HIT CHANNEL INTERVIEW: December 2012. We had the honour to speak with a great singer: John Lawton. He is known from his successful career with Uriah Heep, Lucifer’s Friend and Les Humphries Singers. He has also worked with Roger Glover from Deep Purple and took part in 1976’s Eurovision Song Contest with Les Humphries Singers. His latest solo effort is the very good “The Power of Mind” with Diana Express, a very talented band from Bulgaria. Read below the very interesting thing he told us:
Are you satisfied with the feedback you have already got for “The Power of Mind”?
I was happy, because I didn’t know how people would react to the album, but I thought it worked out really well.
Did you have a good time while recording “The Power of Mind” in Plevin, Bulgaria?
Yes, I did. I was there for about two weeks. Studio time was very good, I always like to work in the studio. You can make mistakes and you can go back and do it again (laughs). We had a good time recording. We had to re-do all the vocals in English and all the backing vocals. It worked well.
The material of “The Power of Mind” is written by Dr. Milen Vrabevski. Would you like to have more involvement in the writing process of the album?
This album, “The Power of Mind” was already recorded in Bulgarian language. The lyrics were already translated into English. So, there was nothing as far as writing that I could do. I made some changes to the lyrics. But we are talking about a new project next year and ofcourse I would like to be involved in writing.
Which effect had the concept of positive thinking on you?
When I first heard about it I said: “Positive thinking? I don’t know”. When I started to record the songs, read the lyrics, it was like reading a book to a friend. Each song was a different chapter in the book. I found it very exciting to do this. It makes big change to record songs. I have a feeling running through each song into the next one. It’s a good feeling. Yes, it has a very positive effect on me.
Are there any plans to do more recordings with “The Power of Mind” line-up?
I don’t know. It just depends on how it goes next year. We always want to work with different musicians. Diana Express have already recorded tracks. We have done 2 or 3 live concerts just to promote the album over there (ed: Bulgaria), but it’s not my decision on which musicians we use. We could find when we will do the next album or the next songs that the guitar player, might play differently, the bass player might have different ideas.. Each musician would contribute different ideas. So, it’s not something standard, that we would use the same musicians. Yes, I don’t think so. Not yet.
Did you feel pressure by fans and press when you replaced David Byron in Uriah Heep?
Yes. In the beginning, yes ofcourse. To replace someone like David Byron who was the voice of Uriah Heep, who was one of the images of Uriah Heep until then, ofcourse it was difficult to step into his shoes. It took a few weeks, a couple of months for Uriah Heep fans to respect the idea that I was the lead singer. Ofcourse in the start, it was a shock for them but then the more concerts you do, the more people they see you, they get used to the idea. David Byron was a hard act to follow. I tried to do a slightly different image to him. I didn’t want to walk in Uriah Heep and be exactly the same. I tried to change the image a little bit with leather trousers, leather jackets and things like that, and it worked. I think it worked.
Do you miss the period you were in Uriah Heep?
(Laughs) It may look ok in photographs, but to wear it onstage was very hard. To wear leather all the time, for me it’s very hot. I don’t really miss it, no.
Do you consider your appearance at Royal Albert Hall for Roger Glover’s “Butterfly Ball” as one of the highlights of your career?
Yes, I do. To step out of Lucifer’s Friend stuff that I have been doing and then I had been working with Les Humphries Singers for a while to the gospel choir, to step from that to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall and look around and see David Coverdale, Jon Lord, Roger Glover himself, all those great musicians, yes it was a bit of a shock, but a enjoyable shock. Yes, I think definitely it was one of the highlights, absolutely.
What do you remember the most from your stint at Top Ten Club in Hamburg in 1969 with your then band, Stonewall?
It was hard work. Because we used to play three quarters of an hour, and then we had a ten-minute break and then another three quarters of an hour and another ten-minute break. We played from 7.30 in the evening to 3 o’clock in the morning. It was hard work, but it was good work. The band became very tight, we played a lot of covers but we played 2 or 3 original songs. I enjoyed that time. I played there twice: in 1969 and then again in 1970. It was really good.
Did you feel comfortable when you took part at 1976’s Eurovision Song Contest with Les Humphries Singers?
