Renowned as a hard-driven, saxophone-wielding RnB/rock singer throughout the 1970s, 1980s and into the ‘90s, students of NZ’s musical history will know his name well. More recently his charismatic bass-baritone voice thrilled fans of Auckland’s fabulous Jubilation Choir, but Rick Bryant has never really been prolific as a recording artist. Now, having just edged into the 70s himself, he’s dropped a pearler of an album called ‘You Can Be The Boss’, with the promise of more to come. Richard Thorne passed some time with him to hear more about it, writing this article just weeks before his death in early December.
Rick Bryant is keen to talk. And certainly not just about himself, rather more so about the other musicians who have been instrumental in allowing him to have released what is, by any measure, a bloody good album, at the age of 71.
Keen to talk, but even talking isn’t easy for him these days. An (untreatable) issue with his big old heart means there’s constant uncomfortable pressure on his lungs, and breath is short. It presents quite some challenge for such a powerhouse vocalist.
Other physical ailments, including osteoporosis in his spine, mean moving around is even harder. Walking the 30m length of his Grey Lynn studio’s underground carpark necessitates a break to sit down and re-gather the necessary strength, before stepping up into his office and recording space.
Inside it has more the feel of a closeted academic’s personal library come bolt hole, a warren of rooms created by walls of books that fill old wooden bookcases, with still more in piles and in banana boxes that are stacked floor to ceiling. Passageways are narrow. Behind his small desk, the top of which was once a sliding door, drawer units stand on other drawer units to provide more storage space. There are CDs and cassettes, posters and paraphernalia from his life and long musical career. An asthma inhaler and roll of paper towels are close at hand, near his laptop computer.
It’s a humble yet productive space, which unfortunately he has to vacate in the coming months. He’s not sure yet where he might move to, but is hoping for something similar if smaller. Were it not for his artist’s acceptance of the vicissitudes of life, and resilient sense of humour, it would seem a luckless scene. However humour he does still have, in an abundance to match his health challenges, as well as a professed determination to keep on keeping on, to record and release more music.
In late Wwinter 2019, Bryant released an album titled ‘You Can Be The Boss’. It’s available on CD, though as we talk he shows me a near-empty box and happily admits he needs to get more printed.
He’d uncomfortably had to embrace crowdfunding to afford the CD Baby production costs, but for those who pledged to the $1000 campaign, it was money very well invested.
Legendary as a live performer, Bryant is a Kiwi legacy artist. While it would certainly have been better had he recorded his best albums back in his days with the Jive Bombers, Mammal or the Windy City Strugglers, good things can, as they say, take time.
‘You Can Be The Boss’ is a great album. Twelve tracks of gritty soul, RnB and rock that combine neatly into the kind of album that you know, from first listen, is one you’ll want to return to regularly in the future. Honest, soul-baring, intelligent, humorous, and enjoyably genre diverse combination of album tracks and earworm singles.
Likely though, there won’t be any ‘singles’ as such. As catchy as some are (the title track, Time Is Passing, Filthy Rich by example), radio support seems unlikely, and the kind of social media engagement that makes streaming of single tracks viable for upcoming artists is anathema given his years and circumstances.
It’s a collection of songs written between 2003 and 2015, mostly with Gordon Spittle, but also with the aid of Johnny Kempt, John Malloy and old bandmate Bill Lake.
“They wrote the backbones of the songs, and some of the front bones too perhaps. The words and singing are down to me.”
That particular quote comes from the album’s release notes, which also include tribute to all of the musician contributors, along with seven different backing vocalists, even his ‘super tolerant’ landlords. There’s a circularity of life in clear evidence, many of the players involved here friends, or admired fellow musos from as far back as the 1960s.
“Once I found my performance so restricted, more and more I started to enjoy being around really great players, nailing it. Good players, nice guys, I want to get on with them! And my main writing partner, Gordon, is a really thinking guitarist.”
Well regarded as writer of Kiwi music histories, Spittle as Bryant recollects, started writing songs with Lutha back in the early 1970s. For ‘You Can Be The Boss’ he also played guitar, wrote “scrupulously neat precise charts” for sessions and acted as MD.
“He’s a bit of a scholar, with a big music brain, and big hands that play big chords. He has a good chemistry with anyone else I work with. We first started to write together in the ‘90s, when I visited Wellington. He isn’t a singer at all, so I was useful for his demoing. And also, words have got to be singable, and only a singer can tell.
“It’s the same as regular poetry, the Greek word ‘euphony’ means it sounds nice, and the words have to be pronounceable. I over-trained in this respect, I did several years apprenticeship on the very ancient and nearly dead skill of being a professional poet,” he chuckles quietly.
“That’s why I did an MA, I was learning all the rules about how poetry has been written, including in other languages. I’ve written poetry all my life, but very little of it has been exposed.”
He has, incidentally, also written an autobiographical memoir that has so far been rejected by publishers he’s sent it to. Like his office, it’s possibly overfilled and in need of tidying, but Bryant says there are more stories that can yet be added, laughing that some may be best published posthumously anyway.
Despite his academic history and very apparent love of literature, he says he doesn’t separate poetry writing from his songwriting.
“No, sometimes I can’t distinguish. Sometimes I don’t know when I’m writing which way it will go. Usually, to make it singable it has to go into old fashioned couplets, line lengths and rhymes, but I have no problem with rhyme. I’ve been trained!”
Chaucer was, he says, his big thing, but Alexander Pope, “another guy who’s almost forgotten”, gets a prop for the commonsense in his adapted poem Essay On Man.
Bryant’s second main writing partner of late has been Johnny Kempt, another guitarist. The livewire former Scissormen lead returned to NZ in recent years after plying his musical trade in LA for a decade or two. In earlier days Kempt once made his living playing Buddy Holly in the stage musical and the pair had toured together back in the early ‘90s. They share a love of the music of that earliest rock’n’roll era.
“We have very good chemistry. I’ve got something that he likes and he’s got strengths that I like. Johnny returned from overseas and was full of energy and we wrote and recorded about six songs in a couple of sessions. He’s so quick!”
Another key part of the album’s chemical equation is Bryant’s long-time recording engineer Ed McWilliams. The pair got to know each other well when working at his altogether more spacious former studio (and library) in Eden Terrace.
“It was a sort of contra arrangement. He could do all his work, all hours, night and day, with the contra that he help me with my projects. Ed is a bloody good engineer – he was Neil Finn’s personal engineer for three years, and nobody gets that job without being pretty good!
“He’s so good at recording drums. We did it in my great big open space at Norwich St., and once again here we’ve got a good drum sound. That’s partly due to some nice ribbon mics which help record drums. I’ve also got some great old Shures, basically various versions of old 57s with original American capsules, and they sound better than the modern ones.”
Recording in the small, book-lined space is necessarily occasional, but the results which combine good songwriting with experienced musicians and McWilliams’ dedicated engineering, speak for themselves.
“We’ve got a great procedure for recording – which is Ross Burge [drums] and Neil Watson [bass], absolutely top guys – I’m so lucky that my house band is those two. Because of our lack of space, lack of preamps and other procedural things, we’ve been working well with Ross and Neil playing together first.
“They spark off each other and we’ve never yet failed to get a good take on a session. Sometimes they do some magic, like the bass and drums on Time Is Passing. They did four takes and they were all good, but Ross was geeing Neil up to do better and they improvised a really good ending. I did a series of falsetto squeaks – but I got my notes! And that one was magic!”
“Apart from ‘You Can Be The Boss’ there are two more albums virtually finished – although I’m still adding what I consider stronger songs to their playlists – and it’s now got to more like two and a half albums!”
He mulls that four or five songs will have to be trimmed from the two album playlists, but another concern is the completely un-started songs that he’s still interested in getting onto.
“Last time I was in hospital I was really crook,” he confides, detailing a potentially fatal condition he subsequently rebounded from.
“The doctors were mildy astonished that the kidney function recovered to a point that it’s better than at the time of any of my many hospital admissions! While I was recovering from that I felt very grateful (as I always do in hospital) to the nurses for the fact that they still do nice nursing. To help you get better they’re nice to you. In particular several were very patient with my constant requests for cubes of ice.
“Anyway, I wrote a song that I’d been meaning to write for a bit. It’s a reggae song and basically a confutation of racism. The reggae is taken from the biblical text, ‘all the tribes of men are of one blood’, and this is because the nurses and doctors are from a big spread of ethnicities, and they’re all nice!
“That song I wrote in hospital, All The Tribes Of Men, I was thinking that could well be my sign off, the last big recording I’d be able to finish. This isn’t melodramatic or sentimental, the realism of how I feel tells me that I’m not going to be around much longer. My heart and my kidneys both don’t like me. I’m not in any hurry to leave, but the inevitability is…”
Time is passing, but if we (fingers crossed) can all rely further on the resilience Rick Bryant has shown over this last decade, then never mind the inevitable, it’s possible that fans will get to enjoy two more high-quality records from him and his top drawer collaborators. Meantime, do yourself a favour and find a record store that is stocking copies of his ‘You Can Be The Boss’ CD. It’s boss.
Postscript: Rick Bryant sadly passed away just weeks after this interview. RIP.