Bobby Graham: Session drummer who played on around 15,000 records

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:23

Although Bobby Graham was not a household name, his claim that he had played on 15,000 records was substantially correct. During the 1960s, he was one of the UK's leading session musicians, going from one London recording studio to another, adding his talents to such hit records as John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me", P.J. Proby's "Hold Me", Billy Fury's "It's Only Make Believe", Engelbert Humperdinck's "The Last Waltz" and Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me".

Bobby Graham was born in Edmonton, north London in March 1940, and, after he broke dinner plates with his makeshift drumming, his father made him a kit and then bought a professional one. Graham would set up next to the record player and he played along with Ronnie Verrell from Ted Heath's Orchestra, and, when rock'n'roll came along, Earl Palmer from Little Richard's band.

Graham's first professional engagement was with Billy Gray and the Stormers for a Butlin's residency in Filey. The bass player was Chas Hodges, and with a few changes, the group became the Outlaws. Mike Berry asked the Outlaws to back him and as Mike had a contract with the maverick producer Joe Meek, they went to his home studio at 304 Holloway Road. The Outlaws were soon making instrumental singles and backing other performers, notably playing on Leyton's 1961 chart-topper "Johnny Remember Me".

Although Meek's work is acclaimed, Graham had little time for him. He felt that the chaotic surroundings were of Meek's own making. He disliked the way he distorted good performances and hated the way his drumming had been processed on "Crazy Drums", although that is a Meek classic. Most significantly, and with good reason, he never trusted Meek's accounting.

One of Meek's arrangers, Charles Blackwell, told Graham that Joe Brown was looking for a new drummer for his Bruvvers. Bobby Graham played on Brown's biggest hit, "A Picture Of You" (1962) and on the album, Joe Brown – Live! (1963). In July 1962, they played at the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton: "The Beatles had Pete Best with them and Brian Epstein sounded me out about taking his place," Graham told me in 2005, "He said that they needed a change. I said, 'No thanks' as the Beatles hadn't had any hits and anyway, I had a wife and family in London. I don't think he had even discussed it with the Beatles, as surely they would have wanted someone from Liverpool."

Instead, Graham moved into session work for the major labels, sometimes playing three three-hour sessions in a day. He would receive £9 a session, plus £1 porterage for the drums. He rarely knew the artists in advance and often Graham would replace a drummer in a beat group, such as on the Kinks' No 1, "You Really Got Me".

"The idea was to record four titles in three hours, and only experienced session men could do it easily," he said. "Jimmy Page, Jim Sullivan and myself were booked for a session at Decca with the Irish band, Them. Their lead vocalist, Van Morrison, was really hostile as he didn't want session men on his recordings. I remember the MD, Arthur Greenslade, telling him that we were only there to help. He calmed down but he didn't like it." Whatever Morrison's reservations, they worked well together and Graham's frenzied drumming at the end of "Gloria" is one of rock's great moments.

Even at the time, it was suggested that Dave Clark was not playing on his records. Clark has never acknowledged this but Graham told me, "Dave wanted to produce and he couldn't be up in the box and down in the studio at the same time. Mike Smith had written 'Glad All Over' with him and they weren't too sure what they wanted from the drums. I was playing how I would normally play with the hi-hat, snare and bass and Dave asked, 'Bobby, can you make that simpler please?' He didn't want complicated fill-ins he couldn't play himself on live dates as that would have given the game away. In the end, I did this four-to-the-bar feel, a flam beat, and he said, 'That's lovely.' I was on a lot of the hits but Dave did play on album tracks. The journalists wanted to catch him out. I got a call from the News Of The World who said, 'We've just spoken to Dave Clark and he has told us that you're drumming on his records.' I said, 'Not me.' I was paid to do a job and I didn't see why I should be exposing him."

Graham happened to be at Fontana Records when the producer, Jack Baverstock, was suffering with an ulcer. Baverstock asked him to take over for the Pretty Things and as it worked well, he continued producing. Graham discovered Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich and the band which became Slade. He produced the British blues performer Victor Brox and the jazz organist Alan Haven and spent some years in France working for Disques Barclay.

Following royalty negotiations in the 1980s, Graham had difficulty in compiling a list of the sessions he played on: "For years, I thought I was on Tom Jones' 'It's Not Unusual' but the MD Les Reed told me it was Ronnie Verrell. We sound so much alike because I had copied his licks."

With the assistance of QC Patrick Harrington, Bobby Graham wrote his autobiography, The Session Man (Broom House Publishing, 2004), with an accompanying CD, but the pleasure of this was marred by ill health. He had congestive heart failure and although he needed hip replacements, surgery was considered too risky. That didn't prevent him playing and he worked with a local band, Jazz Experience and the former Shadow, Jet Harris. "You don't stop drumming because you get old," said Graham, "You get old because you stop drumming."

Spencer Leigh

Robert Francis Neate (Bobby Graham), drummer: born Edmonton, London 11 March 1940; married four times (one son, one daughter); died Welwyn Garden City 14 September 2009.

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