Gold From California: Alice Stuart Is Back

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By Mike Plumbley (e-mail interview, July 1998)

Alice Stuart's six months playing in the original Mothers of Invention and her ability to kick serious butt in the blues clubs of California during the seventies, seem, like her two albums for Fantasy to be buried in the vaults. Alice Stuart is absent from all the trendy nineties 'Women in Rock' books that litter the bookshelves. I know I've checked them all hoping to find out what happened to an artist who, in 1973, put a shiver down my spine. I think its time that Alice Stuart got some recognition for her artistry. High time those 'Women in Rock' books got rewritten. There are two names consistently missing from them, Alice Stuart and Ellen McIllwaine. Ladies who really sing the blues. Yes indeed.

I got a shiver down the spine from Alice Stuart and her band Snake. Van Morrison's Caledonia Soul Orchestra supported by Alice Stuart and Snake at the Bristol Colston Hall in 1973 remains etched deep inside and won't fade away. Back then, Alice Stuart came on stage backed by Karl Sevareid, bass and Bob Jones drums and proceeded to rip out a set of real raunchy, raw, gung ho blues. Her bottleneck and lead Fender licks winging off the ornate walls of the theatre. Then Van Morrison and the Caledonia Soul Orchestra finished me off. Morrison part Sinatra, alot of Ray Charles and a whole lot of soul. John Platania's guitar solo in 'I Just Want Make Love To You' just about demolished my head.

Writing in 1974 Todd Tolces pretty much sums up what I felt about Alice Stuart that night: "Appearing on the bill with Boz (Scaggs) will be the terrific Alice Stuart Band who've been barnstorming clubs from San Jose to Marin as well as the East Bay where she sports her strongest following. Her newly refurbished band retains Karl Sevaried on bass and showcases new members Jon Detharge and Larry Martin on keyboards and drums respectively. Alice's guitar work is really splendid and she's really gunning for that title of 'Rock 'n' Roll Queen'. To prove it she's written a little number by the same name and is proceeding to tear places apart. Look out Suzi Quatro - here's one chick that really honks her axe. In addition to Alice's impact on the clubs, she's been chosen to headline the second of the Sounds of the City concerts sponsored by Jerry Pompili, Bill Graham's long time right arm at Winterland." - Todd Tolces, Melody Maker, UK, Sept 14th, 1974

MP: Pairing Van Morrison with Alice Stuart and Snake in 1973 for that tour of England seemed to me like a perfect match of both music and culture as Morrison was active in the Bay Area at that time. How did it all come about?

AS: We got paired together for a few concerts in the Bay Area by a local booking agency and then got a concert at the Santa Monica Civic Center with him. At that point, we were asked if we'd be interested in doing a European tour with them. We were very much interested as it seemed like a great opportunity for us but we had to come up with a bond of $5,000 which I'm not all too sure I know what it was for right now. That seemed like insurmountable odds at the time, but I asked John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame if he would lend it to me and he gave it to me instead. He thought it might help me get off of my record label and on to a better one. I had only met John once or twice but I will never forget his generosity in regard to this. I called upon my return to the States and told him I would pay him back asap and he said to just forget it.

MP: Was this your first and only visit to our country? How might we persuade you to come back and play again?

AS: The trip with Van was actually my 2nd time there. The first time was in 1971 or 72, can't remember for sure which. We toured with Redwing, a band also on Fantasy. We did most of our dates in England, but went to Holland and Germany also. We were gone about 5 or 6 weeks. Made some great contacts, especially in Holland. But really, the trip with Van was the best because we played all the nicest venues. Well, we didn't get to the Albert Hall but we sure did some nice places, one of which was the Rainbow in London. I think that was the name. Very old building... wooden with lots of stairs.

MP: Prune Rooney mentioned that you had a hiatus from music. That you returned to playing six years ago. Also that you had a daughter. Did you hang up your guitar to look after your family or were you still creating music all the while?

AS: I pretty much quit playing for most of that 13 years. I had already had a son and a daughter and had not spent the time with them that I had wanted to spend. So, this child, Marisa (pronounced: Marie-sa) got my complete attention. It was a wonderful experience and I wouldn't trade it for anything, even though it is very hard to make contacts after so long a time out of the scene. Also, I had gotten so burned out with the music scene. I really needed a change. I enrolled in some college music classes at the College of Marin while I was trying to decide what to do with my life, around 1977 or so. This was a great experience for me. My son was 10 years old at the time and I met the father of my 19 year old while I was attending college there. I have since taken more classes at a college locally and have found that there's no substitute for an education, just like our parents always tried to tell us!!!!! No, seriously though, I think it makes you more well-rounded and able to make decisions. It worked that way for me, anyway.

