Given the chance of the upcoming release of the album “Chess” – a tribute to the legendary record label- we talked with Bernie Marsden about the blues, Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and of course the conversation led quickly to Whitesnake and David Coverdale. He is funny, humorous, he laughs with his heart without hesitating to answer to everything with honesty. He promised to come to Greece and play… Let’s hope he does! Interview: Yiannis Dolas
Rockpages.gr: Where does your love for the blues come from?
Bernie Marsden: That begun very early, back when I was 14 or 15 years old. I was lucky, I had a member of my family, who was in a group in Liverpool during the Beatles time. He was very much into rhythm and blues. He was the first guy to play me people like Howlin’ Wolf and Sony Boy Williamson and sadly he took away my Beatles records. I didn’t understand it back then, but I really liked the feel and the style of the music.
Rockpages.gr: Now, you have another album, from the “Inspiration” series, about Chess recordings. How important would you say that this label was for music in general?
Bernie Marsden: Well, looking back after the best part of 50 years it’s been incredibly important, because they were the guys that recorded all of the artists I’ve already talked about. They were the ones that came over to Europe quite early in the ‘60s. Sometimes you could see these people, not very often but occasionally they would appear on television and you’d say “oh, that’s the guy! That’s Howlin’ Wolf, that’s Muddy Waters”. And they were very well received, especially over in the UK and I think that in Germany they were very big… the “blues packages”. There used to be a thing called “The American Blues Package” and that was a very big tour of very big theaters in those days. Even in the early days it was very successful thing. Of course, the American artists they were treated very well in Europe and they loved coming back, because they’ve been treated very well comparing to what they’ve been treated in America. The Chess guys were important, because they were the ones that put it all together. They put all those guys under one label, which made it easy for people in the rest of the world to listen to.
I actually did the “Chess” record before “Kings”. That was my first idea, to do the Chess sessions, but they came out the other way around.
Rockpages.gr: I think it was an idea you had with Billy Gibbons…
Bernie Marsden: Not so much an idea. It was a conversation we had. Billy and I know each other for ten years pretty well, maybe more and we were listening to that record that he made with the guy from The Fabulous Thunderbirds and I said “this sounds like all the records that I grew up with” and he said “yeah, me too” and he kind of said “wouldn’t it be great if we all make a record with the stuff that we grew up with?” And I thought about it and found it was a good idea, so that’s what I did.
Rockpages.gr: Can you remember the first Chess record that you picked up?
Bernie Marsden: Yeah, I think it was an EP with “The First Time I Met The Blues” by Buddy Guy. That was the first thing that really that was playing out by then, so Buddy Guy’s guitar sound really really hit me as something very very special.
Rockpages.gr: As you said, and of course as it’s historically noted all these American bluesmen were a very big influence for British musicians who in their own turn made the British Invasion in the US. I was always intrigued and curious how American music that came from the States went to somewhere else, in the UK, and then came back and the Americans felt as if it was something new, although it was influenced from something that they already had.
Bernie Marsden: Yeah, I think you answered your own question, really. It’s one of those strange phenomenon, the Americans didn’t appreciate what they had. And I think it’s a lot to do with the culture of America, really especially in those days. And also, there were a lot of blues historian, not a lot, but a few, the very very good blues historians who were writing some very good books about the music. And then once these young English guys, picked it up, you know, the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, John Mayall, Eric Clapton and they just took it. And that was the generation that I grew up with and I did talk to BB King, who I was lucky enough to know very well, and he said that the British guys saved the Blues. And he was quite clear that without the involvement of people like John Mayall and Jeff back, Eric, Clapton, Peter Green, the way that everybody all these people brought that music to the front row of the British audiences, He believed that the Blues in America would have gone away. It would have begun like early Jazz, a very, very small group of purists.
Rockpages.gr: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there was another time in history, very later, like in the late eighties and early nineties, where again, they were two white guys, one from Ireland, Gary Moore, and one from the States, Steevie Ray Vaughan, who saved the blues again.
