Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features backup vocalist Bernard Fowler.
Bernard Fowler stepped into the world of the Rolling Stones when he was asked to sing background vocals on Mick Jagger’s 1985 solo album She’s the Boss, and he never left. During the past four decades, the New York City–born singer has performed with Charlie Watts’ jazz combo, traveled to Australia and Japan with Jagger on his only solo tour, produced Ron Wood’s solo albums, and cut tracks in the studio with Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos. He’s also sung on every Stones album since Steel Wheels, and performed at every show they’ve played since 1989, more than 800 in total.
The Stones and their various side projects may be the most noteworthy part of Fowler’s long career, but he’s also worked with Herbie Hancock, Michael Hutchence, Public Image Ltd, Duran Duran, Alice Cooper, Yoko Ono, and even Steven Seagal. (He doesn’t love talking about that last one.) A couple of months after the Stones wrapped up their 2021 U.S. tour, we phoned up Fowler to hear stories from his long life and career.
How has your life been for the past few months now that the tour is over?
Life is crazy, man. Life is crazy. This Covid thing is just fucking musicians’ worlds.
The Stones tour was very fortunate. It ended just before Omicron hit. You guys played every date as planned and nobody got sick.
You know what? Everybody was really careful, really professional. If I’m not mistaken, we’re probably the only major tour that didn’t get postponed or canceled at some point. I did hear that Kiss lost a roadie. He died. And so it was a hard tour because we were traveling in the bubble. You do the gig, you go to the hotel, and you’re in the hotel. There’s no meeting and greeting people. No going to see your friends in the lobby or hanging out at the bar and having drinks after the show. There was none of that.
We were being tested two or three times a week. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one holding my breath every time I went to the Covid office. “Am I going to be the one? Who’s going to be the one?”
I want to go back and talk about your life. Tell me your first memory of being aware of music as a little kid.
That’s an early memory, man. As far back as I can remember, music was always playing in the house on the Emerson hi-fi. The stuff that was coming out of the speakers were records my mother and father played. It was that along with the radio.
What kinds of records did your parents play?
They were blues, soul, and gospel, predominantly. A couple of comedians, but basically, blues, soul, and gospel.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Jamaica, Queens. When I was two or three, we moved from Jamaica to Long Island City. I grew up in the Queensbridge projects.
Who were some of your early musical heroes?
I would have to say it was everything coming through that Emerson hi-fi. It was the Temptin’ Temptations. David Ruffin was king. The whole group were just kings. Eddie Taylor was a record my mom or dad would play, along with Lloyd Price, B.B. [King], of course, Mahalia Jackson, Joe Tex, Brook Benton. It was soul stuff like Sly and the Family Stone. The first record I ever bought with my own allowance was a Sly and the Family Stone record.
And James Brown, of course. I was also a Chuck Berry nut. At the family gatherings, I would do the Chuck Berry [duck] walk for everybody.
I spent a lot of time in Jamaica, Queens, because a lot of my mother’s brothers and sisters lived there. I had a cousin that would find stereos that people threw away. He’d take the speakers out and he had speakers all over his room. We’d listen to Buddy Miles and Hendrix and Rare Earth.
Did you see any concerts back then that left a big mark on you?
On Jamaica Avenue there were three or four music venues. There was the RKO Valencia, the Cheetah, and a few others. I used to go there with my friends. Sometimes it would be sold out and we couldn’t get in. Sometimes we’d sneak in through a back door and watch Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and the Bar-Kays, Kool and the Gang, the Delfonics, the Dells.
These were the best shows I’d ever seen in my life. I was a fan. At that time, I didn’t consider being a musician. I was just a fan of it. I wasn’t doing it.
When did that change?
In junior high school, I was always in the chorus or the glee club, or whatever. One of my teachers heard me singing. She said, “You need to meet my husband. He’s a guitar player and singer-songwriter. I would love for him to meet you.”
She invited me to her house on 77th Street near Central Park West. I go up there, meet her husband, and we’re kind of jamming. Next thing I know, he’s like, “We’re doing this show at so-and-so. I want you to come and do this show.”
I was too young to go into a club. She obviously knew this. She would come to Queensbridge. Of course, seeing a white lady walk through Queensbridge … you didn’t see that a lot. She came to my house, spoke to my mother, and she’d take me to the club. I’d do the gig, and she’d take me back home to Queensbridge. That was the first time I’d really sung with a band.
The first gig I ever played was with the sax player David Sanborn. I knew that because I was such a fan of music and records that I used to read the credits. I knew who David Sanborn was. I knew who [jazz-fusion guitarist] Hiram Bullock was. I knew who [drummer] Chris Parker was. They were all in this band!
You were also playing basketball at this time, right?
I played a lot of basketball when I was growing up. Where I came from, Queensbridge in Long Island City, we bred basketball players. Metta World Peace is from my block. Growing up, I met Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar], Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Connie Hawkins. They all came to Queensbridge to play since the competition was there.
