Gary James Interview With
He's a well-known studio musician and a star in his own right. As a session player, he's appeared on albums for Roxy Music, Elton John, Jack Bruce, Harry Nilsson and Paul McCartney. He's toured with Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music and Robert Gordon. Chris Spedding is his name and Rock 'n' Roll is his game.
Q - Chris, I've asked this question to several other musician I've interviewed over the years. Here you were a guitarist, living in England in the 1960s. Did you realize how fortunate you were to be a musician in England at that particular time in history?
A - I do think I've had a fortunate life which I'm actually very grateful for. At the time that it's happening, you don't think that at all. I know people talk a lot about the Swingin' Sixties, but for me, I wasn't really doing that well financially. I was scraping around a bit. The '60s were kind of like more of a recession for me personally. Later, when the '70s came along and everybody was talking about financial recession, I was starting to do quite well. So to me, the '70s were more Swingin' than the '60s. I was around for all the Carnaby Street stuff, the Hippies and stuff. But I was kind of doing different stuff. At the beginning of the '60s I wasn't really interested in Pop music. I got into sort of the Jazz phase. Hangin' around down at Wally Scott's club where I used to see great Jazz musicians play, people like Sonny Rollins. It was in the middle of the '60s on that I started getting back into Rock 'n' Roll, which is where it started out in the '50s. I played with people like Dusty Springfield on the road, Georgie Fame, people like that. I suppose it was good, but when you're in the middle of a golden age you don't sort of think "It's the Golden Age!" People don't think that. You might think how lucky you are looking back, but you're not aware of it when you're in the middle of it.
Q - When you were quite young, you had already played in Country bands, done cruise ship work and formed your own Rock band. Most guys will stick to one type of music. Were you trying to see what type of music you really liked?
A - Yes. I joined the Country outfit because I saw it advertised in Melody Maker, a musical paper here, and thought, oh, this is something I'm not really familiar with. Maybe if I join this band I can learn this genre. I was trying to learn the music business. I thought I ought to know something about this. So I joined the band and got introduced to music from Chet Atkins and all the Country artists which I wasn't aware of before. So, that was a conscious effort to sort of broaden my scope. It's true that a lot of musicians stick to one style, but I thought I was always a little strange. An actor, if he does different roles, is considered to be versatile and quite talented, but if a musician does that, this guy is not committed or he's a bit sort of shallow. But I've never really gone along of what's sort of been expected of me. I always followed my own inclinations.
Q - It was actually a very smart move on your part, considering the different type of musicians you've worked with.
A - I suppose going into the session work, it was a good move, although at the time you see, I had no idea that is what they were looking for in the studios. I thought they were looking for somebody that could sight read and just do that. I was not really that great of a sight reader. I would never have told anybody at a session I could sight read. I just kept quiet about that. Usually I tried to fake it and get by, which is what I've done most of my life. What they really wanted is somebody eclectic enough to sort of draw upon all styles of music, which is what unintentionally I've been doing, sort of training myself for that. I guess that was fortunate again.
Q - Where do you think your musical talent came from? Is it a God-given gift?
A - Well, no. I would say that if you're obsessive about anything, you'll be good at it. I was obsessive about it and so you learn all you can about it. You want to be the best at it. You work hard at it. I didn't have any interest in anything academic at school. I was at the bottom of the year, but I could play the guitar. I said; right. This is sort of my way out of being in sort of a dead-end life and dead-end job. This what I've got to do. I've got to work at it and make sure I could do this 'cause this is the only thing I can do, or so I thought.
Q - Did you have an interest in the business side of music?
A - No. That's probably sort of my downfall, not really interested in the business side of it at all. I was surprised when people gave me money for doing it 'cause I enjoy it so much. I'm a bit stupid when people ask me how much I want. I never usually ask so much as somebody else would ask. But maybe I've got a bit better at that over the years. But I don't think of it as a business. I just think I'm fortunate to do this thing I love doing and people give me money.
Q - How did you get to be a session player? I've often thought you'd need connections to do that. Did you know people?
A - No. I was surprised to get calls. It was after I played in this Jazz fusion group. There were a lot of accomplished musicians in this group. I think they all thought I must've been an accomplished musician too, to have been asked to play in it. But they were all jazzers and I was more of a rocker at the time and I've been asked to join this group called Nucleus because of my Jazz background. I knew how to relate to the Jazz musicians. But at the time, I was back into playing Rock. So this was about 1969, 1970, when Jazz fusion was just starting and lots of Jazz musicians were looking around to be able to play that and I was asked to join that that group because I was providing the Rock element to make it more believable to people, and because I was involved with all these accomplished musicians, I think word got around. Why don't we use this guy on a session? He's obviously gonna be able to play in a lot of different situations and can obviously read well, so we'll start booking him. That was one element. The other element is two of the biggest session stars from the '60s, Big Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page had both moved on to other things. Big Jim Sullivan started working with Tom Jones in Las Vegas and moved out of the country. Jimmy Page, as you probably know, started Led Zeppelin. So there was a big gap in the British session scene for a guitar player. I suppose it was a case of right place, right time. Those were the two reasons. I always kept my mouth shut when people booked me on a session because I always thought, one day I'm gonna get on a session and it will be such a difficult piece I'm not going to tell people I can read music. I was gonna say "Hey, I never told you I could do this shit!" (laughs) But it never happened, not be to be able to play what was put in front of me. But that was always in the back of my mind, one day I'm gonna get found out, but I never did. I really enjoy doing session work. I found it very challenging and satisfying and fulfilling. I wish I was doing more of it now because the session scene has changed so much. Those sessions, I used to go on with a full rhythm sections and we used to do three or four songs in three or four hours and there'd be three or four sessions a day. That doesn't happen any more.
Q - You were in the studio with Paul McCartney. Did that make you nervous or were you more or less relaxed?
A - Well, I was aware that it was quite a bit of an occasion because the first time I went into the studio with him to do stuff for "Say Goodbye To Broadstreet", he's hired George Martin and Geoff Emerick, who were the people that used to record The Beatles. The drummer was Ringo Starr. The bass player was Paul McCartney and everywhere I looked there was somebody associated with The Beatles. I thought well, I can fantasize that I'm George Harrison. (laughs) That was pretty wild. It was quite an occasion. I did sort of stop and think, wow! I'm with The Beatles here.
Q - This website, All Music said about you; "The fact that he never quite broke through to stardom, except in his native England and parts of Europe and in professional music circles, is more of a result of bad timing and worse luck than any lack of talent or commitment on his part." Bad timing? Worse luck? Do you agree with that? Why do you think stardom eluded you? Was it because you didn't have a Brian Epstein or a Colonel Parker behind you?
A - It's difficult to sort of look back and say "what if?" I don't really know. At least I tried to put myself in a situation where things were starting to happen, but maybe I wasn't much of a businessman. I came to the United States thinking I've got about as far as I can in Britain. I thought my music would be acceptable to people in the United States, but I never ever ended up with a domestic United States record deal. They were always on imports. I seemed to miss that wave of the Punk / New Wave Invasion. I was sort of a bit old for that, about two years before that. So, at that time it could've been that. But you can't really in hindsight look back and say. So the bad timing could have been that. Other artists came over about the same time as me and were successful, people like Billy Idol for instance, who I knew. I knew him from London. He managed to sort of get hooked up with a record company. The record company I was with in England, RAK, didn't have an outlet in the States. It was more known as sort of a Mickey Mouse group, more known for Bubble Gum, British Bubble Gum, which is not fashionable world-wide, only in Europe. They had acts like Hot Chocolate, Suzi Quatro.
Q - Hot Chocolate had a U.S. hit.
A - Yeah, they did. They broke out on a different label. Infinity I think it was. In other words, there really wasn't an automatic release of RAK's material in the United States, only certain, selected things. Suzi Quatro had a few break-outs as well. It wasn't like I had an automatic sort of campaign to promote me. So that could be a factor.
Q - It seems like whether it's studio work or road work, you've always been in demand.
A - Well, when you get a couple of months when the phone doesn't ring, you don't really feel like you're in demand. But I must not grumble really, 'cause I feel pretty fortunate that as long as I've been in the business, I still seem to make a living out of it.