Chris Hill & Johnny Wright 2010

Does it get much better than this? The Dood talking jazz and all things musical with ‘The Godfather of the Funk Mafia’ Chris Hill and his good friend and former owner of London jazz music emporium, City Sounds.

The Dood’s first question was put to the man responsible for legendary black music clubs The Goldmine, Lacy Lady, and the Mecca that became the Caister Soul Weekenders.

The Dood: So, Chris Hill, you and Johnny have certainly paid your dues to the music, what did you think of the industry then as oppose to nowadays, how has it changed through the years?

Chris Hill: Well, it’s changed dramatically; I mean the whole idea of collecting records is all but dead. We lived through the greatest times and for that I’m very grateful. Johnny and I lived through the fifties, then the sixties, then the seventies – that’s when it got really good!

So yeah, we lived through exciting times…the difference between then and now is we had the opportunity to change the world we lived in. Everything was new for us then and the concept of playing jazz in a discothèque was a completely original idea at the time – in the seventies. No one had really done that, influenced a complete generation, maybe more than one, two or three generations of kids.

Johnny Wright: And the music was adapted to it. Once the record companies saw the potential of the dance market linked to jazz, then the records changed…you heard different words being used in dance music. Before that is was all straight ahead jazz. People used to sit down and listen to it, very few people danced to it, but to be fair, some of the records became hit records back in the sixties/late fifties even. It’s always been there.

Chris Hill: It’s like the point I make in Snowboy’s book; people forget that Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader all had hit records. They had hit records in the charts!

The Dood: I recall how Gilles Peterson, Patrick Forge and Jez Nelson would play a new release, promptly followed by the Horace Silver original track, from whence the sample was taken, in order to educate and encourage their listeners to purchase these tunes. Can you relate?

Johnny Wright: It’s like; ‘Song For My Father’ was actually the basis of ‘Rikki don’t lose that number’ and ‘Moon Dance’.

Chris Hill: That’s Right! Absolutely! It was also the basis of a track by Kenny Burrell. There was a lot of that. But you got to remember, when we started playing jazz in the clubs in the early seventies, the sampling thing hadn’t happened.

They hadn’t heard those records in any way shape or form. When I first played things like Milestones in a club, it was like hearing something from another planet. There was no familiarity.

Johnny Wright: You mentioned Horace Silver. Of all the current players of that time in the late sixties, he was the most adaptable to where it was going, because he was funky. He was even funky in straight jazz, which became Jazz Funk.

Chris Hill: Well he invented the word Funk in relation to music. He was the first person to use the word funk.

The Dood: So what year are we talking here?

Chris Hill: We’re talking the fifties, fifty –five, fifty – six.

Johnny Wright: Yeah, right back then. And he used to play kind of Ramsey Lewis type stuff…He played a lot of straight eight. A lot of his records were, ‘jing, jigga, jing, jigga, jing, jigga, jing! And he used to get down with it. Miles Davis had him for along while. Miles once said, ‘I had to get rid of him, because he took over!’ It wasn’t the Miles Davis show; it was the Horace Silver show! Everything came out of The States in the beginning until Jazz Funk kind of released it a bit.

Chris Hill: One of the most important people in that development was probably Creed Taylor. When he was head of A&R at Verve, he signed people like Jimmy Smith. He creamed off some of the best stuff from Blue Note and from Prestige and from Riverside like Wes Montgomery, even Donald Byrd – he made records with all those guys. Then when he started CTI, he really nailed that kind of crossover audience and made records that people weren’t embarrassed to dance too. They made them specifically to say, ‘listen, you can dance to this shit!’

Johnny Wright: CTI and Kudu were two very important labels. Grover Washington came off of Kudu originally.

The Dood: What sort of time period are we talking here?

Chris Hill: Very early seventies – seventy-one, seventy-two.

Johnny Wright: His (Grover’s) first album was ‘All the King’s Horses’. It was on Kudu. It was an amazing album.

Chris Hill: Just the idea of getting those musicians together and making records…Just sophisticated dance records.

Johnny Wright: There was a box set he (Grover) did called ‘Soul Man’, and he did a lot of Marvin Gaye tracks on it. It was very sought after at the time. There was a lot going on. I’ve just discovered an album at the moment that was made in ’74. It’s by a tenor player called Clifford Jordan. He does a dedication to John Coltrane. It’s called ‘Glass Bead Games’. I’ve only just discovered it and Chris is onto it too. Cedar Walton on piano, Billy Higgins on drums and Clifford Jordan (sax). Oh! What a player! What a player!

