John Mayall

  • Dennis Greaves of Nine Below Zero and The Truth Talks To Tootal Blog

    How the devil are you?

    I’m really well. I turned 60 this year. I can’t believe I’m still doing what I’m doing. You know what? I feel as fresh as a daisy.

    Tell us about your early life.

    I was born in Tufnell Park. Mum and Dad had bought tickets for the Australia trip. We were going to be Ten Pound Poms but Dad bottled it. Then a flat came up in the Elephant & Castle, Peabody Trust, so we moved from our rented accommodation in Tufnell Park; I had six beautiful years in North London and all my family are still there.

    Was there much music in the house when you were growing up?

    My Grandad played everything. Terribly. There was a harmonica, a piano, an accordion, a guitar; and he could pick up anything. He sung in the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park, my father sung there also and I’ve sung there, so I’m really pleased that the tradition carried on.

    Luckily my Mum and Dad loved their music. When I grew up it was very much Frank Sinatra and Brook Benton. My Mum loved Adam Faith, my Dad sung in the pubs, all the Al Jolson stuff. As a kid we never had babysitters, we got dragged to the pub when they used to go and see Matt Monro in the Boston Arms.

    Take us back to the ‘70s when Nine Below Zero started out.

    Nine Below Zero in 1982: (L. to R.) Brian Bethell, Dennis Greaves, Mark Feltham, Mickey Burkey.

    We weren’t Nine Below Zero until ’79. I’d been to see Beryl, who used to run the Thomas A Becket pub in the Old Kent Road. And it was all boxers, villains, footballers, police, musicians, all in the same boozer, and she said, “Yeah, I’ll give you a gig, every Monday night. What’s the name of the band?” I said “Er… Stan’s Blues Band”. God knows why; terrible name. ’79 was when we did our first gig as Nine Below Zero. And just like the Rolling Stones, whereas they took their name from a Muddy Waters song, ours is a Sonny Boy Williamson song.

    We got our first North London gig at Dingwalls. Had to go back across the water. It changed our lives that gig. Paul Jones, from the Blues Band, was in the audience, and that was where our first manager, Mickey Modern, saw us.

    The guitarist and British Blues legend Alexis Korner was a big fan.

    Alexis was so lovely to us. Oh, I miss that man. Do you know why? Because he was so intelligent and so sussed. He said to me, “You remind me of the Rolling Stones”. I said, “Why’s that?” He said, “Because you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing but you’ve got the feel. You’re so innocent; so naive. Like the Stones were. They just wanted to play Blues.”

    Are you still as enthusiastic now as you were back then?

    I’ve got an 8-piece Nine Below Zero band now. I’ve got some young players in there, a few Jazzers – sax, keyboards, trumpet - and a girl singer, Charlie. They’re all early 30s. And then there’s me, Mickey and Mark, and young Ben on bass, our new bass player. It’s just revitalised the whole band. Very important that you don’t become a tribute to yourself, I’m really aware of that. I didn’t want to slap around doing the same old thing.

    And then three or four years ago, Mick Lister came back into my life, and we put The Truth back together. We’ve got my son, Sonny, on drums. He’s grown up with it all, and he’s given me that energy. Brian Bethell is on bass, me and Mick Lister on guitar, and a new keyboard player. I did have Andy Fairclough, who unfortunately I gave to From The Jam. Russell rung me up and said, “Can you recommend a good keyboard player?” I said, “Well, this guy’s ‘The Bollocks’” and I lost him… I don’t mind at all.

    We were playing these Truth songs the other night, in Brighton – we played with Secret Affair. It was absolutely packed; hot, sweaty; it was really good… - and I went “Wow! They’re not bad songs”. Mick and I sing really well together.

    With a song like Exception of Love, I’ve been waiting to have a drummer like Sonny since Gary Wallis. It’s got that swing [mimes intro]; a lovely, good feeling song.

    Then I’m going out with Mark Feltham as a duo. When me and Mark met 40 years ago the common denominators were Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, John Mayall, Walter Horton, Little Walter, Muddy Waters… and with the duo we’re able to go back to what really made us do what we do. Of course, Nine Below Zero took it to it’s own situation and vibe because we couldn’t be just another Blues band back then. I think I’m the happiest I’ve been for a long time because I’ve got these three little projects.

    Has the Nine Below Zero approach to R&B changed over the years?

