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Interview: John Cameron


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If the name John Cameron doesn't ring a bell, you haven't been looking hard enough at the credits of films and TV shows and movies; musicals such as Les Misérables, which he orchestrated; and even 1960s pop and jazz and 1970s dance music. There's even a Seinfeld episode. John is one of Britain's most prolific composers, arrangers, conductors and musicians who always seemed to have been at the right place at the right time during his career, which began in the 1960s.

I first met John back in 2017, when I interviewed him for my WSJ “Anatomy of a Song" column on Donovan's Sunshine Superman (1966). John co-arranged the track and many of Donovan's recordings moving forward in the 1960s. Since then, we've remained email pals, and John has long been a JazzWax fan. And I'm a huge John Cameron fan.

Recently, Ace Records in the U.K. released Folk, Funk & Beyond: The Arrangements of John Cameron, a compilation of his 1960s and early '70s pop work (go here or here). I hope one day soon a label releases his many soundtrack albums for British and American films. When the Ace release crossed my desk, it was time to interview John for JazzWax:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up, and what did your parents do for a living?

John Cameron: I was born in the Woodford section of East London in March 1944, during an air raid by German bombers. We evacuated our home and later moved all over East Anglia and London, finally settling in Maida Vale, a residential district in Paddington in West London. My mom, Doris, and my dad, Norm, were pretty involved in the local music scene, especially at Portchester Hall event spaces in Paddington. Mom had played piano in the Canadian Club of London during the war. Dad was a semi-pro musician before the war and spent most of those years organizing concerts and creating morale posters. He was an advertising executive by day.

JW: So music was all around you as a kid?

JC: It was. Every time we had a party, Dad would get on the fiddle and Mom would play piano. He played everything from Mozart to Joe Venuti-style jazz, with the odd tango thrown in. Mom was a Fats Waller fan and played a mean stride piano. She knew all his songs. My father had bought a Knight upright just before World War II, in early 1939. That piano remained with us ever since. Now my sister-in-law has it in her house.

JW: When did you start on the piano?

JC: At age 6. I also sang in St. Saviours Church choir, mustering a solo on Good King Wenceslas. But for the first few years, my focus was mostly on Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and cricket. I passed the iconic Lord’s Cricket Ground every day on my way to school. Then in 1953, we moved out to Wallington in Surrey opposite a park, which was heaven. As soon as we moved in, my younger brother, Peter, and I left our parents to unpack and shot over to the park with our cricket bat in hand. Within 10 minutes we had a full-blown game going with local kids. Our house was a 1930s semi-detached with mock-Tudor bits on the front.

JW: What was the big turning point for you in music as a kid?

JC: At age 11, I was in a music store with my mum when I asked for the sheet music for Beethoven’s Pathetique Opus 13 in C minor. My mum chimed in, “Oh, and do you have the music for I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus? I shot her a dirty look, but when I got home I started thinking about their parties and how everyone enjoyed their playing. I thought “I’m missing out here." At the time, Tommy Steele and Guy Mitchell had a hit with Singing the Blues, which my family had on a 78 record. I listened to it and realized I could pick out the chords and melody. Quite soon after,  I had a repertoire of rock ’n’ roll tunes I had picked out off of recordings, including Great Balls of Fire, Bebopalula, and Neil Sedaka’s I Go Ape, which I would perform at talent shows with great success. Quite a leap to go from Beethoven to Blue Suede Shoes.

JW: Were you exposed to pop standards?

JC: My dad was a good fiddle player, but he also played the piano. He wasn’t the finest player in the world but he knew a huge repertoire of tunes from the 1920s, '30s and '40s. I learned them all, but often in the wrong key. For example, it wasn’t until several years later that I discovered that Body and Soul was in D-flat, which made perfect sense given the harmonic progression in the middle eight measures.

JW: When are you exposed to jazz?

JC: Around this time, when my mum was listening to Errol Garner, I began to realize I could improvise in a freer, more jazzy way. At that time, at age 14, I began a weekly weekend residency at the Duke’s Head Croydon where, with a drummer and a guitarist, I played everything from tunes by the Shadows and other rock ‘n’ roll hits to the odd show tune and a bit of jazz and blues. But I never stopped playing classical music, largely because of my wonderful teacher, Frances Knowles.

