Colin Earl: First Time Lucky!

By Jeb Wright

Colin Earl is not only a talented pianist in his own right, he is the older brother of a very famous drummer: Foghat’s Roger Earl.  The two brothers have shared over 45 years in the wacky and wonderful world of music.  Together and apart they have seen it all, done it twice, bought the T-shirt, lost the T-shirt and then found that the T-shirt had shrunk in the dryer and started all over and done it all again. 

Colin struck gold in 1970 as a member of Mungo Jerry, who had the huge smash hit “In the Summertime.”  From there he toured the world but found out quickly that fame that comes fast can be fleeting… especially when dealing with band member egos. 

Once Mungo Mania subsided, Colin put some time in with Foghat.  His piano playing can be found on many of their songs, including the smash hit single “Third Time Lucky.”  Colin also appeared heavily on Foghat’s last studio effort titled Last Train Home.

Oh yeah… Colin also tried his hand at the business end of Foghat as their tour manager, a job he was not immediately comfortable in.  From suspicious police officers to willing young ladies to sledge hammers, he eventually figured it all out. 

In the interview that follows, Colin Earl openly discusses how Mungo Jerry came to be, how he handled their success as well as their demise.  He discusses having songs banned by the BBC for perceived drug and anti-religious sentiments.  He tells of being jailed and set free and rescued in the middle of the night by his brother’s band and much, much more.  Oh yeah, Monty Python may have opened for him as well….Read on…and enjoy!

Jeb: You are famous for being in Mungo Jerry, but you and Foghat have crossed many paths.

Colin: Right from 1971, really.  I worked on the first album.  I went to Wales and recorded whatever they wanted me to record on the first album.  They wanted some piano.  I had previously recorded with Foghat before it became Foghat; this was in 1968 or 1969.  There was an album called Warren Phillips & the Rockets, I don’t believe it ever sold well, but it has kind of had an underground following.  We did a number of rock and roll songs and I played piano on most of them; that’s when the first recording that I ever did with Roger [Earl] were done. 

Jeb: Of course you performed on “In the Summertime” as a member of Mungo Jerry.  Tell me about that.

Colin: It was an enormous worldwide hit.  We were a blues band, a country blues band and a jug band.  That song became a monster, it must be said it was not an unlikeable monster.  We used to play colleges and clubs and things before that came out, but all of a sudden in England we were now a pop band.  That had good things, but it also had detrimental things as well.  Suddenly, we were not an album band, and instead were a pop band that was playing three-minute songs, which, in a way, I thought was rather bad. 

Jeb: Did Roger play with Ray Dorset before you did?

Colin:  Yes he did.  Rog played with Ray for a few years, actually.  They had a band and they were known as The Tramps.  That is history there.

Jeb: That is a very good band name for Roger Earl to be a part of.

Colin: It must be said that you’re speaking the truth. 

Jeb: I like the history of rock and roll and I must say that time period saw a lot of electric blues going on in England.

Colin: From the very late ‘50s to the early ’60 there was a sort of a blues boom.  There was a lot of interest amongst the kids with the blues.  Otis Spann played piano for Muddy Waters and he was a hero of mine.  I think he was a cousin of Muddy’s.  To be able to see a band with those guys in it was just wonderful. 

I was fortunate in a way because I didn’t start actually playing until I was 21 years of age.  I didn’t have any formal music education, but I wanted to play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis, that’s the truth.  Jerry Lee came over to England and the rest is history.  He remained an all-time hero of mine.  When I was 13 or 14 I saw a wonderful black and white film of Big Bill Broonzy on English television and he was playing in some club in Belgium or somewhere…  He did this beautiful bluesy shuffle by himself on the guitar.  For me, it was the first time I had heard a guitar played like that.  That was a turning point for me.  After that I got into the acoustic thing. 

Jeb: The jug band thing was more going on in San Francisco with bands like the Grateful Dead. 

Colin: That’s right.  When Ray Dorset and I got together and we decided to go that route, as it was the music we both loved, it seemed to be, as far as the times were, it was the sort of thing that went down well.  We played clubs and large halls and we were not topping the bill but we were getting known.  It was a total surprise when “In the Summertime” became a huge it.

Jeb:  That happened because of the Hollywood Festival gig, didn’t it?

