I wrote a letter after recruiting Eric Clapton – we didn’t have a phone

The Manfreds
The Manfreds
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As The Manfreds’ UK tour reaches Lancashire, MALCOLM WYATT speaks to guitarist Tom McGuinness about Manfred Mann, The Blues Band, being beaten to number one by Ken Dodd and time’s winged chariot

If there was a family tree illustrating a who’s who of British R’n’B, The Manfreds would be at the heart of it all.

Between Tom McGuinness, Paul Jones, Mike Hugg and Rob Townsend – these days accompanied by Marcus Cliffe and Simon Currie – there’s so much history.

They were at the centre of a movement that broke in the UK more than 50 years ago, one that remains strongly influential today.

The Manfreds are set to dock at Morecambe Platform tomorrow (March 21) and Fleetwood Marine Hall on Saturday (March 22). And Tom, now 72, promises a wealth of great hits.

The Manfreds are the most recent line-up of a band that had 13 top 10 hits and three number ones in the 1960s, revolving around their eponymous South 
African keyboard player, and fronted by vocalist/harmonica player Paul Jones.

Paul, also an accomplished actor, is best known these days for his blues show on Radio 2, but he’s also lauded for his work with Manfred Mann and The Blues Band.

Tom also featured in those bands and early ’70s hit-makers McGuinness Flint. So how did Paul and him survive those heady days and keep their friendship intact?

“We’ve never really not been mates. I first met Paul in 1962 through an advert in the Melody Maker from a piano player looking to join an R’n’B band.

“You could count the amount of musicians in the UK playing R’n’B on two hands then, so I wrote back and said I’d like to be in that band if he found it!

“That was Ben Palmer, a wonderful piano player, and he invited me over to Oxford to meet him.

“Later he featured in Eric Clapton’s Powerhouse (also including Paul Jones, Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood), immediately before Cream, and was Cream’s roadie throughout, looking after the band – not an easy task, keeping those three on a safe and steady road!”

Ben introduced Tom and Paul, and when Paul joined Manfred Mann, Tom joined Eric in The Roosters, who opened a couple of times for Manfred Mann.

“There was always this interplay. Then Eric joined The Yardbirds, and I joined Manfred Mann. In time, Paul left, but we stayed in touch, and would get together occasionally to do benefits, while I produced a few of his solo tracks.”

How did The Roosters project with Eric Clapton (then aged 18) come about?

“I went to an audition with my girlfriend, Jennifer, later my wife. I knew after one number The Dave Hunt R’n’B Band wasn’t for me. Funnily enough, Ray Davies took the job, staying a short while before The Kinks.

“But I came off stage from this audition, and Jennifer asked how it went. I said ‘terrible’ and she said, ‘never mind, this is Eric – he likes the blues’.

“We got chatting, him saying ‘Elmore James’, me saying ‘Howling Wolf’, him saying ‘Muddy Waters’, me saying ‘Sonny Boy Williamson’. That kind of conversation!

“We decided we’d get a band together. I wrote Ben Palmer a letter, as none of us had a phone, saying I’ve found this other guitarist, and we got The Roosters 

Tom joined Manfred Mann in 1964, just as 5-4-3-2-1 hit the charts, replacing Dave Richmond on bass.

“The first time I walked on stage with Manfred Mann was the first time I picked up a bass. Ah, the confidence of youth!

“I was just desperate to get out there and play.

“My audition consisted of being asked if I’d play ‘simply’. I could hand on heart say ‘definitely!’ I just thought it was two strings less – what could be hard about it?

“When I listen to our records now I’m quite pleased with my playing. But at the time I thought I was just faking it.

“When the opportunity came after about a year and a half, I switched back to guitar.”

Jack Bruce took his place, one of many big names he played alongside, including those in the present Manfreds line-up.

“I’ve been very fortunate, among such consummate musicians. I felt slightly out of my depth. But it worked out!”

Looking back, it was such a great time to be in music.

“There were other factors too. If you wanted to try something, you could.

“If it didn’t work out you could get a job for a few months, save a little money and try again.

“I had a job with Norwich Union before The Roosters, then before the Manfred Mann job I had about two months working in a department store in Kingston.

“Everyone I was working with was trying to make it – as an artist, actor or in music.

“It was a great period for experimenting, and there was something in the air.

“It was happening with film, drama, novels, and music.

“It was the first generation after the austerity of the post-war period.

“There was still rationing in the ‘50s, no American instruments being imported, customs restrictions over guitars.

“But in the ‘60s people had money in their pockets.

“Harold McMillan said you’ve never had it so good, and it’s true. My parents grew up in what we think of as dire poverty, but by the late ‘50s we had a reasonable standard of living.”

Manfred Mann had such a great canon of work too, not least songs like Pretty Flamingo and The Mighty Quinn.

“We didn’t write most of our material, but having had a hit with those songs you’re identified with them.

“One of my granddaughters said her friends now realise I’ve had hit records and I’m on YouTube! All these 16-year-olds thought I was in a tribute band, doing weddings and that.

“We went to Japan a year or so ago and played a few gigs in Tokyo, and the audience were predominantly 20 and 30 year olds but totally into the ‘60s thing.

“The girls screamed, and we played Pretty Flamingo and they’d be crying. It was such an emotional thing for them …and for us!”

Does it make him feel old, knowing those first hits were half a century ago?

“I hear U2 referred to as veteran rockers, I still think of them as the new boys!”

Is there any song you’re particularly proud of after all these years?

“My all-time favourite Manfred Mann song is If You’ve Gotta Go, Go Now. I love the lyric and the story it brings back to me.

“Manfred and I were watching Bob Dylan on TV, just him and his acoustic guitar, for the BBC.

“He sang that and it wasn’t on any album.

“Manfred and I looked at each other and thought this was something we could do.

“Our manager was Dylan’s publicist, so within a few days we had this acetate of him singing it.

“A week or two later we recorded it.

“And, if it wasn’t for Tears by Ken Dodd, it would have been number one!

“I don’t play the old records, but still hear them on the radio. I still love When I’m Dead and Gone from the McGuinness Flint days too.”

Tom formed that band with Hughie Flint, Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle in 1970, shortly after leaving Manfred Mann. Was that him finally asserting yourself?

“We were only called McGuinness Flint because we had a recording contract to sign and had spent weeks sitting around rehearsal studios yet couldn’t think of a name.

“Benny and Graham suggested it. We hated it! The Manfred Mann thing caused a lot of confusion – people coming up to Paul, saying ‘hello Manfred!’ It drove him mad.

“It was lovely that When I’m Dead and Gone was such a hit, and we got great reviews for our first album.

“We rehearsed in my attic, then went downstairs for lunch, with a bottle of wine on the table, listening to the first Robert Johnson album.

“I had a mandolin, more of a decorative feature, hanging on my wall. Graham asked if he could borrow it. Him and Ben came back the next day and said they’d written this song, inspired by us talking about Robert Johnson.

“They just sat and sang it. Honestly, I’m feeling the chills moving up my spine now. It was one of those moments. I said ‘that sounds like a hit’. And it was.”

The Manfreds reformed for Tom’s 50th birthday at London’s Town and Country Club in 1991, and are still going strong, with no plans to retire yet.

“I imagine the only thing that’s going to stop me is health. It’s a sad time in some ways. I’ve had three good friends die in the last six months.

“I also have three good friends battling prostate cancer. I’m very aware of time’s winged chariot. I’m very much counting my blessings.

“Somewhere around 108 would be a good time to think about putting my plectrum down. But not before.”

For tour details head to http://www.themanfreds.com/