Interview with Mel Collins by Chris Groom
Date Submitted: 30-Jul-2001
Submitted By: Chris Groom (studio at design-study dot demon dot co dot uk)
The following text is taken from an interview with Mel Collins, which took place in the bar of the Half Moon in Putney, London - 13th April 1997. At that time I was working on a book entitled 'Rockin' & Around Croydon' - the story of the musical history of my particular area of South East London - and I was keen to talk to Mel as he had kicked off his career by playing in a couple of local Croydon bands. Mel was in town to play a benefit gig with the re-formed Kokomo, so I took the opportunity to see him perform, left him my number - and three days later we were talking over a couple of drinks. As with all the interviews for the book, I have deliberately edited out my prompts and questions to let Mel's story flow...
One of the most successful (and certainly one of the busiest) British saxophonists working in the rock world, Mel has played with virtually everybody! But prior to playing with the likes of Alexis Korner and King Crimson, his roots lie in Croydon band The Dagoes and a short-lived group called Circus, which also featured Philip Goodhand-Tait on vocals.
"As a musician, I can proudly say that I was actually born on the road, while on tour in the Isle of Man. My father is a musician and my mother was a singer and they were out on tour with the Roy Fox Band who were playing a summer season over on the Isle of Man. Soon afterwards we moved back to Banstead, Surrey - to Walnut Tree Close in fact. I went to Banstead primary school and then on to secondary school in Epsom; then I worked for a photographer in Sutton, where I was given the job of taking the passport photographs, the babies and weddings, all that sort of thing.
"Back then I would go and see live music all the time - Eel Pie Island, the Marquee, the Flamingo - mainly up in London, but locally the Public Hall at Wallington was the place, and I can definitely remember seeing Screaming Jay Hawkins play there. He had a very exciting stage act, which would probably seem a bit corny now, but back then it was terrific. I can also remember seeing the Rolling Stones play at Epsom Public Baths.
"There were a couple of little bands prior to my joining a Croydon group called The Dagoes, but they were really just learning to play, nothing serious. The Dagoes were my first proper attempt at being 'a musician', you know, turning professional and everything. We played quite often at a big ballroom in East Grinstead called the Whitehall, and although we were obviously just a tiny little support band, we were able to open for the likes of P.J. Proby, Bo Diddley and even the Byrds on one occasion, which was all very exciting. We built up our own small following as well and it may seem old fashioned to say so, but we really did learn our trade by doing the rounds of little gigs and the odd support spot. Bumming up and down the M1, playing all-nighter's, two shows in an evening, moving across town from one club to another and then get home at six o'clock in the morning. It was very hard going, but we enjoyed it - not so much when the van would break down at four o'clock in the morning, sixty miles from home, when the clutch goes and you're stuck at the side of a motorway in the middle of the night - but mostly it was great fun!
"We had some dates lined up in Germany, but I couldn't go until I was 18, so we waited until September for my birthday, when I could get a work permit and then we went straight out there! Actually that only lasted about a month, because as soon as we came back most of the others went straight back to work - except me, I was determined to stick it out. I really felt that I was now a professional and I was going to stay professional! I've no idea where any of them are now, although I think that our drummer Trevor Rodrigues is probably still living in Thornton Heath.
"Our keyboard player, Errol Dyer and I got a job with this band called Jet Set & the Soulmates - Jet Set were the group and the Soulmates were the singers - and their drummer was Gerry Conway, who you will know from his later work with Cat Stevens, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, John Martyn and so on. The singers were Larry somebody, Brian - I canÕt remember their surnames, it was so long ago - and Lisa Strike who went on to do a lot of session work. That gig only lasted about six months.
