Colin McDonald is a professional rock music journalist and also a Teenage Wildlife regular. He has graciously provided this interview to Teenage Wildlife.
The interview was conducted on February 5, 1997 via telephone.
Q: From what I understand, you, at one point, played with James Brown before your tenure with Main Ingredient?
CA: Yes, I did. It was around the time that he had a song called "Mama, Come Here Quick & Gimmie that Lickin' Stick." At the time, I was working at the Apollo Theater in the house band. Brown had this big, enormous guitar player who took sick so I substituted for him. Subsequently, I went on tour with him six months after that for about eight months.
Q: That must have been great going from playing at the Apollo Theater in its prime to playing every night with the Godfather of Funk.
CA: It was except for one thing. During one performance, James was doing his `take it to the bridge, take it to the bridge, take it to the bridge' thing. He was saying it for so long that I kind of drifted. All of a sudden, he said, `HIT ME' and BAM, I didn't hit it, I missed the cue.
The following Friday, payday came and my check was short. So I said to the staff `Excuse me, but there's $50 missing from my check.' They told me `Well, Mr. Brown said that on that date you didn't hit on the "hit me" cue and therefore have been fined $50.' I was pretty pissed off ... I didn't mined being docked if you tell me I'm going to be docked. But to hit me with a dock after the fact didn't sit right with me so I found another gig.
Q: When did you start playing?
CA: I started playing when I was 10, but I started professionally at 16. I had a Sears Silvertone guitar and amp ... It was the closet thing to a Fender Jaguar that I could get. I kept that guitar until it fell apart. My father was a Pentecostal Minister and bought my brother a guitar which he never played it. I kept going in his room and finally my father said to me "If you don't go in your brother's room, I'll give you his guitar." I said "fine," and still went in his room. So I learned it religiously until my father died. After my father died, I went down to the Apollo. The only way to get into the house band is if someone dies and that's exactly what happened.
Q: What a break to upon.
CA: Well, I used to go to a program for impoverished kids called Upward Bound, which was were I met Luther Vandross and a few other friends of mine. One day Luther told me `listen, the Apollo is having auditions for a group' so I went down there. When I walked into the Apollo Theater with my Sears Silvertone guitar and amp, they all laughed. So I started playing ... And they stopped laughing. I was too young to be in the union, but I had been playing in their amateur hour for some time so they slipped me right in. It was great to see people like Flip Wilson, Ester Phillips ... I was the youngest guitar player in the house band at the Apollo Theater.
Q: Didn't you have a group you also played in at the time?
A: Yes. After my father died, I went to the Apollo Theater and joined this troupe of singers called Listen My Brother. This group was formed by the booking agent of the Apollo and we rehearsed in the basement of the Apollo. We'd have music homework like microphone technique and have to go upstairs and watch people like Nancy Wilson or Dionne Warwick.
At the time, we didn't really get anywhere ... we were able to get on one of the first episodes of Sesame Street. It was Luther Vandross, Robin Clark (Young Americans; Simple Minds' Once Upon a Time), Fonzi Thornton (Chic), and myself. We were the opening act for Sly & the Family Stone in '69, '70 when they were the first integrated band at the Apollo Theater ... My substitute guitar player was Nile Rodgers, but I've never played with him. I looked forward to playing with him on Let's Dance, but that didn't happen either. It's really strange to have these people who you've grown up with, and yet, never been able to play with them.
Q: How did you go from working at the Apollo to playing in Main Ingredient?
CA: Well, I stated playing after hours gigs. One memorable gig was in New Jersey with Chuck Berry. I got there and there were these three other young kids ... Mr. Berry walked in and said `You boys know how to play rock `n roll?' And we all shook our heads nervously saying `Yes sir Mr. Berry.' Then he said `When I take my guitar and do this (moves guitar up and down),' you start playing. When I do this (moves guitar sideways), you stop!' That was it! No rehearsal, nothing! And, it worked. That was one of the first credits that I had ... You wanted to have Chuck Berry on your resume.
During that time, I was also working at RCA Recording Studios in the house band. I played on records by Ben E. King ("Supernatural Thing") and Joe Simon ("Drowning in the Sea of Love"). And it was during that time was were I met Main Ingredient and that's when I really going on the road. In the interim, I also hooked up with the Ojays and played with them for a month or two in the pre-"Backstabbers" period.
Q: Wasn't it through Main Ingredient that you meet up with Bowie?
CA: Yes. One of the Main Ingredient members, Tony Sylvester, told me about this guy named David Bowie who's producing Lulu. Tony said "They need a guitar player and I recommend you." I knew who Lulu was because I saw To Sir, With Love, but I didn't know who David Bowie was. I didn't have a clue.
Q: What exactly is the story on James Brown's "Hot (I Need to be Loved)"? His discography says it was released in the later part of 1975 the same year as Young Americans. However, "Fame" doesn't sound like the type of song two white guys from England would come up with. I know it was your riff from the cover of "Footstompin."
CA: It was my riff. That was all me getting all funky and stuff. David wasn't into that. First of all, because I'm a New York musician, I knew the musicians that played on the session ... They said he (James Brown) actually played the damn record in front of them. It was surprising to see David Bowie's reaction because he had great respect for James Brown as did I. So Bowie said `Let's see what kind of activity it gets. If it charts and does real good, then we'll sue him.' Come to find out, that record didn't do anything. Still, it was real flattering for David to have had James Brown steal from him.
Q: The big argument among fans of his work has always been divided during this period. The Ziggy fans hated it while the anti-Ziggy fans loved it even though he dismissed it as "plastic soul." In Lester Bangs review for Cream, he stated that Station to Station was David Bowie's most honest album.
CA: David was used to doing albums in that old rock `n roll tradition where it took four to six months. I'm used to recording two or three weeks. Once he met up with my troupe of Luther, Emir (Kassan) Dennis (Davis), we did it spot on. And when he recorded an album in a month, he said `I like this' and stuck to that format for our whole career together.
David and I would get together and then I would translate that to the rhythm section which is always based on the rhythm guitar. After that, David would bring in the keyboards and lead guitar and deal with that in overdubs. We would come up with material first and then David would come up with the words right in the studio.
Q: What was your initial impression of him?
CA: He's a very interesting person. That was my first impression. When I first met him, there was this English guy using all these stereotypical Americanism like "Yeah, man ... that's cool, that's hip" and I was like `no one talks that way here.
His appearance was also different for the time to say the least. I was used to the Parliament/Funkadelic-style and then I met this guy who was totally white with orange hair. He was very skeletal, he looked like crap. I'm an honest person so I told him `man, you need to fatten up. Come to my house.' And, surprisingly, he did.
Q: You always here about the LA coke stories, the Berlin days, and the relationship with Eno. However, you never ever hear about the music, the power of that Carlos Alomar-George Murray-Dennis Davis rhythm section. To me, that's one of the most powerful elements of that period of music. While Yes and the Eagles were selling out arenas with their musical masturbation, you guys were keeping it simple and direct.
CA: I met Dennis when we were playing with Roy Ayers. When you're a working musician in a big city like New York, you always should try to find the people you sound best with. So I found Dennis, Emir, and the three of us were a massive rhythm section ... The first opportunity I got, I told David `You've got to get these guys. These guys will wipe out anyone else.' When he heard Dennis, he was like "that's it, it's over, the door's closed." Emir did the same thing, but he has a different personality so he only lasted a certain amount time. That's when George Murray came in ... his style and approach is more laid back. And that rhythm section lasted up until Scary Monsters.
Q: When I read the press for Outside, I was quite surprised to learn that you were on it. I was hoping that Bowie would be wise enough to bring Davis and Murray back as well.
