Superstar Bryan Ferry talks about his early days in Newcastle and how the North East shaped his life
Posted: 23 Nov 2009
Superstar Bryan Ferry is the king of cool. But the suave lounge lizard has never forgotten his humble working-class upbringing in Washington and how the North East shaped his life.
Exclusive interview by Michael Hamilton
Pictures courtesy of Bryan Ferry
MH: Can you tell me what you have coming up?
Bryan: We are releasing a ‘Best Of Bryan Ferry’ compilation album (it’s out on November 23) and my new studio album should be ready for release in spring next year. We are talking at the moment about live dates for next summer but nothing is fixed yet.
MH: Tell me about your early musical influences.
Bryan: My early musical influences are many and varied from Fats Domino to Little Richard and early Elvis. The first music that caught my attention at the age of 10 was the music of the early American blues singers such as Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy. I remember hearing Leadbelly and thinking: ‘That’s amazing!’ I became a huge fan of the blues. I found it very emotional music. It was deep and raw and struck a chord. This then led me into rock ‘n’ roll and jazz, all of which I became addicted to.
MH: Which bands did you go and watch and where?
Bryan: I used to go as often as I could at an early age to the City Hall in Newcastle. The first band I saw there was Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, but the first concert I remember seeing was Bill Hayley and the Comets, which was at Sunderland Empire.
I won two front row seats from a Radio Luxembourg competition and I took my big sister. Nowadays it would seem very tame but at the time it seemed very violent. Of course, everywhere they played Teddy boys would rip up the seats and go mad. I also saw The Platters around this time who had a big hit called Smoke Gets in Your Eyes –which I was to cover many years later.
MH: What are your memories of buying your first records?
Bryan: I bought my first records at Windows in the Arcade off Grey Street in Newcastle. I spent many an hour gazing longingly through their window at their musical instruments and record sleeves. I remember they had little booths where you could go and listen to the record first before buying it. As you can imagine many an hour was spent in there testing out albums I couldn’t afford! I had a Saturday job at Jackson the Tailor in Northumberland Street so Windows record shop became a regular place for me to visit. The first EP I bought was a big thing for me. It was the Charlie Parker Quintet with Miles Davis. I loved Charlie Parker’s sax playing and he became one of my favourite all-time musicians.
MH: Tell me about your school days.
Bryan: I went to Washington Grammar School where my sister had gone before me, and I had a wonderful time there, especially when I reached the sixth form and could concentrate on the subjects I really liked, which were Art, English and History. The teachers there were incredibly supportive of my talent and eccentricities and I shall always be grateful to Bob Stapleton, my art teacher, and my English teacher David Oliver for setting me on the right path. It was actually a very good school for sport too and I was very involved in the athletics and basketball teams.
MH: What about your university days and memories from that time?
Bryan: After school I decided to study Fine Art, and was encouraged to go to Newcastle University rather than go to London and it was the best thing I ever did. For the first time I met other people of my own age who shared the same interests in art and music and I was very lucky to study under the great English Pop artist Richard Hamilton.
Instead of painting a bowl of fruit or flowers he did beautiful paintings based on details of American cars. It brought art right up to the here and now, so the things you saw around you became the subject matter for paintings. One of my best friends actually worked with Andy Warhol in New York.
There was this connection between the Newcastle fine arts department and the American artists, which made it feel special.
I also had this classic American car, a Studebaker. It was a beautiful machine. I think I spent more time pushing it than driving it because it was always conking out. But just to look at it was enough for me. I used to live in Eslington Terrace in Jesmond and had it parked outside.
We used to spend a lot of time at the famous Club-A-Go-Go in Newcastle, which was the hot scene at the time, and where I saw lots of great bands perform, and where I perfected my dance moves!
While I was at university I put together my own band called The Gas Board and we played a lot of clubs in the area. None of the material we performed was original – it was mainly R ‘n’ B covers. But two of the musicians from that band – Graham Simpson and John Porter – were later to play with me in Roxy Music, so as you can imagine this was a very important time for me.
MH: How big an influence was Otis Redding?
