Chris Powers in conversation with Alan White
Alan: Where do you come from and where did you grow up?
Chris: It’s been 67 years, wowee, I’ve been living in the same place where I was born, just outside Rochdale but within the boundaries, and that’s where I’ve been living ever since. I’m a ‘Roots Person’ basically, I do like to get around but I always like to have a base to come back to.
Alan: Did you come from a musical family?
Chris: No, not at all. When I was about 6 years old, yeah I reckon it would be about then, I did enjoy listening to music, especially piano music but modern piano music bearing in mind that was about 1950. So I went to piano lessons for 3 years, but I didn’t have any natural talent like some people who are just gifted and don’t need to read music. So the natural aspect just wasn’t there and when it came to the lessons, the fundamental scales etc to read music, I just didn’t get it and so I closed the lid on the piano after my Mum and Dad had saved up and paid for expensive lessons. This was the early to mid 50s, it was hard and I’m not saying they thought I’d squandered this money but I just didn’t have the talent so that got put aside, but music was always with me.
Alan: Did you always want to be involved in the music business?
Chris: Yes, I suppose I did, like most lads in the mid 50s who took up a tennis bat and a cricket bat and thought they were in a skiffle group. My Dad always had Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong records, it was sort of, as some people would call it ‘cabaret’, ‘black pop’, it wasn’t true black music as we know it today but it was still black music. All I could hear was what we call swing now, so I suppose that’s what was on the record player in about 55 or something like that, and I enjoyed it, really enjoyed it. It was that style of stuff that my Dad had on his LPs and from that I suppose I had a love of rhythm music rather than individual musical instrument music. I got in that sort of a groove, I loved that stuff that had rhythm at an early age. So I enjoyed music all the time and started buying records in 1957 or 58. My first record was Reet Petite by Jackie Wilson on a 78, and I’ve still got it.
I was in a few groups when I was at school, in the late 50s. I used to shout a bit and play maracas I did a bit more of that sort of thing, and then in about ’62 or ’63 I was friendly with this lass, I suppose she was a bit more than a friend and she said, why are you listening to all this Beatles stuff. You want to get hold of some stuff by Alexis Korner and Bob Dylan. Bear in mind this is ’63, the Beatles are just breaking commercially, this lass is younger than me and she know about this in Rochdale (which is hard to believe, but she did). So I couldn’t get to grips with Dylan because there was no rhythm there and it was just talking stuff with the guitars but this Alexis Korner stuff I thought was incredible. An album, on Ace of Clubs, was the start of it for me, which I still have. It was a budget price, LPs then were 37/6d and I think this was 21shillings so I could afford that. There were all sorts of LPs on a budget label called Summitt, and I got a Memphis Slim LP on that which was basically piano stuff again and I enjoyed that and so I was sort of sucked in. But where do you go to hear it where we were in Rochdale; there was a bit going on but not too much.
So, we’re now about 1964 and I’d started really getting involved and interested in this R&B stuff, of which the Rolling Stones were the most commercial guys on that scene, covering a lot of the stuff of all the great blues and rhythm & blues artists. I got into another band and that’s the sort of stuff we were doing. And like everything these things have a shelf life and come about 1965 going into 1966 the 2-3 year R&B hard edged stuff that the likes of the Stones and Alexis Korner had introduced to us started to drift into something else and soul music came in from the States and I just couldn’t get enough of that, because it had rhythm. So, then the tours started coming. I didn’t manage to see the Stax tour in ’67 but my record collection was increasing because that’s what I used to spend most of my money on, especially 45s, occasionally LPs. Occasionally I Dee-Jay’d but I was only playing at it. I started then, about ’67 / ’68, two or three local things, nothing heavy. That carried on, just collecting records, loving the music, going to gigs through to the early ’70s. I especially went to see Booker T & the MGs in 1970 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester; still got the programme. It wasn’t the Stax tour, there were different artist on, Booker T & the MGs were there, couldn’t get enough of that! I did start Dee-Jaying actually in 1973 big style playing funk and jazz funk at clubs, bit of old soul, still stuff that had rhythm. It has to have rhythm for me, I’m a bum shaker not a head bobber. Then about ’80 or ’81 it had faded and I faded off the scene too. I got fed up with the styles of music but still enjoyed it at home.
Alan: As a DJ you are renowned for spinning purely vinyl records, why is this?
Chris: A good question. The number one reason is that having been collecting blues, black music, R&B, 45s since the early ’60s I’ve amassed a hell of a collection. So, they take a lot of lugging about but to have that piece of kit in your hands and the needle then just gets bounced down into the groove and to feel it, and watch it happening is just a buzz. The authenticity. That is how Dee-Jaying started off, the essence of Dee-Jaying is how it began and lasted for 30 years before the advent of CDs and then it went all…whatever’s happening now. Somebody from around the corner can do a wedding if they want because they can just put everything in a computer and whenever somebody asks for a tune they can press a button. That’s not Dee-Jaying. So, I prefer to just have the feel of the vinyl, banging the arm down, letting it happen is one of the reasons why, and why should I then spend a lot more money on buying CDs or other equipment when I’ve got it all and it doesn’t need to change. I’m doing all right, thank you very much!