JW: Did you enjoy school growing up?

JC: I enjoyed school so much that I received a scholarship to Corpus Christi College at the University of Cambridge. But there was little there, musically, for me. In fact, to gain the scholarship, I had to major in history. At college, I played a lot of rugby and cricket, I ran the 400-meter in track but no music. At Cambridge, I studied history for two years before being allowed to switch to music. It was heaven—a year of studying composing. My non-academic time was split between writing songs and playing jazz.

JW: Who did you composer with?

JC: I often wrote with Eric Idle, for cabarets and revues. Eric, of course, would go on to become a comedian in the Monty Python troup. At one point, we merged Handel's Hallelujah Chorus with the Beatles and came up with I Wanna Hold Your Handel. It was performed on Broadway in the show Cambridge Circus in 1964 —our first taste of royalties.

JW: Were you playing jazz locally

JC: Yes. I played jazz gigs at the Red Lion in Cambridge. I used a local rhythm section of Colin Edwards, an electrician with the gas board, and Mike Payne, a photographer with Fisons. The official Cambridge jazz club was a bit of a closed shop with Lionel Grigson on piano, John Hart on bass and Johnny Lynn on drums as the house band. Excellent musicians, but a bit too cerebral for me. By then, I was listening to Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Art Blakey. We had artists such as Ronnie Ross, Art Theman, Danny Moss, Kathy Stobart, Dick Heckstall-Smith and Don Weller. I sometimes think that playing with them was my real education. I also think that the main thing I got from the Cambridge Footlights, a student sketch comedy troupe with people like Germaine Greer and Clive James in the room watching, was the chutzpah to go out into the world and say “I’m a composer, arranger and music director."

JW: How did you learn to arrange?

JC: Before going up to Cambridge, I already worked as a professional musician—first with the Don Darby Band on U.S. military bases in Verdun, France. I still recall an overnight dash by the three of us to Paris, some four hours each way. We went down on Saturday and on Sunday night, we sat in at Les Pinguins bar and then went to see Kenny Clarke, Lou Bennett and Jimmy Gourley perform at the Blue Note. Afterward, we got in the car and drove back in time for the gig Monday night. I also played two seasons with Ronnie Rand’s Blue Rockets in Jersey and and Colin Hulme’s Orchestra in Birmingham. There is where I started to arrange—mainly current pop tunes—by figuring out what worked and what didn’t.

Here's Kenny Clarke, Lou Bennett and Jimmy Gourley in Paris in 1962...

JW: How did you do in Cambridge's music program?

JC: I had an excellent music supervisor, Peter Tranchell, who would look at a piece of chamber music I’d written—which sounded somewhere between Hindemith and Mingus—and say, “If you took that middle voicing there and made it the bass line, wouldn’t it be more interesting?" That’s where I learned to deconstruct and reconstruct. And probably a reason that I used more linear contrapuntal textures as an adult than block chording in my scoring, whether it be jazz writing for the Collective Consciousness Society or orchestrating Les Misérables.

JW: What did you do after graduating from Cambridge?

JC: I landed a gig doing solo cabaret, singing fond satires on jazz classics, songs from Frank Sinatra albums and so on at a club called the Take One in London. The house band there was Ronnie Ross on alto and baritone saxophones, Art Eleffson on tenor saxophone, Bill Le Sage on piano and vibes, Spike Heatley on bass and Tony Carr on drums. With them, I made my Cover Lover album in 1966. Then one night, Spike came in and said “I just heard that Donovan split with his old management team and is looking for a new arranger. Do you fancy having a crack?"

JW: What did you say?

JC: I thought for a moment. It wasn’t really my type of music, but I said “Why not?" And I’m so glad I did. Spike and I wrote the arrangement for his Sunshine Superman album together. The single became a huge hit in the U.S., but couldn’t come out in the U.K. immediately due to a contractual dispute. So I got zero kudos for it here and I had to go and arrange and conduct pantomimes at the Watford Palace Theatre in Hertfordshire. Then the dispute was resolved, and the record was a smash hit here, too. I went on to write a whole load more for Don. The great thing is he was always open to ideas—a string quartet, a woodwind trio, a harpsichord or a jazz solo The line-up on his song Jennifer Juniper, on his The Hurdy Gurdy Man album in 1968, was Donovan on guitar backed by bass, harp, oboe, bassoon and shaker.

Here's John's arrangement of Donovan's Sunshine Superman, with a guitar solo by Jimmy Page, who was a studio musician then...

JW: Sounds like you were catapulted into Swinging London.

JC: Yes, the 1960s in London was a blast. Wall-to-wall studio sessions, gigs at the BBC, all kinds of music that was cross-fertilizing. Later in the decade, when I was arranging for shows hosted by Julie Felix and Bobbie Gentry as well as Stanley Dorfmann’s In Concert series, I would up arranging for guests such as Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, the Hollies, Fleetwood Mac, Joe South and the Four Tops. It definitely was pretty cool!

JW: What was Bobbie Gentry like? She hasn’t given a media interview since the early ‘70s.

JC: She was musically talented, business-wise and absolutely sure of herself. A nifty guitarist on that little three-quarter Martin she played and great to work with. I learned a lot from the Jimmie Haskell charts she brought over from the States, and also made a lifelong friend of Perry Botkin, who came over with her to work on a studio album while we recorded Series 2 at the BBC. It was Perry who, at the Sunset Tower in Los Angeles, gave me the musicians I used on my score for the film “I Will, I Will…For Now” (1976).

Here's the U.K.'s Bobbie Gentry Show in 1968, with John's musical direction and arranging...

JW: Why did you need musicians?

JC: I’d not been overly impressed by a line-up I’d used on an earlier project. Perry suggested a few names. When I got to the studio to record, there was Lee Ritenour, Reinie Press, Clare Fischer, Harvey Mason, Tommy Tedesco, Victor Feldman and Bud Shank, among others. I thought I’d kicked and gone to heaven.

JW: Tell me about flutist Harold McNair.

JC: I met Harold through Stanley Myers, the prolific film composer in the 1960s. Harold shared an apartment with bassist Freddie Logan in Maida Vale, just around the corner from where I’d once lived. Harold quickly became a fixture on all my recordings. I generally used British jazz musicians on recordings because they were more flexible than regular session players and could often give me an unusual take on things. So Harold, with his muscular, funky flute was ideal. I remember hearing him play at the Bull’s Head in Barnes, where he took several solo choruses alone on flute that were as driving and powerful as any rhythm section could have been.

Here's Troublemaker by the John Cameron Quartet in 1969...

JW: And with Donovan?

JC: He was a fixture with us on Donovan’s tours playing flute and sax, and wrote the arrangement for Once There Was A Mountain for Donovan in the U.S. By then, I was back home looking after Julie Felix at the BBC. He also played the growling flute lead on the Collective Consciousness Society’s Whole Lotta Love cover and, most memorably, he played beautiful alto flute on my score for the film Kes (1969), not to mention his great tenor sax and flute playing on our Off Centre (1969) album—the only time I got to record a jazz album as a leader.

Here's flutist Harold McNair playing his composition The Hipster...

JW: Did you tour together?

JC: We did. I have an incredible memory of Harold while we were on tour, flying from Stockholm, Sweden, to Copenhagen, Denmark. Nobody had had much sleep and we’d been bumped up to first class with Donovan and his manager. The champagne flowed, and Harold took out his alto flute and started playing the most heavenly solo licks at 10,000 feet. Not long before he died in 1971, we played a memorable benefit for him at Ronnie Scott’s in London, where the double rhythm section, brass and electronics of the Collective Consciousness Society blew the fuses. He had so much more to offer. Without a doubt, my favorite jazz flutist ever.

JW: You wrote the hit song If I Thought You’d Ever Change Your Mind. How did that come about?

