P.P. Arnold should be a household name. That fact that she isn’t comes down to a string of bad luck that would give a blues singer enough material for several lifetimes. Others would have given up when faced with the adversity she has thwarted, but she is made of sterner stuff than that. With a voice as soulful as hers, it was always inevitable that she would find her way through the tough times.
With a career spanning in excess of 50 years, she is able to offer unique insight into the way in which the record industry has changed, so it was a chance not to be missed to speak with her, in eager anticipation of her forthcoming new album The New Adventures Of… P.P. Arnold. Exploring her relationships with bona fide geniuses of the musical realm, her often stalled but always interesting career, and the heavy-hearted loss of her daughter made for an illuminating and fascinating discussion.
It was clear that the conversation could have run and run, given her charmingly honest answers and the incredible breadth of her experience. But like all good things, it had to come to an end. Enjoy our conversation below and mark August 9th in your calendars for the arrival of The New Adventures Of… P.P. Arnold.
You got your first break doing the Chitlin’ Circuit with Ike & Tina Turner—that must have been some kind of education! What lessons did you learn and how relevant are they now? What was that like?
It blows my mind when I´m asked a question like this and I have to go that far back in my mind to answer. [Laughs] Everything that I learned back then is still relevant now. Going on the road today is still as difficult as it always has been. You have to understand the logistics of what it takes to turn up on stage and do a live show. The organization that it takes to take people on the road with you, with all of the traveling and discipline that is paramount in surviving being on the road.
A very racist system existed back in those days of Civil Rights and change, and the Chitlin’ Circuit was the circuit that all black artists played on whether it was jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, gospel or whatever. It was black owned and black organized mostly, except for larger venues that may have been owned by whites that Blacks could play in as long as they came in through the back door.
If you were born in the South you understood exactly what it was all about. My parents are from Texas and they migrated to Los Angeles, thinking that they could flee the racist ways of the South, so my siblings and I were born in L.A. My first experience of blatant in-your-face racism of the South was on my first Ike & Tina Turner tour. I was 17 years old, in an abusive teen marriage with two kids. It was my first experience of life on the road with a black rhythm & blues revue. There were no travel comforts. We traveled in an old raggedy Greyhound bus that we lived in as much as we lived in hotels sometimes. It depended on where we were headed. We weren’t allowed to stay in hotel chains like the Hilton or Sheraton. We would either stay in black-owned hotels, Holiday Inns or sleep on the bus to save money sometimes.
The Chitlin’ Circuit was hundreds of black-owned nightclubs, dance halls, and juke joints, all over the United States that black people were allowed to attend. Some of the clubs were better than others and they were always packed out. We played ballrooms, universities in the northeast. We played the famous East theaters, like The Apollo in New York City, The Uptown in Philadelphia, The Howard in Washington D.C.. African-American musicians and artists were welcomed and celebrated on the Circuit and they were able to make money and flourish in the many welcoming venues that they were able to perform in. Some of these clubs would be very wild gangster ridden venues out in the middle of nowhere, and I remember on a couple of occasions having to make a quick stage exit when fights would break out and gun shots could be heard.
We would go on 90-day tours and have only five days off during the whole tour when we weren’t travelling. A lot of artists like Ike Turner, James Brown, Joe Tex, and Otis Redding—many of them booked themselves through their own booking agents and were in total control of their movements on the road. One thing’s for sure, there was a lot less ego-tripping going on, as there was a never-ending list of very talented musicians and singers in the country, all looking for work. Unless you were good at your gig, you could be easily replaced, anywhere.
Relationships and getting along with one another is a very important part of life on the road, as you’re in each other’s lives every day. You have as much fun as you can while you travel. You create memories together and most of all, you make music together which is what it’s all about. Performing on stage together every night, getting tighter and tighter every performance was incredible! Being on stage with the Ike & Tina Turner Revue was absolutely amazing musically! I stayed out of Ike and Tina´s domestic affairs, but of course I was emotionally affected by it all. It was hard work.
Your career, through no fault of your own, has had more false starts than a twitchy sprinter—how have you been able to keep your head up when faced with the myriad complications that have impacted your career?
I just wake up every day and give thanks. I had my children before I had a career and through the years I have always had to be strong for them, which hasn’t always been easy. Through my meditations, prayer and spiritual practices, which are a priority for me, through my health and fitness regimes, balanced nutrition and a whole lot of faith in the (notion of) I am power of God in me and the power of the metaphysical universe.
When you arrived in London in 1966 you landed slap bang in the middle of a genuine musical and cultural revolution. Were you aware of that at the time? And now, with the benefit of time passing, how do you remember those days?
I had no idea what London was like except from the movies I´d seen and there was always a lot of fog. I didn’t really know who the Rolling Stones were. I thought that “Satisfaction” was Otis Redding´s song and that the Stones had covered it.
I remember those days as magical. To be a young girl who had been through what I had been through as a teenager, to suddenly find myself in the middle of the rock & roll revolution of the ‘60s in London, England was definitely a very magical, life-changing blessing.
Part of those experiences was time spent with Jimi Hendrix—how do your recollections tally with the legend we read about today? What helped form your bond with him? Was it being away from home together?
Well, definitely, Jimi and I finding ourselves in England on a similar journey connected us and played a part in our friendship with one another, but it was much more than that. I first met Jimi at a gig that I was doing at the bag of Nails. My guitarist Roger Dean came to my dressing room and told me that there was an American guitarist named Jimi Hendrix in the audience and asked me if I would mind if he jammed with the band and me on stage. I said to Roger to tell him that he could jam at the end of the second set. Which he did, and blew us all away!
That was the beginning of our friendship. Call it a coincidence if you like, but the universe had placed us right around the corner from each other, which was very convenient for the both of us. He was lovely, very funny and quite shy. For me, Jimi was a little closer to being a brother and he was a very sweet, dear friend at a brief moment in time and I cherish the time we shared together.
The late ‘60s and ‘70s saw you enter the world of the squabbling Gibb brothers. Did it feel at the time that you were caught up in brotherly strife? Yet again you were tossed about on the seas of record industry tumult—did you feel any resentment towards the Gibb brothers for the stalling of your work?
No, I didn’t feel any resentment against the brothers. They were family and the fact that my musical relationship with Barry was affected by the politics that they were dealing with was just unfortunate for me. My relationship was with Barry, and I always understood what was going on. I’m really pleased that the work that we did together has finally been released along with the Eric Clapton, Caleb Quay recordings on my 2017 The Turning Tide release. The album was received well by the media and fans, and it served to heal the disappointment of the past.
Moving forward to the late ‘80s, I have fond memories of watching you on Top Of The Pops singing “Burn It Up.” How did that work come about and how do you feel about it looking back? Was it work that you actively sought out or was it about putting food on the table, so to speak?
All work puts food on the table that’s for sure, but money wasn’t what brought the “Burn It Up” project together. The Beatmasters were a jingle production-company that I did jingles for. I’d been in a car accident that had damaged my legs quite badly and had been unable to do any live work. My friend Linda Hayes unselfishly hooked me up. She introduced me into the jingle production circle and that’s how I met the Beatmasters. I love Linda, she´s a great singer and a beautiful woman inside and out.
I did jingles with them from time to time and Richard Walmsley, the keyboard player, and I had been doing a bit of songwriting together. Richard told me about this track that they were working on and asked me if I would be up for singing on it. I agreed to work on the track with them as a songwriting partner and “Burn It Up” turned out to be a really cool track that went into the Top 20 at #14.
The influence of the London scene you first experienced in 1966 came to the fore during the early and mid ‘90s with the Britpop boom of the time. Did that feel like “coming home” musically to a certain extent? The friendships and connections you made during that time have stood you in good stead, how important are they to you now?
Every connection that I have ever made in my life is important to me. The appreciation of my work that I did in the sixties during what you call the Britpop era made me feel respected at a time of disconnection that I was having with the industry. I have the greatest respect for all of these artists. Steve Cradock (of Ocean Colour Scene) and Paul Weller have been a constant support of me and I’m really grateful for all that they’ve done and continue to do to help.
When some of your recordings surfaced in 2017 as The Turning Tide album, you must have felt incredibly proud that they had stood the test of time. Was it some kind of vindication to see them finally exist in the world, rather than sitting in some dusty storage facility somewhere?
I had been trying to get my hands on those recordings for years. When I returned to the UK in 1983 after being in the states since 1975 and after losing my daughter in 1977, I started trying to make sense of the exploitation that I had experienced due to not having business experience that had led to me being ripped off, along with my label mates and many artists of that time. It took time to find and recover the recordings. Dick Ashby introduced me to Bill Levenson at Useful Citizen Productions. It was Bill who located all of the masters and made it possible for me to finally get permission to release the tracks. When I first baked the tapes and had the opportunity to listen to them after so many years, I was so glad that I hadn’t given up. It´s definitely better for them to be existing in the world instead of sitting in some dusty storage facility somewhere!
So here we are some 53 years after you first came to England with Ike & Tina Turner—how does it feel to be here answering questions in advance of your new album? What does it hold in store for us? What should we expect?
I´m delighted and excited about The New Adventures Of… P.P. Arnold, a double album of 15 tracks that are an eclectic mix of different musical styles, some of which will take you back to the ‘60s in a very pleasant way. It’s been musically produced and arranged by Steve Cradock. I´m really happy with the results! We have a few distinguished visitors in Paul Weller and The Specials’ Lynval Golding, and Horace Pantor, Tim Smart, Sam Massey. It´s released on August 9th, but you can stream and buy the single “Baby Blue” on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, Deezer and the iTunes Store.
Your tribute to your daughter, “I’ll Always Remember You (Debbie’s Song),” is a heartbreaker and the surroundings must have added to the sense of loss. Who’s idea was it to record in the cathedral and how did that come to fruition?
It was Steve´s idea to record the track at Exeter Cathedral and I wasn’t there when the track was recorded. Steve made it all happen with the help of Sally Cradock.
Your son (Kodzo) is also in the music industry. What advice have you given him on his journey thus far?
My son Kodzo (Kojo) is known as the Professor. He was given that nickname at a very young age because of his insights and understanding of everything. If it wasn’t for him, I might not be here. I call him regularly and see him as often as I can to get his advice on many things. He is a very respected MD in the industry who works with Jess Glynne, Stormzy, Rita Ora, Rudimental, and Plan B, just to name a few. He´s learned from my mistakes, but he´s also impressed with my longevity. We inspire one another.
The industry has changed dramatically since you took your first steps back in the 1960s. What aspects have remained the same and what are the biggest changes and challenges you face as a result of them?
The business aspect of it has stayed the same. Although technology has changed a lot of things, I still believe that you need good, creative management, a great solicitor, and a really good agent, and if you´re lucky a good supportive record label with international distribution. You have to know that the unexpected always rules and you never know what’s going to happen.
Still, you have to stay positive and optimistic and know that with a lot of hard work, surrounded by a great team, success is obtainable. I feel supported and loved by my team and we´re getting ready to make some noise! Tour dates are being promoted and every aspect of the tour will be advertised on all of my social media.
OK, last question. In the spirit of Albumism, what are your FIVE favorite albums of all time?
Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings The Blues, Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain.