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Interview With Derv Gordon Of The Equals

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, June 23, 2019 10:40pm | Post a Comment

The Equals

By Audra Wolfmann

Often credited with being one of the first interracial rock groups in the U.K., The Equals also bear the Derve Gordondistinction of being a truly international band with an inclusive sound that revolutionized rock, bringing Jamaican and African touches to British beat. The Equals seamlessly integrated R&B, soul, and ska to bubblegum long before The Specials, Talking Heads, and The Clash (who covered The Equals). Formed in 1965, the original line-up consisted of Guyanese immigrant Eddy Grant on lead guitar, Jamaican brothers Derv and Lincoln Gordon on vocals and bass (respectively), and native Brits John Hall on drums and Pat Lloyd on rhythm guitar. Their album covers stood as a testament to a brave new integrated world, one that was just within sight in mid-60’s London. Surely, if anything could bring humanity together through our differences, it was dance music. The Equals first charted in 1968 with "I Get So Excited," “Baby, Come Back,” and "Softly Softly" – infectiously danceable songs that they are still well-known for to this day.

Front man Derv Gordon will be performing at Burger Boogaloo in Oakland on Sunday, July 7th at 2pm with an all new line-up of talented young musicians, also known as the Oakland-based band SO WHAT. I had the honor to speak with Mr. Gordon on the phone about 1960’s London, changing attitudes about race and national origin, what it’s like to be back out on the road, and the upcoming Burger Boogaloo festival. (More on Burger Boogaloo HERE!)

Amoeba: Is this the first time you’ll be playing in Oakland?

Derv: I’m somewhat confused with San Francisco, actually. I’ve played in San Francisco. I’ve done two shows in San Francisco at the Elbo Room. I’ve been to Oakland. I stayed with my good friend Paul Oxborrow.

Amoeba: So, you’ve been to Oakland, seen the place?

Derv: Yes, he gave me a tour of Oakland. But as a foreigner, it all seems like San Francisco to me.

Amoeba: Yeah, we call it all the Bay Area, but actually the cities are very different culture-wise to us. Maybe not so much if you don’t live here. So, the first time you played in San Francisco was in 2017, but your first hit in America, “Baby, Come Back,” charted in 1968. What kept you from a U.S. tour back in the 1960s?

Derv: Well, management was not very happy with us touring the U.S. because of the fact that we were a multi-racial band. They thought that there could be problems because in certain parts of America you had situations where black people were not allowed to go to restaurants and hotels and so on. Venues had to be segregated and none of us would be happy with that sort of situation.

Amoeba: Right. America was not ready.

Derv: No, no…I dunno. Slightly after that you had Sly & The Family Stone, but I don’t know how they coped with that. From what I can gather from watching documentaries and stuff from the past, bands that were huge in the U.K. like The Temptations and The Four Tops, they had to play what was called the Chitlin Circuit. I don’t think that would have been ok with us at all. That’s probably the reason that we never toured the U.S.

Amoeba: Did you ever encounter any push-back in England when you were performing?

Derv: No. I can’t think of any incidents that were racist.

Amoeba: But if you were to perform in America in the South at that time, it wouldn’t have gone over very well.

Derv: No. I was shocked. People like Ella Fitzgerald, when they performed in places like Las Vegas, were not allowed to stay in the hotels there. This was pretty far into the ‘60s. I find it very difficult to understand, really. No, we never encountered any of that sort of situation at all. We all stayed in the same hotels and stuff. The only problem that we would have at times is that bands had a bad reputation at hotels because a number of bands would smash up hotels. Sometimes, when you were booked into a hotel, you wouldn’t be booked in as The Equals or The Who or The Rolling Stones because there’s no way you’d be accepted. Bands had a reputation for damaging the place and late-night parties and all that sort of stuff.

Amoeba: Did The Equals ever wreck a hotel?

Derv: No, we were good boys!

Amoeba: You led not only one of the first racially integrated bands in England, but also one of the first international bands at a time when that sort of thing was unheard of. With half the band being immigrants, what sort of difficulties did you encounter in that way?

Derv: I can’t think of any.

Amoeba: So, it was never an issue in England?

Derv: There was an issue, but I’m talking about myself personally. There were situation where it was The Equalsdifficult for black people and West Indian people to, say, rent a room or an apartment. You’d see signs on doors that said, “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.” You know? A black person would go to an address and ask if there were any vacancies and they’d be told no, and then half an hour or so later a white person would go to the door and it would be, “Oh yes, we have a room.” Racism in the U.K. was far more subtle, I should imagine, than it was in America. But it was there. It’s still there. In most countries there is a problem with race and culture and religion and all the rest of it.

