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Behind the Curtain: First Impressions and Jeff Beck Group Conversations with Cozy Powell
It is February 12, 1974 and I am backstage at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, MO. Bedlam— drummer Cozy Powell, singer Frank Aiello [formerly with Truth], guitarist Dave Ball [ex-Procol Harum] and his brother Dennis Ball [bass]—is about to take the stage in front of 9,300 rabid Black Sabbath fans. This is only the fifth of 13 shows the British band have opened during the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath tour but you’d never know it by watching them. They are all as relaxed and confident as if they’d been out on the road with Ozzy for months and not just a little over a week at this point. They all sit casually around their dressing room and act as if they’ve been doing this all their lives. They have.
Cozy Powell—born Colin Flooks on December 29, 1947—has been hitting things with sticks since he was 12 years old and joined the school orchestra in his hometown of Cirencester, Gloucestershire, England. He loved listening to records and would play along with them. Within three years of taking up the drums, he had already worked out an impressive drum solo and had earned the nickname Cozy, which was borrowed from jazz great Cozy Cole.
The young drummer was always working and ended up in a succession of local and semi-pro bands such as the Corals, the Sorcerers, Young Blood and the Ace Kefford Stand. Powell befriended John Bonham, Robert Plant, Tony Iommi, Dave Pegg [Fairport Convention] and Noddy Holder [Slade] when he relocated to Birmingham. Powell, Pegg and Denny Ball [the same bassist Cozy would later play with in Bedlam] formed Big Bertha right around the time the drummer began doing session work.
But it wasn’t until April 1970 when Powell teamed up with Jeff Beck that the drummer really expanded his profile. He’d appear on two albums—Rough and Ready [October 1971] and Jeff Beck Group [July 1972, this is often referred to as the Orange record]—before Beck once again kicked the musicians he was playing with to the curb.
I had flown out to St. Louis from my sunny little guest cottage in the Hollywood Hills to interview Black Sabbath, but I was determined to talk to Cozy about his work with Jeff Beck. In fact, I wanted to see if the drummer really did look as much like Beck in person as he did in photos.
I see Powell across the room by himself. He is there alone on a long bench holding a pair of drumsticks. I am hesitant to approach him because it is only a few minutes before he will take the stage with the band to open the night’s rock show and for all I know he is sitting by himself because he doesn’t want anyone around in the few minutes leading up to Bedlam’s set.
Perhaps he is going through some kind of relaxing meditation to prepare himself for the concert to come. Or maybe he’s just wondering if the hotel bar will be open when he comes offstage and what kinds of beers they’ll be offering. In any case, if he doesn’t want to be bothered and I intrude on his private time, I’ll not only feel like garbage but I could very well get myself kicked out of his dressing room.
Still, I walk across the room as silently as I can. I am like a ninja. I hesitate as I stand in front of him. Cozy sees me, stands up and says hello and grins. If he was deep in his own reverie, he doesn’t seem to mind that I’ve disturbed him. He is as sweet, cordial and friendly as anyone I’d ever met. You would think that just minutes before a big show Cozy would have been on edge or antsy or preoccupied in some way but it was almost the opposite. He seemed to enjoy the company and invited me to sit next to him. I tell him I’m a writer from Hollywood and I’ve just flown in to see the show and interview Sabbath but how much I’d love to sit and talk with him as well. He lights up and flashes a huge grin and seems delighted at the prospect of talking to me.
He tells me we can get together the next day at the hotel. At that point, the road manager comes over and taps Cozy on the shoulder and gives him a look that says, “It’s time.” I try to remain inconspicuous because I think I’m getting in the way of the process but the road manager doesn’t even seem to notice me and the drummer is totally cool with the fact that I’m sitting there with him just moments before he has to go onstage.
As he says goodbye and walks out of the dressing room, I try to imagine what Cozy must feel at this moment. He must be feeling pretty damn good. Here he is, a 26-year-old drummer who has already been part of several mildly successful bands. He played at the prestigious Isle of Wight Festival four years earlier when he backed swamp rocker Tony Joe White, who had found fame in 1969 with “Polk Salad Annie.” He has just finished recording two albums with Jeff Beck and immediately jumped into the Bedlam project. He has recorded one album with Bedlam in 1973 [produced by Mountain bassist Felix Pappalardi] and also worked on records with Donovan [Cosmic Wheels], Ten Years After keyboardist Chick Churchill [You and Me], Harvey Andrews, Julie Felix, Murray Head and others.
Additionally, Powell has launched his own solo career on the strength of a drum instrumental single called “Dance With the Devil.” Built around the riff from Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” and featuring Suzi Quatro on bass, the song climbed to number three in the UK charts just a month earlier and in some ways will lead to the dissolution of Bedlam.
But for the time being, Cozy Powell is walking on air. Indeed, as he exits the backstage area and walks out to sit down on his drum stool, he seems to be slightly elevated. His feet barely touch the ground and it seems as if he is floating on air. He must be thinking, “I am young. I am healthy. I am playing music. I am happy.”
Powell’s performance that night was electric. Stomping out massive double bassdrum beats on his Ludwig kit and flying around the toms like an astronaut, Cozy provided the heartbeat for songs like “The Fool” [Lee Hazelwood cover], “The Beast,” “The Great Game” and other tracks from the band’s self-titled first album.
When we meet the next morning at the hotel—I’m staying at the same place as Bedlam and Black Sabbath—he is still grinning and high from his performance the night before. He greets me at the door to his room and I tell him how incredibly he played last night. Cozy is genuinely pleased by my comments and invites me to sit down. I’m blown away all over again by how much he resembles Jeff Beck. I want to say something. I think, “If I do say something and it makes him mad, I’ll be screwed for the rest of the interview. Maybe I’ll wait until we’re done talking and then tell him. Or maybe I should just keep my mouth shut.”
