The history of rock and roll has produced innumerable drummers. A small number of them have become household names, Ringo Starr, Ginger Baker, Charlie Watts,John Bonham. How many though, have been talented and forceful enough to carve out a successful solo career, without the advantage of being in the public eye, via involvement with a big selling group? The answer must be, very few indeed. This article centres on one such drummer and band leader, Keef Hartley. His recorded legacy spans the era's of Merseybeat, R&B, The British blues boom, and prog rock,leaving a host of highly collectable records in his wake. Additionally, he's contributed his considerable talent to genres as diverse as folk, Jazz, Kraut-rock and one of the biggest selling albums of the 1970's.
To find the start of Keef's career, we must go back to his home town of Preston in Lancashire and the year 1962. At this time Keef was playing with a highly regarded local outfit, "The Thunderbeats". Whilst this name will be unfamiliar to most readers, it is worth a brief mention if only for the fact, that this group would be the starting point for other collectable artists of the next decade. Examples of these include David John and The Mood, Little Free Rock and Thundermother (who were to perform on one side of the extremely rare "Astral Navigations" L.P. released by Holyground in 1971). The Thunderbeats were to perform regularly around the NorthWest, even supporting The Beatles at Morecambe, however Keef was about to make his first move.
When a Liverpool promoter and club owner discovered Keef was keen to turn professional, he offered him the chance to join Rory Storm and the Hurricanes as permanent replacement for Ringo Starr. Keef didn't view his new band too highly, having seen them countless times on the same gig circuit. "Nah, I didn't rate 'em much. I always thought Rory was a bit of a prat, but I couldn't turn down the chance to earn a tenner a week, which was a small fortune in those days". So, Keef became a full time Hurricane, wearing Ringo's old luminous pink stage suit and playing gigs up and down the country. The group recorded only a handful of tracks during their six year existence, and Keef's part in them has never been properly documented before. However he clearly remembers the day, when John Schroeder from Oriole records came to record the group in the Rialto Ballroom. "I was surprised to read in a back issue of Record Collector (Rory Storm feature, issue 99) that Brian Johnson played on the session, because that was certainly me. It was done very quickly as I remember. We came up did our set, and that was it, time for the next band." These recordings were to appear on the Oriole compilation "This is Merseybeat", and the track "Dr Feelgood",was lifted to become the first single by the group.
In October of 1963, the group returned to Hamburg for a two month residency at The Star Club. By now Keef was becoming less than contented with his role in the group, and the thought of leaving the city, with all its illicit attractions, for another mundane slog around the British clubs had little appeal. Salvation came with the arrival in Hamburg of Freddy Starr, who was to replace The Hurricanes as the Star Club's resident act.
As luck would have it, Freddy had arrived without a drummer. Not only that, but his backing group included two good friends from Preston, who had temporarily jumped ship from David John and the Mood. Keef hit it off immediately with Freddy Starr, and the singer's mad-cap humour came as a real tonic following months of tension and moodiness from Rory Storm. When The Hurricanes returned to Liverpool before Christmas, Keef stayed on, to become the drummer with the short lived "Freddy Starr and the Starr boys".
Freddy had already made a number of records, but this line up were to record one album, which is now extremely rare. Made solely for release in Germany, "This is Liverpool Beat" purported to be, "Recorded live at The Iron Door Club, Liverpool". As Keef remembers, this was not altogether true. "The record company were keen to cash in on the Mersey-beat phenomenon, but rather than fund the sending of a mobile unit up to Liverpool, we were chucked in a London studio for a day and the applause was dubbed on later". This matters little, for the resulting L.P. is an essential piece for any collector of the era, spanning the gap between Beat and raw Rock & Roll.
