For Mungo Jerry band founder Ray Dorset, summertime never ends. Coming off the 2011 release of Cool Jesus, Dorset and Co. have continued a fun genre-melding career dating back to the turn of the 1970s.
Mungo Jerry — a name said to be inspired by the T.S. Eliot poem “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer” from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats — started with Dorset and Colin Earl, who had previously been in a band called the Good Earth. Not long after Mike Cole and Paul King joined, the group scored its first, and still biggest smash, with 1970’s “In the Summertime” — topping the charts in their native England and reaching No. 3 in the U.S., while selling some 30 million copies.
Through a series of lineup changes, the group continued scoring hits — including 1971’s “Baby Jump” (No. 1 in the UK), 1973’s “Alright Alright Alright” (No. 3), 1974’s “Long Legged Woman Dressed in Black” (No. 13) and 1985’s “Prospects.” Dorset reunited with Cole for the 2007 Mungo Jerry release Naked — From the Heart, as well. But their signature moment remains “In the Summertime,” which has been transformed into a charting hit all over again by Shaggy in 1995 and with an assist from MC Skibadee in 2010.
Cole and Dorset (who has continued Mungo Jerry more recently with a lineup that includes Jon Playle, Mark David and Toby Hounsham of Katrina and the Waves fame) joined us for an SER Sitdown to talk about Mungo Jerry’s earliest days, their interesting sound and their most memorable songs …
STEVE ELLIOTT: As Mungo Jerry, you guys were able to combine blues, jug-band music, ragtime, and rockabilly into a pretty seamless blend, while still coming up with your own sound. When I hear your music, it immediately puts me in a good mood.
MIKE COLE: Well, I’m glad the music puts you in a good mood because that’s exactly our intention.
RAY DORSET: That’s great. I guess that the first music that I really got into was rock n’ roll, skiffle and rockabilly. These types of music are closely connected. It all has roots in the blues, plus my father used to tune into the radio trying to find the kind of music that he and my mother liked, and we all used to get excited when we heard good old-time jazz, also rooted in the blues.
STEVE ELLIOTT: You were one of the few all acoustic groups performing back in 1969 and ’70. What was that like for you?
MIKE COLE: One of my own favorites from that era was the Incredible String Band. I’ve always been attracted to acoustic instruments, and hence to acoustic bands. I’ve played jazz for most of my life, and I love this music because at its best it expresses human feelings so well using, for the most part, acoustic instruments — including the human voice. I have no doubt that it worked to our advantage. We sounded different and looked different from most bands at the time. For me, many of the most enjoyable gigs were those prior to the hit single. I had played literally hundreds of gigs in jazz, cabaret and general-purpose bands, but never in one which generated so much excitement with an audience. So, it felt great to experience that and be part of it.
RAY DORSET: Actually we were not acoustic, I played a 1960 Fender Strat — which was unfortunately stolen from the studio. OK, we also used banjo, 12-string guitar, piano and stand-up bass, kazoos and blues harps. The vibe then was love and peace and our line up and image reflected the mood of the times, late hippie scene. The benefit was that we were completely different from all of the other outfits around at the time. No drums; I used to stamp on the floor. We all sat down too; no jumping around.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Your first album In The Summertime was a good-time album that’s really timeless. What do you remember about recording it?
MIKE COLE: Well, thanks for that. It was recorded mostly in two sessions, as I recall, before and after Chrismas 1969 at the Pye studios in London. Virtually all the tracks were recorded live, with some overdubbing of vocals and percussion effects, etc. Ray and I recently met the recording engineer, Howard Barrow, and we had a good chat. It was Howard’s motor bike that you hear revving up on “In the Summertime.”
RAY DORSET: Thanks for the compliment. The tracks were recorded pretty quickly, 17 titles in about 37 hours. It was easy work. The only thing was, we thought that we did not really capture the true Mungo sound and vibe that we got playing gigs. In retrospect, enjoying music at a gig is a different gig than listening at home or in the car.
STEVE ELLIOTT: How about your thoughts on these songs: “Johnny B. Badde,” “Maggie,” “See Me,” “Mighty Man,” “Movin’ Man,” “Daddy’s Brew,” “Sad Eyed Joe,” and the warm-weather anthem “In the Summertime”?
MIKE COLE: Apart from “In the Summertime,” obviously, I like “Johnny B. Badde” and “Mighty Man” a lot — as they have a good feel and swing nicely.
