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Gary Fletcher - Interview

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 29 / 4 / 2013

Gary Fletcher - Interview


Nick Dent-Robinson speaks with influential songwriter Guy Fletcher about his fifty years in the music business, and writing for Joe Meek, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley

Guy Fletcher has been one of the UK's most prolific songwriters since the sixties. Ever since his early days with legendary record producer Joe Meek when he was a session singer, trumpeter and songwriter, Guy has worked with some of the biggest names in UK music. His songs have been recorded by Cliff Richard, the Hollies, Joe Cocker and Tom Jones as well as by Frankie Valli, Helen Reddy, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. Guy enjoyed international success with his own band, Rogue, in the seventies. And along the way he discovered and initially managed singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh. These days Guy is highly regarded as a music industry guru. In 2005 he was honoured by the Queen with an OBE for services to British music. He is Chairman of the Performing Rights Society and is very active in fighting against the erosion of composers' rights. Guy has a frantic international schedule, but he took time out at his Wantage home to reflect on his fifty years in the music business. “It all started when I was just six years old,” Guy recalled. “I was walking on Tunbridge Wells Common near our family home when I spotted another young boy playing a bugle. It seemed to me that he was making quite a statement! I really liked it. So I went straight home to my dad and said, 'I'd like a bugle for my birthday'. Now my dad wasn't especially musical but he was a good engineer, a very clever fellow. And he said to me, 'You don't really want a bugle. You can only play five notes on a bugle because it's just a simple tube.' Of course I'd no idea what he was talking about, but he explained, 'What you need is a trumpet. Because a trumpet has valves on it which vary the length of the tube so you can play all kinds of notes on a trumpet.' So, for my seventh birthday shortly after that, my dad found an old trumpet in a junk shop and bought it for me. That was my introduction to music. And, very luckily, as soon as I picked up that trumpet I could play it almost immediately. I just had an instinct for it. It was intuitive - something I could do naturally.” From that time on, music became an increasingly important part of Guy's life. Throughout his childhood, Guy's parents ensured he had formal music lessons, both in playing classical trumpet and in music theory – learning notation, harmony, counterpoint, transposition and everything anyone would ever need if they were to pursue a career in music. Guy passed all the formal Associated Board exams and, by the time he was at grammar school in Rochester, he was an accomplished trumpeter and chorister who could read, write and arrange music. He played in the school orchestra and a smaller chamber ensemble and sang in the choir. By then Guy was also developing a keen interest in jazz. In his mid-teens Guy's family moved from Kent to Maidenhead, and Guy started to play trumpet with a local trad jazz band. In concerts at venues like Oxford Town Hall and Reading Town Hall he found himself supporting popular jazz performers of the time like Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk. Guy's heroes, however, were Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. He was also attracted to some of the American vocal jazz groups fashionable in the early sixties like the the Four Freshmen and the a cappella quartet called the Hi-Los. Their intricate, sophisticated four part harmonies fascinated Guy. “I was just blown away by what those people were doing, completely entranced by their sound,” Guy recalls. “So I formed a little vocal group with my brother Ted and his wife, Barbara - both of whom later became professional session singers. We practised and practised and bought all the Four Freshmen's records and learned them, transcribing the arrangements for three voices instead of four. We started entering talent competitions, and eventually found we were usually up against the same band in the finals. But they were always just a bit better than we were. They were the Checkmates – later famous as Emile Ford and the Checkmates for their big hit ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?’ I was so impressed by them. I remember them singing on stage in their beautiful suits, dancing and performing ‘Tuxedo Junction’ just perfectly, singing tenor and baritone with keyboards, guitar, bass and drums....a fantastic outfit, beautifully rehearsed.” “Gradually, we got to know the Checkmates well, and their piano player Alan Hawkshaw became a good friend. Later Alan was to become a very successful composer. Anyway Alan was watching us rehearse one day, and he mentioned the Checkmates had a new Recording Manager called Joe Meek who was looking for someone to provide vocals on some of his records. Would we like to meet Joe? So the three of us went along to Joe's studio at 304 Holloway Road in North London – above Shenton's Leather Shop, I recall. Joe Meek was the most amazing man. He was a pioneer of many recording techniques, hugely talented and years ahead of his time, actually - but a most bizarre man. He was weird but kindly with it. Although Joe was quite a big man, he spoke with a rather high-pitched voice in a broad Forest of Dean Gloucestershire accent. He sounded a bit like Darth Vader. And he worked seven days a week from 8.00 a.m. till midnight, turning out ten singles each week! Many were big hits. Joe Meek became a legend really. Since his tragic death when he shot himself back in 1967 there have been TV documentaries, a radio play, a stage play, a feature film plus a detailed biography about him.” “Anyway, we auditioned and Joe took us on. Very soon - from 1962 - I was writing and arranging for him plus I'd sung on over 100 singles before I was twenty and I was meeting some of the biggest names in music too. So many people wanted to record with Joe. For example, he'd recorded Tom Jones, Sounds Incorporated, Shirley Bassey, Billy Fury, Frankie Vaughan, John Leyton, Mike Berry, the Tornadoes, Chris Barber, Gene Vincent...I remember singing on Gene Vincent's records. Joe even made Humphrey Lyttleton's only hit – ‘Bad Penny Blues’ - which Humph always hated! So, joining Joe Meek was the start of a completely new and fantastic chapter for me.” Guy worked furiously over the next few years. He enjoyed the challenge of writing pop songs that were accessible in two-and-a-half minutes – the typical duration of a single in the sixties. Guy networked constantly as more and more major names of the time recorded his songs. His earliest hit was ‘I Can't Tell the Bottom from the Top’ for the Hollies. Gradually Guy started recording with other producers too. He had met Cliff Richard who he later wrote several songs for and had become good friends with Bruce Welch and Tony Meehan of the Shadows. It was Tony who introduced Guy to lyricist Doug Flett who was to become Guy's song-writing partner – a partnership that still exists. “The sixties were good years to be song-writing. There were still clearly defined communities in the music business then. There were the writers, the publishers, the record companies, the managers and agents plus the artists. The interaction was good and, if you were a decent writer who came up with commercial songs, then there were a massive number of people out there waiting for what you wrote. The business was still centred around Denmark Street off London's Charing Cross Road at that time - Britain's Tin Pan Alley. But by the seventies it was all changing. The record companies moved to West London, and everyone dispersed plus artists increasingly wanted to write their own material. I was fortunate to experience those early years.” One of Guy and Doug Flett's most exciting opportunities came through a contact of Tony Meehan's. They were signed as songwriters by the American publisher Freddy Bienstock's Carlin Music company - and Freddy was in partnership with Colonel Tom Parker who managed Elvis Presley. One day Freddy heard one of their songs – ‘Wonderful World’ – which came third in the UK's Song for Europe competition in 1968. Guy recalls Freddy saying, “I want Elvis to hear this; it is fantastic.” Freddy played the song to Elvis who, to Guy and Doug's astonishment, decided to use it as the opening number in his last film, ‘Live a Little, Love a Little’. After that Elvis requested a series of songs from Guy and Doug who became the first British writers to be recorded by Elvis. “That was a very big thing for us,” Guy says. “It was almost impossible to penetrate the Elvis camp. We hadn't dreamed we'd ever get a Presley cover when we signed to Freddy Bienstock and, when we ended up writing more songs for Elvis, we could scarcely believe it. Then, a few years later, we decided to try writing a song for Ray Charles. It was called ‘Is There Anyone Out There?’ And it was in 12/8 time, a very slow song." "We made a demo of it and headed out to Los Angeles to find Tangerine Records – Ray Charles's record company. We rented a car and just drove straight to the district in LA called Watts where the company was based. We were both very naïve. We had no idea about Watts being a notorious run-down black neighbourhood. In fact we knew very little about Los Angeles and the racial tensions there. As we neared the offices we spotted that the huge billboards saying, 'Welcome to Marlboro Country' suddenly featured black cowboys! We thought this was amazing but, although we'd noticed everyone in the area was black, no alarm bells were ringing with us - as they should have been. Neither of us had a clue how dangerous it was for us to drive into Watts at that time. Luckily we soon found Tangerine Records’ offices, parked the car and went to reception. The people on the desk seemed kind of startled to see us and said, 'Hello, whatever are you doing here?' So I just announced in my very English accent, 'We've come to see Mr Charles. We've got a song for him and we'd like him to sing it.' Anyway they were so amazed that these two white English guys had dared to drive there that they agreed to find someone to see us. We ended up playing the song to Big Dee Irwin, Head of A & R to Ray Charles at the time. He listened to a few seconds of the intro and said, 'Mr Charles will not record this. But thank you for coming.'” “We didn't give up. We went to see our publisher's representatives in Los Angeles who were totally incredulous that we'd dared to drive to Watts to try to see Ray Charles, and told us how stupid we had been. But they agreed to submit the song again via their black A & R department. It was turned down several times more. But then, five years later, I suddenly had a call from a new A & R person who had taken over my song catalogue in L.A. He said, 'I've found one of your songs that I think would be just right for Ray Charles' – and it was the same song. So he had a braille lead sheet done and met Ray Charles who listened to the demo. He loved our song and recorded it - a six-and-a-half minute version of it! - within a week. Which was so fantastic. And I think that was probably one of the proudest moments of my 50-year writing career!” Guy's songs have now been recorded by a huge range of artists – from Tom Jones to Joe Cocker to the Shadows and the Bay City Rollers to Helen Reddy and Louise Mandrell who each had big US hits with ‘Save Me’. His song ‘Fallen Angel’ was a hit for Frankie Valli and features in the musical, ‘Jersey Boys’, still running on Broadway, in Las Vegas and in the West End. But Guy's own band, Rogue, also recorded that song and achieved chart success with it in Holland and several other European countries. “I had been singing throughout my writing career and still had a love of vocal harmony – I enjoyed the Beach Boys, the Eagles, Toto and many of the West Coast and Country-orientated groups. I'd written ‘Cool, Clear Air’ for the Shadows and suddenly I had the urge to form my own band. So I joined with Alan Hodge – a brilliant guitarist from the Onyx and J W Hodkinson, a great jazz/blues singer who had sung with If when they were more jazz-rock orientated. We called the band Rogue. I wrote an album which we recorded. We signed a record deal with CBS and made three albums altogether. I thoroughly enjoyed it all. The success we had in Holland meant I had a whole separate career there as a singer which was a nice contrast to what I was doing here in the UK.” Along the way - back in 1971 – Guy also discovered and then managed the singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh. “Chris was straight out of Trinity College, Dublin when I first met him. He was in London as a postgraduate student, also teaching modern languages. Someone told me I should see him, and as soon as Doug and I heard him play guitar and sing we offered him a contract on the spot. We signed him for recording, publishing, management, everything. He was brilliant. But he had not been trained as a songwriter, so he did need initial help reconstructing some of his early work. Chris's family lived in a 12th century castle in County Wexford, Ireland, and he was very imaginative, interesting and clever. We knew Chris would be the star he became. After his initial success we signed him to the management he is still with now. It is good to have played a part in the Chris de Burgh story!” Guy has written music for TV. And for TV commercials - which he didn't enjoy. He has also penned two musicals, though neither has been performed yet. But in recent years he has devoted more time to working with the Songwriters' Guild and the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors. Currently he is Chairman of the Performing Right Society (PRS) as well as Chair of Conexion Media, a major music and TV/film rights management company. “I came through a period in music business history where publishers used to treat songwriters really badly. So, as soon as I was in a position to do so, I spent many years campaigning to improve the songwriters' position and ability to negotiate, helping them understand the true value of their copyright - which many had no clue about. Gradually, over time, you get sucked into things....Will you sit on this board? Get involved in this think-tank? I have come to really like many of the people in the business. Rights management is what I do. I believe passionately that songwriters should have legal ownership of all their own copyrights and should be managed by professionals. I have seen so many disasters in this area – and that is what now drives me in pursuit of this ideal.” “The relationship between writers and music publishers is much better nowadays – but it has taken over twenty-five years to achieve this improvement. I have been involved in a lot of lobbying over time. We made good progress when Chris Smith was Culture Secretary, and that was when we formed the music industry think tank, Music Forum. The PRS, which I chair, has over 700 staff, a turnover of £750m and a massive international presence. It takes up a lot of my time and I rarely write music these days.” “Of course the industry is ever-changing. Today live music is hugely popular again - which is great. But CDs are dying as people download MP3 files – though the quality can never be as good as a CD. It is a shame the industry hasn't been promoting CDs as the premium product they actually are. Of course writers don't get the same returns from downloads - the numbers simply can't work for them. It would be really hard now for someone to start as a writer in the business and enjoy the same career I've been lucky enough to have. Though my advice to any young songwriter would be the same as it has always been....to first thoroughly learn the tools of the trade. Learn music, learn it formally and properly, learn to read it and write it. Because, without that, you'll eventually hit a brick wall. No computer software will ever be a substitute for a thorough understanding of how musical structure actually works. And you'll have respect from musicians, producers, everybody, if you really know music – you'll instantly be part of the community. Plus you won't ever be daunted by anyone in a studio or anywhere. So that remains my strongest advice.” With all his responsibilities, Guy gets little spare time - but how does he like to relax? “I enjoy fly fishing. My son Justin now has his own very successful TV career in children's entertainment - but he and I still find time each week to fly fish together which is a great way to relax. I like family things and love being here with my wife Cherry at our home in Wantage, just looking out from our conservatory at the miles of open Oxfordshire countryside. That always helps keep things in perspective!” More information about Guy Fletcher can be found at www.guyfletcher.com

