An Interview with Great Britainís John Scott Cree
'70s Recording Artist for Pye Records
"Do you remember The Chantays [who were famous for] 'Pipeline?' That name used to crack us up because a Chantay is Scots for a 'chamber pot.'"
[Lance Monthly] What is your age, and describe in detail where you were born and something about your early family life?
JOHN SCOTT CREE I'm 54. Born [in] Farnham, Surrey, England at an early age, because I wanted to be near my mother. Schools: St Joseph's Aldershot [and] St George's Weybridge. Had three younger sisters. Dad was a drummer and I tried to learn "Mummy-Daddy" drums with him.
[Lance Monthly] What was the Rock music scene like in your country during your youth? Was it heavily saturated with American artists?
JOHN SCOTT CREE Big bands still accompanied singers on radio and TV, sounding nothing like the records I liked. Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line" was a breath of fresh air, as was Cliff Richard's "Move it" a couple of years later. We had Jack-Good-produced TV programmes like "Six-five special" and "Oh Boy." In those days, I was just too young to be fully aware of the pre-1959, Rock 'n' Roll surge, although The Everlys were still big and I was still able to discover Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. Cliff Richard and his group, The Shadows, were massive, as was Elvis, but our charts had a lot of covers by British artists, as well as the U.S. originals. I lost interest a bit when all the Bobbys were going (Vee, Rydell, Darin). Del Shannon was ok, as were some Neil Sedaka records. The sound of Johnny and the Hurricanes and The Piltdown Men was thrilling and then Phil Spector woke us up with The Crystals and Ronettes, but The Beatles had happened for us by then.
[Lance Monthly] What groups or individual artists were your favorites and which ones inspired you to launch your music career?
JOHN SCOTT CREE I asked myself this when I had eight vinyl copies left of my first single "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer." By this time I was in my late 40s and thought it was time to give up hope of it being a hit. I wondered what had made me want to play in the first place and decided to send it to ten people who had influenced me most. By this time Elvis and John Lennon were dead and I'd played for George Harrison, so although The Beatles were up there, I didn't feel the need to send them a copy. Neither did I send one to The Stones, as I thought they were too remote for it to reach them. I did send it to U.S. heroes [such as] Little Richard for his voice, Chuck Berry for his guitar and lyrics, and Bob Dylan for his lyrics. I sent it [to] UK heroes Lonnie Donegan for starting it all in England, Cliff Richard for being the best we had in my formative years, Pete Townshend for his guitar playing and song writing in what is still my favourite band, and Elton John and Tim Rice, because they seemed to be a real fan of it all like me. Some of them were kind enough to reply.
There are more details on the effects of music on my life at: pages.britishlibrary.net/johnscottcree/eBook.htm [I did like] Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, Sam Cooke, The Coasters, The Four Seasons, Ray Charles, and records like The Marcels' Blue Moon. Most significantly, for wanting to be a performer (although they weren't rock), [I liked] Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee [for] holding a Manchester TV audience enthralled with only one acoustic guitar.
[Lance Monthly] When I got into the Rock'n' Roll scene as a guitarist, it was because I was inspired by the guitar instrumental efforts of The Ventures and Fireballs. You had The Shadows. I have to admit that I'd never heard of this group during the early '60s, as the general consensus was that rock bands outside of the U.S. borders were inferior. Did you get hooked on the guitar rock instrumental craze of the late '50s and early '60s, and who was bigger in the genre in Europe, The Ventures or The Shadows?
JOHN SCOTT CREE In England, we had similar feelings of superiority over continental instrumental groups like the French "Chaussettes Noires" (Black Socks). Our views changed briefly with a Swedish group, The Spotniks, who played Orange Blossom Special at breakneck speed. The Shadows were much bigger in England than The Ventures, but I don't know who was bigger in continental Europe. Generally, I didn't like this guitar sound much. The Ventures' "Perfidia" and "Lullaby of the Leaves" were OK [as well as their version of] "Ghost Riders in the Sky," but generally, I preferred Duane Eddy. The guitar sound I really liked was in Johnny and the Hurricanes, or The Piltdown Men's "Brontosaurus Stomp," or Elvis's "One Night." Do you remember The Chantays [who were famous for] "Pipeline?" That name used to crack us up because a Chantay is Scots for a "chamber pot." However, vocalists like US Bonds, Bruce Chanel, and The Fendermen, interested me more.
[Lance Monthly] Did Dick Dale's style of instrumental guitar rock have much of an impact in your country during Dale's early '60s heyday?
