...These recordings all in fact emanate from the sesions produced by Derek Lawrence back in 1968-70 which yielded the handful of hugely enjoyable (and nowadays highly collectable) Bell singles which appeared at the time, and the promise of albums to come - which until now have languished unheard/unreleased/neglected in the vaults of De Lane Lea's studios in Wembley. These sessions have, of course, achieved something approaching legendary status over the ensuing twenty-odd years: much coveted by both Albert and Chas afficianados, a few dodgy tapes have circulated, and the records themselves have gradually become massively overpriced collectors' items. Five singles appeared: "That's All Right"/"Best I Can"; credited to Albert Lee; "Tears Of Rage"/"Too Much Of Nothing" credited to Country Fever; "Accross The Gread Divide"/"Sally" credited to Black Claw (although "Good Times" appeared as the A-side in the US, on Lawrence's own Revolver label); "I'm A Preacher"/"In Our Sweet Time" by the Derek Lawrence Statement; and "Baby I Love Love You"/"Come Back To My Lonely World" by Tony Wilson. Rumours as to the identity of the remaining tracks have long circulated - and at long last, here they are.
Now, over a 20 year period, one's memory tends to thin out a bit - and by his own admission Derek Lawrence possesses a memory which falls well short of photographic: consequently, his recall of exactly who played on what may be less that 100% - and is, therefore, occasionally at odds with Albert's own recollections. Yet Albert's can be equally suspect: when interviewed by Pete Sturman and Bill Husband in 1989, he stated that he'd concentrated on singing and piano-playing duties on his unissued 'solo' album, crediting the guitar work to Harvey Hinsley. However, although Hinsley undoubtedly appears on many of the tracks (chiefly as rhythm guitarist), aural evidence does demonstrate quite conclusively that Albert plays lead on most of 'em: furthermore, Lawrence clearly remembers Procol Harum pianist Mathew Fisher playing on certain sessions - and also, possibly, Nicky Hopkins.
Even less clear is the precise identity/ definition of exactly who or what Country Fever was: certainly, the gigging group of this name who included John Derek, Gerry Hogan, Pat Donaldson, and Jed Kelly alongside Albert Lee appears to have been wholly unrelated (with the obvious exception of Albert) to the Country Fever of Lawrence's sessions; similarly, Black Claw's studio personnel was a different shape to the line-up who fulfilled the bulk of their live commitments (ie. Chas, Harvey, Dave Peacock, and Mick Burt), Albert clearly having a considerably greater input that the published photographs of the group would suggest. The actuality was that these sessions were recorded by what was effectively Lawrence's "house band" (which in itself was a fairly loose aggregation with certain musicians involved only sporadically) the nucleus of which comprised:-
Albert Lee - gtr/piano/vocals
Chas Hodges - bass/gtr/vocals
Harvey Hinsley - rhythm guitar
BJ Cole - pedal steel
Matt Fisher - piano
Micky Burt - drums
Tony Wilson; Larry Steele; Liza Strike & Elaine Corlett - backing vocals
Shortly after Derek Lawrence dug these tapes out of the archives and had prepared them for this release (several have subtly remixed; the few dubbed from acetates have been substantially cleaned-up) he allowed me the opportunity of interviewing him in order to get these sleevenotes together: here's what he had to say (NB: comments in brackets are mine, throughout, for illumination/ edification)...
Q: So how did it all come together?
DL: I was producing Deep Purple...the first single "Hush" was a bit hit in the US, and the album was doing great...there was plenty of money coming in - which gave me a chance to work with all of my old mates. I'd always liked the idea of the Muscle Shoals Studio set-up where you had a studio band - and whatever you were doing, whoever you were working with, that was the band who played on it.
Q: OK, so how did you meet Albert and Chas originally?
DL: Right, well that goes all the way back to 1964 or '65...I used to hang around Joe Meek's studio...working as an unpaid assistant and learning my way around a studio...that's where I firtst started trying to produce. That's also where I first met Chas, when he and Ritchie Blackmore were in The Outlaws...and after they left Meek, I produced a single for them on Smash in the US. I started doing quite a lot with the Outlaws...they introduced me to more mates/ musicians and I gradually put a session group together...all the blokes I'd met through Chas and Ritchie, who were active on the club circuit in London...
- if I couldn't get Ritchie, I'd use Big Jim Sullivan;
- if neither were available I'd get Dave Wendells;
- Chas was always available;
- drummers were either Carlo Little, Mick Underwood, or Jimmy Evans;
- and either Nicky Hopkins or Matt Fisher played piano.
We cut all kinds of stuff - like The Ritchie Blackmore Orchestra single "Getaway"/"Little Brown Jug" - which is nowadays highly collectable.
Q: So where did Albert fit into all this?
DL: That was a few years later...Chas brought him along to a session...as I said, I'd always liked the studio band set-up...and like I said earlier, when the Purple thing went well, I started working with some of my old mates again. Originally we were doing a Tony Wilson album...Tony was with Norman Oliver in the Soul Brothers (he later helped form Hot Chocolate and went on to become a major Third World solo artist in the 70's and 80's)...he was a great songwriter and had a unique, soulful voice. We more or less finished the album...shame it never came out (it remains unissued)...a really nice album...much too downhome Soul for the UK at the time, though.
