Still singing the blues

Tom McGuinness of The Blues Band and The Manfreds and formerly Manfed Mann tells David Hennessy about playing with Eric Clapton, his strong Irish heritage and why Jimi Hendrix’s bassist told him to always carry a gun.

Tom McGuinness’ The Blues Band have been going since 1979 and not many bands of that era can say they are still alive, let alone still performing. But Tom has been active since even earlier than that playing with Manfred Mann, since 1964, the band who were known for songs such as Blinded by the Light and chart toppers like Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Pretty Flamingo and Mighty Quinn.

In his seventies now, Tom is currently touring with the Blues Band while The Manfreds are still on the road too. He was still a school kid who had learned the guitar to play the songs of Lonnie Donegan when he secured his first paid gig.

Tom told The Irish World: “We were rehearsing in my friend Frank Dunne’s house. Rehearsing was putting it too strongly, it was more having a strum and singing and just having fun. Frank’s dad came in and said, ‘The landlord of the pub at the end of the road wants to know if you would like to play there New Year’s Eve. We sort of looked at each other and thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’

“So we went along there and we played the ten songs we knew and then we played them again and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Someone passed a cap around and I got the equivalent in today’s money of 40p. Bearing in mind my pocket money per week was 25p, I thought, ‘You get 40p for doing what you enjoy’.

Manfred Mann back in the day.

“To be honest if the doors hadn’t opened, I would be playing in the pub at the end of the road still. Doors open if you’re lucky. It’s chance and luck. I answered an advert in Melody Maker from a piano player who was looking to form an R&B band in the early 60s. Through him I met Paul Jones. Through Paul Jones I joined Manfred Mann. If I hadn’t answered that advert in Melody Maker, my life could have taken a completely different turn.

“If I look back there are various things like that where the right connection’s been made at the right time. With Manfred Mann back in the 60s we had three number one hits and they all nearly didn’t happen for one reason or another. Bit of talent, bit of perseverance but chance plays a huge part. I know so many people who are more talented than me but the door never opened for them.”

It was one of these chance encounters that led to Tom starting a band with a young, unknown Eric Clapton. Tom had finished an audition that had not gone so well when he hit it off with the young guitarist he would start The Roosters with.

“I came offstage and my girlfriend said ‘How was it?’ I said, ‘Not the band for me, ya know’. And she said, ‘Ah well, never mind, here’s Eric, he’s at art school with me, he loves blues’.

“And we sort of hit it off just by talking about all the people we liked: Muddy Waters, BB King, John Lee Hooker and we got a band together briefly. It lasted about six months and then Eric joined the Yardbirds, I joined Manfred Mann.”

In 1986 Tom wrote the book So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star: “It was like a cautionary advice book for people going into the music business. There are people whose main priority is to separate you from your money: Managers, agents, PR people.

The Blues Band today.

“I can remember a PR man coming to us in the 60s with Manfred Mann and said: ‘Listen, I think you’ve been getting too much publicity. What I would do if I took over your PR is I wouldn’t let you do any interviews for six months. I would build up a mystique about the band’.

“Manfred, our piano player is a very shrewd guy, said: ‘Let me see if I’ve got this right, we pay you for six months NOT to get us any publicity’.”

The industry has changed beyond all recognition since Tom wrote the book but he does have some timeless advice for young musicians.

“My dear friend Noel Redding (Jimi Hendrix’s bassist), who lived in Co. Cork until he died, had the advice: ‘Get a good lawyer, get a good accountant and always carry a gun’. Well I wouldn’t go along with the last one but yes, get a good lawyer and get a good accountant and ideally word of mouth recommendations.”

“Be wary of any contracts you sign when you’re very young. I signed publishing contracts back in the 60s where I’m still getting 50% of the royalties and the publishing company is getting 50% just for collecting the money and passing it on to me. Those contracts still exist and most of us are still stuck in them so get good advice.

“I won’t say don’t trust anybody because you can’t go through life like that, not trusting people.”

With two Irish parents, Tom was raised in a strong Irish community in Wimbledon, South London.

“My mother came from County Cork, a very tiny place called Glandore and my father came from Edgeworthstown, County Longford.

“When I was a child, I went there pretty much every summer for a month with my mother. I loved it because I was living in London, in the city. I went over there and there were just these fields and animals and crops and a whole way of life that’s gone completely. I feel so fortunate to have experienced that life, to be there at harvest time when all the men would get the harvest in together, a co-operative way of working and it was a very co-operative way of being.

“Having said that, it was poverty. I’m glad that people aren’t living like that, hand to mouth, now. It almost brings tears to my eyes.”

The Blues Band back in the early days.

Tom cheers for Ireland in sport and would fall foul of Lord Tebbit who complained that immigrants still cheered for their home countries.

“I’m one of those people who has a great attachment to Ireland. Even when England play Ireland at cricket, I’m still rooting for Ireland. I’d fail the Tebbit Test. I failed it all my life.

“I went to St Mary’s Primary School and everyone was called O’Brien, Ryan, Kelly, Murphy. Then I went to a Catholic Grammar School where the Jesuits attempted to turn me into a good Christian and failed miserably.”

Currently on tour with The Blues Band, his other band The Manfreds could take him to a part of Ireland he hasn’t been to in a long time in the near future.

“There’s some talk of The Manfreds going to Belfast. I haven’t been there for years. Last time I was in Belfast I stayed in The Europa, the most bombed hotel anywhere in the world. I got up in the morning and I walked, this has to be 25 years ago, around the corner from the hotel and there was a small squad of the British army. They’re kneeling with guns out and they’re looking 360 degrees around them. Everyone is walking to work and school through them.

“They’re so used to them, school children with their satchels are walking through this and thank God, says the atheist, things have improved so much. Let’s hope Brexit doesn’t undo them.

“People come up to me and say, ‘The 60s, they were a good time, weren’t they?’ And I say, ‘No, this is a good time’.

“And it really is. I’m playing in the Blues Band, I’m still playing with the Manfreds. I’m still doing 100 gigs a year.

“I’m still making music, there’s still an audience coming along. I’m an incredibly fortunate man.”

The Blues Band tour the UK until 7 March.

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