Colin: Thank you for reminding me of that.  The Hollywood Gig which was in the Midlands of England, for some reason, I think there were about thirty five or forty thousand people there.  The lead performers that weekend were the Grateful Dead, Jose Feliciano and some others.  Tony Joe White was on and he was brilliant, I thought.  Jose was brilliant. 

We had to start on the Saturday evening.  We were following the Grateful Dead, which was kind of awe inspiring.  I think the day had been miserable due to the typical English weather and they wanted to go on early.  The people that managed us knew something about it, as they put us on in early evening.  The sun came out all of a sudden, and we went on and started playing the stuff that we played.  All of a sudden the place erupted and they were joining in with tin cans.  You can imagine 35,000 people all going nuts. 

The Grateful Dead were kind of a relaxing vibe at the time, and I think everybody just wanted to get up and have a good time.  An actual fact, “In the Summertime” went from #13 to #1 in straight weeks in England.  We didn’t bother to play it.  We were very surprised when it became a hit.  We played all of the stuff that we normally played and it went down so well that we were invited to come back and play the next day.  The next day we had to follow that really famous band that Paul Rodgers sang for called Free.  Paul Kossoff was on guitar.  We had to follow them the next day, and they were terrific; they really were a great rock and roll band.  I think the same thing applied, because we were the way we were, we were not an obstacle.  We were something to let your hair down with.  It worked well. 

Jeb: This was a big deal for you. 

Colin: It was.  Our management had organized this and we were on a record company that was subsidiary with Pie who were huge in England.  We had the right management from the point of being in the right place at the right time.  It was a fantastic weekend.  From there, everybody in the world wanted a bit of Mungo Jerry. 

Jeb: It was called Mungo-Mania. 

Colin: That’s right.  Actually, I’ve got most of the papers from that time.  We had a write up in The Times in England after we did another festival in Holland.  With that one there were, I think 500,000 people there.  You couldn’t see the end of the crowd and Holland is a flat country so you could see for miles.  We were on late afternoon, and we were in this wooded park and the trees were full of people, and the trees were actually shaking with people in the trees.  It was really fantastic. 

Jeb: Bands that were pop singles bands had a sort of stigma. 

Colin: That is actually true.  It was one of those things. 

Jeb: How did success change you guys?

Colin: We played all we wanted to back in Europe, not just England.  We went to Japan and Australia and all over the place.  The problem was, in part, figuring out what to do in order to follow it up.  We did a rockabilly number called “Baby Jump” and it went to Number One.  It wasn’t a million seller like “In the Summertime” but it did well enough.  It didn’t do well in the USA, though.  By then, Ray, who wrote the lyrics to “In the Summertime,” decided that he was going to write everything. 

We did the second album and it sold well in Britain.  The third album was just a copy of old folk and blues songs, which could have been really good.  One of the things that I didn’t like about the whole set-up was that Ray decided that because he arranged these traditional songs- which we really hadn’t because we just sat down and played them- he was claiming we had arranged them and I thought that was wrong.  One of the things I have always admired about my brother’s band, Foghat, is that whenever they have used songs that were written by older guys, they have always given them the credit for it.  I thought that was the right thing to do; it is the right thing to do.  It was unfortunate how we did it.  I didn’t like that, and I didn’t feel comfortable with it. 

Towards the end of 1971, we were working, but I began to record with some other outfits.  By ’72 Paul and I decided things were not going well.  Ray was showing up and not even bothering to tune his guitar.  Paul played harmonica and rhythm guitar, banjo and the jug, so he was, and still is a talented boy.  We decided that we could not live with this. 

We tried to go along with it and then Ray said, “Let’s get a drummer.”  I was not against that, as I thought it could be interesting.  We advertised, and in the beginning of 1972 we put an ad in one of the trade papers and a bunch of guys turned out.  Paul and I arranged, and Foghat did the audition for us.  As I remember it was Roger’s drum kit and Lonesome Dave [Peverett] and Rod Price were there.  Tony Stevens was there as well.  It was quite interesting. 

Ray didn’t bother to turn up for the auditions.  It was horrible.  Paul and Ray had both done solo albums for the record companies and they were well enough received.  But Ray didn’t bother to audition the drummers and we had just about had enough. For me, that was horrible.  I just didn’t understand it.  It was at that point that the band broke up.  It was obvious because I could see the wrong attitudes were taking place, and that it was going to be very difficult to go on as we were.