JC: I was about 22. I was in love but didn't have a chance with the woman. Around that time, I signed as a songwriter with Jimmy Phillips at KPM Music. I was fresh out of Cambridge. So I wrote a song—words and music—about the lady in question, who is still a good friend. I’d been producing the group Piccadilly Line that morphed into Edwards Hand. They signed with George Martin and recorded the song. Then George thought the song would suit Cilla Black. He got Mike Vickers to arrange it. Vickers was an excellent arranger who had worked with Manfred Mann. My favorite version of the song is by Agnetha Faltskog’s. My favorite version of Sweet Inspiration, a Northern Soul hit I had with Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon, was by Dusty Springfield.

Here's Cilla Black singing John's beautiful If I Thought You'd Ever Change Your Mind in 1969...

JW: What’s your favorite movie or TV score?

JC: I love the scary vibe we created on Jack the Ripper (1988), the TV miniseries. And I have a fondness for the American made-for-TV Witness for the Prosecution (1982). I also was really happy with To End All Wars (2001), where I conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. Mind you, my score for A Touch of Class (1973) had resulted in an Oscar nomination, and my score for The Path to 9/11, an 2006 American miniseries, landed me an Emmy nomination. Philip Marlowe: Private Eye (1983) for HBO was among the most fun, since all the players were jazz musicians and we tried to record every cue on the first take, as if in a 1940s jazz club. But overall, I think Kes is my favorite. There was something so simple and real about it.

Here's John's theme for the film Kes...

JW: How did you get started in film scoring?

JC: I always wanted to score for the movies. I loved Quincy Jones’ score for In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Charles Mingus’s score for John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959). While I was working with Donovan, he was booked to write songs for the movie drama Poor Cow (1968), directed by Ken Loach. As we recorded a song he wrote set to Christopher Logue’s poem Be Not Too Hard, the executive producer Teddy Joseph asked Don who was going to write the actual film score. Don pointed to me and said, “He is.” Teddy turned to me and said, “Can you get it recorded by a week from tomorrow, when we dub?” I said, “Yes.”

JW: What did you do?

JC: I rushed home and called the doyenne of the Hammer House of Horror Films, Elisabeth Lutyens. She had paid her bills by composing film scores for Hammer Film Productions’ horror movies. I’d met her once, since her aunt, Beatrice, had taught my dad violin. I got her on the phone and said, “Elisabeth, how do you write a film score?” Absolutely cheeky, but 10 minutes of invaluable advice later, I was ready. We spotted the film Thursday and Don played me the tunes he’d prepared and got timings on Friday. I played rugby on Saturday, so I wrote the whole score on Sunday and Monday, and the parts were copied, recorded straight to mono on Tuesday, delivered to the dub on Wednesday. Phew! Then Ken Loach asked me to score Kes. I did a small project with him after that for the BBC but was whisked off to the U.S. soon after for film scoring. Ken assumed I’d be gone forever and brought in George Fenton. But at least I did Kes.

Here's the opening credits to Poor Cow, with Donovan's music and John's score...

JW: How did the Collective Consciousness Society come about in 1970?

JC: I read quite a lot of Jung up at Cambridge and loved the idea that all musicians collected this huge universal pool of knowledge The inspiration for the band was seeing the Don Ellis Band at Ronnie Scott’s, with a double rhythm section, huge brass and saxophones, wild time signatures and all kinds of influences. I thought, “Why not add funk-rock- crossover to the mix?" So we took on Whole Lotta Love. I don’t know what Jimmy Page thought of it, but I’m sure he was happy for the royalty payments. I made a comment to him about it after we did the Donovan Live at Royal Albert Hall Concert in 2011. Jimmy guested on Sunshine Superman, as he had on the original recording. He threw me a bit of a dirty look. A couple of years back, I played alongside Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who was on mandolin at Julie Felix’s 80th Birthday concert. Really nice guy.

Here's John's arrangement for CCS's jazz-rock cover of Whole Lotta Love...

JW: How did Hot Chocolate come about?

JC: Hot Chocolate had a few hits, but after CCS had run its course in 1973, I was well into my movie career. I’d composed the music for the movie Scalawag (1971), directed by Kirk Douglas. On that project, I met another lifelong friend, music editor Ken Johnson, an absolute genius. He became my music editor on everything I did in the U.S. and quite a few here in the U.K. Of course, by 1973, I’d scored A Touch of Class. But I had also signed a song-writing deal with RAK, Mickie Most’s company. Mickie decided to bring me in to write a string chart for the Hot Chocolate song, Emma. That was the start of a slew of hits, from Emma to Mindless Boogie, including You Sexy Thing, Everyone’s a Winner, Disco Queen, So You Win Again, Put You Together Again and a load of album tracks including Cicero Park. Errol was a lovely guy to work with.

