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DON'T LET IT DIE
an interview with

NORMAN
"HURRICANE"
SMITH


 

 

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DON'T LET IT DIE

an interview with
NORMAN "HURRICANE" SMITH

by Robert Silverstein

Remembered by pop fans in the know for his classic early ‘70s smashes “Oh Babe What Would You Say” and “Don’t Let It Die,” Norman “Hurricane” Smith rose to prominence in the early ‘60s as one of the first studio engineers responsible for helping The Beatles achieve their incredible studio sound. One of the historic figures at the Abbey Road studios in London, Smith is also renowned for his brilliant production work on the early Pink Floyd albums (up till Obscured By Clouds), yet as a solo artist in his own right, Smith never quite earned the accolades he so clearly deserved. That injustice is on the way to being righted on a 2007 twenty track compilation on the U.K. based Arena Music Company. Smith, pictured two ways on the cover art, with his jubilant Beatles in what looks like early 1963 and also his circa ‘70 solo "Oh Babe" look—hence the ‘From That-To This’ sleeve concept. With a solid 50 years in the biz, Smith remains a legend of the U.K. pop world—having influenced everybody from the Fab Four to Pink Floyd to tin pan alley songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan and more. Word has it he even paid for, and is credited as the executive producer of Atom Heart Mother. He also co-wrote one of the greatest instrumentals ever made by The Shadows, their exceptional May '64 rocker and noted rare b-side “It’s A Man’s World.” In addition to some of Smith’s greatest songs and singing, the 20 track From Me To You also features several spoken word excerpts with Smith quoting from his recent book John Lennon Called Me Normal—while also sporting liner notes by famous Smith disciple Paul McCartney and a period piece reprint of a telegram from John & Yoko. The studio legend who was right there, right then and now is back with a new CD and book, the legendary Norman ‘Hurricane’ Smith had a chat with Robert Silverstein for MWE3 on July 2nd, 2007.

In the beginning there was Abbey Road. With A&R headed up by music producer / composer Norrie Paramor—and with studio engineer Norman Smith on board by 1959—EMI (also called U.K. Columbia then) and upstart label Parlophone were home base for the two most influential bands in early '60s U.K. history, Cliff Richard & The Shadows and by 1962 The Beatles. In its first ever appearance, this interview with Beatles studio sound engineer Norman smith was recorded by phone on July 2, 2007. In light of Norman's passing away on March 5, 2008 fans of his work with the Beatles, Shadows and Pink Floyd—as well as the great music he recorded as singer Hurricane Smith—will appreciate Norman's keen insights and remembrances during this interview. Apologies to Norman for our taking so long to finish and publish this interview.
Don't Let It Die! (editor - April 5, 2008)


-----------------------------------------

RS: Hey Norman. It’s Robert Silverstein in New York.

NS: Oh yes, yes. I can’t hear you too well...

RS: I’m talking through a speaker phone so I can record the conversation. Is it okay now?

NHS: Say some more...

RS: I just wanted to thank you for all the great years you’ve had in the music world and I’ve been playing the new archival CD, The Definitive Hurricane Smith From That To This on Arena Music.

NHS: Oh yes...

RS: There’s so many great songs on there. I was wondering how it all came about and did you decide to tie it into your book?

NHS: Well, no really the idea was that my son is an engineer / producer at Hatch Farm and he and his boss thought it would be nice for me to do just one more release, one more CD. A kind of farewell CD, if you wish, you know? That kind of thing. And we put it together. Just chose some of the old songs and redid them and just enjoyed doing it!

RS: Are any of the songs recently redone? For instance “From Me To You”... Because I know, from the CD, “Who Was It” and “Don’t Let It Die” are the originals from the ‘70s, right?

NHS: Yes, that’s right. “From Me To You”...as you probably know, I was the sound engineer for The Beatles for three and half years. You knew that didn’t you?

RS: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of yours, believe it or not. I want to get to all the great stuff you did with The Beatles...

NHS: Oh yeah.

RS: And The Shadows. I may have been born in New York, but my heart has always been in England.

NHS: Oh, really?

RS: I grew up in New York City...I’m sort of an Englishman on Long Island.

NHS: (laughter) That’s nice. What my son suggested was that, would I like to do one of the Beatles songs with my own version. That’s how that “From Me To You” came about. As you probably know, that was one of their songs. And what I wanted to do is to choose a song whereby I could give a jazzy version, because I was full jazz musician anyway. That’s my kind of music. So “From Me To You” was the one I selected because I felt well I could at least give it a sort of semi jazz version on that one. That’s the reason why I chose that one. That was the reason for “From Me To You.” And then of course, I thought it would make a good title for the CD anyway. That’s why we put it on the first track.

RS: I love your version of it. It’s really cool. I know Paul McCartney actually wrote some new liner notes which was nice touch and it was nice that he recognized you as one of the people that really helped get that sound at Abbey Road.

NHS: That’s right.

RS: And also John Lennon...that was a cool touch adding that telegram. You have a new biography coming out right?

NHS: Yes I do. Well, I did a first edition for the Beatle festival in New York when I came over in March. And that was a first edition, purely for the Beatle fans. And now I’ve got a second edition coming out pretty soon now. It should be out the first week of August. That will be the second edition, which is on general release.

RS: You must have a lot of memories.

NHS: Oh yes. Of course, the book is my life story. It’s not just about The Beatles of course, which I think you’ll find interesting...my life story. Well it started really and truly as a sound engineer at Abbey Road, but then I became a producer, from then on of course. But I’ve always been a songwriter—in any case, all my life actually, in actual fact. Not with a great deal of success. Not until... I was actually producing a Pink Floyd session, at the time. It’d been a pretty hard day with them and normally, in the evening, when we had a break in the session, I would take them to dinner. But on this particular occasion, I said to them, ‘if you don’t mind, you go to dinner and I’ll pay for it, put it on my account.’ What I did then was I went down into studio after they had left. And I was doodling on the piano, chord sequences, etc. But then a melody came to me, la-la-ing it of course, except for one line. And that line was ‘don’t let it die.’ I couldn’t believe why that particular line came to me but when I tried to write the lyric in any case afterwards...the lyrics...I couldn’t get them. And I kept coming back to this ‘don’t let it die.’ And then, after watching a TV program at home, after I’d got home from the studio. And it was about what we were doing, really, to our planet. Scarring it and the slaughter of animals, etc, etc. And I thought ‘wow, that would make a pretty darn good lyric.’ So then I wrote the lyric to the tune I’d written already, called “Don’t Let It Die,” and that’s how that came about. That’s it really. Of course, I wrote it and did the demo for it, the demonstration record for that with John Lennon in mind. I thought I could hear John singing it. So I made this demo with myself singing it. And, there’s a fellow producer who you may not know or heard of called Mickie Most. I played it to him. He’s a very successful producer, or was then. Unfortunately he’s no longer with us. But I played it to Mickie to ask his opinion of what he thought about it. He said, ‘that’s very good, who is it?’ So I said, ‘well, I’m not going to tell you who it is singing until you tell me what you think.’ He said, ‘play it again!’ So I played it again and I was watching his facial reactions and I guess he was pretty interested in it. And at the end of it he said, ‘well I’ll tell you. That is a top 3 record.’ So I said, ‘you’re joking me.’ He said, ‘No, it really is a top 3 record. Who’s it singing?’ I said, ‘well you’re going to change your mind now. It’s me.’ So he said, ‘No, oh well...’ I said, ‘Well I’ve written it for John... John Lennon.’ So he said, ‘Forget John Lennon. Put that out. That’s a top 3 record.’ And of course I did and it was. It was number 2 over here. And that’s a little story about “Don’t Let It Die.”

RS: I know your song, “Babe, What Would You Say,” and I always loved that song. “Don’t Let It Die” never came out here, I think. So, it’s kind of a shame that John didn’t record “Don’t Let It Die” because it’s got that great piano stride sound that he loved so much.

NHS: That’s right. Well when I met John, I was over in 1973 to appear on the Johnny Carson Show in California. And I met John out there and that subject came up about “Don’t Let It Die.” And I said, ‘Well, I really wrote that for you John.” And I said, ‘Would you have done it?’ So he said, ‘Yeah, I certainly would have done it. It’s a great song.’ So I was very pleased to hear that. Well, I mean...I wish he hadn’t done it as well, obviously, because it probably would have been a bigger hit than mine was! (laughter) But he did like the song, very much indeed. Incidentally, you’re a Beatles fan. Did you come to the New York (Beatles) festival?

RS: I guess I was too busy with the magazine. I was thinking about your music a lot, for some reason, about two months ago. I’m also a huge Shadows fan. I always love that song that you wrote for The Shadows called “It’s A Man’s World.”

NHS: That’s right.

RS: That’s one of my favorite songs ever written and I always wanted to thank you for that great song. When you came to work at Abbey Road studios I know you worked with George Martin. But did you also work with Shadows producer Norrie Paramor too? You must have known Norrie.

NHS: Norrie Paramor very well. Yes I knew Norrie very well indeed. Yes I did. Funnily enough, before he joined EMI, he played in a group called Harry Gold’s Pieces Of Eight. He was a piano player in Pieces Of Eight. And I actually gigged a couple of times with Harry Gold myself. That’s where I first met Norrie but then again, it was some years later that we met up again, of course at Abbey Road. And I struck up a very good friendship with Norrie, yeah.

RS: It must have been amazing to be at Abbey Road, even before The Beatles. Because Norrie wrote some amazing songs and string arrangements for The Shadows.

NHS: Yes that’s right. The were very enjoyable sessions, of course they were. With Cliff Richards as well. I always liked and very much working with Norrie Paramor, ‘cause as I say he was a good friend of mine anyway. We played golf quite a bit together, etc. And of course, both being jazz musicians, as Norrie was and I was of course as well, we had a lot in common anyway. It was always very enjoyable to work with Norrie.

RS: You co-wrote “It’s A Man’s World” with Malcolm Addey. Was he an engineer at Abbey Road too?

NHS: Malcolm was an engineer. Yes he was. A very good one, a very good engineer.

RS: One of the most interesting things about the Beatles for me was that they always made mono and stereo mixes of their songs. Was that something you were involved with too when they were recording, or was everything done afterwards?

NHS: No, we did them separately. In 1962 we didn’t have the technology that they’ve got now. But, one could only record mono. That’s all. And then later, when we then began to get four track recording machines, we could then fill up the tracks and of course to remix stereo and put whatever track you wanted on the left or the right or the center or halfway. That kind of thing. So the stereo didn’t really come about until we started to get the four track machines.

RS: I always wanted to compliment the sound that you guys got at Abbey Road. The songs you worked on with The Beatles have the cleanest, best recorded sound I’ve ever heard since...

NHS: Oh, that’s very nice. Of course I was always interested in developing sound. So were The Beatles so we worked very closely together on that. And above all, I wanted to make them comfortable in the studio. As I said, I had my own jazz quintet and I knew how important it was to be sitting as close together as one could. When you come to record in a studio and putting the mikes out...there’s a thing called for sound engineers separation. And what that meant was you wanted a clean sound between each microphone that you put out. For instance, if you put, ideally...if you put a microphone we’ll say on the bass amp. When working that mic in the control room, all you wanted to hear was that bass sound. And that goes for all the other sounds. If you’re recording vocals at the same time you didn’t want a spill over from other instruments that were being picked up by the vocal mic. That’s called separation. You wanted a clean separation. To me, it was important as I said for the boys to be comfortable playing at the levels they wanted to play in the studio and for me to devise a sound, where I placed the mic etc...to get the kind of sound that you’re talking about, that pleased me as well. That’s how that came about. It wasn’t just a question of putting out microphones willy nilly or wherever. You had to experiment to get the kind of sound that one had in one’s head.

RS: George Harrison said the best way to listen to Sgt. Pepper is in mono. It must have dawned on you that when you recorded “I Want To Hold Your Hand” you were recording a life changing record.

NHS: Well, the fact of the matter is that (laughter) I felt that about nearly every one of the songs that they recorded. I’ve often been asked what is my favorite Beatles song? And the answer always had to be... all of them! I couldn’t really pick out one where I could say , 'now that was my favorite song ‘cause they were all so enjoyable to record. The sessions were so enjoyable and we were just like a happy family anyway. The six of us. I know that George Martin very often called himself ‘the fifth Beatle’ and me the sixth when he was doing interviews. But when I was doing interviews I became the ‘5th’ and he became the ‘6th.’ (laughter) We were a happy family anyway.

RS: I always wanted to compliment you on your discovery of Pink Floyd and especially your influential studio production on their first single “See Emily Play.” Thanks a lot for making that song.

NHS: Well that was fun. I was waiting for really and truly a song like that, that I could release as a single. Because, as you know, really and truly the Pink Floyd were a long playing album group. But I was looking for one I could release as a single, because, to obviously broaden the audience reaction. If one got a hit single it could and should boost the sale of LP's. So when that song came along, I felt well this is a song that I can do something and dress up as a single, which is as you know, I did and it did become a big hit. Hey, I guess that obviously boosted the sales of Pink Floyd generally.

RS: One album that I know you worked on later with Pink Floyd, called Atom Heart Mother never got it’s fair amount of accolades. I know you were also the executive producer of that album. It’s an orchestral masterpiece.

NHS: Yes, that’s right. That’s the last one I did with them actually.

RS: Singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan is another singer who you championed around 1970 with your version of “Who Was It?”

NHS: After “Oh Babe” became a hit I was then working on my next single etc. And I was half way through working on the follow up, which I thought was going to be the follow up to “Oh Babe.” And Gilbert, well his real name is Ray of course.... He called me on the telephone and he said, ‘Listen, Hurricane...have you considered your next release after “Oh Babe”? I said, ‘I’m working on it right now. Why do you ask?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve just written a song, this song.’ And he said, ‘I’ve written it virtually for you.' He said, 'I think it’d really suit you. Your voice, you know?’ I said, ‘Okay! Well bring it over to me.’ So he did. He brought it over and when I played it, well I had to admit. I said to him, ‘That song is a bit of the one I’m working on right now.’ He said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ So he said, ‘But will you do it?’ I said, ‘I certainly will.’ So I released that. That was the follow up and that’s how I met Ray. Of course we became very good friends. We did a lot of television together in Europe. That’s how I met him anyway. He just called me out of the blue that he’d just finished writing this song “Who Was It?” I thought it was great.

RS: Is there a story behind your original “Don’t Hide Your Heart Away.”

NHS: Oh! That one. Yes. Wally Allen, who was a member of Pretty Things. He and I, ‘cause I had a studio, a little recording studio at home, near Surrey, at that time. And Wally used to visit me and we would record several of the backing tracks that were on my album which we did at home. Before I took it into Abbey Road to finish it off. So Wally and I actually, we were...I don’t know what we were doing... We started doodling around in my little studio and that melody came out and we thought, ‘Yeah...that’s quite good actually.’ We wrote the lyric together actually. And when we finished it we thought, ‘This work’s interesting,’ ‘cause I was a producer at that time as well. So I released it. It didn’t do terribly well but I thought it was good enough to put on the album.

RSS: The only album I saw was the one that came out here with “Oh Babe” on Capitol in 1971. So you had other albums too?

NHS: Oh yes, yes I did. The first album came out in 1971 and then I did, perhaps another four or five after that.

RS: There’s a great CD of your original recordings called Don’t Let It Die from Japan that I’m glad came out. The CD release this year from England on Store For Music Records doesn’t have the original version of “Oh Babe What Would You Say” on it.

NHS: Of course the version of this latest CD that you’ve got, we rerecorded, you see? So that’s why it’s slightly different to the original one that I released. But the Japanese, they’ve released something like 24 tracks, 24 songs of mine on the Japanese CD. They released it about a year ago or something like that.