Jeb: Ray says you were trying to get him fired from the band. 

Get rid of Ray?  No, why would we?  We wanted him to concentrate more on what we were trying to do.  It became impossible.  It was me that said, “You know Ray, we can’t go on like that.”  We found somebody that could have taken his place but we didn’t want it to happen.  Ray didn’t really show any interest.  I still think that Ray didn’t want to share Mungo Jerry with anybody else.  There were people telling him that he was this or he was that and that is was good.  I think he wanted us to sail away, which is what we decided to do.  We couldn’t stand it from the musical point of view.  It happens.  It was a nuisance.  It was never true that we wanted to get rid of Ray.  We did tell him we couldn’t work with him anymore.  We asked him if he was going to straighten up and he said he was not to blame.  It was quite simple music, that wasn’t the point.  What was difficult was Ray’s attitude.  I still think that forty years later. 

Jeb:  Tell me about playing with Foghat.

Colin: They had asked me to play piano on a few tracks on their first album.  They wanted me to play piano on “Maybelline.”  They had the basic track and they wanted piano on it.  I did that in Island Studios in London.  I went down there;  I remember it quite well actually.  I told them to send me the tracks and I had an idea of how it would be.  They sent it to me and I listened to it, and I thought I’d have a go at it.  I felt good about this.  I did another take, and then I did a third take and I realized that my hands were warming up.  I was actually getting friction trying to play that song that quickly.  We taped it and I put it down.  The piano that you hear was a first take, as I don’t think I could have done anymore. 

Jeb: You were on a huge hit for Foghat called “Third Time Lucky.” 

Colin: Foghat rang up, and I got to go play with the boys again.  They wanted piano on it and then they decided they wanted electric piano on it, so that is what I did.  I used to remind Dave that they needed a hit and there I was [laughter].  I remember hearing that song and thinking Dave was doing something that was not like Foghat at all.  He and I used to describe what other people called ballads as “slow rockers”.  It was kind of an inside joke.  He was a lovely man.  Dave sent me a copy of the music sheet thanking me for my part on this wonderful tune.  Foghat talks about doing that song again when they play live.

Jeb: I have heard them do it.  Your part was thrown out. 

Colin: [Laughter] Probably.  That was where that ended up.  I played some piano on the song “Wild Cherry” and on a couple of things over the years.  I loved that Foghat had such great success.  It was great watching them do so well.  Roger is my kid brother so that made it so special.  They were a great band, and they still are. 

Jeb: You were also on the latest Foghat record Last Train Home

Colin: They brought me over to New York and that’s when we recorded "495 Boogie” and a couple of other things.  I went down to Florida and I played on about two-thirds of the album, all together.  They wanted traditional boogie-woogie blues and rock and roll on it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I really look up on that as being a highlight of my career, in that respect.  They are all such good musicians and they love the blues as much as I do, if not more so.  We did some shows together as well, which I thoroughly enjoyed. 

Jeb:  I also know that at one time you were Foghat’s tour manager.  There must be some good stories…

Colin: Well, I knew I would get along with Rog, as he is my brother.  What happened was that I went out on the road with them in 1973.  I wasn’t a tour manager by trade, as I was a musician.  I wasn’t confident of what I was supposed to be doing and how to handle situations that developed when you were on the road.  Tony Stevens asked me to do it because he figured we had got on, and that I was reasonably sensible. 

We were out for about a month or two, and I said to Tony, “I really don’t feel I am doing well.”  I was worried I was going to make a mistake.  He said, “Look, spend a weekend with Teddy Slatus, who is Johnny and Edgar Winter’s tour manager.”  I jumped at the chance.  They sent me to St. Petersburg and I spent a weekend with Edgar and his manager.  All I had to do was watch and listen.  I did that and I saw that mistakes still occurred; things happened that were not supposed to happen, it’s life on the road.  What it did for me was it gave me confidence.  I knew it would happen with me, and that it would not be perfect all the time, and that you just have to make the best of it.  It was what changed me, if you like, to being a decent tour manager. 

