Pat Blythe: The Women of Blues Part Four – Maggie Bell
Pat Blythe continues her series The Women of Blues with this fourth installment on a Legendary Scottish singer….
The Scottish Connection
I was first introduced to Maggie Bell and the blues 40 years ago. Greg Simpson, an old friend from London, Ontario, handed me her album, Suicide Sal, and suggested I give it a listen. I fell in love with the music, the passion and intensity in her voice and still own that original vinyl. I love to listen to those songs even now. Fast forward 40 years and Greg, now living in B.C., calls to let me know Maggie is performing at the Vancouver Island Musicfest in Courtaney, B.C. Within 24 hours my flight is booked. I’ve waited a very long time for this.
So let’s go back to beginning….Maggie’s beginning. Margaret Bell arrived on the scene in January, 1945, at the leading edge of the baby boom generation. Born in Glasgow, Scotland to musical parents, Bell began singing at a very early age. Raised in the notorious Maryhill estate, Bell had this to say about it in a 2008 interview.“It was tough. There was no hot water or inside toilets and when you went to school you just got beat up regularly by the teachers and the headmaster. As far as they were concerned you were either going to get pregnant or work in the Walls’ sausage factory and that was it, your whole life was already mapped out for you.” Remembering those days of singing in the gritty Glasgow dance halls, “You’d have the gangs – the Fleet and the Tong – knocking hell out of each other at one end and American sailors at the other. It was tough but it was all part of what made me the person I am today.” Having been to school with many of the Fleet members, Bell realized that being in a band was a kind of protection from the gang activity. “It was weird but they all seemed to respect the musicians. I just shut my eyes and got on with it.” But the message was loud and clear. If you wanted any kind of future you had to get out of town and the best escape was music.
Maryhill Tenements (Glasgow, Scotland)
By the time Bell was 15 she was working as a window dresser by day and a singer at night and at 18 found herself singing professionally at Glasgow’s Locarno Ballroom. She was earning 70 pence a week, much more than her window dressing job ever paid. “It was big bucks!” remembers Bell, singing Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick songs with a 32-piece orchestra. Bell’s introduction to blues was singing with Alex Harvey and The Alex Harvey Soul Band at a club in Glasgow called La Cave. However, Harvey suggested his band was “a bit too rough and ready…a bit too old for you” so he introduced Bell to his younger brother Leslie Harvey who was a guitarist with the Kinning Park Ramblers. Bell joined the Ramblers as a vocalist and when the Ramblers split up Bell joined the Mecca Band followed by the Dennistoun Palais Band. By 1968 Bell was back with Harvey and together they formed a new group, naming themselves The Power of Music, later shortened to The Power. They played regularly at The Easterhouse Project* run by Archie Hind (author of The Dear Green Place), and Graeme Noble and toured the U.S. Air Force bases in Germany.
Stone the Crows (1970): L-R – Leslie Harvey, John McGinnis, James Dewar, Maggie Bell, Colin Allen
Stone the Crows (1971): L-R – Ron Leahy, Colin Allen, Leslie Harvey, Maggie Bell, Steve Thompson
The Power’s final name “transformation” came at the hands of Peter Grant. After hearing them play, Grant was very impressed by the vocal ability of Bell and the versatile guitar playing of Harvey and agreed to produce and co-manage them with Mark London. So in 1970, Stone The Crows, an expression used by the Brits when one is shocked or surprised, were born. At the time Grant’s primary focus was Led Zeppelin, a band formed out of the ashes of the Yardbirds whom Grant had also managed. It was London who took on most of the management duties for the new band. Stone the Crows were signed to Polydor, toured the U.S. which included a spell with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and a gig at the Fillmore West with Miles Davis who told Bell “she could sing her ass off”.
Freedom Road – Stone the Crows
According to reviewer Peter Kurtz, “Stone the Crows was a tough-luck, working class, progressive soul band that came out of the pubs of Scotland in the early 70’s. They had everything going for them at the start: not one but two gritty singers, a talented guitarist, a rhythm section that had played with John Mayall and the name recognition of having Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant as their producer.” The original lineup was Leslie Harvey (guitar), Colin Allen (drums), James Dewar (bass and vocals), John McGinnis (keyboards) and of course, Bell on lead vocals. What happened? Despite recording and releasing four albums — Stone the Crows and Ode to John Law (both in 1970); Teenage Licks (1971, and the band’s most successful album); Ontinuious Performance (1972) — their music was never quite able to sell to a wide audience. McGinnis and Dewar left the band in 1971 and were replaced by Ronnie Leahy and Steve Thompson. In 1972 Leslie Harvey, the band’s guitar player, primary songwriter and Bell’s fiancé, was accidently electrocuted on stage during a sound check. He touched a microphone that had been energized by an amp which wasn’t grounded and was killed instantly. The band was due to play at the Weeley Festival and guitar player Peter Green had agreed to fill in for Harvey. The day before the performance he backed out so Steve Howe of Yes, a good friend of the band, stepped in so they could fulfill their commitment. Jimmy McCulloch would replace Harvey as lead guitarist soon after and Stone the Crows managed to hold it together for another year but, with Leslie Harvey’s death, the momentum was lost. They split permanently in 1973.