RS: There’s also some cool sound track sounding instrumentals on the Japanese pressing of Don’t Let It Die. Speaking of great instrumentals, is there a story on how you came to write “It’s A Man’s World” for The Shadows? It was the b-side to their single “The Rise And Fall Of Flingel Bunt.”

NHS: Yes. Malcolm actually started that song. He got a few bars that he liked very much. ‘Cause he was a pianist too, Malcolm Addey. And he came to me and said, ‘Look, I’m stuck with this song or this melody that I’m trying to write. I wonder if you can help me with it?’ And that’s how it started. He had the first couple of lines of the melody. And he said, ‘Could you sort of change it, embellish it and make it more attractive?’ Which is what I did. So I finished off the song, writing the song with him. Of course, “It’s A Man’s World”... the reason why we called it a ‘Man’s World’ - M.A. for Malcolm Addey. N.S. for Norman Smith! (laughter) So “It’s A MANS World.” That’s the story on that one. And of course we were both familiar with The Shadows. We made a little demo of it and played it to them. And they said they liked it they’d put it on a b-side for us, which was very nice.

RS: Thanks again for another classic song. Just to change the subject, were you surprised that The Shadows didn’t become big in America?

NHS: I was very surprised. Very surprised also that Cliff Richard and The Shadows didn’t... But particularly with The Shadows. Yes, very, very surprised that they didn’t make it. I think it was mainly due to the fact that they had very poor promotion. Capitol were... Well, I mean, Capital to start with... they didn’t even want to record The Beatles. Release The Beatles. Capitol were well behind times you know? They didn’t want my record, “Oh Babe.” I won’t bore you with the story but it started to break out on the East Coast somewhere and get played and that’s when Capitol picked it up. But yes, I was extremely surprised that The Shadows didn’t make it big in America. I guess...mainly because they didn’t have enough promotion behind them out there and also of course I guess that you had your own similar groups out there anyway. Similar to The Shadows. I can only put it down to that. But in answer to your question, yes, I was surprised that they didn’t make it.

RS: I’m hoping you might do some more, write some more stuff.

NHS: Not any more. ‘Cause I’m 84 years old now. And I have a pretty calm life. I’m coming to the Beatles fest in Chicago in early August. The second of August I think it is. So I’m coming over there then. And they want me to perform “Oh Babe.” Well I did that in New York as well. Apart from that, I’m not writing anymore now. I sit down at the piano once in a while and amuse myself. But no more song writing I’m afraid. Those days have gone, unfortunately.

RS: Your music is always ripe for rediscovery for anyone looking to find out about classic pop song writing.

NHS: Yes, very kind of you to say that. Very kind. I’m very proud of course of the songs that I’ve written. I’ve written many, many songs. And when I do think back now, and sometimes listening to them, I think to myself, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty damn good lyric! Pretty good.’ I think back at what inspired the lyrics and the melodies, etc. But I always had, in my head since well, I was a young man, melodies. I’m a melody man. And these melodies just trot out of my head, some of which I wrote down. But I’ve always had that in my life. Melody. Some of the lyrics have been hard to come by but certainly melodies... But I’m very proud of the songs that I’ve written over the years. It’s a very large number.

RS: There’s also a number of instrumental songs you’ve written. “Journey Through Dawn” is a highlight instrumental on the Japanese Don’t Let It Die CD.

NHS: I’m playing piano on that one. As I say, again, that I was sitting at the piano at one time. This melody just simply came out. I thought it was good enough to write an orchestral score for. I’m pleased you like that one. Also I’ve written a musical story on “Journey Through Dawn” in actual fact, which I’m hoping one day will come out. That's very kind of you. It’s been a great pleasure for me to talk to you. Thank you for all the compliments. It’s very nice of you indeed and I do appreciate it. Thank you very much indeed. Hope I might see you in Chicago. Take care. Bye-bye now.

Thanks to Norman Hurricane Smith and everyone @ www.thestoreformusic.com







 
 
 
 
 

 

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