Alan Clark

Dire Straits Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member & double Grammy winner

awards+meYES jpg.jpg
It is far more important who the elementary music teacher is in a small town than who the director of an opera house is because if the opera house director is not good, he will be dismissed in a year, but a poor music teacher in a small town can kill off the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of children. This is an enormous responsibility.
— Zoltan Kodaly

If you have a child who shows interest in playing the piano, think carefully before you send him/her to piano lessons because the wrong teacher can kill off the child's creativity. That's almost what happened to me when I was 6yrs old: I didn't like what I was being taught - I was bored - and I stopped the lessons after a couple of years. And I might never have played again if I hadn't fallen ill with appendicitis and ended up  recovering from the operation while my father was also recovering from an illness, which meant we were house-bound together for a few weeks with little else to do but mess about on the piano. Back then, there was no daytime tv;  the only source of entertainment we had in the house was the radio and the piano. Dad fancied himself as a crooner, a singer in the mould of Frank Sinatra (he loved Frank Sinatra, so do I) and he could knock out a few tunes on the piano, albeit in a very basic manner. But he played well enough to teach me how to play the song Blue Moon, using the only chords he knew: C, A minor, F and G (he used those chords in that order, regardless of the tune). I was hooked. I’d started playing "by ear", and was soon discovering new chords and how to make them work in other tunes.

A few months later, a Hammond organ shop opened in nearby Chester-le-Street, which is where I went to school. I remember like it was yesterday, peering through misty windows at these fabulous instruments, dying to have a go. Enter my Dad. A few days later, he'd arranged for me to do go into the shop and it went well. The manager took a bit of a shine to me, and from then on, I was in there whenever I could be: school lunchtimes, after school, all day Saturday, and within a few weeks I was playing better than the shop manager (according to my Dad). Fridays in Chester-le-Street was market day, which meant there were lots of shoppers around and when I played during school lunch hour, crowds of people would gather in the doorway of the shop and spill onto the road to watch, listen to and applaud this kid playing epic themes like the Dam Busters and 633 Squadron. Applause! I had caught the bug.

20081206_MMW Rehearsal_1255 2.jpg

Chester-le Street might strike you as an unlikely place to set up a shop selling expensive organs made in Chicago, USA, but workingman's clubs were springing up all over the North East of England and they all wanted these high-tech instruments from America to replace the pianos in their concert rooms, and Chester-le Street happened to be the best place to distribute them from. They sold so quickly, there weren't enough organists around to play them (the clubs' piano players struggled to make the transition to organs), and it wasn't long until the shop manager was asking my dad if I could join the rota of organists he'd compiled and was sending out to the clubs. That weekend, aged 13, I played my first professional gig, and it wasn't long until I was making more playing at weekends than my Dad made working an entire week as a supervisor in a cable factory.

My proud, wonderful father passed away when I was 16. By then, I was resident organist at one of the better clubs (Houghton-le-Spring "Big" Club) and I soon bought a car that I couldn't drive until I became old enough to have a licence, i.e. 17.

 L to R: George Defty, Dave Ditchburn, Vic Malcolm, Franky Gibbon, me, Brian Johnson, circa 1975.

L to R: George Defty, Dave Ditchburn, Vic Malcolm, Franky Gibbon, me, Brian Johnson, circa 1975.

In my early 20's, after year long stint in a band on a cruise ship sailing around the Caribbean having a great time, I decided it was time to take music a bit more seriously and became involved with a few local bands around Newcastle, one of which included singer Brian Johnson (see above) who soon after joined AC/DC. That led me to playing with Splinter who were signed to George Harrison's Dark Horse label. I met George when we played the Hammersmith Odeon, and he would turn up quite often at shows when I was in Eric Clapton's band, 10 or so years later. Somewhere around this time, I was recruited by Geordie band Lindesfarne for a UK festival tour which included Knebworth and Glastonbury, and soon after was hired by Glallagher and Lyle for a tour and an album. After that, I was head-hunted by Dire Straits who I joined in 1980 as their first keyboard player, and remained with them until the band broke up in 1992.  

People point out that when I joined Dire Straits, the band turned into the huge, stadium-filling outfit that people remember, and ask how much of a part I played in the transformation. Before I joined, Mark's songs were written for a guitar only band. He wanted to introduce another dynamic and expand musically. I gave him both.. And it seemed to work!

