, determined to make it in music Bryn headed for London. He remembers, "I had a guitar and a small suitcase and I got on the bus at Blackburn and went down to London and slept in Victoria Bus Station at night. Then during the day, in those days in Soho, the music shops were in Denmark Street and I would go in and they'd have audition slots like, 'Wanted: Lead Guitar Player'. So you'd call them up and queue up with all the other lead guitar players! Eventually I got myself a job in a band that had a house and so I could sleep on their floor but [I spent] quite a while in Victoria Bus Station."
The job that got Bryn out of Victoria Bus Station was playing with Wynder K Frogg who had a hit with an organ-driven instrumental "Green Door". But the band that really got the keen young guitarist established were the Fleur de Lys. The band were a Motown/soul outfit. Bryn remembers, "It was more like a mod band and I used to backcomb my hair and things like that! It did actually turn out to be psychedelic in that the substances that we were using back then turned us into a psychedelic band!"
It was in Fleur de Lys that Haworth sang on record for the first time on a song aptly called "I Can See A Light". He remembers, "The band were trying to get singles going at that point. It's interesting because the first subject matter that I was involved with was 'I Can See A Light'. I remember writing a song, pretty much after that, called 'Prodigal Son'. I don't know what was going on!"
The Fleur de Lys were also a session band and found themselves working with visiting American artists. Bryn continues, "The writers Isaac Hayes and David Porter were writing all the Stax songs back then, and they came over for a while. They were writing songs on the spot in the studio and wanting us to record them so we'd record them as demos for them. We also worked with Barney Kessel, who was a jazz guitar player; he used to like using us. There's quite a few people like that so it was really varied what we did."
The group were on the cusp of the white boy variant of soul music and a version of Lorraine Ellison's classic soul ballad "Stay With Me Baby" by Sharon Tandy garnered some attention. Bryn remembers, "We went out as Sharon's backing band and we recorded a lot of songs with her. Our manager was a guy named Frank Fenter and he was in charge of Atlantic Records, which had got all the Stax stuff in the '60s. So we were introduced to all these people; Tom Dowd used to come over to produce various things that we were doing. We met Booker T & The MG's and all these people. When the Stax Revue came, we were there!" He laughs at the memory.
Sharon Tandy sang a track on the Fleur de Lys record "Hold On". Bryn explains, "I co-wrote that one and we put it out as a single. It got really, really good reviews; I remember John Peel really liked it and Jimi Hendrix actually complimented me on my solo! I thought, I'm just trying to copy you!" He laughs. "But Jimi really liked it. It's really nice when someone like that says they like what you do!"
For those who are familiar with Haworth's signature style as a slide guitarist, there might be some surprises listening to "Hold On" since he is playing full-on rock guitar. He explains, "Back then we were a three-piece so you had to play everything - rhythm and lead at the same time! I started off as a slide guitar player because I was in the country really, up in Lancashire, and I couldn't figure out how people made these sounds. I read an article on slide guitar and I thought, Oh, that's how they do it! Electric guitars don't have huge big thick strings on them like a medium-gauge acoustic set, so I got this washer out of the back of my stepdad's drawer and I pulled it on [my finger] and started playing slide. I thought that's how you played lead guitar. So when I came down to London I was a slide guitar player. Then I saw that they used thin strings and so I chucked it away and started playing lead guitar that way! But it came back later, in the '70s."
In 1969, Haworth left Fleur de Lys and moved to America. "I went over there with a guy called Leigh Stephens. I always wanted to play in America because I loved American music. I thought, If I can make a living there I must be okay! It was just a kind of a challenge really. Leigh Stephens had been in a band called Blue Cheer and he was looking for a new band. So I went over to join his band, and they were called Red Weather. So I was back to sing with him in Santa Monica. I started off that way."
Red Weather fizzled out and Haworth joined another band that forged associations with the legendary promoter Bill Graham. The band featured bassist Lee Sklar, keyboardist Kevin Kelly and from this distance in time a guitarist who Bryn only remembers as "Izzy". He says, "I really liked that band. We were managed by Bill Graham, whose real name is Wolfgang Grajonca, and so he said, 'Your name is Wolfgang. That's what you will be called.' We all protested but we thought, well you can't really protest! Anyway, he gave us the Fillmore West to rehearse in. So we got on all these great bills at Fillmore West and also at Winterland, down the road, in San Francisco. We were playing with Led Zeppelin and Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead; you name it, we were on these bills because we were managed by him. And we were a good band. We got a demo done by a guy called Gerry Goffin; you know Goffin and King? Well, Gerry Goffin put the money up to record us and we did these demos. It was really full on, you know. We used to go out and try and blow the main band off! That's what we did! And we'd go and support people like Mountain and we could do really well because we were a good band."
In good rock'n'roll tradition, Bryn Haworth got busted in America and spent a night in jail. He remembers, "It was one of those classic Los Angeles scenes with helicopters and police cars. The thing is the guitar player was a drug dealer as well which didn't help! We lived together and this one day we unfortunately got busted so we both got taken off in the police cars and put in jail. The funny thing is that somebody paid my bail and I don't know who it was. I was just let out in the middle of the night and they said, 'Somebody has paid your bail.' I just didn't know where I was. I was quite 'high' anyway! And in Los Angeles you walk out into the valley and you could be anywhere; there's no shops, just roads and Astroturf with coloured lights everywhere. This car pulled up alongside and said, 'Where are you going?' And I said, 'I'm going to Box Canyon." And they said, 'Oh, that's where I live!' So this woman took me up there to Box Canyon; right to the door!" One wonders whether somewhere on the record books, there's a note that Bryn Haworth is a druggie. "Probably!" Bryn laughs, "But when I go into prisons to play I can actually say, 'Well, I've actually spent a night in a jail so I have a limited experience!'"
After Wolfgang, Haworth played in Jackie Lomax's band but really he wanted to return to the UK and start his own band. He remembers, "There was a drummer from The Grease Band called Bruce Rowland and we wanted to start something new, so I started writing songs. At the same time we were friends with John Porter, who was the bass player of Roxy Music and he was well in with Island Records. He said, 'Why don't you take your demos to Island Records - to Richard Williams?' Richard heard my demos and signed me for Island." In the early '70s, Island was a very young label with a strong roster of interesting and young talent. They had artists like Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, Traffic and later on Bad Company were signed. The label had recording studios in London in Basing Street but it was the studio in St Peter's Square in Hammersmith that Haworth remembers with most fondness. "It was really cool because it had a studio rehearsal hall and like a hangout place with a café where you could buy food and so everybody was there - Roxy Music, Traffic; Robert Palmer I remember. Everybody would just come in and sit around and talk so you did have a real rapport with others and people were involved in each other's records. They'd come down to listen if you were recording and you'd get people walking in and out. And having the rehearsal place there; it was a really, really good family feeling."