Bernie Marsden: Ahh, hahaha! I’ve never heard that before! I don’t think they saved the blues. I understand what you are saying, you are saying that they re-introduced it to a generation of people. There was a backlash to a certain extent, because Gary had played blues in the early days and he got fed up of playing rock’n’roll and rock music really and he was being pushed towards playing metal. Every time I saw him primarily we would be talking about the old days, how we begun and how we’ve become what we’ve become thanks to Muddy Waters, or who ever and then we both realized that the reason we both picked up the guitar was because of Peter Green.
So I did an album called “Green And Blues” before Gary did “Blues For Greeny” and I used some of his guys for the session (Ed, saxophonists, Nicke Payn and Nick Pentelow), who when they told him that they’ve been playing old blues stuff with me, he said: “I want to do that”. So that’s what he went out and did “Blues For Greeny”, but he had already done “Still Got The Blues”. Yes, so that was important, because it was “blues” to many people… Whether it’s blues or not, honestly I am not sure. It’s the European white version of the blues.
If you are a white person from America, or England, or Greece, you can play blues if you feel it really, and I think everybody had a good chance. Stevie Ray Vaughn certainly had that and so did Gary.
Rockpages.gr: Who would you say that were the most important blues artists in your opinion, white, black, men, women, American, British?
Bernie Marsden: Ohhh, I think there cannot be one of anything. It’s like the team that went to World Cup, you know, we cannot win with one person. One person can score a goal but you have to have a good team and I think everytime that you start to look for the best, or the greatest… There is no such thing in my mind, because there are so many different forms, but I like, for instance, Betty Smith was very, very important, but to me she was a little bit hard to understand and the formula was a little bit always the same. I really like a woman called Rosetta Tharpe who I first heard in the 60s. She was fantastic. She played electric guitar and she was out there with the men. But, if you go back and you find Memphis Minnie, or a guy called the Honeyboy Edwards, who I knew very, well. He played an old blues, burial, “Blue Sky”. He’s played many shows with Memphis Minnie in the 1940s -50s. He said that she could play the guitar and sing Blues as good as any man he ever heard. So I’ll take that, from somebody like him. He played with Robert Johnson, so he should know!
It’s a good question but it’s impossible to give only one named and I certainly would like to give you one or two names or something like that. BB King is important to some people, and he said that if he hadn’t had all those great records in the 1960s, maybe we would have a blues boom.
Rockpages.gr: In Greece, Rory Gallagher is very, very popular among rock fans and he is still being played on the radio on a daily basis.
Bernie Marsden: Wow!
Rockpages.gr: He liked the blues, but was he really 100% blues?
Bernie Marsden: No, know I would put him… like we were talking in the last question. Rory was Rory you know! He was as unique as Freddie King, or BB King. What he did was a combination of his love for the blues and also his upbringing that in Irish music. There was a combination of the two as well. He was a great acoustic picker as well. He was one of the guys who fused all these things together, but came out as Rory Gallagher, and he was a great friend of mine and he was a great, great artists. There was a very famous quote many years ago, somebody asked Jimi Hendrix in 1970 “what’s it like to be the greatest guitar player in the world?” And Jimi Hendrix said, “I don’t know, you better ask Rory Gallagher”.
Rockpages.gr: You’ve done a tribute to Rory…
Bernie Marsden: Yeah, I did. I did two albums and I used the guys from Rory’s band and they’ve done very well. They’ve never been released properly in Greece, maybe I would do so.
And when I did the shows live it was fantastic. I didn’t play all of Rory’s stuff, because I I don’t think it’s important to try and be Rory Gallagher, it’s like trying to be Howlin’ Wolf! These guys were special. But, his music is great to play and people enjoy listening to it. I wouldn’t have done this project without the blessing of his family. They were very happy for me to do it and they approved of it 100%.
Rockpages.gr: Well, the Greeks would approve it 100% as well…
Bernie Marsden: It would be great to come over there. I haven’t been to Greece for a long time.