RAY DORSET: “Johnny B. Badde” is a song that I played to Colin when we were together at the house of his parents. They had an upright piano and we would sometimes go there and try out a few songs. I only mention the name Johnny in the song, the “B. Badde” was just a joke — no need to explain that and the rest of the text. “Maggie” went down a storm at our first gig, at Oxford University. We must have played it about seven times. “See Me,” always wild and over the top. I was influenced by Captain Beefheart on this one. “Mighty Man,” I came up with that one onstage doing a gig in Swindon, England for the RAF nurses. As for, “In the Summertime,” I’m grateful to have written and recorded what has become a worldwide standard.
STEVE ELLIOTT: There were also some very tasty covers on the first and second albums, like “San Francisco Blues,” “Have a Whiff on Me” and “Dust Pneumonia Blues.” What do you all look for when covering a song?
MIKE COLE: Speaking for myself: Firstly, do I like the song? Then, Can we do justice to it and bring something original to it? Jazz players base many of their improvisations on the compositions of the great American songwriters — Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart and many, many others. What you are looking for is an expressive melody, interesting chord changes and good lyrics.
RAY DORSET: I just have to like it. I also like to do it the way I hear it in my head when I’m out and about. I never try to make an exact copy of the original.
STEVE ELLIOTT: “Somebody Stole My Wife” and “You Better Leave That Whiskey Alone” sound like old blues standards, yet they’re some of your finest original songs.
MIKE COLE: Thanks. Only Ray can tell you what inspired him to write them.
RAY DORSET: Well, I guess that they do sound like old standards. That’s the way that I wrote and recorded them. Thanks, again, for the compliment.
STEVE ELLIOTT: In 1972, Paul and Ray each released their own respective solo albums, Been in the Pen too Long and Cold Blue Excursion. How different were they from Mungo Jerry and creatively, what did you want to achieve with them?
RAY DORSET: I explored many musical genres. The title track was one that I played during an audition for Barry Murray (producer of “In the Summertime”) when he was looking for bands. He had an ad in a music paper looking for Doors/Love type bands. Barry was working in partnership with Harry Simmonds, Savoy Brown’s manager. I had a lot of other stuff too, different to what we were doing with Mungo Jerry. I don’t think that I could have recorded many of these songs with the MJ line up of the time. It was a shame that the album got put out before I completed all of my vocals; guides were used on some tracks. I enjoyed working with a full orchestra.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Later in 1972, Mungo Jerry parted ways with Paul and Colin, as both of them started the King Earl Boogie Band. Ray and second bassist John Godfrey then carried with Mungo Jerry. What music direction did you guys choose for your respective bands at that point in time?
RAY DORSET: I was actually fired from the band, and Colin and Paul took the MJ name, but the record company management gave it back to me. I was the writer and front man; it made more sense to them. I did some stuff in the MJ style and also took a more rock/blues/psychedelic route. The record company had me doing more pop stuff as they wanted hits. It made them a lot of dough.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Mungo Jerry then produced an all-new recording in 2007, Naked — From the Heart, which featured a cool reunion with Mike, as well as Headcoats drummer Bruce Brand. Ray, was that the first time you’d played together with Mike since 1970?
RAY DORSET: Yes, well overdue I would say. The sessions worked like a dream, just as we wanted, live in the studios, all analogue, and no bullshit.
STEVE ELLIOTT: I loved the vintage studio sound — a real Sun Records, rockabilly, freight train feel with some folk-blues and a dash of Flamenco thrown in for good measure.
MIKE COLE: Thanks, Steve. I can’t speak for the other guys, but I think we all enjoyed it and we worked well together. Bruce has an authentic feel for this music and is very easy to work with. As for Ray, I definitely feel a synergy with him and hope he feels the same. We come from different musical directions, but we do share a love of blues and the genres you mention. In any successful band, it’s all in the fusion.
RAY DORSET: Thanks very much. Totally retro — “Naked from the Heart,” eh?
STEVE ELLIOTT: You guys were called the Good Earth just prior to being known as Mungo Jerry. For those fans who haven’t heard those LPs, what were they like?
MIKE COLE: Yes, the band was called the Good Earth when I joined and we did many gigs together but, the LPs to which you refer were recorded before my joining, so I’ll leave this one to Ray.
RAY DORSET: I thought that the songs were pretty good but the sound quality was very poor, probably because the sound mixer ran on batteries and peak sounds would be distorted because of the current drain. The guy that built the studio was Howard Barrow, later of Pye studios. He engineered the first Mungo album.
STEVE ELLIOTT: What Mungo Jerry songs stand out for you guys today?
MIKE COLE: I leave that for others to decide, but “In The Summertime” proved to be quite popular! “Mighty Man” was always one which I liked and still enjoy playing with Ray on occasions.
RAY DORSET: “In the Summertime,” “46 and On,” “My Girl and Me,” “Going Up the River,’ many more.
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