“THE NIGHT CHUCK BERRY DIED”

Real to reel with karmic ironies.

Montserrat’s social media is abuzz with the news that slide blues guitarist Dave Kelly will be on island to take part in the week long St. Patrick’s Festival.  John and I are particularly keen to catch him at the Beach Bar where he will be performing live with his long-time musical mate, keyboard player Peter Filleul, a man who might literally have qualified as one of the island’s “Funky Man” awards, given his percussive piano-playing style, let alone his work in the island’s musical life for over twenty years.

It’s a perfect still evening.  The sea lazily drifts to and fro across the sand, illuminated by a firework white moon whose beam cuts a swathe through the water to the horizon. A couple of yachts bob beside their anchors, their rubber dinghies waiting to take their passengers to the bar. 

The air is as warm as toast, tempting aromas of grilled fare floating on its currents.

We park the battered old Range Rover and make our way to the bar where we’re greeted by the owner, a bear of a man, instantly recognisable by his Hawaiian patterned shirt and ceramic beer mug, complete with curly pewter lid, which men of a certain age still hold with a crooked elbow.  Business is brisk, so much so that some customers have volunteered to serve and clear.

Dave and Peter are seated on the stage, the former quietly tuning his guitar and Peter doing sound checks. Neither seem to be taking much notice of us. 

We’re beginning to settle, when a tall guy, iPhone in hand, approaches Peter and whispers urgently in his ear.  Clearly shocked, Peter quietly confers with his musical partner.

After a short pause, Dave leans into his microphone and says “Tonight we’re going to dedicate this set to Chuck Berry, who died today aged 90!”

I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such musical osmosis as the two of them intuitively shared a title and key and, with no rehearsal, launched into a toe-tapping “Little Queenie.”

Suddenly we’re plunged into darkness and the reinforced sound withers away into silence. The ghost of Chuck Berry clearly prefers a different tribute.

A power failure here is euphemistically called an ‘outage’.  They occur with no warning and with no indication as to how long the black-out might last.  Fortunately, on this occasion, the beers kept coming, so that by the time electricity was restored, our musicians are greeted as long-lost rugby heroes returning from a spell in the sin-bin, bouncing back with “Roll Over Beethoven”, followed by “Sweet Little Sixteen” and the inevitable “Johnny B. Goode”.

We’ve all lost all sense of time, but we instinctively know that we’ve been privileged to witness a uniquely spontaneous performance.

Apart from once asking Mick Jagger to dance, I’m slightly ashamed to say that I can’t claim to be, or have ever been, in on the rock music scene, which probably explains why I harbour this image that all rock musicians smoke anything that will burn, never eat proper meals, talk in an impenetrable patois, and have never heard of #MeToo.

I realise that our friendship with Peter Filleul and his wife, former geologist Sian, might be the key to helping me unlock the secret world of the rock musician.  I knew, of course, that when he was with the Climax Blues Band, he enjoyed a pop chart hit with their song ‘Couldn’t Get It Right’, and that the band were the very first to record an album (Real to Reel, 1979) at the late Sir George Martin’s recently built Air Studios, high up in the hills behind Plymouth (the island’s capital before it was buried by the volcano) overlooking the Belham Valley and the bluest of blue Caribbean seas.  This was a studio that for ten years attracted a veritable ‘hall of fame’ of rock artists – Paul McCartney, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, The Police, to name but a few.  Tragically, when Hurricane Hugo’s storm eye settled on the island, in September 1989, it destroyed almost everything in its wake, damaging the studio site, leaving a rusting grand piano, swelling floor boards and soon-to-be moulding equipment.  But a few things remain, like Peter’s band’s name and signatures signed onto a concrete slab when they were recording the album.

Like so many of us, once experienced, Montserrat is a place impossible to get out of your system, which is why Peter and Sian now have a house on the island to which they return every year for six months. 

I’m looking at old album Climax Blues Band covers, usually of the group staring nonchalantly into the camera, tresses blowing, all wearing bell bottoms wider than canvas sails.

