Maggie Bell interview by Ryan
Reproduced from 'Classic Rock
Born To Sing The Blues –
An Interview with Maggie Bell from Stone The Crows
Not every supremely talented musician or band in rock ‘n roll ends up
getting the accolades or notoriety they deserve. Whether it's due to shady
management and shoddy promotion from the record companies, not being in
the right place at the right time or everyone's favorite excuse ‘musical
differences' putting a fork in the spokes, the list goes on and on. In the
case of Scottish blues band Stone The Crows it was the death of their
founding member guitarist Leslie Harvey in 1972 which sealed their fate
before they could really get off the ground.
Formed in the late 60's by Harvey and vocalist Maggie Bell, the band also
included drummer Colin Allen, keyboardist John McGinnis and bassist James
Dewar, who later went on to front Robin Trower's band for many years in
the 70's. The band was managed by Led Zeppelin's Peter Grant and over the
course of approximately five years the band released four albums that
combined a passion for blues and progressive rock. While major success had
continued to elude them at the time of Harvey's tragic accidental death
(he was electrocuted onstage), his passing would effectively put a halt to
everything they had accomplished. Maggie's gritty, soulful vocals along
with Harvey's exceptional talents as a guitarist and songwriter were the
centerpieces of Stone The Crows' sound. While Dewar was in the band, his
warm, heartfelt vocals were the perfect match for her as the two would
often trade off brilliantly.
After the remaining band members went their separate ways in 1973 Bell
began to assemble a solo career. She released a few albums in mid 70's and
was involved in another esteemed, but ultimately short lived project in
the early 80s called Midnight Flyer. She eventually moved to Holland and
worked on various different projects over the next twenty years. She
returned to the UK in 2006 and joined a band called The British Blues
Quintet or BBQ for short. This band includes her former drummer in Stone
The Crows, Colin Allen as well as British R&B legend, keyboardist and
bandleader Zoot Money.
Since her return to British soil Maggie hasn't stopped working and at
sixty four years young she assures me she is having more fun now than she
ever has. I recently had a chance to talk to her about the fabulous new
archive release which compiles all of Stone The Crows' radio sessions.
This double CD is put out through the folks at Angel Air who are the
premier heritage label. During our conversations I was able to get a
little more insight into her time with Stone The Crows, as well as her
thoughts on some of the musicians she has worked with over the course of
her career, including Led Zeppelin and Rod Stewart.
Maggie Bell is an absolute jewel and I strongly urge you if you haven't
done so already, to check out this great new Stone The Crows compilation
or any of her impressive back catalogue of work, much of it also available
on Angel Air ( www.angelair.co.uk)
Ryan: Angel Air has just released a fantastic new collection from Stone
The Crows called Radio Sessions 1969-72. I know there have been quite a
few live albums released over the years by various different labels,
including a couple of volumes of BBC sessions on the Strange Fruit label
about ten years ago. This collection doesn't get into the specifics about
where each track was culled from, were any of these recordings previously
Maggie: No they've all been released previously.
Ryan: Speaking of Angel Air they've been responsible for issuing quite a
few Stone The Crows albums along with your own solo and live albums as
well. They've been great at keeping your music alive and in people's
Maggie: Meeting Peter Purnell from Angel Air is the best thing that ever
happened to me. He's a fabulous guy, he's straight and honest. He's just
Ryan: How did you originally hook up with them?
Maggie: I lived in Holland for twenty years and when I was there I got a
call from Peter and he said “Look I'd like to re-release some of your solo
albums, what do you think about that?” and I said “Well carry on”. It's
really been successful, and then of course I come back to this country,
I've been back for four years now and I haven't stopped working. I've done
two tours with The Manfreds, they're not called Manfred Mann, they're
called the Manfreds now because he's not in the band you see, and it's
been really successful. At the end of this year I'm about to go on the
road with Alan Price and Chris Farlowe, we're doing a tour.
Ryan: As good as Stone The Crows was in the studio this collection
definitely highlights the bands real strength as a live unit.
Maggie : Yeah we worked six nights a week. We worked in Universities and
Polytechnics, we were a working band. The thing is all the people that are
coming to see me nowadays are the people who have grown up from those
Universities and Polytechnics you know what I'm saying? They're still
coming out and supporting me, it's been absolutely wonderful.
Ryan: Between yourself and James Dewar the band had two great vocalists to
be reckoned with. The trade-off vocals on songs like “Raining In Your
Heart” and “Touch Of Your Loving Hand” were fabulous. What do you remember
most about working with James?