One of the songs we recorded when we were making the Love over Gold record was Private Dancer, which didn't make the record because it sounded daft being sung by a bloke. But it was perfect for Tina Turner, and I recorded it with her, which led to me becoming her musical director. Her Private Dancer album went to number one in the US while we were on tour there. The party that night at a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio, Texas, is one none of us will forget. Or can remember.

19511517_1360582150694489_5411167623128042044_n 2.jpg

Working with Tina was every bit as good as you’d hope it would be. One of the reasons I'm where I am now is because of her River Deep, Mountain High record. Playing it with Tina for the first time, in a rehearsal studio on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles (S.I.R), was a special moment. I had a similar experience, a year or so later, with Bob Dylan. Just a few years before I recorded with him (I played on the Infidels and Empire Burlesque albums), I'd been a struggling musician lying on my apartment floor in the North of England, listening to his Desire album, with no idea what lay just around the corner. The first song I recorded with him, when I heard his voice in the headphones, was special. I got on well with Bob. I first met him at the 3rd gig I ever played with Dire Straits, which was at the the Roxy on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. He turned up at the show and came back to the hotel (Sunset Marquis) afterwards and he and Mark jammed for us in Mark’s room. Welcome to LA!

But I had the most fun in that period when I was in Eric Clapton's band (1987 until 1990). Eric often came to see Dire Straits during the Brothers in Arms tour, and would stand watching at my side of the stage, and when the tour was over, he invited me to join his band. And what a band it was: Steve Ferrone, Nathan East, Greg Phillingaines, Ray Cooper, Tessa Niles, Katy Kassoon, and Phil Palmer. My first experience as his keyboard player was to fly to New York with him on Concorde, to record the song After Midnight, for a Michelob beer ad. It was a brilliant band - people still regard it as Eric's best ever - and a brilliant few years. Eric recently described the Journeyman album, which we made during my time with him, as his favourite of all his records. I very reluctantly left his band in 1990 to rejoin Dire Straits and co-produce the On Every Street album.

 Happy days with the EC band: Tessa Niles, Katie Kissoon, Greg Phillinganes, Eric, Phil Palmer, Nathan East, me, Steve Ferrone, and (out of shot) Ray Cooper

Happy days with the EC band: Tessa Niles, Katie Kissoon, Greg Phillinganes, Eric, Phil Palmer, Nathan East, me, Steve Ferrone, and (out of shot) Ray Cooper

On the subject of Concorde: when I joined Eric's band, there was no second guitarist. When Eric later expanded the band, Mark Knopfler became the second guitarist for a while and when he left, Phil Palmer took over. The first time Phil and I met was in BA's first class lounge at Heathrow, on our way to New York for the start of what was the second of Eric's back-to-back US tours I'd been involved with. When we were informed the flight had been delayed until the following morning because of a technical fault, I told the BA representative it was vital we arrive in time for Eric's show and suggested she put us on the Concorde flight that was due to leave. And she did.

After Dire Straits' On Every Street tour, in 1992, I took a few years off to spend time with my children (twins, born 1989) and started working from home making music for TV dramas, series and documentaries, as well as playing on albums with other people. I've produced music for movies - I've even directed one - and more recently I've been making music for TV ads, and I've recently co-written and co-produced an album for LEGACY (3 Chord Trick). Very recently, I've been writing songs for an Italian mega star’s next album. 

Here are some of the people and bands I've played and recorded with:

Dire Straits Eric Clapton Bob Dylan Tina Turner Bee Gees Gerry Rafferty Trevor Horn Splinter Prefab Spout The Blessing Escape Club Ian Drury Bo Diddley Buddy Guy Billy Joel Lou Reed Dave Stewart David Knopfler Gallagher and Lyle Bill Wyman Mary Hopkins Shakin Stevens Matt Monroe Mark Knopfler Rory Block Westernhagen Mick Hucknall Joan Armatrading Lindesfarne Geordie Brian Johnson Jimmy Nail Mike Brecker Sting Robert Cray Renato Zero Al Green George Harrison Pacifico Legacy Robbie Williams Jon Anderson