    The Nine Below Zero Big Band

    When we started out Mark said, “Ever heard the J. Geils Band?” and I said, “Ever heard Dr. Feelgood?” So we mashed all that up. In ’77 when we started it was all Punk; I was 20, so I think we just picked up on that exuberance. I think we became our own brand; mixing what Mark bought and what I bought.

    When we got back together in the ‘90s we had Gerry McEvoy and Brendan O’Neill, Rory Gallagher’s rhythm section in the band, and it went a bit rockier. The ‘90s were tough for Roots music because you were in the middle of the Nirvana, Oasis, Blur situation and there wasn’t a lot of room for Roots music. And when Stevie Ray Vaughan died it lost its way a bit. We’ve always managed to produce a new album and keep going, that’s very important. That keeps the longevity, having new albums. Five or six years ago I got the original line-up back together; Brian Bethell, Mickey Burkey, Mark and myself, so that was another fresh, albeit vintage, idea and we did a lovely tour.

    And then I had this idea to do a new album, which became 13 Shades Of Blue. I sat in my kitchen and got a playlist together; brilliant Blues songs that went under the radar. And then I’m thinking, “There’s a bit of Ska in that; that’s a bit Soulful, that’s a bit Funky, that’s a bit Rootsy, and I thought, “Wow! Blues just funnels through all these genres”. It’s nice to discover a song like “It’s Your Voodoo Working”; it’s like I went back to university for a year and studied.

    Then I’m thinking I need a bit of piano, a bit of trumpet, a bit of sax. And I run a Blues Jam at the Pelton Arms in Greenwich, last Sunday of every month. A girl walks in, she said, “Can I sing ‘Stormy Monday’?” She got up and the whole pub just went… and stopped. And that was Charlie, our singer. The following week, we’re in the studio, and recorded Aretha Franklin’s “Don’t Play That Song”. It all happened, so naturally, so organically, and before I knew it, I thought, I’m going to have to take this on the road.

    On that last album you pay tribute to Aretha Franklin, Charlie Austin, Aaron Neville, John Mayall… All of these records must have been in your collection?

    Nine Below Zero: The Current Four Piece. (L. To R.) Ben Willis, Dennis Greaves, Mark Feltham, Mickey Burkey.

    If you read Keith Richards book, he said his job was to teach every white kid about Muddy Waters. People come up to me and say, “Hoochie Coochie Coo”, or something as obvious as “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch”; “That’s a great song that you wrote”. I said, “No”. It’s John Mayall, or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, so… I walked into a pub – my son runs a pub – and on the jukebox he’s got “Don’t Lay That Funky Trip On Me”. Why have I never heard that? And he says’ “Oh, it’s Señor Soul”. Of course, you find out it’s the harmonica player from War, Lee Oskar. So, there you go, you’re educating yourself, and if I can pass that on…

    You mentioned that in ’77 when you first started it was all Punk, but only a couple of years later you were on an episode of the ITV South Bank Show dedicated to the British R&B tradition

    Oh, wasn’t that wonderful… It was the Blues Band, Dr Feelgood and Nine Below Zero. Sixties; Seventies; Eighties. Fantastic! And do you know what, I often say there would be a gap there to The Strypes. I wish there was more bands like The Strypes, I really do. I think they’re wonderful. I’ve been at a lot of festivals this summer and there’s a lot of them ‘NME’ bands, trendy Indie, all the same… nothing’s jumping out.

    Why has R&B lasted? We are talking about a style of music that’s been around for 70 years.

    Do you know what it is? It’s feel. You feel what they are projecting. Take ‘Smokestack Lightning’. Put that on and I defy you not to feel it. It’s one chord, but the feel and the soul… If you listen to something now from the ‘90s, it’s gone, its lost but you go back to Buddy Holly, all that stuff - three microphones and loads of compression. Those early Elvis Presley recordings… Scotty Moore on guitar; bass and drums. It’s feel. You put that on and there’s something special there.

    Some of your own recordings are almost 40 years old now. 40 years ago what was the expectation?

    Dennis Greaves (L) and Mark 'The Harp' Feltham

    I didn’t think about it too deeply but I wouldn’t have thought I’d be here now talking to you. No way. I’d come out of school, got a little job. I convinced Mark to turn professional. We got a record deal with A&M. We were in the Thomas A Becket one night; we did a demo, and then we signed to A&M Records. We were on The Kinks tour; we were playing with The Who, and it was like… woah! We didn’t stop to think, we were just rolling, going with it. I’ve had a wonderful journey. There’s been loads of ups and downs. I remember going through my wife’s wardrobe, looking for coins to buy a paper or for my bus fare. Though I think those periods really put you in good stead; she’d go to work, I’d be stuck at home writing songs but I think it’s good that you have that fight, that passion.

