‘Play with one Beatle, and it really f*cks up your jazz career’: Denny Seiwell on Wings, and other things

Denny Seiwell had played with Zoot Sims and J.J. Johnson before joining Paul McCartney and Wings. His work on 1971′s Ram, in fact, arrived even as he played dates with Billy Joel and James Brown, among others.

Elsewhere, Seiwell worked with Art Garfunkel, Rick Danko of the Band, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin and the Who. Still, it’s his time with McCartney, which included a stint through 1973 in the first lineup of Wings, that remains his signature moment in rock.

Appearing on both Wings’ debut album Wild Life as well as the follow up Red Rose Speedway, Seiwell would be part of the charttopping “My Love” and the Oscar-winning “Live and Let Die” singles before leaving on the eve of McCartney’s sessions for Band on the Run.

In this SER Sitdown, Seiwell talks about that seminal association with Wings, even while going deeper into some of other fascinating career intersections — and his belated return to jazz, always Seiwell’s first love …

NICK DERISO: You were there as McCartney put together his first post-Beatles band in the early 1970s. There must have been an immense pressure at that point, but it didn’t come through in the music.
DENNY SEIWELL: There wasn’t really a lot of pressure. (Ace sessions guitarists) Hugh McCracken, David Spinozza and I were doing the Ram album, and we were making records with everybody — from James Brown to John Denver. We were just caught up in the whole scene, because New York was such a great place in those days. You worked all of the time. So, he was just another artist — a rather large one, of course. But when we went to work with him, he dissuaded the star power that he had just by being another musician in the studio with us. The Ram recording sessions were just an extraordinary experience for everyone — including him, I believe. Every day he would come in with a song that he wanted to record, and we’d sit around and add some parts that would really make it shine, and start recording. At the end, we’d say, “My God, this is some really great stuff.” It was just the three of us at any given time, Paul, Dave or Hugh on guitar, and me. Paul was playing guitar or piano, so we didn’t get to hear bass parts or any of the finished songs or vocals. We worked with a pilot track. So it was really bare bones, and when I finally heard the final product, I was really knocked out.

NICK DERISO: At the time, 1971′s Ram was roundly panned, but it’s grown in critical stature over the years — in particular, with the recent reissue. Why do you think it took so long for people to recognize that project as being one of McCartney’s better solo records?
DENNY SEIWELL: I think a lot of people were just mad that he was leaving the Beatles, and going off and doing his own thing. I think that had a lot to do with it. I know the critics really did not see the value in that record, but I just thought it was a masterpiece. It’s the best record I ever made, and I’ve made a lot of records.

NICK DERISO: A favorite moment from the new Ram set finds you, alone with Paul, on a musical outtake called “Rode All Night.” What’s the story behind that song?
DENNY SEIWELL: I was coming back from lunch, and Paul still had some energy. He wanted to do something, even though the mics had been torn down — it might have been a weekend or something — so we just started jamming. He started wailing, and I was playing along. We looked at each other like, “Wow, this is really cool,” and the engineers were frantically trying to set up the mics and get the board set again. We played for, I don’t know, 10 minutes. When we stopped, we said: “Did you get that?” And they said: “We’re ready now, Paul!” (Chuckles.) So, that was Take 2. We just continued on in that vein. It was just a jam. He must have had a good lunch that day. As we were doing it, he was writing the song. We’d play for awhile, then he’d sing a line or two. For me, I thought: Maybe this is Paul finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. He was realizing that he could make music with people other than the Beatles. For me, that’s how I felt about it. I was so happy that he included it on the bonus disc.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Denny Seiwell gives us an update on the ailing Henry McCullough, who he says has suffered "significant brain damage" after a recent heart attack.]

NICK DERISO: At the time, it was said that 1972′s Red Rose Speedway was supposed to be a double album, and that seems to be indicative of a band that was clicking on all cylinders. But, not long after, you and Wings guitarist Henry McCullough left. What happened?
DENNY SEIWELL: Henry is a very organic musician. One day, we were up in Scotland working on Band on the Run, rehearsing it, and Paul pushed him into the corner. The vibe was, we had become a band. Henry, though, he liked to play things differently every time. He had a little jazz in him. But there were some other problems with Paul’s old band, and the financial arrangements. And he kind of pushed Henry into the corner about playing his part the same way, every time we played — the solo from “My Love,” as an example. I think Henry had just had enough of it, and he left. I had no plans on leaving, but at that point I felt like we had really gone to great lengths to become a band, and to go down to Lagos and record Band on the Run without Henry — it was just going to be a bunch of overdubs again like Ram. I tried talking to Paul into maybe postponing it for a month, and breaking in another guitar player, so we could be more organic about recording. He didn’t go for that. Then some of these other problems started coming to the front, and I said: “It’s time for me to leave, too.” I was really pushing for an agreement; we were all working on a handshake. We had no contracts or anything like that, in those days. I don’t think we could have even had one that was legal, because of the Apple receivership and the court case that was going on at the moment. So I was there at the best, and the worst time, if you will. It’s one of the few regrets that I have in my life — that I didn’t sit Paul down and say: “Hey, we gotta talk about this.” Today, we’re still great friends. We love each other; we talk all the time. I wish him the best. But it’s one of those moments that I wish I would have handled it differently. I never made music with anybody like Paul, and I had a very, very special thing.