MP: Have you recorded anything since those two albums on Fantasy in the 70s. Are there any new CDs or tapes available for purchase? or are there any planned?

AS: I have an album from 1964 on Arhoolie records and I have a newer CD with mostly original songs written by Prune Rooney and myself released in 1996. We are planning an acoustic blues CD at this point and haven't really decided whether to do it live or in a studio. I want to get started on it asap. I have lots of live DAT tapes from recent performances that I am going to make copies of and use for promo until I can get the blues CD done.

MP: Can you give me a flavour of your performances now and what it was like playing in San Francisco during the sixties/seventies. Are you working as a duo with Prune (Prunella I guess?) Rooney or do you have a band?

AS: We do a mixture of Blues, country-tinged blues, and funky stuff. Very lively, I think. And fun. We have been playing together for 6 years and have gone through all kinds of changes. For instance, we started all acoustic, then we added a drummer and played electric, then added a steel player (boy, was that fun) and then our steel player became our dobro player and we played a lot of country and also some of my material from the 70's, Full Time Woman, etc. Now, we have pretty much come full circle and are still doing my material from the 70's plus new stuff and a lot of blues... modern and from the 20's and 30's ala Bessie and Memphis Minnie, Blind Willie McTell and Jimmy Reed.

MP: What was is like playing in SF during the 60's and 70's? I went from a folk singer (it was always a little to staid for me) who played in the Berkeley Folk Festival 3 years (64, 66 and 68) to an aspiring rock 'n' roller.

AS: By '69 I knew I wanted to move on and got an electric guitar. I guess I never got over Buddy Holly. We played mostly in the East Bay, Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Oakland and in Marin County, San Rafael, Mill Valley & Sausalito, etc. We did play in SF too, but it was never quite right for us. Never really felt like home, you know? Prune (affectionately called Prunella at times) and I play mostly as a duo at this point. We are considering adding a percussionist. I don't want or need a rhythm guitarist but would like the rhythm to be covered sometimes so a percussionist seems the best choice. Hand drums, things like that.

MP: Your song "Full Time Woman" turns up on the late Kate Wolf's compilation 'Gold from California' I know very little about Kate Wolf but was she influenced by your music?

AS: Yes, Nina Gerber tells me that Kate loved my music and I actually have a tape of an interview she did where she mentioned me and my music. Nice. Kate really came into her own about the time I 'retired' for awhile. If I had continued, I am sure we would have done some things together.

MP: In a recent No Depression magazine there is a mention of an Alice Stewart (even if they spelt your name wrong. I once asked about you in a hip Haight Street record shop and the guy said 'The Al Stewart is over there...') You were mentioned playing with another hero around here, Bill Kirchen at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. Is that a regular venue for you these days?

AS: What is the No Depression magazine? And who was the writer of the article? I mean, that's the first time I had even BEEN at the Sweetwater in ages. Bill is an old friend of mine (actually former boyfriend too) and had invited me to do a few numbers with him. I drove down to see him from Grass Valley, about a 3-hour drive. I have abeen trying to get rebooked into that venue but Jeannie is a hard nut to crack. That was my 'home club' during the mid-70's. We always packed the place. My favourite place at the time.

MP: I wonder if you play my favourite Marin County bar Smiley's in Bolinas?

AS: I've been meaning to check Smiley's out. Must do that.

MP: Did all your blues influences come first hand from the performers themselves rather than records?

AS: Absolutely not... I first heard a recording of Blind Willie McTell doing Statesboro Blues when I had only been playing a year or so. It was like 'Wow, that's what I want to play!' Then I became friends with Billy Roberts (the writer of Hey Joe) who did Furry Lewis' 'Follow me honey, I'll turn your money green' and Kassie Jones, and some others. Wow. I do Fred McDowell's 'Drop Down Mama.' And some other oldies like that. I was lucky enough to play with and get to know Mississippi John Hurt. He was such a peaceful and gentle little fellow.

MP: Where did you first cut your teeth musically. Was it Los Angeles or in the blues clubs of Oakland?

AS: I was raised in Chelan, Washington. Smack dab in the middle of nowhere. No culture. Only apples. Went to Seattle right after graduation. Got involved in folk music about 1961 in Seattle and from there moved to Los Angeles. Was 'discovered' there by Barry Olivier, the producer of the Berkeley Folk Festival. After I started playing electric, I hung out in blues clubs in the East bay... Oakland, Richmond, etc. Great education.

MP: Who are your favourite performers and why?

AS: This is always hard for me because I can never remember who they are when I'm asked. But, I will try. First of all, I love so many kinds of music. I think Bob Dylan was my first idol. But really stopped listening to him after Nashville Skyline. I love John Prine's writing. I love Randy Newman, and I love Del Amitri's slower stuff, like 'Driving with the Brakes On.' It just makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. As far as blues players are concerned, I love Eric Clapton and would so much like to meet and spend time playing with him. I have an incredible amount of respect for him. I also like Robert Cray who is also from the northwest (Seattle area). In fact, the bass player who was with me for 4 or 5 years, Karl Sevareid, has been playing with Robert for years. I loved Roy Buchanan when he was still playing like he played on 'Sweet Dreams.' As far as country goes: Randy Travis, the country-western singer, is a real favorite of mine; and of course, George Jones the father of all good male country-western singers. Merle Haggard.

MP: Yeh. I hadn't realised until recently that you had spent a few months in the Mothers of Invention although I had been familiar with your name in the list on Freak Out which is pretty much a favourite around here because it mentions everyone from Howlin Wolf to Lord Buckley. How did you come to join the Mothers?

AS: Actually, Frank and I met in Los Angeles in a coffeehouse. Seems we were both waiting to meet the same person, a great guitarist named Steve Mann. We were about the only people there and we got to talking and when we finally gave up waiting for Steve, ended up leaving together. We had a fast and furious love affair and tried to incorporate music into the equation. His music was so much different than mine that it was destined to end in disappointment. We loved and cared about each other though. That was when I was trying to go from a folkie to a rocker.

MP: How did your career progress after the Mothers gig up until you recorded for Fantasy? I suspect that a lot of hard work in the clubs preceded those releases?

AS: Yes, a lot of hard work for sure. Also, I had a sort of nervous breakdown of sorts shortly after the thing with Frank and ran off to Virginia City, Nevada, and dropped out for a few years. Then when I came back, I started playing with a very good guitar player/singer, John Shine in Berkeley, who has since dropped music completely forever, I think. Even sold his beautiful Gibson J200. Used to belong to Dave Van Ronk. Great guitar. Wish I'd known he was selling it. Oh, well. That's not the same person as Johnny Shine, the blues leader. That's when I really started to write again. Then I made a demo tape at Fantasy and worked with a lot of different people before I formed the band Snake with Bob Jones on drums and Karl on bass. We worked a lot. 6 days a week. Too much.

MP: Will those Fantasy recordings ever be re-released or will they remain in the vaults in Berkeley?

AS: You know, that's sort of a sore subject with me. I would love to work something out with Fantasy but they haven't contacted me for 20 years. We had a kind of nasty parting of the ways. Can't get them to communicate with me at all now. Would like to know what's going on with royaltys and the like. Been waiting to make a little money so I can afford to have someone talk to them for me. I would love to buy those tapes.

MP: Having never heard either of those releases, are you happier in front of live audience than stuck in a recording studio?

AS: Recording has never been my favorite thing to do, but I think I've finally got the hang of it and know how best to do it for me. I prefer 'live' performances in the studio. You know, you sing live and then maybe overdub a lead guitar part or something but that's it. The only 2 songs on Believing (my 2nd Fantasy album) that really came off were both done live. 'Statesboro Blues' and 'Golden Rocket' the old Hank Snow song. In fact, 'Golden Rocket' got great airplay in England in 1974 I think it was. Whenever I was over there last. EMI was the record company who handled the Fantasy label over there. But, back to preferences. I love performing. That's where I truly shine, I think. It's definitely when I'm happiest. In response to your question "What would it take to get you over here again?" all I would need would be a month's worth of gigs and I would be there so fast it would make ALL our heads spin. I love the audiences there and have always been treated with respect and appreciation. The only place I felt a little coldness was Rotterdam. In fact, I got pelted with vegetables. Weird. Seems they didn't want to wait to see Van.