    After Live At The Marquee and Don’t Point Your Finger… everything seemed primed for you to break into the mainstream. How did you feel when Third Degree didn’t cross over?

    In the days before mobile phones, we stopped the tour bus and our manager, Mickey Modern, ran out to the telephone box. Wipe Away Your Kiss had got to #76, so we missed out by one chart place to get on Top Of The Pops. And the deflation was like… Oh, my God. We didn’t know where to go after Third Degree. Derek Green (at A&M) pleaded with us to make another record and he could have been right but we’d been on the road for two and a half years. We were young; we were angry; we were cheesed off. Everything was primed and nothing came of it. Great videos with some good people. David Bailey’s doing the photograph, everything’s right but if you look at that front cover we look tired. Luckily it made me go and form The Truth because I fell in love with the Hammond organ during Third Degree.

    And is The Truth reformation an ongoing thing?

    The Truth in 1984. Dennis Greaves (seated); the white socks and loafer years .

    Very much so. The thing with The Truth is I think we’ve done four or five shows, and it’s fresh. There’s a lot of bands on the circuit who’ve been slapping about, and the problem is if you ain’t made a new record for thirty years, you’ve got to be really careful. Cherry Red Records bought out a 3CD Truth box set, done a lovely job; great artwork. That gave us a reason to go out. And I’ve been waiting for a drummer like my son. I’m so pleased that we can swing, and we can play those songs better than we did back then. As you mature you can groove a bit more.

    You’ve always been a stylish individual. Does the look go hand in hand with the music?

    I’m not an Elvis Presley gold lame suit guy but I like to be nicely dressed. I saw Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino wearing a top like mine and I thought, yeah, looks good. It’s really important when you get older that you don’t try and dress young. You’ve got to be fresh. I look at Charlie Watts – the man’s stylish. I love Charlie. Mick Jagger… mmm, not so sure. Don’t get me wrong. I have done some Wally things in my time, There was “Jumpergate”, when The Truth turned up in these jumpers… that was a big mistake.

    There was a time at Nine Below Zero gigs when half of the audience would be dressed like you; narrow jeans, suede Chelsea boots, leather box jacket with a Fred Perry underneath.

    Yeah, that jacket, I got it on the Kings Road; what was the name of that market? Kensington Market. I use to get a lot of things from Crampton Clothing in the Old Kent Road, opposite the Thomas A Becket. It was all ‘Dead Man’s Gear’ when you think about it. We’d be picking up suits for £1.50, and shirts for 20 pence.

    In 1981 we played with The Jam, on the back of a lorry at a CND rally. I’ve still got the CND magazine with us on the front. I had a Tootal scarf on; white jeans and a maroon and white polka dot; a classic scarf.

    Can you remember the first time your Mum and Dad let you buy your own clothes?

    Yeah, I was thirteen; My Mum and dad took me to Mr Carnaby in Carnaby Street. I was desperate. I bought a purple zipped up turtle-neck. I really wish turtle-necks would come back. I’ve said to Smedley’s… I can’t get a Smedley turtle-neck; they’ve stopped doing them.

    What’s next for you?

    Lots to be done. We’re going to do the Squeeze tour. I’m really looking forward to it, ‘cause I think a lot of fans have bought into the two bands together. Obviously Squeeze have sold the tickets but I’m getting a good feel for that.

    I must record the 8-piece band live. Then it will be the Nine Below Zero 40th anniversary in 2019. I’m just writing a new album for that. Dave Cairns and I are talking about some dual gigs with Secret Affair and The Truth. They’ll be some gigs with From The Jam and The Truth. And me and Mark are doing the duo, so… I feel energised, I feel fresh. Lots to do still. As long as our manager rings me up and says people want to book the band we can continue.

     

    Nine Below Zero are on tour with Squeeze throughout November. Ticket details at http://www.ninebelowzero.com/tour

    13 Shades Of Blue and all other Nine Below Zero albums are available at http://www.ninebelowzero.com/store

    The Truth: A Step In The Right Direction 3CD Set is available at www.cherryred.co.uk

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