Something Else! Interview: Dave Wendels on big bands, Rebel Rousers, Brian Epstein + Lulu

Born at the right time in the right place, David Wendels was in his early teens, living outside London, England, when a new form of music called rock ‘n’ roll came wafting across the airwaves and shook the world to its core. Instantly smitten with the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Little Richard and so forth, David quickly grabbed a guitar and deftly emulated the sounds so dear to his heart.

From 1963-65, David was lead guitarist for Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, a band that enjoyed a hefty helping of success in Europe. Managed by Brian Epstein, who of course handled the Beatles, the group specialized in high energy horn rock. Appearing on hit tunes such as “One Way Love,” “Three Rooms With Running Water,” and “If Only You’d Reply,” David also played on the band’s dynamic debut album Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, which effectively expressed their gift for laying down crisp and catchy roots rock bubbling with soul.

Following his stint with the Rebel Rousers, David joined legendary Scottish singer Lulu’s band, then hooked up with the mighty Tom Jones. Now residing in Southern California, David presently performs swing and big band music, both as a solo artist and with a band called the Stardusters. After all these years, which involves multiple miles and interesting experiences, David is not only just as enthused about music as he was back when original rock ‘n’ roll took hold and knocked his young mind and ears for a loop, but he still has the talent to match.

BEVERLY PATERSON: After playing rock ‘n’ roll for so many years, you’ve switched gears and have backpedaled to the era of big band music and crooner ballads. I think that’s great. What prompted you to change styles? Had you played this kind of music before, and if not, was it a challenge for you to embark on something so new and different?
DAVE WENDELS: Thanks, Beverly. Honestly, after playing guitar for so long, it had begun to lose its allure somewhat, plus it just felt like it was where I needed to go musically. It really wasn’t too big of a challenge since I’ve always loved [Frank] Sinatra, [Bobby] Darin and big band swing. In fact, when I first started out in the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, I was listening to [Sinatra’s 1956 album] Songs For Swingin’ Lovers at the same time as all the great early rockers, so I absorbed the standards genre by osmosis over the years — making it relatively easy for me to make the transition. Thinking back, it seems funny that none of my hard-core British rocker mates knew of that musical side of me, plus I’m sure it would have been thought of something less than manly when you’re surrounded by guys in leather jackets who worshipped Elvis, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Of course, I did too. It was just another string to my bow, so to speak.

BEVERLY PATERSON: What can you tell us about your current set-up? Like where do you regularly perform and what type of instruments do you employ and how are they employed?
DAVE WENDELS: Currently, I’m basically doing one-man band gigs locally utilizing backing tracks. Mostly, my repertoire is big band swing, but now and then it’s fun to stretch out and revisit the ’50s and ’60s, plus I’ll throw in a instrumental set occasionally just to keep my guitar chops alive. For this, I use a baritone guitar and do Duane and Shadows tunes — just fun, simple melodic stuff. I never was one for playing a thousand notes a minute when two will do. Less is more!

BEVERLY PATERSON: What are some of the songs included in your repertoire, and how do you go about picking and choosing what tunes to play? I imagine you get lots of requests, too.
DAVE WENDELS: Some of the swing tunes would be things from the Great American Songbook — Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin et al. Stuff like “Night And Day,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “Too Marvelous For Words,” etc. As far as selecting tunes goes, whatever comes to mind when I program sets is my usual MO. I do get requests, usually for “Mack the Knife”! I’m not keen on doing tunes that everyone has beaten to death though, but once in while I don`t mind, especially when there’s some doubloons in the tip jar. [Laughs.]

BEVERLY PATERSON: You also sing with a big band called the Stardusters. What’s the status of the band these days, and what other details can you tell me about these guys?
DAVE WENDELS: The Stardusters are a great 13-piece outfit that continues to be a pleasure and honor for me to perform with. They are the real deal, and we have guys in the band that were with Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton and Harry James back in the day — so the standard is pretty high.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Are you looking for a record deal, or are you just pretty much sticking to live shows for now?
DAVE WENDELS: Do they still have record deals, Beverly? It’s probably an iPod deal these days! Seriously, I’m up for anything that keeps the music alive and pays the bills.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Would you say there’s a certain audience for your music? Do you have the die hard fans, as well as folks just out and about checking out live music?
DAVE WENDELS: Yes, I think it’s a specific genre that people of a certain age relate to, and yes, I’m lucky to have a few die-hards that support what I do.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Can you see yourself ever getting back into a rock and roll?
Don`t get me wrong, I still love it but I really don`t see myself going back there, at least not full tilt. I`m a big believer in something Orson Welles once said “You don`t have to repeat yourself to show you can still do it. The fact that you`ve done it is enough”

