Julie Tippetts: Didn't You Used To Be Julie Driscoll?

Julie Tippetts: Didn't You Used To Be Julie Driscoll?
Duncan Heining By

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The respect in which Julie Tippetts is held by her fellow musicians and fans is truly heartening—and truly deserved. Back in the late sixties, then Julie Driscoll, she gave up a very different career trajectory in music, one that had begun with Steampacket and continued with Brian Auger & The Trinity, to follow a journey characterised by experimentation and self-discovery.

Though the qualities of Tippetts' voice are often acknowledged, her unique and personal approach to song-writing is less frequently noted. This seems surprising, given the sheer quality of the writing on her first two albums, 1969 and Sunset Glow (1976). Shadow Puppeteer followed in 1999, providing further evidence of her abilities, but still this aspect of her work went largely undocumented.

However, in 2010, with Ghosts of Gold, Tippetts began a partnership with Sheffield-based multi-instrumentalist and auteur Martin Archer. Three other fine records have followed—Tales of Finin, Serpentine and Vestigium -and the duo begin work on a new album in 2017. So, it is high time that this aspect of her story was told.

Back in 1968, Julie Driscoll was riding high in the charts with Bob Dylan's song "Wheels on Fire." She was a member, never the leader, of Julie Driscoll & the Brian Auger Trinity but the media loved her and singled her out from the band. Extremely photogenic, 'Jools' was as much a sixties icon as Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy but she neither sought nor enjoyed the attention.

She had been a professional musician from her teens, singing in nightclubs with her dad's band and recording her first single, "Take Me By The Hand" (Columbia), when she was fifteen. Hearing that maker-shaker Giorgio Gomelsky was looking for a 'girl' singer to record, she approached him at his club in Richmond, The Crawdaddy. While waiting for a suitable song for her, Gomelsky and organist Brian Auger started putting together a soul revue that would be called Steampacket. Julie was the obvious choice for one of the frontline singers and in 1965, aged seventeen, she joined fellow vocalists Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart, Auger, bassist Rick Brown and drummer Mickey Waller. Julie Driscoll & the Brian Auger Trinity emerged out of Steampacket around 1966, when Baldry and Stewart left to pursue solo careers. The new group continued the revue format to considerable live success performing, in the main, cover versions of blues and soul tunes.

Managed by Giorgio Gomelsky, Driscoll and Auger recorded Open for Gomelsky's Marmalade label in 1967. Side one featured a set of instrumentals, while side two featured the Trinity with vocals by Driscoll. "Wheels on Fire" was a huge success and seemed to promise much but the follow-up, an excellent and mature version of David Ackles' "Road to Cairo" failed to chart. Nevertheless, Gomelsky's confidence in the band was undiminished and they recorded the double LP Streetnoise in 1969.

By that point, Driscoll was twenty-one and had been gigging and touring constantly in Britain, Europe and in the States, where the group had opened for Led Zeppelin in California. As she explained, "I was four years solidly on the road with Auge, from Steampacket onwards. We had one week off in all that time. It was totally living out of a suitcase. I was exhausted." She was also sick of the fact, that she couldn't leave her flat without some snapper sticking a camera in her face. "When I left," she tells me, "I was doing a lot of writing and composing but I really didn't like the thing of going out and being recognised. I hated the lack of anonymity."

The first Trinity album, Open, had been an album of cover songs along with a number of instrumentals from Brian Auger. Streetnoise, however, featured three songs by Driscoll alone—"Czechoslovakia" (a protest song about the Soviet invasion), the folky "Vauxhall to the Lambeth Bridge" and "A Word About Colour." Lyrically, "A Word About Colour" is the strongest and most interesting.

"I suppose, I had a lot to get off my chest really," Tippetts explained. "But as we were doing a lot of travelling, I would have my guitar with me. I bought myself a Martin in New York, which I still have and which I love, and I started writing a lot of material."

And she added, "I was always searching for my identity. I think it was almost inevitable that the songs I was writing—because they were based on the guitar —would take on a different life. I suppose with hindsight, I was pulling in another direction. But I have to make this clear, it was not because I didn't love the work I was doing with Brian Auger and the Trinity. I loved it and I would love it to this day. Brian had found what he wanted to do and he perfected that. Whereas, I really needed to find something else."

Still under contract to Gomelsky, that something else came first in the form of a solo LP, 1969, featuring several of the finest of the new British jazz generation—Elton Dean, Karl Jenkins, Nick Evans, Marc Charig, Stan Sulzmann and others -and a set of songs penned by Driscoll herself. Several tracks were arranged by future husband Keith Tippett and this was how the "couple in spirit" first met, as she told me.

"Giorgio played me a demo of Keith's music and it was like listening to something I'd been waiting to hear but didn't know what it was yet. Quite an odd feeling really. He said I should come and hear the group live... I think it was at the 100 Club. I was equally blown away and that's how we first met."

At Driscoll's suggestion, Gomelsky asked Tippett to work with her on 1969. The record is a very assured debut, a lost classic even, mixing jazz-rock tracks with more reflective acoustic numbers. What strikes most, however, is Driscoll's growing confidence in her song-writing and the ease with which she moves between the group setting of numbers like "A New Awakening" and gentler pieces like "Those That We Love" and "The Choice." "Walk Down" is the most interesting cut, both in terms of its structure, its lyric and in the way Driscoll uses her voice to declaim against the dense musical backcloth. There is something about the piece that reminds me of David Ackles, though if so it is entirely unconscious on the writer's part.

I asked how the record sold. "I have no idea," she says. "Absolutely no idea. We were promised the earth but it's not worth dwelling on." But Tippetts remains justly proud of her achievement with 1969. "Oh, I love it," she tells me, "I love all the things I've done. I wouldn't have put it out, if I thought it wouldn't stand the test of time. If I do something that I love and feel happy with, then I know it's not just some fashion thing. 1969 is one of my babies."

There was a seven year gap between 1969 and Tippetts' second solo album, Sunset Glow, not that the singer had been exactly idle in those seven years. She had sung on husband Keith's epic Septober Energy and written its libretto. She had also sung on Carla Bley's Tropic Appetites from 1974 and was working with the improvising quartet Ovary Lodge with Tippett, bassist Harry Miller and percussionist Frank Perry.

"I've never been one for churning records out for the sake of it," Tippetts says, "I hadn't thought about recording anything else until Sunset Glow. I guess I was probably doing a lot of soul-searching. I wasn't doing a lot of gigging and touring. There was the Spontaneous Music Ensemble that I was working with. It was quite difficult really to do that much with Ovary Lodge because of the nature of Frank's kit. It used to take him two hours to set up and the same to pack up after a gig with all these amazing instruments he had made or collected. The mind boggles about how it was carried around."

I wrote elsewhere that Sunset Glow was "both better and more consistent than its predecessor." With hindsight, my opinion of Sunset Glow remains the same but I think I was somewhat unfair to its predecessor. However, in the intervening years Tippetts had grown as a songwriter and her voice had acquired a gorgeous timbre that recalls Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention. Some have compared Sunset Glow to Robert Wyatt's work and, in particular, his album Rock Bottom. They have a similar feel and both albums explore a musical terrain between jazz, folk and rock with equal skill. Yet Tippetts' record is also a remarkable summation of her career to date, as well as a glorious synthesis of all the places that she had been musically in that time. There is the jazz-rock that she had sung with Auger and with husband Keith in "Mind of a Child" and "Oceans and Sky" complete with a horn section of Elton Dean, Nick Evans and Marc Charig, while "Sunset Glow" and the overdubbed "Lilies" echo the quiet intimacy of Ovary Lodge. The album has a strange, somnambulistic quality to it, as if one is hearing it through the drowsiness of a long, warm summer afternoon, which lingers long after it has ended. It is all over far too quickly.

The gap between Sunset Glow and Shadow Puppeteer was some thirteen years, though it had taken three to record and about as long to find a record company to release it, as Tippetts recalls, "I was searching for someone to release it but it was very difficult for people to place. It's not really categorise-able. For a while, I kept an envelope full of rejections. I could never understand it. I thought people would put it on and think, 'Oh, my goodness. That's beautiful.' I said I just wanted to make a really beautiful album and I thought it was. And I still do."

It would find a home more easily within the wider improvising community today than was perhaps the case then. At the same time, I can think of few records like it. It is very unusual but that is its strength. It draws on improvisation but even more on the desire to do something very different within a solo context, using different ways of recording and using voice and unusual approaches to the song form.

Over its nineteen tracks, Tippetts traces a strange narrative—like a dream but one where the mood shifts continually between a sense of security and one of vulnerability. I will not try and tell its story but those themes -and others of loss or fear of loss, of being held, and being in control versus being controlled -seem to me to describe an emotional journey common to us all as we pass through childhood and adolescence. More profound echoes, maybe, of "Mind of a Child" from Sunset Glow. The narrative, however, was not there at the outset, as Tippetts explains,


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