I should give prior warning here that this interview involves lots of exclamation marks. But believe me, there could have been many more. Let’s just say that the septuagenarian soul legend on the other end of the line lives life with a permanent exclamation mark.
Some 50 years after he shot to fame, US Mid-West born Geno Washington – surely one of our top UK imports – remains a regular on the live circuit, and has a string of dates ahead of him – between next Friday, July 15th at Chiddfest, Hailsham, and five months later (December 17th) at the Spring Arts and Heritage Centre in Havant.
My excuse to speaking to the man immortalised in song to a new generation (including myself) by a certain 1980 Dexy’s Midnight Runners hit is one of those dates, at Preston Guild Hall on August 12th. But I start by mentioning to Geno – real name William Francis Washington – how I clearly took my eye off the ball, having only just realised he’s turned 72. Where did those years go?
“Oh man! It sneaked up on me. I tell you I’m feeling it now, because I just came out of the hospital. I had two operations on my neck. My hand was going dead, my foot was going dead, and all this. I realise now that I’m in my 70s. But before then I thought I was only about 30!”
With that I get the first of many rasping, somewhat infectious laughs, almost machine gun-like in their intensity, this born performer soon proving as entertaining off stage as on it. It seems inevitable that we slow down as we get older, but I can’t imagine Geno – born in late 1943 in Evansville, Indiana – changing the way he performs. He certainly gives it his all.
“There you go. I can’t change that. That’s part of me, and I love performing and making people happy. A lot of musicians will tell that you can be achey, have a headache, backache, all that. But when it’s showtime, the adrenaline starts flowing. Yeah!”
And now it’s summertime, it appears that Geno’s as busy as ever, with a number of live engagements ahead.
“Yeah, man, you know! The kids are switching on to us, because they haven’t seen nothing like that. There’s no gimmicks, no backing tapes, none of that. This is live … straight from the heart! The Ram Jam Band is geared up to par-tay! Par-tay! Forget about your troubles for that moment, and par-tay!”
Geno’s introduction to his adopted England came about in the early 1960s while stationed in East Anglia with the United States Air Force, in what seemed to be originally his bid to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. And as it turned out he made many friends and changed his life forever, 4,000 miles from home, his love of blues and what became better known as soul music soon finding him jamming with bands in and around the Ipswich area.
He drifted from band to band, perfecting his craft, starting with Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers covers, while polishing up what Peter Doggett called, ‘a potent repertoire of US R’n’B’. And in time this USAF PT instructor became a frequent stand-in at gigs around London, claiming – not for the first time – that his mum was Dinah Washington and his sister was one of Martha Reeves’ Vandellas.
It was a chance dressing room chat with Shane Fenton (the amount of ladies’ underwear landing on the stage while he was singing inspiring Geno to follow his career path) that led to a recommendation from the man who became better known as Alvin Stardust to visit Soho’s blues/jazz-friendly Flamingo Club. And it was there that he started to make his name on a far wider scale, guesting with top R&B acts like Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, as well as Eric Clapton, The Animals, Rod Stewart, and Long John Baldry.
Then, when guitarist Pete Sage – who went on in later days to form Vinegar Joe with Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer – saw him at a club in 1965, he asked him to join his group, one that later became the Ram Jam Band. Pete originally had Jamaican Blue Beat singer Errol Dixon out front, but quickly saw the merits of having an American leading a band performing US soul.
Geno was demobbed back home in early 1965, but quickly returned to the UK – where he felt his prospects were far better – and the Ram Jam Band soon took off. They stuck together for around three years, making a big impact on a homegrown r’n’b and soul scene, and after barely a year together Pye released the first of two commercially-successful live albums, Hand Clappin’, Foot Stompin’, Funky-Butt Live! – in-house producer John Schroder having converted the label’s main London studio into a makeshift club to try and nail that great sound and give it a winning, authentic feel.
That LP reached No.5 on the UK charts, sticking around the top-10 alone for nine months, deep into 1967, when follow-up Hipster Flipsters and Finger Poppin’ Daddies followed suit and reached No.8. In fact, his albums outsold revered LPs from the likes of Bob Dylan, Cream and The Who during that era. And while you could argue that Geno was in effect merely a covers artist, who better to inspire you and turn you on to all that great music at that point in time?
There were a few moderately-successful hit singles, namely Water, Hi Hi Hazel, Que Sera Sera and Michael (The Lover), while in the sleeevenotes of my 2006 Foot Stompin’ Soul CD collection, Peter Doggett talks passionately about Geno’s version of The Precisions’ Northern Soul favourite (If This Is Love) I’d Rather Be Lonely, saying, ‘It might be the greatest Four Tops record that Levi Stubbs never made’. Praise indeed.
