Procol Harum

the Pale

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BJ Wilson with Frankie Miller's band

Chris Mercer for 'Beyond the Pale'

Chris Mercer, the prolific and highly-regarded British tenor saxophonist, sends this memoir of his time with BJ Wilson to 'Beyond the Pale'. Read about Chris at The Musicians' Olympus. The studio photo is reproduced by kind permission of Carlo Chinca.

When someone asks a musician to write about their recollections of a colleague they last saw nearly thirty years ago, it gives one pause for thought, as those recollections start to get a bit fuzzy. So many gigs, so many musicians in the intervening years. So one ends up with more of a composite recollection of the person, as opposed to crystal clear images.

A few weeks ago I visited our niece’s new home in South Eugene, Oregon. As we neared the house we passed a nursing home that seemed familiar, and I realised suddenly that this was the place where BJ Wilson died (I had visited him many years ago there). Thinking about Barrie and remembering our times together started a train of events that culminated with me re-connecting with Keith Reid and Frankie Miller in a recent trip to London to see family.

BJ Wilson and I became friends during our sojourn with Frankie Miller in the mid/late '70s. This was the band that recorded the Double Trouble album and toured to support it. There are some videos out there on You Tube featuring BBC live recording from this album. We spent some weeks rehearsing up on Agar Grove in an area that looked like the setting for the old movie The Ladykillers.

Barrie was an affable soul who reminded me of the kind of English Country Gent you would encounter in a Suffolk pub next to a roaring fire, dispensing pithy advice with a pint raised in one hand. Not long after our stint with Frankie, he announced he was emigrating to the Pacific Northwest, to the beautiful State of Oregon.

It so happened that I had connections there through my wife Ann, whose mother and aunts lived in Bend, Oregon. I was traveling there annually for a summer vacation from ’78 onwards, so in what was probably ’79 I decided to venture down from the high country to the Willamette Valley to visit the address he had given me. It took a bit of finding. nestled in the foothills of the Coastal Mountains, but I eventually found the site where he was building a beautiful home in this spectacular setting of hills and forests.

His brother-in-law was there and told me Barrie was away on tour, so my trip was in vain, but now I knew where to find him! In 1981 I also emigrated, to Idaho, so we were both in the Pacific Northwest. We flew into Seattle, rented a car, bundling the kids and dog in the back, then set off for BJ’s, our first stop on the way to Idaho. From then on, if I flew over on business from Idaho to Portland, I would drive down and spend a morning with him at his home, drinking coffee and reminiscing. The drive from Portland to Airlie on Oregon’s open roads took less time than driving from Shepherds Bush to Brixton in London.

Barrie had a powerful and un-flashy drumming style not unlike that of Levon Helm, whom he admired very much. Listening to his playing on the Double Trouble album, I was immediately taken with his mastery of the toms as he rolled subtly into sections of a tune. You don’t hear that much any more. His playing illustrates a mastery of rock drumming that drives a band without being bombastic. I recommend this album to anyone wishing to hear Barrie functioning as a top-notch session drummer.

I still miss him and wish I had seen more of him before his untimely death: he was pleasant company. While visiting Frankie Miller last week his wife Annette mentioned she had just received a photo from the photographer Carlo Chinca of the Double Trouble sessions. She and Carlo graciously gave permission to reproduce it at ‘Beyond the Pale’. It shows (L-R) me, BJ, producer Jack Douglas, Frankie, and an engineer in Air Studios, January 1978.

Thanks, Chris

BJ's page at BtP

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