Here's John's arrangement for Hot Chocolate's You Sexy Thing...

JW: What was the appeal of Hot Chocolate?

JC: I got to write what I felt, and Mickie would be the editor. He’d often want to take something I’d written for an early chorus and use it somewhere else in the song, prompting a cry from the string players. During the recording of You Sexy Thing, he asked the strings to play with a smile on their faces. Astonished looks—string players smile? But they did, and It worked. Mind you, we had a great string crew. The leader was always Pat Halling, who had been on the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love New Year’s Eve TV show, recorded in June 1967. Also there were several of Bill Le Sage’s favorite cellists. Pat’s violin section solved the problem of London traffic by riding motorbikes.

JW: You arranged Heatwave’s hits? Groove Line is so you.

JC: That was totally different. Rod Temperton not only wrote most of the songs but he also knew exactly what he wanted in the strings and brass. So for me, it was much more a question of interpretation, how do I achieve what Rod wants? No wonder Quincy Jones poached him for Thriller. But it was very exciting working with him and producer Barry Blue. I wrote scores for Heatwave’s first two albums—Too Hot to Handle (1976) and Central Heating (1977)—as well as their hits Boogie Nights, Always and Forever, Star of the Story, Mind Blowin’ Decisions and, of course, Groove Line. Yes, that is me on the piano solo halfway in. Then I shared Candles (1980), their fourth album with Jerry Hey and his amazing Seawind Brass section out in Los Angeles. Included was my chart of Gangsters of the Groove.

Here's John's arrangement for Heatwave's Groove Line...

JW: What was Liquid Sunshine?

JC: That was a KPM library-music track recorded in 1973. I had avoided arranging and recording library music while I was signed to KPM Music as a songwriter. Library music is a repository of songs leased by film projects for incidental music. But when I left to sign with RAK, Jimmy Phillips persuaded me to go and talk to his son, Robin, who ran the KPM library operation. At about that time, CCS was riding high and it occurred to me that instead of someone else copying our sound, we should do it ourselves. Hence KPM’s Jazzrock album in 1972. Subsequent KPM library albums included Liquid Sunshine and Half-Forgotten Day-Dreams, both of which have been extensively sampled. It’s quite a handy extra royalty stream. Hip-hop artists seem to like anonymous library music to carve loops and hooks out of. A track of ours is now being used by Busta Rhymes and Kendrick Lamar. After a burst of Michael Jackson, they use a track of mine called Sympathy for most of the rest of the song.

Here's John's Liquid Sunshine...

JW: Where do you live today and what are you working on?

JC: We’ve got kids and grandchildren all over the world, so we’ve got a neat lock-up-and-go townhouse in Hertfordshire. As for projects, I recently delivered a 25- minute orchestral piece to a leading artist in China for him to play during global exhibitions of his paintings. We also have a couple of movie projects, one a noir musical set in London in the 1950s and the other based on the story Victor Hugo wrote after Les Misérables. I’m also writing music for U.N. Peace Day on Sep 21 in CapeTown, South Africa, and Ark 2030, a virtual climate change and crisis conference in November.

JW: Tell me about the new release from the U.K.'s Ace Records—John Cameron: Folk, Funk & Beyond.

JC: It’s a wonderfully random erratic canter through a very exciting period in my personal development. It's a bizarre collection of musical bric-a-brac recorded along the way. Curated by Bob Stanley, a DJ, musician and archivist, there are parts of the compilation that I remember vividly while other I had forgotten about but was delighted to revisit. The tracks are mainly from projects where I arranged, although there are a couple of my own songs on there as well as the opening theme to Kes, which I composed. This was a period of youth, experimentation and the heady days of the 1960s & ‘70s. It's a cross-section of the music scene that was London back then.

Here's John's West Side Blues used in The Switch episode of Seinfeld...

Here's the scene...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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