Legendary John Steel talks about the Animals, Sonny Boy, Hooker, Alexis Korner and Brit blues boom

"I'd like to be in New Orleans in say 1916 just before they closed down the Storyville red light district and created the diaspora that spread Jazz and Blues all over America and then the world."

John Steel: Brit Beat and Blues Boom

John Steel is the original drummer of the Animals. As a child, he and his siblings took piano lessons; though only Steel would go on to have a career in music. Steel's first instrument was the trumpet. His musical influences initially came from jazz. Steel met the future lead singer of the Animals, Eric Burdon, while they were studying together at the Newcastle College of Art and Industrial Design. They switched from jazz to embrace the new rock 'n' roll explosion. In 1957, John and Eric form The Pagan Jazzmen playing Dixieland jazz and next year change the musical style to R&B and become The Pagans. In March 1959 Eric and John ask Alan Price to join 'The Pagans' as piano player. 

December 1959 the band breaks up when John’s leave Newcastle for work. April 1960  he return to Newcastle and with Eric and Alan form The Kansas City 7. In May 1962 Alan quits and joins The Kon Tors with Chas Chandler on bass. The band breaks up and John started playing cabaret clubs. Late August 1963 Chas asks him to join in The Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo. December 1963 the band drops the Alan Price name and play London as The Animals (suggested by Graham Bond). Steel went on to play and record with them until March 1966.

Subsequently, Steel returned to Newcastle and became a businessman, while also working in Chas Chandler's management and publishing organizations. In 1971 Chandler introduced him to Eggs over Easy, with whom he played as they started the pub rock music genre. Over the years Steel has remained active as a part-time local drummer and has joined several Animals' reunion incarnations. In 1993, Hilton Valentine formed Animals II and was joined by John Steel. After Valentine left these Animals, Steel continued on as Animals and Friends. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe John Steel sound and progress? What characterize your music philosophy?

My sound, or style, is jazz influenced Blues and Rock. I was attracted at an early age, 13/14yrs, by the Jazz of the 1920s. Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5... Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers... Bix Biederbecke etc. Most of the early Jazz players converged on Chicago in the early 1920s and the records they made there created "The Jazz Age" the sound track of "The roaring Twenties". I followed the development of the music as it became Swing, Be Bop, Cool, Progressive and all of it was a natural progression from the same roots.

My music Philosophy? If I like it, fine. If I don't like it I just don't listen to it. It's not for me to make judgments, not everyone likes the same thing.

"Parallel to the 'Blues Boom' was of course the 'Beat Boom' led by The Beatles but springing from the same inspiration. Remember, John Lennon's first band was The Quarrymen... a Skiffle group."

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I guess the most interesting period in my life has to be when we, The Animals, went from being working class boys, from the industrial northeast of England, to international stars in a very short space of time. It was a breathtaking experience.

 One of the best of many moments was arriving in New York JFK, September 1 1964, and being driven into mid-town Manhattan in convoy with a police motor cycle escort, sirens wailing. Each of us sat up on the seat back of a British two seat sports car, The Triumph Tiger, with a beautiful girl dressed in sexy basque and fish net stockings with little tiger ears and whiskers. Very funny but, after years of being influenced by American movies, it was fantastic to see that amazing sky-line looming ever closer.

I think probably the worst moment for Chas Chandler, Hilton Valentine, Eric Burdon and me was the realisation that we had let Alan Price walk away with the copyright of the arrangement of The House Of The Rising Sun. I don't think any of us appreciated what a valuable asset that copyright would prove to be and when we did it was too late.

Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

A great Jazz player was once asked "Can you describe what Jazz is"? He answered... "Lady, if you have to ask, you just don't get it".

Do you remember anything funny from the recording and show time with the Animals?

One of the silliest things to happen to me was during an open air concert on our first American tour. A State Fair somewhere in the mid-west. We were playing our closing number, a kicking "Talkin' 'bout You" which segued into "Shout", the audiences were going wild. It was a big stage and something caught my eye. Bounding toward me on my left was a huge black gorilla!!! It grabbed me around my waist, dragged me from my drum stool and carried me off kicking and yelling. The other guys saw what had happened and the number collapsed with everybody running after me and the gorilla.

It turned out to be a publicity stunt organised by the promoter. The ape was a big red-neck in a gorilla suit. We had quite a bit of this sort of thinking by promoters and the media back then. Somebody thought it was cool to have a dancing bear outside the Paramount Theatre in New York when we played there. Everywhere we went there would be some photographer who would say "I've got a great idea, I'm going to take you to the Zoo and we'll get some terrific shots" It got to be very boring.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The most important jam for The Animals was when we were playing support to The Graham Bond Organisation at our home base, The Club Ago Go in Newcastle 1963. Graham was so impressed with the set we played before his band took the stage that when we played the closing set; he got up and jammed with us playing both Hammond organ and alto sax. (Not at the same time). He then put us in contact with Ronan O'Rahilly and Giorgio Gomolsky in London which led to our being signed up with Don Arden and Micky Most.

I think some of the most memorable gigs would be on our first theatre tour supporting Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. Starting May 9 1964 in London we did 22 dates, two shows a night. Every show sold out. It was a great thrill to be on the road with two of our Rock and Roll heroes.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Apart from meeting Ann – next year we celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary – I suppose it was meeting Eric Burdon in 1956 when we were both 15 years old. Everything that followed on from that meeting led up to the formation of The Animals in 1963, and that was a life changing event for all five of us.

When Chas asked me to join him in his management and record production company in 1969, he told me his working method. He said that every evening he made a list of all the things he had to do tomorrow. Next morning he looked at the list and picked the toughest task, the thing he least wanted to do, and he tackled that first. I thought that was a cool rule and I have followed it ever since.

"I guess the most interesting period in my life has to be when we, The Animals, went from being working class boys, from the industrial northeast of England, to international stars in a very short space of time."

In your opinion what was the reasons that made England to be the center of the Blues Boom at early 60s?

Lonnie Donegan's recording of 'Rock Island Line' released in February 1956. This was the record that kicked off the Skiffle craze in the UK. Suddenly loads of teenagers were buying cheap guitars and learning three chords and playing LIVE music instead of just listening to records. Guitarist needed drummers and bass players and so on. So by 1960, 1961, a lot of those teenagers had 5 years playing experience and a lot more musical knowledge about the origins of Skiffle and Rock and Roll. We had discovered Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley and a whole lot more.

Parallel to the 'Blues Boom' was of course the 'Beat Boom' led by The Beatles but springing from the same inspiration. Remember, John Lennon's first band was The Quarrymen... a Skiffle group.

Are there any memories from Alexis Korner, Chas Chandler, and Graham Bond which you’d like to share with us?

Alexis Korner was a true gentleman; he was a father figure to every budding bluesman of my generation. Always willing to help us along with good advice. Always willing to share his vast knowledge of blues history. Always smiling that big smile.

I miss Chas a lot. We became close friends after The Animals split up. He had a lot of common sense. I don't know if you have the equivalent expression in the Greek language but anyway he had a lot of it. He was also one of the most generous of people. I think he has been overlooked as a bass guitar player. If you listen closely to his playing there is a lot more going on than would first appear, a very fluid style.

Graham Bond was a lot like Alexis and Chas in being generous with his help and advice. It was Graham who came up with the name The Animals for us. At the time we met him we were called 'The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo', a really clunky name that none of us liked except Alan. As I already said, he was our short-cut into the London blues scene. Who knows, if it hadn't been for Graham we might have remained just a good local band.   

  

"My fears are that people will only get their music digitally through head-phones and never experience the fun of being in a dark sweaty venue crammed full of music lovers getting it right between the eyes from a good live band."

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you in the music circuit?

I had to laugh at myself lately when I was introducing the band on stage. I introduced Mick Gallagher as Mick Jagger and then, instead of saying that he had worked with Peter Frampton and Paul McCartney, I said he had played with Peter, Paul and Mary!

I get very touched on the circuit when people tell me how important it is to them having seen The Animals live back in the sixties, and how much they enjoyed the show they have just seen. Or how hearing one particular song of ours always takes them back to a happy event in their lives.

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

I'm at an age now when a lot of old friends are gone, I miss them. You can't swap the old war stories when they're gone.

My hopes are that in the future there will still be live music played on real instruments (including the voice, the oldest instrument of all).

My fears are that people will only get their music digitally through head-phones and never experience the fun of being in a dark sweaty venue crammed full of music lovers getting it right between the eyes from a good live band.

"My music Philosophy? If I like it, fine. If I don't like it I just don't listen to it. It's not for me to make judgments, not everyone likes the same thing."

Which memory from Sonny Boy Williamson and the other American bluesmen in UK makes you smile?

Sonny Boy Williamson came to Newcastle to appear at The Club A'Gogo in 1963. We were then called 'The Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo' and we were the house band in the 'Jazz Lounge' so we got to be his backing band.

Sonny Boy was a character. He was tall and slim and although he was only about fifty he looked a lot older. He had the look of a satyr from Greek mythology with his goatee beard and an evil look in his eye. He wore a strange adaptation of what he thought an English gentleman would wear. A three piece suit of black and brown, but one side black and the other brown. The same on the back of the jacket but the other way around, and one leg of his pants black and the other brown, all topped off with a black bowler hat, what Americans call a Derby Hat. He also sported a rolled up umbrella and a black attache case. Inside the case were his various harmonicas neatly in a row alongside two bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch Whiskey!

His favourite evil trick was to call for a shuffle rhythm then he'd give us the key he wanted and count in the tempo and off we went. Sonny Boy would then pull out a harmonica and start playing in a completely different key! Then he'd turn around and start bawling us out for being useless English white boys who didn't know zip about the blues. Fortunately we were a pretty slick band by that time and we'd just roll our eyes and do a quick key change and carry on. Sonny Boy loved that trick he thought it was a great joke.

John Lee Hooker came to The Club A'Gogo around that time. We loved him, he was such a nice guy and he could hardly believe the way he was greeted by his British fans. After the sort of work he would get in the USA, playing juke joints were he struggled to be heard over the noise of people talking and laughing and generally ignoring him, here in Europe he was treated like a star. He was very shy because of a terrible stammer but, like many people with that affliction, once he started singing there was no trace of it. His song "Boom Boom" became a great favourite of ours and has been part of The Animals repertoire ever since.

"I'm just happy doing what I do and being fit and well enough to do it. I have learned that I'm not best drummer in the world by a country mile, but I'm the best Animals drummer."

How has the music industry changed over the years? Do you believe in the existence of real music nowadays?

The industry has changed beyond imagination since the fifties. The first records I bought were 10 inch shellac discs with one song on each side. They broke easily and the sound became very scratchy if you played them a lot. Now you don't even buy a physical record, just download the sounds into an ever smaller device.

Fortunately there are enough young people these days who want to learn how to play an instrument and play live music and, at least for the time being, there are enough young people who want to hear them. It's not dead...yet.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I'd like to be in New Orleans in say 1916 just before they closed down the Storyville red light district and created the diaspora that spread Jazz and Blues all over America and then the world. That's where it all began.

What does “Happiness” mean to you? What do you learn about yourself from the Animals & Friends?

I'm just happy doing what I do and being fit and well enough to do it. I have learned that I'm not best drummer in the world by a country mile, but I'm the best Animals drummer.

Animals and Friends - official website

Views: 1328

Comments are closed for this blog post

social media

Members

© 2020   Created by Michael Limnios Blues Network.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service