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Chris Jagger, younger brother of Rolling Stone Sir Mick, has pursued his own musical career for many years. His strong performances of original blues-based, cajun and country-tinged material have earned accolades from professional critics, fellow musicians, discerning fans and music business cognoscenti. But he lives a relatively quiet and conventional country life at his Somerset farmhouse home.
Now 65, Chris has trained as an actor, been involved in stage management, fashion design, journalism, radio and film. He has also driven taxis, although it is music that has been a constant theme throughout his life. Chris has recorded a series of albums featuring his own songs and has toured extensively in the UK, Europe as well as Australia, Canada and the USA. His favourite venue is Oxfordshire's celebrated Crooked Billet pub in the village of Stoke Row where he appears regularly with an acoustic trio. He is one of the most popular acts to perform there – which is quite an achievement, given the famous names the Crooked Billet attracts.
Following his latest sell-out performance at the Crooked Billet, Chris agreed to be interviewed for Pennyblackmusic. So, the morning after the Rolling Stones' triumphant 50th Anniversary Concert at London's O2 Arena, I travelled into deepest rural Somerset to meet Chris who had been tending the small flock of sheep he and his wife Kari-Ann own.
“We really relish our lifestyle down here,” Chris tells me. “We have been in Somerset for more than a decade now - we lived in Glastonbury before - and it is just so much better than living in Muswell Hill, North London as we used to. There is a real sense of involvement with the local farming community here. In remote rural areas like this there is a mutual dependency as well as an acceptance of everyone, regardless of who they are. And a lot of bartering goes on which I enjoy - exchanging a few dozen eggs for some locally made cider, borrowing a cockerel or a ram. It is still a traditional way of life which I've come to truly appreciate. Some of the highlights of the last few years have been performing at annual gigs for local people in the cider barn just yards from here. A few of my recent songs reflect my Somerset life - a track on my ‘The Ridge’ album is called ‘The Farmer’.”
This bucolic existence is a contrast from Chris's late teenage years at the heart of “swinging” London in the sixties. After a childhood in Dartford, Kent where he enjoyed singing in the junior school choir, Chris attended Eltham College in South East London. His father, a former history and PE teacher who worked for the Central Council for Physical Recreation and wrote books on sport, not wealthy. So sending Chris to this prestigious private school meant a considerable financial sacrifice. Chris then won a place to study drama at Manchester University - but he opted not to go, preferring instead to spend time in London where elder brother Mick was enjoying his first years of fame as a Rolling Stone.
“Our parents had always tried their best for us and I am sure they were disappointed I didn't go off to university,” Chris reflects. “There had been very little music or acting at Eltham College. Despite that I had thought I would like to do drama. But when I went to Manchester for the interview it just seemed so drab and stuck in the past. London was such a happening place. The thought of leaving all that action to go back to college to read Shakespeare up in Manchester was very unappealing. So I didn't do it. There are times I've wondered what I missed but on balance I've few regrets.
“Instead I took a year off and hung out in London with some of the people Mick knew. I was mixing with them all - the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, all kinds of people. It was very exciting! I was involved with fashion design - our jackets were worn by Mick and by Keith Richards. Jimi Hendrix wears one on the cover of his ‘Electric Ladyland’ album! That jacket is now on show at the Hard Rock Café in New York – a piece of sixties psychedelic fashion. It was designed for us by Julia, an Irish girl we met who used to paint ties in Indian ink. We asked her to use the same technique on a jacket. Jimi wore a lot of our stuff and we became good friends. I even went out and toured in Sweden with him. I saw him play three gigs in one day there.....only Jimi could have the stamina to do that!”
“I also worked at Hampstead Theatre as an assistant stage manager which I enjoyed. Though it was a little disillusioning,” Chris recalls. “Meeting older actors who were broken down characters with alcohol problems and earning a pittance despite having real ability - I started to wonder whether I could hack that as a career, longer-term. But I enjoyed some of the new, more avant-garde plays.”
“Many years later I was in repertory at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow – I was in one play with Pierce Brosnan and also worked with Ciaran Hinds. I did ‘The Threepenny Opera’ and had to sing some Brecht songs which I loved. There was no amplification and a full house in a big Victorian theatre so it was challenging, and I learned so much from it. I also trained in Los Angeles with Stella Adler, a very famous coach. And I was cast in the Kenneth Anger film ‘Lucifer Rising’, but I was fired when I queried a direction from Kenneth! I suspect he had really wanted Mick for the part, anyway. Plus I appeared in ‘Hair’ in Tel Aviv for six months....Marsha Hunt got me that gig. It was a great learning experience! So I did do quite a bit of theatre over the years - despite not having a drama degree.”
