Posted February, 2013
If you think you haven’t heard the name Bernard Fowler, think again. If I point out to you that if you’ve listened to any kind of popular music over the last, oh, say, nearly thirty years, you’ve absolutely heard Bernard’s voice, trust me, you have. Remember the early eighties tunes Don’t Make Me Wait or Life Is Something Special by the New York Citi Peech Boys? Bernard was an integral part of that band. Oh, and remember Herbie Hancock’s albums, Future Shock and Sound-System? Yeah, Fowler fronted those. Then there’s Philip Glass’s Songs From The Liquid Days and Bootsy Collins’ album, What’s Bootsy Doin’? Bernard’s voice comes through on those, too.
In 1986, Fowler was hired for vocal and vocal arrangement work for some guy named Mick Jagger on his solo album, She’s The Boss. Maybe you heard of him? That project lead to Bernard’s twenty-seven year long (and counting) gig with Mr. Jagger’s struggling little band called The Rolling Stones.
You get the picture.
Over his many years of excellence-making work, Fowler has earned the respect of the upper echelon of music makers and shakers around the globe. When I asked guitar great Steve Lukather for his thoughts on Bernard’s craft, he said that Bernard’s “one of the greatest voices I have ever worked with and also one of the coolest people. We have done a bunch of stuff together - writing, jammin', hangin'. He sang on some of my solo records. I played on his and I am a fan. And he plays with the Stones! It don’t get much cooler than that!”
Stones band mate and legendary sax player Bobby Keys said, “I was thinking back to when I first saw Bernard – I can’t remember which Stones tour it was but it’s been several tours back – over twenty years ago, I think – when Bernard first started singing with the Stones. When I heard that the Stones were gonna have singers, I thought, ‘Well, that’ll be good. Let’s see what they sound like.’ And, Bernard, man, the first time I ever heard him sing – I think Keith told me about Bernard before I actually heard him sing. The first time I ever heard Bernard sing, man, I really thought I was listening to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding tied together! I was, like, ‘Damn! This guy’s too good to sing with this band!’ I really did.”
Continuing on, Keys said, “Then came Bernard’s work with Charlie (Watts). You know, the big band albums? He handled those ballads, man, just like he was born to it. I remember Bernard never hitting a bad lick. He’s one of the gifted people, man, who just has an inbred instinct and feel for music and expresses it vocally. As a musician, I really respect him. He’s not just a vocalist, as such. He’s a musician, man. His voice is an instrument. I find it to have been a great pleasure to work with him and hear him sing. Gettin’ ready to do that again in a month or so.”
It was to that point about Bernard’s voice – and even his stage presence – that caused me to lead off with an admittedly unusual – if not unusually placed – question. I’ve grown up in church circles where southern gospel was prevalent. Knowing that Fowler was NYC born and raised gave me pause, however, some of his mannerisms might lead some to conclude that his musical background might involve church music of some sort. I asked Bernard if this was the case. And he answered.
“That’s a funny question you’ve asked. It’s a “yes” and it’s a “no” - only because I’m from New York City – specifically the Queensbridge Projects. I was born and raised in New York City. But both my mother and father are from North Carolina. My father was from Zebulon. My mom is from Raleigh. So, yes, both of my parents are from the south and church was a big part of our lives.
“As a kid growing up in New York City, my mom sent me away to North Carolina every summer. Every summer until I was about sixteen years old, mom sent me to Big Mamma’s house. Big Mamma was my grandmother and Big Mamma was a Christian woman. And let me tell you, you weren’t walking in or out of Big Momma’s house without her praying for you.
“So I was pretty much introduced to the church at a very young age. I heard gospel music when it was gospel music. What I mean by that is that there weren’t no drummers. Wasn’t no bass players. Wasn’t no guitar players. It was straight-up choir, organ and piano. So, there’s a yes and no answer to that question.”
As it was, Bernard and his family’s religious life was within Baptist circles. Bernard remembers, “It’s funny, I just left North Carolina. I went down to see my mom for Christmas. I hadn’t seen her in a while. My mother’s sister – my Aunt Nell - lives nearby in my grandmother’s house. As I was driving down for a visit, I was thinking about going down there when I was growing up, including this one time Aunt Nell set off for church on what turned out to be anything but a normal Sunday. This time Aunt Nell and I went church hoppin’!’ We spent the entire Sunday visiting different churches in North Carolina. And this was all day long! ALL DAY LONG! When I say ‘all day,’ I mean all day! We’d go to one service and then scoot off to the next.
