Lee Brilleaux: Rock ’N’ Roll Gentleman

The year 1975 might have been about to call it a night but the Feelgoods were more in demand than ever. Even Lee’s white jacket could have done with a bit of time off, although this may have been wishful thinking on the part of the NME: “This jacket will not be appearing at Liverpool Stadium and Hammersmith Odeon,” announced the magazine, a huge picture of Lee’s slush-white jacket, the item recently and wittily proclaimed the NME’s ‘Sleeve Of The Year’, emblazoned on the back page. 

There it hangs, defiant and crooked, thin of lapel, battle-worn and blackened, bearing the marks and scuffs of 100 shows and never once having burdened a dry-cleaner. “On the other hand,” continued the caption beneath the image, “Dr Feelgood and the Roogalator will.” But no one had to read to the foot of the page to work out the connection. “Everybody knew whose suit it was,” said Feelgood associate Larry Wallis. “Now that’s fame.”

All the same, it was probably time to spruce up the wardrobe a little. Being, as they were, at the peak of their powers, the band had signed an American deal with the major label CBS and the Feelgoods would travel to San Diego at the end of January 1976 to perform at the record company’s convention (trans. ‘jolly-up’), bringing their English take on American blues right back to the States.

The Feelgoods would take their most trusted friends (including Nick Lowe, booked in under the name of ‘Dale Liberator, Equipment Handler’) with them on this potentially life-changing learning curve – and this would be the point at which they (with the exception of Wilko) really started drinking. America was lifting up its skirt to the Feelgoods and revealing, among other things, a free bar. It would have been rude to say no, and if there was one thing the Feelgoods couldn’t stand, it was rudeness.

Committed boozing would also galvanise these Brits abroad who would, by most, be treated as freaks, as Nick Lowe merrily recalled. In comparison to their slick US cousins, the Feelgoods and co looked like “a bunch of terribly dressed losers – they were rather horrified by us, which of course made us feel great.” This made them all the more fascinating to those who mattered. Lee was regarded as actually quite terrifying by some of the delegates. He, on the other hand, was just bemused by the cultural gulf.

“I thought because Americans speak English they are English, except they live in another part of the world,” Lee said. “[This] I found to be a mistake. We might as well have landed on Mars.”

“I’m a bit disappointed [with the luxurious Rivermont Hotel]. It’s too much like The Prisoner – it’s got sinister overtones. I really wanted to spend my first nights in America in one of those places with a big neon Indian waggling a tomahawk over the roof of a teepee-styled motel. Now that would have impressed me.” – Lee Brilleaux to Cal Worthington, who documented the group’s US debut for ZigZag.

“We [had] a superb deal with CBS,” said Lee. “We were on their A-list for promotion with an unlimited budget. They flew us to the west coast for the convention. Roadies, mates, you name it, we could have it. Nothing was too much trouble.”

The hedonistic and, for some, almost fatal CBS convention would see a diverse roll-call of eminent artists performing to a collection of drunken sales reps brought down to San Diego on the label’s buck. Aware of the opportunity they’d been gifted, the Feelgoods at least tried to sit courteously through the other artists’ sets during the convention – although some were easier than others: Boz Scaggs performed, the Charlie Daniels Band and, of particular interest to the Feelgoods, the mighty Muddy Waters. (Wilko recalls himself and Lee completely forgetting their studied nonchalance and heartily applauding Muddy’s appearance.) 

Chick Corea, appearing with the jazz-rock supergroup Return To Forever, on the other hand, was not their thing at all. Return To Forever played on the first night of the convention and while the rest of the Feelgoods slunk out to do something more profitable with their time, Lee felt guilty and stuck it out as long as he could. Eventually making his excuses to the CBS executive nearby, he insisted it was nothing personal, and that he “wouldn’t be offended if Chick walked out” during their set.

Whether Chick witnessed them or not, Dr Feelgood would impress many and confuse most of those sufficiently compos mentis to take them in. Andrew Lauder remembers it was “a dry crowd, basically hard-bitten sales guys going, ‘What the hell’s this?’ I think one bloke had a heart attack [not necessarily because of the Feelgoods], somebody fell off a balcony, somebody almost drowned in the hotel fountain. Usual things.”

There would also be a bevy of hookers and enough booze and drugs to keep any hardcore Sybarite feeling suitably Sybaritic. It’s no wonder a majority of the guests found it hard to keep their attention on the music, even though that was, ostensibly, the reason everyone was there. 

Despite the distractions, Cal Worthington, who wrote about the Feelgoods’ trip for ZigZag, described people dancing on their chairs during the group’s appearance, and there was also speculation about Wilko’s psychotic demeanour; Feelgood comrade Martyn Smith could be heard “explaining” to gawping record executives that it was all down to “centuries of inbreeding on Canvey Island.”

The 25-minute set, featuring songs from Malpractice, was never going to be a typical Feelgood show, but after the group strode on stage, with 30 super-efficient Showco attendants at their beck and call, they had to then wait patiently for nearly a quarter of an hour as “the cat from CBS was making a speech about major breakout areas/demographic sales surveys/promo campaigns…”

As they waited, Lee noticed that his microphone lead had been taped down at the back of the stage – he preferred it to be taped down in front to ensure it didn’t become tangled during his frenzied performance. “I dispatch a Showco guy to fetch some tape,” reported Worthington. “And as he rushes off, he knocks Lee’s slide guitar off its stand, breaking the neck clean off.” Everyone froze, but Lee took his setlist out of his pocket and with a pencil, coolly scored through a handful of songs, muttering, “We’ll knock those ones on the ’ead, then.”

John McEuen, guesting at the convention with the Michael Murphy band, saw the incident and offered to lend Lee his Stratocaster, but Lee politely declined for fear of destroying the guitar with his own frenetic playing. “He’s a masher,” observed Cal. “Really rams that bottleneck up and down with a vengeance.” So there would be no Back In The Night among others for the execs and reps present, but that didn’t seem to matter. The Feelgoods “tore the place apart”, said Worthington, and the mood would only become more celebratory as the night wore on. “To our great delight, we discovered a thing called Total Unlimited Credit,” said Lee. “You could just go to the bar and order what you wanted.”

“Room service, whatever, you could just put it all on the bill,” adds Andrew Lauder. “Sparko in particular had not blown this chance. It was fun on the one hand, I don’t know how much good it did, it certainly didn’t do any harm.”

It did do some harm, namely to the plumbing system. Thoroughly smashed, Sparko proceeded to attack the toilets, destroying every single fixture. (Ironically, he was probably one of the few people there capable of fixing the place back up again too.) Fortunately the label representatives thought it was hilarious rock star behaviour and there would be none of the expected chastisements.

Another classic Sparko moment during this double-vision extravaganza came when he spotted a tall man in a smart red jacket approaching in the hotel corridor. Assuming him to be a porter, Sparko promptly asked him to take his bags to his room for him. The porter looked confused. This was because he wasn’t a porter. The man Sparko was preparing to tip (or not, seeing as he didn’t exactly snap to it) was Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.

Once the hangovers had started to lift, there was time to drive, explore and do some shopping before heading north to set up camp in ‘Feelgood House LA’ – a 1940s timber cabin previously owned by Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers star Skip Battin. The house was way up in Laurel Canyon, the perfect Californian base, situated snugly in the secluded valley of the stars (famous neighbours included Joni Mitchell, various Mamas and Papas and all manner of frightful long-hairs).

Lee was in his element in LA, stocking up on albums from obscure blues labels, records he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to find. As happy as he was with how their American stay was unfolding so far, he was still a little crushed about what had happened to his guitar. It was an inexpensive Guild, but it had significant sentimental value – as a teenager he’d learned how to play slide along with Elmore James records, and he’d finally bought the Guild when the band were given their first record advance. Showco refused to have it fixed, presuming it to be a waste of time – they’d pronounced the instrument dead.