The Dood: Fred Wesley told me that even though he plays trombone, Clifford Jordan had a very big influence on him.

Johnny Wright: He would be yeah…Absolutely!

Chris Hill: So have you read Snowboy’s book?

The Dood: There’s a lot to digest, I’m working my way through it. What are your thoughts?

Chris Hill: I’ll tell you, the book is the first time anybody has actually described this scene properly. In years to come it will be remembered as a very important piece of work, because no one has documented it.

There is something very uniquely British about this…All the other countries where it happens now, like Germany and Japan and places like that would never have made it happen. It had to have happened here first. America certainly didn’t have a Jazz Dance scene! To them it was something alien. They didn’t get it at all. They were too busy moving on to the next new thing for them…as a country and as a culture, we’ve been very good at absorbing other cultures; re-inventing them and sending them back.

Johnny Wright: You’ve got to remember, there was a lot of artists that came over to this country around about the Jazz Funk time; Lonnie Liston-Smith for a start. They came over here and they just couldn’t believe what had been created.

Chris Hill: Roy Ayres freaked out! Freaked out! When they first came over they just didn’t have a clue.

Johnny Wright: When Roy (Ayres) first came in my store…It was around about the time when he cut ‘Running Away’, around ’73, ’74. It was great stuff.

Chris Hill: You see, all those jazz musicians back then, the Americans, they thought their career was over. It came to a point where they were like playing supper clubs and playing hotel dining rooms and that was it.

Johnny Wright: They were just another musician and then people here discovered their catalogues and everyone went potty. People whose records had been long forgotten were suddenly in demand again. We’re very good at it…The British Beat boom was very much about re-inventing American Rhythm and Blues and sending it back with black British musicians. Introducing Blues artist that the Americans had forgotten all about. They’d forgotten about Muddy Waters.

Chris Hill: It’s the same with jazz. It was exactly the same thing with jazz! Suddenly English working class kids both black and white, suddenly got onto this thing and…It’s not for nothing that this country went through a cultural revolution, that despite a few problems like in Bristol and South London really, we integrated as a country fine. Because the youngsters did. The youngsters made a decision, they weren’t their parents. Their parents had all kinds of old prejudices from before the war and after.

These kids were all living in a multi-racial society – they were dancing to reggae and jazz. It wasn’t just about one type of music. Now that’s the important thing. To this day I still DJ but I don’t just play one type of music. I play soul, I play reggae, I play a bit of jazz, and I play a bit of R’n’B. But the influence has always been American black music. American black music has had a massive, massive impact on us.

Johnny Wright: One of the things was though, two or three important shops in the country, along with a handful of DJ’s really done all this. The actual record companies, whilst they had access to loads of stuff, didn’t have a clue what was going on…People forget, Roy Ayres – ‘Running Away’ on a 12 inch was on import for twelve months before it came out! We were ringing record companies going, ‘Whose putting these record out!’ I was importing two to three thousand a week!

The Dood: All underground?

Johnny Wright: All underground, all over England…If all the sales had happened at the same time it would have been Top 5…It charted, but it would’ve been in the Top 5, if it had all sold at the same time. There were a lot of those records that sold in vast quantities, but over a long period of time.

Chris Hill: Everything took a while to grow in the clubs. You played records, hear them a few times. It took weeks!

Johnny Wright: You got to remember that massive albums, like Marvin Gaye would be released in America, then take three to six months to become available here. Nobody cared!
So we used to import and by the time the actual record was released in the UK, we had already moved on to something else.

Chris Hill: But then what happened was, the imports took on a new life of their own. DJ’s would much rather have the import copy of a Motown record than the English copy.

Johnny Wright: But that wasn’t so with rock music. On the rock side of things, Eric Clapton – Ocean Boulevard, you might have that for three or four days and it will soon come out. But not on our side of things, not at all. We had a clear run at it and we loved it. Nobody wanted the British copies anyway.

The Dood: So what about the demand for Japanese and US vinyl over European vinyl?

Chris Hill: The biggest collectability was the American covers. Especially gate-folds and things like that.

Johnny Wright: A Blue Note cover, oh!

Chris Hill: Yeah! Absolutely!

Johnny Wright: That’s an art collection – that’s different to the music.

Chris Hill: That’s what got lost with the CD revolution, the artwork.

