LET ME INTRODUCE MYSELF
RUSS’S STORY IN HIS OWN WORDS
I was born in Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire England. My Father was a drummer and leader of his own dance band. My Mother was a dancer and my brother played keyboards. My earliest recollection of hearing music was probably Beethoven, or comical music like ‘Spike Jones’ and his ‘Wacky Wackateers’. I remember a feeling of sadness when my mother used to play ‘Moonlight Sonata’. I didn’t know what made me feel so sad, it wasn’t until later years that I realised it was in a minor key.
I suppose, having such a love for music, my parents insisted I learn piano. I started lessons aged eight until aged twelve. I preferred playing football rather than practice my piano scales. In the summer holidays I had an accident. I was hit in the eye by a stone from a catapult. I knew from the moment I was hit that I was blind in my right eye. I was rushed to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, where I had both eyes covered for twelve days. The doctors tried hard to save the sight of my eye through ten operations over three years, this was unsuccessful.
At this time the ‘rock and roll’ boom started and it seemed every other boy in the street was buying a guitar, and while I was in hospital my mother promised to buy me a guitar when I came out. I didn’t forget this and I remember plaguing my Dad for one. Then one Saturday evening, he came home from work and said “come on then, I’ll take you to get a guitar”. We jumped in his lorry and went to the local music store, where I chose the most expensive one on the wall, it was a steel string acoustic. He also bought me a Bert Weedon tutorial manual ‘play in a day’.
I remember over the coming weeks I practiced until my fingers bled. I must have been progressing well for I remember when I next went into hospital my mother said “when you come out I’ll buy you an electric guitar”, which she did. It was a Hofner Club 60. She also bought me a Truvoice TV10 watt amplifier. I started a group with some school friends, we were called ‘Rick Nicholl and the Rebels’. The group consisted of two guitars, drums, and a framus bass guitar (that my mum also bought for a friend). I listened endlessly to Elvis, Ricky Nelson, and Gene Vincent records, copying the guitar solos.
A big influence at that time was the Dick Teague Skiffle Group. They were local boys and their sixteen year old singer, who had a great voice, was also very charismatic. His name was Harry Webb, and he was later to become Cliff Richard. The lead guitarist in the group was Brian Parker, who played the first electric guitar I’d heard live. I thought it was really exciting. Brian and I were to become close friends.
Rick and the Rebels entered every local talent contest. I used to be so nervous that I couldn’t hold the strings down. I remember on one occasion a rival group had a really good drummer, his name was Bob Henrit. We managed to poach him away to join our group. I think the other Rebels became more interested in girls, so we had to find a new singer, that was to be Buster Meikle. He previously sang in our favorite local band ‘The Parker Royal Five’. It was the group that Brian Parker formed when Harry Webb left to be Cliff Richard.
Now, with Buster, Bob, my brother, Roy, myself and our friend Bernie Benson on bass, we were ready to set East Hertfordshire alight. We practiced every spare evening. I learned the solos of Scotty More (Elvis’s guitarist) and Cliff Gallop (Gene Vincent’s soloist). But for me, the governor was James Burton, who played the great Ricky Nelson solos like ‘My Babe’, ‘It’s Late’, and ‘Hello Mary Lou’. I couldn’t understand how he could bend the strings as he did, until years later somebody told me he used a banjo string for his ‘G’ string. We became very popular in our area and even into London where we played at a club in the East End. It was there that we were spotted by Helen Shapiro who at that time was number one with a song called ‘Walking Back To Happiness’. She told her producer about us, his name was Norrie Paramor, and he also happened to be Cliff Richard and the Shadow’s producer. He contacted us and invited us firstly to his house, then to Abbey Road to do a sound test. He gave us two songs to learn, one an American song called ‘Yo Yo Boy’ and the other was a song called ‘The sweetest lies I ever heard’. It was a song written by Ian Samwell who had also written Cliff’s first hit ‘Move It’.
We auditioned at studio two the famous room at Abbey Road Studio. Bob and I took a day off from school and we put the tracks down in a three hour session. The songs came out well but we all thought they were a little weak as records. Norrie said as soon as we find the right song EMI would release it. We never did find a song and our relationship with Norrie just fizzled out. I must admit, I got the recording bug that afternoon and couldn’t wait to do it again.
It was at this time I wrote my first tune. It was an instrumental in the style of the shadows, they were the big group in the UK at that time, and we decided to record a demo of the tune at Regent Sound. It became a famous studio two years later when The Stones recorded their first album there. We thought our recording came out well, my brother Roy said “why don’t you play it to Paul Stevens”. Paul was married to Donella, Cliff’s sister. Paul had a coffee bar and Roy and I spent many hours playing pinball there. Paul took the demo and said “I’ll play it to the shadows”. He didn’t mention it again, so we assumed they never heard it – we were wrong (more about that later).
