Don't trust anyone over thirty, the Californian activist Jack Weinberger postulated in 1964. For forty years, the music business bought into this dubious credo. But things have begun to change in the last few years. More and more rock and pop stars from the 1960s and 1970s have demonstrated how to age gracefully. Some have made their finest music following midlife image crises. Robert Plant, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Tom Jones and The Buena Vista Social Club spring to mind. In the music press, ‘older’ faces are no longer confined to the nostalgia pages. Here are three artists whose long creative careers have taken a very different trajectory.
Leon Russell, 68, began his career as a singer, pianist and songwriter aged 14 in the clubs of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was still in his mid- teens when he joined Jerry Lee Lewis’s backing band. In Calilfornia, he joined Phil Spector’s studio band. From then on, he played with virtually everyone, from Sinatra to Aretha Franklin, The Byrds to Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, before writing the hit ‘Delta Lady’ for Joe Cocker, for whom he organised the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. His own albums, especially Carney, became hugely successful in the USA, but his popularity dropped off in the late 1970s. Since then – plagued by bad health – he had been continuously touring and recording, when he was invited by Elton John to write and record an album with him and producer T-Bone Burnett. The Union marked a resounding return to form for both Elton John and Leon Russell.
Sublime: How did Elton John get in touch with you?
Leon Russel: He called me from South Africa. Apparently he goes on safari in Africa every year. He called me from Johannesburg, I believe. He first asked me if I would write some songs for a duet album he was doing with Billy Joel. About five minutes later he called back and said he wouldn’t do the Billy Joel album – would I like to do a duet album with him instead.
S: You had no inkling beforehand that something like this might happen?
LR: I hadn't spoken to him in 35 years.
S: Did he tell you 35 years ago what he thought of your playing, how highly he rated you as an influence on his own style?
LR: He opened a few shows for me back then. We didn't really have a lot of conversation. He visited my house one time. We weren’t in contact very much. I had no idea that I had that much influence on his music.
S: Did it take long to hit your stride working with Elton John and T-Bone Burnett in the studio? My favourite song, by the way, is 'Hearts Have Turned To Stone'
LR: We just kinda came in and started. That particular song you mention – T-Bone Burnett kept asking me to write a rock ’n’ roll song. Those are the hardest for me to write, for some reason, and I just couldn’t quite think of one. Then I happened to see those lyrics in the computer and I went out and played it, I came back in and nobody said anything. The next day Jason the engineer was working on it. I said: ‘Jason, I don’t know if you need to work on that song, they didn’t say anything about it.’ He said: ‘They talked about it for an hour after you left, so I think they liked it.’ A lot of the recording was a bit like that, in that we didn’t really know what we were doing, except that we were having fun.
S: Are you still able in your work to surprise yourself?
LR: Songwriting has always been very difficult for me. In years past I’d sit in the studio for years, literally, and wait for inspiration. Most of my early songs were written about specific people. If I didn’t have a specific person to write a song about, I couldn’t write one. Then I started reading books like How to Write a Pop Song.
S: What did the books tell you that you didn't know before?
LR: What they all said was that when you’re facing the blank page, the problem is being the performer and the audience at the same time. When you’re the performer you say, ‘I’m gonna do this,’ and then the audience in you says, ‘That’s not good enough.’ You end up throwing away a lot of stuff. So they suggested you get up every day and write 15 to 20 pages without thinking about it, just write whatever’s in your mind, and don’t read it for a couple of weeks. Read it in a couple of weeks, and it makes sense.
S: What sort of music did you listen to when you were ten years old?
LR: I started taking lessons when I was four, so I would have been taking lessons for six years. But I was born with a slight paralysis on one side of my body. And I found that some of my friends had taken lessons for two years and were playing Carnegie Hall and I was having trouble. So I had to get into a deal where I would compose stuff that I could play. That may have had some effect on my writing. My family didn’t have a sound system either. We didn’t get one until I was fourteen. But I joined the Columbia Record club and for some reason got put into the Big Band Jazz interest category, so they would always send me Miles Davis and Benny Goodman, that sort of thing.
S: How did you get from that to Jerry Lee Lewis?
LR: Well, that’s what I was playing in the nightclubs, the rock ’n’ roll. Jerry Lee got kicked out of England because he married his cousin, or something like that. And Tulsa, my home town, that was the first job he played back in the United States, Cain’s Ballroom. They hired my band to be his back-up band. Apparently he liked us so much he hired us that night, and we were on the road with him for two years.
S: Surely, being only 16 or 17 at the time, you wouldn't have been allowed into these clubs!
LR: I started when I was 14, but it was a dry state, there was no liquor. Well, there were the ‘No Liquor’ laws – but there was plenty of liquor. The ‘No Liquor’ laws meant that there was no problem with our age, in fact they could hire the kids cheaper than the old guys.
