The Wild Life of Graham Dee
by Dan Dodds
It’s springtime in the South West of England. The sun has set and there’s a cool English chill in the air. Just yards up the road from the Dorset hamlet of Shitterton lies the serene and picturesque village of Bere Regis. On the main thoroughfare, in the centre of the village, is a grade II listed public house called the Drax Arms, a building—having stood for hundreds of years—that is threatening to shake to the muted thrust of live music audible from within. Through the misted canted bay windows a trio of guitar players can be seen. Out front there’s the chalkboard headliners Melody Men with unsung hero Graham Dee stood to the rear; a flat-cap-and-neckerchief-wearing seventy-something playing a solo on his polished, sunburst-hued Fender-Strat. The local punters—some enraptured by the music, others talking amongst themselves—raise their pint pots of Badger Ale in merriment, seemingly oblivious to the pedigree of the featured musician standing before them. As a London-born pioneer of the ’60s British soul sound, Dee has traveled the world in the name of music, living in both the U.S. (Los Angeles, Nashville, Muscle Shoals, and Wyoming) and the Far East (Japan and the Philippines) before laying his cap back home, in the country where he was once dubbed “Mr. Tin Pan Alley” by his peers.
“Now I’m in Dorset, or as they say here, Darrrrhsett!” Dee quips, affecting a Wurzel Gummidge West Country accent. “I was working locally in the odd pub gig,” he adds, back in familiar territory as a cockney. “But what I really want to do is go back and do some proper gigs on the road. Just earlier today I was checking out a new bass player; we ran through a song Brian Potter and I wrote called ‘Daughter of the Sun’ [a freakbeat B-side recorded by South African soul singer Sharon Tandy], and I thought he did really well; nice guy, good attitude.” The casual way Dee assesses the musician’s professional attributes (just five minutes into the interview) betrays his natural inclination to produce. Production being just one aspect of a career that is the focus for a new retrospective on Acid Jazz Records, entitled Carnaby Street Soul West Coast Vibes.
Curated as a tribute to Dee’s all-rounder efforts as a songwriter, producer, musician, A&R man, and artist, the compilation works as a companion to the musical milestones and the happenings in Dee’s career thus far; featuring rare mixes from his duo of ’70s solo albums on Pye Records and the lost gems “Sampaguita” and “Carrie,” songs Dee originally recorded for a third, shelved album—a lone yacht-rock/soul project. The rest of the lineup is augmented by selections from Dee’s vast catalog of productions, including “Soul Ride (Acetate Mix)” by Mike Berry, the charming “I Just Want to Be Your Friend” by Mick’s Bunch, and the brilliant horn version of Maxine’s mod favorite, “A Love I Believe In.” Tunes recorded by Dee whilst he was an A&R man at Atlantic Records, a position he held despite the infamous stories of high jinks that have gone down in the folklore of the U.K. music industry—tales of Dee damaging studio equipment and inadvertently terrifying staff with a bow and arrow.
“I think the hunting bow thing was one of the landmarks of embarrassment of my life, a real cringeworthy moment,” says Dee now, the contrition perceptible over the phone. “I did get into trouble for it, but it wasn’t actually the reason that I left. These silly things I did, like the bow and the fast-draw revolver thing as well…” (Which is when Dee damaged the label’s studio equipment with an unintentional discharge of his pistol.) “…my bosses were actually very forgiving of me. Roland Rennie, the managing director at Polydor [who signed the Bee Gees], he was a wonderful man and was always tolerant of the strange things I did. I was just a bit wild, I suppose.”
It was the early ’70s, and the story goes that Dee had purchased a hunting bow from Lillywhites, a sports shop on Regent Street in London’s West End, but, unable to resist trying it out before he got home, decided to give it a go in his office.
“I was a member for a little while with the Hampstead Bowmen and used to shoot from a longbow but had never had a hunting bow. So I went to Lillywhites, and the salesmen was a man called John Waller; he was the guy that did the Strongbow Cider TV adverts and looked after the armory at the Tower of London—incredible man. Well, he sold me this wonderful hunting bow, and so knowing me, wanting to be a flash git, I called in one of the other A&R guys and put a target under my desk, a box full of cardboard, newspapers and all sorts of rubbish, and I knelt down with the bow to shoot, but I didn’t realize how powerful it was,” Dee says, his voice rising in bewilderment. “It was tremendously powerful, and it soared straight through the whole lot into the radiator. Water started flying out everywhere, the secretary ran in panicking and I had to try and hold my finger over the faucet of the water as my suit got absolutely covered. The maintenance man, Kenny West—a lovely bloke—well, he couldn’t find the key to shut off the radiator, so eventually had to go down into the basement to try and switch off the whole system, which after a while he managed to do. I’m still embarrassed by it all now…” Dee pauses, having relived the trauma. “It really wasn’t funny.”
