Fraser Spiers

Fraser Spiers and the SAR Loco 3007 @ The Riverside Museum

Fraser Spiers and the SAR Loco 3007 @ The Riverside Museum

Harmonica/Guitar/Singer

Style:

Influences:  Muddy Waters

Connections

Family history connection to the railways and a keen interest in the steam era.

The engine in the photograph is a SAR Loco 3007. Built in 1945 in Polmadie, Glasgow, the 15F mountain class locomotive spent all its working life in South Africa before being brought home in 2007.

Riverside Museum Article

BBC Article

Interview

K: I’ve known you as part of the Blues scene for a long time Fraser but I’ve never really looked into what you’ve done over the years. When I was researching for this interview I was blown away by the depth of music you’ve been involved in throughout your career. You’ve played with some of the best musicians in the world and have travelled far and wide in the process. Tell me a wee bit about where you started?

F: I started out as a “Hobby Player”, you know, a semi-pro, but I was very lucky. As a young kid in the 60’s, I started working in the Maryland in Scott Street in Glasgow with Bob Gardiner and Willie Cuthbertson.

K: I’ve never heard of that place. What was that like?

F: It was a little club and upstairs during the day they did Ballroom dancing instruction and at nights the club was downstairs. It started out as a Trad Jazz venue and being next to the Art School was very popular with the students. During the sixties there was a cross-over from Trad Jazz to Rock music going on. Bob Gardiner was running it back then and he was the first guy at that time to take a band to Russia (Kenny Ball’s Jazzmen). Bob was a great guy. He’d been all over and knew all the great cross-over players. He knew Jack Bruce fairly well and because of his time on the London scene, he could get hold of great players like Alexis Korner, John Hiseman and all of the top guys at that time, so the club was a great grounding for me. I started to work there in the late 60’s and at that time they had stopped putting on Trad bands all together. They then had a period where it was all show bands with great brass sections. Some of these guys were Jazzers who were playing cross-over because there was money in that scene. There were also some of the early Soul bands around as well.

K: What jobs were you doing in the club?

F: I swept the floor and helped the band in with their PA and gear. At that time even a name band would turn up in a Commer Van or, round about then there was the brand new Ford Transit Van, which was the perfect vehicle to tour with.

I would help the band in with their gear and it was usually just a pair of columns and a Selmer treble and bass amp or an old military style amp for the PA and the backline would be very varied. Some guys favoured a Vox AC30, others had the more recent Marshall top and a 4×12 or an Orange cabinet.

It was a very interesting place to be and, although I was only a factotum, I learnt a lot from these guys and if there was ever anything even remotely Bluesy I would always ask “Can I have a blow?” when the bands were doing the soundcheck and I would get a chance to jam with some of these guys.

I also occasionally got a chance to sit in with some and play a couple of numbers and in that way I got to play with some top notch guys. For example, Champion Jack Dupree. Although an American, I think he settled in Halifax. He had been a champion boxer and while he was a lovely guy, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was a really nice guy and he loved the UK. He got married and settled down here. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup was another. He was a real gentleman and he dressed really well! He wanted to look as though he belonged. He used to say “You call me Big Boy, I call you Blues Boy”. These guys were great.

K: Were you keeping in touch with what was going on in the American Blues scene in general?

F: I was already buying the “Marble Arch” series of albums, where they leased unlicensed former Juke Box hits in The States. So what they would have is an album comprising several double sided single disks from The States with 2 tracks of LIghtning Hopkins, 2 tracks of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, 2 tracks of Muddy and the band and 2 tracks of somebody else and this Marble Arch album would sell for 14 bob (14 shillings..equivalent to 70p) which was half the price of a full price album. I had a good collection of these and I owe some of my Blues roots to that.

K: Was it always Blues for you then?

