With one of the most impressive resumes in rock, Pete Sears has a lot to look back on.
Growing up in South London, he frequented popular blues clubs and eagerly absorbed the music of legends like Freddie King, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, while simultaneously exploring jazz albums from the likes of Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck, as well as folk and local Celtic music. Soon, Sears went from piano lessons and casual school gigs to performing professionally with English bands like Sons of Fred, Les Fleur de Lys and the Sam Gopal Dream.
A few years later, he’d become well connected in the industry, appearing on four Rod Stewart albums between 1970-74 – a run that included the incredibly successful hit, “Maggie May.” Sears then helped form Jefferson Starship, whom he continued to play with until 1987. He joined Hot Tuna, the more blues-based Jefferson Airplane offshoot, and recorded a handful of albums with them. Along the way, Sears rubbed shoulders with a host of legends, including Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, Ike and Tina Turner, Neal Schon, John Lee Hooker, Betty Davis and more.
One of your first professional recording experiences, when you were still a teenager, was at none other than Abbey Road Studios, which was then called EMI Studios. Was that intimidating to you?
I was in this sort of dreamlike state the whole time. You just sort of take it as it comes, you know? I mean, it was amazing. It’s what I was doing then: I was out on the road playing. It wasn’t intimidating in that sense. You’re just young and arrogant, and you’re out there and you’re just doing it. Nerves, of course, at different times in my career have played a factor. I’m not without being nervous about things. Just at that point in my life, I was just living in this sort of dreamlike state and playing rock ‘n’ roll.
At one point in those early days, you wound up playing with Jimi Hendrix. Do you remember your first impression of him?
Yeah, that was actually the second band I played with, Fleur de Lys. We played Motown, Impressions, that sort of thing, I was playing keys for those guys. A couple of guys were staying at Eric Burdon‘s house from the Animals, in London. I was over there just hanging out in the kitchen and [Hendrix manager] Chas [Chandler, the Animals former bassist] walks in with this guy. Real nice guy, you know. Just wore jeans, none of the really fancy clothing that he wore later on. We had a long talk for about an hour, just sitting there talking and chatting. He played guitar with Little Richard, but I had no idea he was as good as he was. He was just real nice. Unassuming wasn’t egotistical or anything, at that point. I think he was always a very cool guy. I knew Mitch Mitchell, the drummer, but at that point, I didn’t know anything about the Experience down the line, he was just a guy I met. Then Chas brought him down and he overdubbed on a record we were making called “Amen,” an old Impressions song, but nobody knows what happened to the acetate.
And you ran into Hendrix again when you were in Sam Gopal’s Dream, right?
We were playing the Speakeasy. And Jimi just came up. He took our guitar player’s guitar, played it backwards — it still sounded great — and used the mic stand to slide against the neck, that kind of a slide guitar sort of thing. And, Mick, my guitar player, picked my bass up and I sat on the B-3 [organ]. So we just did this crazy jam.
Listen to Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’
I’m curious about how you ended up in the Rod Stewart circle. Where did that connection come from?
I think most people would say that there’s a few people in their lives that they think were key in a way. One guy I was really close with – a good friend, he played drums with the Jeff Beck band and is on the album Truth – Micky Waller, the drummer. Micky Waller was one of Charlie Watts‘ favorite drummers. They were really close. [I] formed a band called Silver Metre, [with Tom Cowan and Leigh Stevens of Blue Cheer], and Micky was part of that. We recorded at Trident Studios in London, and Micky introduced me to Rod. So I played on Rod’s second solo album, Gasoline Alley. I went in and played piano on “Country Comfort” and bass on a song called “Cut Across Shorty” that he did. So then, I did four albums with him. I did Every Picture Tells a Story and then, Never a Dull Moment, and then Smiler was the last one.
You must have clicked with those guys in some way. It doesn’t sound like you necessarily planned to stick around for four albums, yet you did.
Yeah, right. We got pretty close here for a while, Rod and I. You know, I’d go off — I was with Silver Metre and then I joined Stoneground, and then after that, I was back in the states, and I flew back to play on Every Picture Tells a Story, which is probably my favorite Rod Stewart album. And everything was very spontaneous in the studio.
That spontaneity seems to come through on those early albums in the song choices. You mentioned “Country Comfort,” which is an Elton John song. And one of my favorites on Every Picture Tells a Story is the cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” It seems like Rod was trying out a lot of things.
Yeah, he had sort of diverse influences. He liked Bob Dylan a lot, and he also liked Sam Cooke. He had this sort of interesting [mix] of the blues and folk, so it all sort of came together. Rod, he had a really interesting way of producing. He’d really be into the feel, rather than microscopically sort of going in and making sure everything’s absolutely perfect.
And yet that album still sounds quite cohesive.
That’s right. It really did come together that way. We’d go over to his house in the afternoon, and then we’d sit and I’d play his piano and the guys would play an acoustic guitar. We’d just get everything, listen to the song and then go to the studio. Almost first take, you know?
Was “Maggie May” one of those one-take songs?
Well, not quite. “Maggie May,” I wasn’t there when they recorded that song. They did it with Ian McLagan, who’d come from the Faces. Amazing, great friend, amazing keyboard player — [he] played the B-3, and they did the whole thing. That day, I wasn’t there. But I came in and played the Celeste on that, which is like a [plays riff on piano], like a toy piano. That’s me near the end of the song. Yeah, that’s the reason it was a big hit. [Laughs.] That was a joke.