Freddy parted company with the band in the spring of 1964, leaving them with a summer season residency at The Picador Club in Blackpool. Being one of the few late night clubs at the time, it became the haunt of many visiting stars such as Johnny Kidd, Joe Brown and Billy Fury. Noting Keef's obvious talent, they told him London was THE place to be. So in September, he and future Creation bass player, Bob Gardner, set out for the bright lights of the big city. It soon became apparent that the streets were not paved with gold, and barring the occasional session with Southern Music, work was hard to come by. Keef remembers "I spent quite a bit of time sleeping rough and it was only being befriended by the owners of Le Gioconda cafe on Denmark St, who kept me fed, that saved me from either packing it all in or starving to death".His fortunes were to change after seeing an ad in Melody Maker, that read "Drummer wanted for R+B band"
The band in question turned out to be The Artwoods, and while their story is well documented (see Record Collector issue 153), the opportunity to mention a few unreleased and rare items should not be missed. The first of these is an album by Freddy Mack entitled "The Fantastic Freddy Mack". Issued on the Rayrick label, this features some of The Artwoods (uncredited) brought in by Johnny Jones (the manager of both acts) to re-record Freddy Mack's backing band. It sold abysmally, consequently making this high octane R&B album very scarce nowadays. Talking to Art Wood recently, he described this and other similar albums as "Pocket Money stuff". He explained, "The guys often sneaked off to do the odd session here and there to pick up a bit of extra pocket money. Some of us ( Keef included )did stuff with Mae Mercer and Little Walter who was a really scary guy. We also did lots of live gigs, backing people like Howlin' Wolf at places like Klooks Kleek. It was something we did to eke out a bit of extra money"
There is one Artwoods album that has been offered for sale in the pages of Record collector, but outside of the band has been heard by only a couple of people. The acetate LP of the band playing live at The Ormescliff hotel in Llandudnno is a one copy only item. It's value is unknown, but Art recalls a four figure sum being bandied about. "I remember it, but God knows why someone would want to pay so much for it. The recording quality was bloody awful as I remember it. It was never an official recording, just something a fan did on an old Grundig reel to Reel. He then pressed up an acetate himself." Barring the existence of sessions for the B.B.C, this is the only known live recording of the band. Given technological advances that can greatly improve and enhance vintage recordings, this is a "must locate" for any enterprising re-issue company.
The final Artwoods rarity, surely has to see the light of day at sometime. Still languishing in Decca's vaults is a full albums worth of unreleased material, with the working title of "Zena's Twigs". Made by the band with the assistance of Mike Vernon, Neil Slavern and Gus Dugeon, this captures the surreal humour of Art Wood. In spirit, it is similar to tracks such as "Molly Anderson's Cookery Book" and "I'm looking for a saxophonist.........". When I reminded Art of it's existence recently he remembered the sessions fondly. "That was great fun to do, we were on free studio time, so we could do whatever we wanted. I'd love to hear it again". Wouldn't we all, and considering that Art managed to finally release the original Quiet Melon tracks, we might one day see a new Artwoods album in the shops.
Keef's friendship with the producer Mike Vernon enabled him to play on many more great albums, some of which are highly sought after today. Joining friends such as Eric Clapton, Tony McPhee, Peter Green, Mick Taylor and John Mayall, he played on countless sessions for visiting American bluesmen, such as Champion Jack Dupree and Jimmy Witherspoon. This informal group of friends were to also feature (frequently uncredited for contractual reasons) on many other L.P's that Mike Vernon produced for Decca and later Blue Horizon. Keef explains "Mike had the job of preparing many American blues albums for their British release. Unfortunately many were already recorded in mono, but the market demanded stereo records by the mid to late sixties. So we were given the job of learning the tracks note for note, including all the bum ones, which Mike would then mix with the original master to create a new stereo version. It was strange to do, but extremely well paid so nobody seemed to mind"
A lack of commercial success, coupled with Keef's wish to constantly change musical arrangements, was causing tension within the Artwoods, and the final straw for Keef came with the arrival of some new Carnaby Street stage suits. Johnny Jones gave him an ultimatum, "If you don't wear it you're sacked". Never one to be told what what to do, let alone wear, that was it, Keef walked out. Almost immediately though, he bumped into John Mayall at the Blue Boar, "John asked what I was up to, so I told him what had happened. He told me that he was sacking his present drummer the following day, and did I want the Job?.Obviously I did!"
The history of John Mayall is both long and complex, with a seemingly constant change of personnel. Space limitations for this article prevent a full written history of Keef's time with the Bluesbreakers. But those seeking more information, should check out John Mayall's excellent autobiography from a couple of years ago or one of the many articles in back issues of this magazine. Keef's period with Mayall was to prove invaluable in his own development. Not only did he travel the world with the band, but more importantly he learnt how to run a group. "Working with John taught me that a band should be led. Gradually I became aware that I had my own ideas of what should be happening musically. I discussed these with John and Mike (Vernon) and received a lot of support. In a nutshell it became apparent that I had to give it a go under my own steam.". The first tentative steps to a solo career were made following a call from Marshall Chess ( owner of Chess Records )to Mike Vernon and Neil Slavern. As Neil remembers, "Marshall was keen for Chess to keep pace with the move from straightforward R&B to a more progressive sort of blues. He'd heard the stuff Mike had produced and was looking for something similar. Keef quickly put a band together consisting of himself, Gary Thain, Paul Rogers and Paul Kossoff. They went into the studio and finished about 3 tracks. These were sent over to the States but nothing came of it."