Yet it’s generally agreed that the studio recordings never really matched the intensity of those Ram Jam Band live performances, with Geno and the group were chiefly recognised as one of Britain’s most exciting stage outfits, regularly topping bills, few acts daring to follow them on. And let’s face it, Geno has performed alongside James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley and The Everly Brothers, to name but a few. There was also a 1966 appearance on Ready Steady Go! alongside Cilla Black, Wayne Fontana and the Spencer Davis Group, while the following year he joined his band on The Record Star Show and it seems that (according to http://www.garagehangover.com/) there were also performances on the BBC’s Top of the Pops, Pop North and Saturday Club.
So how does the Ram Jam Band today compare to all those years ago? The personnel have clearly changed, but I’d venture that Geno and co. have still got it all going on.
“Oh yeah. I’m back on the good foot, and they’re bitchin’, man! They are really something.”
A mixture of old and young, rubbing off on each other?
“Yeah! What it does is it gives you the experience of the older guys, who teach the younger guys how to act and everything. We’re a party band, but you can’t be getting drunk every night, or turning up late for the gigs. There’s got to be a business flow. We’ve got places to go and we’ve got to travel those miles, then after driving five hours have to go on stage and give it what for, for 50 minutes, an hour 20, an hour and a half …”
It turns out that Geno has two live bands on the go at present, also offering us the Yo Yos – ‘more blues and less sax’, I understand.
“Yeah, because I’m a big blues fan. I was brought up with blues, and when I started singing over here in England I was singing blues before I was recommended to the Ram Jam Band and switched over to soul. A lot of people think blues is boring or a downer, so I wanted to put together a unit to show people the blues is an upper!”
Little is publicly known of Geno’s Indiana roots, but word has it that this bootlegger’s son, brought up by his grandmother while his parents were in jail, hadn’t sung in public until he moved overseas in 1961. Who would he say were the biggest influences on him and the acts that inspired him to first get on a stage?
“It was actually Little Richard. He can do it all – he can play classical, soul, blues, gospel. He got everybody involved and excited. If I was going to do it I wanted to do it the way Little Richard did it. I don’t want people sitting around bored. I want them to get in the act and loosen up! Get lucid and spiritual! In the church, black people – they party!”
Those who don’t know Geno’s story might be taken aback learning that – after a less successful spell as a solo artist when the original Ram Jam Band split – he threw his energies into hypnosis – he’s a member of the Guild of Hypnotists – and meditation studies, when he briefly returned to the US, settling in LA. But maybe there’s a ‘showman’ link with his full-on performances there. He certainly sees it all as part of the same canvas.
“Yeah, man! Really, I’d lost my confidence. I was over in America working with The Beach Boys – who were producing my album – and found they hated each other, had separate managers and were going to break up. What promised to be fantastic became a nightmare! But I went to a hypnotist to get myself straight rather than rely on booze and dope.
“Her name was Pat Collins and she was one of the best in the world. I became her protege, and became a stage hypnotist, doing the top theatres here in the UK. In the first half of the show I would come out with hypnotism, then after a 20-minute break for the second half I’d come out with The Ram Jam Band! I really enjoyed doing that, and we were taking work from Paul McKenna!”
While his spell working with The Beach Boys included recordings that never saw the light of day, Geno later recorded three albums for the DJM label between the mid-70s and the end of the decade. But it took that drying out and refocusing period back home to put him back on the right track. That and a certain early 1980 hit, the co-writer of which was arguably more responsible than anyone in the last 30-odd years for turning a lot of us on to Geno’s past.
We’re talking Kevin Rowland, of Dexy’s Midnight Runners fame, whose breakthrough No.1 Geno (written with Kevin Archer) paid homage to the man himself. Accordingly, a decade after the 60s’ incarnation of the Ram Jam Band parted ways, he was back to prominence on a worldwide scale, that memorable song continuing to receive regular national radio airplay to this day and having led to encouragement for Geno – then out in LA – to make a comeback. He initially declined while completing his degree in hypnotherapy. But in time he returned to our shores.
“Yeah man, yeah! I thought they just got drunk in the studio and did that as a joke, but Kevin told me, ‘No, no, no, that was no joke! I knew what I was doing!’ I hadn’t realised he was such a fan. He’d come and see me and the Ram Jam Band play, saw us having so much fun and felt, ‘I’ve got to get a piece of that!’ So I’m glad I influenced him.”