I thought I wanted to be a ballplayer. After a game, I was out celebrating with some guys. We had just won the New York City Housing basketball tournament. I was singing and some guy heard me sing. I didn’t know him. He was dating my friend’s sister. He said, “Hey, man, you sound good. I’m a guitar player in a band. We’re looking for a singer. Come and audition.”
I never showed up. He cursed me out. That makes me get on the train and bus for Jamaica. I go audition for this band. The next week, I was in the one of the best recording studios in New York City, Media Sound on 57th Street. The first person that I saw, that I became really good friends with later on, was Bernie Worrell from Parliament-Funkadelic.
I walked in and there’s this guy in the lobby. He kind of had his head down and he was in a full buckskin: pants, jacket, boots, and he had a cool-ass hat on. I was going to go walk by him, but I slowed down and kind of peeked. Again, I knew who he was from the album covers. I said, “Mr. Worrell.” He goes, “Hey, bud, just call me Bernie.” I said, “It’s nice to meet you. I’m a fan.”
I take a few steps, and the studio door opens, and it’s [trumpet player] Jon Faddis. At that time, New York had great jazz radio between WWRL, WBLS, WAVR, as well as the Symphony Sid show. I was just a huge fan of music.
And so I join this band, but I’m still playing basketball. I’m playing varsity basketball as a sophomore. I was good. And after practice at 7 a.m., the coach called me in his office. He goes, “Hey, Fowler, I gotta talk to you. I understand that after the afternoon practice, you go and sing with a band.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You want to come and see it?” He said, “No. You’re either going to play ball or you’re going to sing with that band. You’re not going to do both.”
I was shocked. I was stunned. I asked him if he was serious. He said he was. I remember standing there and I started to cry. I said, “Fuck you — I quit!” I never played again.
I’m sure that was awful, but it was probably good for you in the long run. The best-case scenario for basketball is you can play until you’re 38 or so. You can make music forever.
This is true. But after retiring from basketball, I could have had a music career, maybe. Maybe. I was really upset by that for a lot of years. I didn’t think that was his place. Teachers were supposed to be nurturing. At that age, they should let kids experiment and see what they want to do. It was just very unfair.
During your teenage years, New York was just exploding with music. There was the punk scene in the Village. Hip-hop was just starting to rise in the Bronx and Harlem. Studio 54 was happening. The salsa scene was happening. How tapped into all this were you?
Once I was forced to not play ball anymore, I was really engulfed in what was going on musically. There was this thing in New York called The Jazzmobile. They don’t have it now, but every summer the Jazzmobile would come through Queensbridge in the middle of the projects and cats would be performing. You had jazz greats like Mongo Santamaría, Joe Bataan, Eddie Palmieri. He even did gigs at the community center. I was too young, but I used to sneak in to see him anyway.
I remember being really young and going to Randall’s Island to see concerts. I saw Mandrill, P-Funk [at the Blanket Festival on Aug. 11, 1973], and then a riot broke out and people started scattering. I had to get the hell out of there.
Like you said, New York was a hotbed for music. I was out there every night at CBGB, Max’s, Tramps. I was in all of those clubs. I was introduced to a lot of them through my junior-high-school teacher. When I could, I’d go and see them.
Where did your career go from here?
I was in this Top 40 band called the Total Eclipse for a bit, but I was bouncing around from project to project for a while. I was just so late getting into the industry. I’d look in The Village Voice for bands that needed singers, and I would go and audition just for the experience. I had no intention of joining any of the bands, but I’d just go just to get experience.
How did you wind up starting the Peech Boys?
There was a drummer by the name of Steven Brown. A lot of people in the hip-hop community would know him as Steven “Boogie” Brown. Steven was from the Bronx. He was in the Total Eclipse. He left a few months before me. He was my hangout buddy. He called me and said, “Hey, I got an idea for a band. I know some people.”
This is just as hip-hop is starting to bubble. Around this time, Steven called me and was like, “Yo, man. We got to go check out Club 371.” Club 371 was in the Bronx with DJ Hollywood doing his thing and Kurtis Blow.
Up until that time, rap had not been recorded. No one had done it yet. It was in the clubs. DJs were rapping over the music, but actual records … this is before Sugarhill Gang. We recorded a song and from what I remember, it was bumping. It was a great song, and a big part of the song was rap. Steven supplied that. He played drums and supplied the rap. We recorded this song, and we could never get it released.
I remember them telling me they went to see Hugh Masekela because the guitar player was friends with him. They go there and Jimmy Iovine is there. They play the track and Hugh Masekela is like, “Wow, this is great.” And Jimmy Iovine is going, “This is nothing new …” He talked Hugh out of it. We never got any traction. It never came out. But we did record a club version of “Another Brick In the Wall” by Pink Floyd that was really hot.
How did Larry Levan join the group?
I used go to Reade Street and listen to him spin records. When we made “Another Brick in the Wall,” we set out to meet Larry and have him play the record. It was known that if you get Larry Levan to play your record at the Paradise Garage, dance radio got it. The shit came out of the Paradise Garage first. We made a mission to meet Larry.
