When the Rolling Stones come into town for the group’s No Filter tour, fans will be cheering original members Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts. There might even be some Ron Wood fans there. But the Stones are a much deeper and more talented team than just that. Bassist Darryl Jones, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and others have a big influence on the band’s sound. But perhaps most importantly, vocalist and percussionist Bernard Fowler adds a crucial element. Fowler has been arranging the backing vocals for the Stones and supporting Jagger vocally for 31 years now. Now he has taken his involvement with the Stones to another level, offering unique versions of Stones songs on his new album, Inside Out.
“It all started during sound check on the Rolling Stones’ Zip Code tour in 2015,” writes Fowler in the liner notes. “I’d come on stage a little before soundcheck to practice my conga playing. Then the guys all turned up for soundcheck, and our musical director/keyboardist Chuck Leavell yells out the name of a song. Still at my congas, I started to play around and recite the lyrics in a poetry or Beatnik style to the song Chuck called out. And everyone seemed to get a kick outta that.
“For the next few days it became a thing. On maybe the third or fourth day, Mick walks over to me and says, ‘Bernard, I’ve heard Rolling Stones songs played in many different ways, but I’ve never heard it like this before.’ To which I replied, ‘When the tour is over, I’m gonna cut this.’”
His reply, “You should.”
So he did.
You’ve done a great service to these songs. Songs tell stories and the way you tell the stories on these songs brings different meaning to them than the way the Stones recorded them.
Yes, the way I do it, it brings new meaning to a song. People hear it, but they don’t really hear it, they don’t absorb the lyric content. This way it’s there, it’s straight on, it’s in your face, it’s big, and you can hear every single word.
Another thing that interests me in the context of the history of New Orleans music, Congo Square, the bamboula, your record brings these songs into focus with that history. Have you thought about that?
To tell you the truth I haven’t. This is the first time I heard that. But I get it. It sounds like Uruguay, the Candombe players. The slaves there took the barrels that they shipped the whiskey in and built the Candombe drums from those barrels. That’s why Candombe are not shaped like conga. They’re shaped like whiskey barrels.
You play the congas.
Yeah, I play a little bit.
Who are your favorite players?
There are so many. Ray Barretto, Joe Bataan. I grew up listening to stuff like that. You know, growing up in the Queensbridge Projects in New York City, which was a predominantly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, the Blacks and the Puerto Rican brothers would be in the parks playing conga all day, from when we woke up to when we went to sleep at night.
Were you aware of the Rolling Stones back then?
Absolutely. The first record my dad ever gave me was a Rolling Stones record.
I think it was 12 X 5. Right at the beginning. Why he bought that record, I have no idea. Because most of the records in my house were my parents’ record collection, there was old blues stuff, soul music, and gospel records. So for him to come home and give me that record, to this day I do not know why he did that.
Did you sing in church?
Nope. My mother did, my grandmother did, my aunties did, and I went to church every Sunday, especially during school vacations. From when I was about four or five up until I was 16, every summer my mother sent me to my grandmother’s. My grandmother made sure we were in church every Sunday. Sometimes twice a day. I loved church growing up, and I think some of that has become part of me.
How did you get connected with the Stones?
Well, it’s kind of a long story, but a short version is I used to do a lot of work with Bill Laswell. I had a band called the New York Citi Peech Boys. I got a call from Bill Laswell asking me to sing on a Material project. We became friends and I’ve done a lot of projects with him. I was singing with Herbie Hancock, and during that tour Bill called me and asked me to come to England. I flew to England and I met Mick Jagger with Bill. I worked on Mick’s first solo record, and then a few years later I got a call from Mick and he told me the Stones were getting ready to do a record. They hadn’t done any work in like eight or nine years. So he called me and asked me to come into the studio to work with him on this new Stones record. That’s when I met them all and that started.
What was that like compared to your other work as a backing vocalist or a chorus vocalist?
At the time, it was similar to what I had been doing. People would call me and ask me to come into the studio to do background vocals arrangements. A lot of times I would do the arrangement and sing all the parts. It wasn’t so different from any other session at the time, except that I remember when I was doing this first session with the Stones, Mick had me go in and do the background treatment and he said, “Let’s do it, let’s record it.” I had to stop the tape in the middle of doing it and say, “Mick I’m happy to do this, but if I do this it’s going to sound like me, so maybe you guys want to think about that.” ’Cause it’s the Rolling Stones. It didn’t make sense for me to sing all the background stuff on a Rolling Stones record without them. I always think about what’s best for the project,not what’s best for me. Maybe it would have been best for me if I did it all myself, but I didn’t think that was the right thing to do, so I asked them to come in and sing the parts with me. So I came into the room and I gave them the parts, and we sang them, and here I am.
You would actually deconstruct the songs and write background vocal parts to them. That’s interesting because I don’t think the Stones approached it that way before.
You’re right. I don’t think they had ever done that before then. And I don’t think they have since.
Well they have you there now.
My impression of the Stones is that it’s like a really good team, and to press that analogy, you have the core four, and then you have the other players who are really essential to the team’s performance. The people out in the audience maybe aren’t as aware of that, but without the rest of that team the band isn’t going to sound that good.
You’re probably right. There are pieces to that puzzle that needed to be added. Like Chuck Leavell and Darryl Jones, myself and Lisa Fischer when she was there.
Has it evolved while you’ve been in the band?