There’s a line in that song – despite the underlying nostalgia for Geno in his ‘60s pomp – suggesting he’d lost his way by the end of the ‘70s. Was that fair comment?
“Oh right. At the time I had. I was going through this thing, the original Ram Jam Band had broken up and I was over there with The Beach Boys. But that’s when I got into ‘hypno’ and all that. And that was the turning point for me. I thank him (Kevin Rowland) for all of that, but I didn’t cash in on it. I came back over a year after it was all over. I didn’t come over and live off Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I didn’t want that to happen. If I was going to be around again, I was going to be around on my terms, and able to still cut the mustard on stage.”
I didn’t get the chance to see Geno live until October 1987, when I believe he was backed by the Ram Jam Stars. Rather fittingly, I’d aimed to see Georgie Fame at the Half Moon in Putney that night, but arrived at the venue from Guildford only to find out his show was a sell-out. It must have been fate though, and a quick change of plan led to a great night six miles north-east, at another top watering hole and music venue, The Cricketers in Kennington. And duly inspired by that, I caught Geno again at Aldershot’s West End Centre the following March. I put all this to Geno, who was clearly impressed.
“Yeah man! Yeah!”
I seem to recall he was on fine form at both shows, and my abiding memory of The Cricketers show was Geno telling us he’d decided to do a couple of songs ‘sideways’. We weren’t totally sure what the hell he was on about, but it sure was a groove, and we went with it. Inspirational.
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah man!”
So is sideways the new way forward?
“That is the new way forward! It all hangs loose then! Ha ha!”
At this point Geno asks me a couple of questions, quizzing me as to how I ended up moving North. I fill him in on a little biographical background, not least my partner’s Lancashire link, prompting Mr Washington to pronounce, ‘Love will do it every time!’
When we get back to influences, I tell him that when I listen back to his music – not least the afore-mentioned Foot Stompin’ Soul double CD collection (Castle Music/Sanctuary Records, 2006) which couples live and studio recordings from the initial Ram Jam Band years – I hear a lot of other US artists from that era too, not least Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett. Did he see all these bands and think, ‘This could be me’?
“No, they changed their stuff to the way I’d do it! When they got over to England they didn’t think anyone knew them, but people said, ‘We know who you are from Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band!’
“While they were working out deals to release songs in Europe, we were getting imports from sailors and so on. We’d have those songs six months before they’d get them released. I’d never seen these bands before, but when I did they’d changed the way they did their live performances, performing them the same way as the Ram Jam Band, putting some ‘umph’ into it! You listen to the early Otis Redding, and it was more slow. Listen to the later stuff, and he puts some ‘umph’ into it!”
Like Geno, Otis certainly put on a great show. I love those live recordings of his. Such a shame he died so young, I mention.
“Oh yeah! I miss him. Even though I didn’t see him, I was inspired by him. The actual records are so fantastic. And if you’re going to have a party, and want people mixing, and a good atmosphere, you just can’t beat soul! That’s the way it is.”
Over here, the Mod in-crowd latched on to you very early.
They stuck with you over the years too, and you’ve always had a good UK following. Any special memories of past Lancashire visits?
“Is Blackburn up there? They had something called The Casino …’
Not far off, Geno – that was in Wigan.
“Yeah, Wigan! We did our second live album at the Casino! That was a big seller too. So we were all around that area. I remember the bars and all-nighters too. All-nighters then were different from all-nighters now. Back then, they went to see the original, live group. Today they listen to the records, and they’re more self-indulgent. Know what I mean? Back in the day, you went to see the group, and it was party time! Everybody was lifting you up, and it was one big party.”
Actually, I’ve since found out (again thanks to http://www.garagehangover.com/ – a mine of information on the Ram Jam Band and many more groups from that era) that Geno might actually have been referring to the band’s third live album for Pye, Running Wild, which was recorded at the Casino Ballroom, Bolton, on August 9th, 1968. That said, the fact that they seemed to appear at the Wigan Casino the same day might have added to the confusion.
Memories of that era take me on to the last time I chanced upon Geno on the TV screen, picked out in the crowd during a BBC set featuring fellow ‘60s survivor Georgie Fame, who introduces him from the stage between songs, then reminisces about those heady days of late nights and early morning wanders around London seeking out breakfast. It was some scene, wasn’t it?