Alan: You have been MC at the Great British Rhythm & Blues Festival, Colne for many years. How did you first get involved in being the ‘Master of Ceremonies’?
Chris: Well, here we go…. as far as the R&B and the current scene I’m on now, this all coincided with the demise of my first marriage. I split up in 1995, I was just itching to do what I wanted to do and in 1995 two things happened besides me being a free agent: The opening of Rochdale Jazz & Blues Club, and the simultaneous opening of the Blues Shack at Oldham. The Blues Shack was the sister club of the Blues Club at Glossop, and I got the job of Dee-Jaying at both of these so they were just wanting a DJ to play that sort of music and I had boxes of it. Woof – fantastic! Away I went! Then in the summer of 1996 I wanted to get involved at Colne so I got in touch with Gary Hood who obviously didn’t know me from Adam, explained what I did, which was just Dee-Jayng, and he said that he’d put on at the British Stage at the August bank holiday festival in 1996 so I’d really picked up from where I’d left off 20-odd years ago and found I was straight in at these different clubs. And then Gary said, yeah, come and DJ on the British Stage which is in-between the bands, usual thing. I wasn’t M-Ceeing. So I did that for about 3 years at Colne and then Gary asked me if I’d double up and DJ and MC at the British Stage as long as I could work out a procedure, a way of doing it. So I said, yeah, okay, let’s go for that. In the meantime in 1997 I became the Band Booker at Rochdale Jazz & Blues Club so I was then booking blues and R&B bands for that club so I was becoming more and more on the scene during that period. Then in 1998 I had done 12 to 18 months at the Blues Shack at Oldham and I was then asked to DJ at the Blues Club at Glossop which I did for 18 months but then it closed. Just a little aside, that used to be called The House of Blues when it first opened because the owner, Kevin Harty, had been over to America, this music was his love or his passion, and he’d visited the House of Blues in one or two cities and thought, “Oh, that’s what I’ll call my club”, but they found out and gave him a right seeing-to as far as a verbal threat and so it wasn’t long before he had to change it to The Blues Club. So I started Dee-Jaying there which was moving up a bit because the quality of the artists at the Glossop Club was pretty damn good. I did various things for 2 or 3 years with lots of little venues cropping up I did gigs at and in 2002 I was asked to MC at the International Stage and then in 2003 there was a real landmark aspect, only one gig, but it’s all about getting on the big stage and working in front of a big audience in a theatre rather than a small club. The intimate club is great for the informal aspect that it creates but you get on a big stage in a big theatre, wow, different! Connie Lush and Blues Shouter were doing a big tour about 10 years ago and it climaxed at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, a big venue, and they asked me to do the M-Ceeing. That really gave me, wow, this is really just that bit different, bit bigger. It’s about landmarks and that was a landmark, as was being asked to MC on the big stage at Colne. With all due respects to every other venues that I’ve worked at, the Phil and Colne were real landmarks. It’s the big leaps, the big steps that can make the difference. Whilst on about Connie Lush and Blues Shouter, they, that’s Val and Terry Harris, pushed my name strongly towards Monica Madgwick at Boogaloo (Warner’s Blues Weekends) and mainly due to their efforts I started doing the weekenders at various venues in the North – and still am. It will be 10 years of Warner’s when I do Alvaston Hall in March 2013.
It was about this time coinciding with doing the gig at the Phil and then the permanent aspect of the big stage at Colne and other ones that were coming through, I started to do a festival in Bury and I was doing Burnley, so it was pretty good as far as biggish type events. I felt that maybe I needed to do something that got me through it and was going to have just a little different edge to the usual style of MCs that are around. I’d read in some sleeve notes of a 60s live LP from some gig in Philadelphia or Detroit of Stax and Atlantic stuff and it said in the sleeve notes that the MC wore a different outfit to bring on all the different artists that you hear on his LP. That stuck with me and I thought, “That’s what I’m going to do. That’s how I’m going to be that bit different.” Like everything, nothing’s new or different, but it ended up a trademark and now it’s like a millstone around my neck!
Alan: How do you select each outfit to match the artist/band you are introducing?
Chris: This is where my soul-mate, Sarah, comes in. Because we have a lot of fun shortly before each festival and, say there’s going to be 20 bands that means 20 outfits, and I have lists of what I wore each time at each different venue so that I don’t double-up too often. Then we have this session of matching up certain outfits and which will go well with this particular artist, for example, if it’s a female artist or a crazy band that’s coming on. So, Sarah does it with me and we have a lot of fun. That’s what part of the whole exercise is, you’ve got to enjoy it. When I talk to bands before they go on stage, especially bands which are young and aren’t as seasoned, I tell them one of the tricks is that you must enjoy yourself, must be happy at what you’re doing but must also be professional. That’s what I try to tell the bands that are treading the boards in the early part of their career.
Alan: You have recently begun Dee-Jaying in Europe, how did that come about?
Chris: I suppose you can put this down to a continuation of landmark happenings during this last 17 or 18 years. It was back in 2005 when the Norwegian due, Big Moe and Jolly Jumper (Jan Erik Moe and Kjell Inge Brovoll), were on at Colne and we got on real good. So much so that Kjell had shown interest in booking me, and getting me over to Norway but things just didn’t develop. However back in 2011 they were on at Colne again and so our friendship continued. There were certainly no hard feelings when he couldn’t fix anything up, but this time he was adamant he was going to get me over there so I did a gig in 2011 with Angela Brown, Big Moe and Jolly Jumper and I was Dee-Jaying. I took a box of records over on the plane and they enjoyed it so much that I did the Blues in Hell Festival, again Dee-Jaying not M-Ceeing at this stage. I did Christmas 2012 again near Trondheim and in April 2013 I’ll be Dee-Jaying again at the Nidaros Blues Festival. At these two festivals the artists as a whole are of a standard that’s stopped happening in the UK for some reason. Things have gone a little bit lax in the UK recently but this has really done good.
Alan: Given the wide range of artists you’ve introduced, you must have some amusing moments to tell.
Chris: Yes, there are, here’s one. It’s about 6 or 7 years ago at the Burnley Blues Festival and a blind blues pianist from New Orleans called Henry Butler was appearing. He was blind as a bat and he had an assistant with him who just had to help him around everywhere. He’d been put in a dressing room quite some distance from the stage and it used to be a hell’ova rabbit warren back stage at Burnley. Even somebody with normal sight would find it a struggle, it was such a maze. So I decided I’d give him a lift and guide him to the stage. So we got out of the dressing room and he puts his right hand on my left shoulder and I start leading the way. As I’m going through I said, “Henry, there’s two steps down”, then “Take a left now” in a strong tone and loud pitched voice. “Another step down, now”. Still in a loud voice. Henry then taps me on the shoulder, and said, “Chris, I may be blind but I ain’t deaf!!”.
Alan: My initial memory of Henry Butler at that festival was when you escorted him going onto the stage he walked up to the piano, felt for the seat, sat down, touched the keyboard, stretched his arms to touch each end of the keyboard, then went straight into playing superb music – awesome!
Chris: Another one, not funny, just a memorable moment that’s worth it I think. Since the mid 60s I’ve always been a big lover of Stax music and it came to a head in 2012 when I was Dee-Jaying at the Blues in Hell Festival and Steve Cropper was there as part of the original Blues Brothers band. I’m Dee-Jaying and Cropper came up and asked if I’d got anything by Otis. Fortunately I had and he chose something, and I got my photo taken with him by my decks and he went back to the bar. Then the night after he came into the Green Room where the artists were and complimented me on what I’d played and how I’ve kept the Stax flag flying by playing these 45s, so I was made up and I thought, well, what an accolade that the main man whose been one of my heroes for a long time who said something like that unprompted. Being a DJ to have that said is quite important.
Alan: What’s the main attraction in being an MC. Why do you do it?
Chris: Well I suppose I’m like a groupie! I just love being with the artists providing that they behave and aren’t arseholes, but because I wanted to be a musician and it didn’t happen I still wanted to be involved and this is the way I’m involved. So I get a buzz, although I’m not overwhelmed by being in their company, I just treat them like any other bloke or bird in the pub and I’m just quite normal with them, But just to be around them and experience what I would have liked to have done 50 years ago is part of the buzz. Being on stage, having the lights on me, to do what I do you’ve got to have an ego and yes, I’ve got an ego. But so what!
Alan: What do you believe are the main factors for a successful festival?
Chris: I’ve got to wear 2 or 3 different hats on this because you’ve got what I do as an aspect of how successful a festival will be and you’ve got the promoters and organisers roles and their side of it. It’s all geared up to the punters and what they will expect. So besides what the organisers want to make sure happens on the peripheral and the facilities, my involvement is pretty straight forward. If it was straightforward my job M-Ceeing would be quite easy. Professionalism is number 1. People have paid money to come and see these acts and they’ve come to see a particular person or a particular group and they should give a show and behave in a professional way. I’m a stickler for sticking to time, making sure they’re off when they are supposed to come off to give the programming a chance so that the punters know that at, say 8pm, so-and-so will be on. If they don’t come on until 8.20pm and they over-run then the festival won’t finish at 12 as expected but it might be 1am or even later and it’s just nonsense. Sometimes it’s not easy to stick to time but the image of how things are done on stage should be seamless, and I have a little saying that the continuity is only noticed when it’s not there. In other words, if it just flows, starting and finishing when it’s supposed to then people should go away without noticing it and that means a job has been well done and to me is a very important part of running a successful festival.
Alan: If you had the choice of Dee-Jaying or M-Ceeing which would you prefer and why?
Chris: Another good question Alan. It would be Dee-Jaying. It gives me the opportunity to play the music I have a passion for but more importantly to have members of the audience enjoy what I’m playing and (if I’m lucky) go home with a smile on their faces.
Alan: Thank you Chris.
© Copyright 2013 Chris Powers and Alan White. All Rights Reserved. All photographs used with permission.