Maggie: Oh Jimmy I knew from Glasgow, we were both born and brought up in
Glasgow. He was always a fantastic singer in my eyes, even when we were
working in the pubs in Glasgow. He was originally one of the lovers in
Lulu and The Lovers, he was in the backing band. Poor Jimmy God rest his
soul he's no longer with us, he never really got the recognition that he
deserved, but I think he did with Stone The Crows because he had a lot of
singing to do, and for the first time in our lives we were actually
writing our own songs.
Ryan: Did you manage to keep in touch with him over the years?
Maggie: Yeah after he went with Robin Trower. He was working and I was
working and it was one of those things, but our paths would cross
Ryan: What about towards the end of his life?
Maggie: No I hadn't seen Jimmy for years.
Ryan: He was vastly underrated I think as a vocalist.
Maggie: Oh absolutely.
Ryan: I'm sure you've heard it a thousand times over the years but Stone
The Crows certainly had all the ingredients in place to be quite big, you
even had Peter Grant in your corner. However, Les' unfortunate passing
effectively ended the band, although you did continue briefly for a year
afterwards. He was such a huge part of the band's sound that you never really
recover from it.
Maggie: It took the heart and soul out of the band and it was never the
same after that. Nobody was writing any songs. Peter Green was going to
join the band, he rehearsed with us for four weeks but then he let us down
the day before we had to do this festival. We got Steve Howe from Yes to
step in, then we got Jimmy McCulloch but it really was never the same
without Leslie. He was the founder of the band.
Ryan: Les was a truly unique player and was known to use some interesting
female tools to augment his playing is that true?
Maggie: Yeah absolutely, and before anyone else was doing it, before the
Jimmy Page's were doing it. He used to use this little kit thing that you
could buy, it was like a small cassette radio and it had this thing like a
pen that would make this (sings) deeda leet deet dee sound. It had a pen
and you could work the notes, like a battery driven keyboard.
Ryan: What else stood out for you about him as not only a musician but as
person as well?
Maggie: He was my fiancé and we were engaged to be married. He was a great
guy and we were with each other since childhood. He was a great person and
a wonderful musician. He taught me a lot about music, him and his brother
Alex. That's all we used to do was live, breathe and talk music.
Ryan: What was the songwriting process like within the band, was it a
Maggie: Yeah Colin would bring a couple of songs in and Leslie and I would
bring some in. It was just whatever we said “Well we could do this, this
would work”. This was back in the day when the record companies actually
believed in bands and wanted you to write your own material. We were with
Polydor at the time and they said “Go away for a couple of weeks, write
your own stuff and we'll make you an album and we'll support you”. Whereas
I don't think you could get that these days you know what I mean? All
these companies have writers that write hit pop songs and that's the way
it works. I wouldn't want to be coming up through the music business as a
teenager these days. It's all about who's going to have a hit, do you know
what I mean? The other thing is, that's all very well and ok but that's
why all these kids are going off the rails in this country. Somebody hands
them a million pounds and gives them a deal, but you can never go and see
them anywhere where they're playing. These kids have got all this money,
they have a couple of hit songs, and then what else do they do with the
rest of their life thank you very much.
Ryan: Speaking of writing your own material, you guys were also known for
picking some interesting cover songs and you would really jam on them in
your live shows.
Maggie: “Hollis Brown”, “Fool On The Hill”. I still do “Hollis Brown” with
Dave Kelly as a duo, it's a great song.
Ryan: “Wishing Well”?
Maggie: Yeah I still do that one with The British Blues Quintet. They're
good songs you know? I think “Wishing Well” is my theme song these days
because everybody always shouts it out [laughs].
Ryan: The band's sound was described as progressive rock, but to me Stone
The Crows came across as just a good old fashioned blues rock band, or
what you'd call a classic rock band.
Maggie: Well that's where are roots were really. The rest of it was a
bonus because we wrote some good songs.
Ryan: The band did manage to tour the US.
Maggie: A couple of times Yeah.
Ryan You were on Joe Cocker's Mad Dog's & Englishmen tour.
Maggie: Yeah. We actually worked with Miles Davis can you believe that?
[laughs] We did The Fillmore West with Miles.
Ryan: Bill Graham used to put some great bills together.
Maggie: Oh yeah. We worked with Canned Heat and Three Dog Night. Mountain
and Felix Pappalardi.
Ryan: What else do you remember about touring the US with the Crows at
that time, it must have been an eye opening experience?
