ROCK musicians can seem like mercenaries, ready to jump ship at the slightest hint of a better gig somewhere else. Cozy Powell, the powerhouse drummer who died in a car crash on Sunday night, was the peripatetic instrumentalist par excellence.
In a career spanning over 30 years, he played with rock heavyweights like Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, the Michael Schenker Group, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Queen's Brian May and more recently guested with Peter Green's Splinter Group. In the mid-Seventies, he also scored three Top Twenty hits with strong tracks featuring his trademark thumping style.
Powell started out in the Sixties with bands like the Sorcerers, Ace Kefford Stand and Big Bertha, with whom he developed a fearsome reputation. In 1971, he joined the second line-up of the Jeff Beck Group which, along with the former Yardbirds guitarist, also featured the bassist Clive Chapman, the vocalist Bobby Tench (later with Streetwalkers and Van Morrison) and the keyboardist Max Middleton (currently with Chris Rea).
They recorded two fine albums, Jeff Beck Group and Rough and Ready, but even with the help of the legendary Booker T. & the MGs' guitarist Steve Cropper on the second, their fusion of the Stax and Motown sounds didn't quite connect with the general public.
Powell then formed Bedlam and also found time to appear on various releases by acts (Julie Felix, Hot Chocolate, Donovan) connected with the producer Mickie Most. The Rak Records supremo noticed Cozy Powell's impressive, thundering playing which wasn't dissimilar to the sound Most had fashioned for the glitter rock queen Suzi Quatro. In 1973, Most helped him become a bona fide star with "Dance with the Devil", a Top Three single in Britain. The following year, Powell charted again with "The Man in Black" and "Na Na Na" but soon realised that his forte was very much in being the hired hand, the power behind a mighty frontman.
In 1975, the guitarist Ritchie Blackmore quit Deep Purple to form Rainbow, but soon grew disillusioned with his new outfit. When he sacked the whole band apart from the vocalist Ronnie Dio, Powell proved a natural recruit on drums. He stayed for five years, the most successful period of Rainbow's career, playing on hits like "Since You've Been Gone" and "All Night Long" as well as classic gonzo rock albums Long Live Rock'n'Roll and On Stage.
His tour-de-force drum solos became a highlight of the band's concerts alongside Blackmore's virtuoso lead, Roger Glover's bass-playing and Graham Bonnet's soaring vocals (the latter two had by 1978 become part of an umpteenth Rainbow line-up in a game of musical chairs for which Cozy Powell seemed predestined. The drummer's peregrinations certainly kept the archivist and Rock Family Trees compiler Pete Frame busy).
Always on the look-out for a better offer, Powell joined the Michael Schenker Group at the end of 1980 but his liaison with the former Scorpions guitarist proved short-lived. Two years later, he hooked up with another former Deep Purple member, the vocalist David Coverdale, in a stellar line-up of Whitesnake which also featured many musicians (the bass-player Neil Murray, the keyboardist Jon Lord) who regularly guested on Powell's instrumental albums of the period.
By 1985, Powell was a free agent again, part of a coterie of drummers who guested on Roger Daltrey's excellent Under a Raging Moon (a tribute to the unique style of the late Who drummer Keith Moon). He then accepted an ill-fated invitation to replace the percussionist Carl Palmer and become part of the progressive Emerson, Lake & Powell. In 1989, he hooked up with a Black Sabbath line-up which was living up to its reputation as the inspiration for Rob Reiner's Spinal Tap film parody.
Powell only found his musical feet again in the Nineties behind Queen axeman Brian May and more recently with Peter Green's Splinter Group. The former Fleetwood Mac guitarist had emerged from self- imposed exile and silence and gone back to his blues roots and until recently Powell was much involved in the band's extensive touring around Europe. Powell had also just recorded material with the Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen and was due to join him on an American tour which was cancelled after he crashed his bike a few weeks ago.
Speed always had a fascination for Cozy Powell. For a while in the Seventies, he was a Formula Three driver for Hitachi and also rode bikes incredibly fast. He was once cautioned for doing 130mph on a Japanese bike, but an understanding Oxford policeman asked him for an autograph and marked down the speed to 99mph. Otherwise, he would have lost his licence.
Rock drummers are often the butt of jokes from other musicians and critics alike. But Cozy Powell took a recent appearance on Chris Evans's TFI Friday in his stride and gave as good as he got from the host.
Mickie Most, the glitter rock svengali who produced Powell's Seventies solo hits, paid him this tribute: "Musically, he was one of the best drummers we've ever had in this country. He was a great guy and always had a perfect disposition. We had a lot of laughs and he was great fun."
Colin (Cozy) Powell: drummer and composer; born Cirencester, Gloucestershire 29 December 1947; married; died near Bristol 5 April 1998.
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