I take out my cassette player—the same unprofessional, unreliable and unbelievably cheap recorder I’ve been using since I started my rock journalist career about a year earlier—pop in a tape, plug in the microphone and press record. Cozy is settled in a chair across from me at a table. We make eye contact and like an irresistible urge, I blurt out, “I think you got the gig with Beck because you look exactly like him.” Hardly the silent approach a true ninja would have taken but there it is. The words were out of my mouth before I even realized what I was saying. I couldn’t help myself.
I look at Cozy and there is no reaction. I choke on the silence. That was the wrong thing to say. I am turning 14 shades of embarrassed red and don’t know what to do. It’s like that dream where you’re trying to run away but you’re stuck in place. Only I’m not dreaming and in three seconds I’m going to experience the repercussions from my eyes-wide-open nightmare. I figure he’s so mad that he can’t even say anything and even now he is formulating just the right response to make me wither in my seat. I can’t even look him in the eyes anymore and so I cast my head down and stare at the tape going around in circles. I feel like that tape. I want to get away but I keep ending up in the same place.
Then I hear a quiet laugh. I look up and he is smiling and chuckling. He has apparently heard that comparison made before but tells me nobody ever said he got the gig because he looked like Jeff. He thought that was funny. I can finally breathe again and feel like my body is no longer sinking into a quagmire.
[Note: About two years later, I will interview Jeff Beck for the release of the Blow By Blow album. Remembering the positive response I received from Powell, I will tell the guitarist, “You hired Cozy because he looked exactly like you, right?” Only this time, I wasn’t greeted with a positive reaction. Beck grimaced at the comment and shot me a look full of daggers and knives, which suggested he didn’t think he looked remotely like Cozy Powell and anybody thinking he did was an idiot and a blind fool].
Cozy and I talk for about an hour. He is candid and engaging. I open up the questions by asking him what happened with the Jeff Beck Group and why they broke up. “Well, that’s a good question,” Powell says. “Jeff likes to work with musicians for a short time and after he’s had his fill with them, he likes to change. He’ll never work with anybody for more than a year-and-a-half or two years. I don’t understand the man. If it was because we were bad musicians, I could understand it. But it was just over a stupid argument that didn’t mean anything and he fired the whole band. Stupid. He’s done that with every band so far. He fired [Rod] Stewart and Ron Wood and all them; he fired us; and Timmy [Bogert] and Carmine [Appice] ain’t gonna last much longer. He’s impossible. I mean as far as the man’s guitar playing goes, I’d rate him extremely high, one of the best in the world if not the best lead guitar player around. But I’ve worked with a lot of easier guys than Jeff. I think he must be pretty unhappy basically because you can’t go through that many groups and maintain a level balance. It’s got to screw you up in some way.”
We spoke about Bedlam, sessions, his solo career, Cream and Jimi Hendrix. Finally, I ended the conversation by asking him about his philosophy of drumming. “I never practice and never have. Some drummers are going to say I’m talking a lot of rubbish but I think drums is a thing you feel, and all this going around a kit fifteen times a second really doesn’t achieve very much. I let Carl Palmer do all of that where people like Bernard Purdie just feel what they play. I do try and use the double kit—I just don’t play the fills on one bass drum but I use both of them. There’s only one drummer I’ve ever seen use one bass drum as fast and as heavy as most people use two and that’s John Bonham. The guy has an amazing right foot and if you listen to a couple of cuts on Zeppelin 1 and hear that bass drum going, that’s very hard to do. And then there’s somebody like Billy Cobham who is ridiculous and should be locked away. There are so many good drummers around but they don’t come to the fore very much. All the guitarists have been there—your Hendrixes, Claptons and Becks and all that—but drums have got a lot to offer. I think people are going to start listening to drummers a lot more especially with that Spectrum album [Billy Cobham’s debut solo album released on October 1, 1973] and you still have the greats like Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson pulling them in. I’ll never get to those f heights because I just play dirty and that’s the way I am. I just play the way I play and I’m happy doing it. I don’t particularly want to be the world’s greatest drummer because Cobham is going to beat me to it.”
I meet Cozy again several months later when Bedlam comes to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. After their set, I go backstage with my brother Mick. I see Cozy in his dressing room and approach him and when he sees me he is all smiles again. I introduce him to my brother as a fellow drummer and he smiles in recognition. Mick had found one of Cozy’s drumsticks lying somewhere in the dressing room and was twirling it like a magician. Cozy couldn’t stop staring at the stick winding in and out of my brother’s fingers and asked Mick to show him how to do it. After a brief lesson, Powell took the stick and attempted to twirl the stick twice. He dropped it after the second try. He looked embarrassed and said, “Well, I just finished playing a set” as if he had to make an excuse to my brother and me why he couldn’t do it. That’s just how sweet he was.
I was to touched by that response. Cozy Powell—someone who had played with Jeff Beck, was in the middle of a successful career as a solo artist, and had a reputation as one of the finest rock drummers in the world—was apologizing for not being able to twirl a drumstick. It was so honest. Any other drummer would have said, “F—k it. Who cares?” But he cared enough about what my brother and I thought to make an apology.
When he passed away years later in a car accident on April 5, 1998, I was terribly saddened. It made me recall that moment backstage at the Santa Monica Civic when he was trying to twirl a drumstick and the sheepish and embarrassed look on his face when he wasn’t able to do it. That was a beautiful moment. In my memory, Cozy twirls the stick and will later show his heavenly drummer friends—John Bonham, Keith Moon, Buddy Rich and others—how it’s done. That’s how I want to remember Colin Trevor “Cozy” Powell—vulnerable, endearing and caring—and balancing a drumstick between his fingers like he’d been doing it all his life.