Maggie: It was quite a heavy time when I think it of it because we'd go to
little places like Lubbock Texas, to stop in for a cup of coffee and you'd
hear from across the room “Is that a boy or a girl?” We couldn't get our
heads around that at all.
Ryan: I think that was par for the course at the time, parts of America
seemed to look upon people with long hair as freaks.
Maggie: Exactly, freaks, drug addicts or rapists. Then if they asked you
where you came from and you'd tell them Scotland, they would say “How did
you get over the barbed wire?” They thought it was bloody East Germany you
Ryan: After Leslie's unfortunate passing you did bring in Jimmy McCulloch
as you mentioned what was he like?
Maggie: He was a great player don't get me wrong, later he went and hooked
up with Paul McCartney and Wings. He just wasn't really inventive do you
know what I'm saying? Jimmy was just a rock ‘n roller. He came from
Thunderclap Newman to join us.
Ryan: After the breakup of the band Peter Grant got you signed with
Atlantic Records and your debut solo effort Queen of the Night was
produced by Jerry Wexler. All the pieces seemed to be in place once again.
Maggie: I'd actually made two albums for Atlantic before that. I made a
whole album with Felix Cavaliere from The Young Rascals, my good friend
Luther Vandross, God rests his soul, he did all the vocal backings. I also
made an album with Felix Pappalardi from Mountain and both of those albums
were never released. Jerry Wexler said “I would like a chance to work with
Maggie” and that's how it came about.
Ryan: So you actually recorded two albums prior to your official debut?
Maggie: Yeah and I can't find them anywhere, they've disappeared.
Ryan: How did you manage to record two albums worth of material and not
have it released?
Maggie: You tell me [laughing].
Ryan: You had some great players on that first album, and of course Jimmy
Page played on your second record Suicide Sal.
Maggie: That's right. I was working with Steve Gadd and Cornell Dupree on
the Queen of The Night album.
Ryan: Top notch players.
Maggie: Absolutely and I'm proud of that album Queen of The Night.
Ryan: You should be.
Maggie: I haven't stopped really. Every once and a while a little gem comes
up for me to do. I did the original Tommy album (the stage production)
which is now being re-released I hear. I've done a lot of famous TV in
this country, one show has been on for twenty seven years called Taggart,
I did the theme song in that. I've always worked and I've always tried to
better my singing career. I've always tried to be progressive and not
Ryan: It really baffles me as to why someone with your capabilities as a
singer, that you haven't gotten more recognition over the years.
Maggie: Well I've always been a singer's singer you see, other singers
like me and I do have a great following in this country. Believe me and
this is the truth, but I would rather be where I'm at today at sixty four
years old, still going out there and doing it and drawing crowds, than
maybe having a couple of huge hit albums and then disappearing do you get
what I mean? That means a lot to me, my voice still sounds the same as it
did back then and I'm still working. I'm happier now with no pressures
from management or record companies or whatever. I go out there and I do
what I do and I'm enjoying it more now than I did forty years ago and
that's the truth. Peter Grant was a wonderful man and he remained a friend
of mine until he died, but Peter had Led Zeppelin and Bad Company. Peter
Grant had me but he didn't know what to do with me.
Ryan: I think your first record Queen of The Night was supposed to be on
Swan Song but they didn't have the label up and ready.
Maggie: No they didn't.
Ryan: I think it's surprising as to why that record didn't take off or why
you didn't break through in the States.
Maggie: I think Queen of The Night did get to number ten in the American
charts. I know it stayed there for a good couple of weeks. I've got so
many friends in this business, great musicians and great singers who ended
up doing nothing. They had the fame and the glory for a couple of years,
now everybody is over sixty and still doing nothing. I thank god I've
still got my health and the strength to be able to go out and do it.
Ryan: I want to ask you about the Midnight Flyer album.
Maggie: That was a real flash in the pan believe me.
Ryan: Yeah but that band was pretty powerful live as well.
Maggie: Oh yeah absolutely. We did a couple of tours of America as well. I
just got to the point where I said “I don't want to tour America all my
life and get nowhere”. I would rather live in my own country and tour; it
just didn't have any flavor for me anymore. We did a tour with AC/DC for
gods sake! I just thought “Where is this going, what's happening here?”
Ryan: Would it be safe to say that by that time perhaps you were getting a
little disillusioned with the whole industry as well?
Maggie: Not disillusioned with the music industry and the whole business.
I just wanted to spend some time on my own for myself. I wanted to have
some kind of home life. I've done a lot of tours of America and I've never
stopped working you know? I figured I would spend some time in this house
that I had bought which I was never in. I was going to spend some time
there and spend some time with my family and my parents. That's exactly
what I did and it was the best thing that I ever did.
