Mark Feltham: Maestro on HarmonicaDecember 26, 1998
Interview date: September 13, 1998
Mark Feltham may be considered one of the pre-eminent harmonica players in the world. He has lent his instrument to many sessions for a range of musicians spanning various musical styles. His music also appears on film and television. For more than a decade he accompanied the late guitarist Rory Gallagher on several tours. His harmonica was an outstanding foil to Rory's guitars and graced Rory's last two studio albums, Defender and Fresh Evidence on several tracks. Outside his reputation with Rory, Mark Feltham is best known for stints with the British group Nine Below Zero which currently consist of Rory's former rhythm section Gerry McAvoy and Brendan O'Neill.
Mark Feltham: From listening to session musicians in Nashville. I come from a country background, perhaps more so than a blues background. I was about sixteen when I did pick it up. I started getting into Charlie McCoy and those Nashville session players much later around 1971 via the Monument record label in Nashville. I was listening to bands around that time who were uniquely country.
SC: You grew up in England, I guess.
MF. I did, but grew up listening to American country music. I stumbled into it via a program we used to have here called The Old Grey-Whistle Test, which was one of the only good rock programs, and the signature tune they used was a Nashville country song - a harmonica instrumental. I became interested in it very much. So, I decided to write to the BBC to find out where it came from, and that's where I discovered it and went on from there. That was about 1972.
SC: How did you wind up doing so much of session work on harmonica?
MF: I am purely a session player these days. Well, I was a session player since the demise of the first lineup on Nine Below Zero, and even during my time with Rory, I was still doing session work. I felt it was the healthy thing for me to do personally without getting bogged down with one style of music too much. I had always wanted to become a session musician.
SC: Would you then say that right now your music preferences are basically country-western?
MF: Yes, very much so. I am a big country-western fan. We [harmonica players] are all very different. Some of us go down the blues avenue and some of us go country. I am unique in the UK, because I am probably the only professional country harmonica player. However, I don't play country here because no one here really plays country professionally. We only have a few professional country bands who do the circuit, but none of them use a harmonica. And of course, all the sessions I do are normally pop, blues standards, or just straight standards and ballads, and they have allowed me to play across the whole spectrum. With Rory asking me to play with him, I obviously had the blues touch with me anyway because from country I moved on to listen to the blues. I was able to adapt very easily and play foil to him.
SC: You know, when I sat to talk to you, the last thing I expected to hear from you was that you had a country background and influence.
MF: [Laughs] Is that right?
SC: How did you come about playing with Rory?
MF: Well, with Nine Below Zero, we used to play at a club in the East end of London called the Bridge House that was one of the big, big clubs at that time. Gerry McAvoy and Brendan O'Neill, who were the rhythm section for Rory, used to come down and watch us play. What happened was that when Nine Below Zero split around 1982, Gerry approached me. By then he had become a friend. He asked me whether he could introduce me to Rory and what I thought about doing a blow with Rory at rehearsals. I said that I would love to. Rory's brother and manager Donal called me and said the band was doing a show in Pistoia in Italy. By this time it was 1984 and two years had elapsed since the break up of Nine Below Zero. He said that they were doing a tribute show for Alexis Korner in Pistoia with Ginger Baker, Jimmy Page, and others, and whether I would like to come down and be part of the setup purely as a sideman. I went down and stayed with Rory from 1984 up to 1995. I was actually with Rory when he passed on. It was eleven years, but it still enabled me to do session work. Rory was completely cool about that. So, I carried on doing session, TV, and film music during that time.
SC: Say, with much of the music you played with Rory, and I can think of specific songs, "Off the Handle" for instance, did Rory give you free rein to improvise?
MF: Yes, totally, and yet strangely enough we did tend to get into areas between us where things were set. Rory was never one for keeping things that tight. He was never one for even having a set list. No, never ever did the man have a set list during the entire time I knew him. Because I think, his idea was very much like a Bob Dylan thing. He believed very much about keeping things on edge. That was spontaneity. He would call out a song and bang, you had to be ready [Laughs]. For Gerry and Brendan it was something else because they had to have a repertoire of 60 to 70 songs. And sometimes Rory would call out a weird one that had not been done for years. He would just throw one in and Gerry and Brendan had to be there on the spot. That's how it worked.
SC: Were there any particular Rory songs that were your favorites?
MF: Oh, I liked "Big Guns." I liked them all. I actually preferred Rory's own songs to the blues covers he did. I wasn't really on stage with him, I actually came on just for the covers that he did of course in Rory's fashion. I liked Rory's writing very much. I thought he was very underrated as a songwriter. I loved just being on the side of the stage watching his own set.
SC: Once Gerry and Brendan left the band, you had a new lineup. Did you have a different set of dynamics with the new band?
MF: Yes, it was completely different. We had Richard Newman playing drums. Richard is the son of Tony Newman who used to play with Dolly Parton and the Everly Brothers. His father is now working in Nashville as a session musician. Richard the son is a rock drummer, and we used him along with David Levy on bass. David is now working with Chris DeBurgh.
SC: How was the sound? I never had the opportunity to hear the new lineup and was always curious how they sounded.
MF: Well, I actually did like the new sound. I don't think the players were competent musically as the old players. You know Gerry and Brendan were there for a long time. But the last lineup did lend itself to such a way that you heard the old songs in a different way. It was certainly different. It was great for me to work with both sets of players. David was a very musical bass player, and Gerry was very much in the pocket with Brendan. David was perhaps freer in his playing. Both bands had their good and bad points.
SC: With Rory's health going down, did you see this coming?
MF: Yes. Yes I did?
SC: And there was nothing anyone could do about this?
MF: Nothing at all. His brother tried, but Rory was absolutely not one who was keen on people telling him what to do.
SC: Was it difficult the last few days? You did visit him at the hospital.
MF: Yes I did. Tom Driscoll [Rory equipment manager] and myself outside the close family were allowed in. Rory's brother asked me to play for him when he was in a coma. Rory had slipped into a coma the last week or so, and they asked me to play a few songs. Perhaps in a way to pull him out, but he never did.
SC: If I may ask, do you remember what you played?
MF: I just played a couple of country tunes, a couple of blues, and a few older songs.
SC: You did attend the funeral and played there didn't you?
MF: I played "Amazing Grace" at the funeral. His brother wanted me to play there.
SC: What was the atmosphere like? It was obviously a very sad event.
MF: It was a fantastic turnout, if anything good can be said about a funeral. It was the whole Cork City that came out to bid him farewell. It was very moving, you know, but it was pretty awful, really.
SC: Obviously Rory has had quite an impact on your life.
MF: Personally yes. I love the man. I miss him terribly. I haven't really worked since he died. Gerry and Brendan have gone onto doing the Nine Below Zero thing. I have stepped back into session work. I've done a few live bits as a guest. I did Oasis last year. That was a great experience. I loved doing that.
SC: That is a different kind of music.
MF: Yes, it is different kind of music, but I was playing a lot of country things with Oasis. When Rory left, I thought I would slip back into country and film music and not miss this live thing because I had done it for a long time. I thought I would enjoy going back into session music, but in fact I do miss it terribly now. I really didn't think I would, but I am missing it.
SC: Speaking about live, I remember seeing a video footage with you, Rory and the band with Jack Bruce in a concert during 1990 at Cologne, Germany. Towards the end of the set Jack Bruce came on stage -- was the performance all spontaneous?
MF: Yes, totally. I think that Donal had asked Jack, in the bar previously, if he would like to come and jam with Rory. He said that it was no problem, and so he came on stage.
SC: What seemed interesting about the jam on some of the songs was that it seemed that you all had been playing regularly together previously.
MF: Well, Jack is a blues man, isn't he. It was straight in the pocket right away. It wasn't at all rehearsed.
SC: Do you find enough work these days as a session musician?
MF: It can be difficult. I am one of only three professional harmonica players doing what I do here. But in saying that, this is not Nashville and so there is not that great a demand and certainly not for country music over here. I just about break even. It is tough, yeah.
SC: But you do get enough offers?
MF: Oh yes. What's around I normally get asked to do. In this country the harmonica is perceived as being a toy instrument. Whereas in America, it is a more serious proposition. In fact there has been many occasions where I have thought of moving to Nashville and trying to make a living there. But you've got more competition there.