But when we'd finished I thought it'd be great to try and do something with Albert...I was totally knocked out with him, so was everyone else...I thought he was a great talent, and couldn't understand why he wasn't doing a solo thing - and more to the point, why wasn't he singing? (ever the gypsy, Albert was at that time spreading himself out between The Tumbleweeds; Poet & The One Man Band; The Steve Gibbons Band; Country Fever and the embryonic Fotheringay).
Q: What about the two different "Country Fever's"?
DL: My memory is that we - well, Albert came up with the name Country Fever at about the same time as he joined John Derek's group...they also started using the name, and when Albert left John registered the name and carried on using it for quite a long time (a very interesting explanation, that - wonder if it's right?)...actually, I believe we were going to call Albert's solo album "Country Fever".
The basic band was Albert, Chas, Harvey and Mick...we didn't really differentiate between Country Fever and Black Claw in the studio - they were exactly the same band: it was just a question of who took the lead vocals...if it was Albert they became Country Fever tracks; and if it was Chas, then they were Black Claw...we cut both "That's All Right" and "Good Times" at the same session - one with Albert on vocals and the other with Chas.
Q: But what about Albert's interview a couple of years ago where he said that he'd only sung and played piano, and that Ian Paice (Deep Purple) had been the drummer?
DL: Well, you've heard the album - Albert's obviously playing guitar on it!...he certainly played piano on stuff like "Tears Of Rage" - but he also played guitar...we probably overdubbed the piano. But Matt Fisher was definitely around on these sessions - ano so, I seem to remember, was Nicky Hopkins.
Ian Paice could well have been on a couple of the very early tracks: we started these sessions in late '68, just before I finished the second Purple Album - Paicey was around a lot then, and he might have played...it would only have been on a couple of tracks, though...it's more likely he played on Tony Wilson's album.
Albert's on all except the last two tracks we recorded, "What A Stupid think" and "Another Useless Day"...they're the only things with Dave Peacock on ...BJ Cole plays pedal steel on things like "Lay Lady Lay", all the pedal steel parts on the sessions.
We used to use the studio (Kingsway) a lot, and it was like a worked-out routine...I'd figure on a song I'd want to do, we'd get to the studio at about 12 o'clock, and we'd work on the track 'til around 8 o'clock, when we'd finish it...then we'd go down the pub until it closed - and come back and jam old Rock'n'Roll stuff for three or four hours...I'd usually tape the lot...yeah, I've still probably got some of the tapes somewhere.
Meanwhile, because Purple were such a hit several Record Companies were asking me to produce things...I was supposed to do a deal with Bell for four or five singles...I had various Albert Lee, Country Fever, Black Claw, Derek Lawrence Statement tracks finished, so we put those out.
Q: But why didn't the rest of it - the albums - come out at the time?
DL: I didn't get around to singing on any of the contracts: simple as that.
Q: Who was on the Derek Lawrence Statement single?
DL: The basic house band - Albert, Harvey, Chas, and Mick - with Larry Steele, Liza Strike, and Tony Wilson on vocals...I also recorded them as Focus Three a bit later...actually, Liza might've been on some of the Country Fever and/or Black Claw tracks, alongside Elaine Corlett.
Q: OK, so why these specific tracks as singles? presumably you thought they sounded the most commercial?
DL: No, I don't know that we ever thought they sounded commercial as such..we were just making records we liked...amongst that lot is some of the greatest Rock'n'Roll I've probably ever done...and I've always thought it included some of Albert's best recorded work - particularly som of his vocals.
The sessions were spread out over at least 18 months, from late '68 to May '70...I've only got firm session dates for about half the tracks, from the Summer of '69 onwards...unfortunately, master tapes for the very earliest tracks have long since disappeared and we've had to dub from old acetates...that's why some have had to appear in mono...we lost one track completely, "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line" - the acetate was too far gone...it had a deep gouge right through it.
And really, that's about it: Derek went on to tell me about the legendary Green Bullfrog sessions (on which Albert and Chas played alongside Ritchie Blackmore and Big Jim Sullivan), and the myriad of other artists he'd produced - but as interesting as these stories are, they're not strictly relevant in the context of this CD. But you can't help wondering about the unissued Tony Wilson album, or the one he cut with classy black singer Earl Jordan - both of which were recorded with the same "house band" as this set and are still languishing in the can: hopefully tracks from these projects may be included on "The Derek Lawrence Sessions", a forthcoming three (or four) CD set of Lawrence's productions which will hopefully combine many of his better-known, collectable tracks with previously-unissued material.
However, the startling thing about this album is that although it's 20-odd years old it has such a contemporary Country-Rock feel to it. Albert has rarely, if ever, sounded better vocally, and all those dazzling licks, picks and runs which he perfected in the 70's and 80's can be readily found here - check out the instrumental "Country In Harlem" - and just take another listen to "Send Me Back To The Mines", where he sounds as though he's duetting with Rosie Flores or Emmylou Harris: it could've been cut last year. And "That's Alright Mama" (which Albert still of course performs live) sounds equally as crisp: and as a footnote, it must be said that Chas Hodges has sadly not done anything remotely as good as this stuff in years.
Roger Dopson (June 1991)