Maggie Bell interview by Ryan Sparks

Reproduced from 'Classic Rock Revisited'

 

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 unreleased?

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 minds.

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 wonderful.

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 occasionally.

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 collaborative effort?

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 know?

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 regressive [laughs].

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 Hodgkinson.

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 these guys?

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 that correct?

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 hasn't he?

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.

I've just 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 musical influences?

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.

Maggie: Absolutely!

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 stuff.

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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