“I remember there was this one church in particular – it was different. It was different. I can’t explain how different it was but it was different. Trust me. We were deep in North Carolina. I remember my Aunt Nell saying ‘Baby, you like this church?’ I replied, ‘No, Aunt Nell, I don’t like this church.’ She said, ‘Me, either. Let’s go!’ And off we went!” After laughing an infectious laugh as only Fowler can, he added, “That just explains how much time we spent at church from a very young age.”
Concluding his thoughts on that early part of his life, Bernard said, “So, yeah, although that’s not where my singing career started, it’s very much a part of me.” Then, with a smile that came clearly over the telephone line, said, “Very perceptive, Randy.”
In pre-interview communications with Fowler, I became aware that he was working on a new solo album. I asked him to tell me a little bit about it.
“I’m working on my second solo record. I’m excited about what’s going on and what’s happening with the music thus far. Right now I’m about eight songs in, and I plan to record five or so more. Out of those, I’ll pick ten to make the album. Of the songs that don’t make the album, we’re working on a way to give them to people – a little something extra. People don’t buy albums like they did when I was a kid. People buy songs. So, yeah, that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to get this record done by at least the end of the month or half way into March. I want it done. I want it finished. I’m hoping that there could be some Stones shows coming up. You never know until you know, but regardless, I want to get it done.”
That comment prompted me to ask Fowler what drives his solo sales: his own solo reputation, his association with The Rolling Stones, or his work with other people?
“Um, I think it’s a combination of everything that I’ve done in my career which, you know, has been pretty varied. Some know me before the Stones, and some only with the Stones. And some both. But yes, there are lots of people that have become aware of me through my work with the Stones, which is great, but I’ve always had such a diverse career. Ultimately I think it’s a combination, which is good.”
Bernard is enjoying an amazing career – working first with Mick Jagger and then with the rest of the band. I asked, when looking back, is there was one pivotal part of his career where he can say that, if it wasn’t for that instant or experience, he would’ve never gotten the Jagger or Stones gig.
“Absolutely. The New York Citi Peech Boys. That, along with Herbie Hancock. Those two projects – they’re what brought me to the Stones because I would say that before the New York Citi Peech Boys, nobody really knew who I was. At that time I was just a young vocalist trying to make waves. I had my first hit record with the Peech Boys. It was a club record and the Peech Boys were also the first to have a DJ as part of the band. Before that – before the Peech Boys – that did not exist. That was Larry Levan. He was the premier star DJ. There was nobody bigger than Larry at that time, DJ wise. Now, DJs are as popular as the artists that they sample! It’s totally amazing. I don’t get it! People will fill a hall and watch a guy spin records. Where’s the entertainment factor? I’m still trying to get that. Maybe it’s the big room – the congregation of everybody – I don’t know.”
And, then, bringing the conversation back around to the DJs who play the Peech Boys and other work that Bernard has been involved with, he added, “My hat is off to them. And I’d like to say thank you. Thank you for help keeping my voice in people’s ears.”
While the focus of my interview with Bernard was on his own work and career, I couldn’t resist asking him one Stones related question. I was curious what he thinks is the biggest misconception that people have when it comes to The Rolling Stones.
“I think it’s the hype about ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll’ that people think about the band. That’s probably the biggest misconception people have. When I talk to people and they’re, like, ‘Oh, man, you must be doing this and you must be doing that’ – it’s just wrong. Sure, everybody knows that, yes, there was a point in their lives that they may have done a lot of that – they talk about it honestly. But it’s like every other job, there were occupational hazards and sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll are occupational hazards for rock and rollers. But I have to say this. It’s all bullshit now. When I’m on stage with the Stones night after night – and I’ve been there. I’ve been there about 27 years now, and I’m here to tell you that the experience is incredible. Sometimes, I get mesmerized when I’m on stage with the Stones. I’ll be singing, and watching them do their thing. Mick, without a doubt, is the hardest working man in show business. James Brown had that title but he’s gone now so that’s Mick’s. Hands-down, Jagger has that title. I watch him – all of them – and listen to them.”
“I think the biggest misconception of them is that drugs play such a big part of who and what they are. That’s the biggest misconception. Maybe at one time in their careers it was but since I’ve been there, it’s not. We’ve had some fun times. I’ve been fortunate enough to be there and grow along with them. There are things that I did and we did when I first hooked up with them – we don’t do anymore. The one thing that has not left the band is the passion for the music. That has not left one bit. And I’m telling ya, that passion shows!
“I’m sorry to go off on this but, real quickly, through the years, I see things and hear things that people write about The Rolling Stones and I want to take a moment to agree with all the accolades that Keith and Ronnie have gotten over the years and say that, without a doubt, those accolades are well deserved. Those cats are – they are our blues men now. Muddy’s not here anymore. Howlin’ Wolf ain’t here no more. But Keith and Ronnie learned from them. We did a show, I guess it was in London and Eric Clapton was there and we were playing and Eric did his thing. He’s a beautiful player, no question about it. He did his thing and it was great. But, when Keith did his thing, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I’ve got thick hair! It was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ And Ronnie…wow. The two of them. Amazing. All that stuff they had listened to coming through, you could hear it – like a direct connection to the old blues cats. A direct connection!
“I grew up listening to that music. Going back to my folks, all those records that they (the Stones) listened to over in England were also in my house. My mom and dad listened to those records. It’s funny because, when I met the Stones, I remember spending some nights with Keith and I was listening to what he was playing and I’m like, ‘I know that song!’ And he’s kind of looking at me. One night, I’m with Keith and my mother just happened to call me. I’m talking to her and she could hear the blues in the background and she said, ‘Bernard, where are you?’ I said that I was at Keith’s and she said, ‘Is that him playing that music?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Mom’ and she said, ‘Let me talk to him!’ So, there you go.”
Much later in our conversation, I found myself gushing over the lovely and ever so talented singing mate of Bernard’s, Lisa Fischer. He jumped right on my comment.
“That’s my baby! I can’t imagine doing The Rolling Stones without her.” When I commented about her always stunning performances on the solo on Gimme Shelter, Fowler gave me some of his thoughts on that, too. “Randy, I’m with you, man, I’m with you. Mick knows I am such a fan of what Lisa does with that song that anytime they have any guest artist sing the song, I’m always walking around with a frown” he said with a laugh and then added, “I try in my way to talk him out of it because I’m just a fan of what she does with that song. It’s either Lisa Fischer or Mary Clayton, who sang the original and who nailed that tune. I’ve not heard anybody else – anybody else sing it like that.”
When asked what have been the biggest challenges to his career, Bernard said, “The biggest challenge has been building my career. That’s been the biggest challenge because I’m a soul singer from birth. It’s in me. I am that. Growing up I listened to everything – everything. I listened to everything my mom and dad had at home like Muddy Waters and Little Richard and all of that. Mom would put me down for a nap and that music was playing. That is definitely part of me – and Motown and Atlantic and Stax – that’s all a part of me. I always had this thing for rock and roll. I remember when I was in junior high school and we would play hooky. I had a friend that had kind of the same musical tastes as I did – which were a bit off. I grew up in Queensbridge. If you’re familiar with the rapper, Nas, he’s from Queensbridge. We grew up in the same area. We grew up in the same projects. My musical tastes were a lot wider than the people that I was growing up with. Carole King, Three Dog Night, Santana, Buddy Miles, Hendrix. Some people in the hood might have listened to some of it but not like I did. I always thought that I was born a little late because I was supposed to be at Woodstock. I was born but I was too young to go. Something about seeing that film is like, ‘I was supposed to be there!’
“I was a different cat when I was growing up. You know, the hood has its style of dress. I could’ve gone with the crowd and dressed like that but I had my own thing. I wore bell bottoms and a dashiki or a shirt that I had made or a hat that I had made. I walked around with a question mark on the back of my head. My head was bald except for the question mark. I was a different kid. A lot of kids in the hood said, ‘Damn! Bernard’s kinda strange!’ And I was super athletic as a young kid. People couldn’t quite figure out me. And neither could I. I just knew that I was different. I felt different.”
Fowler concludes the thought with story filled with irony.
Bernard Fowler has been referred to in other interviews as a sort of Renaissance man, musically speaking – very diverse in his musical talents. I asked him what he attributes that to.
“It’s a compliment to hear somebody describe me as such. I really appreciate that because I always try to go out of the box – out of my comfort zone. Some people will like something but they won’t go for it. They will listen to this thing they like from afar but are afraid of being ridiculed. I was never afraid of anybody talking about me – even when I went to school with Beatle boots on. I didn’t care. To me, it was the sharpest thing in the world and I begged my mother for those Beatle boots and I still wear that type of shoe to this day!
