Earl Okin is a renowned musician and songwriter . Based in London , he has performed around the world including countries such as Brazil and Australia. He also recently completed performances in south east Asia , in locales such as Thailand , Singapore and thee Philippines . Known for his work in folk and then the Jazz music spheres , Earl is also one of the world’s most proficient Bossa Nova performers. Earl kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us.1. What was your initial introduction to music and performing?
When I was just 5 years old, my great uncle played me recordings of the great opera singers of the Golden pre-1914 era, such as Caruso and Chaliapin. I was deeply affected by the music of Verdi, Moussorgsky, Puccini etc. and began collecting 78rpm records of these great singers. Music became my life.
Meanwhile, my parents played me the popular music of the 20s and 30s. My father had produced RAF Variety shows during the 1939-1945 war. He also sang comedy songs.
I also discovered Paul Robeson who was, in many ways, a folk singer and his was the first concert that I ever attended, when I was 9 years old. I remember that concert at the Royal Albert Hall vividly, though it was in the late 1950s.
I started singing in public at 5 years old accompanied by my father and began to teach myself piano and guitar at about 7. I first performed on BBC TV when I was 12, in 1959.
During the 60s, I started writing my own songs and listening to Jazz, particularly Duke Ellington and singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, my favourite. I bought their records but also saw them performing live over the next 15 years.
In the mid 60s, after I began to write songs, I was signed to Dick James (the Beatles’ publisher). However, as well as pop songs, I began to write Bossa Novas.
2. As a multifaceted performer how do you balance your passion for music , songwriting and comedy?, and tell us about your formative years playing in folk clubs.
Because I never had a group, the place for me to perform back then was Folk Clubs…which were really a place where ALL sorts of music was played, as long as it was acoustic. Often, there weren’t even any microphones, for instance at Bunjie’s or The Troubadour.
In order to engage the audience, I learnt to chat between songs in as entertaining a way as possible. This used to involve comedy. In addition, from the mid-60s onward, I wrote comic songs. This meant that my programme constantly changed rather than singing a string of songs all similar to one another. I also started to sing classic songs of the Berlin/Gershwin/Porter type and provide vocal-trumpet solos which developed while I was listening to early recordings of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the late 20s/early 30s. I gradually got to be quite well known on the Folk circuit.
However, because of my connection with Dick James, some of my pop songs were covered by Georgie Fame, Helen Shapiro and Cilla Black. I also recorded at Abbey Road myself in 1967 and for CBS in 1969.
My time in Folk Clubs, after starting at University, really flowered in the 70s, while I still had a day job as a schoolmaster, but I was also invited to ‘open’ for such folk artistes a Ralph McTell and Fairport Convention. Later on, I opened for pop/rock acts, such as Van Morrison, but it was the tour opening for Paul McCartney that led me to quit teaching in 1979.
In the early 80s, the London Folk circuit crumbled away and was replaced, often in the same places, by ‘alternative’ comedy clubs. I met Nigel Planer at my favourite Jazz hang-out, the 606 Club, and was invited to perform the comedy part of my repertoire at The Comic Strip, little dreaming that I’d still be headlining at comedy clubs over 30 years later.
3. what was your first exposure to Bossa Nova , and what led to you adding it to your repertoire?
I’d first heard Corcovado sung by Peggy Lee, the only American singer who had any idea of proper Bossa Nova phrasing. I’d also heard a guitarist in the UK playing Bossa Nova and was fascinated with the ‘crunchy’ chords. Through a Jazz musician friend, I got to go to Stan Getz’s home near New York City and also heard a concert with Charlie Byrd on my first visit to the USA in 1968… I was hooked!
My first Brazilian friends, The late Marcio Martins Moreira and his then wife Vera Scatena showed me what to do with my right hand when playing Bossa Nova and I wrote some more songs in this style, now that I had the rhythm correct.
Marcio worked in advertising and knew people like Elis Regina and it was he who arranged for me to meet Elis and her husband Cesar Mariano on my first trip to Brasil in 1975. I went to their home. We had supper and did our best to talk, despite me speaking no Portuguese and they speaking little English. During supper, on a huge reel-to-reel tape recorder, they played me her recent recordings for ‘Elis & Tom’. It’s still one of my favourite records.
Afterwards, Cesar, known as a fine pianist of-course, took out his guitar. I asked Elis to sing Pra Dizer Adeus and I joined in on ‘vocal trumpet’. Naturally, this took them by surprise but she completed the performance, as if she were on stage and only dissolved in laughter afterwards. I sang a couple of songs for them, too…but I only recorded Elis’s singing on my Walkman. I still have the recording. I also watched a rehearsal of their band…in their garage. I don’t know where they kept their car, if they had one. Elis sang while her little child stood by her, clutching her knees.
On that trip, I met several other interesting people. I met Roberto Corte-Real and Vera Scatena’s father, Jose. They had both been involved with a record company that had recorded early Bossa Nova artistes, RGE Fermata. I met the great Luiz Eca, Zuza Homen De Mello, bass player and music critic, who taught me all about the history of Brazilian popular music…and the maestro…Paulo Moura…the great clarinet and saxophone player. We remained friends for the rest of his life.
During that trip, I also heard live performances by Nana Caymmi, Maysa and Dick Farney! Amazing!
Over the years, my grasp of harmony and guitar chord shapes has developed. Every time I learned a new chord shape, I tended to celebrate by writing a new Bossa Nova. Listening in particular to João Gilberto, I feel that I also really understand Bossa Nova vocal phrasing now, always singing BEFORE the beat. Thus, I hope, my Bossa Nova songs and performances have become more authentic. I’ve even learnt to sing a few classics in Portuguese!
4. Living in London what is the history of bossa nova like there if there is any at all?
In 1981 Jobim and Vinicius played at the Palladium, I made sure that I heard them and even managed to meet them afterwards. Years later, I met their drummer, Mutinho and was able to give him a recording of that concert!
Since then, I’ve met Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil in London and quite recently even managed to attend a concert of my favourite Brazilian performer of all, also in London…of-course…Joao Gilberto!
Lots of singers and musicians on the London Jazz circuit include Bossa Novas in their set but, sadly, few get the phrasing right and I have no idea what most of the drummers are playing (with a few honourable exceptions), but it’s certainly nothing like what they play in Brazil!
I’m currently recording a new CD of my own and classic songs including Bossa Novas…and working on Bossa Nova arrangements for Ive Mendes, a wonderful Brazilian singer (and superstar in countries such as Poland, Spain and Portugal) who lives in London.
5. You have performed around the world, are there any particular locations you enjoyed the most ?
These days, I perform at a range of venues. Sometimes, they only want comedy music. Sometimes they want a mixture, but at my favourite venues, such as The Elgar Room @ The Royal Albert Hall, Ronnie Scott’s or Les Crazy Coqs in London and other Jazz clubs around the world, I can concentrate on Jazz, Bossa Nova classics and my own songs with only the occasional bit of comedy, just as a surprise for the audience. It’s music that still excites me the most.
I’ve also performed in India, Germany, France, Belgium, New York and LA, but my concert with Danilo Caymmi in Sao Paulo a few years ago really stands out for me.
6. would you say you have a special approach to song writing ?
Songwriting from Schubert to Stevie Wonder always started with a chord sequence which inspired a melody. The only real differences between those two were the rhythms chosen for their songs and their choice of chords. So it is with my songwriting. I choose a genre which dictates the rhythm. Then I start playing appropriate chords with maybe a little surprise here and there and hope that an exciting melody emerges. Once it does, I do a little polishing and…voila! Once the music is finished, I write some lyrics. 7. Are there any other musical contemporaries you admire , that you have observed or worked with , past or present?
I have mentioned many of them, but I must include two of the other musicians in the show I made with Danilo Caymmi, who were members of Musica Ligeira. Sadly, their singer/guitarist, Rodrigo Rodrigues had already passed away in his 30s. We’d made friends some years before and he’d recorded one of my Bossa Novas, ‘Here’s Tomorrow’.
8. How did you end up having breakfast with Gal Costa?
A last bit of name-dropping. On my trip to Brazil in the late 1990s, I managed to get to the ears of Jô Soares and have now performed on his legendary TV show three times. He likes comedy as well as music and he always demands a silly song I once wrote, called A Samba Das Bundas, based on how Brazilians seem to dance.
That trip also allowed me to perform at the Crowne Plaza Hotel with Luiz Chaves (the bass-player of the Zimbo Trio) which was a great honour. The following morning, I was having breakfast when I noticed the woman sitting next to me. She wore glasses. Her hair was pulled back severely from her face and her expression was very serious…almost angry. However, that face looked familiar. I couldn’t place it at first, but finally I leant over to her and said ‘You ARE Gal Costa, aren’t you?’. She stopped, looking surprised, but then her face broke into a smile as she replied ‘Yes. I am, but nobody ever recognizes me when I’m like this’. Well, we chatted, swapped recordings and she invited me to her concert which was with a very young Escola De Samba group and was very impressive.
Earl Okin’s album BOSSA BRITANICA can be obtained here…