Unsung Figures No.5: Terry Reid

We take a look at the life and career of a singer and songwriter who had things turned out differently could have fronted either of two of the biggest rock bands of the 70’s.

I’m not sure it’s fair or even accurate to call Terry Reid one of the unluckiest men in rock music. Here is a man who recorded his first album as a teenager, toured America as a headliner not long after, has worked with, toured with, and befriended everyone from the Rolling Stones to CSNY, from Jackson Browne to Bonnie Raitt. And yet the feeling that pervades when one looks at his story is that of missed opportunities, of years lost to contractual wrangles, and a career that never quite happened in the way it should. The unluckiest man in rock music? Well that all depends on your point of view I suppose. What is pretty certain is that he never got the recognition his talent surely deserved.

Terry Reid was born on the 13th of November 1949 in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, a market town most famous for being the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell. When exactly he started playing the guitar and singing isn’t clear but he was certainly proficient in both by the time he was 15 or 16 when he was spotted playing in a local band called The Redbeats by Peter Jay, drummer and leader of the intrumental group Peter Jay & the Jaywalkers who had been signed to Decca since 1962 and had toured with both the Beatles and the Stones. Jay needed a new rhythm guitarist and Reid got the job giving him his first taste of the big time.

The Jaywalkers would soon disband but during this time Reid befriended Graham Nash of The Hollies and the producer Mickie Most who at that time was making hits with, amongst others, Donovan and Lulu and working with session musicians Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. Most became Reid’s manager as well as producer and the two quickly produced his first single ‘Better By Far’ and his debut lp Bang Bang It’s Terry Reid which featured a mixture of covers and Reid’s own material including the Nash co-composition ‘Without Expression’. Despite acclaim from critics and radio play for his singles the album failed to become a success commercially. However, a subsequent 1968 tour with rock supergroup Cream helped bring him greater attention.

At that time Jimmy Page had given up session work and was for a short time the lead guitarist with The Yardbirds who were soon to disband. Page had the idea of forming a new band and in need of a singer offered Reid the job which due to his contractual obligations to tour with Cream he turned down, instead recommending a singer whose Band Of Joy had supported Reid recently. The singer was called Robert Plant and like Reid he possessed a throaty, powerful voice. Plant brought drummer John Bonham with him and the rest, well you know the rest.

A missed opportunity? It could be seen like that but years later Reid himself would say “I’m the guy who put the greatest rock and roll band in the world together, and I’m proud of it. When you do something good, there’s always people gonna try and make something bad out of it. But it don’t bother me”. A magnanimous attitude and one that surely speaks volumes about Reid the person.

In 1969 Reid would tour as a support act with Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac and, most famously, with The Rolling Stones on their infamous 1969 tour of the USA. Reid was at least lucky enough not to be asked to play the Altamont festival which ended that tour. It was around about this time that he was approached by heavy rock giants and pioneers Deep Purple who were looking for a replacement for singer Rod Evans. Once again, Reid had to decline this time due to contractual obligations to Most, and once again he missed out on an opportunity to become the front-man for a band whose success would far outstrip his own.

As if that wasn’t enough Reid then went on to have a terminal falling out with Most who wanted to mould Reid in to a pop singer and balladeer strictly following Most’s instructions and direction. Understandably, Reid was not willing to relinquish artistic control of his career. This led to a situation where he simply had to sit out the rest of his contract, meaning he couldn’t record for anyone else in the meantime. This was maybe the biggest wound to Reid’s career at a time when the previous few years hard touring had gotten him in to a position where a hit album or two would have helped enormously. Instead he found himself making occasional live performances, most notably the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, later released as a lp, and the second Glastonbury festival in 1971 (part of his set was captured in the film Glastonbury Fayre). It’s hard not to feel though that these were slightly wasted years for Reid.

He returned in 1973 with an album called The River released on Atlantic Records, a dreamy affair that drew influences from jazz, folk and various other places. Once again he found himself critically acclaimed but unable to translate that in to commercial success. Three years later, and this time signed to ABC records he released Seeds Of Memory which was produced by Nash and displayed contemporary influences. Again it was a critical success but a relative commercial flop, not helped by the fact that ABC soon went bust. In 1979 he was back with another label, Capitol Records, and another album Rogue Waves but still he couldn’t find a hit. Capitol did little to promote the album and soon dropped him. Reid himself would later say of this time “At that point, after all that had happened, I just couldn’t be serious about the business. Then I got married, had two children, and I thought, now I’ve found something I can really get behind. I figured I’d never quite make it, so it wasn’t worth killing myself trying”.

Throughout the 1980’s Reid forsook his solo career to become a session man of some note playing on records by Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, UFO, Jackson Browne and others besides. In 1991 he returned with the Trevor Horn produced album The Driver which featured covers of Steve Winwood’s ‘Gimme Some Lovin” and ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ by The Waterboys. The latter featured backing vocals by Enya and received quite a bit of airplay. However, this led to The Waterboy’s re-releasing their own version which became a huge hit and stole Reid’s thunder somewhat. Once again he couldn’t quite be the right man with the right song at the right time.

Today Reid is still working, and has recently completed  a 14 date tour of Britain. The posters for the tour used a quote from The Independent which called him “the most soulful British vocalist ever” and it’s hard to disagree. Reid’s soaring, blue-eyed soul voice is still in fine fettle it seems and the man himself soldiers on. Yet wider recognition still eludes him and one can’t help feel that it probably always will. That said, he’s still touring, still making a living playing his music to those who know how good he is, still doing it at the age of 65. By many people’s standards that makes him quite the success. The unluckiest man in rock? Not at all.

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