Tony Williams was an American drummer. He recorded the "Wildlife" session in Sweden with Allan, Jack Bruce, Webster Lewis and Laura Logan, and the "Believe It" and "Million Dollar Legs" albums with The New Tony Williams Lifetime. Tony also appeared as a guest on the "Atavachron" album. The song "The Drums Were Yellow" is dedicated to him, as is "Blues For Tony" on the album of the same name by Holdsworth, Pasqua, Haslip and Wackerman.
- 1 Player Of The Month (Beat Instrumental 1978)
- 2 Allan Holdsworth (Guitar Player 1980)
- 3 Allan Holdsworth (International Musician 1981)
- 4 The Reluctant Virtuoso (Guitar World 1981)
- 5 No Record Contract, No Big Hoopla, But The Fans Have Kept The Faith For Allan Holdsworth (Guitar World 1982)
- 6 Guitar Phenom Allan Holdsworth Says He’s Not That Impressed By Flash (The Georgia Straight 1983)
- 7 "...Where No Guitarist Has Gone Before..." (Cymbiosis 1986)
- 8 Never again a serial-production-group (Sym Info 1986)
- 9 Allan Holdsworth (English Tour Program 1989)
- 10 Guitarist's Guitarist (Jazz Times 1989)
- 11 The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)
- 12 Mike Pachelli Show (video transcript 1991)
- 13 No Secret (Guitar Extra 1992)
- 14 Creating Imaginary Backdrops (Innerviews 1993)
- 15 Allan Holdsworth: A biography (Atavachron 1994)
- 16 No Secrets (Facelift 1994)
- 17 A Different View (Modern Drummer 1996)
- 18 Allan Holdsworth (NPS Radio transcript)
- 19 Allan Holdsworth: The final interview (Team Rock 2017)
Once more fate intervened. A chance sit-in gig at Ronnie Scott’s for a sick Chuck Mangione resulted in Alphonso Johnson, his bass-player, reporting back to Tony Williams in the States that he had discovered an amazing new English guitarist.
Tony, apparently on the strength of this recommendation alone, telephoned Allan and asked him to join Lifetime. No persuasion was required. Allan packed his guitar and his suitcase and headed west.
Along with Williams, bassist Tony Newton and keyboardist Alan Pasqua, he recorded two albums - Believe It and Million Dollar Legs - and toured in 1975 and ‘76. After bad management drove him away from that ensemble (at one point during a tour he ended up stranded in San Francisco with neither money nor a place to stay and had to pawn his guitar to get back to England), Allan recorded his first solo album, Velvet Darkness.
After you left Soft Machine in 1975, what did you do?
While I was still with them, I had met [bassist] Alphonso Johnson. He was working with [flugelhorn player] Chuck Mangione at Ronnie's club in London. Chuck was sick one night, and a piano-playing friend of mine sat in; he suggested that they let me join them. So I went down and played a set. That's when I met Alphonso. He told [drummer] Tony Williams about me, a while later I got a phone call from Tony, who was in the States. I really lucked out.
Did you leave for the U.S. right away to join him?
No. I recorded with Tony, [bassist] Jack Bruce, and [keyboardist] Webster Lewis in Sweden, but the material was never released. I returned to England, and later got a call from Tony, who said that he'd gotten a deal with CBS Records and that I should come over quick.
Did Tony Williams already have a band together?
No. We found a bass player, Tony Newton, and a keyboard player, Alan Pasqua. We did two albums— Believe It and Million Dollar Legs—and toured in 1975 and 76. But because I was always zipping back and forth to straighten out problems at home, and because the management turned out badly, everything fell apart. We ended up stranded in San Francisco; Tony flew back east to work things out with the manager, and we were stuck without money or a place to stay. So I pawned my guitar and went back to England. I really enjoyed the band, though
How about sessions?
ALAN: I don’t read so I’ve always avoided sessions. I know that not all session players read and I could probably do the job but other people do it better than me, and they enjoy it. I wouldn’t because I never have liked impersonations. The point for me is not to absorb another player’s licks but his general quality. Too many people miss that point. It’s the quality not the licks. If a guitar player is known for his licks that are instantly recognisable then he isn’t making any progress and it doesn’t interest me. More important is that line of quality, and if it’s there, absorb it, not the superficial stuff. When I started playing 15 years ago, I always had trouble playing other people’s solos and so I started inventing bits of my own. They sounded awful but I know now that I did the right thing. It wasn’t until 6 years ago with Tony Williams that I realised I was developing my own style, it takes time but it’s more rewarding than playing somebody else’s note for note.
