Keef Hartley: Drummer who played with John Mayall and led his own band at Woodstock


Spencer Leigh
Saturday 03 December 2011 01:00

The Woodstock Festival in August 1969 was a gigantic success, establishing several acts as major performers and nearly everybody (no matter how stoned) did exceptionally well.

The resulting film and albums were highly successful but hardly anyone knows that the Keef Hartley Band was on the bill. One of the few British acts to be invited, Hartley's band took the stage on Saturday afternoon after Santana, and their manager was approached by Martin Scorsese, who was obtaining consents to record and film the acts. With no money upfront, he refused permission and so the equipment was switched off. The act that was the closest musically to Hartley's band, Ten Years After, was a sensation when the film was released.

Keith Hartley was born in Preston in 1944 and he soon acquired an interest in the drums. "I have very short hands," he told me in 1999, "and I couldn't manage the guitar neck so the drums were for me. My biggest influences were Tony Meehan, Sandy Nelson and the guy who did that wonderful drumming on the Ventures' 'Walk – Don't Run'."

His first band, the Thunderbeats, was popular locally and supported the Beatles at Morecambe. Unlike Hartley, the other Thunderbeats wanted to continue with their day jobs. Hartley wanted to make a living from music and so, in 1963, he looked to Liverpool and joined Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. He inherited the stage clothes from a previous drummer, Ringo Starr – a bright pink suit, a blue mohair suit and a Hurricanes baseball jacket. However, he disliked the playful nature of their music and thought Rory "was a bit of a prat".

When the band had a residency at the Star-Club in Hamburg, he wanted to remain there, so he swapped places with Ian Broad, the drummer from the next band, Freddie Starr and the Midnighters. Then as now, Starr was totally unpredictable. "One night at the Iron Door in Liverpool, Freddie spotted a 16 stone nurse in her uniform. He went off stage and we thought he was getting ready to impersonate Elvis or Billy Fury, but he had got hold of this girl, somehow got her uniform off and then come on stage in it."

The lead singer of the Thunderbeats, David John, says, "I remember going to see Queen's Hall, Preston to see Keef with Freddie Starr, and I was amazed at how great a drummer he had become. He was very tight indeed, and that had come through playing long hours in Hamburg." Answering a small ad for a drummer in Melody Maker, Hartley joined the London band, the Artwoods with Art Wood (brother of Ronnie) and Jon Lord (later of Deep Purple) but he didn't last long: "I didn't like their music or their daft little suits."

Following sessions for Mike Vernon for the bluesmen Champion Jack Dupree and Jimmy Witherspoon, Hartley befriended John Mayall and was invited to join his Bluesbreakers. As well as the blues, they had an obsession with Native American culture and were both argumentative. The two made an album together, Blues Alone (1967) and Hartley played on Crusade (1967) and the two volumes of Diary Of A Band (1968). An instrumental on Bare Wires (1968) is called "Hartley Quits".

Hartley became a bandleaderhimself but he wanted a fluid line-up in which musicians came and went.He dropped his lead singer in favourof Miller Anderson, who could bothplay guitar and sing. "Keef didn't like singers who just stood around," says Anderson today, "he wanted a band where there would be some improvisation and you need to play an instrument for that." Anderson was a proficient songwriter, even more proficient than some might think because several songs were written under his wife's maiden name, Hewitson.

In 1969 Hartley wore full Indian dress for the cover of Halfbreed (1969), recorded for Decca's progressive arm. As with Colosseum and Blood, Sweat And Tears, Hartley was mixing jazz, blues and rock. The opening track found Mayall and Hartley recreating Hartley's dismissal.

The Keef Hartley Band followed it with The Battle Of NW6 (1970, the title a reference to disputes with Decca's management), The Time Is Near (1970) and Overdog (1971). Hartley declined a Top Of The Pops spot for the single, "Roundabout" saying "We're not that type of band." In addition, he formed a large jazz-rock band with Derek Wadsworth and Barbara Thompson which resulted in a live album from the Marquee, Little Big Band (1971).

After recording a solo album, Lancashire Hustler (1973), with Elkie Brooks, Robert Palmer and Mick Weaver,Hartley formed Dog Soldier, again including Miller Anderson, but he disliked being ordered to make something for American radio. Hartley played on sessions for Dana Gillespie, Michael Chapman and Lothar Meid (of Amon Düül II) as well as returning to John Mayall from time to time. At one session for Michael Chapman at the Sawmill Studios, he fell into the nearby river and was rescued by Rick Kemp. Chapman gave him a credit for "underwater research".

In later years, Hartley returned to Preston and worked as a joiner (sometimes refurbishing recording studios) and playing local gigs. He dictated his memoirs to a journalist, published as Halfbreed (A Rock'n'Roll Journey That Happened Against All Odds) in 2007.

In recent years, Hartley suffered neck pains and wore a brace, saying hisinjuries were caused by playing drums. He declined an operation and wasin constant pain. He had a brief reunion with the Thunderbeats, recordingrock'n'roll favourites like ChuckBerry's "Memphis", but they have not been released.

Keith Hartley (Keef Hartley), drummer and songwriter: born Preston 10 April 1944 ; married (widowed); died Preston 26 November 2011.

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