SC: You have enough of a name and reputation to make it, I believe.
MF: Thank you.
SC: Won't moving from England to the U.S. become a bit of a personal transition for you?
MF: Yes, yes it would be, but I am not sure I am prepared for it. I have given it thought before. I have been lucky enough to work with some big film producers. I just finished the new Sharon Stone film. It is called "The Mighty." It's been done with Harry Dean Stanton and Gillian Anderson from the X-Files [TV show]. I think that it is coming out there very shortly. I actually played the lead on that. I am hoping to do things like that -- film work, especially for American TV and American film would be good for me. I did "Judge Dredd" as well, the Sly [Sylvester] Stallone movie. I've done a couple of things like that for American TV, but it is difficult.
SC: At least there is no threat of you ever having to starve or anything like that?
MF: Oh no, no, but if I had been a guitarist with the same reputation, I would be working constantly day in and day out. But like I said, the harmonica is very much perceived as a toy instrument here. Most harmonica players in England are doing it with blues bands and working at that for a living. I am the only one earning a living out of sessions and TV. I haven't got a live gig, you see. So I don't even have the tour to do anymore. With Rory it was fine, I had Rory and the sessions. I do practice every day about 90 minutes. I am quite disciplined about that.
SC: Do you have anything coming out right now?
MF: I just finished Zuccero's new album. He's a big star in Italy. He did a big single here with Paul Young, and has also performed with Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. He is really a big star who does 80-90,000 sports-arena-type audiences in Italy. He's trying to break into the rest of Europe now. I've also just finished another film as well. I've done lots of things going back over five years, bits of George Michael, bits of Deacon Blue, the Christians, and Texas.
SC: I think the first time your music really struck me was from Fresh Evidence. You know that song "Middle Name," I thought harmonica really came across beautifully.
MF: Thank you very much. That was a lovely song. There was also "Ghost Blues." I also liked "Alexis" too, because that was unusual for me to play because it was kind of a jazz thing on that. I am proud of the stuff I did with Rory. "The Loop" and all those songs.
SC: You know hopefully we could hear some of those live recordings come out. I know Rory did record some of that. The good news is that some of the catalog is being released slowly. Did you record anything in the studio after Fresh Evidence?
MF: No we didn't, but we also has some great outtakes on some of the Redan stuff we did on the second to last album Defender. We did some of that down at Redan Recorders, which is now closed in the West end of London. I remember going on for hours at night doing different things, and I am sure it is all on tape. Whether Donal still has any of that I don't know.
SC: How would you describe Rory? He had such a contrasting public persona from his private side.
MF: Yes. He was an angel - an angel. He was a fantastic, beautiful person. A wonderful human being. He was one of the most wonderful men I ever met in my life. I can say that honestly and openly. He was a gentleman as in the words gentle man, you know.
SC: I believe everyone who encountered him, even briefly, would absolutely agree with you. They took that feeling away with them. You don't normally see those kinds of qualities in a lot of rock musicians. He was extremely humble, and that is the one thing that struck a lot of people.
MF: That's right, but he could also be tough on stage. It was very much 'keep your eyes on my back, and don't wander farther on stage than me. I am very much the governor,' which he was. You had to have a leader out there. But in saying that, you could go to him before a show or after and everything was forgotten if you made a fluff or an error in some way. It was all forgotten after the show. He was never a man to hold grudges. I think he was deeply religious, deeply superstitious, and very humble, extremely humble. He was a very kind man as well. I remember once towards the end of his life when he was unwell and sinking, we were playing at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. I remember him distinctly walking a long way across the road to purposely throw money into a busker's hand - a guy there who had no money sitting in the sidewalk. He would do that often. He was always a man for the underdog.
Shiv Cariappa interviewed Rory Gallagher for the Christian Science Monitor in 1991. The text of his conversation with Rory and interviews with Gerry McAvoy and Brendan O'Neill appear elsewhere on the homepage. Mr. Feltham spoke by phone from his home in London. The interview appeared in the Rory fanzine Stagestruck, issue No:5, edited by Dino McGartland