"Then I answered an ad. in Melody Maker for a job with Philip Goodhand-Tait & the Stormsville Shakers, who were based in Guildford and that lasted a bit longer, about eighteen months. Initially they were a rock'n'roll band, but by the time I joined they were much more of a soul group; we were signed to the Gunnell Agency and really did the rounds, playing the all-nighters with the likes of Georgie Fame and Zoot Money - all these people. We travelled up and down the country playing all these clubs and eventually as the music scene changed and became more psychedelic - even Zoot Money's group became Dantalian's Chariot and started wearing robes - we also changed away from being an out and out soul band. Our other sax player left and I stopped playing so much sax and started to play more flute, which was very popular in the late 'sixties, and we also changed our name to Circus. We were recording with Mike D'Abo, he was producing us at the time and very soon after the name change, Philip Goodhand-Tait decided to leave. I was actually writing songs by then and Philip and I contributed most of the original material, but Philip really had his mind set on a solo career and he left to concentrate on that.
"So I consider the true Circus to be the band after Philip left - just the four of us who recorded the one album for Transatlantic. The Circus album actually broke even, it sold about six or seven thousand copies, which wasnÕt bad for a first album, most record companies used to write off of a band's debut record as a bit of a loss leader. And in fact, Circus were indirectly responsible for my joining King Crimson. We had a three month residency at the Marquee in Wardour Street and the manager John Gee had this new idea for a series of gigs - there was a healthy jazz scene in London then - and as Circus were a sort of folk/rock/jazz combo, John wanted to mix the rock'n'roll up with the jazz side of things. He put this gig together called 'New Paths', which was basically us together with Keith Tippett's band on a Wednesday night and King Crimson, who played on Sundays with John Surman's band. The idea was to have a jazz audience in that would appreciate us and also if you like, a pop/rock audience that could come and listen to jazz. Which was quite a nice idea, really.
"We would go and see King Crimson on a Sunday and they would come and see us on a Wednesday and that's how I first got to meet Robert Fripp. He obviously liked what I was doing in Circus - after Philip left I was pretty much the leader of the band, anyway - and Crimson had been having a troubled time on tour in America, Mike Giles and Ian MacDonald had left the band, girlfriend problems, or whatever, and when they came back from the States they were minus a drummer and a sax player. Fripp came down to see us one night and asked me if I would be interested in joining. So that was the beginning of my leaving Circus to join King Crimson.
"Originally it was just on a session basis, during the recording of the 'Wake Of Poseidon' LP, but when I joined the band permanently it was with the specific purpose of getting the band out on the road. Greg Lake was still involved at the time that I joined, but he quit to form Emerson, Lake & Palmer while Crimson were still looking for their new drummer. So for a while, Crimson was just Robert, myself and Pete Sinfield, trying to get the band together. It took a year in fact, before we got the personnel together who recorded the album 'Lizard', which was the addition of Gordon Haskall on bass and Andy McCulloch on drums. Once the album was finished, this was going to be the band that went out on the road, but on the first day of rehearsals Gordon Haskall decided that he couldn't work with Robert anymore. Gordon and Robert had actually been at school together, but they'd had such a hard time in the studio - Fripp isn't always the easiest of people to work with - but the first day of rehearsing the tour and Gordon turns round and tells us he's leaving!
"To begin with, I was broken hearted, because Crimson was going to be my big break and I actually went away and reformed Circus, with the idea of recording a second album. Then suddenly Fripp got enthusiastic again, he'd found a new drummer in Ian Wallace and we started to audition for a new singer and bass player. Along came Boz Burrell, who actually auditioned as a singer, he wasn't a bassist at all, but most people know the story by now that Fripp taught him to play bass, the whole set note for note, so that we could go on tour! At the end of two years, we finally had a band to go out on the road and off we went.
"After my time with Crimson, thatÕs when I really started getting into sessions. We were in America, having just completed our last US tour and we were splitting up the band, Ian, Boz and myself were leaving Robert. He did actually ask me to stay on and help out with the next Crimson; he was already planning the next line-up, with John Wetton on bass, but I'd really had enough, at the time I really didnÕt want to work with Robert anymore and it was either leave or be destroyed, I think. We had been doing this big package tour in America with Alexis Korner and Pete Thorup opening the show, Black Oak Arkansas were also on the bill, then Crimson, then Humble Pie - which was fantastic, great value for money. Everyone would get together before the shows and later in the hotel bars and jam - Alexis, Steve Marriott, Boz and myself, which was great fun - Alexis and Steve had known each other for some time. King Crimson finished their part of the tour in Birmingham, Alabama and Alexis, who knew that we were all leaving, thought it would be good to work with a drummer, and asked Ian Wallace to join him and Peter for the rest of the tour, which he did.