JOHN SCOTT CREE No, I wasn't aware of Dick Dale until comparatively recently. Similarly, I learned about Link Wray in the '70s, quite a while after "Rumble" was a U.S. hit. The Surfaris were popular for a while but, of course, that was later.
[Lance Monthly] When did you seriously decide to become a performer, and was your intention to be a musician of instrument perfection, a vocalist, or both? In addition, who were the artists that you, at first, wanted to emulate?
JOHN SCOTT CREE Hearing Lonnie Donegan's opening guitar chords to "Rock Island Line" at the age of eight first made me make primitive attempts at singing this music with my younger sisters. Seeing Chuck Berry perform "Sweet Little Sixteen" in the film "Jazz on a Summer's day," nurtured the desire. The Beatles' "Twist and Shout" and "I Saw Her Standing There" [were] exciting vocals after all those instrumental groups, [convinced me that] I'd really like a guitar to sing this stuff with. Perfection never came into it. I'd never have gotten started if it had. I just wanted to do it, which was why I couldn't get along with practicing mummy-daddy drums or piano scales. I never saw myself in a group--that seemed to be for older boys and required investment in equipment. Within a couple of years, Dylan and Donovan were there, which gave me the excuse to perform and soon to write songs, with my limited technique.
[Lance Monthly] So, I take it that you were inspired by the same artists as that of The Beatles?
JOHN SCOTT CREE I don't know. I never heard The Marvellettes or Barrett Strong etc. in those days. They tended to be heard by people with a Merchant Navy connection or who lived in ports like Liverpool or London. I heard Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, but BBC Radio coverage of pop was very thin. We had Radio Luxembourg from Europe, but that was mainly 1.5 minutes of Top 20 tracks and new releases and reception was diabolical ... always fading. I tried your AFN once or twice but only seemed to get jazz. We couldn't afford to buy new records.
[Lance Monthly] You say you made your presence as a lone artist with backup musicians. Did you actually form a band in your novice years as a musician?
JOHN SCOTT CREE No, I was a solo turn between bands, doing "It Ain't Me Babe," "Catch the Wind," and a couple of Leadbelly songs, plus some things I wrote then. I played in an acoustic blues band at school, sat in with other bands, including one with Ric Parnell ("Spinal Tap") on drums. My first gigging band was at the end of 1966, with a guitarist/vibes player and a drummer, playing dance music (quicksteps, foxtrots) plus Little Richard, [and] Jerry Lee Lewis. There were loads of guitar groups then without work. But we took guitars into older people's venues like Working Men's Clubs, where they'd been dancing to "Let's Twist Again" by Piano/Drums duos. We then worked as much as five nights a week, mostly locally.
[Lance Monthly] During the mid-'60s, when the British began to reign as kings of rock worldwide, did you have an opportunity to meet any of the high profile British rockers, and if yes, can you give our readers an insight as to their personalities, and overall character?
JOHN SCOTT CREE No sir. Never met any then. I don't think I'd have wanted to. I knew local guitar gods like Alan Elkins and we all took pleasure in how much he and others could sound like the originals. Some of these I knew through Dad's music shop. Dad was also a friend of a radio big band drummer, Bill Wayne, a nice modest man who came to our house. He was on the weekly BBC "Parade of the Pops" and took my autograph book there for me. He returned it signed by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, Joe Brown, Marty Wilde etc. After The Beatles and Stones became so massive (and less interesting musically, I thought), I was happy to be just a fan of The Who, Kinks, Animals, Yardbirds, Tridents etc.
[Lance Monthly] Did your parents encourage you to seek a music career, or did they want you to get that out of your mind and get a good education, decent job, and raise a family?
JOHN SCOTT CREE No, they thought you needed mastery of an instrument for that. They didn't mind the bedroom playing, but expected me to study to get a good job (not university). They didn't mention raising a family, perhaps having found that very difficult themselves on a low income. A career in music didn't occur to me, either. I don't think either of us thought I was good enough.
[Lance Monthly] Your website says you're married with seven kids! Wow! What kind of music are your kids into? What do they think of your stuff and are they and your wife as enthusiastic about the possible re-release of your '70s material as you are?
JOHN SCOTT CREE All the kids play an instrument to one level or another. Two sons play, variously, bass and Irish flute, whistles, mandolin, banjo etc. in an acoustic band. One also plays in a Scottish pipe band. Two are very [much] into drum 'n' bass and one of them studies music technology to create the pieces. They've all come to see me on occasion and brought friends, which is nice. I think they're quite pleased that I had records released and they're old enough now not to be embarrassed if my stuff is played on the radio. My wife plays piano and sings "properly" and has always been supportive.