F: No, I listened to all kinds of music. My old man had been in the Merchant Navy during the war and he had been in the Arctic convoys and then the Malta Convoys and Burma…he’d been in some terrible places, but his one passion was collecting 78’s and he swapped discs with people.  As a kid in the 50’s in Springburn, there was a collection in a cabinet, mostly Jump, Swing, Big Band and I got all my chops from people like Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington etc. The solos on these tracks were fantastic but of course it was just an extension of the Blues. I could feel all this stuff but I didn’t have an outlet for it because I couldn’t play any instruments.

The family weren’t well off. My old man struggled to get a job after the war and ended up in the railway as an Electrician’s Mate but my old man was the person that people went to to fix things. They would bypass all the tradesmen and go to him. He could fix anything and I remember him completely rebuilding an old Morris Minor. Anyway, we moved from Springburn to Easterhouse…”The Garden Suburb” …back in ‘59. That was fine because I knew most of the guys to watch out for from school and I knew the other one’s from different schemes from working in the club.

Editor’s note: Easterhouse had a reputation of being one of the toughest areas in Glasgow at the time and gang rivalry was rife throughout the city. Razors and swords were frequently carried and used.

K: So, tell me a bit more about the “The Maryland” and how a typical night would pan out

F: I’d be working on the door and I knew the people to look out for. They would get knocked back at the dancing and come round to the club and ask if they were getting in.  I would say “Aye, your fine, but you’re not bring that in with you!” Of course they would reply “What do you mean?” and I would tell them that they could come in but not with the chib that they were carrying. This could be a pair of pearl handled cutthroat razors, meat cleavers, butchers hooks, sharpened chains or a Japanese ceremonial short-sword and I would say that they could get in but they would need to leave all of that stuff behind the cashier’s counter. The Police used to come round and check on the place and they would know who was in just by looking behind the counter. They recognised the weapons.

K: So it really was No Mean City back then?

F: It was like the Wild West but it was a “Dry” club. There was no alcohol served in it. So after I had helped the band set up and delivered all the teas and coffees, orange juice and buns and all of that stuff I would be sent out with a roll of money…more money than I’d ever seen…I’d be sent round to the off license to pick up an order that they had phoned in and it would be a drink for the band and the Police. The Police were fine. They would come round and it would be a sane and sensible Glasgow constable and they would just check that everything was quiet and that everyone was behaving and have a wee look behind the counter to see who was in. They would have a wee peek inside and make sure everything was ok. There were seats all around the outside of the hall but almost everyone sat on the floor in rows. There could be three or four hundred people sitting on the floor. They would lean against each other for support and the guy on the outside of the row would lean on the wall. Someone would “skin one up” and pass it along. So these guys sitting there that had originally gone out that night to murder somebody ended up having a smoke and meeting a nice wee lassie and they turned into a normal human being for the night.

K: The music must’ve contributed to calming everyone down as well.

F: Absolutely, there was all sorts going on as well, it was a real melting pot for music at the time. It was a broad church of music altogether and a great grounding and I could move about the town quite freely and play with different people and got quite a bit better very quickly.

K: You mentioned earlier that you had the money to go and get the alcohol and something about the police? Did they come in for a drink as well later on in the night?

F: Oh aye. I went round with the 10 bob notes and pound notes and picked up the drink and the Police would come round again later on about 2.30am when we closed and go upstairs and sit with the management and the band. I’ve seen guys from Chicago with Buckskin, fringed waistcoats swapping outfits with the policemen which they must have thought was incredible because black guys in Chicago, at that time, couldn’t even speak to white policemen.

So the great thing was that these guys would come in and sometimes it would be a big Highlander and they would say “Delighted to meet you and what is your name?” and then they would say “Will you have a dram?” and the favour might be returned and he would be passed a splif (laughs). It was all very harmonious and a very…adult…approach to policing back then.

So that was the situation I found myself in and there were all of these contacts that Bob Gardiner had. He was amazing he could just lift the phone and call these guys like Chris Barber for example and say “I see you’ve got Muddy Waters coming to London”… and they would come to an arrangement and he would be put on in Glasgow.  When The Tony WIlliams Lifetime came to the UK, I don’t know how many gigs they did in the anywhere else but they did 2 nights in Maryland.  That was Jack Bruce, John McGlaughlin, Tony Williams and Larry Young.  They were just breath-taking!  They were the first heavyweight fusion band that I’d seen.  I’d seen Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum and they were very good but they were different and not quite as potent as this outfit.

So the access that I got to these people through the contacts that Bob Gardiner had was wonderful and over the years I met loads of folk and because they knew that I knew Bob I managed to get quite a bit of work. Through that for example, I got to work with Alexis Korner on a Radio Clyde live broadcast where Alexis would talk through major points in his career and he would just shout out a key and we would play. He was a lovely man and I spent quite a bit of time with him. He never did write out a set list or tell me what keys he was playing in until the gig and then he would play whatever was directed by the way that the story was going. The audience were participating in this. It was a kind of interactive thing. Someone would ask him a question and he would relate a story and there would be a song that related to that time and he would just tell me the key and start playing…

K: That must’ve kept you on your toes as a Harmonica player?

F: Absolutely! But we had a great time. He was a nice man but he wasn’t very well by the time I did that piece with him but he had a great communicating voice and continued to broadcast.

K: So back to the musical opportunities that presented themselves in the club. Is there any memory in particular that stands out?

F: The one that really blew me away was the Muddy Waters gig. I got a chance to sit in with the band and had already had a blow with them at the soundcheck. Muddy was still recovering from the car-crash he’d been involved in.  He’d broken his leg and was still in crutches. They had no sound crew and no roadies and I helped them bring the gear in and set it up. So I had a blow with them but I was way out of my depth with people like that back in those days. The Muddy Waters band toured back in the early 70’s after the car crash and I had never heard a band play like that before! It was the first time I became aware of “the back of the beat”. They all played on the back of the beat and they all played absolutely together. They weren’t desperately loud but I can still feel the power of it to this day. They were all playing the right thing at the right time in the right place. The hair stands up on the back of my neck even thinking about it. I remember thinking at that point “Now I get it!” It was just…astonishing! The power…in the spaces really conveyed itself. That was a real eye-opener about what people meant by “playing in time”. There were a whole lot of subtleties that came through that I became aware of very quickly. I couldn’t put them into practice right away and struggled for the next couple of years.

K:  The space in a Blues tune is the thing that draws me in and I’ve seen no better example of this recently than an old piece of footage of Howlin’ Wolf playing Smokestack Lightning.   When I watch this I feel myself being physically drawn into it.  All styles of Blues need space.

F: Through the years I’ve played with lots of different people who had different interpretations about what they thought were the blues. I played with Hamish Imlach, back in the 60s, and he was a lovely player and was desperate to develop the Blues side of his repertoire. He had some great blues that he played and he played them in that kind of Davey Graham style that British finger pickers use. He was a really lovely player and took a thing like The Cuckoo, which was an Elizabethan ballad I think which was then taken to the Apalachian region and then brought back as a Blues! He had some great songs like that. I knew Hamish from The Scotia. We used to go down there on a Saturday morning and play in one of the side rooms. He was a real character. There was this one day he took me along to Kirkcaldy where he had a gig with this “wee lassie”. He had one of these big old cars like a Zephyr or a Zodiac and there was that huge single bench seat that those cars used to have. It was cream leather and the car was an automatic and there was an ice bucket wedged between the seat and the gear stick and in the ice bucket was the wee half bottle, a mixer, a glass, the ice and some slices of lemon in a wee poly bag!

K: Who was the wee lassie?

F: Barbara Dickson. I talked to her recently and we talked about Hamish and she was saying how much he had helped her career. He got her access to the north of England and then London. It was a great scene at that time, there were a lot of good people. The band scene was great as well. When the Maryland closed you could still go down the road to The Picasso.

K: The Picasso? Where was that?