Bob left the Daybreakers after being offered to join Adam Faith’s backing group. Adam was the Superstar of the day and we couldn’t blame Bob for leaving the Daybreakers, it was our ambition to be professional musicians, we all would have done the same in his position. Anyway, I was offered the gig as guitarist/ pianist with Adam a few months later.
I remember meeting Adam for the first time, it was a Sunday and Johnny Rogers (bass player in the group) drove me to Adam’s house in Esher. It was a beautiful tudor mansion. When we arrived at the door it was opened by his Spanish butler, who told us Adam had just popped out to take a girlfriend home. So we went in to the snooker room where we played a couple of frames with Adam’s dad. Adam finally arrived and after playing snooker with his dad he said “will you be staying for lunch Russ?”. I said “yes thank you”. He was very impressive for such a young man. Mind you, having a brand new Jaguar mark ten (he’d just sold his Rolls Silver Cloud) and having a butler and a maid, all at the age of 22, I think would give most people confidence. His maid, Angelina, served lunch. She invited each person to help themselves from silver dishes, I’d never experienced anything so posh in my life and I remember it well, even today. Adam said “what kind of music do you like Russ?”. I said “anything that’s got a good tune”. I didn’t play or anything, he just said “you’re in the group”. I noticed everybody was calling him ‘Tel’. It was because ‘off stage’ he preferred to be called by his real name Terry Nelhams. I thought he might not like the fact I was wearing dark glasses, he said “nah it looks cool”.
A typical week working with Tel was gigs. Maybe a week in something called Variety, where you would have a comic, a pretty female singer and a juggler, then we’d come on playing at a thousand decibels with the girls all screaming, the older members of the audience must have hated it. We would also do two or three children’s TV shows in a week, Crackerjack, Five O’clock Club, or good music programs like ‘Ready Steady Go’ or ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’.
It was the time of the ‘beat boom’, and Tel decided to join it. We became Adam Faith and the Roulettes, we had quite a few hits together. I remember going home after a week in Manchester and my Mum saying “a man called Harry Waters phoned from the shadows publishing company, he said the shadows have recoded your tune”. When I phoned him he told me they had, however I would have to change the title. Mine was called ‘Atlantis’, however The Shadows recorded a Jerry Lordan instrumental called ‘Atlantis’ two years before, so I changed the title to ‘The Lost City’ and it was included on the album ‘The Sound of the Shadows’. I’m sure I got the writing bug from that moment, I still have it.
In the spring of ’64 we performed at The Hammersmith Commodore Theatre. The Hollies were on the show, together with Tony Rivers and the Casterways, who were backing a young singer called Sandra Goodrich. She’d won a talent contest and her prize was to appear in this show. I watched her from the side of the stage and thought she had a great voice, when she came off I told her so. I said “come up to the dressing room, I’ll introduce you to the group”. When we opened the dressing room door we were the only ones there.
I picked up the guitar and she sang “Everybody Loves a Lover” (the song she sang on stage). Suddenly Adam walked in with Eve Taylor, our Manager. They stood there and wondered who this skinny girl was. I said “listen to this girl, she’s amazing”. She sang the song again. Eve said “is she good?”. I said ”good, she’s fantastic!!”. Eve signed Sandra to a management deal. She changed her name to Sandy Shaw. She became the female star of the 60’s. It’s all in her autobiography.
We had so many great times with Tel. He was a funny guy, a side that he didn’t show to the public very much. I remember we flew to Singapore to play two shows. We stayed at the Goodwood Park Hotel. There was an elderly gentleman swimming up and down the pool, he stepped out, walked up to Tel and said “Adam Faith?, Noel Coward”. I’d heard the name before, however I didn’t realise just how famous he was. Tel introduced us, then Noel Coward said “you must come up to the suite”. His stories were fantastic but not interesting enough to stop me falling asleep behind my dark glasses (I was very jet lagged). He came to the show and sat in the front row. In the Noel Coward diaries, he called the Roulettes ‘hideously skinny and horrendously loud’. Great memories.