[Lance Monthly] So when and where was it that you made your first serious performance? Describe the venue.
JOHN SCOTT CREE Apart from school, the one where people paid to get in was a church hall in Ash, Surrey in 1965. It was a corrugated-iron building with a wooden floor and stage. There were still many of them around at that time, used by youth clubs, etc. I did half an hour of acoustic stuff, with guitar and harmonica harness, between two bands: The R&B Sect (renamed The Zen for the evening) and, The Iambics, I think.
[Lance Monthly] How soon after did others in the British music industry take notice of your performances?
JOHN SCOTT CREE It depends [on] what you mean by the music industry. In 1966, I began in the band I mentioned before The JP Trio, then [I] moved to London and played a few folk clubs and pubs. In 1969, I moved to Dover and got in with a very thriving jazz-based music scene there--Dover was far enough from London to have its own scene. In 1973 I moved near Gatwick Airport and met Richard Digance, who persuaded his manager to finance [the] recording of Rudolph in 1975. [It was] hardly an overnight sensation. You could say I was paying my dues, but in truth I was never aspiring to be a recording artist. It didn't occur to me that I was what they wanted. I knew I could entertain "live," but that's different.
[Lance Monthly] How and when did Pye Records become interested in your efforts and is this the first and only label?
JOHN SCOTT CREE In 1977, I was able to buy the master of "Rudolph." A friend, who had an interest in a band he was trying to place with Pye, got me an appointment to play it [for] them. I took it in, they listened, told me it wasn't a hit, but asked me to leave it. I refused, as it was the only copy I had, but I offered them a video of me doing it live. There wasn't much video in England at that time, but some students in Brighton had videoed my act, so I took that to Pye. Luckily, that was successful in landing me a contract.
Previously, I'd recorded for the small Flams label with a Jazz band and on a compilation Folk Club LP, which included a live version of "Rudolph." "Rudolph" was also released in Canada, but I don't have the details, and subsequently re-released in UK on PRT, which became a CD on Knight called "A Golden Hour of Comedy." It had Benny Hill, Spike Milligan, Tommy Cooper, [and] loads of TV comedy stars (I was the only one I hadn't heard of) doing fairly bad tracks. "Rudolph" didn't fit, but the compiler, the late Terry Brown, was a mate.
[Lance Monthly] So, what kind of deal did Pye offer you?
JOHN SCOTT CREE In October 1977, Pye's Peter Prince offered me a one-year contract with options on four more years. Pye gave me an advance of royalty.
[Lance Monthly] The CD demo that you sent me entitled "Wivabandon," which contains fifteen tracks, is excellent and the musicians who backed you are exceptional. The label must have spent some serious coin for them. To me this shows that Pye must have been excited about what you had to offer as a vocalist. What are your thoughts on this?
JOHN SCOTT CREE They spoke about taking time to develop me. They would release "Rudolph" as a flyer that Christmas and record some possible B sides within the next couple of weeks to be followed by an album after Christmas. I had an initial two weeks [of] studio time for "Wivabandon" with excellent musicians, including the brass section. Peter wanted some tracks redone with strings, so we had another week and recorded the last three tracks on the CD. I reckoned it cost about £12,000 at that time, plus my advance, which I could see was not an insignificant indicator of their commitment. It did seem exciting, as if things were possible. However, I think they saw me more as Pye's answer to Billy Connolly, having seen my live act on video.
They didn't like the resulting album, so they recorded a "live" album, but it wasn't one of my better gigs. They didn't like it, either, and spoke about getting Nick Lowe to produce another. They issued a single "His Greatest Hit," but it died. Then they renewed the contract for a year, with another advance, but Peter Prince left to head up Motown in England. He'd said he thought that I was drowned in the production, but I loved it. I suppose that was when they lost interest a bit.
[Lance Monthly] Your voice is a similar style to that of Joe Cocker. Was he a big influence?
JOHN SCOTT CREE Not consciously. Early on, I wanted to sing like Little Richard and Ray Charles, then John Lennon. Later it was Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Taj Mahal and, at about that time, Gary Brooker, before I was blown away by "With a Little Help from Friends." Later still I was able to see the quality of and admired Howlin' Wolf's voice for what it was.