Less cringe-worthy were the landmarks that saw Dee progress from a qualified gardener to being hired as one of the eminent session guitarists residing in the British Isles. Born in 1943 in Whitechapel, East London, during World War II, baby Graham’s parents had already survived the blitz. Despite being diagnosed as disabled with a neuromuscular disorder from a young age, Dee learned to master the guitar to the point where he was able to ditch the day job in horticulture and play full-time, his proficiency often compared to that of his contemporary Eric Clapton. Joining the Laurie Jay Combo, he backed luminaries such as John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, and Gary “U.S.” Bonds, and later turned out for Van Morrison’s band Them. He also sessioned in the studio with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, pre-Led Zeppelin. It was the ’60s; session work was plentiful, and London was swinging.
“I was absolutely knackered,” says Dee, who was doing a lot of freelance work. Playing gigs at night and recording by day. “In ’64, I formed a band called the Quotations with Brian Potter [writer of the ’70s pop-soul classics “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” for the Four Tops and “The Love I Never Had” for Tavares], and later that year we backed Carl Perkins and Tommy Tucker on the Animals tour.”
Dee also played with Pink Floyd, filling in for an absent Syd Barrett on an event called “Freak Out Ethel” at the Seymour Hall in Marble Arch.
“I’d never heard of them; they weren’t famous then,” says Dee, who confesses that he can’t quite recall who was a part of the lineup at the time. “I know Syd wasn’t there. What I do remember was that they had this slide thing with a projector, projecting an oil in water effect. I looked down and saw all these bubbles going across my body. I’d never seen that before.”
Gaining a reputation for his stellar studio work, Dee got a gig as an in-house producer for the Polydor record label after a chance meeting, bumping into Donovan’s producer, Terry Kennedy on Oxford Street.
“I had a record out by Waygood Ellis that I had coproduced with Paul Clay called ‘I Like What I’m Tryin’ to Do.’ Terry had heard the record, and asked me, ‘Did you ever think of being a producer for a record company?’
“And I said, ‘Well, no not really, I can’t see myself doing that… I’m not the office type of guy, y’know?’ But I was having a bad time financially, so I went to the interview anyway.”
Dee got the job and moved to new digs in Waterloo, renting from a trampoline artist who was part of the Schaller Brothers cabaret act.
“I think I was dossing around and needed to find somewhere to live,” Dee recalls. “It wasn’t always easy to find gigs at that time, but the receptionists at Polydor, Carol and Maureen, knew somebody who use to be on at the Palladium quite often, and he had a room in a little Georgian terraced house on Roupell Street. On a nice day, I’d walk across Waterloo Bridge into town to the Polydor offices via the Strand and up.”
In Britain, Polydor distributed the legendary U.S. Black-music label Atlantic Records, and whilst Dee would continue to produce for Polydor, he also joined the Atlantic Records A&R team when music exec Frank Fenter took charge—Fenter being the man credited with discovering Led Zeppelin, and breaking Sam & Dave and Otis Redding in Europe.
Dee was still working with deck-chair harmony group Tony Rivers and the Castaways when he began working for Fenter at Atlantic, producing their groovy “Tomorrow’s Children.”
“There’s an interesting story on that one,” says Dee. “The beginning of ‘Tomorrow’s Children’ was in Hebrew, and I don’t know what gave me the idea—changing the world perhaps, kind of like the eco-thing now, I guess—but for some reason or another I got hold of one of the top Rabbi’s in London, a chief Jewish interpreter to help me with the words, but I had to catch this guy early, so I got to the office at about 7:30 a.m. and a security guard let me in, and as I walked through I remember the cleaning lady was there, wearing a loose smock type dress, like a loose tunic, just wandering around reception. So, I walked by and said ‘Morning!’ and heard this voice say ‘Morning!’ back. She was very nice—had a lovely smile, but it didn’t occur to me that it was an American accent. Anyway, I get to my office and I can hear my boss Frank Fenter in his [office], so I was like, ‘Eh? What’s he doing here?’ No one at a record company ever came to work before eight, so I went to him and said, ‘What you doin’ ’ere this early, Frank?’ And he said, ‘I had to get up early to the airport and pick Aretha up.’ So that’s how I met Aretha Franklin. One of, if not, the greatest singer of all time and there I was thinking, because of her tunic, that she was the cleaning lady!”