We did a lot of session work for other artists. One group that Bob and I worked with in 1965 contained our friends Brian Parker and Buster Meikle, they were called ‘Unit 4’. Because they didn’t have a drummer or a lead guitarist we were recruited. Brian wrote the tune and their lead singer, Tommy Moeller, wrote the words. It was called ‘Concrete and Clay’. I thought it was an amazing song. We recorded everything together except a bell, which I over-dubbed, then Bob decided to put on a cowbell. It became a number one hit in the UK. Eddie Rambeau recorded a cover version in the states and both became top twenty there. The group added a plus two, and from then on were known as ‘Unit 4 + 2’.
We were playing a lot of cabaret dates as Adam Faith and the Roulettes, and we didn’t like cabaret very much, it was more showbiz than music, although cabaret was where the money was. We decided to leave Adam and tour just as The Roulettes. We stayed together for another year or so but for one reason or another The Roulettes came to an end. The Unit 4 boys said “why don’t you come and tour with us?”. So Bob and I joined them for six months, which was amusing, they always seemed to be arguing. Tom and I became mates and started writing together. We wrote a couple of songs that Manfred Mann produced but they were ‘b’ sides. One day a friend phoned to ask if I wanted to be part of a new band that he was starting, his name was Rod Argent. He’d been the leader and main songwriter for The Zombies who were friends of ours. I said I’d like to be part of the group because I’d always admired his musicianship and song writing.
Rod said his cousin, Jim Rodford, was to be bass player. I’d seen Jim with the Mike Cotton Sound and he was great. Also they wanted Bob Henrit, which was perfect. Rod and Chris White (bass player from The Zombies) had a production deal with CBS Records, so they were contracted to produce the album. We decided to call the group Argent, because it was Rod’s idea to form the band. They played us the songs they’d written for the album and they sounded strong. They asked if I had any songs I would like to submit for the project. I played a demo of a song I wrote called ‘Schoolgirl’, they liked it and while we were making the record I wrote two more, one called ‘Lonely Hard Road’, the other was a kind of blues tune called ‘Liar’. A year after the album was released, Three Dog Night recorded the song. At that time Three Dog Night were the biggest group in America and the song became a top ten hit. Argent gave me a focus for my song writing. I would get up at seven in the morning, write until two, then jump in the car and go to a gig. Whatever time I came home from a show, whether it was 3 or 4 am, I’d be up at seven ready to write. I became used to being exhausted and felt that I wrote better when I was in that state.
I eventually became living proof that you can’t burn a candle at both ends, when in 1973 I started to feel very strange. It was the beginning of a depression. I worked all the way through it, never cancelling a show. Looking back it was it was an interesting period, although the illness is like a living nightmare. It threw up amazing feelings. The song I was writing when the illness started was called ‘I Don’t Believe In Miracles’. Listening to it now, the chorus sounds like a cry for help. It was recorded by The Zombies lead singer, Colin Blunstone, and was a hit and is still played a lot in the UK. After four tours we released our third album. It was called ‘All Together Now’ which produced our first hit ‘Hold Your Head Up’. The song reached number five in the UK and four in The States.
The song I wrote on coming out of the depression was ‘God Gave Rock and Roll To You’. It reflected the optimism I felt at the time, with lines like “love your friend, love your neighbour, love your life and love your labour, it’s never too late to change your mind”. It was a hit for us and a hit for Kiss 18 years later when it was included in the film ‘Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey’.
Surviving depression is a fascinating thing. I often say it is like coming out of a dark tunnel into the light. I believe it made me look at life differently. Everyday seemed like a ‘blessing’ (if I can use that word). In many ways it was like ‘sleepwalking’ for years, then waking up. To me, everything in life became more intense, it still is.
Adam Faith still phoned occasionally, and during one call he said “I’m managing a young singer called Leo Sayer, will you play guitar on the album?”. I said I would, and we recorded Leo’s album at Roger Daltrey’s house. Bob Henrit was recruited on drums. I recall the first tune Leo sang, it was ‘The Show Must Go On’. I said “this song would suit a banjo”, Roger replied “they’ve got one at the kicking donkey” (his local pub) so we took the banjo off the pub wall and used it on Leo’s first number one song. Around that time we made Roger Daltrey’s first solo album at his house. Leo and Dave Courtney wrote the songs. Bob played drums and Dave Wintour was on bass. The hit single was ‘Giving It All Away ‘.
I remember feeling Argent were becoming too ‘jazzy’ live, so I decided to leave. My intention was to get a group together and keep touring, however my wife Janet, told me she was pregnant. I was overjoyed, I knew in my heart this situation would change everything regarding touring.
