On 14 November 2013, I lost a very special person from my musical family. Steve Brown was my long-serving partner in our band’s rhythm section, with a solid working relationship lasting 6 years. If it wasn’t for ill health, we would have had another 2½ years on top of that and be looking forward to even more time laying down our seriously strong grooves.
Although I have played and still do play with some great Bass players, Steve was someone who holds a special place in my heart for so many reasons, as he does with the many other musicians he worked with. It is very hard to accept he has passed on and I know his family will only just be starting the grieving process as I post these memories, which have already been shared with them.
The following are some very personal recollections of my time with Steve, which can also be found on his memorial page on my band’s website.
I first met Steve Brown back when he was playing with Lance Donnelly (d), Neil Partington (g) and Paul Need (key) in Gaz & The Groovers, by which time he’d already built up a reputation as a great Bass player on the circuit. But it wasn’t until 2005 that I got to play with him for the first time, stepping in at last minute to cover for Lance Donnelly in The Band Of Thieves at Fogherty’s pub. At this point in time, I was getting back into playing after a 5 year break from playing professionally and was tentatively dipping my toes into various projects to see if I could re-kindle the old magic that had ceased to exist for me long ago. But it was useless; I was trying to go backwards and relive something that had long since passed and every band I played with seemed to highlight the fact that I’d moved on in my life. I don’t know what I expected when I took to the stage for the first time with Steve at Fogherty’s, but something clicked that night between us. He immediately got onto the fact that as a stranger in the mix, I was looking directly to him for my lead and musical direction, which is how rhythm sections should work. During half time, we stood outside for his smoke break and had a quick chat which I realise now, was him actually interviewing me! The bottom line was, we both read from the same book as far as what we thought a rhythm section should be, but this was a dep gig and I didn’t think much further than it being a one-off.
By early 2006 Lance had joined another band full time and I was gigging with a band I’d help put together, trying to get it off the ground. Then the call came to play with The Band Of Thieves again as they were using various dep drummers to keep them working. After a few more gigs together we really started to mesh properly in a way I’d actually given up hope of ever finding again. Our developing rhythm section was strong, but The Band Of Thieves was a tired unit and it was time to move on, which is when the friendly badgering started:
“How do you fancy doing something different Big Nicky Lauro?” he’d start with, “We want to do something better than this, sack that cabaret lark off and play some Bluesy type stuff. Come on, what do you think, we’ll sign you up for a permanent contract, you know it makes sense!”
But I was reluctant after spending a good deal of time getting my other covers band off the ground, even though it was doing nothing new and essentially trying to recreate something that could no longer exist as it used to. So Steve kept on at me, “Come on Nick, we’ll sign you up for that contract, all you’ve got to do is say yes, sign on the dotted line, we don’t want anyone else, we want you to do it!” By the end of 2006 he’d got his way and I committed to the project which eventually turned into Forty4, turning out to be the best move I’d made in music at the time.
A Rhythm Section Is Born
Without what seemed like any effort, we managed to forge a rhythm section that other bands could only dream of having. It was a meeting of minds and we didn’t have to work at it. Everything flowed effortlessly as we remained selfless to the cause. The real tester was our ability to nail the ‘Sex Machine’ groove which demands the utmost discipline from a rhythm section, without any deviation. I’ve seen other bands try it and they can’t do it. They cannot resist the temptation to throw that little extra bit in that doesn’t exist in the song and before you know it, there’s another, then another and it’s not the ‘Sex Machine’ groove anymore. But we knew and more importantly, understood why James Brown demanded the discipline from his band members that a lot of other musicians on our circuit just didn’t get; and that’s what made our rhythm section stand out from everyone else. It was a true partnership and one I’ll cherish and miss forever. He’d often tell me; “There might be better technical players than us out there, but I’m telling you now Nick, there’s not another rhythm section out there on the circuit we do that have got what me and you’ve got, take that from me lad, no one can touch us, no one!“
As Glen (Lewis, key, Band Of Thieves/Forty4) said, Steve was a man of few words, but what he did say was either profound or funny. He made us laugh so many times at gigs and rehearsals from saying very little. I remember once when Paul (Starkey, g, Forty4) got a new guitar effects pedal and spent the first ½ hour of the rehearsal messing around with it until Steve could take it no longer:
“Right, that’s enough of that guitar nonsense Starkey, let’s do some playing now, that’s what we’re here for, that pedal will be on eBay next week anyway!”
Despite having the reputation of a man of few words, we both shared an interest in the Paranormal and UFO sightings, both looking at it from a scientific viewpoint and trying to debunk things until we came up with genuine unexplained examples. We used to have half-time chats on this subject, plenty of them at Granville’s Jazz Bar gigs when I’d get the coffee’s in whilst he rolled tobacco outside. He was convinced by his experiences, as I am, that death wasn’t the end:
“I’m not scared of death Nick” he told me, “I’m convinced there’s something else after. I don’t know what it is, but from the experiences I’ve had on investigations and other things, I’m convinced there’s got to be something else!”
He was always badgering me on and off in his usual Steve style to join him in one of his Merseyside Anomalies Research Association (MARA) paranormal investigations, but I was showing signs of apprehension and fear; “don’t worry about it lad, I’ll be there to hold your hand!” he used to cut me down with! I did finally agree to go, but we never quite got around to it.
Death By Anchovies!
The question of food at gigs was always dodgy ground with Steve producing some hilarious scenarios! Our first gig at The Blues Bar in Harrogate was one that made it into Forty4 gig-food history. We left in plenty of time to get there, Steve travelling with me. Unfortunately, we were massively delayed by a rush-hour accident that closed both sides of the M62 making us very late. Plans to get to the gig with enough time to get a bite to eat were thwarted and we made the venue in barely enough time to throw our gear up on the stage and start playing. Post-gig, we went on the hunt for food down the one-way system of Harrogate, finding the only place open being an uninviting Turkish kebab shop. Luckily, you could make your own custom pizza so I opted for my Italian style favourite with black olives, chillies and anchovies. Steve said he’d wait until he got home to eat but when I returned to the car with a huge box with an appetizing smell, he couldn’t resist just the one slice. On opening the box, it appeared they’d converted my Italian recipe into the Turkish equivalent, which meant total anchovy overload instead of the thin smattering it should have been. This didn’t put Steve off and he ate his piece, regretting it by the time we got onto the M62:
“Arrrggghhh! What have you done to me Nick? That pizza’s left an aftertaste in me mouth! It’s them anchovies, Arrrggghhh!”
We didn’t hear the last of this for months; “Nick tried to kill me with anchovies lads! They were repeating on me for weeks! I only had the one slice of pizza, how can you eat anchovies Nick, they’re disgusting, there must be something wrong with your stomach!” Every time he spoke about the anchovies we’d be in pleats of laughter, so Neil (Partington, g) would go further and tell him about the concoctions he’d cook up, like beef in mustard breadcrumb coating with blackcurrant coulis, or strawberries in balsamic vinegar, all dishes that would bring hilarious reactions of disgust from Steve!
Another time when we were playing in Chester, we had to do a really early sound-check and instead of everyone going back over to Liverpool, we all went back to my house where my wife had cooked a vegetarian chilli. Whilst the rest of the band were going for their second helping, Steve was still sitting in a chair insisting he’d be ok on his Yorkie choccy bar and coffee! We had some fun discussing food, just to see his reaction to what people ate and it was always a goldmine for laughs! And we certainly had some laughs with Steve…
Going Solo As ‘Soilpipe’ Steve!
There was a time I bid on a Bass cab for him on eBay and won it. Once he got it into the rehearsal room, he noticed it must have had a piece of plastic tube in the back where the sound porthole was. Thinking how he could replace it, his builders mind set to work, “I know, I could just get a piece of soil pipe, cut it down to size and throw it in the back, that’d work.” So I said, “Then you could go out and do your own solo Blues act like Seasick Steve, except this time you could go as Soil Pipe Steve!” which had us all in pleats – again!
