The man who hated mornings is alert and cheerful when he answers the phone, but then it is, after all, well past 2pm.
Michael Chapman: The Things That I Used To Do
Have you looked at your baby pictures lately? Michael Chapman has been going back to his roots, and invites you to do likewise...
Cheerful, that is, so long as no one calls him a ‘folk singer’, just because his weapon of choice is an acoustic guitar. Michael Chapman is a veteran singer-songwriter raised on jazz, steeped to the back teeth in blues and probably best known to rock fans for launching the career of a young fellow stalwart of Hull’s late-60s music scene, one Mick Ronson.
What’s on his mind right now is the imminent release of an album unique even in a recording career stretching back around four and a half decades, and boasting more than a few musical landmarks. Less than a year into the former art teacher’s professional musical career, before he started writing his own songs and when he was still billed an an ‘exciting new blues artist’, he played a solo gig at a club called The Folk Cottage near Newquay in Cornwall. Unbeknown to Chapman, the show was recorded on pro-quality equipment, and what went down on Good Friday, March 24,1967, was preserved for posterity.
Entitled Live At Folk Cottage, it’s now been cleaned up, edited and prepared for release. Even though the repertoire includes a clutch of untitled instrumentals, a canter through Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be The Day and ballady versions of I Thought About You and When Did You Leave Heaven?, it’s still a full-on blues set. The likes of Baby Please Don’t Go, Parchman Farm, All Night Worker and Kansas City are delivered loud and proud, with the distinctive Chapman guitar and vocal style – to be unleashed on a waiting world a year or so later on his stunning Harvest debut album Rainmaker – already almost fully developed. In fact, it was at Folk Cottage that Chappo made the contacts that led first to a publishing deal and then a recording contract, which took him into the studio with Gus Dudgeon at the controls.
For those who discovered him with Rainmaker, like early booster John Peel, this album serves as a kind of ‘Previously... on Michael Chapman’. The first Chappo himself knew about it was when “someone sent it to the guy who looks after my website. I’ve been playing down in Cornwall since 1966 and I was amazed at how good it was. As far as I remember, there was no electricity in the place at all.
“I might’ve noticed somebody recording if they’d been sitting in the front row, but then I’ve never been good at playin’ with me eyes open, so what the hell do I know? I was gobsmacked, because I never thought there was anything recorded of me that was anywhere near worthwhile before I started writing, because I thought that was the interesting bit. That tape is just me playing anything that came into me head, basically in sheer desperation!
“I was just dredging up anything I could think of. I hadn’t a clue how to do it. It was only the summer before that I’d walked into a folk club down in Cornwall and got offered a job. All of a sudden I was a professional musician, so I would just walk on stage and play anything I could think of. I can’t even remember where I learnt half of those songs. When Did You Leave Heaven? – that might have been Jack Teagarden or someone like that.”
Like many young Brit musicians of that era, was playing the blues essential to the unlocking of your own creativity?
Exactly! And that’s a process I’m still involved with. I’d like to think that because of the sheer simplicity of the blues, there’s a trace of that music in everything I play, because I don’t like to overcomplicate things.
Some people who’ve tried to learn some of your guitar parts might disagree...
Well, we do disagree about that, because I couldn’t be bothered trying to make my life difficult. I think it’s easy, because otherwise I can’t be bothered. I’ve never wanted a difficult life. I would love to have been Kenny Burrell or Grant Green or Wes Montgomery, but I was never ever gonna get that good. So once I started playing like me, I realised that it doesn’t have to be complicated.
I had the famous Davy Graham/Alexis Korner 3/4 AD EP: anybody who possessed an acoustic guitar had that. During the last year I was teaching, there was an English blues boom, and some of my students didn’t go for the electric side – though they liked that – but preferred the acoustic side. They’d bring records into college – we had a gramophone in my department – and play me Lightnin’ Hopkins. Lightnin’ can’t sing, and neither can I! I also thought that maybe I should be like Mose Allison, with a guitar rather than a piano – there are three of his songs on that tape! I’d heard people like Mance Lipscomb and especially Snooks Eaglin. That EP where Snooks plays all acoustic on the street – I thought he was great! An 18-year-old who sounded like a 60-year-old. I thought, ‘That’s the way to go!’
Was listening to it now like looking at your baby pictures?
Baby pictures? Yeah, sure! I was straight out of the box, y’know. I was thrown in at the deep end. That first summer I only had to play half an hour a night, but every night I was trying to dredge up something else to play so I wasn’t just playing the same four songs all the time, even though I made them longer some days! I would play Jimmy Giuffre’s The Train And The River, or Thelonious Monk’s ’Round Midnight, but by the time that tape was made, I’d definitely shifted gear away from jazz because playing acoustic guitar on your own with no microphones, it just wasn’t reaching the back row. I had to project, which has never been my strong point.
Live At Folk Cottage is available now. See www.michaelchapman.co.uk for details.