F: That was down in Buchanan Street and it was open to about 5 in the morning.

K: It sounds like it was incredible live scene. There must’ve been quite few hard working bands in the town at that time to keep up with the appetite for the live music. The promotion must’ve been hard work compared to how accessible and instant everything is now. Mobile phones, email, Facebook, Internet. None of that was there, but sounds like the toon was jumping anyway?

F: We all used to work together. At the top of Buchanan Street, before it was a pedestrian precinct, there was an open road and you would have 6 or 7 vans, the size of a Ford Transit, parked up and there would be guys taking stuff out of one and putting it in the back of another and moving everything around. All these bands could have 2 or 3 gigs in the one day and they would be playing in the same venues at different times throughout the day and night so they would organise all the gear to help each other out. They would set up the pa and then leave it for the next band and move onto another gig where another pa had already been set up and at the end all the gear would be loaded back into the vans and then swapped back at the end of the night or at the end of the weekend.

K: Really? That’s incredible!

F: Oh aye and back line as well. Everyone was very cooperative.

K: And again…no mobiles. How was that all coordinated?

F: Well, the centre of communications was the Wimpy Bar at the corner of Bath Street and Renfield Street and the reason for that location was that there was a phone box on the corner! You know, one of the old fashioned red phone boxes? And the phone would be going all the time! Passers-by would answer the phone and end up going into the Wimpy and asking “Is there somebody in here called….?” So gigs would be arranged through the public phone box.

K: So there was a real community spirit.

F: Yeah, it was a great community. The bands would get together and organise big events. That’s how the Kelvingrove thing started. And that was way before Radio Clyde even existed.

K: What kind of material were you playing round that time?

F: In the mid 70’s I had a Funk band, which was not a bad band and I was developing a more precise playing style and playing as part of a section but we ended up having “musical differences” and that was the end of that.

K: Where did it go from there?

F: For a couple of years after that I was working with 4 or 5 others bands putting on shows in places like The Amphora and we were filling large halls to capacity on a regular basis but I was also working full time as a medical illustrator and after a while decided to give it a break for a while, I’d had enough. Then towards the end of the 70s I started getting quite a bit of session work from word of mouth. At about the same time, old pals of mine were starting to set up studios in the city and that was another good source of work. I got into radio as well and did a lot of the signature tunes and continuity music and background stuff. I was playing in television show live house bands as well. So I developed a broader style over that time and developed a pretty good career. The session stuff would like develop into live stuff and I continued to diversify my style.

K: I’m sure if I asked the right questions I could get loads more stories about your career to date but tell me…Is there one gig that you still have to play?

F: Not really no. I’ve played places like the Hollywood Bowl and supported Solomon Burke and Etta James. I’ve done all of the big festivals and played with some fantastic people all over the world. We played for the Jamaican Olympic team National Day, before the Beijing Olympics with Ussain Bolt on stage doing backing vocals.

K: You were speaking before the interview about how you are now just about starting to get some time to work on your own projects for the future?

F: Yes, I’ve got some definite ideas about getting some people together and getting some nice brass arrangements out there. There will be a lot of light and shade and it’ll be a multifaceted scenario where everyone will get a chance to shine. I’ve got an album half recorded at Ca Va studios and will be working on getting that completed as well.

K: It’s great to hear that you’ve got things planned and it’s been very interesting listening to your tales of the Glasgow scene over the years. I’m looking forward to hearing the new band and the album at some point in the future. Thanks again for taking the time Fraser, it’s been a great pleasure.

F: Thanks Kirk. All the best.

Date: 13/09/2015

Location

The Riverside Transport Museum, Glasgow

Camera info

Camera: Nikon D750
Lens: Nikon 24-120 f4
Focal length: 24mm
Exposure: 1/100 sec at f/4
ISO: 320
Time of day: 13:42
Conditions: Interior
Lighting: Keylight at 45 degrees with 24″ softbox.  Kicker light bouncing off tri-grip silver reflector on floor.

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