Over ‘The Wall’

All axe man Snowy White ever really wanted to do was play the blues – even while he was bending strings for Pink Floyd.

By
March 21, 2010 23:01
Snowy White.

Snowy White 311. (photo credit: .)

 
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Anyone who has been listening to Army Radio or Reshet Bet with any regularity over the last couple decades will ID the song off the bat – the languorous, spacey rhythm, the Hendrix-meets-Knopfler guitar fills and solos, and the noticeably British-tinged vocals repeating the coda “bird of paradise.”

It’s been a perennial radio ballad here forever, but you might not recognize the name of the artist behind the catchy tune – Snowy White. That’s because aside from that hit song “Bird of Paradise,” White has preferred to be the world class musician behind the high-profile front-men – whether it be Pink Floyd, solo Roger Waters or gritty British ’70s-’80s rockers Thin Lizzy. That’s, of course, when he’s not doing his own thing, leading the Snowy White Blues Project, which is making its way to Tel Aviv on Saturday night, March 27 for a show at Reading 3, with opening act, local hassidic bluesmen Lazer Lloyd/Yood.

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White has juggled his dual careers, one as an in-demand touring lead guitarist for stadium rockers like The Wall-era Floyd and subsequent bands by Waters, and one as a blues-rock purist in the grand tradition of other white British rockers like Peter Green and Eric Clapton.

It’s somewhat ironic then, that the only song White is known for is not in his current repertoire. But that omission becomes clearer when the 62-year-old guitarist acknowledges why “Bird of Paradise” has become somewhat of a millstone around his neck.

“Even when it came out on my first solo album, White Flames, in 1983, it was sort of an accident,” said White in a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post from his home in France. “I had done it as a demo in a push for somebody else to sing it, because I’m not a great singer, but the record company decided that they liked it, and insisted it come out. I tidied it up a bit and cut it down, and thought, all right, it will come out and that will be the end of it, nobody will hear it.

“But suddenly, it became a hit, and I started to become known as a ballad singer who happened to play a little guitar. It was totally wrong and totally uncomfortable when they had me go on breakfast shows and sit on the couch and make small talk. People still expect to hear it, and I don’t play it. I told the promoters in Tel Aviv that I don’t do it, and I don’t do Pink Floyd songs or Thin Lizzy songs. This is a blues show.”

WHITE, WHOSE real name is Terence, became enamored with the blues as a teen when, growing up on the Isle of White, he heard a live radio broadcast featuring John Mayall Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton.

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“I used my father’s tape recorder to tape it and I played it over and over again,” said White. “Listening to Clapton, I could tell that it must feel really good to be able to play like that, with such emotion and phrasing. I later heard Eric talking about people like Otis Rush and BB King and my whole world just opened up, when I discovered the soulful side of the blues. And then when Peter Green took over from Eric in the Bluesbreakers and I heard him, I realized that this is just exactly right, this is the way music should be.

“I had been playing some chords, but I wanted to know what it was like to play that kind of music, and my path became strong and clear. Looking back I didn’t realize just how strong and clear it was.”

It was so strong that even a long detour into the world of rock & roll proved to be only that – a detour.  However, it was a glorious route that led him serendipitously to huge stadium shows with Pink Floyd, a band he admitted that he really wasn’t that familiar with.

“I had returned to England in my early 20s after spending a number of years in Stockholm, and I started getting serious about playing the guitar,” said White. He developed a friendship with Green, the gifted guitarist for Fleetwood Mac, who had developed some emotional problems in the early 1970s, and began playing on studio sessions with him as well as writing his own material. Then the fateful phone call came in 1976.

“I was  contacted by a friend of mine who said that Pink Floyd’s manager was trying to get in touch with me. They couldn’t go on tour anymore with just one guitar player, Dave Gilmour was tracking two or even three guitars in the studio, and they needed an extra guitar player. Somehow my name got recommended.

“Believe it or not, I wasn’t intimidated, because of the reason that I wasn’t aware of how big a band they were. I was a blues player, and didn’t really pay attention to anything else. I was probably the only person in England who hadn’t heard Dark Side of the Moon. When they sent me the album, I was actually pleasantly surprised.”

While White said that he had a ball touring with the band and performing The Wall, and on subsequent tours, he also found the experience somewhat frustrating, because his heart remained in the blues.

“Sure, I knew we were playing in stadiums and flying around in private jets, but somehow it never occurred to me that I was in a big band. In reality... all I really wanted to do was play the blues,” he said.

But the blues had to wait a little longer, because as soon as the world tour with Pink Floyd finished, White got another call from rockers Thin Lizzy, asking him if he’d be interested in joining the already successful band following the departure of one of their guitarists.

“There was nothing really more for me to do with Floyd at the time, since they didn’t need me in the studio, so the timing was right when Thin Lizzy asked me to join,” said White. “I did, however, do another short tour with Floyd, so for a short time, I was in both Pink Floyd and Thin Lizzy. I don’t know how I pulled that one off.”

BY THE early 1980s, though, White was adamant about expressing himself through his own music, and White Flames was the first of a series of solo albums that he released in the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, Roger Waters, who had left Pink Floyd, recruited White to be his lead guitarist on his albums and tours, resulting in White joining Waters for his historic performance of The Wall at the site of the Berlin Wall in 1990. Among the highlights of the show was White’s solo on “Comfortably Numb” atop the 25-meter-high wall, but White wasn’t thinking much about the historic aspect of the event. He was too worried about the equipment working properly.

“It was a regular show for me, because it had to be. When you get to a big show like that, it’s absolutely important that I do my best. I want to get my part right and don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t put on a good performance,” said White.

“I didn’t have time to take in the scene and look down at what was happening around me. People ask, ‘Wasn’t it great to be standing on top of the wall playing your solo?’ And I answer that I was too busy looking down at my amp to make sure it was going to work on top of the wall to be concerned with anything else.”

White felt the same way when he joined Waters for his infamous Neveh Shalom show here in 2006; poor planning caused chaos to reign for many concert-goers stuck in both human and vehicular congestion.

“I think that when Roger played in Israel, it sort of took everyone by surprise and got a bit out of hand with the over crowding and the traffic jams,” said White.

Despite the “rock star” aura surrounding forays with Waters – which has sometimes placed the music in the back seat – White expressed gratitude and satisfaction over the chance to continue his two-pronged career, both as arena rocker and nightclub bluesman.

“It’s really great to be playing with Roger and also to be doing my own thing. In a way, it’s like two extremes,” he explained.

“With the Blues Project, we play small, intimate places and I get to play what I want – it’s personally very satisfying. And with Roger, we’re playing the big shows, with the jets and limos and all. The music is great, but it’s very fixed – the same show every night that can’t change because of the backing tracks, the videos. It’s a different approach.”

“So, I actually think I’m really lucky to have the best of both worlds.”

 Enter Snowy White’s world of blues on Saturday night at your own risk. You may never want to leave.

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