Amoeba: It’s interesting to me because my dad was an immigrant in London about the same time, and he felt that the British class and race barriers were so intolerable that he left.

Derv: How old was your father?

Amoeba: This was about ten years earlier and he’s about 15 years older than you. My dad was a holocaust refugee from Austria. He was in London in the late-40’s-60s. He always felt Other, like he couldn’t break through.

Derv: That’s interesting because the man that owned President Records, his name was Ed Kassner, was also a refugee from Austria. He was Jewish from Austria. He had a very successful publishing and music business. Your dad’s experience would be different from mine because I came to the U.K. when I was seven years old, so was therefore just a child. I wouldn’t really have noticed racism in that sense. Myself and my brother were the only two black children at our school and, when we first went there, we were unique; everyone wanted to be our friend. We didn’t have that sort of problem.

Amoeba: Your Otherness was a plus.

Derv: Yes, because we were different. Our accents were different and so on. I can remember one incident that shook me for a while…we used to have physical education and after physical education, we all showered together. One day a number of kids gathered around me and were waiting for me to take my shorts down. I asked them, “Why are you all gathered around me? What is it?” And one of them said, “Well, we want you to take your shorts down to see if you got a tail.” They thought because I was black, I was supposed to be a monkey or something. That was one incident, but apart from that I had loads of friends in school. Where I lived, there weren’t any black children there so all my friends were white. I can’t say I really had any great racial problems. But we didn’t have to rent; my father had his own house so we didn’t have to go out looking for rooms to rent or whatever.

Amoeba: Tell us about the current line-up you are playing with when you tour now. How did you all meet?

Derve Gordon with SO WHAT
Derv Gordon with SO WHAT

Derv: I tour now with SO WHAT. Jason Duncan is the lead guitarist. Well, for a couple of years, Jason had been trying to contact me. This is about 2007. He wanted to get some information because he has a huge Equals collection and he wanted to write a book about the band. I kept evading it and he contacted an agent I knew in Germany. He [the agent] said, “There’s a guy who wants to contact you and write a book on The Equals. Are your interested?” So, I said, “Well, he’s tried to contact me a couple of times and I’m not really interested.” But while I was speaking to him, my wife was there and she said, “I really think you should give it a shot.” Me and my wife have been married now for 50 years, so I tend to listen to what she says.

Amoeba: That’s why you’ve been married for 50 years. You listen.

Derv: You are right! So, I took her advice and I met Jason. I liked him. He came over to London and we met up. The odd thing is where he was staying in London was about half a mile from where The Equals started, where we rehearsed and so on. You know, London is quite a huge city and I’m sure he didn’t know that’s where we started. I thought, well this is odd. He said to me, “Why don’t you come over to the states?” I said, “I tell you what, I will and I’ll come over in January of 2017 because my wife’s birthday is on the 18th of January and my birthday is on the 29th of January." And he said, “Why don’t you do a show while you’re here with my band?” So I thought, I dunno. But my wife said, “Go on! Have a go.” And I went over at the end of January – I think it was the 15th – and we had a rehearsal and I though, this reminds me of the beginning of The Equals, how we used to be.

The guys were so enthusiastic, they knew all the songs…I mean, they had to remind me of some of the songs. It felt really great. We did the show, but I didn’t realize at the time that I was suffering from a severe bout of flu. During the show, I felt somewhat faint because it was really hot and my wife wanted me to call it off, but I thought, no, I can’t. I gotta do this. So I had to take a break, which is something I’ve never done before. I’ve never stopped halfway through a show for a break. I completed the show and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was great. It reminded me of the old days. I thought, yes, I need to do some more of this. So, since then we’ve done a few more shows, which has been very enjoyable for me. And the great thing about it is that I have my wife with me now. In the old days, she would be home with our two children and very rarely came to shows, but it is great having her there.

Amoeba: Before that phone call came and you met Jason, what were you doing?

Derv: I was doing an odd show with one of the members of the original Equals, but I got to a point where I wasn’t really getting satisfaction from it. We were doing a number of Equals songs, but we were also doing cover versions and I don’t particularly like cover versions. One of the reasons why as The Equals we wrote 99% of our own material was because I never felt happy doing someone else’s song. I don’t feel like I do it justice, whereas if it’s my song or if it’s written by one of the members of The Equals (there were three of us that wrote the songs) then you can’t say that we’ve done it badly because it’s ours! But if I were signing an Elvis Presley song or an Otis Redding song, then you could say that I wasn’t doing it justice, you know? Therefore, I tend to stay away from covers, really. Now with SO WHAT, everything we do is an Equals composition. Until SO WHAT, actually, I hadn’t sat down and looked at the amount of songs that we had in our catalog. It’s amazing. We could never do all of them in one show. It’s not possible.

