Maggie Bell fronted the acclaimed Scottish blues-rock group Stone the Crows in the late 1960s, toured with Led Zeppelin in the 1970s, made music with Rod Stewart and Ringo Starr later on, took part in The British Blues Quintet – and, all throughout her career, she has constantly been touted as the UK’s closest equivalent of Janis Joplin thanks to her irreverent and rocking voice.
She gained prominence in the United States in the 1970s by placing both her first two solo albums, Queen of the Night and Suicide Sal in the American album charts, and her 1981 duet with BA Robertson Hold Me was a huge hit in the UK that year.
The opportunity for a conversation with Maggie Bell was offered by her involvement in The Animals and Friends Farewell Tour mentioned in the interview with The Animals’ John Steel and the release of Stone the Crows – Live at the BBC, a 4-CD anthology by Repertoire Records featuring more than four hours of BBC broadcast recordings dating back to 1969/1972: a must-have for every hardcore Stone the Crows fan of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Maggie, what achievements are you most proud of?
When I look back and think how I started off performing at the Salvation Army in Maryhill, Glasgow, that has to be one of the proudest moments: they did not push religion on you and I was hooked, so I really feel I’ve followed my career path with the support of my parents. There are, of course, other achievements, like having been able to go to America and record my solo album Queen of the Night, which has then been reissued, at the Atlantic Studios in New York. And of course, my work with Stone the Crows, which was also reissued. It’s an achievement for everything that I do, and I try to enjoy it the best that I possibly can. I was well looked after at the time, an exciting experience as I always had the backing of Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant, and I feel I was always protected. He always said to me “Maggie, your job is to go out there and sing!” I did this because we had the same manager, and it was fabulous. I mean, for every female singer in the world to be asked to go and do a couple of concerts for Led Zeppelin, it would be wonderful. And they were a great bunch of guys, They were quite big, they had already had some major American tours under their belt, so they were well on their way and they embraced me as a singer-songwriter. Musically, I felt and I still feel Jimmy Page is a genius, in my eyes.
What was your dream job as a child?
Just to sing. I used to go to the movies at least two or three times a week, especially musicals with Doris Day and Judy Garland, and I always knew that I wanted to sing.
What do you think of the long-standing comparison between Janis Joplin and yourself?
Well, people just keep seeing it, you know, it’s been for 50 years now, so, I got used to that, I just think it was because there were a few female vocalists upfronting bands, back in those days. You had Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger & The Trinity, and then there was Janis Joplin and so here’s why they thought that “Hey, she sounds like Janis Joplin”. I don’t think I do by the way, but that’s beside the point.
Did you ever meet her?
No, I didn’t.
So, no chance to discuss the case with her.
No. She was the same star sign as me, by the way: Capricorn.
How do you feel when you hear one of your songs playing on the radio?
That’s a nice feeling, but it happens occasionally, not a lot, just occasionally, because most British radio stations just play the current top 20.
Which one of your songs are you most attached to?
I think it’s one that you wouldn’t really know, which is called Trade Winds from the Queen of the Night album. It’s a beautiful song.
Who are your greatest musical influences?
I love a varied variety of people. I like some classical music, like Miles Davis, I love The Rolling Stones, I love Led Zeppelin. I like all music. All music deserves to be listened to because everybody’s got something to say and something to play.
What was the music scene like, back in the day?
Well, I think it was better back in the old days, it was exciting, you know, people were trying new things. The world was open to everybody, and I think everybody of my generation, music-wise, grabbed it with both hands. We were like “This is an exciting time, this is history being made” – because don’t forget that it wasn’t long after the war. We were all jobbing musicians in those days, we knew we wanted to perform, and success was a by-product of what we were doing. Actually, when I was young and I was working as a window dresser during the day, the money was shite, it was terrible; my income was £2, 11s 4p a week [11s meant 11 shillings; England stopped using the shilling in 1971], so when I started gigging I was making more money, at least £10 a gig back into those days. But nowadays, people see the money sign first. We learned our craft by getting out there, and gigging where audiences were small; it was a great training ground. We were all musicians and in the same “boat” together, I got on really well with the boys, they were very supportive and when I look back, I am in awe that we all had the same management and it was a surreal but powerful time, and family meant everything to each of us.
What was your relationship with The Beatles and Beatlemania?
I was one of those kids that went and see them in Scotland and I was screaming my head off! Yeah, I loved it. It was exciting. One of the most exciting albums I had back at that time was Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was absolutely wonderful. I couldn’t believe it, it was wonderful. And the album cover was breaking news, was just wonderful. I met a few Beatles and I made a record with Ringo Starr years ago at Tittenhurst Park in that little house with little cottages down there and it was just wonderful, it was fabulous. A lot of people made their albums there. And of course, I became very friendly with Ringo’s wife Maureen – she was one of my best friends. She’s dead [Ringo Starr’s first wife Maureen Cox died in 1994 ] but we all had such a fantastic time, we were very lucky and valued the opportunity we had together and as individuals.