Keef was keen to push on, and he began auditioning friends and newcomers for the new outfit. The nucleus of this was to be Peter (Dino) Dines on keyboards, Spit James (better known as Ian Cruickshank) on guitar, Gary Thain on bass, Keef on drums and Owen Finnegan on vocals. Things were beginning to gel. The Keef Hartley Band began to gig regularly and their Chicago based blues rock was getting a good audience response.
A mixture of self compositions and blues covers were chosen to be the basis of the first album. Keef took the band into Decca's studios and the tracks were laid down, but it soon became apparent that something was wrong. "We knew as soon as recording started that we had a problem", Keef recalls. "Owen's vocals were just not cutting it. It was so strange, on stage there was no problem, but in the studio he just seemed to become microphone shy" An acetate was cut of the album and listening to it now backs up Keef's view. Owen has a delivery not dissimilar to Robert Plant, but his lack of confidence shows through on some numbers. Keef discussed the problem with producer Neil Slavern, and the decision was made to recruit a new vocalist. Auditions brought Miller Anderson to the fore. Prior to this Miller had been involved with two outfits, "The Voice" who cut one extremely rare (£100) single for Mercury, and "At last the 1958 Rock & Roll show" which also included Ian Hunter. They also cut just one single, for CBS in 1968. When Keef heard Miller sing, things immediately fell into place. "It was wonderful, it felt like the final piece of the jigsaw was in place." They returned to the studio with Miller who re-recorded, and amended the vocals. The album was issued in 1969 by Deram, housed in a striking gatefold sleeve. This showed Keef dressed in full Red Indian costume, which reflected his admiration for native American culture. Much to everyones delight, it was well received, even entering the American charts at number 71 "with a bullet". This promising start meant that a U.S tour had to be quickly arranged. However, apart from Keef and the accompanying brass section, the other band members had never played in the States before. Keef reassured them that it was "No big deal, just the same as British gigs but with slightly bigger audiences". What the band made of that particular comment is unknown, but I doubt climbing on stage to follow Santana at the 1969 Woodstock festival could ever be classed as "No big deal". Keef is frequently asked why their appearance never made the resulting film. The answer to this question was kindly supplied by Miller. "I remember being back stage, waiting to go on, when a fella approaches me with a clip board. Turns out he's with the people filming the show, and he starts asking me what numbers we're doing, where the solos will be, etc. Up walks Johnny (Jones, manager), asks what's going on, then says something like, "Sorry you're not filming my boys without a written contract". The guy says he doesn't even know if the film will ever be made, but suggests it could turn out to be a memorable show, so getting it on film could be a wise move. Johnny wasn't having any of it though, so the guy just tears up the notes he'd taken from me, and walks off"
The appearance was a triumph, and London records who issued the LP in the USA requested a single. "Don't be afraid" was chosen, but shelved at the last minute. Collectors should note the existence of Promo copies, under the original working title of "Look at life", but these are very scarce. The year passed quickly with solid touring around the USA and Europe, often playing the same bill as other up and coming outfits, such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Yes. Keef was also to do a short stint as a temporary stand in drummer for Jethro Tull, who's own drummer refused to change his holiday plans!!. At a gig in London, the group were joined on stage by Jimi Hendrix, who proceeded to further enliven the groups red hot blues set. ( For a full account of this story check out the Jimi Hendrix magazine "Uni-Vibes" issue 16. ) The year ended with the release of the second album, "The Battle of N.W 6". The title referred not only to the location of Decca's studio, but also certain disagreements between Keef and Derek Varnals who assisted Neil Slavern with the production. "Derek was something of a boffin, and had fixed ideas of how a record should be made. He just couldn't cope with some of the ideas that were coming up. We argued constantly and it was a real battle for Neil and I to get our own way. Hence the title of the album." Again enthusiastically received, the LP was to sell steadily around the world. Collectors should note the Australian edition which coupled this and the first album together. This features a unique and truly awful sleeve, created (without Keef's consent ) by painting out much of the detail from the second album's cover!
The album was to reflect Keef's keenness that the band should be progressing away from the standard blues formula. Whilst still blues based, other influences were allowed to enter the picture. The brass parts were enhanced to give power, flute was added to give a tranquil feel to some of the more laid back pieces. This second album was to give Miller Anderson an increased role as songwriter for the band. As with the first album though, he used his wife's maiden name of "Hewitson" for contractual reasons. The album was also to reflect Keef's wish, that the band be flexible enough to take on or drop members when necessary. Hence the inclusion of Barbara Thompson and good friend (and flatmate) Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones.
April of 1970 would see the group back in the studio to record what many regard as their finest album. Released in August, "The Time is Near" was to be their best selling album, and original copies came with a 16 page booklet, showing the band at work in the studio and on stage. Now distant from their pure blues beginnings, the band were at their most creative. An understated but spectacular mix of horn fuelled rock, modern ( but listenable) jazz, and Progressive sounds, combined with excellent songwriting and truly fierce guitar solos from Miller, showed the band to be in peak form. For those who've never heard the group, this is the ideal starting point.
No singles were taken from "The Time is Near", but in November of 1970, a taster for the next album was issued. Split over both sides of the single, "Roundabout (parts 1&2)", was to sell respectably. Well enough in fact to be offered a place on "Top of The Pops". Typically Keef refused, telling the producer "We're not that sort of band"
The next album "Overdog", would bring Peter Dines and Mick Weaver (a.k.a. Wynder K Frog ) back into the fold. It was also to feature good friend and leader of Collosseum, John Hiseman, who would contribute to the L.P's magnum opus "Theme Song / En Route". In recent years, this track has provided many samples and beats for D.J's. One other track, "Imitations from home" has also been bootleged and a re-mixed white label 12 inch has proved very successful on the club scene.
The summer of 1971, was to bring to fruition a long held ambition of Keef's. He assembled a 13 piece band, adding friends from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and associates from his session days with Mike Vernon, to the K.H.B. nucleus of Miller Anderson, Gary Thain and Keef himself. Under the name of The Keef Hartley Big Band, they set out on a British tour. Financially, taking such a large group on the road was a gamble, but audience reaction was reflected by a high demand for tickets. Obviously the Big Band had to be recorded. And so, on the 13th and 14th of June 1971, shows at The Marquee in London were taped. Selections from the two gigs came out on the album, "Little Big Band" issued later that year. The set was a return to blues based material, and the enlarged brass section give a high octane performance showing why even now, the "big band" were regarded as one of the most powerful outfits of the time.
Typically though, the band was to change line up yet again. This time it was the main songwriter, Miller Anderson, who was to leave. Contrary to many reports written since, there was no great disagreement between Miller and Keef. When I spoke to him recently, Miller was keen to clear this up. " There was no big fight or anything like that. I just wanted to do some stuff under my own name. Keef and I are still good friends, all these rumours of us having some sort of fight are all fuckin' rubbish." For Keef it was viewed as just another line up change, and the next album was to bring in another well respected set of Musicians.
"Seventy Second Brave", brought in Junior Kerr, who had played with Bob Marley and the Wailers on guitar and vocals and Pete Wingfield ( ex Jellybread ) as the latest in a long line of keyboard players. The musical style was also to change with this album. Blues and jazz links were severed, as the new outfit moved into a funkier blue eyed soul vein. Never as popular as it's predecessors, it has only recently gained a new audience, due in large part, to interest from the dance and New Soul fans.
Never one to follow trends, 1973 saw Keef leading the band further away from the music that would later typify what white musicians were to supposed to be playing in the era. The next album, Lancashire Hustler had a much harder edge than it's predecessor. It was a powerful mix of rock and funk, and anyone who needs proof of this, should check out the single taken from the L.P, "Dance to the Music". This is best known as a hit for Sly and the Family Stone, but the K.H.B version takes some beating. The line up was increased for this release, and the presence of Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer coupled with that of Miller Anderson and Mick Weaver gave the music some much needed bite. After the disappointment many felt with Seventy Second Brave, the new album showed that the band had found it's edge again, but surprisingly it too failed to sell in any large quantity.