Rockpages.gr: You’ve never played here…
Bernie Marsden: No, certainly not with a band. I played while I was on vacation. When people have taken me to bars…
Rockpages.gr: I was reading the Classic Rock magazine lately with an interview of yours where you said that the best album you’ve ever made was “Malice In Wonderland” with Paice Ashton Lord. Can you bring back some memories from making this album with those great guys?
Bernie Marsden: Yeah, I think there is a lot of people that is fond of that record, not just in the music circles, because I think there is a lot of nostalgia. It was a big step for me, working with those guys, with Jon and Ian especially. Tony was different, he was crazy funny guy. A very good musician, but he wasn’t a rock musician, he was a jazz musician really. But, working with Jon and Ian really upped my game as they say, you know? I realized how good they were. I knew how good they were and making that record was such a joy working with those people with a horn section and creating that kind of music, which was so original and of course Deep Purple fans didn’t like it Hahaha (laughs). But I think that’s why that record holds a very important place in my heart, really. Because, it is this kind of the baby that didn’t really grow very much. Whitesnake was enormous and everything else Ι did went really well. That’s the one that I thought would be really big, but that never really made it into the first team. I have a long time for it.
Rockpages.gr: Wasn’t there any thoughts about making a second album?
Bernie Marsden: The second album was always a problem because the first one didn’t do any commercial business. And I think basically, the whole thing ran out of climate really… Jon and Ian were practically paying for everything and it got to a point where it was kind of crazy and then they put things to an end and that’s Whitesnake begun. But, that’s a different story!
Rockpages.gr: Of course, I have to tell you that because of Whitesnake you have a lot of fans in Greece that would die if you played anything from yourself stuff from the 70s. I mean, “Look At Me Now”, “And About Time Too” all. That would be awesome… and now that I mention all those albums, you had an all-star lineup on both of them…
Bernie Marsden: I was the most unknown person on my first record!
Rockpages.gr: How was it being in the studio and playing with these guys? Of course you played with them in other bands as well.
Bernie Marsden: The only time it was an issue – it wasn’t a problem- was the first day with Jack Bruce! I was pinching myself for an hour. I couldn’t look across the room thinking “that’s Jack Bruce!” Hahah (laughs) I was making really bad mistakes in my own music and that kind of thing. The same happened when I was working with Cozy (Powell), when we did his first record.
By the time we were making “And About Time Too” Jack and I were fairly comfortable and of course I did Jack’s last album five years ago at Abbey Road. It was such a terrific relationship.
Rockpages.gr: Also, you were around with the Deep Purple guys in Whitesnake. And then you had the very famous “Deep Purple” t-shirt. Who came up with that idea?
Bernie Marsden: Oh, that was me, I would say it was nothing serious. Some people, magazines some guys from the Deep Purple fan club -I think- they kind of thought that we were all really angry. I had nothing to do with that. Anywhere we would go in the early days -we were saying we were going to Greece and there would be two guys from Deep Purple, or three Guys from Deep Purple and three were three other guys, every time journalists, or people would say, “excuse me, are you from Deep Purple?” So, I though I had to stop this, I’d better get some T-shirts made. So that’s what I did. In fact, Jon Lord used to wear one all the time. It was a bit of fun.
Rockpages.gr: I am not sure if David liked that though…
Bernie Marsden: Oh, yeah, he was okay… I think that he was not one of those guys that he will instigate something and then when it went against him he would say “oh, no. I never did that”. He was the victim of all our jokes sometimes, but he pretended not to be.
Rockpages.gr: Did you realize at that time that with the first Whitesnake albums you defined a British sound for a blues rock kind of genre? That was actually followed and influenced a lot of bands?
Bernie Marsden: Ahhm, no, I don’t think we knew we were doing that. When I listen right now I can see what you mean. They are great records. The energy level of the first two is very fantastic while the direction is a little bit strange, but the energy level is 100%. I think by the time we did “Ready & Willing” we settled down a bit, and we were writing more rock classics. And that’s not to say that the stuff from the early albums as not as strong. “Trouble” is a very strong album and “Walking In The Shadow Of The Blues” is still played today and people just love it.