I would say yeah. It kind of goes back-and-forth. Sometimes the extra hands like myself and Darryl, sometimes we’re more involved than other times. It just depends on how they’re working and how they want to work. Maybe with Voodoo Lounge, I was there with Keith in the rehearsal studio when he was writing songs like “How Can I Stop?” The background parts on “How Can I Stop” I wrote while he was writing the song. I don’t think I’ve had that opportunity of being there like that since then.
How did you select the songs that you used on this record?
I started with the most popular stuff, the stuff everybody knows, and none of it worked. So I had to go to the Rolling Stones songbook and read some of the lyrics. Lyrics would jump out to me and I’d recite them to myself, and that’s how I chose the songs. What stood out was the content, the content was strong, something I related to.
There seem to be two approaches, one where the vocals just have percussion backing, the other with band arrangements.
The original idea for the record was percussion. Just percussion and voice, that was the original idea. Then I started to hear other things, and I thought maybe people wouldn’t be ready for an all-percussion record, so I decided to use a rhythm section on some of the songs.
It gives a lot of contour to the record. The version of “Sister Morphine” has a kind of Curtis Mayfield-style hypnotic bass part. The trumpet on that is great too.
The trumpet on that is amazing. That’s Keyon Harrold, he played all the trumpet in the Don Cheadle Miles Davis movie. I was able to get him because Vince Wilburn who plays drums on that track was in the studio with me and I was talking to him about using some Miles Davis samples. He said, “You don’t have to do that! Keyon is in town, let me call him.” Keyon came to the studio the next morning, opened his case, took his horn out and just played it. That blew me away. He didn’t warm up, he took the horn out, put the mouthpiece in, went up to the microphone and started blowing. He was right on it. That is one of my favorite tracks.
Doing a record like this when you don’t have a self-contained band, it’s hard because you don’t know who’s in town, if they’re busy or not, and I did not have a budget.
The layers of polyrhythms are just beautiful.
That’s Walfredo Reyes Jr. and Lenny Castro. I started with Walfredo. We talked about rhythms from Africa and we talked about rhythms from South and Central America, and I made a point to tell him that I wanted each song to represent a different rhythm, from a different region of Africa and/or South America.
That’s very obvious when you listen closely to the record. I really love the version of “Undercover” with that beautiful saxophone part in it. It’s one of Jagger’s most specific political songs, about Nicaragua, the Sandinistas and the contras.
“Undercover,” that might have been one of the first songs that I recorded. In the beginning of the song you hear a woman in distress in the jungle. She’s running through the jungle because she doesn’t want to be caught by the soldiers. Then you hear Carmine Rojas, the bass player, as the Nicaraguan soldier catching her, and she goes, “Oh, no, no no, no!” When I had the track pretty much done I wanted to have a bit of a story before the track started. I wrote out a script. We tried a few people and it didn’t work out, so I called Carmine Rojas, my Puerto Rican brother from New York City. I told him I needed a woman to read this part, but she has to be from Nicaragua. Every area in South and Central America, they speak a little different, so I wanted to stay true to the story. He brought Rachel Morales to the studio and it just so happened that she was brought up in Nicaragua during that time. Before I gave her the script to read she was hesitant because she said, “My family was on this side,” and she didn’t want to say anything that she was uncomfortable with. She’d never been in a recording studio before. As she was reading the script I gave her, she started to cry. Every time I listen to it I get goose bumps. She lived through that turmoil.
I think maybe Mick was trying to say some things sometimes that might have gotten lost in the Stones mythology. He probably appreciates how much of the political aspects you bring out in your readings.
I think so too. Rolling Stones fans, when they hear it now, it will bring something else out. It will bring a different meaning to it.
Why did you decide to do two versions of “Dancing with Mr. D”?
I did two versions of it, the ryhthm section version and the percussion version. I didn’t want to make a choice between the two so I put them both on the record.
“Time Waits for No One.” I couldn’t help but think of the Chambers Brothers’ “Time” when I heard that.
Ha ha ha. I’ll tell you the truth, when I did it I didn’t think about that, but when somebody mentioned that to me I realized that’s absolutely right.
The arrangements are so subtle. It’s all built around the words. The music on this album is in support of the words all the way.
That was the focus. People need to hear these words. These lyrics are fucking deep. When I told Mick I was going to be cutting this record he started to tell me a story about The Last Poets. He told me he saw The Last Poets in London at someone’s house. Mick is like a sponge. I don’t know if he knows it and I’m curious as to which songs were written around the time he saw them because some of those lyrics read like The Last Poets.
Is Gil Scott Heron also a touchstone for you?
Absolutely, Gil Scott Heron is another touchstone for me. Those were the two in my head. I worked on one of Gil Scott’s albums. I was listening to him the other day. He’s incredible.
Have you played in New Orleans with the Stones before?
How did that go?
It was great, but I’ll just give you a little story. What I remember about the last time we played New Orleans with the Stones: In Keith’s dressing room, every show, the caterers will make Keith a shepherd’s pie to go in his dressing room. We get to the Dome, we go to the dressing rooms and there’s a problem. Keith is not happy. I walk in and I’m like, “What the fuck, what’s going on?” Keith is standing there looking at his shepherd’s pie and he’s like, “Who the fuck bust my crust?” You know the crust on the top is all nice and brown? Apparently somebody had been in that. We all knew who it was, it was one of the security guards, and Keith wanted to know who bust my fucking crust. Now there ain’t gonna be no show until the culprit comes forward. You have never seen 6’5” 300-pound men turn into little kids, and slowly come into the dressing room with their heads slightly down. “Sorry, Keith.” Nothing was gonna happen until somebody fessed up to bustin’ that crust.