Alan Clark

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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. That's what happened to me when I was 6yrs old. I didn't like it and stopped the lessons after a couple of years. 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 off work recovering from illness, which meant we were house-bound together for a few weeks with nothing much else to do but mess about on the piano. Back then, there was no daytime tv and  the only source of entertainment we had in the house, besides the radio, was 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 taught me how to play the song Blue Moon, using the only chords he knew: C, A minor, F and G (always in that order regardless of the tune). I was hooked. I was playing "by ear" and quickly stated discovering new chords and how to make them work in other tunes.

A few months later, something amazing happened: a Hammond organ shop opened in nearby Chester-le-Street, which is where my school was. 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. 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 -an audience! - 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 South Rampart Street Parade.  I had caught the bug.
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Chester-le Street might strike you as an unlikely place to set up a shop that sells expensive organs that were 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 often struggled to play organs), and it wasn't long until the shop manager was asking my dad if I could join his list of organists he 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 by playing at weekends than Dad was for working a whole week as a supervisor in a cable factory

My proud, wonderful father passed away when I was sixteen. By then, I was resident organist at one of the better clubs (Houghton-le-Spring "Big" Club) and had bought a car that I couldn't drive until I became old enough to have a licence.
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 (you can imagine the music) I decided it was time to take it all 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, two nice Geordies 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. Somewhere around the time I was with Splinter, I joined Geordie band Lindesfarne for a festival tour which included Knebworth and Glastonbury, and soon after joined Glallagher and Lyle for a tour and album, and that led me to being head-hunted by Dire Straits who I joined in 1980 as their first keyboard player (I loved that idea: a clean sheet) and remained with them until the band broke up in 1992.  

People point out that when I joined Dire Straits, the band became even more popular and 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 a whole new bunch of colours for his musical palate. 

A couple of after joining the band, we brought in a second keyboard player (Tommy Mandel)  for the Love over Gold tour, to play the keyboard parts I'd created on the record and didn't have enough hands to recreate live. 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 (and another MK song, Steel Claw) with her, which led to me becoming her musical director. Her Private Dancer album went to number one in the US while I was on tour there with her. The party that night in San Antonio, Texas, is one none of us will forget.

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Working with Tina was great. One of the reasons I'm where I am now is because of River Deep, Mountain High. The first time I heard it, I thought it was music from outer space. Playing it with Tina for the first time, in a rehearsal studio on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, was a special moment. I had a similar experience with Bob Dylan. Just a few years before I recorded with him (I played on the Infidels and Empire Burlesque albums), I'd been lying on my floor listening to his Desire album most nights. The first song I recorded with him, when I heard his voice in the headphones, was a surreal moment.  But I had the most fun in that period when I was in Eric Clapton's band (1987 until 1990). And what a band it was: Steve Ferrone, Nathan East, Greg Phillingaines, Ray Cooper, Tessa Niles, Katy Kassoon, and Phil Palmer. Eric came to see Dire Straits several times during the Brothers in Arms tour, and when the tour was over, he invited me to join his band. The first thing I did as his keyboard player was fly with him by Concorde to New York to record After Midnight with him 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 I played on, as his favourite of all his records, which is nice. I very reluctantly left Eric's band in 1990 to rejoin Dire Straits and co-produce the On Every Street album. 
The EC band: Tessa Niles, Katie Kissoon, Greg Phillinganes, Eric, Phil Palmer, Nathan East, me, Steve Ferrone, and (out of shot) Ray Cooper 

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. Mark Knopfler adopted the role for a while, and when he left to do other things, 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 massively delayed because of a technical fault, I told the BA representative it was vital that we arrived in time for Eric's show the following day and suggested she put us on the Concorde flight that was about to leave. And she did.

I've played and recorded with lots of people and bands, some you'll have heard of, some you might not:

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  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  Al Green  George Harrison  Pacifico Legacy

I've also created music for movies, TV dramas, series and documentaries, and more recently I've drifted into making music for TV ads.