Back in March, I posted about Flute & Nut, a marvelous album by the late flutist and saxophonist Harold McNair. The orchestral album with McNair soloing was arranged by John Cameron, whom I had the honor of interviewing for my recent "Anatomy of a Song" column for The Wall Street Journal on Donovan's Sunshine Superman (1966). John arranged that #1 hit and album as well. [Photo above of John Cameron courtesy of John Cameron]
John is a jazz, pop and classical keyboardist and arranger who has worked on TV shows and has scored films in the U.K. and the U.S. In addition to working with Donovan on tour, John has arranged a wide range of recordings, from Ella Fitzgerald's Ella in 1969 to three albums by Heatwave. He also formed the Collective Consciousness Society in 1970 that was led by guitarist Alexis Korner.
John and I spent some e-time chatting about McNair...
JazzWax: You were performing cabaret in London in 1965 when you were hired as an co-arranger with jazz bassist Spike Heatley for Donovan’s Sunshine Superman album. You toured with Donovan, and the stage band included Harold McNair, yes?
John Cameron: We toured for quite a few years, mainly in Europe, usually with Tony Carr on drums and Spike on bass, with Freddy Logan on bass and latter Danny Thompson. We also featured Harold on flute and sax, plus either Ronnie Ross or Danny Moss handling clarinet, bass clarinet and sax. We'd pick up a string quartet in each city for concerts, and I played piano, harpsichord and organ. It was a pretty loose jazz-based folk sound spiced up with the string quartet and harpsichord vibe. And of course, Don was dressed in full kaftan and beads while we wore black tie. I also was starting to do TV work then with Julie Felix and Bobbie Gentry, and eventually Stan Dorfman’s In Concert series. So when Don went off to the U.S., he took Harold, Tony Carr and Danny Thompson. I stayed to look after Julie and the rest of the TV work. Some years after Don had moved to the U.S., I was scoring a movie in L.A., and one of the musicians invited me to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl and then afterward to a party in the Calabasas section of L.A. The directions looked labyrinthine to the party, so I set off early and wound up there way before any of the musicians. To kill time, I found a cantina in Calabasas, sat down outside in the sun and ordered a beer. The waitress came over and said “‘You're English? Do you know Donovan? He’s inside” And there he was, with Gypsy Dave and a crew of musicians. I had to travel 5,000 miles and then 50 miles outside downtown L.A. to hook up with him again.
JW: When and where did you first meet Harold McNair? And who realized he was a perfect fit for Donovan?
JC: Harold was introduced to me by Stanley Myers, the film composer. I can’t remember the circumstances but I remember Harold lived with a bunch of musicians in an apartment in Maida Vale in London, near the BBC radio studios. Funny enough, it was about three streets away from where I’d lived as a small child. I remember that one of Harold's flatmates was bassist Freddy Logan. Spike Heatley was very busy doing studio and TV work, and Freddy did quite a few gigs with Donovan and sessions with me.
Harold had a particularly sympathetic way of weaving delicate phrases around Don’s quite simple melodies and making them something special. On recording sessions, Harold fit what I wanted to do perfectly. Though his sight-reading wasn't as quick as some of the more seasoned session guys, once he got the feel of a chart, his interpretation and resonance were magic. And I loved the different sounds he got on the flute—the spitting, growling and singing vibe. We used it extensively on our version of Whole Lotta Love, which was the Top of the Pops theme for years. For the movie Kes (1969), Harold actually went out and bought an alto flute just for the date. The sound and texture he added to the movie still resonates enormously.
JW: What was McNair like as a person? So little is known about him or his personality and temperament.
JC: Harold was a gentle, reserved guy. He kept to himself, and it wasn’t until pretty late that we learned he was so ill. One beautiful memory I have is from one of our tours. We were in Stockholm for a concert and nothing much was happening. Finally on the night of the concert, all the musicians were invited to a party. We had no idea where we were going. we piled into a taxi, gave the driver the address, and an hour later we arrived at this big house 40 miles out of Stockholm, in the snow. There was no way we were going to get back before dawn. When we arrived back at the hotel, we trooped into the hotel just as Don and his manager and roadie were about to leave for the airport for out flight to Copenhagen. Not a great move on our part.
Anyway, we got to the airport on no sleep and found that the airline had upgraded all of us to first class with Don and his manager, and that we were the only ones in the section. So on no sleep and, of course, champagne for breakfast, Harold decided to get out his alto flute. He started playing at 30,000 feet. It was sublime—like something in a movie. We didn't need any chemicals to get that wonderful “float,” just no sleep, champagne and Harold’s flute.
When we eventually played the concert in Copenhagen, all went fine until just before the interval when the audience started to slow-hand-clap. We thought we had totally blown it and that no sleep had finally taken its toll. Then during the intermission, the promoter told us that this was the best compliment we could receive from a notoriously staid Danish audience. This was one of a few gigs when we never bothered to change, but flew home to London in our dinner jackets.
JW: How did your magnificent album Flute & Nut come about? What did the title mean and how did the arrangements and session come together?
JC: The title was a play on a very popular U.K. chocolate bar—Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Don’t really know how the album came about—things just happened in the 1960s and early 70s. Like almost all sessions at the time, it was all live. There was very little overdubbing then. I had sat in with Harold at the famous jazz club at the Bulls Head in Barnes on Thames, so I had a pretty good idea of how his approach would be. He came up with some originals for the album as did I, plus the odd standard. By then I had a real neat string section led by Pat Halling, who had played on the Beatles' All You Need Is Love.
The quartet was comprised of the guys who solved the notorious London parking problem by turning up to recording sessions on motor-bikes with their “strads” in cases on their backs. The usual suspects were on the brass and reeds, including Ronnie Ross, Danny Moss, Les Condon et al, with Bill Le Sage, Spike Heatley and Tony Carr in the rhythm section. My personal hero at the time was Quincy Jones, and I wanted to catch the vibe of his work for artists like Roland Kirk, Ray Charles and others—plus a splash of Quincy's cinematic writing.
JW: Why do you suppose McNair was not better known in the U.K. and in the States? It seemed he could have done a ton of studio dates in Hollywood and in London.
JC: I don’t know why Harold didn’t become a huge star globally. His saxophone playing was really something, but his flute playing was the best jazz flute I had ever heard. I still rate it the best ever in jazz. At the Bulls Head, he would take chorus after chorus totally unaccompanied, and his lines swung as hard as any rhythm section could. He was really starting to get a lot of very varied studio and crossover work when he became ill in '71. Also in those days, the US and the U.K. were still somewhat separated, and reputations didn’t always travel. When Donovan had a hit in the U.S. with Sunshine Superman, its release in the U.K. was delayed by a law suit.
Consequently, I didn’t profit from any of the reflected glory for four to five months and had to go back to conducting pantomime at the local (Watford Palace) theater. And, of course, Harold died so damn young. I don’t know whether he was a heavy smoker—I seem to remember almost everyone was then. It was only in the early '70s that I (and a lot of others) stopped. But right to the end, he stopped the show. The benefit we did for him with the Collective Consciousness Society at Ronnie Scott’s to send him off to recuperate after his operation blew all the electrics in the club. [Photo of John Cameron above courtesy of John Cameron]
JazzWax clips: Here's John's arrangement of Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love for Britain's Top of the Pops TV show in the 1970s by his group, the Collective Consciousness Society...
Here's John's arrangement of Boogie Nights for Heatwave in 1976...
Here's John's arrangement of Sunshine Superman in 1965, widely considered to be the first psychedelic rock hit...
Here's Harold McNair's entire Flute & Nut album arranged by John Cameron in 1970...
And here's Donovan with Harold McNair on flute and John Cameron on keyboard in 1968...