S: Then you went to California and played all those sessions. Are there any you remember as being particularly eye-opening for you?
LR: Most of it was eye-opening. I played on Aretha Franklin’s first sessions at Columbia with an orchestra, that was pretty astounding. The records weren’t as good as the ones she made later, on Atlantic. But the people who were producing her didn’t really know who she was.
S: And there was Frank Sinatra. Was that just a job?
LR: Well, there were more police at his sessions than anybody else. Two at every door.
S: Was he worried about the mafia or the fans?
LR: I couldn’t say. But there were a lot of police there.
S: How did you drift into the environment of John Lennon and the rest of the British musicians, like Joe Cocker?
LR: I played on a Delaney and Bonnie record. This British producer, Denny Cordell, he did Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, and worked with some other English groups. He heard that record and asked someone to get me over to play on Joe’s record.
S: You formed Shelter Recods with Denny Cordell. What sort of memories do you have of the time with that business venture?
LR: It was great enjoyment. I got to make a couple of Freddie King’s albums, and a lot of people that I admired throughout my life I got to meet and make records with.
S: Did you discover J.J. Cale there?
LR: J. J. Cale and I discovered each other. We’re from the same town. We knew each other for a long time. The first time I heard him was on television. He was playing with an Elvis impersonator.
S: One reads the list of all the things you did back then. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find that it sapped your health.
LR: I had some health issues. It was physical stuff that had to do with the birth injury I have mentioned.
S: I see from your website that you’ve been touring a lot over the last twenty years, and recording albums. Has your attitude to playing music changed in the last three decades?
LR: I primarily started out in music so I wouldn't have to get a real job. And that's pretty much where it still is.
Albert Minott, 72, is the lead singer and guitarist with Jamaican mento quintet The Jolly Boys. Mento is a Caribbean folk-music style played with guitar, saxophone, rhumbabox and shakers. The style is a fusion of working songs and European folk styles dating from the days of slavery, when workers were required to entertain plantation owners. The band enjoyed huge local popularity in the 1950s, thanks to the patronage of Hollywood beau Erroll Flynn. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s they made a living playing local hotels. In the 1980s they enjoyed a number of international tours, thanks to world-music festivals. Now, they are on tour again and releasing a new album, Great Expectation, containing laid-back takes on songs by Iggy Pop, Amy Winehouse and The Stranglers.
S: Historically, what elements did Mento compromise when it became the the mento of the 1940s and 1950s?
Albert Minott: The older people would have broken stone along the roadside for the government to put down a road, and they’d be singing a mento song. In the cane field, cutting cane, they’d be singing a mento song. That was mento in those days. Mr Erroll Flynn now, he came and made mento a little brighter. He had an island in Port Antonio. When he’d kill a juicy pig we’d gather together and play, ‘Island in the Sun’ and ‘Jamaica Farewell’.
S: How did you experience the birth of ska and the rise of reggae?
AM: When Mr Flynn came to Jamaica, other people would say: ‘Wow, we’ve got to go there too.’ The more hotels they built, the better we felt because we had a job. Whenever they opened a hotel, we’d play at the bar or in the dining room, where we keep our mento alive. Rock ’n’ roll came in and sat down on mento. Ska came in and sat down on mento. Reggae came in and sat down on mento. Mento was in a dark hole.
S: When reggae took off, were you never tempted to start a reggae band?
AM: I would never write a reggae song because a reggae song is just for my country. If you write a reggae song, it lives today and dies tomorrow. But the mento stays alive for ever and ever. When we got independent from England, the culture eventually changed. That’s where you get that difference of music. If you went to Jamaica and said: play me a mento, none of them could play it for you. They say: ‘Mento is foolishness!’ But it’s the mother! You can’t turn your back on the mother.
S: What did you do in the last ten years when there was so little demand for your music?
AM: Ah, yes. I would cut me some bamboo and I’d make you a beer cup from bamboo. I got me a carving knife and I could make you a lovely bamboo cup. Over the years, that’s what I do when I’m not working at the hotel to make a bread.
S: And then all of a sudden, there's a new album. How did that happen?
AM: We were working in a hotel one night a week. You can imagine, you’re working in a hotel for three years one night a week on the weekends – that couldn’t pay the light bill, couldn’t pay the water bill, couldn’t send the kids to school. So we were there, wondering about all these money men, why they’d come in, buy up the hotels, why they lock them down as soon as they buy them. You come into a town where all the people work, and you lock them down. You leave us to drown! Now Mr Jon Baker, the English music producer who owns the Geejam Studio and hotel in Port Antonio, he stepped in and said, ‘I love you for this mento, and I got a couple of songs I want you to listen to.’ So we said, right, go along. He said: Try this one. It was the Amy Winehouse song, ‘Rehab’. I take that home, I take my guitar and I say: I’m gonna put you into mento! I put it into mento, and go back to him. He said, ‘Wow, you guys are really good!’ That’s where it started.
