Eric Woolfson: Singer and songwriter with the Alan Parsons Project
Tuesday 02 February 2010
Even if the name the Alan Parsons Project put the emphasis on the Beatles and Pink Floyd engineer, it was very much a partnership between Parsons, the producer, and Eric Woolfson, the songwriter, lyricist, occasional singer and manager. Blurring the lines between progressive and soft rock, the Alan Parsons Project captured the imagination of music fans the world over with high-concept albums inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe (their 1976 debut Tales of Mystery and Imagination) Isaac Asimov (their 1977 follow-up I Robot) and Philip K Dick (Eye in the Sky, the sixth of their 10 studio recordings, issued in 1982).
While in Britain they enjoyed a cult following and turntable hits with "Old and Wise" – sung by Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, one of several recurrent guest vocalists they employed – and "Don't Answer Me", with lead vocals by Woolfson. Chart regulars in the US and throughout most of continental Europe, they sold over 45 million albums worldwide. As Woolfson, who was credited as executive producer, explained, "the Alan Parsons Project was never a 'band' in the conventional sense. The idea was to make recordings much as Kubrick or Hitchcock made movies, where the production values are the key rather than star actors. I thought at the time many others would follow in our footsteps, but this didn't happen."
The partnership dissolved in the late 1980s and Woolfson went into stage musicals, often returning to themes he had already explored with the Alan Parsons Project. He was a supporter of the Social Democratic Party and became a personal friend of Lord Owen, one of the "Gang of Four" founders of the centre party which sought to break the mould of British politics in the 1980s.
Woolfson was born in 1945 in Glasgow, where his family owned a furniture shop, and became fascinated by the piano-playing of an uncle. He took up the instrument and, after a few lessons, played it by ear throughout his career and never learned to read music. Having been told he would never make it as a chartered accountant, he moved to London in the mid-'60s and gravitated towards Denmark Street, the capital's equivalent of Tin Pan Alley. He fell in with session musicians Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – later of Led Zeppelin – and met Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones manager, then about to start his label, Immediate Records. Woolfson waited for four hours to meet Oldham, but his patience was rewarded when, after hearing just one of his compositions, the Stones svengali pronounced him "a fucking genius" and signed him up as a songwriter.
He served as a session pianist on several Immediate releases and also managed to place his own compositions with the label's acts, including "Tomorrow's Calling" with Marianne Faithfull and "Baby Make It Soon", which became the B-side of Chris Farlowe's chart-topping version of the Stones' "Out of Time", produced by Mick Jagger in 1966. Woolfson didn't sign an exclusive deal and also freelanced for Southern Music, where he met Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who instilled in him the belief that the stage musical could be the right medium for him.
A jobbing musician, songwriter and occasional producer, over the next few years Woolfson also worked with Dave Berry, the Equals, Herman's Hermits, Frank Ifield, Marmalade, the Swinging Blue Jeans and the Tremeloes and had his material adapted into French by Joe Dassin and Marie. In 1971 he recorded a single under the name Eric Elder with the future members of 10CC, but branched out into management, first with Carl Douglas of "Kung Fu Fighting" fame, and then with Parsons, whom he met in the Abbey Road Studios canteen in 1974.
Over the next 18 months, as Parsons produced hit singles and albums for Pilot, Cockney Rebel, John Miles and Al Stewart, he became interested in recording the "Poe" material Woolfson had already composed. Credited to the Alan Parsons Project, and featuring members of Pilot, guest singers such as Miles and Arthur Brown, as well as Woolfson on keyboard and vocals, Tales of Mystery and Imagination was issued on the Charisma label in Europe and 20th Century Records in the States, where it made the Top 40 in 1976.
The partners were offered a long-term deal by the Arista supremo Clive Davis and recorded a further nine albums at the state-of-the-art Abbey Road Studios. Indeed, their ambitious soundscapes became a staple of hi-fi shops well into the compact disc era. The modest and unassuming Woolfson always said he preferred "the shadows to the limelight", but he grew in confidence as a vocalist and graduated from guide vocals on demos to taking the lead on "Time" from The Turn of a Friendly Card album in 1980 and on the title track of the Eye in the Sky album, a US No 3 single in 1982.
Following Gaudi, a concept album about the Spanish architect released in 1987, Woolfson developed Freudiana, a musical about Sigmund Freud, and other musicals about Poe and Gaudi (Gambler revisited The Turn of a Friendly Card). These were mostly staged in Germany and Austria, two countries where the Alan Parsons Project had often topped the charts, as well as the Far East. Earlier this year, he released Eric Woolfson Sings the Alan Parsons Project That Never Was, an album of outtakes.
Parsons has belatedly been performing some of the Project material live. He said: "Eric was one of the most generous, musically gifted and knowledgeable people I ever met. He was also – and I mean no disrespect – the most stubborn individual to set foot on the planet: a trait which made him a great businessman.
"His songwriting talent speaks for itself. He not only wrote the majority of the songs we recorded together, but after we had two or three albums under our belts he proved – contrary to my own opinions – that he had a singing voice that would be loved by millions. He never let me forget that I actually disliked 'Eye in the Sky' when he first played it to me – arguably my most famous mistake.
"I look back upon our times together making the Alan Parsons Projects very fondly. The legacy that Eric created as half of the Alan Parsons Project lived on with a lasting power few artists have ever enjoyed. I will always be grateful for that."
Eric Woolfson, songwriter, lyricist, pianist, singer, producer, manager: born Glasgow 18 March 1945; married 1969 Hazel (two daughters); died London 2 December 2009.
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