As far as we knew, the Paradise Garage was a gay club. We had never been there before. We just knew what people said. And the keyboard player in the Peech Boys was gay, so it was his mission to get in there and somehow get the song played. Mission accomplished. We met Larry. He came by our loft and the relationship started.
Tell me about making “Don’t Make Me Wait.”
We had met Larry by that point. We were always hanging out at the Paradise Garage. There was no alcohol and no drugs at the Paradise Garage, but they had punch. And the punch was spiked with peach melba. Peach melba was a type of acid at the time. That’s where the name the Peech Boys came from. It came from the punch.
I went to our loft one day and no one from the group was there. The lover of the keyboard player says, “Oh, they’re at some studio. They want you to go.” I go there and this track we’d been working on in the loft is playing. Larry is sitting behind the console. Everyone is kind of excited. They’re like, “Come on, baby. You need to go in and do your thing.”
It was a groove that we had been working on. I had lyrics formulated in my head. The track wasn’t done, so I wasn’t done writing it. I get there and go into the booth and they start the track. Out comes “Don’t Make Me Wait.” One take, it was done. Larry was excited. He was crazy about it. And he took it to the club. It just took off from there.
Jumping ahead, tell me about “Smurf for What It’s Worth.”
That was me and Steven Brown. By the time we made that, we had enough Peech Boys bullshit. We weren’t happy with what was going on. I was doing a lot of sessions with [producers] Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn. They gave us access to a recording studio. Again, this was the beginning of hip-hop. It was just in its infancy. And Steven Brown had this idea for this song because, at that time, there was a dance everyone was doing called the Smurf. I don’t think a lot of people know that. That’s where “Smurf for What It’s Worth” came from. And so they gave us access to a studio. Steven had this idea. We went into the studio and boom. Again, one of the first rap records on wax.
How did you wind up on Future Shock with Herbie Hancock?
Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn. When the Peech Boys started going bad, it was something I had always expressed to them, that I wanted to work with other people. Because things were going bad, I wanted to work with people even more. “Don’t Make Me Wait” is out. It’s playing everywhere. I can’t get away from it. I’d go to Queensbridge and people would go, “Yo, don’t make me wait.” That was my name.
I got a call from a guy that was working with Bill. I go and meet Bill and Michael and they have this project called Material. The name of the album was One Down. I went to the studio. I remember mentioning it to the Peech Boys, but they were a little full of themselves. They were like, “Nobody is ever going to hear that.” And so I did this song “I’m the One” on the Material One Down album.
And then Bill called me. He was working on tracks for Herbie Hancock. I remember hearing “Rockit” before Herbie was anywhere near it. It took my head off. I was like, “What the fuck?! What the fuck is this?” And Michael and Bill would laugh and snicker and say, “This is the song we’re working on for Herbie.” I was like, “Has he heard that yet?” They were like, “No. He hasn’t heard it it.” And I’m thinking, “This is the baddest shit that I’ve ever heard, ever.”
He wants me to come and sing. I’m like, “The Peech Boys are pretty mad at me. How am I going to do this?” I knew they would throw the contract bullshit in my face, but I was determined. Singing for Herbie Hancock was a dream of mine. I wasn’t going to let that dream pass me by.
“Rockit” comes out and becomes a smash like I knew it would when I heard those tracks. Bill called me and said, “Hey, man, you want to go on the road with Herbie Hancock? Do you want to sing with Herbie Hancock?” I thought, “Are you fuckin’ kidding me? The Peech Boys are getting ready to get de-funked. I’m outta here.”
I met Herbie. We started rehearsing. I met [Grand Mixer] D.ST, the king of the mighty wheels of steel. And we were off and rolling. I think we spent two or three years on the road behind Future Shock. Herbie won his first Grammy. It was an amazing time.
How did the Peech Boys react to all this?
I had given them enough rope for them to hang themselves. And they took the fuckin’ rope and they hung themselves. I knew it, but I don’t think they thought about what they were doing. You don’t fucking dick the lead singer. You don’t dick the lead singer. Because when you dick the lead singer, who is going to sing for you? Who is going to sing?
It’s a big problem.
It’s a huge problem. All these deals were made and this and that. Again, not only was I the lead singer of the Peech Boys, I co-wrote the hits of the Peech Boys. Who was going to do that?
I remember being on the road with Herbie. His manager came to me and said, “Bernard, I’m getting these letters from these people saying that you can’t be singing for us and they’re going to sue us.” I just said, “Fuck them.” They had done so much bad stuff that they didn’t have a leg to stand on.
What did you love about being on tour with Herbie?
The travel. Watching Herbie play. I was a huge Herbie fan. As a matter of fact, when we were touring, I remember when we pulled into New York since we were playing on the pier. And this brother I grew up with came. I invited him on the bus. After school, I’d go to his house and listen to records. He had all the records. He said to me something I had forgotten. He said, “Remember we were in my house and we were listening to the Monster album by Herbie Hancock? You said to me, ‘I can’t wait until I’m good enough to sing with someone like Herbie Hancock.'” I said, “Oh, shit. Earl, I remember that.” And here I was singing with Herbie Hancock!