Johnny Wright: People used to walk about with their albums under their arm. I mean they’d go out on a Saturday and they’ll be carrying around a couple of albums. It was like a badge! I think part of our culture is when you’re a young man with your first car, and you open your windows and you’ve got your sound system as loud as you can have it, playing Maze, Luther Vandross, Miles Davis, whatever it is, as loud as you possibly can! Because you were like telling all the other kids, “listen to this shit!” You’re music defined you as a person…It was one of the most important things you had.

Chris Hill: And that’s one of the reasons why as a country, we never went through the problems that other countries had gone through, especially America. At the time when we were going through this in the late sixties, when we were playing Motown records, black people in America still couldn’t use the same bathroom as white people in southern states.

I got the shock of my life in the early seventies when I first went to America. We went to a major record label like Mercury and on one floor were all the white promotion people looking after the white acts. And if I turned around and said listen I want a Chilites album or a copy of this or that, they’d go ‘oh, you’ll have to go to the black floor for that’…I was like, ‘what you talking about?’ You went up there and they wondered what on earth some white kid from London was doing wanting this black shit. They’d ask me, ‘why would you want that?’ I said, ‘are you mad! Why would I want a white cover version, I want the real fucking thing!

They were amazed by this. Americans when they came here were AMAZED! They were stunned by the fact that when they did a concert, ninety percent of the audience was white.

Johnny Wright: I remember speaking to Wilton Felder of the Jazz Crusaders…. they did Hammersmith Odeon. Before Randy Crawford this is. I was a big fan of Stix Hooper (drummer) and I loved the stuff they were doing at that time. They just couldn’t believe it. They weren’t that big in The States.

Chris Hill: I spent a week in The States with Donald Byrd once…it must have been the mid seventies. I called up Blues ’n’ Soul and said, “Listen, I’ve found Donald Byrd. If I can do an interview with him will you cover it?” You know pay the expenses if I take him out. I ended up spending the entire week with him and he was completely fascinated by the fact that in England people were dancing to his records.
He wanted them to be dance records for the American black audience, but in no way in his own mind could he conceive that kids were dancing to them in England.

Johnny Wright: Nearly all those guys came from a straight jazz background. They’d be used to just going into a jazz club and people sitting down listening to them.

Chris Hill: Yeah, the thought of an audience going mad jumping up and down to their records, they were like, ‘Well, what’s all that about!’ I mean Lonnie Liston Smith when we did National Soul Day, when we put that on. We had Light of the World, Eddie Grant, GQ and Lonnie Liston Smith. He was second on the bill. He was absolutely freaked out! You know 20,000 people just singing along with Expansions and things like that. He was like, ‘What’s going in here?’

Here he was a superstar to the kids on the street. Maybe not to everybody but to the underground, and that went on for a long time. Albums like that (Expansions) went on selling for a long time. It was on RCA wasn’t it? And I’m sure that record shops just kept on stocking it. Every student generation found it. They were like bridges into what had gone on before. There are probably thirty or forty albums that students even now up in Leeds, Manchester and all, when they go into that area of music, they’ll find Lonnie Liston-Smith completely.

The Dood: What are your top five Jazz albums or artist?

Chris Hill: Listen, I’ve got a jazz record collection in the many thousands; I couldn’t narrow it to a five. But I suppose if you had to narrow it to a five, they’re so obvious. The five would be, ‘Kind of Blue’ – Miles Davis, it would be ‘Love Supreme’ – John Coltrane, it would be one of three dozen Mingus albums.

Johnny Wright: We wouldn’t know what Mingus to pick!

Chris Hill: Yeah, that’s the problem. He was incredibly creative though. That’s why your record collection grew so big because it was never enough. Charlie Parker was great, but it’s going back a long way. You’ll have to say, well talk to me about the forties or fifties, then you talk Parker. When you go into the sixties, which was the paramount decade of jazz, wow! I mean….

The Dood: Even Horace Silver maybe whom you mentioned earlier.

Chris Hill: Horace Silver…unbelievable, yeah! Sonny Rollins. I’ve just bought an amazing box set of Sonny Rollins, with five of his RCA albums all for about a tenner! Five of his albums in like mini album sleeves. ‘The Bridge’ is in there, the ‘Standards’ album, the ‘Our Man in Jazz’. All the classic RCA albums and RCA wasn’t his best time! The Prestige stuff was amazing!

The Dood: What about Cannonball?

Chris Hill: Exactly! You can go through all the great albums and then you’ve got Bill Evans. Where do you start and stop with Bill Evans? You can never do one album; you just want all the works.

Johnny Wright: You mentioned Cannonball. What about the album Cannonball and Bill Evans did together? A sensational album!

Chris Hill: Once you get into this music, it is a never ending search for stuff, it never stops. There’s always one more – even though, I rarely buy modern jazz records. I rarely buy stuff that’s made today. I do play a few things out of Norway…I like what some of the Italians are doing and a few Germans. But generally, my collection starts in about 1955 and ends in about 1965.

Johnny Wright: Me and Chris swap albums and mess about every day of the week. But as mentioned earlier, we discovered an album this year from 1974, out of New York City….by a tenor player called Clifford Jordan. It’s a kind of dedication to Coltrane. ‘Glass Bead Games’ it’s called. It’s a sensational album! It’s a Masterpiece!

Chris Hill: It’s like discovering ‘Kind of Blue’ for the first time.

Johnny Wright: Infact, I didn’t what to interrupt, but I would now put ‘Glass Bead Games’ in there.

Chris Hill: What, in the Top five?

Johnny Wright: Well in the Top twenty. You’ve got to give me twenty!

The Dood: What I find exciting is that you guys are still like wide – eyed school boys just discovering this music?!

Chris Hill: I’ve just come back from Japan with Snowboy. I brought back hundreds and hundreds of bleedin’ records. While I was over there, I was like, ‘Oh shit! Look at these!’ I was finding stuff…Listen it never stops. Listening and buying, it never stops.

One thing is, I am very concerned about the death of the record shop in this country – it is a great shame. However the internet has made searching for records so much easier. Just the information that you can find. Whereas before you would hear something and it would take you a year to even find out what it was that you heard. You might remember a slight refrain. Nowadays, you have a name, Google that and bang and wallop, it’s in your house.

Johnny Wright: That’s the great thing about it, no matter what genre of music you’re into, it doesn’t have to be jazz, anything, you can get it now.

Chris Hill: And you have to remember, despite the fact that there is a big difference between the quality of the warmth of a record on vinyl compared to a CD. However, what the CD did was it liberated the thing from being a twenty minute experience to being a seventy minute or eighty minute experience. So when albums got re-issued, they gave you all these extra tracks that you’ve never had before and different takes of things. At first you thought, ‘Do I need all these other takes? ’When you get into it, you think, ‘Yes, actually I fuckin’ do!’

Johnny Wright: The bottom line is, most of what we spoke about has been sixties. We kind of didn’t get into the fifties, but mainly the sixties and early seventies. And that was before technology came along and….you know Chris mentioned the warmth from vinyl, it dosen’t matter what technology it was on, it will never have that deepness of soul with five musicians in a studio.

The Dood: It’s that raw analogue sound of vinyl.

Chris Hill: And also, an important thing about vinyl…is every piece of vinyl, every copy of an album is different from the next one and no two are the same. This one would have a little scratch on it somewhere. CD’s lost all that. You wrote on the art, sometimes you wrote your name on the sleeve. You never do that with a CD, you’d never write your name on a CD, everyone wrote his or her name on vinyl, on the sleeve. You don’t do that with CD’s; it’s a lot less personal.

And the artwork of course was something. That’s why, despite the fact that I’ve re-bought many times over on CD…thousands of jazz CDs, soul CDs and reggae CDs, particularly the jazz ones, I’ve kept all my vinyl just for the artwork. I may not play that vinyl very often now, but I would never let those Blue Notes go, because each one of them was a piece of work.

The Dood: So Johnny, what happened to your shop City Sounds?

Johnny Wright: Well technology closed it down really in the end, downloading – it was all over! Has been for a while…this wasn’t a sudden thing. It closed down because I was seriously ill. I think it would have closed down anyway if I were honest. It closed in 2005. It had been open since ’73.

The Dood: So Chris to conclude, what are you up to now? Where can we find you on the radio etc?

Chris Hill: I still do a monthly gig at the Lacy Lady, at the room at the top in Ilford, first Saturday of the month. I still do Caister twice a year. We still do the Caister Soul Weekender twice a year. And I’m still doing various gigs; I’ve just come back from Japan, touring with Snowboy, DJing over there.

The Dood: Still loving life?

Chris Hill: Yeah, I’m still loving life. I’ve been saying for the last twenty years though, next year I’m gonna retire.

The Dood: Don’t do it!

Chris Hill: Oh well, you know. We’ll see. So there you go!

Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards