In 1978, Circus magazine’s headline regarding the Rolling Stones proclaimed,” Aging Rockers … (Jagger was 35 at the time) Will This Be The Last Tour?”
When singer Bernard Fowler joined the legendary rockers in 1989, could he have possibly imagined being on tour with the band in 2015 with the original members who are all now in their 70’s?
“Yup,” insists Fowler, with a long laugh. “I mean, Mick’s not missed a step, and Charlie’s not missed a beat. So, as long as that’s still happening, they’ll still play. I think musicians stick around longer than most other people, and there’s something to be said about taking care of yourself. If Mick wasn’t doing that, I think this would have ended a long time ago.”
Besides his long tenure with “The World’s Greatest Rock and Band,” Fowler’s resume includes working with the likes of Phillip Glass, Duran Duran, Yoko Ono, Herb Alpert, and Alice Cooper.
His new album, “The Bura,” which includes six original compositions, also features guitarists Slash and Albert Lee, harpist Sugar Blue (Of Stones “Miss You” fame) and long time singing partner Lisa Fischer.
Fowler will be performing at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on August 20 and at Asbury Park, New Jersey’s McLoone’s on August 21.
Examiner: On your album, you chose to cover three very familiar songs, “The Letter,” “Helter Skelter,” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Did you feel you could better them in some way?
Fowler: No, I just picked those songs because I liked them. The way “The Letter” came about … I didn’t want to do it like the two versions that most people know; the original by the Box Tops, and (Joe Cocker’s) Mad Dogs and Englishmen. So, I thought, “Let me do it Reggae style.” The way it came out felt really good.
Examiner: I totally agree there’s no point in trying to cover a song exactly like the original. Since you brought up Joe Cocker, he really transformed the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” into a totally different song.
Fowler: Exactly. “Helter Skelter” was inspired by an article I read about (mass murderer) Charles Manson. I kind of feel l like my cover better than most of the others ones I’ve heard.
Examiner: Now regarding “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” which, of course, you’ve performed with the Stones onstage many times, did you feel intimidated doing a Stones song that you know the guys would hear and comment on?
Fowler: No. I just decided, after I finished my last solo record “Friends With Privileges,” that every time I do a new solo record, I should do a tribute to the Stones. I don’t know if my version (of “Knocking”) is actually better than theirs, but it’s definitely funkier.
Examiner: Let’s talk a little about your pre-Stones days. I understand you did a tour with Steven Seagal, who is known better for being an action star than a musician.
Fowler: It was actually just a couple of dates with I’d never do again.
Examiner: Because …
Fowler: Because he acts like he’s the world’s greatest guitar player, and he’s not.
Examiner: What was Herbie Hancock like, to work with?
Fowler: Herbie Hancock is the best keyboard player in the world.
Examiner: Was he a practicing Buddhist when you met him?
Fowler: Yes. I used to hear him chanting when I’d pass his hotel room when we were on tour. Sometimes we’d all hear him chanting all night.
Examiner: Bootsy Collins must have been an interesting character.
Fowler: Yes. Bootsy was a treat. When I worked with him, it was for the first record he had done in a while, and making it was a lot of fun. Working with Bootsy was a real honor for me. I used to tease him about his shoes, “Where the shoes at, Boot? Oh, man, come on. Not those shoes !” (Laughs.)
Examiner: … and those glasses made Elton John’s old ones look truly conservative.
Fowler: Only Bootsy can wear that kind of stuff.
Examiner….John Lydon…who you worked with on the Public Image Ltd. album.
Fowler: John Lydon is the most honest person I’ve ever met. Just brutally honest. Very sharp. Very intelligent. Either you like him or you don’t. He makes no apologies for it, and that’s what I love about John. I spent a lot of time with him while we were making the album. I was actually hired to be John’s vocal coach for the record and to do all the vocal arrangements. It’s probably one of the best projects I’ve ever had the privilege of arranging for.
Examiner: Lydon, since his early Sex Pistols days, has been known as much for his acerbic personality as for his music. Did you ever witness any incident that brought out his temper?
Fowler: Sometimes we’d be walking around Manhattan together, and someone would recognize him and come over and say something. John would say something right back. Most of the time these people would keep walking, but they’d have a sour look on their face. Like, “That could have been avoided if you’d have just left him the f…. alone.”
Examiner: Who were some of the artists who really inspired you to pursue a career as a singer?
Fowler: The Soul Clan, Sly and The Family Stone, The Rolling Stones …. The very first record I ever owned that my dad gave to me was by the Rolling Stones. Then there was Joe Tex, Eddie Chandler, J.B. Lenoir. Those were the records that my parents used to play, and my mother loved Mahalia Jackson. I was also influenced by Marvin Gaye and all those Motown records … Stax … The Bar Kays, Kool and the Gang, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, although most people didn’t realize that Teddy Pendergrass was really the group’s singer. Parliament Funkadelic was also a huge influence.
Examiner: I would imagine that Sam Cooke and David Ruffin would also be in there, as influences.
Fowler: Oh, come on … David Ruffin was the man. I wanted more than anything to be a Temptation.
Examiner: On “Love Is Strong,” which you recorded with the Stones, the background vocals are very reminiscent of the Temptations. Would you agree?
Fowler: Yes, yes, yes. I can hear that.
Examiner: I think the Temps’ sound is also really evident on “Has Anybody Seen My Baby?” The vocal harmonies are really wonderful.
Fowler: That was me and Sir Mick doing most of the background vocals.
Examiner: That album, “Bridges To Babylon,” had so many great tracks on it, like the opener, “Flip The Switch,” which is a killer.
Fowler: That is a killer, killer, track. Whenever I can add my two cents in as to what we’ll play, I’ll throw that in. “Bridges To Babylon” might be my favorite Stones album so far because I had the privilege of actually being there when they were writing songs for it. I came up with a lot of the vocal arrangements, and it was an honor to be privy to see firsthand what the Stones do in the studio. Not everyone has had that opportunity.
Examiner: How did you happen to get the call to work on Jagger’s 1984 solo album, “She’s The Boss,” which turned out to be a life-changing event?
Fowler: I was on tour with Herbie Hancock when I got a call from my friend Bill Laswell who asked me to come to London as soon as I had a break. I arrived in London, where he took me to a house, walked me into a room, and there in front of me was Mick Jagger. Bill said, “Mick, this is Bernard Fowler, the guy I’ve been telling you about.” Mick and I spent a couple of hours singing together, and the next day I joined him in the studio to start recording the album.
Examiner: When you were hired by the Stones in 1989 for their “Steel Wheels” tour, you had to be nervous on doing your first show in front of, I would imagine, some 40,000 fans in a huge stadium.
Fowler: It was a combination of both nerves and excitement. I was as excited as hell to be there, but nervous that I wouldn’t remember everything I needed to do. It was a show in Philadelphia. It was raining that day, and the power went out right in the middle of “Shattered,” so that put all of us on the same playing field. (Laughs.) I looked around, and everyone had a shocked look on their face. We never played that song again on that tour.
Examiner: Now, a few years later, Bill Wyman (Stones bassist) left the band, after 30 years. Did that affect the onstage chemistry?
Fowler: I don’t think it affected the chemistry at all. It might have affected some people in the audience who missed seeing Bill, but musically I think it all got a little better.
Examiner: You’ve been singing side by side onstage with Lisa Fischer for 26 years now. It must be hard for anyone to follow those otherworldly high notes in “Gimme Shelter.”
Fowler: Hard for who to follow?
Examiner: For everyone onstage. I’ve seen the show many times, and the audience is just awestruck.
Fowler: Oh, man, well you know she wows them every time she does that. It’s an honor and a privilege to sing with Lisa. The two of us have been there for a lot of years now, and I would never want to do the Rolling Stones gig without her. You know, when you’re working with the Stones, it’s never the same, night to night. So, when something happens out of the ordinary, we can immediately look at each other and know exactly when to come in.
Examiner: The recent “Zip Code” tour got predictably rave reviews.
Fowler: Oh, the tour was fantastic. One of the better ones as far as I’m concerned. What made it better was just seeing the guys come around full-circle. The arguments between the twins (Jagger and Keith Richards) seem to have gone away, and that always makes for a better tour when you know everybody’s in the same place.
Examiner: With all of the hard living that Keith has done over the past 40, 45 years, very few people expected him to still be still be alive at 71, but here he is doing amazing two and half hour shows with no intermission. He’ll probably outlast all of us!
Fowler. Yeah, he probably will. (Laughs.) You know, I don’t think anybody’s smart when it comes to doing drugs, but I can tell you this, Keith is probably the only person I know who knew what he was doing when he was doing it. He’s outlived a lot of other rock and rollers. Keith is no fool. He is not still here because he’s a fool. Keith knows what Keith is doing. When you’ve lived as long as Keith, you can do whatever you want to do.
Examiner: Can you give me good Keith story?
Fowler: This is typical Keith. We’d be on the road touring and would be in a place where there are some young guys who are all excited because they finally get to meet Keith. They want to hang out with him and impress him by having like four drinks and really tearing it up, because that’s what they expect Keith to do. What they don’t realize is that Keith will nurse one drink for two, three hours.. They end up getting f….d up, and then Keith will say to me, “OK. Time to go. Let’s get out of here. Amateurs.”
Examiner: Are you on Keith’s new album that comes out next month?
Fowler: Yes. When he was recording it, I happened to be in town, and I called to say hello. The next thing I knew I was summoned to the studio and Keith says, “I want you to sing on this track,” and then “I want you back the next day.” This went on for several days. It was all a bit of a whirlwind. I’ve still only heard one or two things that I did on the record.
Examiner: You’ve been with the Stones now for a very long time, and critics are always assuming, “This will be the last tour.” Can you imagine this going on for another ten years … Mick prancing around onstage at 82 years old?
Fowler: Well, Mick is still prancing around the way he did when he was 20. He’s outperforming people a third of his age. So, if that’s any indication, I can see him doing it in ten years. As long as everyone stays healthy, they’ll do it, but I’ve heard Keith say more than once to me that, for him, more than likely it’ll end onstage, and Keith’s a man of his word.