Chris's musical education was also informal. Though he had sung in a choir at junior school, there was little opportunity for any musical learning at Eltham College.
“In fact the only tuition in music I ever had was when I travelled to India at the end of the sixties. The scene in London was turning a little decadent by then; things were past their best. So, like many others, I headed off overland to India. From my father's influence I had a keen interest in history, geography, anthropology, languages and I wanted to travel to experience different cultures. We drove out across Turkey and Iran and on through Afghanistan over the mountains to India. I sometimes see war correspondents now risking their lives reporting from some of the little towns in Afghanistan where we stayed. But it was a different era then and the people were so hospitable to us. I have never regretted a moment of that time. You meet many poor people, oppressed people and you learn so much about yourself. It can be a very humbling experience.”
“I learned some Sanskrit and we listened to a lot of music. I'd heard Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. I thought it was fantastic. So while I was out there I spent several months learning singing from a teacher in a little Himalayan town. This is my sole formal musical education but he gave me a wonderful foundation in singing and taught me how to go on training my own voice. This helped me so much later when I was performing on the stage.”
On his return Chris was writing songs and he made two albums. The first was ‘You Know The Name But Not the Face’ and the second ‘The Adventures of Valentine Fox’ - which was recorded with Billy Gaff and released through David Geffen's Asylum Records in Los Angeles. There were US and UK tours but record sales were disappointing. So Chris focused on other activities. He managed the mobile recording studio at Mick's country home, Stargroves, near Newbury where he oversaw recording sessions by the Who, the Faces and Led Zeppelin plus many more. And later Chris was involved in manufacturing a novel “Staccato” electric guitar -with an interchangeable magnesium cast neck so it could be used as either a standard or a bass instrument. Fender Guitars wanted to buy the idea, but this fell through when the pound gained in strength against the dollar and a price couldn't be agreed.
“Looking back, I was involved in a lot of things over time. I drove taxis at one point - which I didn't especially enjoy. I have done some journalism, too. I have written for ‘The Guardian’, ‘The Telegraph’, ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine as well as ‘The Oldie’. I had mer the editor of ‘The Oldie’ Richard Ingrams and Willie Rushton and some of the other ‘Private Eye’ people years ago. Mick bought a cottage from Willie Rushton for Marianne Faithfull's mother. It was in the village of Aldworth near the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border where Richard Ingrams also lives. John Michell was another Oldie contributor who became a great friend of mine and he was very encouraging to me. He used to be hugely anti-metrification in the late sixties and it was John who inspired me to write my song ‘Stand Up for the Foot’!”
“I also made a film shown on ‘Sky Arts’ about some of the original American blues men - including Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins. And I co-hosted radio programmes about the blues for a station in Austin, Texas. For BBC Radio 2 I did a show on Alexis Korner.”
“Initially many of these other activities were intended to fill the quieter moments in my musical career. I was still writing music - including contributing songs for the Rolling Stones' ‘Dirty Work’ and ‘Steel Wheels’ albums. Interestingly, the more successful the music has become, the more the demand has increased for my journalism! I was also involved in organising some charity concerts for Bosnia and for Tibet. A near neighbour in North London, ITN's Sue Lloyd-Roberts, encouraged me in that. I actually travelled with Sue to Tibet and later to Albania. I have great admiration for the integrity and courage of front line correspondents like Sue. David Gilmour, Leo Sayer and Dave Stewart as well as Sinead O'Connor helped out with some of those charity events.”
Chris has collaborated with many musicians over the years. Who has been especially impressive?
“From a young age I was always in awe of the original, first generation blues players from America. People like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmie Vaughan, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin - so many of them. When I was making the film Sky Arts showed, I was lucky enough to jam with Hubert Sumlin at a famous club called Antone's in Austin. At an early stage I had learned from my brother to seek out original versions of records and to try to avoid the UK cover versions.”
“I also admired Elvis, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Willie Nelson, John Lee Hooker and Hank Williams - though I thought some of Lonnie Donegan's original work was good too. When you heard some of these older people sing you knew they had done a lot of living. They weren't just writing about it. They'd been there, done it. Which makes a huge difference. This is what it should be about. An audience instinctively reacts better to someone who they sense is authentic. I have experienced it a little myself now. I wrote a song after my father died and people often come up now and say, 'My own dad died last year and that song means a lot to me...'. So you can connect better with people about everyday things when you are older and have experienced more. And that is endemic in folk music, of course.”
