Friday, 27 July 2012

Ricky Cool - he's got a harp and he knows how to use it.

45 years in the business, with a collaborator list as long as several gorilla arms, and still playing the the music he absolutely loves, ladeez and gennelmen, Mister Ricky Cool steps mike-side...

The thing about long-standing musicians who love what they do is - they simply don’t stop. They keep on coming, experimenting and working. That means they work with a lot of people over the years. While putting this blog piece together, I couldn't think of many posts where I’ve put more links up to more people than this one. Ricky Cool is just... so... connected.  

It’s even a family thing: he is uncle to two Toy Hearts. and if you played Six Degrees Of Separation with him, you'd wind up with Bob Wills, Robert Plant and Richard Nixon - one of the most catastrophically unpopular and inept presidents in US history - in the mix

This piece started as a side-bar to the March piece on Toy Hearts, given the family connection. But there's far too much to talk about to even consider boiling Ricky down to a mere paragraph....

Everyone calls you Trix….? 
It started when I left school. It was in 1968, when Richard Nixon was running against Hubert Humphrey for the US presidency. He was known as Tricky Dicky, and I’m Richard, so, I became Tricky Dicky, and then Trick. I was playing on my own then, in folk clubs. Someone misheard it… and it’s been Trix ever since.
What sort of stuff were you playing then, and where?
I was doing blues and folk. The regular haunt was the Royal Oak at Quinton. That was run by Dave Cartwright, Bill Caddick and Mike Billington. I first met Mick Howson at the Royal Oak , who became one of the Icebergs (and of course is hurdy-gurdy man for the Destroyers), and Alec Angel, who played bass in the Icebergs. They had a little trio doing Bert Jansch and John Renbourn stuff, in the folk clubs. 
Then there was the Lock at Wolverley, the Boat club in Strourport, Ian Cambells’ place in Digbeth, and another one in the centre of town, run by John Swift, Tommy Dempsey and Dave Phillips – a great guitarist and singer. Birmingham was more traditional, but at the Royal Oak, you had a lot of singer-songwriters, great ragtime guitarists… you could hear great acoustic blues, great acoustic folk…  
That’s still a stretch from there to Western Swing and the Icebergs, let alone the Hoola Boola Boys…
But it was a great grounding. Blues has always been my first love; I latched onto that as a teenager. I got into acoustic blues. 
I ended up running Sunday nights at the Fighting Cocks in Moseley. And that’s when I first met Stuart Johnson, (now playing with Toy Hearts), around 1971. I met him mainly because I’d got a National Steel guitar! Mick (Howson) had a little band by then, and asked me to come down and have a knock; I did.- I don’t think I was that impressive, but we ended up as a band called Brickhouse Brick. We did support for acts like Barclay James Harvest… 
And in 1976, we decided to get a different band together, to do Rock and Roll and things like that. We’d seen Chilli Willi and The Red Hot Peppers, and we thought they were great - the first time I saw anyone doing Louis Jordan. Another big thing: Mick and myself both loved Commander Cody (and His Lost Planet Airmen) and Asleep At The Wheel. So the band was initially called Tricky Dicky and the Wildcats. But because Marty Wilde’s band had been the Wildcats, we had to drop that…And the link was through Steve Gibbons, who had released 'Johnny Cool' (see the YouTube vid here ).
So I then became Ricky Cool, and the band became the Icebergs.
Ricky Cool and the Icebergs - Wait a Minute Baby, 'Bouncing In The Red', 1979. 