Don’t Eat Your Dogs!
He always liked to get home for the food he knew he liked and would never come to the horrible kebab shops, no matter how much Neil enthused about his tray of greasy lamb and chilli! We’d just packed up the van after a Granville’s gig and he said; “Hurry up Neil, let’s get back on the road, I need to get home, I want to get back to me chair so I can eat me pizza and stroke the dogs!” to which Neil replied, “You want to be careful there Ste, one day you’ll get back and end up in your chair eating your dogs and stroking your pizza!” Once again, we fell about laughing.
A Personal Compliment
What we had as a rhythm section together was special, no doubt, but Steve detected it early on during our time together. In the early years, I was still focussing on my own performance, wondering if I was good enough or even improving as a player. I put it to him once, when he was doing some roof repair work at my house, if he thought I had any special drumming quality that made me stand out from the crowd. I guess I was hoping he’d say I had some amazing uniqueness like say, Jeff Porcaro had, something that gave me my own personal stamp. This was clearly a mistake on my part, as Steve had played with some really good drummers who had their own identities and initially, his response seemed disappointing:
“Well Nick, you’re not like Lance; he’s a really powerful, forceful drummer, he can lead a band from the back and you’re not like that; and you’re not like Leggy (John Leggett, ex-Cook Da Books) either. He’s got a really nice, natural feel, he doesn’t have to try or practice at it like me and you do to make ourselves better.”
It was like the proverbial kick to the stomach, he had slain me with one sentence and I was back to being that self-doubting, plain, nothing-out-of-the-ordinary local drummer. But then he delivered his own summarisation of where he saw me sitting in the grand scheme:
“No, Nick, it’s not about how good we are as individual players, it’s about what me and you have got together. I know you practice like I do and when we get back in that rehearsal room it shows; I can tell. We’ve got the strongest grooves of any of the bands around here, by far. I know it and no one can tell me otherwise; it’s powerful Nick and I’ve watched all these other bands watching us and wondering how they can get what we’ve got, and they can’t do it! You mark my words Nick, they’re jealous of what me and you have got! We don’t need to do all those Bass solos and drum solos like them other bands do to impress the musos ‘cause we can do it just by playing a groove in a song! All that soloing lark is for ponces who aren’t disciplined enough to play it like we do; you mark my words Nick, I’m right! You don’t need to worry about if you’re as good as the Steve Gadd’s of the world because what we do in the band together is as strong as anything those guys get asked to do, I’m telling you!”
So I considered myself lectured and complimented; and never since that day have I doubted that I can deliver what is necessary to the Steve Brown rhythm section benchmark – and he set the standard high.
Final Times Together
We had some great times out at gigs, simply through the chat and the camaraderie that came from slogging away on a circuit that was hard to break into. To have him struck down after 5 years of hard graft, just as we were making headway, was devastating. I seriously questioned if it was worth carrying on, but Steve told me that he wanted the band to continue with Bill (Price, b-g) so he could hold onto the dream of coming back one day. Besides which, he was too proud of the fact that we’d come so far from nothing, just to see us throw it all away.
It was great to have him back in the saddle for a few gigs between treatments and he never went out with a half-baked performance. As he always used to say to me on occasions when the band was having a bad night, “We’ve got to keep to our standard Nick, no matter what the others are feeling. If me and you let it drop, then it’s finished.”
We’re all going to miss him for sure, but I will never forget his dry sense of humour, words of wisdom, that gentle, but strong arm around your shoulder, the hilarious way he used to slip your name into a random song he was singing when we were setting up, his commitment to his art and his effortless ability to make us all laugh. Fact is, even though he’s passed, remembering the stuff as it happened and writing it down here is still making me laugh! That’s the memory of Steve Brown I’ll be holding on to and it’s been an honour to serve with him in the ranks of The Band Of Thieves, Forty4 & Down At Antone’s rhythm sections.
I will see you again…but not yet…not yet…