Mickey Gee: Prolific guitarist who worked with Tom Jones and Joe Cocker
Saturday 21 March 2009
Something of an unsung hero, Mickey Gee was called "the best guitarist to come out of Wales" by several of the singers and musicians he worked with over the last four decades.
Gee started out by backing Tom Jones – then still using the Tommy Scott pseudonym and fronting the Senators – in the early Sixties, and went on to collaborate with Dave Edmunds, most notably playing the distinctive lead-guitar licks on his fellow Welshman's inspired reworking of Smiley Lewis's "I Hear You Knocking", which topped the British charts in 1970. Gee also recorded with Shakin' Stevens, another Welsh artist steeped in the rock'n'roll tradition, and provided the concise and crisp solos on the vocalist's breakthrough hit, "Marie, Marie", and the No. 1 singles "This Ole House", "Green Door" and "Oh Julie" in the early Eighties.
In a long career, Gee also played with Joe Cocker, Andy Fairweather Low, Carl Perkins, Geraint Watkins, the British rockabilly revivalist band The Jets, and Willie and the Poor Boys, the good-time supergroup put together by Bill Wyman. A rather unassuming type, Gee preferred to let his Fender Telecaster do the talking for him. He occasionally played solo shows in his native Wales, sometimes with the bassist Martin Ace and the drummer Terry Williams, of Man fame, for company.
Born in 1943, Gee was only 21 when he replaced the original lead guitarist, Mike Roberts, in the Senators, the Cardiff beat group led by the bassist Vernon Hopkins. Gee had no qualms about quitting his job in a Cardiff brewery to move to London at the behest of the band's manager, Gordon Mills, who rechristened the band Tom Jones and the Playboys – and then the Squires – and focused on promoting the lead singer with the big voice.
For a while, despite a support slot with the Rolling Stones at the 100 Club, they all lived in a two-room flat in London's Ladbroke Grove, and struggled on £1 a day each. "It wasn't very hip to be Welsh in those days," Gee recalled. In August 1964, they issued their debut single – the over-produced "Chills and Fever" – on Decca Records, but it sank without trace. However, Mills had been commissioned to write a song for Sandie Shaw and came up with "It's Not Unusual", which the Squires demoed. After Shaw rejected the song, Mills managed to convince the management at Decca that this was the track to launch Tom Jones as a solo artist.
Eventually re-recorded without the Squires, "It's Not Unusual" duly topped the British charts in March 1965. Jones replaced P.J. Proby on a UK tour with Cilla Black, and from that point on very much treated the Squires like his backing band. Gee left, having recommended Dave Wendells as his replacement, and went back to Cardiff where he mentored Amen Corner, featuring Fairweather Low on vocals. By early 1968, he had joined Joe Cocker and helped to develop the arrangement of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends", which became the vocalist's signature song, although it was Jimmy Page who played on the hit recording.
The following year, Gee began a long and fruitful association with Edmunds. Both were great admirers of the finger-picking style pioneered by the American guitarists Merle Travis and Chet Atkins as well as Elvis Presley's sidemen James Burton and Scotty Moore. The pair spurred each other on to reproduce as many of their heroes' classic guitar licks and fills as they could.
Gee proved an able lieutenant to Edmunds, assisting him as he switched from the flamboyant power trio Love Sculpture to producing records under his own name. When Edmunds decided to re-record "I Hear You Knocking" in the style of Wilbert Harrison's "Let's Stick Together", Gee was on hand to play lead on the worldwide hit. On subsequent solo releases, Edmunds favoured the multi-tracking approach and played most of the instruments himself, but couldn't resist trading licks with Gee on "Pick Axe Rag", the B-side of the 1973 Top 5 single "Born to Be with You", a Phil Spector-like cover of the Chordettes' 1956 hit.
Edmunds and Gee also contributed a suitably festive "Jingle Bells/Run Rudolph Run" to Christmas at the Patti, the double 10in LP recorded in Swansea in December 1972 by the Flying Aces, Duck Deluxe, Help Yourself and Man, and released the following year. They collaborated again after Edmunds' tenure with Rockpile in the late Seventies: Gee featured prominently on albums like Twangin... (1981) and D.E. 7th (1982).
Gee first worked with Stevens when he helped to complete I'm No J.D., the second album released by Shakin' Stevens and the Sunsets in 1971, and was part of the team behind the singer's huge success in the late Seventies and early Eighties. With B.J. Cole and Mick Weaver, Gee also formed the short-lived Memphis Bend, successfully blending rockabilly and country, and recorded the Good Rocking Tonite album issued on Rockfield Records in 1977, on which he also sang lead.
An exciting, incisive, inventive player, Gee used a thumb-pick, but no effects or pedals, and could recreate parts he'd heard on early rock 'n' roll records perfectly. There are stories of Atkins or Perkins being amazed at his talent for reproducing some of their solos note by note in front of them, Perkins in particular stating: "When I recorded that, I double-tracked it and you've just played it live without missing a note!"
Taking part in Blue Suede Shoes: a Rockabilly Session, a concert honouring Carl Perkins in 1985, proved to be one of Gee's finest moments: he held his own in the stellar company of Edmunds, George Harrison and Eric Clapton. A guitarist's guitarist, Gee also gigged and recorded with Willie and the Poor Boys, contributing his own composition "Revenue Man (White Lightning)" to their eponymous 1985 debut album.
"He was a great guitarist," said Stevens of Gee. "He played on all of my early records and toured with me. The guitar solos he recorded were very important; they weren't just filling. His solos were and are very memorable. He was very shy, a man of not too many words, but a great talent. He played on many hit records and I'm glad he was on mine. His fantastic solos are a very recognisable part of the tracks."
Michael Gee, guitarist, singer, songwriter: born Cardiff, 31 December 1943; died Cardiff, 21 January 2009.
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