Bernie Marsden Discusses His Incredible New Album Kings - Summer 2021
Perhaps best known for his success with Whitesnake, Bernie Marsden is a supremely gifted guitarist and songwriter with an immense love for hard rocking blues. At 70 years old and with a career spanning over 50 years, it is wholly inspirational that Bernie’s love for the blues sees him continuing to push the boundaries of creativity in order to deliver the very best. Of course his collaboration with Joe Bonamassa saw the release of 2020’s Royal Tea, a wonderful tipping of the hat for British blues, and now we see the release of Kings, a massive celebration of the music of the 3 Kings: Freddie, Albert and BB. The record gives a new polish to 10 of their tracks and sprinkles them with Bernie’s unique touches and flourishes to provide a very fresh feel. Additionally, the record has 2 absolutely outstanding original instrumental tracks, Runaway and Uptown Train that prove without question that Bernie has the right to sit equally beside his heroes. We catch up with Bernie at his home in Buckinghamshire to find out how it all came together. We are greeted by a man in fine spirits and still on a high following his recent incredible set at the Steelhouse Festival. As the summer sun pours into his conservatory our conversation begins…
You’ve just released your new album Kings which is a massive celebration of the music of the 3 Kings: Freddie, Albert and BB. It’s an album where you have collectively taken 10 tracks and given them a fresh interpretation. As a young artist you were of course massively inspired by the 3 Kings and I’d like to go back to the beginning. Tell me about the first time you heard their music and your memories of the impact these artists had on you as a young guitarist.
I discovered these guys, these truly magnificent human beings, retrospectively because I was turned onto them by the British guys: Clapton, Green, Beck, Jimi Hendrix - who would mention them in interviews, and of course you went through those albums in the mid 60s and there would be names in brackets where there was a songwriter. I had to ask somebody “what do these names in brackets mean?” and they say “That’s the guy who wrote all the songs”, and I’d ask “Who is Howlin’ Wolf?” and “Who is Muddy Waters?”. I was fortunate enough to have an older cousin who was in a band in Liverpool during the Mersey Beat era who was a harmonica player. I was playing the guitar by the time I was about 13 or 14 and I was very proud to show him that I could play Sweets For My Sweets by The Searchers and he wasn’t impressed at all! (Laughs!) He said “If you can play that, learn this!” and he gave me a track by Wolf, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy. He’d already played me the Yardbirds album and The Bluesbreakers album because he (John Mayall) was the guy who discovered Eric Clapton for me. So it was a retrospective, and of course the enormity of their work hit me and I started to look for their recordings but they were difficult to find, especially where I lived in a tiny little town in Buckinghamshire. Trying to find an original Freddie King record was not easy!
These aren’t straightforward covers or reproductions of the King’s original tracks. Their versions are perhaps individually perfect yet what you’ve have managed to create is something fresh yet absolutely respectful to those ‘originals’. How did you approach the making of this record?
Well, thanks for that! That’s really what I wanted to do. I could’ve made this album 30 years ago, or even more, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as it has turned out. Now, from going through life – family stuff, other stuff and just being in and around what’s going on - I understood what the lyrics are all about and as such I think I can go in and record them with a bit more understanding of the life-cycle really. It sounds very deep and meaningful but I could have easily gone and done the songs when I was 25 but I wouldn’t have understood what I was singing about. So Woman Across The River for instance is so cool and was a very difficult song to record because of all the timing changes and stuff which seemed pretty natural but it’s just clever. ‘Woman across the river, she was mine’. She was mine! ‘I don’t want to talk to you because I don’t love you anymore’, well when I was 25 I didn’t know anything about that and it took a while but then you find out what that’s all about. I wanted to go into stuff like Key to The Highway where I wasn’t afraid to go down a well beaten path because it’s such a great song, and it’s from what, the 30s or 40s? But ‘When I leave this town and I won’t be back no more’, I saw BB King do that. I was stood on the side of the stage about 10 feet away from him and a tear rolled down my cheek when he sang that in Bournemouth because you could tell that he meant it at the time. It hit me because that’s what the lyrics are all about. So when I chose the songs to do these recordings, it was fairly easy to do stuff that I knew I could interpret with a bit of what I do as well but retain the meaning of the lyric.
Kings has a very live quality to the production. We have very polished performances but we can hear the wonderful nuances in every instrument. I almost felt like I had a seat at the table at the very best blues bar. How intentional was it to create this sound?
Well that was courtesy of a gig that I did with Billy Gibbons. Billy is a great blues fanatic like myself and he couldn’t wait to play me a record that he’d got on his laptop by Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. What Kim had done was record 5 or 6 of the tunes that he’d grown up with. Billy said to me “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this?” and I though yeah, what a great idea! So going out to do it was kind of from him, and then getting in to recording them as live as possible in the old style… You know, in the 50s and early 60s recordings, for a sax solo, the guy just walked towards the microphone, just moved closer to it – that kind of thing. So with Kings I wasn’t going quite that far back retrospectively but I wanted to do a lot of the lead guitar work on those tracks live and then the rhythm guitar, or vice versa. If there is piano or Hammond organ, you’ve only got two arms so one of those is an overdub! I wanted to keep it as live as possible and the guitar sounds are very, very pure. I only used 3 or 4 guitars on Kings, obviously retaining my kind of vibe and what I do on it, and I think it’s worked out quite well! We recorded the majority of the backing tracks just at the end of 2019 so I had the whole of last year to overdub it, get it mixed, get it finished and get everything sorted.