One funny thing that happened was in Alabama; this was early on. We’d hired the car, and the guys were in the motel, and we had an early start and we had to catch a plane to some other place.  We were in Alabama and I was the first to the car in the morning, and the key would not fit.  I tried the back of the car and I tried the other side.  The key didn’t fit.  I said, “We can’t get in the damn car.”  We borrowed a sledge hammer from the office.  It was a small southern hotel, and we borrowed the sledge hammer and we took it to the car and we bashed the window in.  I climbed in the car, and then Tony Stevens along with the band who were waiting outside said, “Look over there.”  I looked and there was an identical station wagon.  Remember, we were in Alabama and we were long-haired hippies.  I ran back to the office and left a hundred dollar bill with them for the owner of the car.  “Tell them we are awfully sorry about this.”  We went as quickly as we could off to the airport and away. 

Jeb: The long haired thing really was something back then.

Colin: Don’t take this the wrong way because I really don’t mean anything bad by it, but now and again you would get these gay guys coming up to you and they would want to take you out.  There was this one guy who was a very clean-cut looking American guy and he came up to me and he said, “So, uh, are any of the boys gay?”  I said, “Not that I know of.”  He followed us around all evening hoping to get an in, but he didn’t. 

The other thing I remember very well… you may or may not want to print this.  We were down in New Orleans and we were with Beaver Productions with Don Fox, who was organizing the show.  The road guys would go in first and then, about one o’clock in the afternoon, I would go down to see if there were any problems that needed sorted out.  I walked in and there was this beautiful young lady.  She really was beautiful.  I was very busy.  As I walked past her I gave her a look.  She said, “Hey, can I suck your cock?”  I was so busy…  I just didn’t know what to say.  I really can’t remember what my answer was, but it was something like, “Maybe later?”  That was another one. 

There is one better one that comes to mind:  It was November the 19th of 1973 and we had a show in Bakersfield, California.  All day Dave was busy writing, as usual.  He was a good boy like that.  He spent lots of time writing.  We were going to drive to the show.  It got later and later.  I said, “Dave, we really have got to go.” 

He was never horrible, but to get him to move quickly was rather difficult.  We had to make up time.  I was driving a hired car and the guys were in the car.  I saw a red light come on back in the distance—it was dark by then.  I saw this light, and I thought, “Oh dear.”  I pulled over, as it was obviously for us.  The policeman got out of the car and he had his gun out as well.  He told me, “You were doing 10 miles per hour over the limit.”  He checked that it was a proper hired car, and so the only problem he had was with me.  I was handcuffed in the back of the policeman’s car, and the boys were off to the show.  At that point, he took me back to the jail where there was this horrible bloke who you would describe as a redneck.  He said he would get in touch with the judge. 

When he realized that we were not drug traffickers, or that we had not stolen a car then he was okay.  He said, “You will have to stay in this jail until I get the judge, and he won’t be happy because it is the evening now.”  I got in the cell, and this guy was in there who was a local who had just been convicted of beating somebody up.  That wasn’t all… I had a shoulder bag I had probably about twenty thousand dollars on me.  This guy had a visitor, and all I could hear him say was, “Look at that goddamn hippie over there.”  Eventually the cop came back and he told me the fine was sixty-five dollars, which was very reasonable. 

The police officer said he would be happy to drop me off somewhere.  I asked if there was a motel.  He said there was an all-night coffee shop.  The name of the place was called Dos Palos.  I can remember all of this as if it was yesterday.  It was The City of Dos Palos.  It was really more of a village than a city.  I told him that was okay.  He drove me around to where this coffee shop was and he dropped me off. 

These people were all locals who were in there and some of them were not that nice.  Here I am in this place with this bag on my shoulder with all of this money in it.  I went in and I had a coffee.  I asked the lady behind the counter, “Tell me, is there someplace I can stay the night around here?”  She said, “A hundred yards down the road there is a house that rents rooms.”  There were mutterings from people about me being skinny and hairy and that I had an accent.  She said, “It’s just down the road, and I have heard she rents rooms.”  I thought, “You’d better make it quick, Colin.”  She described where it was and that was it.  I ran down the road and I got to the house. 

By this time it was quite late around eleven o’clock.  I knocked on the door and fortunately she had a room to spare.  I said, “I will pay up-front.”  I paid and that was the end of the story.  I managed to get through to the show.  The guys came back and picked me up at three in the morning.  From then on, it was all kind of plain sailing.  That night in Dos Palos didn’t feel like plain sailing.