I loved watching Herbie play. I just loved being surrounded by all the talent. Again, I’m a baby compared to the guys that I was keeping company with. I was an infant compared to Herbie. Most of the guys had gone to Music and Art [high school]. They had been playing for a while. It was the whole experience: sex, drugs, and rock & roll. The whole nine, I was into.
How did you wind up singing on Mick Jagger’s She’s the Boss?
In the middle of the Herbie tour, we had 10 days off. I remember it like it was yesterday. We had 10 days exactly. I had an apartment that I’d never lived in. I got it right before the Herbie tour. And so I go home, the telephone rings, and it’s Bill [Laswell]. “Hey, Bernard, what are you doing, man?” I go, “Hey, Bill. I just walked in the house.” He goes, “Hey, go to the airport.”
I’m like, “No, no, no. Bill, you don’t understand. I just walked in the house.” He goes, “OK, go back to the airport. There’s a ticket for you.” That’s all he said.
I called a taxi. I had only been in the house 15 minutes. I grabbed my suitcase, went back downstairs, got into the taxi, and went to the airport. I go to the counter. “Excuse me, do you have a ticket for me.” They go, “What’s your name? Where are you going?” I say, “I don’t know where I’m going.” She goes, “Oh, you’ve got a first-class ticket to London.”
OK. I’m going to London. That’s all I know. I arrive at Heathrow. Bill is there to pick me up. But he doesn’t just pick me up in a fuckin’ taxi or a mini cab. We walk out into the aport and there’s a huge black Bentley. You know the old Bentleys with the big fenders? I’m looking and I go, “Bill, what are you doing?” He kind of snickers and we get in the car.
We drive through London and we’re talking about music. I still don’t know why I’m there. We pull up to a house in a part of London called Swiss Cottage. A big house. We walk up the stairs and ring the bell. A big Black dude opens the door. Bill says, “Hey, Carl, this is Bernard.” “Hey, man, how you doing, man?” He had a really soft voice to be such a big, powerful dude.
We walk in the house and he goes, “Bill, he’s in this room here.” I’m like, “Who the fuck is ‘he’?” Bill walks in and I walk in behind him. And there’s a guy sitting on the floor. I see his back. He’s sitting on the floor with a guitar in his hands. Bill walks in front of him and goes, “Hey, man, this is the guy I’ve been telling you about. This is Bernard Fowler.”
The guy turns around; it’s Mick Jagger. I’m frozen. I had no idea why I was in London. I had absolutely no idea. Bill makes the introduction, but he doesn’t stick around. He leaves and Jagger is on the floor. I’m standing there, still kind of in shock.
Mick turns around and is like, “Hey, come down here.” And so he’s strumming. We’re humming. It’s a couple of hours. I’m tired. I just got off the road and flew to London. He gives me a cassette and he says, “When you get a chance, listen to this. This is what we’re going to be working on tomorrow.” I’m like, “OK, tomorrow.”
During those days, I used to travel with a four-track cassette recorder. When I got to the hotel room, I listened to this stuff. I started to arrange background vocals on my four-track cassette recorder. The next day, we go to the studios. AIR Studios. I’ll never forget it. Also in that studio that day was Paul McCartney.
I get in the room with Mick. We’re listening to tracks. Mick says, “I need some stuff here and there. Why don’t you go in there and try some stuff.” I said, “Wait, before I do that, just listen to this.” I give him the four-track machine and some headphones. He’s listening and he goes, “You did this last night?” I said, “Yeah, after I left you.” He looked at me and said, “Yeah, OK. Let’s go in and do it.” And I did it.
One of the most memorable things about that day in the studio is that Paul McCartney came into our room, into our session. [Laughs] It’s funny. I just mentioned this to Mick during the tour. I wanted to know if he remembered it.
Paul McCartney is sitting in the room. Mick looks over and sees him there. He says to somebody, “Get him out of here. Get him out of here.” I remember saying to myself, “Oh, shit, Mick just kicked a Beatle out of the studio.” [Laughs.]
I did the vocals. He was happy with them. That was important to me since I was a huge Stones fan. I was a huge Stones fan. To be in his presence … I always tell people that the first record my dad ever bought me was 12 x 5. I was a huge fan.
The first time I met Keith Richard was in Rockefeller Center. I was going to Queens College and I had this job making bottles for perfume companies. I go into a deli in Rockefeller Center and I run into Keith Richards as I was listening to Tattoo You. It’s just amazing how the stars line up and you end up places.
I would guess the credit on She’s the Boss led to a lot more work for you.
Yeah. It did. It did help out a lot. And so after that record, I go back to Herbie Hancock world. When that tour ended, I’m in New York. I’m wishing the phone would ring more. It’s not ringing enough. And then somebody calls me and says, “Hey, Bernard. Have you heard that Mick Jagger is in town looking for a male background singer? Has anyone called you?” I’m like, “No.” They go, “Well, he’s looking for a background singer. This one had an audition; that one had an audition.” I said, “Well, nobody called me.”