“Often the musicians that are most highly regarded by their peers are not the best known names. For example, the Stones all admired Ian Stewart who was their pianist, a founder member of the band. He had links back to jazz, boogie-woogie and the old days. He taught the band so much. Even now if you mention his name the band will say, 'Ah, Stu....he would have done it like this!' And he would always be helping people out, encouraging young players who he felt had a good attitude. Attitude was very important.”
“I have worked with a lot of talented musicians. All kinds of people. I thoroughly enjoyed recording with Sam Brown who is a seriously talented song-writer and performer. And I was particularly impressed when I worked with Dave Stewart. He produced some tracks for me and he added so much. He just had an instinctive understanding of how things should sound. When I was making ‘The Ridge’ I persuaded John Etheridge and Danny Thompson to play.....they are both really classy musicians. They enjoy playing new material and just want to help you tell a story...interpreting your songs in the best way they know how.”
Currently Chris has two bands. The first, Atcha, was created in the early nineties. It has a variable line-up but has featured Robin McKidd and Charlie Hart on fiddle, Paul Emile on bass, Malcolm Mortimer on percussion and Ed Deane on electric guitar. Chris provides vocals plus plays guitar and harmonica. There have been five Atcha albums. Chris was especially pleased with the title track from the last one – ‘The Ridge’. A new album, ‘Concertina Jack’, will appear in 2013. It features eleven new songs and is named after the great uncle of Chris and Mick who left his Kentish home and children to sail to Sydney, Australia around 1880. The record - which has a quite bluesy feel - features brother Mick on backing vocals and on a track called ‘Diamonds and Pearls’. Music critics who have heard ‘Concertina Jack’ have been enthusiastic.
Chris also tours smaller venues with an acoustic trio. He is joined by David Hatfield on double bass and Elliet Mackrell who plays fiddle and didgeridoo.
“Elliet and David are good musicians. Elliet is classically trained and she has taught me a lot. One of the great things about music is that you never stop learning. We have played in Germany and at lots of locations in the UK. The Germans always give us a fantastic reception. I speak some German and I am probably far better known in Germany than I am in many parts of the UK! There's something special about performing in small halls where you feel you are really reaching out to a lot of the local community. For me, that beats the O2 any time!”
Does Chris ever feel he would have preferred to have come of age musically at a different time in a different place - perhaps in fifties Texas or Chicago or Nashville, for example?
“No, never. To have been lucky enough to be young in London in the sixties was as good as it gets. If you look at the span of the Rolling Stones years, then that is when it all happened and those golden music years won't be repeated. I am not sure where the future is for musicians. I am glad our five sons have too much sense to go into music! There was always a huge amount of luck involved in success. I mean, why weren't the Yardbirds as big as the Stones? They had Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck. Or the Kinks? Is it chemistry, marketing? I just don't know. There are so many talented musicians who struggle to get by and maybe it is a shame the riches can't be spread around a little more evenly. But it has always been that way.”
“I feel fortunate, though, that I have had the freedom to do new things, to follow my instincts and just do whatever I am interested in doing. In that sense I haven't been imprisoned by huge commercial success – and that freedom does mean a lot. There is always a price to pay for fame and fortune.”
Chris has also been spared the domestic scrutiny and pressure his brother has endured. He has been married to Kari-Ann for more than 35 years and they and their five sons have largely evaded the media spotlight.
“Kari-Ann was from Cornwall originally but she was a successful model in London in the sixties,” Chris explains. “I know there are other versions of this story, but she was the person the Hollies' hit song ‘Hey, Carrie Anne ‘- mis-spelled as 'Carrie Anne' in the lyric - was actually about. Kari-Ann also featured on the cover of Roxy Music's first album - which was later voted Album Cover of the Decade. Roxy Music were virtually unknown then and she was paid just £20 for the session!”
Kari-Ann was also a Bond girl in ‘On Her Majesty's Secret Service’ and later she and Chris both appeared on screen in ‘The Bitch’ with Joan Collins. Subsequently Kari-Ann taught yoga. These days she devotes her time to her family and the country life she and Chris enjoy.
“We do appreciate what we have here. There may be uncertainties and challenges from time to time but overall I am very glad to have the life I do.....there's little I'd want to change.”
For news about Chris – including tour dates and records – go to www.chrisjaggeronline.com
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Nick Robinson chats with Chris Jagger, the younger brother of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, about the swinging sixties, and his long musical and acting careers
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