Albert, Freddie and BB have inspired so many artists including a personal friend of yours, Joe Bonamassa, whom you recently could collaborated with on the wholly outstanding Royal Tea record. Joe once did a whole tour dedicated to the 3 Kings. Was the Kings album something you discussed with Joe? I can imagine him being hugely supportive of this.
No, oddly enough – it was never discussed! I’ve sent him a copy of it and he likes it, he thinks it’s very, very good. I know he did the British Blues Tour but he’s always straight on to the next thing. Royal Tea seems like 5 years ago already because he’s already done another album. He’s out touring the Royal Tea material as we speak out in America. There’s a lot of good tunes on there. But we didn’t really discuss me doing this. He knew I was doing it because I recorded some of the stuff before we went in to Abbey Road to do Royal Tea. So he was aware and I think he was pleasantly surprised when he heard it.
There are a couple of qualities about blues music that I wanted to discuss with you more generally. The first is, as this record proves, blues music, perhaps unlike the title of the genre, is actually hugely uplifting music, and I think wonderful examples of this on the Kings record are the two Bernie Marsden instrumental tracks Runaway and Uptown Train. The second point is how timeless this music actually is. As you have mentioned already, Key To The Highway was written in the 30s. To give another specific example, You’ve Got To Love Her With A Feeling was actually first recorded by Tampa Red in 1938 yet it still stands up today as a modern piece of music. To what extent would you agree with blues being both uplifting and timeless?
Absolutely! And I’ll come back to what I said earlier about the lyrics – You’ve Got To Love Her With A Feeling, one of the lines is about how they were going to throw the man in jail and, how he took it once for the judge but then he threw the police in jail. There’s that kind of realistic stuff going on. I heard that first probably from Freddie King and then I found out later that it goes way back! Help The Poor is an interesting one because the guy who wrote that song (Charles Singleton) also wrote Strangers In The Night for Sinatra, and I love that version of it. I wanted to keep it fairly the same based on what’s going on with the words in the song. I’ve got a little motif in there with the guitar, and I tried to be laid-back and economic with the guitar. I’m no Joe Bonamassa flying round the fret board – I’ve never played like that – but Steve Lukather always said you can say more in 5 notes than many people can say in 50. The ‘less is more’ thing, that’s why I’ve always loved BB so much. It’s what he didn’t play in the song that made the rest of it sounds so good, you know? I got into Albert late really. Someone said to me when I was about 21 “Surely you’ve heard of Albert King?”. I’d heard his name but I didn’t know much about him. Then somebody gave me Cold Sweat, and I was like ‘Oh my god!’. He sounded like Otis Rush but I didn’t realise that they were both playing upside down guitars, so the thin E string is on the top hence that kind of unique bend that both those guys did, and if you put them both together you can really hear the difference. I didn’t know that of course at the time. I didn’t even really know about overdubs. I just wanted to work out Hendrix songs with all the overdubs. It wasn’t easy! (Laughs!)
Well, the answer to that is I don’t! That’s not something I’m proud to say. I’m a guitar player who sings, I’m not a singer guitarist. There’s a big difference. I realised that when I was about 19 when I was in a band with a singer who wasn’t very good but he could do that 2 or 3 octave thing and then the scream. And I was so jealous! When I was singing the song I thought ‘I’m very good’ (laughs!) but I couldn’t do that double octave thing, the big wail or the woo hoo thing. I realised about the time I was 18 that I was never gonna be able to do that so. Then I was thrown into a band and I asked “So who’s gonna be the singer?” and they said “You are!” and it was like “Oh, okay!”. I’d always been singing harmonies and back up stuff… but when you are 15 or 16 and you’re in a band, the singer was usually a pain in the neck but his dad probably owned the van or something! And you’d go “Well, I can sing as well as him,” and you’d divide up your 15 quid and be thinking, ‘Well if we didn’t have a singer will be getting £4 each instead of £3’ (laughs!). So the singer got the elbow! When I look back on it, it was a very dog eat dog time but I think we came out of it okay.
What a fantastic story! But I do have to say that your voice on this record is outstanding and holy immersive!
Thanks for that! I did actively sing and I was very conscious of delivering the songs and the lyrics. I knew how good the backing tracks were. They were so good! I wanted to make sure the vocals did them justice. Like back in the old days with Whitesnake, that fantastic band, looking at how good the backing tracks were you knew that the Coverdale vocal was going to be the icing on the cake. It was a fantastic feeling to have! And I had that when I did this because whilst I’m no Coverdale vocalist, I wanted to do the tracks justice with the lyrics. So I did take time over it. I did go in and redo some vocals because I wasn’t happy with them. There was a great deal of time and not inconsiderable thought went into delivering the vocals.
With the world opening up, thoughts do of course turn to live opportunities. What plans do you have to tour Kings to ensure it fulfils its enormous potential?