An interview with Herbie Flowers

By Neil Davey

With the recent release of 'The John Williams Collection', Neil Davey speaks to the guitarist's Sky band member Herbie Flowers. "I'm just a bass player," says Herbie Flowers. "And not a very good one at that."
Herbie FlowersHerbie Flowers

Every music journalist - hell, every journalist - should interview Herbie Flowers at least once in their lifetime. A ten-minute interview slot rolled cheerily into 30 minutes of anecdotes ("Blue Mink? That was just a lucky afternoon"), very funny opinions ("I enjoyed working with Serge Gainsbourg, he became a cult figure thanks to Je t'aime - and very tame it is by today's standards"), great advice to young musicians ("don't do drugs, don't play too many notes, that's about it") and the sort of self-deprecating wisdom that only 50 or so years in the music industry can give you ("Sky was a lot of fun, but it's a bit forgotten now.") Or perhaps not. "I'm making all this up," chuckles Herbie, part way through our conversation. "I'm just trying to make it interesting."

Despite his suggestion that it’s all fabrication and that he only built a career because he "has a ridiculous name", don’t believe a word of it. This is still the man who provided the opening bassline to Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side, appeared on Bowie’s Space Oddity and helped Sky become one of the first classical crossover artists. Not bad at all for a self-confessed "musical truckdriver".

He laughs. "Ah, I only said that once. I’m just a freelance bass player, I couldn’t begin to go into details about Lou Reed’s or David Bowie’s or John William’s private life... over the years about 1% of what I’ve done has made money or held its artistic value. The rest makes my toes curl up. I’m not a very good bass player. If something I’m playing on comes on the radio, I’ll turn it off ‘cos I know what’s coming."

Given the length of Herbie’s career then – he started around the time of his National Service - the radio is probably off more than it’s on.

"When I started, musicians became musicians either through the military or brass bands. Everybody seemed to play an instrument but it was before the days of other preoccupations, like TV and video games, which sterilises some people. When I was called up, I snatched the chance to play tuba. Then to qualify as a corporal you had to have a second instrument and the natural double for a tuba player is the double bass, and the natural thing for a double bass player is to double again on electric bass. So then I could play all three basses, read music and that made me relatively adaptable. That’s good because no two days are the same.

"Half of my professional life is taken up running music courses, in prisons or for disabled people and kids. That’s why it’s nice to keep working, there’s always something new. And I think that applies to John (Williams) - he’s always working on other things so doesn’t have to go out and play the hits. When I think of being in one band with 12 songs playing those over and over... Can you imagine poor Mick Jagger? He does a solo album, he does gigs, but people don’t want to hear his songs, they want the Stones back catalogue." He laughs. "That would be like having a job in the bank."

"The other half of things I do, the first Sunday in every month, is a jazz breakfast at the Ropetackle Centre in Shoreham to 250 people. That always brings in new players, so that keeps me stimulated and the audience get good value for their eight quid. They get coffee and a croissant and what I call jazz and jokes. I’m a happy man."

It has to be said he sounds genuinely content. "Ah," laughs Herbie, "it’s just nice to have someone listen to me..."

Cavatina: The John Williams Collection is out now.

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