Can you give me a career résumé so far?
ALAN: 1971 I was still in Bradford; 1972 I had an invite from Ray Warleigh to come to London and a place to stay. Later that year I played with, Jon Hiseman in Tempest but I left in ‘73. He thought I played too many notes, I don’t like being told what to do, I’d rather find out for myself. Anyway I was on the dole for six months and in ‘74 I made some guest appearances with Soft Machine. In ‘75 I did two albums with Tony Williams in New York City. I like that place.
ALAN: Oh yeah I love it. L.A. on the other hand I find a bit too laid back, it’s not for me. In fact I was there in Frisco in ‘76 with Tony or should say without Tony. He was in N.Y.C. trying to sort out the management problems. It was a ridiculous situation, no money, nowhere to stay. Regretfully I sold my beloved 1961 Gibson Les Paul SG Custom to raise the plane fare back to London.
"I don’t like listening to those records [Believe It, Million Dollar Legs] only from the standpoint of my own playing. I feel like my own playing’s improved so much that when I hear it, I just get depressed. But I really loved playing with Tony. The essence, the feeling. That was the best thing that ever happened to me as far as feelings and playing together. It was just such a pleasure. I’d look forward to every gig. Which is why I’m so happy about the band I’m playing with now. I get the same feeling I got when I was playing with Tony Williams.
I like to play with a drummer who plays with you. I don’t like playing with static rhythmical things. I’d rather play along where there is spontaneity happening. These guys [False Alarm] are fantastic and they inspire me. The important thing is playing with people."
No Record Contract, No Big Hoopla, But The Fans Have Kept The Faith For Allan Holdsworth (Guitar World 1982)
"I loved playing with Tony Williams. I loved playing with Jean-Luc Ponty. All of Ponty’s albums were done pretty much live - as far as I can remember they all were. Live, with everybody playing together, as opposed to people playing off on their own. The UK album was done one guy at a time. What I mean by live is that we played together in the studio rather than in different months!"
What about Tony Williams?
No. I enjoyed playing with Tony Williams. He was great.
Cymbiosis: And "Looking Glass?"
Holdsworth: No, "Looking Glass" was different. "Looking Glass" was because Tony Williams played on that track, and I always enjoyed working with him. It was just like having some of that again.
Cymbiosis: You’ve named Tony Williams as probably one of your biggest influences. How does he, as a drummer, influence you as a guitarist?
Holdsworth: Because of the way that he is, the way that he plays and the way that he does things. It’s his person. People play like they are, I think. When I went to see him play with V.S.O.P., I felt I was going to burst into tears. It was Incredible. I can’t describe it. He has such a grasp on whatever it is that’s real. Like Michael Brecker. I feel the same thing when I hear him play now. And Keith Jarrett. It’s just the whole of what Tony Williams’s doing, the way he’s playing, experimenting, his timing, the whole thing. Whatever it is, he has It. And I’m totally inspired by all that. I just felt like I wanted to go and hug him after the gig because he’s so great. It transcended just notes or anything. It’s beyond. I don’t know what it is, but it sure makes you feel good.
And when it comes to all those bands I’ve been playing in, those were all just accidents. I never did that on purpose, I never began to play in a band with the idea to search for something else as soon as possible, I always thought I would stay in that band for ever. Soft Machine was the only band I left on my own accord, because I wanted to play with Tony Williams. Not that I didn’t love Soft Machine, for me it was an interesting band to play in. At that moment I got the chance to play with Tony Williams and I thought that I would continue doing that for the time being. But the reason I left him was because the management was so bad. At a certain moment it was even that bad that during a tour pianist Alan Pasqua and myself were stranded in San Francisco and there was nobody, no hotel, no airline tickets, nothing! But I loved it to play in that band, it was fantastic.
His next big step was when drummer John Marshall got him his first major gig, with Soft Machine: "It was all down to playing; if I hadn’t just kept playing I wouldn’t have got half the gigs I did. Derek Wadsworth, the trombone player, told John Hiseman about me and that got me the gig with Tempest. Another time I had to sit in for Chuck Mangione at Ronnie Scott’s - Chuck was ill; it was after I’d come back from my first stint in America - and Alphonso Johnson was on bass. Alphonse new [sic] that Tony Williams was looking for a guitarist for his band Lifetime, and because of that stand-in session he put my name forward and Tony Williams asked if I’d like to go back to the States and join his band." Allan moved to California in the early eighties and has remained a resident since.
His Warner Brothers connection severed, Holdsworth took the demo tracks, finished them into an album which eventually became Metal Fatigue. and was released on Enigma Records. It was followed by Atavachron, on which he introduced the Synthe-Axe [sic] and featured Billy Childs and Tony Williams. When Enigma hesitated with a contract pickup, Holdsworth moved to Relativity for the release of Sand, but his current release is once again back on Enigma.
GW: When Jimmy Johnson remarked that he was listening to Believe It on the way down to yesterday’s session, you winced. That album is really something of a landmark, and your playing is a great part of what distinguishes it.
HOLDSWORTH:: Well, it was a great period for me in terms of being introduced to some really unbelievable musicians; that’s when I met Tony Williams and Alan Pasqua and Tony Newton, and hanging out and just being given a chance to play with them was really amazing. Alan is a truly astounding musician and I’ve always loved the way he plays. It’s also only in the last five years that I realized what kind of a genius the guy is. Same with Gary Husband. But getting back to that particular period, I hated what I did on that record. I can’t listen to it, but I thought everybody else sounded great. But I did the best I could at the time, so, that’s all you can do, unfortunately I wish I could go back and do ‘em all again [laughs].
MP: You went on to work with Tony Williams in his New Lifetime, you did an album Million Dollar Legs, any recollections of that?
AH: Yeah it was wonderful, apart from some of the financial hazards. It was a wonderful experience obviously such an amazing musician. I learned such a lot from him I know all of the guys in the band that’s how I got to meet Alan Pasqua who’s still one of my favorite musicians on the planet. He was great…
Q: Let’s go back a little bit. After hearing Clapton and being a fan, did you then pursue getting equipment like that, and buy a Les Paul?
Allan: I never liked Les Pauls. After I had the semi-hollow guitar, my dad bought me a Strat, and I played that for about 6 months. Then I made the mistake of going into this music store in Leeds, and I saw a SG custom in the window, a white one with 3 pick-ups. I played that thing, and that was it. So a friend of mine took over the payments on the Strat, and I started a new payment plan on the SG. And I basically used that SG pretty much right the way through until Tony Williams. I love those guitars. That one was lost mysteriously. The tour manager of Tony Williams’s band was owed some money and he had my guitar, and what he did is, he took my guitar down to the pawn shop and sold it. So when I came back to carry on working with Tony Williams, my guitar was in the window of Sam Ash’s or something. And I couldn’t get it back, because I couldn’t prove that it was mine. It was there for sale, but they wanted so much money for it that I had to go buy another SG somewhere else. This was right around that time of the first albu m, Believe It. And then I got this other SG Custom, a really nice one, but it was black, and that was a beautiful guitar. Then the band got stranded in San Francisco and I had to sell that one to get home.
That was great. We had some rough times making it work, but it was a great experience. I enjoyed every minute of it.
1975’s Believe It is still considered by jazz/rock enthusiasts to be one of the greatest albums recorded during the 1970s-its followup, Million Dollar Legs found Williams (likely coerced into) pushing the band into a more commercial mold-and it never met the label’s expectation for sales; management problems ensued and Holdsworth found himself stranded in the U.S. after the group’s final tour without plane fare back to England. "I lived out of a suitcase, sleeping on floors for the better part of five years," he once recounted in an interview about this period, during which his first marriage ended in a divorce.
"I wish I could have stayed longer because the album was done right at the beginning and we worked together a lot after that. It would have been nice to have recorded another one but unfortunately that was at the time when I got that opportunity to work with Tony Williams. It was a real terrible thing in a way, because you never get offered anything when you’re not doing anything - you always have to make some rough decision. I was really happy playing with the Soft Machine. But the opportunity with Tony Williams just seemed like something should do. So then I helped try to get Soft Machine hooked up with another guitar player and recommended a couple of guys - actually Ollie was one of them, and also John Etheridge who actually ended playing with them."
So, how did the Gong projects come about?