Visitor Comments:-
702 Posted By: Best Known, Unknown Songwriter, Buckinghamshire on 10 Jun 2014
Guy's advice to learn music, learn to read it, write it, doesn't necessarily mean that the brick walls won't be there. No matter how much some writers try to succeed with songwriting and composing, they won't get the break they are looking for. In my own experience, I never knew anyone in Songwriter's Associations such as BASCA to ask what musical background I had. I recently sadly resigned as a member who had been there for nearly 30 years. Writing and composing many songs and instrumentals, having them professionally recorded for promotion purposes has been a challenging and personally rewarding experience but nothing to show for my work publicly and financially in the UK. Guy Fletcher was one of the first people I signed a song to and that was one of the amazing things to happen. The pride and excitement I felt at that time was something never to forget, but that was a high spot leading to bigger disappointment when I realized that the commercial recording of my song was not going to happen. I had spent a lot of time trying to learn more so that my musical knowledge would take me steps forward but, as said earlier, I don't think anyone in the music-business ever asked about my musical background. As long as a song has been demoed, the only importance is whether the song is worth being signed by the person listening or not. It is a great coincidence that I have been considering putting a book together about my experiences as probably the 'best-known unknown songwriter' at one time. One of the titles for a book I had in mind is 'Brick Walls'. After jotting that down, I happened to come across this interesting and thought-provoking article.

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