From Joe Cocker To Memphis Bend

Joe CockerAfter Dave Edmunds band Love Sculpture disbanded following the success of Sabre Dance. Micky and his mate drummer Tommy Reilly, also from Cardiff, put an advertisement in Melody Maker stating they were both looking for work. A singer, then unknown to them, Joe Cocker answered the ad and before too long Micky and Tom found themselves moving to London. This was actually in the April of 1968, before Sabre Dance had charted in the following November. They were to play with Joe Cocker and The Grease Band. Micky later commented that Joe had a “set that was a real mixture ranging from the Beatles to Chuck Jackson, during which Joe would stand on stage holding his pint and telling jokes between numbers. But what a singer! He was tremendous!” The band quickly established themselves on the hip London scene and in no time at all the band was making a lot of waves. Along with the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix and the Stones. Brian Jones of the Stones, Clapton and Hendrix would even attend their gigs, the best of which was at the Albert Hall supporting The Move and The Byrds.

After weeks of concentrated gigging, Micky and Tommy were given a brief holiday and they nipped home to Wales. But unknown to them studio time had been booked to record a Beatles tune “With A Little Help From My Friends.” This had been a Cocker stage favourite that Micky and Tom had helped to arrange. On finding out about ths Micky and Tommy quit in January 1969. There is a book out about Joe Cocker that states that Micky and Tommy weren’t up to it, which seems hard to believe. Anyway “With A Little Help From My Friends,” now with the now famous Jimmy Page on guitar, became a smash hit in October of 68 and a UK No 1.

Micky now back home in Cardiff started to work with various Cardiff rock n roll bands, musicians and singers, and then in 1970 Micky launced himself into a brand new venture. This ran alongside his other projects, and saw him once again working with his old buddy from the Joe Cocker Grease band days, Tommy Reilly. With Tom on drums and vocals, Lincoln Carr, also from Rumney in Cardiff where Micky grew up, on upright and electric bass, and Micky on lead guitar and harmony. But now in this band Micky would sometimes take the lead vocal. This band was quite successful and the Welsh Rockabilly trio stayed together for the next seven years.

Memphis Bend played local gigs from 1970 to the mid 1970’s and on Wednesdays they played at the Moon Club in Cardiff, which was on the top floor of a fruit and veg warehouse, located on the Hayes. Sometimes they had guests like Dave Edmunds and Geraint Watkins. Usually playing local gigs, Memphis Bend did go to Holland in the early 1970’s. Their set consisted mainly of 1950’s Rock’n’Roll like: “Bird Dog”, “Honey Don’t”, “Queen Of The Hop”, “White Lightning”, and “My Way”. But Micky would also feature in three guitar instrumentals: Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk”, Jeff Beck’s “Jeff’s Boogie” and the Yardbirds’ “Steeled Blues”.

During the mid 1970’s they recorded two singles. The first one was “Louisiana Hoedown” with the flip side “Right String Baby”(1973). “Louisiana Hoedown” is a quite unique Memphis Bend song. Whilst the other stuff that they recorded was Rockabilly or Country music, “Louisiana Hoedown” reminds me of The Band. Micky was really into The Band but he wasn’t so keen on Robbie Robertsons guitar playing, rather it’s the drumming and singing of Levon Helm that he loved. Not just for the way he sung but the whole persona of the man. Although Memphis Bend were only a three piece band, for this song they did a lot of overdubbing. For example, the song’s intro has three different guitars, and the result is a little bit garbled. This “wall of guitars” sound, makes Micky sound like a typical 70’s rock guitarist! Then again on “Right String Baby” Micky’s guitar has a lot of overdubbing. Here there are two lead guitars that trade licks. So the overall sound on this single is much rougher and modern than on other Memphis Bend records. In contrast the second single was “Ubangi Stomp”/”Tennesee”(1976), and the A-side is a good, solid version of Warren Smith’s Rockabilly classic.

By the middle 1970’s Memphis Bend were to back one of Micky’s heroes: Chuck Berry. Memphis Bend, plus a piano player, backed Berry on two gigs: at a festival at Buxton in Derbyshire, England on 21st July 1973 and at The Rainbow Theatre in London on 7th September 1973. However, the Chuck Berry whom Micky admired didn’t exist anymore. During the 1950’s Berry had been an innovator of popular music, wrote great songs and played wicked guitar. But by the 1970’s he had a “couldn’t care less” attitude. Even his recordings were just rehash versions of his old material. Then when he played live gigs his guitar was often out of tune. Another thing was that Berry hadn’t had his own band since the 1950’s, so concert managers provided bands for him. Then Berry often had this habit, during the first few numbers, of giving his backing musicians solos. Chuck would then ask the question to his audience “isn’t he great?” But when he gave Micky, a master of Chuck Berry style solos, who could play Berry riffs like a demon, a solo, there were to be no questions to the audience! Not only that, Chuck never gave Micky another solo. It’s impossible to know what Chuck thought but he acted in a similar way towards Keith Richards in 1972, who was also a disciple of Berry. Keith later told reporters: “Chuck didn’t want to be upstaged.” Micky and the band were going to go to Paris to back him the very next night, but Tommy decided that Chuck was a waste of time, and they pulled out.

Memphis Bend recorded their only LP, “Good Rockin’ Tonite”, in 1977. During their gigs they played all kinds of 1950’s Rock’n’Roll music and country stuff, but with recorded material it was Memphis and Sun Records that was their focus. Sun Records was a legendary Memphis record label where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins started their careers. For “Good Rockin’ Tonite” Memphis Bend recorded five songs that were originally released on Sun Records: “Mystery Train”, “Tennesee”, “Big River”, “Red Hot”, and “Good Rockin’ Tonight” plus the A sides of both their singles, “Right String Baby” and “Ugambi Stomp.” Carl Perkins’ “Tennesee” was in praise of Tennesee itself, and it’s music. Even the graphic on the “Good Rockin’ Tonite” sleeve reminds us of the Sun logo.

To say that the recording sessions of the LP were unusual would be an understatement. Memphis Bend had to record secretly. There was another band in the studio during the daytime, and it was only when this other band went to bed, that Memphis Bend were able to sneak in and record their own LP. So Memphis Bend used this other band’s studio time, and at 4 am. they would put the microphones back in the places where the other band had left them. This routine went on night after night. Who was this other band? Queen!!! Freddie Mercury and the guys! They were recording their legendary LP “A Night At The Opera” right there in Rockfield. This was the LP that included “Bohemian Rhapsody” and I think that even today the Queen guys didn’t have a clue what went on. Memphis Bend had been having problems with their record company so this was probably the reason why they had to record this way.

Micky’s playing is great throughout the album and inspired. He plays a fluid James Burton style ‘chicken pickin’ lick on “Big River.” There is also a great intro on “Settin’ The Woods On Fire.” Here Micky and guest musician, pedal steel player B.J. Cole, play the intro, with Micky playing descending notes and B.J. playing ascending notes. Both these things are happening at once. On the title track’s first solo, there is a great “question – answer” session with phrases, where Micky plays the first lick on the lower strings and then “answers” it on the higher strings. Then later on the song’s second solo there are beautiful Chet Atkins inspired rolls. On “If You Can’t Rock Me” Micky again does some great fingerpicking. At the end of the first solo Micky plays one of my all time favourite guitar licks. The song’s key is C and the first six notes of this lick are part of the C major scale (G,F,E,D,C,H) and the last six notes are part of the C minor scale (Bb,Ab,G,F,Eb,D)!! I remember when I asked Micky about this lick, and he smiled and said something like “that lick don’t make any sense but when you play it fast it sounds great.” After this album Memphis Bend disbanded, a clash of ego’s perhaps, who knows! All in all, although the guitar picking on this album is brilliant, I personally prefer Micky’s later work with Shakin’ Stevens, where even more of Micky’s personality came through.

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(This is another chapter from Ari Niskanen’s biography of Micky Gee and hopefully more chapters will follow together with a complete bibliography and discography – Phil Morgan)