The longtime backup singer for The World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band pays tribute to his bosses by turning their songs Inside Out
Bernard Fowler has been singing backing vocals and contributing harmonies to The Rolling Stones, both on stage and in the studio, for more than 31 years. When he’s not on the road with the Stones, he’s an in demand session singer. He has appeared on albums by Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono, Alice Cooper, Bootsy Collins, Public Image, Ltd and other A-list artists.
On his own, Fowler recorded and produced two solo albums of original material and carefully chosen covers. They’ve mysteriously remained under the radar, despite both being fantastic works. Friends with Privileges (2007), was released in Japan and featured Stones bass player Darryl Jones, Doug Wimbish, Waddy Watchel and other LA session heavies. The Bura (2015) included backing tracks created with friends like Slash, Albert Lee, Lenny Castro and Chuck D. The arrangements touched on acoustic blues, funk, rock, soul and reggae.
Fowler’s new solo effort, Inside Out, will probably fare better. It reinvents nine songs from the Stones catalogue, taking them back to rock’s African and Caribbean roots, with percussion heavy arrangements and Fowler’s unique vocal approach. He talks and chants the lyrics, referencing the style of The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron. With the exception of “Sympathy for the Devil,” he avoided the hits to explore the band’s extensive repertoire. He spoke to the Globe about the creative process behind the album, from his dressing room on the Bowie Celebration Tour.
It may be an obvious question, but why did you call the album Inside Out?
I went through a lot of titles, but considering what I was doing to the songs – delivering them in a whole other way – it seemed to fit.
Why did you take the spoken word approach for the vocals?
It was something I thought about for a while. I was doing a gig at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with Steve Jordan, Earl Slick and Chuck D. I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do at the sound check, so I started doing ‘Sympathy’ in a spoken word form. Steve thought it was cool. Next time I was on tour with the Stones, I started messing round with the idea a little more. I did it at a sound check and (the Stones) got a kick out of it. I started talking at other sound checks, with different songs and I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something to this.’ Mick heard me doing ‘Sympathy’ that way and said, ‘I’ve heard that song done a lot of ways, but I never heard it like that before.’ To me, that was a, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘When this tour is over, I’m gonna cut this.’ He said, ‘You should.’
You must have a deep background in Latin and African music. Can you tell us about that aspect of your music?
I grew up in the Queensbridge Projects, in a predominantly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. I heard drums all my life, from early in morning to late at night. I grew up listening to salsa and African percussion. In making the record, it was important that all the rhythms were different. I had that discussion with the percussion players. I asked what part of the world each rhythm came from, to make sure each song had a different rhythm. I played percussion, congas, shakers and hand percussion. I have a friend that sent me a drum from Uruguay. He’s a master candombe player. I took Mick to his house when we were touring in Uruguay. It happened to be his birthday. He was so excited, that he sent me a drum to thank me. I played it on the record.
You play a lot of instruments. Do you identify as a drummer, guitarist, bass player or singer?
I’m a musician, but my specialty is voice. I was singing when I came out of the womb. I sang around the house as a kid. I wanted to be one of the Temptations, Eddie Kendricks or David Ruffin, then the Jackson 5. I sang in the high school chorus and glee club. People always ask me, if I sang in church. My mother and grandmother did, not me. The records in my house were blues, soul and gospel. Mahalia Jackson was a favorite. I developed a style of my own, at home. I didn’t have my first voice lessons, until my late 20s. I learned by listening to a little bit of everything and copying the tones I heard – Three Dog Night, Herbie Hancock, Hendrix, The Chambers Brothers. All the stuff I heard growing up, became part of who I am as a vocalist.
How did you go about making this record?
We started the tracks with [Afro Cuban percussionist] Walfredo Reyes, Jr. Then, I brought in Lenny Castro and the two of them recorded, while I was doing the vocals. We worked at [drummer] Vince Wilburn’s home studio. After all the heavy percussion stuff was done, the rhythm section was added. I talked to drummer Steve Jordan in LA. I told him what I was doing. He asked me to send him a track. After he heard it, he said he wanted to play on the album. The next time he came to New York, he called me up and came to the studio with Clayton Cameron. I hadn’t met Clayton before, but Steve said, ‘Cameron’s gonna play brushes.’ The percussion stuff was already laid down, but when Steve started adding to the tracks, he was grooving hard. He wound up playing on a bunch of songs.
Who wrote the arrangements?
They fell together. Once I had the basic tracks done, I wanted some horns here and there. Talking to Vince [Wilburn, Jr., who plays drums on Inside Out and is also the nephew of Miles Davis] one day, I suggested sampling some trumpet stuff from Miles Davis. He told me Keyon Harrold was in town. He played trumpet in the Miles Davis biographical movie, Miles Ahead. He came in the next day, took up his horn up and blew on ‘Sister Morphine.’ No time warming up. He did three passes and we had it. That’s one of my favorite tracks and Keyon is the icing on that cake.
How did you select the tunes?
I got my Rolling Stones songbooks out and started reading the lyrics. The stuff everybody knew, all the radio hits, they didn’t feel right when I recited them. I had to go deep into the songbook and look for the gems. They’d just jump out at me. ‘Tie You Up?’ Yup, that’s gonna work.
Did the current political situation have any bearing on the songs you chose?
Absolutely! It was amazing how those lyrics related to stuff going on now. Good music is timeless. I’ve heard these song hundreds of times, but when I read then, and recited them, they took on a whole new life. When we were working on it, I didn’t play the album for a lot of people, so nobody knew what I was doing. Some people came into the studio and said, ‘Man, that is really strong’ and some songs they couldn’t identify. They grew up listening to those songs, but the way I restructured them, they didn’t recognize them. I’d tell them the name of the song and they’d sit there with their mouths open.
VIDEO: Bernard Fowler – Tie You Up