[Lance Monthly] Of course, comedy plays a major role in your tracks. It reminds me of the U.S. based Driving Stupid band that considered itself as the first comic psychedelic group to come out of the '60s. Do you recall any other Blues singer of at least nominal success who placed an emphasis on comedy? Also, when and why did you come up with that concept?
JOHN SCOTT CREE We were starved for Pop music on the radio. The biggest thing was family favourites on a Sunday for forces serving overseas. They played occasional pop and quite a lot of sloppy ballads. But they interspersed this with Spike Jones, Stan Freeberg, Bob Newhart, [and] Mort Sahl. I found I could learn some of their routines and make friends laugh. When I started to play, I learned funny, mainly Irish folk songs to make people laugh. I was a big fan of The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and could do some of their stuff too. But you asked about funny Blues singers. I think immediately of Bessie Smith's "Kitchen Man" and songs of that ilk, but not everyone would find them funny.
[Lance Monthly] How big a label was Pye in the '70s as compared to, say, some of the other leading major labels? How active is this label today?
JOHN SCOTT CREE Pye were one of the four majors in UK, with Decca, EMI, Phillips/Phonogram. They were part of Lord Grade's ATV Empire but, in many ways, they had missed the boat. They had The Kinks, Donovan etc. earlier, but their 70s activity concentrated on the light soul of The Real Thing, the odd Comedy/Jazz record, plus Abba copies The Brotherhood of Man. Most of their activity was a UK outlet for Chess and other US labels like Casablanca--a lot of disco like Donna Summer, plus back catalogues of, for example, The Lovin' Spoonful. There seemed to be no vision--a bit like today's majors. Pye went into receivership and became PRT for a while. Then, I think, Grade was taken over and PRT plus other labels became Castle Music with a huge back catalogue, which they're still exploiting today.
[Lance Monthly] So how active are you today as a performer?
JOHN SCOTT CREE I play a couple of times a month regularly and others according to demand. I had a layoff in the '80s when the kids were small and it took two of us to manage them. Got back into it when they started to play things, which coincided with being asked to join a bunch of middle-aged friends to form The Mid-Life Crisis Blues Band. This didn't gel quite enough musically for me--once a month wasn't enough. But I started playing with an Irish fiddler and we developed that into as many as nine of us playing raucous Folk music for a while. We moved on, but still play once or twice a month. I also dep (stand in for when he's away) the guitarist in a functions band (playing covers at more formal bookings). Out of this, for the last four or five years, I've been writing more with these blokes in mind, to record with them on a CD a year basis, which is just like a succession of fun gigs, except no one pays you.
[Lance Monthly] Right now, you are looking for a re-issue label to pick up your '70s tracks, which includes your highly regarded "Rudolph" number. After listening to them, you certainly have my recommendation. What needs to be done by you in order to free these tracks up to an interested record company?
JOHN SCOTT CREE I would put an interested company in touch with my contact in the Licensing Department of Castle Music.
[Lance Monthly] What is your take on the mainstream music of today and is there, in your opinion, a change for the better in the future?
JOHN SCOTT CREE It's an interesting time in some ways, in that there doesn't seem to be one mainstream. It seems that the charts are largely full of girl singers and boy bands at the Pop end, with elements of Dance music (Rap, Hip Hop, Garage, Drum 'n' Bass) intruding. I don't care for the music much and that's good, because the main function of Pop should be to produce something your parents can't relate to. That's where Oasis won't wash--too many parents like them. At the same time, MTV drums killed a lot of music for me.
I've quite enjoyed some of the New Country, but that seems increasingly babe orientated and the drum sound more like biscuit tins. For a while, I played and played any Elmore James and old Chess and New Orleans records I could find. They're still great, but we need someone young doing it now--like the Stones introducing a new generation to Chuck Berry. I enjoy the rhythms of Irish music and the soul of bagpipes in all their guises. There are a lot of one-hit-wonders in the charts, perhaps because record companies are developing DVD or whatever and licking their Mariah Carey wounds. I'd have thought that this meant it was all up for grabs again.
[Lance Monthly] Your final thoughts?
JOHN SCOTT CREE Thanks for asking some interesting questions, I've enjoyed the experience. I've been very lucky. Playing a guitar at school meant I didn't get beaten up as much. I've been able to play mostly what I wanted to, with a great variety of good musicians. I never expected to make records and still think some of them were good enough to have made it. I'd have liked the security of hit records for the family to be able to do it full time, but that might have messed up our relationships. Now they're mostly grown up, I'm happy to be still living the dream.
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