Amoeba: Does playing with SO WHAT affect your sound or your performance style?

Derv: No, I think SO WHAT has got The Equals feel. A lot of people have told me this. In the States and in the U.K. and in Europe, they say that they do The Equals material justice and that is great to hear. That is without me asking; it's people coming up to me and saying, “The band that you’re performing with…” You know, people say, “Your backing band,” but I hate that term. They’re not my backing band. We’re in it together. They do it justice. As I say, they know the Equals stuff! They really do.

Amoeba: They studied you.

Derv: They have. They have. Ask Jason. Say, “Who wrote that one?” He’ll remember. Not only are they really great musicians, but they are very, very nice people. You could not wish to meet a nicer bunch of guys. To me that is very important. If I’m on stage performing with someone, it’s very important for me to be in tune with that person, to like that person. You know, I’m not very good at pretending at all.

Amoeba: And if you’re going to go on tour with them, you’d better like them too.

Derv: Yeah. We did four weeks last year on tour. I think we did eight countries and there wasn’t a single Derv Gordonargument. I can’t even say that with The Equals, really. With The Equals, there would be arguments about something or other, but we didn’t have a single argument. That is important. When you’re happy together then you perform well. The audience is happy and you’re happy and that’s what it’s about.

Amoeba: When you were in Europe you went to Italy, Spain, Germany…

Derv: Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Holland…yeah. And a show in the U.K.as well, which I hadn’t done for many, many years. Did a show in London, which was great.

Amoeba: How was that?

Derv: Oh, it was fantastic. Sadly, I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I should because we had to get up early the next day to go to Amsterdam.

Amoeba: Touring is hard…

Derv: It’s a lot easier now than it used to be. Back in the ‘60s, touring was very difficult. Transport was not as good, planes weren’t good. No, it was very difficult. We almost got killed, actually, on tour in the ‘60s. We had a very serious accident. We did a show in Germany – a place called Duisburg – and from Duisburg we were going – this was in 1969 – going to a town called Bremen where a very, very popular TV show was recorded, a show called Beat-Club. There’s lots of stuff on YouTube, lots of material there. So we were going to Bremen to do Beat-Club and we were going along the Autobahn. It started off as quite a sunny morning. We had to leave early because you rehearse the day before you actually do the show, so we had to get there in time for rehearsal. For some reason, we took the group’s car to Germany, which we didn’t normally do. It was one of those big, old Bentleys – a big S3 Bentley built like a tank – and we were going along the Autobahn and suddenly it started pouring with rain. The car aquaplaned, went into a ditch – a gully – and it just kept rolling over and over and over from what I can remember. This thing about your life flashing in front of you, it’s true. It did. And then it stopped and I was out of the car. I didn’t open the door, but I was out of the car.

Amoeba: You were thrown from the car?

Derv: And so were the rest of the guys. They were out of the car. But I couldn’t find Eddy Grant. Then I heard a voice saying, “Ohh, help! Help!” I knew he was off on this grassy knoll. I was looking up there and there he was, caught up on a barbed wire fence and there was barbed wire between his crotch. He was moaning and groaning, and blood was everywhere. I took off my jacket, which was one of my favorite jackets – a multi-colored leather jacket – and covered him in it. It destroyed my jacket. [Laughs] Our driver climbed up the bank and, as it would happen, a British army lorry was coming past and they saw the car in the ditch and saw it had British number plates, license plates, so they stopped. That part of Germany was then British, because after the war Germany was divided into four different parts: British, French, Russian, and American. But we were in the British part because Bremen is in the North of Germany. And they took us to a hospital. Now, Eddy was seriously injured. He stayed in hospital there for two weeks. My brother broke a finger, the other two members broke fingers and had minor injuries, and I didn’t have a scratch on me. I was totally uninjured. We went to the hospital. They wanted to know if we could afford to pay for treatment. Our driver telephoned London and our record company management said, “Yes, no problem. We can afford to pay.” At the time “Viva Bobby Joe” was in the charts as well so we wanted to promote it. That was one of the reasons we were going to do the TV show, but another thing that happened in that situation was that my wife – we had only been married about seven or eight moths – was staying with my mother and they were listening to BBC radio. It came over on the radio that we were involved in an accident and there were possible fatalities. On hearing that, my wife collapsed. My mother was in a total state. But fortunately, not long after that, I telephoned and they were surprised. “Wha? You’re suppose to be…” “No, no. I’m alive. I’m ok.” [Laughs]

Amoeba: But you lost a jacket.

Derv: [Laughs] Yeah. During the years of touring, I must have been involved in six or seven fairly serious accidents. It’s dangerous being out on the road.

Amoeba: Did you record Beat-Club right after the accident?

Derv: No, there’s no recording of “Viva Bobby Joe” at all on Beat-Club.

Amoeba: There’s multiple clips of you on Beat-Club out there…

Derv: It was a great show. It was very innovative. The producer, a man called Mike Leckebusch, he The Equals, Softly Softlycould see into the future. It was one of the first shows that had what was then a video recorder, which was very rare. It was a big, huge-looking thing. If you made a mistake on it during the recording of the show, the whole show had to stop and go back to the beginning. So they were not really happy if you made a mistake at all, you know? He had just about everyone who was anyone on Beat-Club. They were mostly American and British artists. In one show you would probably have about ten different artists and bands, and we would be staying in the same place. None of the local suitable hotels would have us staying there, so there was a special guest house that we always stayed in. It was crazy. I mean, can you imagine ten different acts staying in the same place? Those days are gone now, but it was just so crazy…but fun.

Amoeba: Now when you go on tour…

Derv: Very sedate. The wife is with me and we do the show and off to bed and maybe a cup of cocoa and off to the next show. Nothing like the ‘60s.

Amoeba: What’s it like to meet new fans, fans that weren’t even around when you were playing originally?

Derv: Yeah, that is one of the great things. A lot of the people I’m meeting now, their parents were fans. It’s great. I was totally shocked as to how – not so much in Europe because The Equals have always been popular in Europe…in a place like Germany, we’ve had something like 19 or 20 top ten records – but I was totally shocked in America that the people were so knowledgeable about The Equals and our material. I was really shocked. It was a big surprise.

Amoeba: You weren’t aware of the reach of your influence?

Derv: Not at all. Jason tried to explain it to me, but somethings…it doesn’t matter how much a person explains it to you. Until you experience it yourself, it doesn’t fully sink in. It didn’t sink in until I went there and saw it for myself.

Amoeba: And everyone knows the words to your songs.

Derv: Yeah, which can be a bit tricky at times for me. [Laughs] Even the ones I like, sometimes I flop. But it’s really great. It makes me feel like I’ve achieved something, you know? In life, it’s always if you’ve achieved something and I think I have achieved something.

Amoeba: Several times over. How many musicians get to go experience it all over again?

Derv: That is true. Everyday I hear that someone that I know of is no longer with us. That’s that sad part of it, but also in a way it makes you feel grateful that you’re still here. While I’m here, I should enjoy it as much as I can, really.

Amoeba: What do your kids think about all of this?

Derv: I’m just Dad. [Laughs] I’m just dad. They think I can’t dance. They laugh when I try to speak like a West Indian. I’m just dad, you know? And I like it that way. I like them thinking I’m just dad. I don’t really play the big star thing, not with anyone. I’m just me.

Amoeba: Have your kids been to your shows?

Derv: On odd occasions. Not very often. This last show I did in London, they were there and they were a bit embarrassed when I introduced them, actually. They’re not showbiz kids. My daughter is an electronics and gas engineer. She’s a consultant now. They’re not into the music thing at all.

Amoeba: Rebellious kids.

Derv: Their choice.

Amoeba: What kind of music are you listening to these days?

Derv: I listen to everything. If it’s good, I listen to it. As a matter of fact, I was just listening too Louis Armstrong because that man amazing me. His timing…his vocal timing and his musical timing. It’s incredible. It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect. I learn from him. I love blues, I love jazz, I love rock. I’m told that The Equals are punk with glam. I think we come under the genre at least from what I’ve been hearing. But I grew up listening to lots of different stuff. Little Richard, Fats Domino, people like that. Presley…all that sort of stuff. B.B. King, John Lee Hooker…I just love music. And if I’m listening to music, then I’ve got to be moving something. Something is moving. It moves something in me. Unconsciously, I’m doing it. Music is my life. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and I was fortunate enough to be able to.

Relevant Tags

1960s (49), Racism (10), So What (2), Eddy Grant (1), England (23), Derv Gordon (2), The Equals (1), Oakland (87), Burger Boogaloo (14), President Records (1), Jamaica (2), The Clash (17), Audra (39)