Ryan: And you can't get those moments back.
Maggie: No and if you think back to that time in America the music
business was going nowhere really. There wasn't much happening was there?
You had your Crosby, Stills and Nash's, they were all passed. It was disco
and Madonna and stuff like that. Why should I tour America knocking my
head against the wall every night, and putting in good performances when
people are out buying Madonna records?
Ryan: You kind of dropped out of sight there for awhile, quite awhile in
fact. You said you kept working and you moved to Holland where you lived
for about twenty years.
Maggie: That's right. I did a lot of acting and recording for a friend of
mine in Paris who has a company called Utopia Records. He records people
from all over the world. I had a family life in Holland and I would get
away for weekends, as long as I could get back. Believe it or not I was
asked to do a bit of acting In Britain for the BBC and I got to work with
Harvey Keitel and Billy Connelly. I did a good bit of acting, I'm not an
actress but they asked me and I did it. I'm proud of what I've done.
Ryan: As you mentioned earlier you've been back in the saddle so to speak
playing with a few different acts; one is BBQ the British Blues Quintet in
which you play with Colin Allen, Zoot Mone, Miller Anderson and Colin
Maggie: Colin (Allen) is still with me from Stone The Crows yeah
[laughing]. He lives in Sweden because it's close for gigs and stuff.
We're off to Russia next week.
Ryan: All of these musicians are seasoned veterans with enough experience
to fill a rock n roll history book. What is like sharing the stage with
Maggie: They're my friends I don't think about it like that.
Ryan: I know what I meant was…
Maggie: We have to go through the same shit to get to the gig you know
what I'm saying? [laughing] We have to make sure everybody's parts are in
order and everybody is getting on, but they feel the same as I do. We just
go out there and have a ball it's as simple as that.
Ryan: Speaking of books I heard that you are working on one yourself is
Maggie: Yeah I don't know when the hell I'm going to finish it. Somebody
said “You've got great stories to tell Maggie, the people that you've met
and the musicians you've met and you've got quite the life story, why
don't you sit down and write about it?” So that's what I've done. I've
only done about ten chapters I think. I'll work on it in my spare time if
I'm in the hotel and I've got a couple of hours, I'll get my laptop out
and I'll work on it.
Ryan: So you'll finish it at some point and then search for a publisher?
Maggie: I've had a couple of publishers approach me.
Ryan: Maybe you can get Peter involved?
Maggie: I know I love Peter, I trust him with my life. He's like the
brother I never had believe me.
Ryan: He's really done some great stuff with the artists on the label
Maggie: Oh yeah. He said to me “Mags you've never stopped working since
the day I met you. You go out there and I get great feedback and stuff,
you don't cause anybody any problems, you just go out there and do a great
show”. It's a great relationship between him and me, and his wife Shirley,
she owns the company as well.
Ryan: In 2007 you appeared with The Rhythm Kings on the Ahmet Ertegun
memorial show at the O2 arena in London, also known as the big Zeppelin
reunion show. That must have been a magical evening.
Maggie: It was fantastic. We only had one song each to do, Paul Rodgers,
myself and another Scottish / Italian boy, a great singer called Paolo
Nutini. It was one song each but working with Bill Wyman and rehearsing
with him, he's a wonderful guy, and I'll tell you something he's a very,
very underestimated bass player in my eyes. He's so cool and it was such a
thrill to work with him and the band. It was fantastic.
Ryan: Obviously you stuck around to see Zeppelin.
Maggie: Oh yeah. I had to wear my spectacles when I was onstage, but I put
my hair up and put on a pair of jeans after the show. I had my glasses on
and I went up to Jimmy who was standing there with these two big
bodyguards, of course Jimmy has grey hair now, he's gone au natural. I
said “I bet you don't remember me” and he said “Oh Maggie” [laughing]. So
he was really, really nice, and Jason Bonham played a storm.
known those guys since I was very, very young you know? They still kick
ass believe me. There's a touch of class with them, it's always been about
that certain mystique about them. The arrangements on some of those songs-
Jimmy Page is a genius in my eyes. Did you ever hear that album that he
did with the guys in Morocco, did you ever listen to that?
Ryan: The Unledded album with Robert sure.
Maggie: That's one of the best CD's that I've got in my collection.
Ryan: Yeah they took their own songs and reinterpreted them.
Maggie: Yeah it's absolutely incredible.