Sad Mary – Stone the Crows
Maggie Bell & Paul Rogers at the launch of Swan Song in NYC.
Maggie Bell & Jimmy Page at the launch of Swan Song in NYC.
One year later, in 1974, Grant became a record executive for the brand new Swan Song Records immediately signing, among others, Maggie Bell, who was the only female artist ever signed to the label. Bell would record two albums under Grant’s guidance — Queen of the Night in 1974 and Suicide Sal in 1975 — as well as a 1981 album with the Midnight Flyer (another Grant-managed band). Bell had recorded two albums for Atlantic prior to Queen of the Night — one with Felix Pappalardi (Mountain) and the other with Felix Caveliere (Young Rascals). Luther Vandross did the vocal backings. Neither of these albums were ever released. According to Bell, “The record company said they weren’t good enough. I was quite upset about that….I think it was down to a load of politics.” Queen of the Night was recorded in NYC with legendary record producer Jerry Wexler who had also produced Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Ray Charles. Bell and Wexler listened to over 200 songs, meticulously selecting the songs Bell would record for the album. The title song was written by Leahy whom Bell had played with in Stone the Crows. Another tune, Oh My! My! was written by Ringo Starr who, unfortunately, released his version just ahead of Bell’s. Queen of the Night did so well Bell was encouraged to do a second album. In 1975 Sucide Sal was released.
Queen of the Night – Maggie Bell
A Wexler side note — Wexler expected his musicians to thoroughly learn the material and come to the studio prepared. He did not allow cue sheets for the singers believing it detracted from the performance. Paper was not allowed so lyrics had to learned before recording began. Two months were spent preparing the eleven songs for Queen of the Night before anyone stepped foot in the studio.
Oh My! My! – Maggie Bell
(odd visuals but the song is fab)
Bell and her band toured Europe supporting a wide range of top musical acts including Humble Pie, The Who, Roxy Music, Davie Bowie, Marc Bolan and Earth, Wind and Fire. She opened up AC/DC’s 1981 world tour with her UK band Midnight Flyer and played Live At Montreaux in July 1981, jamming with Taj Mahal and Albert Collins.
Hold On – Maggie Bell
(This one of my favourite songs from the Sucide Sal album. Maggies voice and the plaintive sounds of the guitar solo.)
I Was in Chains – Maggie Bell
(Listen for the discrete use of the bagpipes at the end of the song. Beautiful.)
While she never broke big in North America, Bell “was one of Britain’s best-loved and most highly regarded singers, regularly voted Best Female Vocalist by the readers of Melody Maker and the New Musical Express in the early and mid-seventies.” Bell also did session work with Rod Stewart as co-lead vocal with Stewart on the song Every Picture Tells a Story, (noted as vocal abrasives) and guested on Long John Baldry’s album It Ain’t Easy. Bell had a hit duet, Hold Me, with B.A. Robertson in 1981 which reached number 11 in the U.K. Singles Chart. Her song No Mean City, co-written with Mike Moran, is the theme music to the crime drama Taggart.
No Mean City – Maggie Bell (Taggart theme)
Bell relocated to the Netherlands, living there for 20 years, but she never stopped singing. She returned to the U.K. to join The British Blues Quintet in 2006, playing once again with her old band mate from Stone the Crows, Colin Allen and sharing vocals with Zoot Money. Bell also tours with David Kelly and it was their show I caught at the Musicfest. In Bell’s own words, “I’d never been out as part of a duo before but this really works….Dave’s probably the best dobro player I’ve ever worked with and he’s got a fantastic voice too. What’s more I get to do material with him that I wouldn’t do with the British Blues Quintet so it’s a chance to perform songs that I’ve wanted to do for years.” It’s a diverse list. “We do everything from Patsy Cline to Nina Simone to Lightning Hopkins,” laughs Maggie. “All kinds of different things.” Bell is clearly comfortable on stage with Kelly and their friendship was clearly evident the night I saw them. “We’re comrades in arms. It’s exactly the same with Colin and Zoot. We’re a bunch of old fogies but we’re all having a great time. There are no egos, we’ve got nothing to prove anymore.”
….and indeed she doesn’t.
*Organised by Frankie Vaughan, who was so appalled by the gang violence and proliferation of guns, he organised a weapons amnesty and helped set up the Easterhouse Project, a community centre originally designed to get young people off the streets.
Following is a Maggie montage her performance at the Vancouver Island Musicfest 2015. David Kelly is squeezed in there too.
All photos by Pat Blythe.
Dancing Ledge, Jeremy Miles, Chris Welch, Glasgow-Barrowland Stories, Ernest Aguirre, Dirty City Chronicles, AllMusic, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, LastFM, Vancouver Island Musicfest, The Glasgow Herald
Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.
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In “real” life Pat Blythe has spent the past 32 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry. After an extended absence Pat is now heading back to the GTA clubs, immersing herself in the local music scene, tasting what’s on offer, talking to people and writing once again — sharing her passions and her deep love of music. Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who shot much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, Plateau, Buzzsaw, Hellfield….) as well as national and international acts, Currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, Pat is currently compiling a photographic history of the local GTA music scene from 1975 to 1985. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance!