According to his own testimony, Herbie Flowers wasn’t a particularly good bass player, that’s part of his own self depreciating personality but also slightly true.
Musical talent is part of the equation but not the whole story. Flowers is a bass player but more importantly a session musician. Being a session player requires a different set of skills, being reliable, learning quickly and being sober, musical wizardry is far from essential. Hence Flowers’ advice to young musicians ‘don’t do drugs, don’t play too many notes’
Flowers was a few years older than a lot of the people he played for, they were a significant few years because he had done national service where he learned to play the Tuba in the military band, a rise to corporal necessitated learning a second instrument which was double bass, the next small step was to pick up the new fangled bass guitar. Flowers was competent reliable and sober, by the start of the 70’s he had carved out a secure career as a session bassist
By the end of the decade he had played on some 500 hit recordings including the likes of David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, George Harrison and Elton John.
But there’s more to Flowers than just session work, every now and again he would stick his head above the parapet for a little more spotlight. The first notable excursion was Blue Mink. He band was really an amalgamation of session players and songwiters which meant a bit of a stop start career as all the members had other lives. Probably because they weren’t away touring Australia all the time the band were omnipresent on TV shows in Britain watched by millions in real time, also they had a massive hit with ‘melting pot’ a song intended to be liberal but these days could cause a twitterstorm with its anti cultural diversity message (it’s going to happen one day- just wait).
Despite being nearly 40, Flowers also featured in the final line up of T Rex, probably a testament to his musical skills (not doing drugs or playing too many notes) because he’s always looked like he should be serving behind the counter of a hardware store rather than staffing a glam rock band. His final foray into stardom was Sky which was a kind of classical cross over band who at the time I considered to be so dull I wouldn’t leave my tent to see them at the 1979 Glastonbury Festival. The easy going musicality of the group made them a big hit with BBC program makers and which meant we probably heard a lot more of them than we intended to or even realised.
Sky was pretty much a proper band albeit on that was staffed with classically trained musicians, it took Flowers away from the session work as a full time career and subsequently he became more involved in Jazz and double bass work and then running music courses and choirs often getting people involved (prisoners, disabled) who wouldn’t normally.
But there’s one more bit of greatness still in Flowers’ CV and that’s Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. Transformer is certainly regareded as one of Reed’s top three LP’s and that’s due in no small part to the roles played by the session musicians and producer Mick Ronson. Although is pretty lyrically interesting there’s not a whole lot going on musically in Reed’s unexpected hit single until Ronson added backing vocals, a sax solo and Flower’s radical bass contribution, all of a sudden it’s one of the most distinctive sinks of all time and probably prevented Reed from sinking into early obscurity.
Here’s the story.
There is one more interesting addition to the Flowers’ CV but that’s for next week.