Ryan: Growing up as a young girl in Scotland in the 50's who were your
Maggie: My parents were very, very musical. I had an uncle who was in the
merchant Navy and he used to bring me lots of, it was 78's in those days
and then it went to little 45's. He would bring them from America and I
remember the first time I ever heard Brenda Lee, it was when my uncle
brought it from America. “Speak To Me Pretty” and “Sweet Nothin's” and all
that. My parents were listening to all sorts of music, Mario Lanza, my
daddy loved jazz and Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, there was always music
played in our house. My father was a good piano player as well. I was
brought up surrounded by music. There was no T.V. in fact I think we were
the last family on the street to get a television.
Ryan: By the time you were a teenager had you already decided that music
was something you were going to pursue?
Maggie: Yeah the thing is I worked with dance bands. I was a window
dresser during the day and the money was really nothing, it was something
like two pounds a week, you couldn't live on that. Then I met Leslie and
Alex and I joined Leslies band The Kinning Park Ramblers. They'd been
together since they were nine years old, that band. Then when they all got
to be eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old they all started to go their
own way and start families. One of them opened up a music shop, one worked
at a printer. Then I thought “What do I do know?” My Mother answered an
advert for a local dancehall called the Locarno, I lied about my age
because you couldn't work until you were eighteen and was about sixteen
and half at the time I think.
I worked with an eighteen piece orchestra
covering everything from Keely Smith, Dusty Springfield, Dinah Washington
all different kinds of stuff. That was one of the happiest periods of my
life because those guys played with the Scottish National Orchestra and
radio and stuff. They were great musicians. I've always been surrounded by
great musicians. They taught me so much about chords and all the different
stuff in music. It was really for the money because I couldn't survive
with the money that I was getting from the Window dressing job. That
helped to get me to where I eventually wanted to go, which was to go with
Leslie over to Germany for a year and rock the American bases. That was
the beginning of Stone The Crows.
Ryan: I've heard that Glasgow can be a pretty tough town.
Maggie: Yeah but it's a port do you know what I'm saying? A lot of good
raw talent has come from there, writers as well. I feel safer walking on
Glasgow streets that I would say Birmingham or Manchester [laughs].
Ryan: There isn't enough time in the day to talk about all the people that
you've worked with, not to mention I know you're probably going to want to
save some stories for your book, but one of my favorite records that you
were a part of was Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells A Story.
Maggie: That was in the beginning of Stone The Crows. Roger Daltrey was
always very supportive of me as well. He would write in magazines saying
“Maggie Bell is a great singer” and Rod Stewart as well. Rod came and
collected me one night and he said that was going to take me to the
studio. This big Maserati car pulls up and the neighbors were looking
behind the curtains wondering what was happening [laughing]. I went in and
I did it, and of course I was a good friend of Long John Baldry's as well.
I sang on “Every Picture Tells A Story” and he thanked me in the credits
as Maggie “Mateus Rosé” Bell. I've never been a drinker and I've never
drank Mateus Rosé in my life.
Ryan: Maybe he was drinking it that night.
Maggie: Yeah probably.
Ryan: That album really sums up what's great about rock ‘n roll. It's
loose and you can hear the mistakes in there because they left them in.
Ryan: Where as today everything has to be edited out.
Maggie: Today you can use computers; you don't even have to be a bloody
singer these days. If you sing a bum note the computer can fix it up. It's
not real is it?
Ryan: It takes something away from it don't you think?
Maggie: Absolutely, that rawness and emotion. I'll tell you who I think is
a great singer and who I like, is Bryan Adams. He's still got that rawness
and I think he's a great songwriter and a great guitar player. That's
today's equivalent of the Scottish contingent as I call it, the Jimmy
Dewar's and the Alex Harvey's and all that. That's who you've got in
Canada is Bryan Adams. Of course there's Joni Mitchell as well, wonderful
Ryan: Thank for your time Maggie. I enjoyed talking to you.
Maggie: It's been really nice talking to somebody that asks intelligent
questions because believe me I've had some real corkers in my time
[laughing]. There's one thing I learned from Jerry Wexler, I spent six
months with Jerry and his wife out at his house in the Hamptons. I spent a
lot of time walking on the beach with him and stuff and I loved him
dearly. He said to me “Maggie, do you know what I like about you? You do
your homework” That's what you've done; you've done your homework. Some
people call me up to do interviews and they haven't got a clue. They don't
know their ass from their elbow really. You want to get something else
than just the same old byline don't you?
© Copyright 2009 Ryan Sparks, Classic Rock Revisited
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