Well, it’s funny because it kind of intertwined. I then went to do the thing with Tony Williams and stayed there in New York and then we had some real problems. Not with Tony Williams or the band, because that was the other thing - I loved that band - enjoyed every minute of it - but it was really rough financially. I stayed at Tony Williams’s house which was fine. I didn’t need any money and he took really good care of me. But when we were on tour, we had got back to New York and I’d scraped together enough money to get a plane ticket back to see my girlfriend. So I was there, hanging out, and then I phoned back to see what was happening, and then I found out that the tour manager didn’t get paid and he was in charge of my guitar and he sold it!
"That was the first and only time that I ever got that attached to an instrument. I was mortified! I only had one - I carried it everywhere - I used to buy a ticket for it on the plane... I’d had a lot of SG’s - but instruments are like that - you can make 50 of them but there’ll only be one of them that’s any good - some of them might be OK, but only one of them will be magic and so it was sold and I was completely bombed out. So then I went back to New York and had to buy a new guitar and there in the window was hanging my guitar! But I couldn’t prove it was my guitar and it was more money than I could afford, so I had to buy something else! So I bought another one and then we did another tour and ended up on the West Coast, ended up in San Francisco. And then the band ran out of money. Tony Williams went back to New York to find out why there was no more money and both me and Alan Pasqua had no hotel - we were absolutely out on the street with a suitcase and a guitar. So we went down to the club where we’d been playing and the waitresses there gave us free drinks. We found the guy who had put us up for the night and we get back to this guy’s house in the evening and he said, ‘yeah, you can stay in this bed and you stay in that bed’. And we get back after the club had closed and there were two other guys in those beds! So this went on for three nights, and after the third night I said, ‘Man, I can’t hack this anymore’, so I took my guitar to the pawn shop and sold it. Alan Pasqua lent me the money (he lived in New Jersey at the time) to get from San Francisco to New Jersey and bought the ticket with my guitar from New York to London. I didn’t have anything! Just a suitcase.
"Tony Newton was OK, because he lived in Los Angeles, so a ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles wasn’t really expensive. So that’s when this thing came about with Gong. I got this call from Nicholas Powell, who actually managed me for a while. He split from Virgin Records and wanted to get involved in the video stuff. He really helped me out. In fact, it was Nicholas Powell who gave me the free studio time on the barge to record the IOU album.
"So I did. I played with them and was intrigued with the line-up... I thought it was a fascinating group. So we did that first album. And then I got another call from Tony Williams to go back again, and it was a really tough one, and this time I decided not to go. And then I guess I went from Gong to UK, because I met Bill during that period."
RF: You became very well known during the time period when you played with Tony Williams' Lifetime and then with Bill Bruford-first in U.K. and then in Bill's own band. They are such different drummers. What are your thoughts on that?
AH: In the live situation I did with Tony, it was really great. It was about exactly what was going on, like it is with most of the people I've played with since. They've all had that thing where things change, things are moving, it's organic, it's alive. With U.K., on the other hand, I could have stood on my head or set the building on fire and it wouldn't have changed anything that anybody played. It used to drive me crazy. I enjoyed playing with Bill's band afterwards-especially on his second album, One Of A Kind. It was done more as a band than the first one, Feels Good To Me, which was more overdubbed. Bill played with a very compositional approach to the music, which is understandable since he wrote the music. I don't know how he did what he did sometimes going in there and playing on his own with nothing else going on. It's pretty amazing. Obviously, you have to have a vision. He knew exactly what he wanted to hear, and that was the really cool part about it. But I began to feel that I needed to do my own thing.
PH: And obviously from one great drummer to another, Tony Williiams – such an inspirational drummer through the years. How did you meet up with Tony?
AH: I met Tony by a bizarre accident. I used to play in London when I first moved there. I met a piano player called Pat Smythe who was a very, beautiful guy and a great piano player, and he used to take me on gigs with him. Sometimes he was playing at Ronnie Scott’s - he’d get me to sit in and do that, and one time he was opening up for Chuck Mangione at Ronnie Scott’s, and Alphonso Johnson was in the band, and one day Chuck Mangione was sick, and Pat Smythe sat in with that band, which is Joan La Barbara and Pat La Barbara on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass. So I played one night, just one set with those guys, and apparently some months later Tony Williiams ran into Alphonso Johnson and told him he was thinking of putting a band together and he was looking for a guitar player. So - very nice of him - Alphonso Johnson said to him I heard this guy in England and you might want to check this guy out, so that’s basically how I met Tony. Tony called me to do a project that never was released. It was a project that we, he did with Tequila, the singer, and Jack Bruce on bass, myself on guitar and… I’m gonna kill myself, but I can’t remember the organist’s name – it wasn’t Larry Young, oh man, I gotta remember…I can’t remember his name, forgive me, forgive me. But anyways, we made the album, but it never came out – I don’t know why, but – maybe it’s a good thing, ha ha - but he went back to the States, and some months later I was still playing with the Soft Machine, and he called me up and said ‘I’m gonna put this band together, would you like to be in the band’, and so I said ‘yeah, sure! No kidding!’.
