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Q&A: BERNARD FOWLER

He’s supported The Rolling Stones onstage for many years, and that’s also the place where singer Bernard Fowler received subtle but meaningful encouragement to do what became his latest studio album, Inside Out.

Touring with the Stones in 2015, the native New Yorker spent part of soundchecks practicing his congas while putting a beatnik twist to the lyrics of Stones songs called out by pianist Chuck Leavell. This caught the ear of Mick Jagger, who liked Fowler’s idea to do a solo album in that style.

Produced by Fowler and released in the spring on Rhyme & Reason Records, Inside Out contains his take on the Stones concert staple “Sympathy for the Devil,” but the bulk of it is devoted to his renditions of deep band cuts from the 1970s and 1980s, among them “Sister Morphine,” “Dancing with Mr. D” and “It Must Be Hell.”

On a recent day off from the Stones’ brief stadium run across North America, Fowler fielded questions from Medleyville staffers Chris M. JuniorGeorge Henn and Donald Gavron about the album, Stones-related experiences, other recent projects and what the future holds.

Chris M. Junior: So when Mick Jagger approached you during soundcheck in 2015 as you and the others were putting a new twist on Stones songs, what did you think he was going to say?
Bernard Fowler: “I had no idea. I thought he was gonna say, ‘Bernard, that’s pretty funny’ or something like that. Everybody had a smile on their face, and some people were laughing. And even the next day, Chuck Leavell said, ‘Come on, B: Give us that poetry again.’ … [Jagger] said, ‘Bernard, I’ve heard Rolling Stones many ways. I’ve never heard them done like this.’ And I told him, ‘When we finish the tour, I’m going to cut it.’ And he said, ‘You know what? You should.’ ”

CMJ: Inside Out has four songs from the Undercover album: “Tie You Up,” “Undercover of the Night,” “All the Way Down” and “It Must Be Hell.” You were in your early 20s when the Stones released that album. Was it a favorite of yours at the time?
Fowler: “Absolutely.”

CMJ: Was there a common factor in those four songs— maybe something in the lyrics or the original grooves — that inspired you to record your versions?
Fowler: “It just happened that there were four songs from Undercover on there. I got the Rolling Stones songbook out, and I was looking for strong lyric content that was just as relevant now as when they wrote it. And as I was thumbing through the songbook, I didn’t go page by page — just stop and read, stop and read, and I got four songs from Undercover.”

CMJ: Darryl Jones plays on your new album. What’s your relationship like with him and Leavell, another fellow longtime Stones sideman? You guys are like a band within the band.
Fowler: “Darryl and I are tight, man. I met Darryl during his audition [after Bill Wyman departed]; I’d known about Darryl, but we didn’t meet until his audition. … And Chuck, he was here when I started [with the Stones in the late 1980s]. We’re all pretty tight, and it is kind of like a band within the band — and we actually do some dates together when times allows.”

George Henn: You’ve contributed to Stones solo projects over the years. That includes fronting Charlie Watts’ jazz combo, the Charlie Watts Quintet. How has playing such different styles of music with Charlie — and being onstage with him in stadiums and intimate jazz clubs — shaped your view of him and his musicianship?
Fowler: “I gained more respect for him. He’s a walking jazz encyclopedia, and it was Charlie who helped take me out of my normal realm and pretty much threw me in the middle of the jazz world. I did three records with Charlie.”

Donald Gavron: As for your other projects, you participated in the A Bowie Celebration/David Bowie Alumni Tour, singing a very passionate version of “Heroes.” What about that song resonates with you?
Fowler: “I’ve been singing that song for a long time. I’ve been singing that song way before I started doing any of the Bowie dates. And how I started doing the Bowie dates: Earl Slick called me and said, ‘The anniversary for Station to Station is coming up, and I want to do some dates. Would you consider coming and fronting this?’ I said, ‘Absolutely — it’s my favorite Bowie record. I know that record.’

“So we agreed to do this, and he calls me one day. And I said, ‘Listen, man. I gotta ask you a question: Does David know that you’re doing this?’ And he laughed and said, ‘I knew you were going to ask me that.’ And I said, ‘And?’ And he said, ‘David does know.’ And I said, ‘And?’ And again he laughed, and he said, ‘The first question David asked me was who I was going to get to sing.’ And he said [to Bowie], ‘I want Bernard Fowler to sing.’ And David was like, ‘That’s a good choice, Earl. For a second, I thought you were going to find some skinny white guy and do Bowie-oke.’

“[Bowie] actually posted it in on his social media about us doing this Station to Station tour. And as we were preparing, David passes away. And I asked Earl, ‘Did you know he was [sick]?’ He said, ‘Bernard, ever since I called you and asked you to do this, I talked to him every week. He never once let on how sick he was.’ So that’s where my involvement in the whole [Bowie Celebration] thing started.”

Henn: Back to the Rolling Stones: If you had your choice, what song would you add to a Stones setlist that they’ve never performed with you, and why?
Fowler: (Short pause) “ ‘Dandelion.’ And why? Because I love that freakin’ song. And I love hearing the Stones in that song. I think that song represents how far they did go out of what people know of them. I’ve mentioned [wanting the band to perform] it to Mick, and he kinda frowned at me, so that was a definite ‘no.’

“Whenever we’re in rehearsal, there are songs that they have to do, and there’s space for some new ones. I always throw my two cents in, and for a long time, I used to bug Mick about doing ‘Dance (Part 1).’ He would look at me and frown. A frown don’t mean nothing to me; I’m going to ask again. And lo and behold, we actually did it on one tour. … I’m always trying to make some suggestions. I’m part of this machine, and I want them to get that crowd reaction from playing something that they’ve never done before.”

CMJ: It’s five minutes before the Stones take the stage. What are you doing at that time?
Fowler: “I would have finished my warmup, so I go into my little dressing room onstage, and I put in my in-ear [monitors], and then I look at the setlist to see what’s on the menu for the night, and then I’m waiting for them to walk up the steps.”

CMJ: You’re a busy guy. What do you have planned after the Aug. 31st Stones show in Miami?
Fowler: “This Inside Out record has been so well-received, so when the tour finishes, I’ve got to do a follow-up [to it] and a follow-up [to 2015’s] The Bura. … And I’m going to do some dates to support Inside Out. I’m no good being idle.”

Photo by Casey Mitchell

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