Max Middleton exclusive interview

Of all the keyboard players who rose to fame in the 1970s, Max Middleton just might be the most important one you’ve never heard of. Starting out with the Jeff Beck Group on 1971’s Rough and Ready and peaking with Beck’s seminal Blow By Blow album, Middleton gained the notoriety to play with a wide variety of artists. His funky Rhodes and Clavinet have graced quite a few classic ’70s albums, including the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. Starting with his 2003 Land of Secrets album and moving through his recent Two Cranes, Middleton finally began exploring his own muse. The results are rich with the funky, soulful Rhodes and Clav he's known for. We were lucky enough to track down this legendary musician.

Of all the keyboard players who rose to fame in the 1970s, Max Middleton just might be the most important one you’ve never heard of. Starting out with the Jeff Beck Group on 1971’s Rough and Ready and peaking with Beck’s seminal Blow By Blow album, Middleton gained the notoriety to play with a wide variety of artists. His funky Rhodes and Clavinet have graced quite a few classic ’70s albums, including the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. Starting with his 2003 Land of Secrets album and moving through his recent Two Cranes, Middleton finally began exploring his own muse. The results are rich with the funky, soulful Rhodes and Clav he's known for. We were lucky enough to track down this legendary musician.

Who were your influences as a young keyboard player?

Errol Garner, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett. Then Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder as piano players. I loved their playing. You can’t compare them to piano players now because they’re all out of reach, these guys. And they were cutting edge at the time. I also don’t think there’s been anybody with the sort of technique that Art Tatum had.

What was your musical upbringing like?

I had some piano lessons starting at age 14 from a teacher down the road from my house. I played the recorder at school, but we had no records or even a record player at home. My mum got me a piano, which is when I started lessons. Then when I was at school, one of the masters [teachers] brought in, of all things, a Thelonious Monk record and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”

So, Monk made an impression on you . . .

I loved Monk. I had a friend at school whose uncle had just been to America and he’d come back and would play a sort of boogie-woogie on the piano. I’d never heard anything like it! He gave me an Erroll Garner record and I took it home and couldn’t play it because, again, we didn’t have a record player. Eventually my Dad borrowed one from somebody at work. I remember there was a tune on there called “Summertime”—the Gershwin tune—and I kept playing it over and over again, and suddenly, it clicked, what jazz musicians did. I used to think it was: You play a tune, and then it was a big free-for-all for half an hour. But when I heard Erroll Garner, all his playing was so melodic. This was key for me.

I think my attitude towards music ultimately came from Erroll Garner: Every time he played the same tune it would be different, whether it was slow or fast or a different key or how he felt at the time. And that attitude has stayed with me. I don’t try to make it different—I just can’t do the same thing twice.

How did your introduction to Jeff Beck come about?

I worked loading at the docks for a few years in London. I can’t remember how, but I met two brothers: Stan and Clive Charmin. Clive went on to be the bass player on the Jeff Beck Group’s album Rough and Ready. I used to go around their house and we used to play. I remember them saying, “What tunes do you know? Have you ever heard Stevie Wonder? James Brown?” No—all these really famous people and I didn’t know who they were! But they wanted to try to find something we could play together. So I said, “I’ve got a Horace Silver record I like.” So we agreed to play that. They also liked Sly and the Family Stone, but I’d never heard of them. Through these guys, I got introduced to the Black American funk music I’ve liked ever since.

Then Clive got a job with Jeff Beck and I met Jeff. I'd never heard of him. We played, and that evening he said, “Do you want to make a record?” I said, “Yeah, alright,” as if this were quite normal. But it wasn’t. I was young and foolish and didn’t think about it. We just went in the studio and started trying to do something. It was as simple as that; it was lucky.

How did you first come into contact with the Rhodes, Clavinet, and Minimoog? Were you mostly a piano player before then, or did you lean toward organ?

I was never an organ player. I loved listening to the organ but I just didn’t have a clue about it. I think there are organ players and there are piano players, and they’re quite different. There were a few, like Billy Preston, who were good on both. I think it was in between the first two albums I did with Jeff Beck—Rough and Ready and The Jeff Beck Group—when I first heard a Fender Rhodes and a Clavinet. I got them because there weren’t many keyboards on the market other than the acoustic piano, and it was a terrible job miking those up for gigs. When I first started with Jeff, the roadie would stand there holding a microphone next to the piano, and halfway through a song, he’d get fed up and walk off!