I’ve plucked up the courage to ask him if I may interview him to find out how he got into the music industry and decide to bite the bullet by first asking him to help me identify himself on the album covers.  He obligingly not only produces photos of several album covers, but the very one for they used for Real to Reel.  He points to the figure second from the left.  “That’s me in the white shirt.”

“Oh to be so young”, I say.

He laughs generously and unconsciously smooths his silver grey beard that off-sets his now less hirsute head. 

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate this man’s slightly sardonic, self-deprecating humour, which was very much in evidence as we began our conversation, not surprisingly, about his earliest musical memories.

It emerged that both his parents and grandparents were very musical.  His father, an accomplished pianist, had his ambition to leave the island of Jersey to study further thwarted by the Bosch (the Germans who occupied the island for five years during World War II).  His wunderkind (1951) apparently showed enough rhythmic talent to be bought a rather ad hoc drum kit and, after several noisy months of drum practise, was asked to join a group of guitar-playing schoolboys, performing professionally in a ‘Shadows’ tribute band called The Intruders.  He was 10, but at about 12-13, he ‘retired’ to do ‘O’ levels.

He tells me that he learned guitar and piano to a passable standard and played in local cover bands until he managed to negotiate a ‘college for school’ deal with his father, who had been clinging to the hope of his son’s succession into  the family business equipment firm.

We pause in our conversation to reminisce about the pear drop smelling correcting fluid used on waxed stencils for the Gestetner & Roneo copying machines.

“I guested with local bands whenever I returned for holidays and then left college permanently in 1969 with Glandular Fever.”

First setback, I think, scribbling furiously in my notebook.

“Plied with medicinal drugs (uppers, downers and diuretics) to alleviate symptoms and thus, appropriately chemically inspired, I wrote naïve and meaningless songs whilst recuperating.  I recorded the said naïve and meaningless songs and tricked DECCA into a record deal in 1971.”

He went on to explain that he left Jersey with a hired band (who later tried to steal his record deal), and then retreated to Leicester where his Jersey music chums were on arty courses, and who he invited to play on his recordings.  They became The Parlour Band.

“Life went on in the UK,” he continued.  “I made and promoted three albums with the Jersey boys who then, in 1975, sacked me.”

I always sensed the world of rock was tough, but this is straight from the horse’s mouth tough.

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“I legged it to London,” he continued, with not a hint of self-pity in his voice, “And was recommended by my manager to fill a gap in a more well-known band called East of Eden.

It seems, in the first of a series of karmic ironies, on the first East of Eden tour, the band who’d fired me was the opening act.”

On a later German tour he shared a bill with the Climax Blues Band and enjoyed their music and their company.

The rest, I assumed, was history.

“Not quite,” he smiles quietly. “I joined Barbara Dickson’s band whilst recording the East of Eden album – that was 1976 – but her Manager/boyfriend sacked me after he discovered we’d started some undercover activity.”

This was just the kind of rock star back story I was hoping for.

“Anyway, I resorted to the Melody Maker (a weekly music newspaper) to find work.  After a while, I got a job in a punk outfit called ‘The Only Ones’, who took me on for a month under the pseudonym Norman French.  Then I saw an ad in the ‘situations vacant’ page which led me to an audition with my former touring chums’ Climax.’ Having learned their material (thus making their lives easier by requiring no extra rehearsal) and knowing that I was relatively well behaved, they opted for me rather than the others in a queue of more skilled and photogenic rivals.  After two days on a sound stage at Shepperton, we flew to Chicago for a series of high powered stadium tours with various deeply successful US acts, justified by our highest chart hit ‘Couldn’t Get It Right.”

Of course, I find myself following up with the classic journalist question.  “What did it feel like to be on the road in America?”

“I was 27, single, in a hit band, visiting different cities in the US every day, a charmed life (as my mother described my luck strewn existence), or what?  The best thing about touring was arriving in a new town everyday as a celebrity, and the worst was leaving a new town every night exposed as an imposter.”

I didn’t believe him for one minute.

How did you and Dave Kelly get together?”

