Michael Shrieve’s career-defining solo in Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” wasn’t the only incident of musical and drumming alchemy at the Woodstock music and arts festival in August 1969.
Drummer Bruce Rowland, of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, rode a magic carpet of beats and grooves, contributing to one of the most transcendent moments of the entire mud-splattered weekend at Yasgur’s farm, in Bethel, New York. While Cocker’s soulful vibrato, exaggerated air-guitar pantomimes, and otherwise awkward body twitching nearly stole the show, an understated Rowland displayed finesse, passion, and effortless stick control, helping to ignite plucky, rousing renditions of Dylan’s “Dear Landlord,” Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright?,” and the timeless classic “Hitchcock Railway.”
Noted Rolling Stone magazine scribe David Fricke, all of seventeen years of age when he witnessed Cocker’s Sunday afternoon set, wrote in the liner notes to Atlantic Records’ 1994 four-CD Woodstock box set, “The impatient, circular rush of the drums, guitar, and organ at the end [of ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’], accelerating into an orgasmic blur, remains one of the original triple-LP set’s underrated highlights.”
As one of the greatest vocal interpreters of his generation, Cocker, post-Woodstock, scaled the upper echelon of pop stardom, while facing the challenges of maintaining sobriety. Conversely, Rowland diversified, racking up numerous recording and touring credits through his extensive work in the pop, folk, blues-rock, and rock worlds. In fact, in the ten-year period beginning in 1969, Rowland went from experiencing the highs of captivating hundreds of thousands of attendees at the Counterculture’s defining event to accepting a lump-sum payment to abandon recording, due to dwindling sales figures.
Through it all Rowland’s supportive spirit remained intact. He encouraged musicians in and around his native London and became a mentor to a young Phil Collins, years prior to the drumming frontman’s stellar career in Genesis and as an international pop idol.
Story goes that after hearing a demo tape of Collins singing, Rowland suggested to him that he should be a vocalist, not a drummer. In his 2016 memoir, Not Dead Yet, Collins confirms that he regularly received Rowland’s wisdom, and even went so far as to purchase the sage’s Gretsch drums, as if to absorb their energy. “[It’s a] kit I have to this day,” Collins writes.
“Phil Collins took lessons off him,” confirms bassist Dave Pegg, Rowland’s one-time bandmate in Fairport Convention. “He would do anything to help young drummers.” Longtime Fairport Convention member Dave Mattacks recalls double drumming with Rowland at Fairport’s annual Cropredy festival. “Watching and listening to him helped me open up more,” says Mattacks.
It’s important to note that Rowland, born in London, in May, 1941, possessed several signature drum approaches, including an ability to command a chorus of choreographed percussive voices via multitracked overdubs.
Rowland was also sensitive to the material he was recording and performing. “Bruce could get inside the songs and really understand what they were about,” says folk singer/guitarist
Steve Ashley (solo, the Albion Country Band), on whose Family Album Rowland appears. “What surprised me at first, during the live show, was his decision to use brushes throughout. With a flick of the wrist on the snare he could add power without an overkill of volume. He was a very perceptive and kind man, as well as a great drummer.”
“There’s a track called ‘Egypt’ on my record The Gap,” says folk and blues guitarist/ vocalist Bryn Haworth (Joan Armatrading, John Cale, Jackie Lomax). “The song is about slavery and the children of Israel leaving Egypt. We needed construction noises for it. There was a building site in the area, so we gathered pieces of wood, a hammer, and a nail punch, and Bruce used these for the track.”
Timekeeping and precision, sharpened as a result of Rowland’s military service and participation in the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo, were hallmarks of the drummer’s style. “When you’re in a marching band, you’re a long way away from the guy in the middle holding it together,” says Pegg. “There’s the problem of hearing one another and syncing. Drummers would have to play milliseconds above the beat in order to be in sync when they passed each other. It was quite an art. Bruce had all of this experience, and his snare technique was incredible.”
Prior to his stint with the celebrated British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, Rowland’s most high-profile gig was with Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, recording some of the most moving material of the singer’s storied career and appearing on the Top-10 U.K. hit “Delta Lady.” The Grease Band, backing Cocker, had undeniable grit and musical chemistry. However, by 1970, Cocker began collaborating (and butting heads) with top hat–wearing songwriter/piano man Leon Russell and his new supersized band, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. The Grease Band, save keyboardist Chris Stainton, was out.
The Grease Band carried on, though. Rowland and bassist Alan Spenner operated as a tight rhythmic unit, mixing electric blues-rock, gospel, and a bit of funk on their self-titled debut album from 1971. Still, without Cocker’s penetrating voice, the band’s appeal was limited. Rowland needed to avail himself of session work.
Arguably, the most unusual gig Rowland landed around this time was as a drummer for the “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar. (Drummer John Marshall, of Nucleus and Soft Machine, also appears on the record. “Everything’s Alright,” the jazzy pop ballad in 5/4 sung by Yvonne Elliman, likely features Marshall, though the drummer tells MD that he has no recollection of recording it.)
Composed and arranged by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the double-album package, complete with libretto and lyrics penned by co-producer Tim Rice, cast Deep Purple’s brassy vocalist, Ian Gillan, as the Nazarene carpenter. Members of the Grease Band, among others, helped reimagine the First-Century Holy Land as a very dangerous if not unusually musical place. There’s scarcely a greasier example of rock ’n’ roll boogie in the Age of Aquarius than “What’s the Buzz?” Rowland’s fervent cymbal patterns create swirls of sonic fog, much as they did during Cocker’s climatic performance at Woodstock. Elsewhere, Rowland grooves handily in 7/8 for “The Temple.”
If Superstar was a career milestone for Rowland, it most certainly also represented one of his major regrets. “He could have received royalties [on the record] but took his session fees instead,” relates Dave Pegg. “That always bugged him, because he would have made thousands instead of a couple hundred [quid].”
Rowland’s film work continued into the 1970s. He appeared on the soundtrack for the obscure Canadian flick Mahoney’s Last Stand, credited to future Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood and bassist/guitarist Ronnie Lane, then both members of the Faces. Rowland airs it out in the rootsy and bluesy “Tonight’s Number” and “Car Radio,” the latter featuring the Who’s Pete Townshend on percussion. Cut in 1972 during the disjointed and dysfunctional recording sessions for the Faces’ Ooh La La album, Mahoney’s wouldn’t surface until 1976. It’s recently been reissued on CD by Real Gone Music with explanatory liner notes.
After surprisingly signing on for another Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Rowland reconnected with Bryn Haworth, someone he met in the late 1960s when he was a member of Wynder K. Frog (keyboardist Mick Weaver’s alter ego). “Grappenhall Rag,” the opening track of Haworth’s solo debut, Let the Days Go By, had been rehearsed years earlier, when Jackie Lomax drummer Bugs Pemberton accompanied the guitarist on a set of pots and pans. “Bruce captured that same clicking sound by using the rim of a drum,” says Haworth. “He then overdubbed the snare, cymbals, toms, and tambourine. There’s also a tom, snare, and cymbal fill, at about 2:38, that Bruce nails.”
Rowland employed a marimba for “Miss Swiss,” years before Jimmy Buffett’s on-the-nose usage of the instrument for the Caribbean-flavored pop phenom “Margaritaville.” “We were amazed he could even play the marimba,” says Haworth. “It fit so [well] with the sound of the 1920s Gibson mandocello I was using.”
After the release of Haworth’s second album, 1975’s Sunny Side of the Street, Rowland toured with the guitarist/vocalist through the U.K. and continental Europe. “His playing was like a whoosh,” says Haworth. “You would feel it as much as hear it. I have not met another drummer like that.”
Fairport Convention concurred and asked Rowland to join during one of its many transitory periods. Vocalist Sandy Denny had returned to the fold and legendary producer Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, Beatles, the Who) was tapped to produce the band’s 1975 studio effort, Rising for the Moon. During the recording sessions for Moon, longtime Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks exited to pursue a more lucrative career as a session musician. “Bruce kind of saved the day,” says Pegg, although Paul Warren gigged with Fairport in early 1975, before Rowland claimed the drum throne in the spring of that year.
The record failed in its bid for crossover success, but the overall production is intimate, layered, and dreamy, evoking dark woods and dusky autumnal skies. The drums, benefiting from Johns’ “three-mic” recording approach, are effective and unobtrusive, often providing an eerily appropriate backdrop for Denny’s entrancing voice.
Gottle O’Geer, from 1976, originally intended to be a solo effort by Fairport fiddler Dave Swarbrick, was not, to put it mildly, a commercial smash either. As a result, Island Records dropped the band. The Philips imprint Vertigo rescued Fairport, now a four-piece, and signed them to a multirecord deal that spawned two fan favorites, The Bonny Bunch of Roses (1977) and Tipplers Tales (1978). Each was completed in less than two weeks.
“Those two records were done at the Chipping Norton Studios in Oxfordshire,” says Pegg. “Bruce lived in Oxfordshire when Swarbrick’s second wife, Birgitte, and Bruce were an item. It was a bit like Fleetwood Mac in terms of what was going on in the band at the time.”
Taut rhythms and military-style snare figures inject a tinge of funerary grimness into both the twelve-plus-minute Napoleonic title track and “The Poor Ditching Boy,” the latter written by Fairport co-founding member Richard Thompson. In “Jams O’Donnell’s Jig,” “Adieu Adieu,” and “Royal Seleccion No. 13,” the interplay between Rowland, Pegg, Swarbrick, and guitarist Simon Nicol is lively, knotty, and playful.
On Tipplers Tales, Rowland seamlessly slips through different tempos for the eleven-minute “Jack O’Rion,” dusts off the brushes for “Bankruptured,” and constructs time-bending tom fills in “Ye Mariners All.” The multi-tracked percussion showcase, “As Bitme,” falls somewhere between avant-garde, Japanese taiko, and African tribal music.
These were solid efforts, but Vertigo execs were unconvinced. “They paid us to not make any more albums,” says Pegg with a laugh. “We had signed on for six albums, but they told us, ‘We don’t want any more. We can’t sell them.’ They gave us half of what should have been [our] advances. We made 7,000 pounds each, the most money we had ever seen in our lives.”
Soon after, the extended Fairport family would change irrecoverably: Denny died of a cerebral hemorrhage, sinking any hope some observers had of the band reclaiming the more mystical elements of its music. The band forged ahead anyway, and in 1979 Fairport opened for Led Zeppelin at the Knebworth festival. (Zep fans will recognize Denny singing alongside Robert Plant on the classic cut “The Battle of Evermore.”)
The dawning of a new decade brought new challenges. Tastes had changed, and Fairport recorded independently. Rowland would crop up on a live album or compilation, but little more. By the mid 1980s, he left music altogether and moved to Denmark with Birgitte. Years later he returned to the U.K. and took up with new partner Barbara. The two officially tied the knot just prior to Rowland succumbing to cancer in July of 2015.
“[We] saw each other fairly regularly,” says Steve Ashley, “because my wife’s mum lived in Paignton, just down the road from Bruce’s place in Brixham. He had retired from playing, but we had a lot in common.”
Ashley wrote the song “For Bruce” to commemorate Rowland’s funeral. “There were many friends and neighbors [there], and yet none of them were in the slightest bit aware of Bruce’s illustrious musical career,” the singer tells MD. “He’d never told anyone in twenty years. That’s how genuine and selfeff acing he was.”
“I called him up a couple of weeks before he passed away,” Pegg says. “He said, ‘Don’t be upset. I’ve had a great life. I made some great music and great friends. Whatever you do, don’t cry.’”
As Bryn attests, Rowland was encouraging of his fellow musicians right to the end. “I hadn’t seen in him in years,” says Haworth. “He called me up out of the blue and said some really nice things about me and about my playing. What I remember most about him was the little twinkle in his eye when he got an idea about creating a sound for a track. You couldn’t stop him. He was like a little boy. He would fly around the room and play all of these instruments. Every take would be great.”
Wynder K. Frog Out of the Frying Pan /// Joe Cocker Joe Cocker!, Live at Woodstock /// Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat /// Shawn Phillips Second Contribution, Spaced /// The Grease Band The Grease Band /// Gerry Lockran Wun /// Jackie Lomax Three /// Kazimierz Lux I’m the Worst Partner I Know /// Donovan Essence to Essence /// Bryn Haworth Let the Days Go By, Sunny Side of the Street /// Fairport Convention Rising for the Moon; The Bonny Bunch of Roses; Tipplers Tales; Farewell, Farewell; 25th Anniversary Concert; Who Knows? 1975 (The Woodworm Archives, Volume One); 4 Play—76/79 /// Ron Wood and Ronnie Lane Mahoney’s Last Stand /// Steve Ashley Steve Ashley’s Family Album
Rowland can also be seen performing in the films Woodstock and Groupies and being interviewed in the 2006 documentary The Passing Show: The Life and Music of Ronnie Lane.