Bryan: I remember hitch-hiking to London one weekend – it must have been about 1967 – to see Otis Redding perform and this was a pivotal moment for me. It was probably the main reason I wanted to become a musician myself after seeing him in the Stax Roadshow with Sam and Dave, Steve Cropper, Booker T & the MGs. It was an amazing line-up of talent. Otis died shortly after that and I named my first son after him so that was a big moment for me.
MH: Do you recall how you met Roxy’s drummer Paul Thompson?
Bryan: After I graduated in 1968 and moved to London I started to put together the band that was to become Roxy Music. I was very fortunate to find a great bunch of people, all as inexperienced as myself, and one of them was a fellow Geordie, Paul Thompson. I remember putting an advert in the music paper Melody Maker and Paul turned up for an audition straight from his job on the building site, and I took to him immediately. He became an integral part of the group.
MH: The first Roxy album went to number 10. Were you surprised at its success?
Bryan: Yes, we were amazed at how successful it was. It was 1972 when the first Roxy album was released. It just seemed to capture the public imagination. We quickly followed this up with our first single release, Virginia Plain, which brought us an even bigger audience.
Just a year earlier one of the many jobs I did to make a living – while I was putting together the band and writing the songs – was teaching ceramics at a girls’ school in Hammersmith in west London. About this time I auditioned with the band King Crimson and they introduced me to their management company who signed up me, and Roxy Music.
MH: What did it mean to come and headline Newcastle City Hall for the first time in 1973?
Bryan: It was quite an emotional experience for me, being on the stage where I had seen some of my great heroes perform years before.
MH: Tell me about the fashions that influenced your early look.
Bryan: In my opinion, Newcastle was always a cool place, and in my student years there were two clothes shops where everybody hung out. One of them was called City Stylish, and the other more upmarket store was called Marcus Price.
Marcus was one of the great characters of Newcastle at that time, and a big jazz fan. I think the club culture of Newcastle then was a big part of everyone’s obsession, with fashion and one of the places I frequented was the New Orleans Jazz Club where the standard of musicianship and clothing was extremely high. I remember seeing Eric Burdon of The Animals singing there, and there was a great sax player called Nigel Stanger who was later to become a great friend of mine.
MH: Did you feel you were in control of your image – unlike other bands – in that you designed the album sleeves?
Bryan: Having an art school education was a great help when it came to designing the first and subsequent album sleeves, and we felt that in Roxy we were very much in control of all the visual imagery associated with being a musician.
MH: What did it mean to you to take Jealous Guy to No 1?
Bryan: I was always a big fan of John Lennon, and when he was killed we did a version of his song Jealous Guy – which I think was the most successful single we ever recorded. It was our only number one single. Although most of my career has been spent performing my own compositions I have always enjoyed doing songs from other genres, and I think this has made my career much more interesting. It is sometimes quite a challenge to take someone else’s song and put your own stamp on it.
MH: Do you still feel the North East is home?
Bryan: I have lived in London since 1968, but I still feel that the North East is my spiritual home. It’s a very true saying that ‘you can take a boy out of the North but you can’t take the North out of the boy’.
MH: Do you think you would ever move back to the North East?
Bryan: I sometimes fantasise that I could one day end up back in the North, probably on a farm in the Border Country, which is I think one of the best places in the world.
MH: What do you make of the arts scene in the North East these days and the redevelopment of the Newcastle Quayside?
Bryan: I am very pleased to see there is a flourishing arts scene up there and it’s great that so much of it is centred around the Quayside, which is the heart and soul of the city. I’ve always seen Newcastle as a very special city – the architecture is much better than other big cities outside London.
MH: Do your children feel attached to the North East?
Bryan: I have four sons (Otis, Isaac, Tara and Merlin) and I have always made them very aware of my and their North East heritage. They are staunch supporters of Newcastle United football team but I do wish they had more direct contact with the area. Luckily my uncle Bryan, after whom I was named, now lives and works with us in the South and has taught them some good North East values!
For the full track listing - the CD/DVD features 19 singles and two previously unreleased bonus tracks - go to Bryan Ferry's site. Son Tara plays drums on one of the tracks!