I signed a new publishing agreement with Island Music, together with an advance of £10,000 which was good money in 1974. I made my first solo album for CBS in 1974. It was a collection of simple songs and very different from anything I’d recorded with Argent. I called the album ‘Russ Ballard’. In 1975 my son Christian was born. I wasn’t really prepared for the amazing feelings on seeing him born. I couldn’t possibly go on the road and not see his development. I decided to keep writing everyday and take one day at a time. In 1975 I made my second album for CBS, it was called ‘Winning’ and of the ten songs, five were covered by other artists. Santana had a big hit with the song ‘Winning’, Roger Daltrey sang ‘Just A Dream Away’, The Bay City Rollers recorded ‘Are You Cuckoo?’. However the biggest hit was ‘Since You Been Gone’, which entered the American hot 100 by three separate artists; Rainbow, Head East and Cherie and Merrie Currie. The song has since been recorded by many artists. I certainly felt I was ‘winning’. Roger Daltrey asked if I would like to write and produce his second solo album, I said I would, and I wrote three songs for that record; ‘Get Your Love’, ‘Proud’, and ‘Near To Surrender’. The album was titled ‘Ride A Rock Horse’. I flew to New York to master the record. I’d played the city on many occasions with Argent but hadn’t been there for two years. While I sat there at 35,000 feet I thought “oh well, I’m back in the New York groove”. I thought, that’s a nice title, I’ll write a tune for it.
My brother told me about a young group he’d seen who were very young but great players. I saw them and asked if they would like to come in to the studio and record. When we met at the studio I didn’t have a song, only a title “New York Groove”. I decided on a bo diddley beat. I had in my case a harmonica, luckily it was in the key of ‘E’ which I’d chosen for the tune. I got the boys to stamp on a the top of an old trestle table that was on the studio floor, the stamping made a crunching sound, not very musical but sonically commercial. Their manager secured a record deal for them. We called them ‘Hello’. ‘New York Groove’ became a hit for them.
Adam Faith phoned in the Autumn of ’75 and asked if I would co-produce the new Leo Sayer album. I said I would if it wasn’t going to take long, (I was recording ‘Winning’ at that time). We recorded and mixed Leo’s record in thirteen days. I went in to Basing Street Studios from 11am – 7.30pm every day. Then I’d drive to Kingsway Studios and work from 8.00pm – 11.00pm to record with Leo. The first song Leo played was ‘Moonlighting’. I played guitars and piano. After listening to the playback I suggested that I should over dub marimbas. I played the marimbas and everyone agreed it was a good ‘colour’. I enjoyed working on Leo’s project. The album was called ‘Another Year ‘, and ‘Moonlighting’ when released as the single, reached number two in the UK.
In ’76 I wrote a song called ‘So You Win Again’. I thought it was very strong and played my demo to Maurice Oberstein, who was MD of CBS Records. He said “the song is great but should be done by a black band”. I thought, if the head of my record label doesn’t see it for me, what’s the point of releasing it myself? Micky Most, who was probably the UK’s best known producer, heard it and recorded the song with Hot Chocolate, and in 1977 the song became number one in 14 countries.
In ’78 I recorded another album in the US called ‘At The Third Stroke’. Many of the songs I wrote on the record contained ‘deeper’ lyrics, although a couple were ‘dancey’. One was ‘Look At Her Dance’, which was covered by Wild Cherry (who had just had a number one with ‘Play That Funky Music’).
I did write another hit in ’78 for Rainbow. It was ‘I surrender’ which reached number one in the billboard top 10 rock tracks and number three in the UK top ten.
However, the best thing that happened in 1978 was the birth of my daughter, Karis. She was a great baby and little girl, and now as an adult she’s a great friend. I know she thinks I’m a ‘hippie’ and I suppose in many ways I am.
In 1980 I was asked to write songs for the group ‘America’. They hadn’t had a hit for six years, however they had a good following and I believed if they recorded the right song, they’d have another hit. I wrote two songs, one was called ‘Jody’, the other was ‘You Can Do Magic’. Capitol Record in the US loved the song and asked if I’d produce the tracks, which I did at Abbey Road. I played the instruments and Dewey Bunnell and Jerry Beckley flew in and sang the songs. Both songs made the album, which was called ‘View From The Ground’. ‘You Can Do Magic’ was chosen as the first single. It became a big hit, number 1 on the adult and contempory chart. I produced their next album and also wrote eight songs for the project, including their next hit ‘The Border’, which I wrote with Dewey. I was still writing a lot of songs for other artists, including both girls from ‘Abba’, Frida and Agnetha. Phil Collins produced Frida’s album, and I wrote the big hit which was called ‘I Know There’s Something Going On’. I wrote two songs for Agnetha, her album was called ‘Wrap Your Arms Around Me’. My songs on that record were ‘Can’t Shake Loose’ and ‘I Wish Tonight Could Last Forever’. Can’t Shake Loose was top twenty in The States in 1983.