Okay, listen: people have always found conspiracy theories throughout my lifetime and I’m in my seventies as we speak, and they will continue to find conspiracy theories. It’s like the aliens, so that’s not only swirled around conspiracy theories.
What do you think of the current state of music?
It’s okay; there are new people, and a lot of them are very, very good. I’ve got a few favourites; I like the likes of Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin, and too many other favourites to mention. These artists made classic music that still resonates today, which is why they are so revered. From the past, I loved Nina Simone, whom I had the pleasure to meet; many years ago when I was in London, I was asked if I could babysit for an American singer at short notice, and she turned out to be Nina Simone. That’s a rather special memory for me and what a voice she had, and to have experienced what she did. An amazing woman.
What do you think of streaming events as opposed to live music events?
I think you have to go and see a live performance – don’t you? There’s nothing like that, anybody can sit in a bedroom and do all the streaming but you’re not mixing with other people and enjoying the event, I don’t like it at all. I think everybody should go and support artists and go to see concerts. That’s what makes it live, that’s what makes it happen.
What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?
Awful, terrible. These kids aged 16 and 17 and 18 years old, and if by 21 they don’t make it it’s over and they’ve got to live with that, and I think that’s awful. But somebody meantime during all that, somebody made the record, somebody made the album and so there’s also somebody who’s making money out of these kids, and then they just throw them away, that’s it. I’m not a fan of that at all, When I was a student, we were a working band and we worked six nights a week. And that’s a lot. Not many people are doing that these days unless you do a tour. It’s very difficult and money’s tight at the moment and, let’s face it, a lot of people have lost their jobs. It’s a difficult time.
What legacy have Stone the Crows left to the world?
My time with Stone the Crows was exciting for me because it was the first time I’d ever written any songs. We came from Scotland and it was the first time we ever wrote songs and it was really exciting. And it was great that people appreciated those songs, and people are still buying the re-releases and the Repertoire Records – people are still buying the stuff, even today, and that makes me very happy. I mean, I never realised that Stone the Crows was so popular, I’ve got a website and people write to me and stuff, here and there. And here we are talking, 40 years later, it’s unbelievable.
Do you think a band could potentially never split? What does it take to stick together?
It takes a lot. Because there’s a lot of egos flying around. And what I found was that when you start to write songs in a band, that’s when jealousy sets and because everybody’s pushing for you to sing their songs, which a lot of them are not necessarily good songs for you to sing. And that’s how most bands split up, this is my theory because when it comes to everybody’s realising that you can make money and publishing your own songs, then it’s when the roads set apart, that’s when the bands split up because people are all desperate to get their own songs on albums. I believe that bands should all write together and there shouldn’t be any individual because everybody’s giving something to the songs: the drummer, the guitar player, the singer, the piano player. Everybody’s given input to a brand-new song that’s never been heard before. So I think everybody should have an equal share in songs. It all comes down to that at the end of the day, because after a couple of years people realise “Hey, there’s money to be made here”. Maybe it was just a group of people that started off as kids at school or something, but then they see the dollar sign in front of their eyes. And that’s a sad thing. Also, a lot of these kids, even these days, are approached by these big record companies thinking “Hey, they write good songs, let’s get them a contract”, and then if the first or second album doesn’t happen, and they’re finished, and they don’t realise they made a million pounds, because they’ve only got a piece of those two albums.
What’s the biggest challenge in music?
Stay on the truth of who you are and what you’re capable of doing and what you can do, and get better; music always gets better. Listen to everybody you possibly can. I mentioned Miles Davis earlier, and then George Benson, I like everybody because you learn something from everybody.
You are Scottish and you have lived in The Netherlands for 20 years. What do you think of Brexit?
I don’t think any of us has got a choice, they’ll do all this whether we like it or not, it’s all been in the plans.
You said earlier you don’t like conspiracy theories, but this is a conspiracy theory.
Haha! Well, you can’t get a lot of stuff when you go to buy food and shops because that’s nothing on the shelves [she refers to the post-Brexit food shortage in the UK], because these guys can’t get their trucks through from the continent. Nobody went through that. This is just a non-starter, it’s ridiculous. Where are you originally from?
Oh, you are? Oh, I love Italy, I did a couple of gigs over there, and I’ll tell you a funny story about Italy. We did a concert, an open-air concert. Don’t ask me where it was, all I know is that there was a beautiful town square. And so there was this beautiful piazza with an ice cream shop and lovely surroundings, all fabulous. The group I was with was called The British Blues Quintet and the people loved it, we were doing the encore number and people were freaking out and loving and everything. And I tried to jump up to the bands where the drummer was, he was high up on a platform, and I stumbled on a wet towel of mine – because it was so hot there you can imagine – and I slipped down and I fell in my back, and I was conscienceless. And when I woke up, I woke up in a chapel, and facing me on the aisle of the chapel there was Jesus Christ on the cross. So I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. But the paramedics were absolutely fabulous, they packed my body with big bags of ice, you know, and I recovered, but that was a strange experience in Italy. Waking up and thinking “Hey, I went to heaven!” So yes, this interview headline could be “She had a bit of a cool experience in Italy!”
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