Wootton and the 'French' recordings
Brenda Wootton is an intrinsic element in
the musical heritage of Cornwall. It's an enduring tribute to her, that
for more than twenty years since she passed away, there remain loyal
devotees with affectionate memories of her unique voice and charismatic
To preserve Brenda's reputation, Sue Ellery,
her daughter, is keeping the record alive and safe by writing a biography
of her mother's life. To ensure that these recollections are definitive
and complete, Sue has asked those who knew Brenda to add personal contributions
by gathering information to fill in the 'gaps' with reminiscences and
anecdotes of shared times and musical experiences.
Our contribution covered the '80s, when
Brenda's career had taken an international path to European countries
and beyond. Brenda's appeal had moved from the Cornish folk 'scene',
for which she was originally recognised and she was playing concert hall
venues in major European cities; having a shrewd business head, it made
sense to have 'merchandising' at these gigs with albums of her extensive
During the thirty years of her career, she
made around thirty albums. In the early days, she recorded with John
the Fish at Job Morris's, Sentinel Studio, in Newlyn; with 'Pasties and
Cream' being the first of many. However, as her career evolved beyond
folk music, her love of jazz and blues, meant she needed the kind of
musicians and studio, that could help take her the next step on her musical
journey. Brenda contacted John Knight, who had a recording studio at
Trelan, down on the Lizard. In the '70s, John played guitar in an uber-cool,
jazz funk band, 'Matrix', and in Cornwall, where everyone knew what everyone
else was up to, news travelled along the grapevine that John wasn't playing
professionally at this time as he was concentrating on recording bands
and musicians in his studio: a disused wartime, radar bunker. John and
Brenda knew each other and John had 'sat in' with Brenda on occasions.
From 1982, they commenced on a musical 'relationship' that
lasted almost a decade. Brenda and John's collaboration cemented a platform
for an outstanding collection of recordings. They co-produced four albums
and a number of singles; both perfectionists, with a shared creativity
and vision, each brought their individual skills to the production -
Brenda's voice and arrangements added to John's engineering and production
dexterity, plus mutual respect and shared musicality, culminated in a
collection of first class albums.
The first album John produced with Brenda
was, 'Lyonesse', in 1982, when she was signed with RCA France. Most of
the tracks are beautiful, haunting melodies written by Cornishman, Richard
Gendall. however, the running order indicates Brenda's transition from
folk into jazz and blues with arrangements of 'Autumn Leaves' and even,
'Honky Tonk Woman', The tracks are mostly accompanied with Dave King
playing classical acoustic guitar and also arranged some of the songs.
Mike Lease played bass, fiddle and bodrhan.
'Lyonesse' was followed by, 'My Land'
in 1983. Recorded again for RCA France, the balance of the material tipped
more towards jazz and blues. Brenda used a number of the best jazz musicians
in Cornwall: Ashley Staton, Ray Roberts, Phil King, Mike Higgs, Cass
Caswell and Bob Crooks, in addition to her brilliant regular guitarist,
Chris Newman. The album included a personal favourite, Richard Gendall's,
'Silver Net', along side 'good time' swing numbers, 'All of Me', ' Ain't
She Sweet' and 'Summertime". Retrospectively, I can see what a clever
move this was on Brenda's part as the content of the album is a 'catch
all' for her international market....jazz standards, yet still retaining
her Cornish roots. This album was distributed in Belgium, France, Germany,
Italy, Holland and the UK.
The third album Brenda recorded with John
in 1985, was, 'B Comme Brenda', on another French label; Disc'AZ. By
now, her international reputation was established and Brenda's, agent
Olivier Gluzman, in France, promoted her on TV, radio and in live concerts.
The album, an almost whimsical blend of tender ballads, baldy blues and
hymns, included ' Once In A While', 'Oh Holy Lord' and 'Nobody Loves
a Fat Girl', and if that's not eluding being typecast, I don't know what
is... but that's Brenda!
Brenda's next album was previously recorded
tracks and remixed in 1986, saw a return to her Cornish roots. An ambassador
singing the songs of her beloved 'country' with her performer's confidence
not to conform but to stand in front of an audience and say, 'This is
who I am'. Whether singing in the ancient Cornish language, French or
traditional songs sang in pubs since Cornishmen gathered round a pint,
the significance of the sea is always lapping at her heart. 'Tamar',
'I Wish I were Crossing Now', 'Waiting for the Tide; all wistful, evocative
songs of homeland. This album for me, sums up Brenda the woman; I can
imagine her tired from the journey, alone in a hotel room before going
on stage; waiting for the adrenaline rush to pump her through the performance.
Her bardic name, Gwylan Gwavas ( Newlyn Seagull) is encapsulated in the
track, 'Gwavas Lake'.
John has some unforgettable recollections of
studio time spent with Brenda. Brenda and her husband, John, were every
inch, a team. He took care of her; while she was working, he would sit
in the car, either having a snooze or preparing her Radio Cornwall Show,
'Sunday Best'. This was a very popular, all request show and ' Mr. Woottie',
worked on the running order ahead of the broadcast. Brenda was a homely
lady and they didn't travel without a picnic basket of goodie...buns,
pasties and sandwiches filled with boiled egg and sandwich spread: plenty
for themselves and any hungry musician that had missed his breakfast.
However, once working, Brenda took on
her professional persona and she knew exactly what she wanted! A classic
example was while recording the 'My Land' album; she wanted an ethereal
effect on 'Silver Net' with a violin string section! There are two notional
factors here; where was the budget for a string section and, if there
was, where would you get one? This was 1983, back in the dark ages before
synthesisers sampled sounds. Violinist, Sally Holmes was on the studio
session and John had an idea...he asked her to record every note individually
on the violin for a few seconds and then he wrote an arrangement and
copied every note needed, one at a time, onto the multi-track machine
- in four parts and the final result was Brenda's 'string section' ...
Retrospectively, amongst the success,
there are two regrets from the years John and Brenda worked together.
In 1986, Brenda worked with Richard Gendall on a production of a Cornish
'musical' composed around the story of Anne Jefferies; a girl from St.
Teath who, allegedly, danced with the fairy folk (bobel vean). This hugely
ambitious show was performed at the L'Orient Festival in Brittany, requiring
Brenda to cross the Channel with a ferry bursting with musicians, dancers
and actors from Cornwall for a single performance which, sadly, wasn't
recorded. The second is that the albums that were recorded with John
at Trelan have never been remastered from the original tapes to CD and,
hence, are no longer available.
Brenda's recorded work was no different
from her live performances; a force of nature, switching vocally, from
a gentle summer breeze to the roar of a gale as she segued effortlessly
from number to number. She had the rare ability to make every song she
sang her own as she captivated her audience, taking them on a musical
ride to Cornwall with humour, passion and honesty while performing the
music she loved.
PS. Although the albums aren't available,
some of the songs were included in a concert at the Bobino theatre in
Paris in 1984 and are on the CD, 'All of Me'. from www.brendawootton.co
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