“Dave was one of the front men in a ‘new wave’ blues band – called The Blues Band – with whom we’d toured in Germany.  His slide guitar and gritty vocal style were famously powerful and authentic for a white Londoner from Streatham.  His late sister, Jo Ann Keely, was also a phenomenal blues singer but, as Dave often remarks, his musical partners included the likes of Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and they never made any racial distinction. The blues is not a pigment of the imagination, it afflicts everyone. 

We had conversations about music publishing – by that time I had started a company that registered songs and collected royalties – and I had sent him songs to consider recording. In 1985, I found myself working in the studio helping him with a BBC TV score called ‘King of the Ghetto’.  After a long day he would often ask me to stop for dinner at his nearby house.  His girlfriend Gilly, also kept inviting her friend Sian the geologist.  You know the rest!”

I comment that so much in life is chance.  He agrees, and continues.

“Had it not been for The Blues Band, I might never have re-met Chris Runciman, who used to be the sound engineer to the Climax Blues Band.  Chris and I have enjoyed a long friendship since then and which resulted in my asking him to help with the Many Happy Returns shows.

“Tell me more,” I urge.

 “Oh, you know, one of those romantic gestures that turns into a life-time commitment.”

He went to explain how the Montserratian volcanic situation had reached a new level in 1997 when 19 people were killed on the volcano’s western flanks.

“I saw George Martin at an industry event just after the tragedy and he confided that he had brought his plans to help the island forward by securing promoter Harvey Goldsmith’s last free day at the Albert Hall in London.  September 15th was to be a grand concert featuring as many of the AIR Montserrat recording artists as he could muster, all of whom he hoped would perform for free.

I realised the Climax band would hardly put bums on seats at the Albert Hall, but the next day I called George and suggested we stage a concert in Montserrat on the same night.  He had enough on his own plate organising the London show, but he didn’t say no.   So, I contacted Chris and we gradually assembled the mad idea of putting a regional show on island.  That became the first Many Happy Returns show, with 18 local acts, Bankie Banx from Anguilla and a re-formed version of the Climax Blues Band.  The original idea was to use the news satellite links that were on island to enable us to coincide with the end of the Albert Hall show with the beginning of ours.  But fate intervened with Princess Diana’s death in Paris which meant all the satellite dishes were packed up and sent to France.  Despite all that, the show was a great success and we were persuaded to repeat the effort a year later.  Many Happy Returns II was due to be the focus of Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural flights to the Caribbean, but this was thwarted at the last minute by Hurricane Georges.

This story is reminding me of Herman Wouk’s novel ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival’ in which the challenges of trying to do anything in the Caribbean are taken to extreme, but hilarious levels.

“We managed to re-stage it in the March of 1999,” Peter continues.  “With great support from Montserrat’s Governor, the local government and considerable sponsorship from Virgin and Guinness (a popular drink in the Caribbean).  All that led to the pivotal role Chris played in helping realise George Martin’s dream of creating a Montserrat Cultural Centre.”   Today, the Centre stands proudly above Little Bay in the North of the island, a permanent reminder of that old adage ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’.

As I wrote earlier, if you catch Montserratitis, you’re unlikely to recover.  Certainly if Peter’s musical commitment to the island is anything to go by, he’s a doomed man.  Not only did he play a pivotal role in getting the Many Happy Returns concerts off the ground, he’s set up local workshops, given his time to the Montserrat Arts Council and continues to help sustain and maintain the Montserrat Cultural Centre’s equipment.

Whenever the opportunity arises he’s off with his keyboards to join the ever-present Reggae Roots Revival Band – headed by one Bimsha.  I remember once standing on the corner between Carrs and Little Bay, it’s past 1.00 in the morning and they are both lost in their adrenalin fuelled music.

I suspect my final question might be a bit tricky.

“Tell me what made you cut off your pony tail?”

“Sian,” he calls.  “Sarah wants to hear the pony tail story.”

I never did get to hear it, as Dave Kelly suddenly shows up, guitar in hand, and I know we’re in for an evening of what they both love doing best – playing music.

Buy Plenty Mango – Postcards from the Caribbean in paperback, eBook or audio formats from any of the links below.

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