Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I’ve been catching up on a body of work that had previously passed me by, namely the half-dozen or so albums recorded by the Keef Hartley Band for Decca Records between 1969 and 1973.
The fact that it’s taken me the best part of 40 years to catch up with this stuff is down to a couple of issues. Firstly, bands led by drummers have never been my cup of tea somehow…..they’ve always tended towards being somewhat iffy, in my opinion. For every Peter Erskine or Manu Katche, there are a dozen Cozy Powells or Buddy Riches or Sandy Nelsons. The worry, always with drummer-led bands, is that the drums will take over and that every number will have a 12-minute drum solo at its heart. The second reason I never got to grips with the Hartley band is simply the fact that back in the day, there was just far too much other stuff to listen to.
I first became aware of Keef Hartley as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers during the 1967-8 era. Hartley played in the Mayall band that featured horn-players like Dick Heckstall-Smith, Henry Lowther and Chris Mercer, and once he formed his own band , Hartley, too, showed a great fondness for reeds and brass players with several ex-Mayall alumni joining him, notably Lowther, who became the band’s arranger.
I had a nice photo of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Keef Hartley here taken by this guy – or so he says anyway. He contacted me to threaten legal action unless I took down the photo he allegedly took back in 1968. I thought I would instead post a photo of him so you can see the kind of arseholes that infest the Net. By the way, he is auctioning off copies of the original Mayall/Hartley photo on some skanky website for about SKr 300 a pop. Perhaps that’s how he can afford such a big glass of wine. Perhaps the person who took the photo of this scumbag will now contact me to threaten legal action as well. Perhaps the world is going mad. Göran Heckler, what a guy, what a shining advert for humanity. Anyway, let’s get back to Keef Hartley before the cops show up….
When Hartley left Mayall’s band in 1968, he approached Mayall’s label, Decca, with his new project and they responded positively. The new Hartley band’s focal point was probably singer/guitarist Miller Anderson, whose strong singing voice was to prove a mainstay. Also on board was a stellar reeds and brass section that featured Henry Lowther’s trumpet and violin alongside Lyn Dobson on sax & flute, Harry Beckett on trumpet and flugelhorn and Chris Mercer on tenor sax. The resultant album, released in 1969 , was entitled ‘Halfbreed’ (possibly a reference to Hartley’s predilection for dressing up in Native American regalia) and is quite simply the outstanding album of Hartley’s career. The album is topped and tailed by humorous dialogue between Hartley and John Mayall, but the music inbetween is rarely anything less than excellent. Stand-out track would probably have to be the ten-minute spectacular ‘Born to die’, but it is far from being the album’s only highlight. These were really heady days for the band, who became one of the lesser-known participants at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where they drew favourable comparisons with American band Blood, Sweat and Tears.
The Keef Hartley Band either arriving at or leaving from the Woodstock Festival in 1969
‘Halfbreed’ was followed in fairly short order by a second album entitled ‘The Battle of NW6’, perhaps in reference to some internal squabbles among band members that erupted around this time. ‘NW6’ was generally another good album with the cast and crew now including the likes of new Rolling Stone Mick Taylor , keyboardist Mick Weaver, who had by now abandoned his ‘Wynder K. Frog’ pseudonym, reeds & flute player Barbara Thompson and flautist Ray Warleigh. The songs on the album were generally shorter and less memorable for the most part, but the high-class musicianship on view compensated for that.
By the time that the KHB’s third album – ‘The Time is Near’ – was released in late 1970, Miller Anderson had assumed most of the songwriting duties and the results failed to match the quality displayed on previous albums. 1971’s ‘Overdog’ was also rather less memorable, even though more ex-Mayall sidemen were drafted in – this time Jon Hiseman and Johnny Almond.
Hartley’s affection for large ensembles probably reached its apogee with the 1971 recording of ‘Little Big Band’ at London’s Marquee Club. This raucous recording utilised a 10-piece brass/woodwind section and featured many of the standout tracks from Hartley’s earlier albums. Thereafter, Hartley’s output was largely subject to the law of diminishing returns. Miller Anderson left the band in 1971 and though he and Hartley were reunited in a band called Dog Soldier about 1975, it was a pretty ill-judged sub-heavy metal venture at best.
In the late 70’s Hartley was quite often to be found alongside bassist Rick Kemp, supplying simple backing for Hull folk singer extraordinaire Michael Chapman. Since then, he has effectively been in semi-retirement from the music biz, though a ghostwritten biography ‘Halfbreed – A Rock and Roll Journey That Happened Against All The Odds’ did appear in 2007. Nowadays apparently, he’s more likely to be involved in making bespoke chairs or cabinets than he is to be playing the drums.