With over thirty years in the music business, Fowler has witnessed a lot of changes. I asked him what, from his perspective, have been the biggest changes in the music business – both positive and negative.
Still chatting along that same vein, I asked Fowler to imagine President Obama calling him up and offering him a new cabinet position, Music Czar and that he’s been tasked with fixing the music business. What would he do?
“The second thing is: kill auto-tune. Kill it right now! Kill it dead! Kill that damn auto-tune! I don’t mind someone in the studio working – singing over and over until you get it right. That’s what a studio is for. I’m going to say it but I don’t really mean this: Auto-tune has made great singers out of non-singers. You know what I’m sayin’. Let’s kill that auto-tune dead! I’m from the school, hey! You know what? You go into the studio and you’re going to record a song, sing the song from the top to the bottom. Before you start overdubbing, sing it from top to bottom. That’s when you know you know your craft! You know your craft! There’s such a thing as one take. It’s a magical thing when that kind of thing happens. Auto-tune is probably the worst thing that could have ever happened. I wasn’t a fan of home studios but, you know, not everybody can afford to go to a recording studio. But, recording studios are there for a reason, people! They’re there for a reason! All of my favorite stuff was recorded where? In a recording studio. I’m just sayin’. I may be a bit of a snob and someone younger than us will say, ‘He’s old!’ but I tell you what, I’ll take that old quality any day! Any day!”
“I was talking with someone yesterday - I don’t know if you know but I did a tour with Joe Walsh. I sang for Joe Walsh. The DeLeo brothers (founding members of the Stone Temple Pilots) were the rhythm section. Anyway, someone yesterday was telling me something about Joe Walsh. I guess he was talking along the same lines as I have been. Good for him. Good for him! Yeah, Joe!”
“That’s kind of a difficult question because there’s my heroes that I grew up with and then there’s some of the young cats that are doing stuff now. Marvin (Gaye) is no longer here. I’d have loved to sit and sing with him. That’s a hard question because, I’m not a big fan of what they call R&B these days. I’m not a big fan of that. I’d rather listen to the other stuff. I’d rather listen to Marvin and Jimmy Castor; some old George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. I’d rather listen to that stuff than to listen to a lot of (the new) R&B. I tell you what: I’d love to work with Bill Laswell again! It has been years since we’ve worked together so I’d like to do that again. Wow! That’s a real heavy question! I’d like to do Herbie (Hancock) again. I’d like to do Dave Grohl. I’m definitely a fan! I like his energy. Oh! I’ve got one for you! David Bowie! A couple of others that would be on my bucket list are Ryuichi Sakamoto and Philip Glass. I’ve worked with them both before but I would love it if I could work with them again. They would definitely be on my bucket list.”
As for up-and-coming talent is on his radar, Fowler said, “I love – what’s that cat’s name? Gary Clark, Jr.! He’s on my radar!” Then, when Joe Bonamassa’s name was brought up, Bernard shared a great story.
“When I met Jagger, I did his first solo record. I didn’t just go and sing, I did the vocal arrangements for his first solo record. It doesn’t say it on the record but that was all mine. I had a Fostex four track machine. When I met him, we sat on the floor, sang a bit and he gave me a cassette. I went back to the hotel, put it in my four track recorder and did all my background stuff. The next day, when I went to the studio, that’s what we did.
“I was insulted. ‘He would like to know if you would like to audition.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. I did his solo record. Audition?’ She left the room and, when she left the room I said, ‘I’m not going to audition. I did his first solo record and now he wants me to audition?’
“Carmine’s a lot older than I am. He’s like my big brother so he gave me a good talkin’ to. So, I took the tape that the girl left – a tape of four Rolling Stones songs that I had to sing. The band that he had was red hot. Simon Phillips on drums, Doug Wimbish on bass, Jimmy Rip on guitar, Joe Satriani on guitar. So I walk into this room and all these cats are lookin’ at me and one of them looks at me with his arms folded like, ‘Here we go again. We got another guy.’ Made me feel like a chump and I didn’t like feelin’ that way. I remember saying in my head, ‘You know what? I’m gonna give them a dose!’ I remember there were all these chairs lined up with all these people and I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna give ‘em a dose and I’m gonna show my ass!’
With our scheduled 30-minute chat running thirty minutes over time, I asked Bernard what was on his career radar for the next year, five years and the rest of your life.
My final question to Mr. Fowler before we both had to get on with our day was: When your life is over, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?
And, man, can that cat sing.