Gary James' Interview With
Klaus Voormann

Talk about being in the right place at the right time - that describes Klaus Voormann.

He was walking down the street in Hamburg, Germany and heard music coming out of the Kaiserkeller Club. He heard and saw a group called Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, whose drummer was none other than Ringo Starr. The next group up was called The Beatles. To make a long story short, Klaus Voormann became friends with The Beatles. He went on to design the album cover of "Revolver". He played bass on the solo albums of John, George and Ringo. He also played bass on albums by Harry Nilsson, Carly Simon and Lou Reed to name just a few. He was a member of Manfred Mann.

What a story Klaus Voormann has to tell!

Q - Did you attend John and Yoko's This Is Not Here art exhibit at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York?

A - Yes.

Q - Did you go to John's birthday party at the Hotel Syracuse?

A - Yes. I wound up playing a conga or something. I saw a video somebody took of it...a black and white video.

Q - Did you like the exhibit?

A - It was a great exhibition. It was so fantastic because people could participate. That's what I like. You have an exhibition and people just stand at the picture and another picture and another picture. But that was great 'cause you actually went into a room that was dark. Then you had another room where you couldn't see anything. Yoko and John had gas masks somewhere with prism glass that you couldn't orientate yourself at all or they were completely black. People were just walking around touching each other. You could climb up some ladders or a wall. It was great. It was really good.

Q - What do you do these days?

A - Well, I have this "Sideman's Journey", a box set. I got Paul McCartney playing on it. Ringo is playing drums. I got Jim Keltner. I got Don Preston. David Hood is playing some bass. I've got some great people together. Bonnie Bramlett is singing. I got lots of stuff on it. You can order it on Amazon, or if you go on the internet to Sideman's Journey - Voormann And Friends , then you will see it. You'll see kind of a teaser too, how the whole thing happened. That's my latest thing.

Q - How are you promoting this box set of yours? Do you play select days with some of the people on the CDs?

A - We have done promotion in Germany, but not with a band or concerts. We just did one thing in Munich and we did lots of TV and it's selling very, very well. If you take the business the way it is today, it's really selling well. I don't know what's gonna happen promotion wise in America, but we definitely want to promote it wherever we can.

Q - When you first saw The Beatles, did you go on your own or were you with Astrid?

A - I went on my own. Then I convinced all the other people and said "You have to come and see this band." Everyone came after me, I would say. I was the first of the bunch and then I got all these art people coming in and seeing the band.

Q - This happened by chance, didn't it? You got into a fight with Astrid, walked down the street, heard a band playing an walked in the club. Is that how it happened?

A - I would call it more of an argument. (laughs) It was in Hamburg at the Reeperbahn. There was a window and I heard the 'live' Rock 'n' Roll music.

Q - Why did you think that this band was so special?

A - It was the first Rock 'n' Roll band I ever heard in my life.

Q - That would make it special.

A - On its own, oddly enough. (laughs) But the band was just so great. They played only cover versions. They did not have any songs they wrote themselves. They just played all of the American things like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino...maybe some Gene Vincent. They all were singing. George was singing. John was singing great. It was just amazing, these people to see them. It was really special.

Q - Did they charge admission at the door to get in?

A - Yeah.

Q - Were The Beatles moving around onstage?

A - Well, you see, Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, that was the band Ringo was playing in, they were making sort of like a show band thing where they did move steps to the side and all that, but not wild acts. People always think it was a concert. Those are not concerts. It's a dance hall, where people wanted to dance. They didn't want to dance just to records in those days. They wanted to actually have a band. So the band was mainly just standing there, like The Beatles were later standing there onstage singing. Of course the announcements were much more provoking and dirty, because in those days they didn't have to check every word they were saying.

Q - I ask because in his book Lennon Remembers, John Lennon stated that after Hamburg, they had to clean up their act. I guess John would come onstage with a toilet seat around his neck.

A - Yeah. They were crazy. In general they were just excited about the music. George was 17, so...

Q - On that same day, you heard Rory Storm and The Hurricanes with Ringo.

A - The first band I heard was The Beatles, through the window. And since I got my guts together to go in there, that's when Rory Storm and The Hurricanes were onstage. So, I saw Ringo first, with Rory Storm and The Hurricanes and then I was The Beatles.

Q - Did Ringo stand out in that band?

A - Very much so. He was a fantastic drummer. Really incredible.

Q - Some contemporaries of Ringo have said he wasn't that good of a drummer.

A - They're just jealous. (laughs) Ringo was always great. You see, Rock 'n' Roll drumming is not necessarily very difficult. He always had that feel on the very first day I saw him. He stuck out immediately. On the very first day, I may not have realized that it was the drummer who was holding that band together, but the band was just solid. Even thought his playing wasn't that "hot", Ringo was just incredible. He was really, really good.

Q - Pete Best was the drummer in The Beatles when you first heard them. How would you rate his drumming?

A - He was doing OK, but if you compare it to Ringo, he just did not have that swing. He just did not have that rock. He just didn't.

Q - Stuart Sutcliffe was The Beatles' bass player then. Did he play with his back to the audience?

A - Oh, no, no. That was just at the very start when they made a little audition, as I remember, to Billy Fury or something in England. That was when he was turning his back because he didn't know where to put his fingers on the bass.

Q - You actually took up bass yourself?

A - Yeah. When the band played in The Top Ten (Club), Stuart was still the bass player. It was late at night and he came up to me. I just came in the club and he said "C'mon Klaus, you play the bass tonight." And he just stuck it in my hand. At that time, in 1961, I hadn't played a note on a bass, ever in my life. It was the very first time I had the bass guitar in my hand. It was an electric bass guitar. The band said "C'mon up onstage and you play now." I said "No, no. I'm not gonna go up onstage. I've never been there in my life." So, I sat in front of the stage and we played. The first number I played was a Fats Domino number. And now, when I did this work for my CD and the DVD, I asked Paul if he could remember what song it was. He said "Oh, yeah. It was a Fats Domino number, 'I'm In Love Again'." That was the first number I ever played the bass. Paul, Ringo and I did a version on this new CD of mine.

Q - If you never played the bass before, how could you play the bass? Did the band shout down from the stage where to put your fingers?

A - Well, they didn't have to do that. I had a little guitar I was fiddlin' around (with) at home and had a little tape recorder and was fiddlin' around with that. But I never had a bass guitar in my hand. So, I just knew. It's not very difficult to play these songs. So, I immediately played it. They were "That's great, Klaus. You play it really good." That's where I got started.

Q - After that, would they then let you sit in with them more often?

A - Well, I'll tell you what. The last time Stuart played, it was about the end of the thing. After that, they didn't stay much longer and I didn't play any more. I don't know exactly how many times I played.

Q - Was the Kaiserkeller Club a tough club?

A - Yeah, very.

Q - Was it dangerous for someone to walk in off the street and try to listen to a band?

A - Well you see, they were all young kids and there were some Rocker types in the audience and I was sort of an art student. Looked completely different. They had their greasy hair. (laughs) I was with nicely washed hair and a scarf around my neck, with a suede leather jacket. So, when I went in, I was sort of scared.

Q - No one bothered you, did they?

A - No. It was OK. I didn't know how to behave, what to do in places like this. I'd never been in a club like this. So, I sit down at a table and the waiter came and just looked at me. (laughs) Well, can I have a beer? So, I ordered a beer and he brought me the beer. I drank the beer. I ordered another beer. So, everything was fine. That's all they want. You come into a club, drink a beer and then go, you know? (laughs)

Q - Spend your money and watch the band.

A - Exactly.

Q - You were actually in a group managed by Brian Epstein.

A - That's true.

Q - Did Brian Epstein get your group a record deal?

A - Yeah. We had a record deal, but it didn't do any good. He loved the band and I thought, well, if he thinks the band is good, let's give it a go. But we never made any good records. The band was cookin' when it came down to playing and people were dancing. For that sort of job, we were really good, doing cover versions of The Temptations, The Impressions, those sort of things. But we were only 3 people. We only had Paddy, the guitar player who was singing and I was singing a little, but not much, and Gibson was playing the drums. So, it wasn't much of a fantastic band and we didn't write too many songs.

Q - Did you like Brian Epstein?

A - Yeah. He was great. As a manager I didn't like him so much, but as a person he was really a great guy. We spent a lot of fun times together. But the whole thing for us was more fun times than a really serious management. There was too much happening at NEMS Enterprises at the time and Brian was a little out of control in those days, so he didn't do too much good for us, but I'm not blaming him for it. He had enough with The Beatles.

Q - The Beatles were a handful, yet he continued to sign other acts. He took on too much.

A - Yeah, it was too much. He had Robert Stigwood, but it was too much for him on his own, that's true.

Q - Then you went on to play bass for Manfred Mann.

A - Right.

Q - Did you like that gig?

A - Yeah. It was good. We had loads of hits in England. We had seven hits in the Top Ten. One after another. It was only 3 years, so we had enough to do. We were touring and playing. They were very nice people.

Q - Were you ever approached by The Beatles to replace Paul McCartney?

A - No. I would've said no anyway, because it was silly. How can anybody replace Paul? That's impossible. (laughs) It's not the same band.

Q - You designed the cover of the "Revolver" album.

A Yeah.

Q - How did that happen?

A - John called me and asked me if I had an idea for it, if I wanted to try and if I had a good idea I'd get the job. And that was right in between Paddy, Klaus and Gibson fell apart. That's when I went down to E.M.I. to listen to the songs and I did the cover.

Q - And you won a Grammy for it as well.

A - Yeah.

Q - Was that the only album design you did for The Beatles?

A - Well, I did the Anthology.

Q - Paul must've called you on that one.

A - He actually did not just call me. He asked seven artists altogether to put in their ideas and as it happened, they took my idea.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.