BEVERLY PATERSON: I realize you’ve been asked this question a billion times before, but you have to remember there’s always new people reading about you and getting into your music. So forgive me for repetition, but how did you hook up with Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers?
DAVE WENDELS: Please be repetitious, by all means, Beverly. I’m always flattered by interest in my past work. Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers were absolutely the best band, bar none, for miles around back when, and I, just like every other aspiring local musician, would go and genuflect in awe every chance I got — with the result that when their guitar player left, I pretty much knew all their tunes, plus he recommended me for the job, which of course helped enormously.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Where did your very first show with the band take place? Were you nervous?
DAVE WENDELS: I’m pretty sure it was a little club called the Blue Moon in Hayes, Middlesex, back home in England. I don’t recall my mental state at the time, but I’m sure I was somewhat apprehensive since I had some pretty big shoes to fill: the old guitarist was a tremendous player.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers not only recorded at Abbey Road studios, which was every band’s dream back then, but you also worked with legendary producer Joe Meek. In hindsight, how do you view your experiences? You certainly had state-of-the-art equipment. What do you recall most about recording at the studio?
DAVE WENDELS: Abbey Road, of course, was state of the art with great producers and engineers so you really couldn’t go wrong. We just went in, did our stuff, and it always sounded amazing. Working for Joe was fun. He was quite brilliant and would get sounds in his tiny studio like no other. I always thought of him as the British Sam Phillips. His inventiveness knew no bounds, and he would do whatever it to took to create new sounds: I’d never seen anyone stuff a pillow in a bass drum before!

BEVERLY PATERSON: Although you were right in the midst of a musical, as well as a cultural revolution, you probably weren’t even aware of the impact you were making. Would you say you had fun during that period, or were you just too busy playing gigs to look at your situation as party central?
DAVE WENDELS: You’re absolutely right, Beverly. Who knew it would all go down into the musical history books? All of us just wanted to make good music, and never really thought it would be the game changer that it turned out to be.

BEVERLY PATERSON: You performed and socialized with many big name bands — including the Beatles of course — particularly since Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers shared a manager in Brian Epstein. What are some memories you have of the Beatles? And how about Brian?
DAVE WENDELS: I was always struck by how insulated the Beatles became and how a “normal” life was suddenly no longer available to them. I remember hanging out in a dressing room in Dublin with them at the height of Beatlemania, and they were taking endless photos of each other just to relieve the boredom. We were on our way to a party and invited them along and they were bummed — because that kind of thing was no longer an option. They couldn’t venture forth anymore to do things that the rest of us took for granted. We never saw that much of Brian, other than he would pop his head ’round the door once in a while and compliment us on our show. He was a nice, elegant man — always impeccably dressed, looking more like a stockbroker than the manager of numerous very successful artists.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Any stories about any other bands or musicians you palled around with are most welcome.
DAVE WENDELS: Oh Beverly, as I think I may have said on previous occasions, that would take more time or license than we have here — especially since most of the best ones are unrepeatable.

BEVERLY PATERSON: You’ve also met a number of your heroes, the original rock ‘n’ rollers from the ’50s. What was that like to meet such icons? I’m sure they were thrilled to meet you, too.
DAVE WENDELS: Well, I’d like to think so, thanks! It was a thrill, of course, since practically everyone of them were gentlemen and very congenial. I have particularly fond memories of hanging with Bo Diddley, Buddy Knox and Gene Vincent — great guys, all.

BEVERLY PATERSON: What model guitar were you mainly playing during your Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers days? And where did you purchase your guitars?
DAVE WENDELS: That would be a Telecaster, bought at a time when nobody knew what they were. Hard to believe, since every guitar player in the world has one these days. I was actually doing gigs where other players were asking: “What the hell is that ” A Fender WHAT??” I had one of the first ones in the country, and there were two available at Jim Marshall’s music store — yes, THAT Jim Marshall — in Ealing, London. I bought one, and my late pal Mick Green of the Pirates bought the other.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Do you enjoy playing acoustic guitar as well as electric guitar?
DAVE WENDELS: Not so much, I just used one for rhythm when I was recording.

BEVERLY PATERSON: After Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, you joined Lulu’s band. She’s an incredible singer. What are your memories of working with her? Where did her tours take you, and do you have any interesting stories to tell about being on the road with her?
DAVE WENDELS: Lulu was a joy to work with and a great talent. It was a fun period for me, plus I was the only Sassenach in the band since everyone came from Scotland. I think the standout trip for me was going on a tour of Poland with her and my old mates the Hollies. Of course, that was when there was an Iron Curtain and we were only the second artists to go there. [Manfred Mann was the first]. As you can imagine, live music was a rarity for the Poles, so it was pandemonium with packed stadiums every night.

BEVERLY PATERSON: And then came Tom Jones, another powerful singer and performer. How did you end up in his band and how far and wide did you travel with him?
DAVE WENDELS: Joining Tom was one of those right place, right time things. He was a guest on Lulu’s weekly TV show and his guitar player Mickey Gee and I struck up a friendship. Some time later, he mentioned he was leaving and would I like to try out — so I did, and that’s how I got the job. We did travel quite extensively in Europe, mostly France, starting out at the Olympia in Paris and then all over from there.

BEVERLY PATERSON: You’ve played in a variety of bands the past few decades. What groups especially stick out in your mind? Were there any bands you felt should have gone a lot farther, on a commerical level, than they did?
DAVE WENDELS: Probably all of them, Beverly. I always felt Cliff and the Rebs should have gone on to even greater things but the timing wasn’t right — and horn-driven commercially viable bands like Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago had yet to arrive.

BEVERLY PATERSON: One of my favorite recordings of yours is the Roy Young Band’s self-titled album from 1971 — a real classic. What process did you go through when recording the album?
DAVE WENDELS: I don’t recall any special deviation from the standard showing up and laying it down process, to be honest, Beverly. We walked in and did our best!

BEVERLY PATERSON: You also wrote some songs for the album. Are you still writing songs?
DAVE WENDELS: I haven’t written anything in a long time. since I haven`t done any recording in quite a while — but I suppose when I have something to say, I might put pen to paper again.

BEVERLY PATERSON: You contributed the art work to The Roy Young Band album as well, which is great. You really have a knack for cartooning. Did you ever do any other drawings for any other projects? And are you still doodling?
DAVE WENDELS: Thanks. That’s kind of you say That was just a fun one-off thing, and not something I’ve repeated since.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Here’s a question I always like to ask musicians — name ten favorite songs or albums, and why are they your favorites.
DAVE WENDELS: OK, here goes …
1) “Mystery Train,” Elvis Presley — both the original Sun version and the Live In Vegas version
2) “My Babe,” Ricky Nelson
3) “Stop Sneakin’ Around,” Ricky Nelson
4) “Race with the Devil,” Gene Vincent
5) “Cannonball,” Duane Eddy
6) “Finger Style Guitar,” Chet Atkins
7) “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” and “Sinatra at the Sands,” Frank Sinatra
8) “Taking It All In Stride,” The Walker Brothers
9) “For A Few Dollars More,” Ennio Morricone
10) “One For My Baby,” Frank Sinatra
I chose 1 through 6 for the great guitar stuff; 7 is the quintessential Frank; 8 is my favorite ballad of all time; 9 is my very favourite spaghetti western theme; and 10 is the ultimate saloon song.

BEVERLY PATERSON: If you had the opportunity to work with any artist or band, who would you choose? Dead or alive!
DAVE WENDELS: I passed on a job with the Walker Brothers in favor of joining Lulu, so I’ve always wondered how that would gone if I’d accepted their offer.

BEVERLY PATERSON: At this point, do you any unfilled ambitions or are you happy with the way things have gone and are going?
DAVE WENDELS: Basically, I’d like to keep on making good music. I think Tom Petty defined success very well when he said: “Do what you love and hopefully it’ll pay the rent.”

To contact Dave Wendels: “I have a very modest website www.davidwendels.com plus I can be e-mailed at gundown@juno.com.”

Beverly Paterson

Beverly Paterson was born the day Ben E. King hit No. 4 on the national charts with "Stand By Me" - which is ironically one of her favorite songs, especially the version by John Lennon. She has also contributed to Lance Monthly and Amplifier, and served as associate editor of Rock Beat International. Paterson's own publications have included Inside Out, and Twist And Shake. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.