But you dropped right into a character: Ricky Cool took on a life of his own. I remember interviewing you in character.
You can’t have a name like that without a character… I had a gold lame suit, drapes, brothel creepers. One of us went down to the Barrel Organ in Digbeth – new landlord, hadn’t a clue what to put on – we bigged up the band, and got a residency: Saturday lunchtime, rehearse all afternoon, and then do Saturday night. A couple of months after starting, people were queuing around the block. The timing was impeccable. Everything we did dropped into place. A secretary at the BBC came down on a Saturday night when the place was heaving. She told her boss; he came down and loved it; and we got a half-hour show on the BBC. We hired out Birmingham Rep, rented it ourselves, and put a gig on there, and turned 200 people away. I can’t imagine how we had the brass neck to do just do it! 
So why didn’t it go further after all that first success?
The problem was: within the band, there was no songwriting going on. In the end, Mick and I stated writing songs. Lots of people really liked us – Mike Vernon wound up recording us – but people couldn’t see beyond the idea of a little rock and roll band. 
You’d have wound up being pushed into a Showaddywaddy mould…
… or Crazy Cavan, that type of thing. So it kind of plateau’d. We did get a lot of exposure – we toured supporting Darts. Jerry Dammers was quite interested in having us on the 2-tone label, but we couldn’t see it. I can see why now. 
And when you plateau…
There’s an inevitable decline; people became disillusioned. So eventually I hooked up with Jon Hickman and Kevin O’Neill (from Little Acre), and we became Ricky Cool and the Rialtos. Bob Wilson was in the band for a time, and Andy Silvester, who had been in Chicken Shack. I was living in Kidderminster then, which is how I had the Black Country connections with Little Acre… and in 1981 Robert Plant came to see us play. I was doing a screaming rock star parody at the time, and Robert really liked it – in fact gave me a pair of his platform shoes. Three sizes too big, but never mind!
It was not long after that that he put forward the idea of the Rialtos joining together with him and his guitarist, Robbie Blunt. Robert wanted to lose our guitarist, but I wasn’t happy with that – which was a bit pig-headed of me, when you think what might have been. But Robert was OK, and when we eventually did the Honeydrippers, it was with Robbie. 
But in the end, didn’t that stretch the Rialtos a bit too far?
It did. When that came to an end, I took stock… and then I set up another band to do Chicago blues, with Andy Silvester. Me on harmonica, Andy on guitar, we’d get a double bass player, a piano player, a drummer who could swing. It was 1982, but there was nothing like that around. It took a long time. Eventually, we formed the Big Town Playboys with Mike Sanchez and Ian Jennings. The goal was to form the best Rhythm and Blues band in the UK. This wasn’t Birmingham based – we were in Bewdley, Stourport and Kidderminster. So we started a residency in the cellar bar of a pub in Bewdley, and it got packed, just like at the Barrel Organ. That led to the Dublin Castle in London. The band lasted a long time – I didn’t, though. I left in 86. By then, I was teaching, raising a family, and trying to run a band…. 
Where did that leave you? 20 years of effort by now, after all…
After a couple of years, I went back to Western Swing, big time. Ricky Cool and the Texas Turkeys. Me, Stuart (again), Howard Gregory on guitar and violin, Howard Smith on drums – and a 19 year old Steve Clayton. It was a great band. We ran to the beginning of the 90s, before Stuart went off to do his own projects. So I carried on, with the goal of being the best Western Swing band there could be. I recruited BJ Cole, Maurice Chevalier on guitar, Bobby Valentino, Chris Haig – Ricky Cool and the Western Swing All-Stars. They were all London guys; in fact we only worked in London. I got them down to Birmingham, once, on a foggy evening to play the Red Lion. I was booking the gigs, setting up the rehearsals, all that, and they were all big time London session players. The logistics were impossible. After a while it was exhausting, and I rather fancied the idea of going back to being a jobbing musician. 
And the Hoola Boola Boys?
I’ve been working with one form or another of the Hoola Boys for ages. The band was an idea, a name for a band, run by Martin Price, the bass player. There was a Mike Sanchez and the Hoola Boola Boys, a Big Man Clayton and the Hoola Boola Boys… so eventually when I was asked to join to join, it became Ricky Cool and the Hoola Boola Boys. It was a ready-made band, which meant less pressure. And that’s how that started. 
In between, I played with a Soul Band, called Soul Train, and that led on to a reggae band, called Top Ranking…We went for the Studio One sound; we did ska, rock steady…we found a fantastic singer from Kingston, called George We did a gig at the Drum which blew the roof off. I’d build him up – ‘Ladies and Gentlemen – all the way from Kingston, Jamaica, Mister George Nightingale!” - and he’d come walking on with a huge smile.
I’d never come across this before, but we’d start a number off, and somebody from the audience would jump up and shout “Rewind! Rewind! Rewind!” And the drummer would do a fill and you’d start the number again. And if they really liked it you’d wind up starting the number three or four times. We had a lot of fun… but my god the arguments! It’s like dominoes – open warfare! 
So eventually, I was ready to front a band again – and when Martin called a few years back, it was an obvious thing. Two saxes, piano, rhythm and lead guitar, drums, bass. Including David, the guitarist from Top Ranking, who is terrific. 
 Where does the band play now? 
 Most of the gigs are around Shropshire, and some festivals, the Jam House, and so on… But gigs are had to come by. It’s all about connections. 
Well, judging by the gigs list on your siteit’s not all bad. Who’s managing?
Martin does that. 
Which leads me to ask this: after all this time – well over 40 years - you’ve worked as a pure front man, as a band leader, as music director, manager, agent, booking the gigs… you’ve done the lot, working both full time and part time. At some point, as a band grows – and you’ve seen this more than most – you have to make the decision to either carry on handling everything by yourself, or to delegate – especially with all the web work everyone has to do these days. What’s your take?
Well, I think Toy Hearts are a good example of how to negotiate all those areas. From the time where Stuart has been booking the gigs, driving the van, getting to the gig, setting up the PA with Hannah and Sophie… it’s all back-breaking work, with Hannah and Sophie doing the web stuff. They’ve taken that on, and the band has continued to grow and develop. Now they’ve got an agency involved, and that’s taken a lot of load off – the gigs are coming their way now. There comes a time when that is essential. But it’s different for each band.
Ricky Cool and the Hoola Boola boys website
Gigs list
Ricky's series of Harmonica YouTube clips starts here

No comments: