After all the comings and goings of the last few weeks, finally a moment to write properly about Bob Blakeley. Within two months of meeting him I had signed him and recorded his album Performance which is proudly released on Dramatico records on 19 May. If it's been a whirlwind for me you can imagine what it must have been for him. In fact maybe it's best that I just pre-release my sleeve notes for his album by quoting them here.
You never just "make" an album. Each time it's fun and interesting in its own way. On this occasion, having met Bob a few days after watching him outrageously bypassed in the blind auditions of The Voice TV show, and knowing he had never been in a recording studio, I hugely enjoyed watching the process through Bob's eyes. I watched his happiness at finally having some recognition for his great talent. I watched his wonder at all the incredibly hard work that goes into an album. I watched this rough diamond become more polished and professional with every day that passed. I watched him go through periods of under-confidence covered by bravado on what must have been an overpowering experience, to genuine confidence in superb performances delivered with modesty and charm. I watched him in tears after we laid down the track of Kites because he was overcome with emotion. Imagine what the effect of that must be on a producer. It drives you along and makes you realise you have a huge responsibility to deliver, and to help your artist to deliver. I always say to artists "It's your record and it's your grandchildren, not mine, who will proudly listen to it in years to come". In this case, we could have accepted "OK" as our yardstick, and churned out an album for the opportunity. In fact, these thoughts made us strive for a standard that one would not usually expect from such a quickly made album with an artist who has never recorded before.
We laid down the rhythm section tracks first, at the studio at my home in Farnham. The dream team (my very own Muscle Shoals house band) were John Parricelli and Chris Spedding on guitars, Trevor Barry on bass and Ralph Salmins on drums. I always work quickly and it makes life so much easier if you have musicians who are at the very top of the league. Grooves just drop into place, everyone is alert. Everyone stayed over for the weekend so there was a bonding, social experience happening as we worked together. It also helped that it was a beautiful spring weekend with the sun shining down on us.
The orchestra overdubs happened the following weekend, at AIR Studios in their big orchestra hall. It's a fantastic space for recording a big orchestra. In this case I had chosen to "implant" a jazz-style big band into the symphony orchestra line-up. Again, the orchestral musicians, booked by my friend, Spencer Down, (principle conductor of the Docklands Sinfonia) were friendly and cooperative, unlike, - it has to be said, the jaded and blase types you often find in some of the older, more world- weary session orchestras. In short, it was a day full of buzz, and packed with excitement and emotion. Geoff Foster engineered the sessions. Google him, and be impressed! All the orchestra tracks for the album we recorded on the one Saturday, in three sessions.
There were some challenges in choice of songs and how to arrange them. It was obvious that Bob's signature song Cry Me a River, which he had performed so brilliantly on The Voice had to be on the record, but I didn't want to copy the stunning arrangement on the Michael Buble version. That is an awesome piece of work, and to have copied it would have been artistically unthinkable. But how could I (a) match its power (b) make it original to me, so that it would be Bob's own version and (c) retain the strength of accompaniment at the same tempo and in the same key as Bob's TV performance, to recapture that magic? It took a lot of brain-searching before I could mentally dismiss the powerful, dramatic intro riff from the Buble version and replace it with what I call a James Bond intro and general approach. I wanted it to sound like a Bond soundtrack song. Coincidentally, the chords that accompany "Now you say your lonely" in the original song move almost identically to the famous James Bond chord sequence. I felt that this gave me licence to use it because it was inherent to the original song, which was written before the Bond sequence.
We had several meetings, Bob and I, before deciding on the album content. We wanted some variety and a hint of adventure. We wanted to feature songs that were well known, and try to do them in "our" way. I never call these recordings "covers". I call them "versions". Add to that a couple of my own songs. God on Drums was a song I had written for Katie Melua's fourth album. This arrangement and performance are totally different, being up-tempo. We also decided to have a go at Whatever You Believe, a song about tolerance, which is the finale song in my musical The Hunting of the Snark. We deliberately recorded only ten songs so that we wouldn't have a safety net. We wanted to concentrate our energies and resources on the quality of the tracks rather than quantity and I think the album is the better for it. No-one can say it isn't good value when you realise that there's a 70-piece band playing on it and so much creative energy is contained within it.
Bob is a fascinating guy. He's seen a lot of life. We'd be sitting round having breakfast with the rhythm section before starting work, and he'd launch into a detailed description of the play tactics of American football, which he used to play. After taxi driving for 30 years he changed a couple of years ago to working moving pallets in a refrigerated warehouse, a job that involved walking eight miles a day. It gave him a knee problem, and so taking an initial year out from his job to do this album and promote it might be the time when he can get that fixed. He's an ambitious man and is supported by the love of his wife, Carol and his big family of kids and grandchildren. I hope he makes it to where he'd like to be. He's worked hard for it. He deserves it.