NICK DERISO: Meanwhile, you were also part of Billy Joel’s often-forgotten 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor. What was your sense when you were playing that date? Did you see him a budding superstar?
DENNY SEIWELL: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I was asked to produce that first record. Michael Lang, of Woodstock fame, he had sent me a demo of Billy’s — and he said: “I have this new artist, and I would really like you to go into the studio and produce.” I listened to the demo, and I thought: “Wow, let’s do this.” We started recording the sessions out in Long Island, and I don’t remember how many tracks we actually got done. But every day, when we’d go to work, it was amazing — like a new McCartney coming along. Billy was just on fire. He had just gone through some traumatic experiences in his life. He wrote the album in three weeks’ time, in a rented apartment on a spinet piano. We started recording, and it was really a lot of fun, but Paul called me back to work. So, I had to leave the project and that’s when Artie Ripp came in and finished it. I didn’t even get production credit on that. But I knew he was going to be a big artist.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Henry McCullough remembers the initial tour by Paul McCartney and Wings, and discusses his decision to leave the band some two years later.]

NICK DERISO: I love to pull out J.J. Johnson’s 1969 collaboration with Kai Winding, Betwixt and Between, and show people your name. It’s such a fascinating album. I want to call it chamber pop, but it’s more complex than that.
DENNY SEIWELL: Rock and jazz was melding together. That was an incredible band: Roger Kellaway, Joe Beck, Charles Demanico and Tom Scott — who was 19 at the time. We were playing as a jazz group out here (in LA), and as a rock group called the Pleasure Principle. We played the Fillmore a couple of times. We were in New York, and we did that record with J.J. and Kai Winding. It was really quite a beautiful record. We did it out of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, and all of a sudden that record was everywhere. You’d get into an elevator, and boom — there it would be. It got a lot of play.

NICK DERISO: Then there’s your appearance on a James Brown record. I understand you got there via Hank Ballard. I wondered if you could help me sort out the turn of events that led to you playing on “Funky Side of Town” from 1972′s Get on the Good Foot.
DENNY SEIWELL: It was another recording date. We were called in, and everybody in the band was white — and everybody in the booth was black. It was really funny. James was producing Hank Ballard, and Hank is in the vocal booth just singing away. We’ve got this tune going, and the band had found a really nice groove. James comes flying out of the control room, and he grabs Hank by the arm and he says: “Hank, this is too good for your record. This is going on my record.” We cut maybe a couple of tracks that day with James; he was just thrilled with it. We became his band for a moment.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: What if Denny Laine, rather than Paul McCartney, had led Wings? We collected the best of his lead vocals with the band to create a fun alternate-universe playlist.]

NICK DERISO: Was he familiar with your work with Wings? Did he know who you were?
DENNY SEIWELL: He did say something about the Paul McCartney thing, though I don’t remember exactly what it was. He made some sort of a comment. I wish I remembered a little bit more from those days, but it was so hectic. We were just flying between dates. You’d finish one, you’d pack up and you’d run to the next.

NICK DERISO: More recently, you issued a jazz trio record (with organist Joe Bagg and guitarist John Chiodini) called Reckless Abandon that included some original music as well as some reimaginings of Paul’s songs in that new context. What was it like to pull apart a track from your tenure in Wings like “Dear Friend” and completely rebuild it?
DENNY SEIWELL: This record was cut in my second bedroom, in my home studio here. It took no time at all. “Dear Friend,” everyone has heard Paul’s arrangement of it. We wrote down the chords, and said: “Let’s play it as a ballad.” We only took one take on that. It was miraculous. We played it through and said: “What the fuck was that?” We listened to the playback, and said: “That was it. Don’t touch it.” Every time we perform that tune with the trio, it’s always special.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Henry McCullough goes in-depth with us on memorable career moments like “My Love” with Wings, “Money” with Pink Floyd “With a Little Help” with Joe Cocker.]

NICK DERISO: What ultimately sparked the transition from playing with guys like Zoot Sims, Thad Jones and Anita O’Day into your second career as a rock drummer?
DENNY SEIWELL: I was in New York during those very early days when rock was becoming the mainstream music. It was going into TV commercials, and everything. The fact that I had a little background in Brazilian music, which is a straight-eight form, I got kind of popular in the studios. Then, I started to listen to the rock ‘n’ roll records, and I got caught up with the Beatles, Dallas Taylor and the Deja Vu album (issued in 1970 by Crosby, Still Nash and Young). There were a lot of records that just appealed to me. I thought: “This is really good. I get to hit the drums a lot harder.” (Laughs.) Paul McCartney was my first rock ‘n’ roll band to speak of.

NICK DERISO: You ended up playing on so many projects, I think it would stun a lot of people — everything from Art Garfunkel’s Breakaway to Rick Danko’s first solo album, even the original “School House Rock” songs with Jack Shelton.
DENNY SEIWELL: Bob Dorough (the original “Schoolhouse Rock” lyricist), he’s still a dear friend of mine.

NICK DERISO: Is it a point of pride with you, though, or a point of annoyance that you’re still mostly associated with Wings?
DENNY SEIWELL: A little of each. (Chuckles.) My line was always: “I was a jazz musician until I met Paul McCartney. You play with one Beatle, and it really fucks up your jazz career.” (Laughs.)

NICK DERISO: I guess you can’t expect anyone to yell out requests for “Conjunction Junction,” though, right?
DENNY SEIWELL: You’d be surprised. We did a tour a couple of years back. Bob came out here, and Jack actually did some dates with us. We played San Francisco, LA, San Diego, and New York — and we did a jazz set, and then we would do a set of “School House Rock” music. The kids went crazy.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.