“Oh man! It was fantastic, and we thought it would never end! We thought, ‘If the ’60s is this good, what are the ‘70s and ’80s going to be like? But it didn’t turn out like that. The 60s were unique. It was like a revolution, and no longer were things the way Mummy and Daddy and Grandma did it. The Mods clicked on. They had The Who, Small Faces, then there was us! Who’s the King? It was a fantastic time. Party time!”
Getting back to the Flamingo, I only realised on the morning of my interview, while reaching for Foot Stompin’ Soul, that it was catalogued (yep, I tend to go off first names) next to my CD version of Georgie Fame’s Live at the Flamingo album. And that seemed rather apt.
“Ha ha! Yeah, man. The Flamingo was a phenomenal club. That’s where Cream came out of, from the Graham Bond Organisation and Eric Clapton playing there with John Mayall. And I got friendly with John Mayall, Zoot Money, Georgie Fame, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, Chris Farlowe …”
There was word that you were in competition with Pye label-mates Jimmy James and the Vagabonds too.
“Yeah, but not really. People would think that, but he couldn’t draw the crowds we drew though. Ha ha!”
Geno has a soft spot for The Marquee too, and – more to the point – another Soho club, the Bag o‘ Nails, where he first met his wife, Frenchie.
“Ah yeah, man, that was fantastic club! The owners of The Flamingo also owned the Bag o’ Nails, and were my managers. And that club was the same place my brother-in-law – check this out – Peter Noone (of Herman’s Hermits fame) met my wife’s sister. Also, Paul McCartney met his wife, Linda (nee Eastman), down there. Ah man, it was a jumping club! We’d all spend our free time down there, talking, drinking, meeting people. You’d get The Four Tops jump up and sing with the band, and The Temptations, and Rufus Thomas, Tom Jones, PJ Proby … oh, man!”
“Oh, we’ve been together for over 50 years!”
Does she keep you young?
“Yeah! You know that! I didn’t get an ugly one either!”
The inevitable machine-gun laugh follows again, and we soon get on to the Ram Jam Inn, that eaterie on the A1 (Great North Road) in Rutland which gave the band its name. Has Geno ever been back?
“No, it was more a case of trying to find a name for the band. We had formed, but didn’t have a name and went through a thousand names. We then did a gig, working things out, and when we came back down the A1 we came upon the Ram Jam Petrol Station, then the Ram Jam Inn straight after.
“We were laughing about the petrol station owning this restaurant, saying, ‘I hope it isn’t the same guy who changed our tyres fixing those steaks, or giving us sausage, eggs and bacon with greasy gasoline hands! Some 100 miles away from there, we were still laughing about it, and thought it was a silly name but a memorable one, so decided to call ourselves The Ram Jam Band.”
So not only did the Mod in-crowd appreciate you, but you also had an … erm, inn joke to help you bond together.
“Yeah! And do you know what? A lot of folk thought I actually owned the Ram Jam Inn, and would go in and ask, ‘Where’s Geno?’ to which they’d say, ‘We don’t know no damned Geno!’ Ha ha!”
I’ve mentioned a couple of sidelines outside music for Geno, and they also include his writing – for adults and children – and motivational speaking. There’s also been the acting, including appearances in 1995 film Paparazzo, appearing as himself in a 2007 episode of Midsomer Murders (his co-stars including Suzi Quatro), and 2009 movie A Bit of Tom Jones, which won a BAFTA Cymru Best Film award. But that’s all on hold for now.
“Yeah, right now I’ve cut that because I’m concentrating on the band. I’ve got such a fantastic band and people are going crazy over our songs. I will get back to the motivational speaking though. I’m into that.”
The current band sees Geno backed by Steve Bingham (bass, backing vocals, formerly of The Foundations and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, and who has also toured with Gallagher and Lyle, Eddie Floyd, Jimmy James and P.P. Arnold); Geoff Hemsley (drums); Stuart Dixon (guitar, backing vocals); Alan Whetton and Allesandro Carnevali (both tenor sax). So for those not lucky enough to see them live before, what can they expect from Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, 2016 style?
“Well, we’ll come up there and we will play them a live album, and we’re going to put some glide in these strides, so I can get some zoot for my suits. Ha ha ha!”
Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band play Preston Guild Hall’s Guild Foyer on Friday, August 12 (7.30pm), with tickets £17.50 from the box office on 01772 80 44 44 or via www.prestonguildhall.com.
Thanks also for a little extra background info from Kingsley Harris’s late 2012 interview with Geno, for the http://www.musicfromtheeastzone.co.uk/ website, and to all at http://www.garagehangover.com/.