. Living in Cornwall - Brenda Wootton and the 'French' recordings

Brenda Wooton in France


Brenda 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 personality.

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 repertoire.

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.

Brenda relaxing Brenda cover picture Brenda the three divas

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' ... happy days!

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.

Brenda Wootton- All of Me

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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