CA: For Outside, he's doing something different. Even at that, I was surprised he called me back. I mean after the Glass Spider tour, he was in the process of getting control of his music again. For anyone working in music, it's very difficult to come up with stuff all the time, especially when the record company presses you to do an album. If you're not the right mindset to do an album, you're at a loss. I try to suggest as much as I can, but if it doesn't come, if it's not what he wants, he settles for certain things. And after a while, you get tired of settling. There's no way I or anyone else could have influenced him. Once he started doing the Tin Machine thing, that wasn't my thing. I understand Iggy Pop doing that, but David going back into that type of music was just too noisy for me.
So when Reeves Gabrels came into the picture, it was a breath of fresh air. By that time, I didn't inspire him. I was just a standard guy who tried to do what I could, but I can't give anything back because my background is more funky ... I accent what he already gives me. David has never owed me anything. I'm always flattered whenever he calls me back. I think that's one of the reasons we've lasted so long. I'm a working musician. I work with everybody.
Q: As you're probably aware, among Bowie fans, the opinion on Reeves is divided. Was his style hard to lock into?
CA: Reeves' style was no problem whatsoever. To me, he's another Stacey (Heydon), another Adrian (Belew), another (Robert) Fripp ... it's all the same to me. The minute we got together for Outside, we locked in immediately ... I looked at Reeves, Reeves looked at David, and David looked at me and we knew it was perfect. Quite honestly, I play a lot heavier style that you don't ever hear. I mean, I can't tell you how many times I've heard other guitar players playing lines that I put down.
Q: Why didn't you do a follow-up to Dream Generator (1988)? I thought that album had a good Kraftwerk/Miles Davis-type fusion feel about it.
CA: I wanted to go back to the Bowie-trilogy kind of feeling. I would've done another record, but I had artistic differences with the record company. They'd make suggestions like `bring in David Bowie or Mick Jagger for a couple songs.' That's not why I joined that company. I signed with them because I wanted to do instrumental music. I had a wonderful presentation of things like talking guitars for the next album, but they went from being an instrumental company to being a pop company.
Q: What have you been up to since the end of the Outside tour?
CA: I just finished working on a few albums (Carly Simon, the Bee Gees, Peter, Paul & Mary), but I'm mostly doing producing Latin acts like Charlie Garcia. I went down to Puerto Rico and formed the National Rock Movement. As far as rock `n roll coming from America, the rest of the Latin community won't take with a band coming from Florida or California, but coming from Puerto Rico, they accept it. I'm really trying to get the record companies to look at Puerto Rico and the rock acts that sing in Spanish as a viable artistic force.
Q: It amazes me that for all the styles you play, you're a self-taught musician.
CA: The minute my father gave me that guitar, it was my responsibility to learn how to play it because it was a god given talent. That's the way it was done in those days. Who had the money for a teacher? Self-taught playing is learning all the licks, but when you learn how to play, you develop a style so that no one can see your fingers ... you develop rhythm and lead at the same time. Being self-taught for me was playing after hours joints as a teenager and the manager tells you to buy the top ten singles of the moment and learn them by tomorrow. It's not about sitting in a garage all day mastering a chord book.
Q: What was with the MSG show? As a writer, I thought the choice of "special guests" was
somewhat manipulative, as if Bowie and the promoters were afraid it wouldn't sell on his name alone.
CA: It depends on Bowie. I have no right to talk about what he chooses to do, no one in this world has a right. He has his own mind and own agenda and we won't know that until his career settles down in the future and, in hindsight, this will all make perfect sense.
David has been an icon in the `70's, `80's, and now `90's. Do you know how many bands, singers, or whoever have died or fallen by the waste-side? He could have been one, but it will never happen to David. I might not like his choice of music, but he will always be a household name. I am the biggest David Bowie fan!
Q: You were on the first leg of the Outside tour, but then you dropped out.
A: Over the years, I've had a lot of friends die of AIDS and other causes and being on the road was very hard for me. I was reminiscing about various people and going from town to town, I'd find all these people I knew were dead. Being on the road was a little big lonely this time. Happiness is the most important thing for me, but I was a little bit unhappy during this last tour. And I'm always the smiling, happy-go-lucky guy on stage.
All rights reserved. No portion of this transcript may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, except as may be expressly permitted by the 1976 Copyright Act or in writing by the Publisher.