No, no (laughs). The answer is no. It wasn’t the same thing to do. Les Humphries won the competition in Germany, to represent Germany and from the choir of thirteen; they picked me and three others, because we weren’t allowed to have more than four onstage. We could only do that. It is something that I will never forget for all the wrong reasons. But it was certainly an experience.
Are you proud of the cult status that the first Lucifer’s Friend album has among fans?
Yes, I am. A lot of people come to me and say “Why don’t you play a Lucifer’s Friend song?” I try to do 2 or 3 of The Lucifer’s Friend songs on the live set, but the guys themselves are really absolutely great musicians, excellent musicians. I enjoyed working with them. Ok, we came together once a year and we were doing an album. It was nice working with them. Unfortunately, a couple of the guys these days are not on the best of health. But we still communicate with each other, we still in touch. We got together about 3 or 4 years ago and we had a little chat about whether we should go on the road as Lucifer’s Friend and try a reunion but I think we decided that the end of it is probably better. To leave it as it was. As people remembered it.
Lucifer’s Friend used to change musical styles very often. Was that a planned decision or it happened spontaneously?
I don’t think it was planned. It just happened. The guys would come along with the songs and the melodies. I would always come and write the lyrics and change the melodies around, and just worked out how it was. The only thing that we really wanted to do was the album “Banquet”, which we know straight away as soon we had the tracks of the songs, the basic songs how we wanted to do it. To present it with the brass section and the strings, and the songs were very complicated. That was my favourite album. After that people started saying that we did a fusion album, that it was too progressive, maybe they wanted it to be a little more rocky. Then we did “Mind Exploding”, when we tried to bring the band back to the more rock side of the things. It didn’t seem to work, but we never intentionally set out to write an album which would be rock or a jazz.
How difficult emotionally was when you played again with Uriah Heep at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2001?
Oh, great feeling. We always stayed in touch, I have said many times that “When you join Uriah Heep, you never leave”. It’s like a big family. We always stayed in touch with Mick Box (guitar) and some other guys. In 2001, Mick told me “Would you like to come for one song or two?” and I said “OK”. Also, I stood in for Bernie (ed: Shaw, singer) in ’95 for the South African tour, which I did. I always respect who they are, they work hard and they are a good band and Bernie, the singer at the moment, is a good guy, he’s a friend of mine. We get on really well. Emotionally, yes it was. Every time I step on stage with Uriah Heep, it’s emotional. It’s a big part of my life, and I’m sure that I will never forget.
Is it possible to collaborate in the near future with Ken Hensley (Uriah Heep’s classic keyboardist)?
We have to talk about it. Ken has his own agenda, about how things wants to work. I respect that. I have the same. I have my own agenda, as to how my future looks. I’m doing a lot of film work for TV in Bulgaria, travel documentaries, and that takes a lot of time. Musically, if the time allows us, I would be really pleased to work again with Ken, as always.
What kind of music are you listening to this period?
Everything (laughs). I listen to everything. I’m a big ZZ Top fan, I always have been. I’m a big Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company singer) fan. I listen to classical music a lot. You can get great ideas from classical music. If you are a musician, regardless you are a singer or a guitar player, or a drummer or a keyboardist, you should listen to all kinds of music. Because from different kinds of music you can get different ideas on how to present things .
Who are your influences as a singer, except Paul Rodgers?
My first big influence was way back when I was a young boy, was a gospel singer called Mahalia Jackson. She was a great singer, full of emotion. I loved her singing. That was really started me thinking about how I should phrase when I sing, how I should do it. Then I moved on to the blues, the blues came along, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, the early bluesmen. And then I moved to more rocky, Chuck Berry. I’ve been influenced by so many people throughout the years. If I would say Frank Sinatra, people would start to say “Do you like Frank Sinatra?”, I would say “Yes”. Some of the stuff that Frank Sinatra did, I really loved it. His style of singing, it’s not necessarily me, but how he phrases his songs, I found it great to listen to it, not all the time. But I would say he’s an influence, ofcourse.
Is there anyone you’d like to play with and hasn’t happened yet?
There are so many musicians around that I would like to work with. I would love to work with Joe Bonamassa, I would love to do a duet with Paul Rodgers, so many different people. Even with Muse, I would like to write a song with Muse, but I’m probably too old for them. I would love ofcourse to do a song with ZZ Top, but they don’t have a lead singer.
What’s your opinion about the current collapse of the recording companies, the downloading etc?
I think it was always heading to that way. In the mid-‘70s when you were recording an album, there were so many musicians around. The technology people have today, we didn’t have back then. We have to play everything in the studio live, the drums were live. There are now too many options for young musicians to put their music on Youtube, get recognized on Youtube. People in these days don’t go and buy a complete new CD. People would download individual tracks, they might like 2 or 3 songs from an album. That’s probably what they want. It’s very difficult now for the record companies. The turnover of the musicians is very quick. You put a dance song which has a success, and then you put a second album or song which doesn’t go well on charts and they tell you “Bye-bye. Who’s next?” I think at some point the record companies recognize that they have to downsize the company policy and focus on distribution, as EMI did. Not so much a record label, but the distributer. That’s where the answer lies.
I asked the same Sir George Martin, The Beatles producer, and he told me that “The album will always be supreme, but the demise of the record business and the rise of downloading does rather spoil the continuity of a good album”.
Yes, it’s true. That’s the way I see the situation. A complete album is the best thing to do, ofcourse. If I like an album, I would go and buy the album, I won’t download it. I would go to the shop and look for it, I like to put the CD on my CD player. If I would like to listen to it on my iPod, I would try to transfer it from my computer to that. But right now, he’s right, he’s correct for that.
He’s the person who established the album format!
He should know (laughs)!!
Because some people say that what we live today is a return to the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll when singles were more important.
Yes, that’s true. That’s very true. Now the singles are more important than the album, you see it all the time. You see the singer of X-Factor on Saturday night and the single is immediately available for download. My opinion is ok, you have the single but you have the album then. You have the single, but the album is immediately out in the shops. I have the single, but I want the album. But now you have to wait quite a lot for the album.
If there will be an album..
If there will be, yes (laughs). I think there will be. The guy who won the (ed: English) X-Factor, James Arthur, look out for this guy because is really special. He ‘s really good. I’m sure you will do an interview with him.
I’ll check him out and I’ll tell you. But I’m old school in music (laughs).
I like that. Good for you.
Can you tell us some albums that changed your life?
First of all, it has to be “Deep Purple in Rock”, “Dark Side of The Moon” by Pink Floyd, “Tejas” by ZZ Top, anything by Yes. I’m a big fan of the early Yes. I think most Deep Purple albums, “The Wall” is another one and “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull.
In 2012 we had the loss of the great Jon Lord (Deep Purple keyboardist). You had played with him.
He really was such a gentleman. He was not only a fantastic musician. But he was a very nice man. I met him for the first time in 1973 when we did the “Butterfly Ball”, and the next time a spent some time speaking with him was in ’95, when we toured with Deep Purple in South Africa. We had some lengthy conversations about music, about life in general. He was a really nice guy. It ‘s a sad loss. He will never be replaced. He influenced so many people. You ‘ll never find another one like him, certainly not.
Another talented person who died this year, was Levon Helm, drummer and singer of The Band. Did you like The Band and Levon Helm?
I really liked The Band. When The Band first came out, I really loved them. I didn’t realise when I liked them that it was actually Bob Dylan’s backing band. “Music From Big Pink”, their first album was just terrific. I liked the way they sounded.
Is there any producer that you dream to work with?
George Martin (laughs). I think he would teach me one or two things.
I couldn’t sleep during the whole October, until the interview be done.
Yes, I believe that. I think he’s a great man. I think his experience would be something really good to me. I love the thing he did with the orchestra in “A Day In The Life”. I love that. I’m a Beatles fan anyway.
How possible is to play soon in Greece?
I would love to come there anytime. I have never been to Greece. Maybe this coming year (2013), if people like the album, we would come over and play some Uriah Heep songs plus some stuff from “The Power of Mind”.
A huge “THANK YOU” to Mr John Lawton for his great answers and to Billy James for his help.
Now available on iTunes, “Fairy Tale”, the first single from ‘The Power of Mind’: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/fairytale-single/id574050204
‘The Power of Mind’ website: www.thepowerofmindalbum.com
“Fairy Tale” promo video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_ff9TuSmbA
Official John Lawton website: http://www.johnlawtonmusic.com/JLmusic.htm