Rockpages.gr: Do you think that you might do something with David Coverdale?
Bernie Marsden: Well, I don’t think about it really. We talk to each other, in fact he texted me earlier today. There is no issue with us, but he said he’s retiring next year, so there’s a Whitesnake final tour, which is being fixed as we speak. And after that, you never know… He might want to do something, I might call him up… you know when I wrote all the songs for Joe Bonamassa’s last album, some of those could have been very good David Coverdale songs for sure!
Who knows? You know, I write with different people. I work with different people all the time. I think it would be nice for him and I to do something before we get old as they say in “My Generation”. I think we’re already a little bit older… hahah (laughs)
Rockpages.gr: Who would you say that is your best friend in the music business?
Bernie Marsden: Ohh, I don’t know! Ahhmm, Long-term somebody like Steve Lukather maybe? Steve and me we’ve been friends a long time. Warren Haynes is a really good friend of mine. I think it is difficult to musicians to have what you people deem best friends. Because, we can all be frank, then we can all be colleagues. But because we’re always until the last 18 months we’re always all on the move all the time? It’s difficult. You don’t have many close friends. But, I would say as friends is those who you want to meet for dinner, or whatever I would say people like Steve, or Warren and Joe, he is a good friend. The only thing with Joe is that since we work together, kind of professionally, We are not quite so close socially. So it works both ways.
Rockpages.gr: I would think that you’d mention Micky Moody at one point, but I think that for the last 10 years, you are not in contact anymore.
Bernie Marsden: We were never really close. We worked together I was not closer to him, than I was with Neil Murray. In fact, probably closer to Neil Murray. Yeah, I think that’s a misconception because of the way we play guitar on stage.
Rockpages.gr: Yeah, and you also did a lot of albums together like Marsden/Moody.
Bernie Marsden: Yeah, but that was business. All right.
Rockpages.gr: Was there any real rivalry between Whitesnake and Rainbow, or is it all fiction?
Bernie Marsden: No! Not at all! That’s all magazine and fan club talk.
Rockpages.gr: Also, I read that there was a an album actually a collaboration between you, Mel Galley, Neil Murray and Bobby Kimball MGM and that you did record something…
Bernie Marsden: Yeah, we recorded something, it was four or five songs and they never ever seen the light of day.
Rockpages.gr: Will they ever?
Bernie Marsden: I don’t know. I have them.
Rockpages.gr: Okay, that’s a good start.
Bernie Marsden: Yeah, I think I know where they are. I don’t know… they were very good! But Bobby was not in the group and then he rang up our management and said he’d like to join the group, so he came to see us the weekend and put some vocals on some of these tracks which we did and then we arranged them… and then he wasn’t in the group! So, it never really lasted. We did I think three or four shows with a different singer, but it was never going to last very long. The music’s, pretty good, quite different. Yeah, maybe one day, I’ll get them on an anthology album, I will dig them out!
Rockpages.gr: So you’ve done albums, you’ve been in bands, very successful, very popular. You played the Blues ,you’ve done documentaries, you’ve also published a book with your guitars. What else is there for you to do, that you still haven’t done? You are you thinking about?
Bernie Marsden: Hahah (laughs) I’m just enjoying myself really. This “Kings” and “Chess: albums were an absolute joy to make. There was no pressure, good musicians and I’ve got the right people working on the albums and the right company is releasing them, because they like the music and we get along and it’s just a good time to be able to do that. I’m writing another book at the moment. So, I’m taking up some time and then as soon as maybe next year, we can start thinking about doing proper shows again. I’ll get out and promote, probably though the book again, and next hopefully come to Greece and play some music!
Rockpages.gr: Well, that will be awesome. And it will be a dream come true for a lot of people who haven’t seen you ever…
Bernie Marsden: I would like that! I’ve been to the Greek Islands many times, and, and I’m a collector called fan. That’s great. Okay. Thank you very much for this. They are welcome to stay safe.