S: What does the near future bring you?
AM: I feel like 21 now. I’m asking the strength giver to give me three more years out there and touring. When I get back home, I’m not gonna sit down and go back to sleep. I’m going back in the studio. That’s already planned. We’re gonna mix it up this time, some old mento and some of the new songs out there now. When people look at me on stage and say: ‘How you move like that for your age?’ I say: ‘It’s just mento!’ You’re thinking mento, you’re thinking life.
Norma Winstone, 69, has long been hailed as one of the great British jazz singers. An integral voice of the British jazz explosion of the 1960s and 1970s, she found great success alongside Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor with the trio Azimuth. Her last album with Italian pianist Glauco Venier and German clarinettist and saxophonist Klaus Gesing, Distances, was nominated for a Grammy. The trio’s latest, Stories Yet to Tell, is a similarly vital demonstration of empathy and harmonic innovation.
S: For an artist so secure in what you're doing, having followed your path resolutely all these years, does a Grammy nomination still give a sense of 'Now we can go even further'?
Norman Winstone: It did. I’m older than the other two and I’m always a bit more skeptical. I’ve been around longer and I’ve seen times when things seemed to have changed and then you realise in the end it didn’t change all that much. We were so shocked at the Grammy nomination. Of course, we had felt ourselves that the record was something special all along. It affirmed, really, the fact that it had actually reached out to some people we never thought would be that interested.
S: The three of you all come from different cultures. The songs you pick are from all sorts of traditions and countries. It is a manner of making music that is typical for the modern age of communication. You can take music and musicians from anywhere, and the task is to make it a blend that is uniquely your own.
NW: I suppose it’s of its time. The whole experience is, the way of making music, of making something happen. The fact that you can access all kinds of different musics and use them in different ways – that’s what I like doing. Folk music especially lends itself to doing that. You’re not likely to have someone come up and say, ‘You shouldn’t do that with that.’ We did a piece by Satie on the last album. Glauco found a poem that fitted perfectly by Pasolini. So far, nobody has said we shouldn’t have done that with a piece by Eric Satie.
S: Can you put your finger on what it is that makes this combination of people work so well? What do you bring out in each other that you haven’t previously experienced?
NW: That's very hard. It does seem special to me, and therefore it can't be something which I’ve experienced very much before, otherwise it wouldn’t seem special. I just know that when I worked with them for the first time on songs that I’d brought to them, it didn’t really matter. They were adventurous and it seemed they weren’t thinking, ‘We have to be careful ’cause she might not like this.’ They played the way they played normally, and I could hear they had such a rapport between the two of them. It was almost a bit scary for me. I didn’t want to disturb what they had.
S: Did you start off with the 1950s trad-Jazz boom in Britain?
NW: I started as a jazz fan, but not really trad jazz. As soon as I heard Miles Davis, that was in tune with the classical music I liked. I used to go and sit in pub bands in the 1960s. There were such things as jazz trios in pubs! I’d ask if I could sit in, they’d usually say yes, sometimes reluctantly. I got to know John Stevens, and he recommended me to Ronnie Scott. He gave me four weeks opposite Roland Kirk. That was 1967, a big break.
S: How did you experience the 1970s in London's Jazz scene?
NW: In 1971 I won the Melody Maker Jazz poll, which was another amazing thing. At that point Decca thought we’d better put some money into albums. I just thought: I’ll do everything I can, from a three-piece group to an eleven-piece group. I had pieces by friends like John Surman, John Warren, Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor. Then it suddenly went very flat. They started deleting our records, and it became really hard. John Taylor and I weren’t sure where to go. We’d heard some ECM records by then, Keith Jarrett’s Facing You, for instance. We decided we’d go round the various record companies. Top of the list was ECM. John made an appointment and went to Munich. The night before he bought this synthesizer, and he was just playing around with it. I improvised something, and it was that which really engaged Manfred Eicher at ECM. That was the start of Azimuth.
S: When you say things went flat, were British jazz audiences turning their backs on British jazz?
NW: I meant the recording side of it. People still came to the concerts. But let’s face it; it’s never been easy to get jazz audiences. It’s always been a minority interest.
S: You've worked with so many different people. Presumably every time you work with someone else you're discovering something new?
NW: I wouldn’t go as far as to say that, but I’m probably just discovering the same thing, which is that I really like to communicate. I feel I have learned from every experience I’ve had. Sometimes you learn not to do it again.