"So Boz and I jumped into the back of a car with two young ladies and went over to the tour promoter's house in New Orleans - he was lending it to us for a holiday. We had no cares in the world, no responsibilities and we spent two fantastic weeks there; being fed strawberries and cream while lying in hammocks in the garden and boogeying in town in the evenings - there was some great music to be found in New Orleans, which was another reason why we were there. Meanwhile the tour carried on round the country and two weeks later was scheduled to play at the Warehouse in New Orleans. Boz and I went down to see them play, Alexis, Peter and Ian, and then went backstage to meet them afterwards. By now, Alexis was keen to expand this new 'band' of his and asked Boz to join on bass for the final six weeks of the tour - they were huge tours, these American packages. As they were leaving the dressing room, Alexis looked back at me, I must have looked a bit lost and forelorn, and said "well, we can't leave Mel..." so then I was in the band and we all finished the tour together.
"The tour finished in San Francisco and Alexis decided that he wanted to make an album, the result of which was the 'Accidentally Born In New Orleans' LP, which was exactly how the band came about. Then we all went back to England and carried on touring as Snape and that lasted for another six months. Some of these bands may seem short lived, but I think the reason may be that in those days you could always get work. There were plenty of places to play and you could just put a band together and do a few dates, especially established names like Alexis - I mean, we did a two month tour of Germany, just doing the rounds of little clubs. Not making much money, in fact I know that Boz came back owing Alexis money, in the end!
"We realised that we weren't getting anywhere, musically speaking. It was great fun, it was fantastic to have come out of King Crimson, playing high-energy rock, with its complicated time signatures to just playing the blues with Alexis. And learning to play the blues, if you like, because up to that point I hadn't really been involved with that musical form at all. The Dagoes had been a beat group; the Stormsville Shakers started out as a rock'n'roll band who turned into a soul outfit; Circus were this psychedelic folk/jazz thing and then Crimson - so yes, meeting Alexis was my first real introduction to the blues.
"Alexis was very good, bless his heart, at being a catalyst, both he and John Mayall would find good musicians and put them together, then move on to form another band. And having given those young musicians the benefit of his experience he was content to let them leave and find their own way. After Alexis came the sessions, yeah and that side of things really built up. Crimson helped, I mean after playing with them my name was out there, I even made the Melody Maker polls for 'Best Instrumentalist'! It was funny, because there was me and Dick Heckstall-Smith playing 'rock' sax, if you like, and Dick always came out above me. They never actually had a sax section or a woodwind section, and if you didn't play guitar, bass, drums or keyboards you were stuck in the miscellaneous instruments section, with people like Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull, Fairport's Dave Swarbrick and Lindisfarne's Ray Jackson. But one particular year, just after the Crimson thing, I was one place ahead of Dick, which was very satisfying.
"Fripp was very fair when it came to doing the session work. It was really only he and Pete Sinfield who had the record deal with Island, while the rest of us were on a percentage - it was Robert's generosity that he included us in on the deal, but we didn't actually have a contract with Island at all. So after King Crimson split up, there was no problem in playing sessions for anybody. I had learnt the hard way when I was with Circus, for whom I signed a record deal with Transatlantic. When I wanted to leave Circus to join Fripp, it caused a big problem, because Transatlantic wanted me to pay £1,000 to buy myself out of the contract - in those days a thousand pounds was... well, I thought I would lose the gig with Crimson because I simply couldn't see any way of raising that sort of money. The two guys who started EG Music, negotiated with Transatlantic on my behalf and knocked them down to £500; they paid it upfront for me with the deal being that they would pay £250 and I would find the other half, which I eventually did, out of my wages.
"Playing live is still, for me, the most enjoyable thing - there's nothing like it. And it makes you play better, that's for sure, getting that buzz from an audience. I mean, I'm lucky in that I get to do the big stadium gigs, say with Clannad and I can come back and play a little club when someone like Tony O'Malley calls me up, or when Kokomo get back together for a benefit. They're two completely different things, and yet they're both as exciting - the stadium gigs are obviously not so personal, but that adrenaline rush as you wait backstage just before you go on and the noise of the crowd when the lights go up, it's incredible. You are kind of detached up on the big stage, but it can be really something special. Then itÕs really scary to go back and play a club date with people right there in front of your face - in some ways it can be easier playing a stadium because of that detachment.
"Even after we left Alexis and Snape, the three of us - Ian Wallace, Boz Burrell and myself - carried on working as a team; we were just jamming with a lot of people really, Dick & the Firemen was one amalgamation, with Stevie Marriott again, Zoot Money and a couple of the guys from the Grease Band. Because of the sort of band it was, there was a lot of drinking and partying going on, so when it was good it was fantastic, but when it was bad it could be truly awful. That line-up eventually evolved into HinkleyÕs Heroes and meanwhile Roger Chapman and Charlie Whitney from Family were looking for musicians to make an album; in those days you could do that, actually form a band specifically to make an album - and that's how the Chapman/Whitney Streetwalkers came about. It also meant that they had a ready made band to take on the road and promote the record. It was a shame really, because I quite liked that first Streetwalkers album but I think the record company went bust just as it got released - you couldn't get a copy in the shops even if you wanted to, so that took a dive. If I played on the next album 'Red Card' it was purely on a session basis.
"In May 1973 Neil Hubbard and Alan Spenner formed Kokomo, with Dyan Birch, Frank Collins, Paddy McHugh and Tony O'Malley who had all been in a pop group called Arrival. I came in on sax and we got Terry Stannard to play drums, Jim Mullen on guitar and percussionist Jody Linscott. Kokomo have been described as a 'white soul group', along with people like the Average White Band and so on. We released a couple of albums for CBS, but made most of our money from constant touring and after a few line-up changes the band were really running out of steam.
"During this time, Neil, Alan and myself worked with Alvin Lee from Ten Years After. Along with Ian Wallace from Crimson and Tim Hinkley on keyboards we recorded a live album for Alvin called 'In Flight', after which we went out on a few dates to promote it. The touring band was just Alvin, Ian on drums and me, plus Steve Thompson on bass and Ronnie Leahy on keyboards.
"Back to Kokomo; at the end of 1976, Joe Cocker played a few gigs with us as 'special guest' - he was an old mate of Neil and Alan's from their days with the Grease Band - and in fact one of those gigs with Joe was at the Croydon Greyhound. But by January '77 Kokomo finally decided to split up, although as you know we all still get back together again for the occasional benefit gig or just for the hell of it - they're a lot of fun.
"These days I live and work mostly in Germany; I play in the house band on a German TV chat show - their equivalent of the Letterman Show in the States. It's great - regular work with whichever musical guest is booked for the show - and we only get a short time to rehearse a couple of their songs and then back them live on the night. Fortunately I know a good reliable sax player who will stand-in for me, but who doesn't want my job full time - which means I can still take up any offers of touring with various bands - Clannad for instance, seem to have adopted me recently!"
[What follows] is a very condensed version of the Mel Collins 'family tree' - much of the information has already been covered in Mel's interview. If you get the chance, go and see Kokomo perform - they are still a great live band.
© Chris Groom 1998
'Rockin' & Around Croydon' is available from Wombeat Publishing, PO Box 775, Purley, Surrey CR8 2ZY United Kingdom, cover price £11.50 plus post and packing. For further details, e-mail: chris at design-study dot demon dot co dot uk