James Litherland is an English guitar player and singer. He played with the popular English band Colossuem. They were part of one the last great rock events of the 60's, "Supershow" which also included artists such as "Led Zeppelin, Glen Campbell, Steven Stills, Buddy Guy, Jack Bruce and more. James continues to have a very successful musical career. Here's what James recently had to say.
R.V.B. - What kind of music were you first exposed to as a youngster and what sparked you to pick up the guitar?
J.L. - I was listening to music from a very early age. My mother and father both loved music and had a record player and would play songs like “20 Tiny Fingers, 20 Tiny Toes” and “Close The Door They’re Coming Through The Window”, that kind of thing and my dad used to whistle around the house. When I was about 2 or 3 my mum would leave me with a friend (child minder) while she went out to work and her husband (Les) ran a Kazoo band and the girls in the family would dress in white shirts, short ﬂaired dresses and white plimsoles and shake these cardboard tubes with paper “tassles” and they were the “Ra Ra Girls”, they would play and parade at the Oldham town carnival during bank holidays (a very English tradition) and they would rehearse in the kitchen. I would watch while waiting for my mum to pick me up after she ﬁnished work. Not long after, my “Uncle Les” formed a harmonica gang and had an act very like “The Three Monarchs” and the “Morton Frazier Harmonica Gang”. His son Brian was in the band and I still see him. The format was a Lead harmonica player, rhythm (chords) section and a bass, all harmonicas, and there was a dwarf who was always jumping up to try to get to the microphone and they would ignore him or slap him down, (part of the act a la Morton Frazier) however, when he ﬁnally made the mic, of course he was a great player. I used to sit and watch the rehearsals and one day, Uncle Les gave me a Hohner Chromatic on which the slide button had broken off. So that was my ﬁrst instrument at about 5 yrs old. A little later my mum bought me a cardboard clarinet and I went to the Oldham Music College and asked for lessons but they turned me away because it wasn’t a proper clarinet. Not long after I asked for a guitar for Christmas, which I got when I was 8. By this time I’d heard Lonnie Donegan doing “Rock Island Line (Leadbelly) and “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” which was the ﬁrst tune I learned to play (only the melody) It’s important to understand that at this point I’d never seen anybody actually play a guitar. I got bored with playing tunes quite quickly and the guitar sat in a corner for a couple of years. Then one day I was watching the television (quite a new thing as my parents had only recently hired one yes, HIRED, in those days nobody could afford to buy one) and I saw a play with someone sitting on some stairs playing CHORDS and I thought “Wow I want to do that” so I went to the the local music shop and bought a book on how to play guitar (Play In A Day by Bert Weedon, which I still have) and the next day I was playing 2 or 3 chords and writing songs. I played my acc guitar and sang all the time and the next Christmas my mum and dad knew someone who was selling an Electric guitar (a Broadway) and they bought it for me, along with a Fal amp. I’ll never forget that Christmas, I played the whole day until late evening, I loved it. Soon I got to know some other people who played and began to play with them. The ﬁrst real band was called “The R & B Sect” and we played “Baby Please Don’t Go” (before “Them”) “ Too Much Monkey Business” and other R & B numbers and started doing Gigs (Weddings etc.) I was 11 by then.The very ﬁrst gig I ever did was a wedding upstairs above a pub. The ﬁrst song we did was “Too Much Monkey Business” and it has a 2 bar intro on guitar.I was so nervous, my hands were shaking. As I came in with the ﬁrst line of the vocal I thought my heart was going to come right up and out of my mouth. After that I settled down and was ﬁne.
R.V.B. - What was the name of your first kid band and what cover songs did you start with?
J.L. - I then played in quite a few bands locally, ﬁrst playing Stax stuff, “Ride Your Pony” “Shotgun” stuff like that and then onto Motown stuff and then got into Hendrix, Clapton with John Mayall etc so kind of back to where I started really.
R.V.B. - How did the audition process go for Colosseum. Did you play songs and get accepted right away or were you notified later.
I answered the ad for Colosseum after something had happened at work (an accident) which convinced me totally that I never wanted to do another “normal” job ever again. I answered the ad on Friday, auditioned on Monday in London, heard on Wednesday that I was on the short list, came back to London on Friday for a ﬁnal audition and was back in London the next Monday to live and be part of Colosseum. I never looked back, I was in heaven. I got the job really as a singer and they took on a guitarist called Jim Roach. He didn’t work out and they asked me to take over guitar duties as well.
R.V.B. - With Colosseum how did the writing process go? Did each member bring an idea to the band worked on it as a unit or was the song more or less complete when it was presented?
J.L. - The writing at ﬁrst was done mainly by Dave (Greenslade) with others chipping in but I started bring stuff in and was getting them accepted. I think the fact that none of the others could sing, any songs were easier for me to write and once I was in the groove I started writing a lot to the point of the 2nd album where I wrote “Elegy”, “Butty’s Blues” and “The Machine Demands A Sacriﬁce” which I wrote with Pete Brown. He wrote a lot of lyrics for Cream, “White Room” etc.
R.V.B. - How long did it take to record the two records?
R.V.B. - What were some memorable moments on the Tours you did with Colosseum?
J.L. - I’ll never forget the ﬁrst gig in Scarborough as it was my very ﬁrst professional gig. Other than that, a few gigs really stick in my mind. The Supershow was very special, it was full of people that I’d looked up to not long before I was in that position. Stephen Stills, Buddy Miles, Buddy Guy, Roland Kirk to name just a few of the greats that were there that day. I became a huge Stephen Stills fan that day and he had a big inﬂuence on me later on from Crosby Stills & Nash to his solo albums. Another gig we did was the Bath Festival, which was the ﬁrst time I’d ever done a gig where there were people as far as the eye could see (I think about 50,000). But THE most memorable gig without a doubt was when we played at the Fillmore West in San Francisco (It may be of interest to your readers that this was at the exact time that Woodstock was happening and we were booked to play The Fillmore and then The Whiskey A Go-Go in L.A. Had we been on the East coast at that time we would have been on Woodstock. Of course no one knew then how big that was going to turn out). The Fillmore was featured on albums like “The Rock Machine Turns You On” etc which were huge inﬂuences on me, Paul Butterﬁeld, Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomﬁeld etc so just to be there was fantastic. We played there for 3 nights and were bottom of the bill to The Youngbloods, and a band called CTA (Chicago Transit Authority, later to change there name to Chicago) and I thought they were just fantastic. By this time I was really into writing and SONGS and I felt that Colosseum were mostly not on the same wavelength. They were much more into solo’s and that kind of thing and I was beginning to feel that Jon especially was not “laying down the groove” enough. I was beginning to struggle with the feel of the material we were doing. When I stopped playing rhythm (to do a solo) I felt that the rhythm section fell apart and although it was very “clever” I was beginning not to feel it any more. Seeing Chicago play was like lifting the curtain on all the things I was feeling. They had a great Singer playing great songs but they were “jazzy” in a very “rocky” way. I knew at that moment that the feelings that had been creeping up on me for a while were totally valid and this put substance to them. I knew now why I had been feeling the way I was. Another thing they did that I’d never seen before was that they had small amps and were miking everything up, which meant the Brass Section could hear themselves and because they had a guy on the desk, the balance out front was fantastic. Most guitarists at that point (me included) had Stacks taller than themselves pumping out so much volume that the balance on stage (and off) was terrible.
R.V.B. - After you left Colosseum you went on to form somewhat of a super group with Mogul Thrash. Was that a different style of music with the new members? Did you tour to support the one record? I understand you recorded with Long John Baldry with Million. A few other guys also. How did that collaboration come about?
J.L. - The whole idea was to be rocky / funky / improvisational but with a solid song foundation. We toured Great Britain and some of Europe and Scandinavia but sadly never got to the States. Atlantic Records wanted to sign us with a huge advance and we wanted to sign to them but for some unknown reason the management signed us to RCA. It was a disaster. When the album was high in Radio Luxembourg’s charts the record never hit the shops. When we split, John Whetton joined King Crimson, Malcolm and Roger formed The Average White Band and I formed Million. We did some gigs with The Faces and Rod Stewart introduced us to Long John Baldry and we were with him for about a year and did some of the tracks on the Everything Stops For Tea album. Rod produced the tracks we were on and he was great, as was John Baldry, great guy, great singer. After that the same band, plus a keyboard player, Dave Rose, did a European and American tour with Dick Heckstall-Smith and then backed Leo Sayer for some tours of Britain, Europe and USA and was on the Just A Boy album.
R.V.B - What made you do the big move to San Francisco?
On my ﬁrst tour of America, in San Francisco, I met a lady, I was mad about her, we kept in touch and I saw her a few times over the next few years, then after Leo Sayer, I got a call from her saying that her band needed a guitarist and would I consider coming over for the summer, so I did. The band was called Elvis Duck and we played the Bay Area with people like Tower Of Power, Sons Of Champlin, Clover (Hughie Lewis) etc. and I got to do some sessions with some great people, Gaylord Birch, Greg Erico, Bobby Vega, Billy Roberts etc. and some of Van Morrison’s band. I had a great time. I came back to England to form Bandit with Cliff Williams and Graham Broad. We signed to Arista and did an album but it didn’t work out. After that I decided I’d had enough of bands ( I had a great time but never made any money) so started doing sessions. I preferred (and still do) playing live but making a living wasn’t easy. I was on lots of adverts, albums, theatre etc. and played low key gigs as a side man, no pressure. I appeared on albums by The Furys, Finbar Fury, Steve Marriot, I can’t even remember most of them but I was on a Dennis Hopper (one of my favourite actors) ﬁlm “The Piano Player” playing the harmonica, which was great. Also I was in a ﬁlm called The Conspiricy Of Silence, a very powerful ﬁlm. I was also on adverts for Ford, Citroen, Peaugeot, and mozzarella, everything you can think of really.
R.V.B. - What are some of your favorite bands of the past and present?
J.L. - I enjoy all kinds of music and some of my favourite artists are Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson, Vince Gill, in the guitar category and lots of other artists past and present. I could write a list as log as your arm of the people I like in the past but I would include Sam Cook, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, Gladys Knight and Lulu. In the present there are some great singers, Mariah Carey, Leona Lewis etc. I also like country artists such as Allison Krause, Brooks and Dunn, Jerry Douglas etc there are just too many to go into, the list is endless. I still just LOVE music.
J.L. - My other hobbies......... I’ve had a go at most things in my time, hill waking, cycling, outdoor stuff. For the last few years I have been playing a lot of Table Tennis, i really love it and I play in the lower league in my area. I’ll never be a champion but it’s great fun.
R.V.B. - What are you up to these days?
J.L. - These days I’m a lot more relaxed about things. I’ve got a couple of albums out on the internet, “4th Estate” and “Real Men Cry” and I’m working on an album at the moment.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking the time to share
Interview by Robert von Bernewitz
For more information on James visit his website at www.jameslitherland.com
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