It just so happened that I was with Carmine Rojas at that time. He’s a bass player for David Bowie and Rod Stewart. We were doing an all-star sideman gig. We were going to the South of France to do a gig. We were in SIR rehearsing. I went out to the bathroom, and as I’m leaving there this entourage starts coming down the corridor. In the middle was Mick. I kind of got his eye and went, “Hey, Mick!” He just kind of looked at me and kept walking. I thought, “Wow. That was strange.”
My feelings were hurt. I went back into the room and told Carmine. He’s like a big brother to me. I grew up listening to Carmine and wanting to be like him. He played with everybody. I went in and said, “Carmine, I just saw Mick Jagger in the fuckin’ hallway and he acted like he didn’t know me.”
Carmine, bless his heart, said, “Don’t worry about that. We’re doing our thing. We got our thing.” Five or 10 minutes later, a woman walks into the room and says, “Is there a Bernard Fowler in there?” Nobody said anything. I didn’t say anything. It was just kind of strange. I was like, “Who is this woman asking for me?” Finally I said, “Yeah, I’m Bernard Fowler.” She says, “Mick Jagger is going to do a solo tour and he’s been looking for a male vocalist. We’d like you to audition.” And she gives me a cassette and lyric sheet and she leaves the room.
My feelings are already hurt since he didn’t say hello to me. And now I’m asked to audition? I did all the singing on his first solo record. Why would I have to audition? And so I’m cursing. Carmine sees what’s going on. I said, “Carmine, can you fuckin’ believe that? I sing on his solo record, now they’re asking me to audition? Fuck that! I’m not auditioning.”
And Carmine again, bless his heart, takes my by the arm, pulls me to the side, and says, “Hey, man, push that shit aside. Don’t let that shit fucking bother you. You go in there and you do that audition and you kill them. It don’t matter if you take that gig or not. Go in there and do that audition.”
I hemmed and hawed. I went in the bathroom. I think there were three or four Stones songs I had to sing. Again, I was a Stones fan. I was familiar with all those songs. I walk into the room and everyone is there: Joe Satriani, [bassist] Doug Wimbish, [drummer] Simon Phillips. All the heavy hitters. I walk in and I guess they had been looking for a male for a while.
I walk in and this fuckin’ guy look at me. It was Jimmy Rip. He’s a good friend of mine now, but I didn’t know him then. He looks at me with his lip curled up like, “Here’s another fuckin’ one. We’ve got to do this audition.” He gives me this look and goes, “Are you ready?”
I was fuckin’ pissed off by then. When the band started, I was breathing fire. They did not expect what they got. At the end of that fourth song, I took the lyrics and the cassette and politely gave it back and left the room. Right when I ended that last song, I heard somebody say, “Oh, shit. I think he’s got the gig.” And I’ve been hovering around Rolling Stone world ever since.
The tour caused a lot of controversy within the Stones. Keith wasn’t happy about it. Do you remember that tension in the air at the time?
Do I remember? Oh, man, I was right in the fucking thick of it since Mick asked me to sing on Steel Wheels not long after it ended. I had never met any of them, and then they walked into the studio one by one.
Mick and were I throwing down some ideas down for a song. I go into the studio and I started singing, but it didn’t feel right to me. I remember saying, “Stop, stop. Stop the tape.” Mick is like, “What’s up? It’s going good.” I said, “Mick, I’m happy to do this for you. But if I do this, it’s going to sound like me. Maybe you and some of the guys can come in and sing with me.” Radio silence. I guess they were talking about it. But then Ronnie and Keith come in. I gave them parts. We record these songs.
Afterwards we’re listening to the playback. I’m standing there and I look to my left and Keith is staring at me. It didn’t feel good. It’s the first time I met him. Yes, I’m intimidated. That’s fuckin’ Keith Richards. He’s a bad man.
I look and he’s staring at me. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, shit. Here we go. What the fuck is going to happen? I gotta say something to him.” I looked at him and went, “Hey, man, is something wrong?” He looks at me, no smile, and says, “No. Nothing’s wrong.” I go, “But you’re staring at me, man. Why do you keep staring at me?” He goes, “Everything is cool.” I go, “Yo, man. I’m cool.”
And then he goes, first thing he ever said to me, “I didn’t want to like you.” I’m like, “Oh, fuck.” I knew they had been fighting. Everybody knew. I said, “Why, man? I’m cool.” He goes, “I know you’re cool. I spoke to Steve Jordan.” God bless Steve Jordan! “I spoke to Steve Jordan and he told me you were cool.” And Keith and I have been tight ever since.
He could have seen you as just Mick’s guy and been like, “I don’t want anything to do with Mick’s guy.” He didn’t do that.
Yep. That’s where it was going. I think he saw me not trying to take that space and make it Bernard’s World when I did that song. I think he caught that I did something unselfish. He’s sharp. He don’t miss shit. He don’t miss nothin’.
Tell me about the Steel Wheels tour. You’re suddenly playing football stadiums, flying in private jets, and staying in luxury hotels. That had to be a real shift in your life.
It was a real shift, but each job was a step up. Singing with Herbie was nicer than everything else had been. And being with the Stones was just next level. There is no higher level. And to be asked by the greatest frontman in rock & roll to sing for him, what bigger honor is there? I’ve always done my own things. I was doing my own things before the Stones. I do my stuff when the Stones aren’t doing their thing. I’m still doing my thing.
It’s funny. I remember telling [bassist] Darryl Jones when he joined that it was a double-edged sword. You would think that because you were working with the Rolling Stones, when you get off the road with the Rolling Stones, your phone is going to be ringing off the hook. And it’s just the opposite. They think that because you’re doing that, they can’t afford you. You’re not going to work for $100 anymore. People are afraid to call you since they’re afraid you’re going to cost too much.
Darryl and I talked about this. We started doing gigs for free just so people knew. We’d go and do gigs for free! Nobody was going to call. We had to call and offer. “Hey, man, we’ll do it. No problem.”
The Steel Wheels tour was their first time using background singers. How did they incorporate you, Lisa Fischer, and the others into the sound of the band?
That was interesting. We already knew that the Stones had never really had background singers. I would go and listen to the record and listen to the record again. There are little ear hooks, ear candy, on those original records. They are really important parts. And those parts need to be there. That’s the way that I tried to approach it.
I didn’t try and make it all neat and shiny. I tried to re-create what they had done already. I remember Lisa was doing a lot of stuff with Luther [Vandross] at the time. It wasn’t something that she or I was used to doing. Lisa and I had a conversation and it was like, “It’s all about feel. It’s about the feel of it. It’s not that pretty Stax sound that we’re so used to. It’s rough and it’s loose. As long as it feels good, we’re in the right place.”
Believe me, if it didn’t feel good, Mick would give us the eye. If he didn’t say it, all you had to do was look at his face. It said, “Uh-uh. Oops. Let’s go back and rethink that.” And because there were two of us, we tried to make it as beefy as possible without it being over the top.
For me, it was about listening to the records, listening to where Jagger’s voice is doubled on the record. That’s where I need to be. When that happens, I need to be there. In the studio, they are punching it in and out. You can hear it. Those things were important to me to help beef up that sound.
That was your one tour with Bill Wyman. I’m sure it was cool to work with him briefly.
Yes. I got to work with the original band. The person I had just missed was Ian Stewart. He had just passed a couple of years before I got there. I got to hear them talk about Stu and how he was the one cracking the whip. He was the silent member of the Rolling Stones. A lot of people didn’t know how important a part he played in the Rolling Stones.
What was it like the first few times to walk onstage at a stadium and see a crowd of about 80,000 people going insane? It must have been a real shock to your system.
Absolutely. It’s still a bit of a shock. I think when I stop feeling that shock, it’s time to not do it anymore. It’s a rush. I still get a little butterflies or a jolt of nervousness. Myself and Chuck and Darryl and the rest of the cats will come onstage first and wait for those four to join us. Now the energy is really kicking up. The adrenaline is kicking up. I feel that little bit of nervousness up until I sing that first note. Once the machine starts to chug, I’m in it.
Are you eyeballing Mick the entire show so you know exactly what he’s singing and where he’s going with the song?
I have to. That’s part of my job. It’s to watch him. The records where his voice is doubled, I have to be there. I watch him like a hawk. Sometimes during the first two or three songs, they are onstage by themselves. I don’t need to be there. In that case, I have a television and a sound monitor backstage so I can sing those double parts when they come. I got the best seat in the house.
What’s your favorite song in the show?
“Midnight Rambler.” Fuck! You know what? That’s just an incredible piece of work. And it’s never the same. Night to night, it’s never, ever the same. The tempo goes up, the tempo goes down, they do a little bit of extra things. Oh, man. It’s incredible.
I want to briefly ask about some non-Stones stuff for a minute here. Tell me about the Public Image Ltd record you were on in 1986.
Still to this day, one of the things that I’m really most proud of. It started with Michael Beinhorn and Bill Laswell. Bill called up and said he was going to be working with John Lydon. I go, “Cool.” He goes, “Bernard, I need you to work with John. I need you to be John’s vocal coach.”
John’s vocal coach? Up until then, I had never coached anyone before. I just knew how to do what I’m doing. I remember before we started working together, I was scratching my head. I was going, “John Lydon’s vocal coach? He sings the way he sings.” I stopped putting so much pressure on myself about being his “vocal coach” and I would just show him small things, like how to breathe, how to take breaths, and stuff like that.
I had fun with John making that record. I remember walking up Fifth Avenue with John. He was, as they say in the South, mischievous. He knows that this little thing he says is going to rub someone the wrong way, and he says it just to get a rise out of him. I fucking loved it! We would walk up Fifth Avenue and I’d be thoroughly entertained by John rubbing people the wrong way. But when we got into the studio, it was a different story.
“Rise” is a masterpiece.
Yeah. Sometimes John was there when I was doing my thing, and sometimes not. But Bill gave me free rein. “Bernard, we’re doing this song, you know what to do.” A lot of John’s lead vocals, I doubled. Bill asked me to do that. I don’t know why he thought I could. But I had not up until that time really done that. I doubled his voice. I remember l listening to it and going, “Wow, that sounds good.” And then all the extra background stuff. Maybe one or two of the tracks, I’d tell John to sing it with me. We did all that stuff.
Those sessions were incredible. That was the first time I saw Steve Vai. I remember walking towards Electric Lady and hearing that guitar. I’m going, “Who the fuck is playing that?” It was in the room I was going in. I was just amazed by this fucking technician on the guitar.
Ginger Baker was there too.
Yeah. From what I remember, Bill went to Italy to find Ginger Baker. Up until that record, Ginger had not been in the States for a long time. Nobody had seen him. I think Bill and Michael went to Italy and found him. I remember Bill telling stories. He was in Ginger’s house and a horse walked through the house. [Laughs.]
How was your Duran Duran experience on Liberty?
[Laughs] My Duran Duran experience was interesting. How that happened, again, I think they were looking for a male. I knew the engineer. He used to work with the Stones, Chris Kimsey. I was in London and he called and said, “Bernard, I’m doing something with Duran Duran. Maybe you could come in.” I did. From what I remember, they were still working on putting it together. It wasn’t like I went in and they said, “We need this here and we need this there.” It was being worked on as we were doing it. It’s kind of quick. I don’t remember a whole lot about that.
You toured with Steven Seagal …
Oh, man. Why you got to bring that up? [Laughs] Jesus Christ! I’ll never live that one down. OK, I was in L.A. New to L.A. I didn’t know a whole lot of people, but I guess somehow Steven found out that I was there. I get a call from him. I’m thinking, “I don’t know. Who is in the band? Who is playing?” I remember him saying, “[Bassist] Rhonda Smith.” I was like, “OK. If Rhonda Smith is doing it …” I think she was playing with Prince at the time. “If Rhonda can do it, I can’t say no.”
Then I went to his house and I met him. Something said to me, “This is not a good idea.” He just talked and talked about how he was the best guitar player; he was the best, he was the best, Albert Collins taught him! He played decent guitar, but he was far from the best. It was just a weird vibe. I was so glad to get in and get out of there.
I remember being in Jamaica. He had just done this movie [Marked for Death] where he was supposedly killing a Jamaican posse or some crazy shit. We got there to play, and all hell broke loose. Rita Marley had to get onstage and calm people down. They were ready to tear his ass apart.
That’s a weird chapter of your life.
Oh, my God. What a weird chapter. Weird, weird chapter. Oh, man, I did it because I knew Rhonda Smith was there. When I think about it now, I think, “Man, what the hell were you thinking?” But as a musician, that’s what you do.
You took a gig. There’s no shame in that whatsoever.
How did you meet Michael Hutchence?
I was flying to Australia to do Jagger or something and I was sitting next to this girl. We started talking. “You’re a musician? You have to meet my brother. He’s also a musician.” I get there and I’m hanging out and Carmine Rojas, my brother, told me where to go. And so I go to this club and I see her. She grabs me by the hand and goes, “Come here. I want you to meet my brother.” And it was Michael Hutchence. I was like, “Oh, shit! You didn’t tell me that was your brother.”
We talked. He opened up a couple of shows on the solo Jagger tour, and we became friendly. I would run into him in the weirdest places. When he was doing [his side project] Max Q, I just happened to be in the same studio. I bumped into him outside. “Hey, man, what’s happening? Is the band [INXS] finishing?” He said, “No. This is just something I want to do.”
A little while later, when I was on tour with the Stones, I ran into him at the Viper Room right before I went on with Stevie Salas, Danny Saber, Danny [Kortchmar], and Adam Duritz from the Counting Crows. He came on and played with us, and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top even came out. Oh, man. It was like a religious experience. I’m singing with this cat that I dug so hard. I used to always say, “When Mick decides he wants to give up the throne, Michael is the next one in the chair.” That’s how good he was. He was a fuckin’ rock star. He was a badass. Unfortunately, that was the last night he was onstage, that night at the Viper Room.
You recorded a bit with him too.
Yeah. I did some sessions with him when Danny Saber was in the producer’s chair. After Michael died, I remember getting a call from Danny. He said, “I got this stuff I had been working on with Michael.” He wanted to finish it. He asked me to come and give him a hand. A lot of the stuff he never got to complete. It was an honor to come in and complete some of the vocals and do the backgrounds on the stuff I participated on. It was an honor. I loved Michael.
It was some good stuff, man. There is some stuff that I worked on with Danny that has not been heard yet. Danny Saber about four months ago came across something and sent it to me. He said, “B, I gotta let you hear this. I gotta say thank you. What you did to this stuff, I don’t know if I would have got it without you.” He sent it and I heard it and was like, “Oh, wow.” I hadn’t heard it since I had done it. The stuff that Michael was writing — oh, man, it gave me goose bumps.
There’s this one song called something like “Save My Life.” When you hear it … Oh, my God. His vocals were impeccable. It’s almost like he had a kind of premonition. Very, very heavy stuff.
To switch gears here, you sang with Charlie Watts in his jazz group. That’s a very different experience than anything you had in the Stones.
That was a treat. And it was probably one of my best and most challenging musical experiences ever. How that came about was producing a record for Ronnie Wood. Charlie came since I asked him to come and play on the record. At that same time, Charlie wrote a children’s book about Charlie Parker. And so I narrated the book and him and the band would play between my narration.
Charlie was the best. He was so considerate. He said to me one day, “Bernard, I really feel bad that you’re not singing. I got you narrating the story, but you really should be singing. Would you mind singing a couple things?” I said, “Charlie, as much jazz as I’ve listened to, I’ve never really done it.” But there was no way I was going to tell him no. So by the time that tour ended, I was singing the last couple of numbers. A year or two later, he called and said he wanted to do a jazz record and he wanted me to sing.
What an honor.
It was an honor. I went to London. I spent about 10 days. His childhood friend David Green was on bass. Brian Lemon was the piano player. Peter King was on saxophone. There was an orchestra. I remember getting just goose bumps hearing what they were doing. I was worried since I had never really done it before. I constantly looked for Charlie’s approval. He’s like, “Bernard, it’s great.” Just before he passed, someone sent me a clip of an interview that he was doing with Bob Costas or somebody. He was asked to name the highlight of making that album. I’d never seen it before. He said, “One of the highlights of making this album was seeing Bernard sing this song in one take.” Just thinking about it takes my breath away now.
I can’t imagine the emotion of rehearsing for the last tour when he was in the hospital, and then learning he was dead. The fact you were all together that whole time must have helped a lot.
That helped a lot. That guys held strong through it. You can look and you could tell how people were feeling, but Charlie wanted that show to go on and they were going to do it. Charlie picked Steve to do the gig. I think everybody, I’m sure, had some concerns. Maybe the concerns were all different.
You’d walk into those rehearsals and Charlie wasn’t there, but Steve was so respectful of the chair, of the music. He was in his room listening and he was listening to detail. If the Stones had been playing it this way, I think in some cases he’d be like, “No, that was wrong. It goes like this.”
I remember one day in rehearsals, they played a song and it was incredible. I can’t remember the song. When it was done, I went up to go to the table to make myself some tea. Steve came over to the table. I looked at him and said, “Man, that was so good, man. You killed that song.”
I’m talking to him and I looked down at his feet and he had a pair of Capezios on. I burst into tears. That’s what Charlie wore. When Charlie played his drums, he wore Capezios. And Steve was there, all the way down to the footwear. It was a very emotional moment.
I was in St. Louis for opening night. The tribute at the top of the show was very moving and well done. Then at the end of the night, when they took a bow and it was just the three of them, it was really intense. I can’t imagine what it was like onstage.
It was a hard one. They rose to the occasion. I gotta say that in my 30 years, some of the best playing I heard them play was that first gig in St. Louis. Keith and Ronnie were on fire. They were on fire. The whole tour, Keith and Ronnie were on fire. I remember joking to someone, “Something to be said for a little clarity, huh?”
How was the Ronnie Scott’s tribute show?
It was great. I was glad that they did that. We could all be there with each other and the family. It was great listening to them talk about Charlie and just tell stories about him. It was emotional, funny, healing. They knew each other so well. They don’t get real emotional. That’s a side of them you don’t see, but I saw it when we played the very first show when Mick announced to the audience it was first gig we’re doing without Charlie. I heard it in his voice.
And at the memorial when Keith was speaking about Charlie, I started crying since he was on his way towards crying. When it was time for me to sing, I was singing the song that Charlie talked about me doing in one take. I was so emotional, such a lump in my throat, I could barely get it out. It was good. Then the boys played a couple of songs. I was like, “Goddamn.” They were on fire.
There are rumors about a 60th-anniversary tour next year. Do you hope that happens? [Editor’s note: After this interview, the Stones announced the tour.]
A 60th anniversary? Man, I’d love to see that happen. It will be a first. I don’t think there’s another rock & roll band that has rocked this long, and rocked well. Mick is still hopping around the stage like Jiminy Cricket. As long as as he can hop and they can blow and they can play, why not?
I’ve heard that same rumor about a tour, but nothing official. I imagine if that’s happening, they’re going to have to tell us sometime soon. I think all of us, because of Covid, we had that two-year layoff. Hopefully they’ll tell us something soon so we can make plans or alter plans because everybody is making plans.
The band has changed a lot since the Steel Wheels tour, but you’ve stuck around through all of it. You must be doing something right.
I’m grateful. I’ve not been part of the last solo records for whatever reason. I think they are good, but they could have been better had I been there. [Laughs] But I’m grateful. I’m grateful to still be there, to be a viable part of the machine. It’s a blessing. There are still people that would chop their right hand off to have that gig, and I’ve been the one to be blessed with it.