It was to be the final Keef Hartley Band release, but unknown to most fans, another album was recorded , which has remained unreleased to this day. The line up was for this untitled L.P. featured John Mayall, Jess Roden and many old colleagues from previous albums. Due in part to poor sales of the previous two albums and financial problems within the record company, Deram made the decision to shelve the album. This is still a disappointment to Keef, "It's a fine LP and it deserves to be heard as it contains some of the best stuff we ever put down"
Whilst 1972 -73 had seen a decline in sales and also popularity for the Keef Hartley Band, they were to be even more hectic than usual for Keef. His talents were utilised on the first two albums by Vinegar Joe, who were seemingly unable to find a permanent drummer. Keef was also to record sessions with Mick Ronson, for two Dana Gillespie albums . Other collaborations of the time were to prove interesting for collectors of Keef's work.
1971 had seen Keef briefly re-unite with John Mayall for his "Back to the Roots"album. With his own solo career looking less than secure, he gladly accepted the offer from John to join his touring band and make one more album together,"Ten Years are Gone", regarded as one of Mayall's finest post Bluesbreakers albums.
1973 also saw the first in a string of albums Keef was to make with Michael Chapman. Keef remembers his first encounter with Michael. "We were sitting backstage at Dortmund waiting to go on stage. We could hear the crowd erupting, I had to go and see what all the fuss was about.". A friendship was made that would span the next seven years and cover four albums. One of these, "Savage Amusement", was to contain two unusual credits. Keef is listed as playing drums and underwater research, Rick Kemp as bass guitar and air sea rescue. Keef explains, "We were recording at Sawmill studios which is quite remote. The only access is by boat or walking down the railway tracks. Being a little the worse for wear one night, it seemed a good idea to row down to the town. I jumped off the jetty and into the boat, only to bounce straight out and into the river. I was pulled down by the current and the weight of my clothes. If it hadn't been for a super human effort on Rick's part I would have drowned."
Whilst work with Michael Chapman was enjoyable, the thrill of running his own outfit was obviously missing. In 1975, fate would throw Keef and two old colleagues together again. Keef re-united with Miller Anderson and ex- Artwood, Derek Griffiths under the name of Dog Soldier. The trio were supplemented by relative newcomers, Paul Bliss and Mel Simpson, and with a massive cash advance from United Artists, they entered the studio to make an album. As they were to soon discover, receiving such a large amount in advance, would mean that the record company wanted a large say in the finished product. It became obvious that United Artists wanted an American A.O.R. sound, which was at odds with the group's British musical roots. After frequent, heated arguments between the band and the record company, the album finally got a release. No one was happy with it, but a tour was arranged to promote the album. This was to prove traumatic for the band, and each date seemed to add more pressure. Keef remembers the tension rising, " Even back in The Artwoods days, me and Derek used to argue a lot. When I first put Dog Soldier together, we seemed to get on O.K. That was a mistake, cos' by the end of the tour, we hated each other". Miller was able to shed a bit more light on the situation. "We had two problems with the line up, The first was that while me, Keef and Derek were old hands, the other two were new. It was all a bit of an adventure for them, the whole rock 'n' roll trip. Perhaps we'd grown out of it, but it used to piss me and Keef off watching them tarting about.
The second problem came because on every gig we would get loads of requests to play the old stuff ( Keef Hartley Band tracks ). Eventually we started to, which was fine for me and Keef, but the other three fuckin' hated it".
It couldn't last, and with the American tour only 3/4 complete, Keef walked out. "I'd had enough of all of it, the band, the managers, the record company, the album, the lot of it. So I quit, just like that ! "
Unfortunately, this was to be the the last full time group Keef would record with, however further work with Michael Chapman and various sessions for other artists would keep his talents in demand until the end of the decade.
Two of these sessions are worth bringing up in this article. The first of these was for Amon Duul 2 mainman, Lothar Meid, who was making his first solo album. The second session produced an album that would sell more copies than most artists can even dream about. The album was "Grease" and Keef's drumming was to feature (without credit, but for a big fee ) on many of the tracks.
Barring an abortive attempt at forming a new band, "Mainsqueeze", with ex Bluesbreaker Keith Tillman in 1980, this was the end of Keefs recording career. The rest of the 1980's saw him working in recording studio refurbishment and later cabinet making. Various offers to reform the Keef Hartley Band have come his way, but always declined. However Keef is not dismissive of his musical legacy. " A few years ago, I attended a number of record fairs with a friend of mine. It was great to meet people who still enjoy my work. I've still got quite a bit of unreleased stuff from years gone by. I keep toying with the idea of putting it out, who knows......Perhaps if I get the right offer......"
Photos from these releases can be seen in the picture gallery