With the Rhodes, I first played it on the second Jeff Beck record, which was about 1972. I think I played a Wurlitzer on Rough and Ready because that was one of the few keyboards on the market. Once I heard the Fender Rhodes, though, I really liked it. I don’t really know what I’d do without one. The same goes for the Minimoog. I heard it around 1972 or ’73, and I bought one. I listened to many synthesizer albums including Jan Hammer. As for the Clavinet, I love the Clav because it just does one job, and there’s nothing better for the job it does.

What were your studio and gig rigs like when first working with the Jeff Beck Group?

I didn’t really have a studio rig. It was acoustic piano, miked up. On Rough and Ready, the Wurly was, I think, plugged straight into the mixing desk. I didn’t even know how to plug into an amplifier. I’d use whatever setup anybody gave me.

When we started doing gigs with Jeff, we’d get these amp stacks. He’d have a couple of Marshall cabinets, so I thought I’d better have a couple. Then the next day, someone would bring something else, like Hi-Watt or Sunn Coliseum stacks. I remember one day we had these Sunn stacks, 300 watts each. Then I noticed one day that Jeff had two stacks behind him. He had four speakers and we couldn’t really hear. So we all got two more, so I had 600 watts. Then I noticed he had another one, making for six speakers on top of each other. Then the bass player got six speakers, so I did, too. And it didn’t make it any clearer; it was just a racket! [Laughs.]

Aside from Jeff Beck and Nazareth, many of the early bands you recorded with are lesser known today. Are there any you would especially like to shine a light on?

One artist was John Martin, who I played with for quite a bit, off and on, and I thought he was a fantastic singer. Also Mick Taylor, the guitarist with the Rolling Stones. I met him in ’73 and we’ve been friends and worked together ever since. I was actually rehearsing with him and with Jack Bruce and we were going to tour, but Jack’s tour started on the same day as Jeff Beck’s tour to promote Blow by Blow, which my manager reminded me I had royalty interest in as I’d co-written some of the songs. I’m still sorry I couldn't be in two places at once!

Blow by Blow is widely considered to be one of the all-time records for Rhodes and Clav riffs. What was making it like?

It was pretty much improvised as it happened. I had piano and Jeff had a Fender Twin amp. He never had a huge rig. It was quite simple in the studio. I did play some synth bass on it, though. At the time, ‘producer] George Martin had an ARP synthesizer; it was new. They were really difficult to get sounds out of. But he got a bass sound, which I played on the tune “Diamond Dust.” It was in 5/4 time. I think it was the first tune in 5/4 I’d ever played, so that was difficult.

Jeff never asked musicians to do anything. If you didn’t play the way he liked, he got somebody else—probably because he was an absolute natural musician. I’ve seen him go into recording sessions to play on somebody’s song without knowing the key, the changes, or anything. Somehow he’d play everything beautifully on the first go.

How did drummer Bernard Purdie get into the picture?

After we'd recorded Blow by Blow, we had to go on tour and Jeff only had me, so we had to get some other musicians. He thought Richard [Bailey], even though he was a good drummer, was too young. He didn’t think Richard would have the power or the experience for big stages. So we went to America, and the record company got Bernard Purdie on drums and Wilbur Bascomb on bass. I think Jeff was a little bit disappointed because he really wanted someone like Billy Cobham, though Billy did wind up on the following album [Wired] with Narada Michael Walden. He wanted someone who was flamboyant with tremendous technique—really a big-sounding drummer.

I loved Purdie because he made everything swing. And the little jazz tunes that Jeff would hear from the odd jazz player, Purdie would make them sound like a hit record. He was fantastic to work with. I suggested that he came to England and play in the band Hummingbird, which we’d formed after Jeff Beck. He played on a couple of albums, and that’s the sort of drummer that I like.

In 1977 you performed on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. How did those sessions go down?

Sgt. Pepper’s happened because I’d met George Martin while recording Blow by Blow. It was Bernard Purdie, Wilbur Bascomb, and [guitarist] Robert Ahwai, who was in the band Hummingbird with me. We’d put on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, write the chords down and then play it. Earth, Wind and Fire did their own version of “Got To Get You into My Life” for that film, but we did most of the soundtrack album. We did the backing for the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, George Burns, and Steve Martin.

By the ’80s, so much keyboard technology was changing. Did you gravitate towards digital keyboards then?

I did get a Roland digital piano at some point in the ’80s, because again, it’s very hard to mike up pianos. I saw Elton John play. He used two grand pianos: one at the gig, and the next one would be going to the next gig. I thought at the time, if the piano is played on its own, then you can tell whether it’s a [real] grand piano—and it’s a lovely sound. But if you’ve got loads of musicians thrashing about, it’s very hard to tell the difference between that and a digital piano. If you’re Elton John, well, that’s different! I also stuck with the Rhodes and Clavinet as long as I could.

Many people are probably unaware of your contributions to the music of Kate Bush and Chris Rea. What keyboards did you use with them?

I always played my Fender Rhodes if I could, if the music required. Or an acoustic piano, that’s really it. I didn’t really get into synthesizers. People like Jan Hammer, I think are brilliant; he’s an engineer and he gets great sounds out of his synthesizer. That wasn’t me, really. I just stuck with my thing. I’m not very good with things that have lots of buttons—I always press the wrong one! [Laughs.]

You reconnected with drummer Richard Bailey on his 2007 album Shanti Om. Any chance for a sequel to Blow by Blow someday, or at least a reunion of the core band?

I think a reunion is probably out of the question because Jeff Beck never goes backwards, only forwards. The music he’s creating now is excellent. He plays with Vinnie Colaiuta, who’s an amazing drummer, and he’s got Jason Rebello on keyboards, a great player. If we got together I think it would be a step backwards for him.

Throughout your career, did your sessions require reading notation?

I did learn to read music when I began, but because I haven’t really read music since, I can’t really do it very well. I can write notation and I can read it, but not to the standard I should be up to after all these years. That’s because I didn’t have to, because I did everything by ear. Mainly, all the people I played with did everything by ear.

What’s next for you?

After finishing the album Two Cranes I think I’ve got writers block at the moment, in terms of knowing what to do next. But I did enjoy doing that. I think that on the three albums I’ve done, there’s good bits on all of them. For example, on the second album, A Thousand Sails, I like the very first track. I like the melody. It’s a long, sprawling melody, which is very hard to play on the Fender Rhodes. It's not technically difficult but it’s very hard not to sound like you’re playing elevator music or in a trio at the Holiday Inn. [Laughs.]

I was very pleased with Two Cranes because it combined a sort of classic style with improvising. It had a nice amount of space on it, a lovely sound. For me it was important because I’ve always been mainly a back-end piano player with whomever I was working with. I thought I would like to play something that I like before I slip off of this disc! [Laughs.]

Replacing Rough and Ready Drums

When we recorded Jeff Beck's Rough and Ready, we only had eight tracks and we pretty much played live. We had two tracks for drums, so there weren't too many tracks left over. [Drummer] Cozy Powell had been known in the session world around 1970 as a great timekeeper. We’d finished Rough and Ready and it was now time to put it in its box. Then Cozy announced to Jeff that he’d bought a brand new drum kit, it had just arrived, and he wanted to put it on the record. Jeff said, “We've finished!” but Cozy insisted.

Jeff thought about it and said, “We'll have to rub all your drums off as you play because there are no extra tracks,”and Cozy said, “No problem. I’ll just play the whole album. Erase everything as I play.” They put the tape on and Jeff said, “If you make a mistake, I’m gonna kill you.” Cozy played the album from the beginning to the end with his new drum kit, straight up. That shows what a great drummer he was. You wouldn’t have known that he’d overdubbed drums on the whole album —Max Middleton

Recording Keyboards on Two Cranes

Max Middleton’s studio rig for his latest album Two Cranes included Rhodes, Clavinet, Minimoog, and piano. “We cut the Rhodes into a TL Audio valve compressor and then just ran that back through Prism A/D converters and then straight into Logic Pro,” explains producer/engineer Paul Lilly. “It’s a way to keep it under control, because you get some peaks that really do get up there. The Clavinet was run straight into the desk. The piano, we recorded at Max’s home, using Neumann U87 and AKG 441 mics. We placed them more or less where we needed them, and then put up a couple of ambient mics, but they’re really sitting in the background. And that was it. It was just done in Max’s lounge room.”