Like the Queen of Soul, it was another act from Detroit—Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell—who would inspire the songwriting team of Dee, Potter, and soul singer Donnie Elbert to compose the finger-snapping, lovebird concerto “The Bitter with the Sweet.” Originally intended as the single, the song was unceremoniously dumped to the B-side when record company brass preferred the more-up-tempo “Two Can Make It Together” instead. Tony Blackburn—the top soul-jock in the country at the time on Radio 1—concurred, making “Two Can Make It Together” the ‘Record of the Week’ and earning the fledgling duo an appearance on Top of the Pops.
“That’s when it all fell apart,” says Dee, who left the label after the release had narrowly missed being a hit, and around the time Polydor and Phillips amalgamated into PolyGram (shortly after the aforementioned episodes with weaponry).
“Brian [Potter] had already buggered off and left me and scored a number one hit in the U.S.,” Graham laughs. “Writing with Dennis Lambert, they had a thing called ‘Don’t Pull Your Love Out’ [by] Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. Also, Frank left, went and started Capricorn Records with [former Otis Redding manager] Phil Walden in Georgia.”
One of Dee’s finest productions of the era, Maxine’s brilliant “A Love I Believe In” never saw the light of day, and the Tony & Tandy follow-up that Dee had begun to record remained unfinished.
“Sharon Tandy had a bit of a breakdown,” says Dee. “She was struggling with things, and that’s when it all went to pot for us at Atlantic.”
With a one-way ticket to America, Dee climbed aboard a Dan-Air flight destined for New York, only for the plane to get diverted to Boston instead.
“I went out to see Brian, but when I got to America I spoke to Frank, who had already established the Southern rock label Capricorn Records, and he was like, ‘Don’t go to L.A.; come down to Georgia and stay with us for a little bit.’ So I caught a Greyhound bus and headed straight for Macon.”
It was April in Georgia, and Capricorn put Dee up in one of those old colonial houses, where the trees had hanging moss, peaches, and there were watermelons growing in the garden.
“I shared this house with the Allman Brothers Band, and I used to just sit there and jam with a guy called Dickey Betts,” Dee recalls, adding, somewhat as an afterthought, “Oh… and Duane Allman too, he was this great slide-guitar player.”
Without enough session work to keep him busy in Macon, it was the ’stache heavy, bespectacled Swampers drummer Roger Hawkins who suggested Dee try his luck over the state line in Alabama at the Muscle Shoals studios. There he formed a songwriting partnership with a then promising writer named Phillip Mitchell (before he added the Prince to his name), the guy who penned Mel & Tim’s “Starting All Over Again.”
Dee’s American adventure continued into the mid-’70s. He hitchhiked out West to California on the back of a Harley Davidson with a Hell’s Angel, witnessing an initiation on the muddy banks of the Mississippi. After returning to London to sign a deal with United Artists Music Publishing, he was soon back in Los Angeles to hear his Brazilian-influenced song “Sampaguita” being recorded by Blue Note Records artist Moacir Santos.
“I was there in the studio in L.A. when they recorded ‘Sampaguita,’” Dee recalls. “With [drummer] Harvey Mason, [guitarist] Dean Parks, [sax man] Jerome Richardson, [and] Dale Oehler the arranger [and producer]—it was a wonderful session, real L.A. boys. Instrumentally it was great, but I always felt somehow the recording didn’t quite cut it.”
Returning to England, Dee signed a contract with Pye Records as an artist, releasing two solo albums that refreshed his unique, pop-influenced Brit-soul sound. First in ’77, he coproduced the wistful Make the Most of Every Moment with Gerry Shury, a former collaborator with whom he had composed the gorgeous instrumental “Sea Music” (also known as “Gerry’s Theme”). Then, in ’78, there was the Graham Dee and Richard Niles–produced follow-up Somethin’ Else, which included the yacht-rock masterpiece “Another Night Alone” (also the opening selection to the new collection).
“Gerry Shury…my old mate,” says Dee at the mention of his friend, who tragically died in a car accident not long after the debut album was released. “It was the biggest shock. ‘Gerry’s Theme’ is actually very emotional for me, you know?” Graham pauses, his voice choking up for a second. “Gerry was my hero; he was a wonderful Hammond player, wonderful arranger. He could write a symphony on a bus; it was such a great loss.”
In 1979, and after two albums, Dee was dropped from Pye Records.
John Velasco, Dee’s manager, went to work for CBS and Pye didn’t like artists without management.
“I was caught up in the politics, and I think I was a bit of a problem for them.” The label preferred the more middle-of-the-road approach of his debut to the jazz-funk grooves of the follow-up, a sound they felt they would be a hard-sell to the housewife demographic. “Whilst I love what Niles did, I always felt Somethin’ Else was too good for my voice.” Dee admits, “I was a singer-songwriter, not—and I emphasize not—a singers-singer.”
Returning to the Pye Studios without a contract, Dee went into the “Sampaguita” sessions in Pye 2, the basement studio, determined to get back on track creatively. Stan Getz was recording in the same building and, hearing Dee’s largely acoustic take (except for the bass) of the song, expressed his appreciation.
“I did ‘Sampaguita’ with the London boys,” says Dee, who becomes more animated when he talks about the musicians he’s worked with. “DeLisle Harper from the Olympic Runners was on bass; Godfrey Wang, one of my closest friends, was on the keyboards; drummer Robbie Tate, who was in Long John Baldry’s band; Colin Pincott played guitar; Nigel Martinez on percussion; and Yusef Allie on nylon-strung guitar—fantastic musicians.”
Also included on Carnaby Street Soul West Coast Vibes is the previously unreleased “Carrie,” a West Coast–influenced, yacht-soul highlight—the humidity of the verses alleviated by the falsetto-led, float-on-summer-breeze chorus. However, despite the quality of the tracks—arguably Dee’s finest solo work to date—no new contract was forthcoming.
“I ran myself into bankruptcy doing that record,” Dee states. “It was a very sad year for me—my wife and I split up, and my father died as well, all in the same year. I really went to pieces after that and the ’80s were a blur.”
Practicing martial arts in the Far East, working on a ranch in Wyoming, and doing forestry back in the U.K. in East Anglia were just some of the activities Graham pursued in the decades that followed. His musical endeavors enjoying a reappraisal when Acid Jazz sought him out in the early 2010s to reissue his work from the ’60s and ’70s, first with The Graham Dee Connection – The 60s Collection, before putting out his Pye solo albums.
“I gather singer-songwriters from that era are very popular in the Orient,” says Graham, referring to the white squall of the yacht-rock boom. “I know because my albums were pirated out in Korea and they were selling like hotcakes!”
Playing pub gigs in Bere Regis has also begun to draw attention amongst Dee’s neighbors, alerting them to his place in the history of the music business.
“One day I got a note through my letterbox,” Dee recalls. “It said, ‘You don’t know me, but I live here in the village, and I’m a fan of Prince Philip Mitchell. I messaged him on Facebook and mentioned to him that we have a man here in the village who used to write for Atlantic.’ And apparently, he was like, ‘I don’t believe it, I’ve been looking for Graham for many years! What happened to him?’”
Turns out ’70s soul legend Mitchell had a gig coming up in the north of England at a rugby stadium in Widnes and wanted to meet up.
“He couldn’t believe it when he saw me,” says Dee. “We spent all night at the hotel just chatting about old times in Muscle Shoals. And I have to say, because we were just writers then, I didn’t realize how good he was as a performer. I got overwhelmed—he was fucking phenomenal that night!”
Whilst the new collection, Carnaby Street Soul West Coast Vibes focuses on past glories, Graham can still be found, at seventy-seven years old, working with writing partner Richard Sutton and making new music. It’s the connections he’s made and the people he’s worked with along the way that has given him, he says, the most pride looking back.
“A guy from Guernsey, Dave Dales, recently said the nicest thing to me, something that made me realize that I haven’t just been up my own arse the whole time…” Dee laughs. “He said, ‘You’ve put a lot of joy into my life, Graham.’ Apparently, I’d met him when he was a teenager in the ’60s, and his dad brought him along to a gig I was playing, and because I showed him something on my guitar and put him onto Chet Atkins, he reckons I inspired him to become a professional pedal steel player. So, as much as I think about what I should or should not have done—all the drinking or shooting arrows into radiators, or just being Graham Dee, off the wall—it’s when I hear things like that, that it makes me feel like I didn’t waste it all.”
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