PH: That was the Lifetime band.
AH: Yeah, the New Lifetime, so then he sent me a ticket and I went to New York…
PH: Well you had Tony Williiams’ Lifetime with Larry Young and Jack Bruce...
AH: And John McLaughlin…
PH: Emergency, right?
PH: We’re talkin’ like the early 70s...
AH: Yeah, maybe ‘73, ‘74, might’ve been later…
PH: What were some of the inspiration for you for Tony Williiams - what was his main attributes for you, which you found so appealing?
AH: He had that same thing of like, this like - you don’t know where it’s coming from, and he would do all these things on the drums that I’d never heard before… He was amazing, man! And the other thing is, that is funny is, well, is that I got to know him quite well, because when I first moved to New York I was like kind of nervous, obviously, coming from, well, really from Bradford, quickly to London, to New York - they’ve got bars at the windows, they’re shooting at each other, it’s like haha, it was a little strange. And also the fact that Tony wasn’t really in any hurry to get anything going. I was like, ‘jeez, let’s do something’, but time would roll by and we would just play with one bass player, and then a few weeks later we’d play with another, and eventually Tony Newton sent him a tape and he really liked the guy. And then Tony went off to do a gig one night with a group, I don’t know whose group it was, but Alan Pasqua was in the band, and afterwards I said, ‘hey Tony, did you hear that piano player?’, and he said, ‘oh no, I couldn’t hear him from where I was’, and I said, ‘Man, the guy was amazing’, so he said ‘OK’. So he called up Studio Instrument Rentals which was a rental place in New York and rented some rehearsal time, and Tony Newton flew in, and Pasqua came, and we just played - and that was the birth of that band! But the thing about Tony was – for your original question – he was doing the same thing with the drums – like, most people had heard him playing in the jazz style, but when he went more over into the rock thing he was playing it in a way that had never been done before, and it’s never been done since. I mean, a lot of people have tried but... so it had that same thing - it was like coming from ‘where the hell was this coming from?’. You know, it’s unbelievable! To hear him playing every night, and sit and stand on the same stage with those guys, man, jeez…
PH: It was quite funny, because there are a lot of jazz drummers who can’t play rock, and rock drummers who can’t play jazz, so it’s kind of a gift if you can play both...
AH: Yeah, he was a magician, haha!
PH: We’re talking about geniuses, there are so many, even bass players – Jaco Pastorius, was he around at that time when you were in New York?
AH: Actually, believe it or not, he was, because he was one of the bass players that we played with, haha, and he showed up one day and it was absolutely unbelievable! I was playing with this guy and said, ‘Jesus! Who the hell is this, man, this is pretty good!’, and him and Tony, man… but the thing was, it was unbelievable and Tony liked him, but I think he was looking for a different kind of a player. I think he wanted someone who was going to be like – Gordon Beck always used to say - like the railroad tracks, so that you got the tracks, then the train and then the ticket collectors or whatever, but you got to have the tracks. It’s kind of like having Jimmy Johnson, who is one my favorite bass players in my… you know, I’ve worked with some great bass players, but Jimmy’s like that, he lays the tracks down and like, Gary’s the train. If you have a drummer that plays differently than that, you can have a bass player that plays differently. One of them has to be the tracks though… and in this case it wasn’t going to be Tony! He wanted something else, a different thing, so we didn’t actually end up with Jaco, and then Jaco, I guess, finally was deservedly discovered by somebody else... I guess the first time I heard about him after that was with Weather Report.
Throughout the 1970s, you played with an impressive list of artists, each of whom was quite unique. Did you feel empowered to express your own musical ideas within the context of others’ work? When I played with Tony Williams, he would never direct as to which way he wanted the music to go; he would kind of leave it up to me. Tony’d just say, “Okay, there’s the music; do your thing.” So it was relatively easy for me to find a way to inject my own personality into some of the music, even though it was composed by someone else. And I found that almost everybody treated me the same way.