Did you have any inclination at the time that it was going to be a big hit?
No, none of us did. In fact, the song that was the A-side was the one I was playing piano on, which is [plays another riff], “Reason to Believe.” [Sings] “If you listen long enough to” — I played piano on that, and that was released as the A-side single. And the B side was “Maggie May,” but the DJs started playing “Maggie May” and it just took off. And so it was a surprise to Rod.
Listen to Grace Slick’s ‘Better Lying Down’
When you formed Jefferson Starship and started writing songs with Grace Slick, what was that process like?
Actually, early ’73, I was co-producing an album for a woman named Kathi McDonald, arranging the music, called Insane Asylum… David Freiberg, who played bass and sang with Quicksilver Messenger Service with John Cipollina, he was in the last version of the Airplane. So, they were upstairs. I bumped into David in the hallway. He said, “Why don’t you come up and say hi to Paul [Kantner] and Grace? And I went up, I was in the studio, just sitting down playing some blues piano, and then I didn’t realize that they’d hit record and Grace was upstairs scribbling away. And she came up with a song called “Better Lying Down,” one of her more subtle lyrics. [Laughs.] Grace and I carried on writing through the ’70s. Later on, I’d write music and send Grace the music and she’d write lyrics to that music. And sometimes I regret doing it that way in some ways, I think. I wish I’d kept spontaneity, you know, because I really love blues rock, and I wish I’d done more of that in our writing, but it turned out alright.
I have a little list of names here of people you’ve worked with. Maybe you can shed some light on each of those experiences. The first one is a trio you formed with a pre-Journey Neal Schon and Greg Errico from Sly and the Family Stone. Whose idea was that?
Yeah, that’s a good question. God, how did that start? It might have been Neal, or actually it was Greg, I think. We got together and we started playing as a power trio. And we tried it out, but we couldn’t find a singer that would resonate with us; it was all instrumental. We went to Hawaii, and we played the Diamond Head Crater Festival, like a New Year’s Eve show, going into ’73. You can see it on YouTube. There’s a little bit of sound from that, but there’s no vocalist.
So you were actively looking for a singer?
We were, yeah. I had my phone book. I had Steve Winwood‘s phone number. I was trying to call England in a call box, over here in San Francisco – trying to get through to that number to see if he wanted to do it. He wouldn’t have done it anyway. [Laughs.]
What about Ike and Tina Turner? I believe you did some studio work with them, including a great cover Tina did of George Harrison‘s “Something.”
I knew [Ike’s] engineer, John Mills. He said “You should come down to the studio, Ike’s studio.” I said “Yeah, okay, of course.” And it was Bolic Sound; it was Ike’s personal studio. So I went down there and I pretty much hung out for two weeks. Ike would just record nonstop. He had tapes – you know, big 15-inch reel tapes, all around the corner of the room, and he’d just be constantly adding to that. We’d play and he would go on. I remember him literally falling asleep on the studio floor and some gigantic bodyguard fellow would cover him with a blanket right there, and he’d wake up the next day and carry on recording.
Listen to Tina Turner Cover George Harrison’s ‘Something’
How about Betty Davis?
[Greg Errico] was producing Betty. She’d broken up with Miles [Davis], I think, at that point. She was doing her funk albums, so he brought me down to overdub on one of her songs called “Anti Love Song.” I played acoustic piano on that track. But I hit it off with her; we were good friends. She had a great sense of humor.
And lastly, Jerry Garcia? I just recently learned that both he and Bob Weir had terrible stage fright. The years you worked with him, in particular, were pretty rough for him. Do you think he was more comfortable in the studio at that point?
I think he hid his stage fright very well. I remember [Jerry] had his dressing room; he had a ritual. He had to go in his room and just be real quiet in his room before he went on, but you know, once you hit the stage — I know what it is to be nervous about doing something. Once you hit the stage, in general, and you start playing, it just goes somewhere else.
Yeah, I read that he and Weir would make eye contact after they got on stage to kind of check-in with one another and make sure they were okay.
They were so close. In fact, the first time I met both those guys was together, you know. It was 1970, I was playing with Stoneground, living in Mill Valley with those guys and I met John Cipollina. But I had become friends with Richard Gossett, who was a KSAN rock-radio FM DJ, and he was broadcasting from Sutter Street in San Francisco. They had a station there, and Richard said, “Why don’t you guys get some music together? We could do some jamming in the studio.” And I said, “Yeah, all right.” And so I went and talked to John. He got ahold of Jerry and Bobby, and his little brother, Mario Cipollina, who ended up the bass player with Huey Lewis [and the News]. But we all went down to the studio, got some mics, and Jerry set up his pedal steel./ Bobby had his acoustic guitar, John on guitar, no drums, and I just played piano and Mario on bass – and we did a live broadcast. There’s a bootleg of it around.
So the very first time you met them, you jammed? That’s amazing.
That’s right. Exactly. Jerry didn’t think he was a very good pedal-steel guitar player, very insecure. But other pedal steel players I talk to, they say they loved his playing. It’s all about note selection, too. And he just had the real feel for it.
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