I signed a recording deal with E.M.I America in 1984. The album was just called ‘Russ Ballard’. The record charted in America and did particularly well in Germany. The problem seemed to be that the album didn’t have an obvious single, which would have made it really big. The one song that was released was called ‘Voices’ and it seemed to ‘touch a nerve’ with many people. It was probably too introspective for the ‘mainstream’, however it got to number two in Italy. It seems as I’ve become older, I’m writing more songs that look in to deeper questions. From my childhood, i wondered what is this world? What are we doing here? If we are so intelligent, why are we always fighting? In 1985 I wrote and produced “No More The Fool”. It was recorded by Elkie Brooks. The song reached number four in the UK. Recently, I’ve written a few songs with my son Christian and his writing partner Andrew Murray. One was recorded by Blazin Squad, it was called ‘Love On The Line’ and it was a top 5 hit. It still gives me a ‘buzz’ to see one of my (our) songs become a hit. When I think of how I loved playing live, it’s incredible that I didn’t tour again for eleven years, not until Roger Daltrey phoned to say he was going to do his first solo tour of America and would I play guitar and do a couple of songs myself. We only played the East Coast, ending at Madison Square Gardens. At the gardens, Roger had a few guest artists. John Entwhistle came on to do ‘Twist And Shout’, and Julien Lennon and I sang back-up vocals. I said to Julien as he walked on stage “I’ve seen your dad sing this many times”, he smiled and said “I’ll sing with you then”.
Sadly, in 2003, my old friend Adam Faith, died from a massive heart attack. At the funeral, Jackie, his wife, asked us (The Roulettes) if we would carry the casket, which we did. Roger was there and asked if I would like to do a couple of charity gigs. I said I would. He explained he was raising money for ‘The Teenage Cancer Trust’ and he was organising a group of musician friends to help. He said so far the group is Simon Townsend on guitar, Greg Lake on bass, and Richard Desmond on drums. Richard, apart from being the owner of the Express Newspapers Group, is also a great drummer, and we were already friends.
The group is called the RD Crusaders and we’ve played some interesting shows over the years, with great artists including Robert Plant and Lulu. To date we’ve raised several million pounds I’ve been told.
I’ve always believed you can only write honestly about what you know and for many years I’ve written many songs about ‘the deeper questions’. Questions like, Why am I here? Why is there so much suffering? Why, when humans consider themselves intelligent, is there still war? And we speak about love so much, yet relationships keep breaking down, friends become enemies. Humans are ‘tribal’, separating ourselves from each other as nations, as political parties, the list goes on.
For many years I have wanted to write an album about the search for love, looking for an answer to the question, what is real love? I’ve spent many years writing songs for a journey, a search through life, looking for answers, much of it autobiographical. The outcome of this was my ‘Book of Love’ album, I released in 2006.
After not being ‘on the road’ for 4 years, since I did two gigs in Germany with my band, I took the chance to play a full tour in Germany in early 2007 which was good fun. Playing live is a buzz and I still enjoy it very much. In the last years I did a couple of concerts I have very good memories of. In 2009 and again in 2013, with my band, I had two very special nights in Lisbon. 2014 marked the very first time playing ‘earthquaking’ Japan. You might remember the story I told in the newsletter. It feels like I had never been that much on the road as I was the last couple of years. A special memory will also be my first UK-tour in 40 years. We kicked off in London on the 20th of January 2016. The ‘Evening With’ concert was something I have always wanted to do and of course… good fun with a special live set in the second half with my dear friend Bob Henrit, and as special guests, Brian May, Kerry Ellis and Rick Wakeman.
Apart from doing live shows, I’ve spent much time in the studio recording my own songs and working with great musicians like Skindred and the wonderful Sada Vidoo, when Christian and I wrote songs together with her and produced the album “The Actress”. In 2013 I started working on a new solo record. It all started to become ‘a real record’ when I reworked an old song, you all know… ‘Voices’. It was again the start of a journey. The result is called ‘It’s Good To Be Here’ and is my 10th studio album. Something to celebrate! First released as download via UMU music in 2015, the album was released on BMG UK as CD/LP/Digital download on 21st February 2020. Since 2015 I did a lot tweaks on the tracks, changed lyrics, added songs to the album and my son Christian has done an amazing job on mixing/mastering the tracks. You will love it.
“I’ve been a musician all of my adult life. Along the way I’ve had some extraordinary experiences and met some extraordinary people.”