Chris Fenwick knew what it meant to Lee and took it down to Arturo Valdez, a guitar-maker on Sunset Boulevard who had crafted guitars for Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Jose Feliciano and The Doors (and he is still working at the time of writing). Not only did Valdez fix the neck, he inlaid the name ‘Lee’ on the fretboard in luminescent mother of pearl. “Looks great,” observed Worthington. “It ought to. Cost more than the guitar.”

It would be during this stay that the Feelgoods would see their blues hero John Lee Hooker play live at the legendary Starwood venue. Anticipation was, naturally, high, but the old war horse was disgruntled and below par, leaving the boys feeling less than euphoric. The Feelgoods, legend has it, drowned their disappointment with a succession of White Russians – vodka, Kahlúa and milk (I imagine you know where this is going) inspired by the ‘milk, cream and alcohol’ of Hooker’s It Serves Me Right To Suffer – before jumping in the hired car to head back to their digs. 

But Chris, behind the wheel, accidentally jumped a red light. The police picked them up, hauled them out of the car and lined these loaded limey reprobates up at gunpoint on the sidewalk (which seems just a tad over the top). “Up against the wall stuff,” sniffed Lee to Smash Hits’ David Hepworth. “We’d didn’t realise you had to be a bit cool on the streets.”

The whole cocktail-fuelled evening would plant the seed for Milk And Alcohol, the song that would be their biggest hit. But this was all to come.

The Feelgoods still had some time before the start of their first US tour, and Nick insisted they use some of this hiatus to track down a Bay-area band called Clover, a country rock group based in Mill Valley, California. Clover were, in his opinion, every bit as great as The Band, although they didn’t have much in the way of status. The group was fronted by a young Huey Cregg – aka Huey Louis, later Huey Lewis, who would have considerably more success with his 1980s pop group Huey Lewis And The News.

It would be drummer Pete Thomas, formerly of Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers, who would bring them together. Thomas had moved out to Malibu after joining the John Stewart Band, and there was no question he was going to hook up with his old Naughty Rhythms tour-mates while they were in LA. Clover hailed from further north, but Thomas had previously lived near them in Mill Valley, and they’d had a few jams together. Pete suggested they head to the Palomino in North Hollywood where he knew Clover were playing.

This evening would mark something of a meeting of minds, and Clover quickly took the Feelgoods under their wing, insisting they drive in convoy to SanFrancisco, showing them around before their next show at River City in Fairfax. The Feelgoods, hurtling up the highway in a rented Lincoln, checked in to a smart Japanese hotel before checking straight back out again (“It was obvious the staff didn’t like us one bit,” noted Cal, this just one of many ‘proprietor versus Feelgood’ incidents) so they settled in to a Howard Johnson’s motel instead before joining Clover for the gig.

One of the people attending the show was a hip, vivacious young woman called Shirley Alford, known to all as ‘Suds’. Shirley had been studying drama in Marin County (eventually dropping the course: “I had an aversion to getting up in the morning…”), she loved rock’n’roll and, being a regular gig-goer, she’d become friends with Clover manager George Daly.

Clover were “always a big draw”, says Shirley, and everyone knew they were in for a good night. What they didn’t know was that they would be blown off the stage by not just one of their new pals, but the quietest, most mysterious one. To be fair, they hadn’t yet seen the Feelgoods play, and they weren’t convinced whether someone as understated as Lee could cut it on stage. The suit just compounded matters – to them it screamed (or mumbled) “conservative”. Cal wrote that, “the Clovers really dug Lee, [but] they didn’t know what to make of him. They were about to find out.”

Lee wasn’t expecting to be invited on stage. When Huey called him up during the show, Lee was quite happy occupying himself at the bar and actually needed some prodding to respond, only adding weight to Clover’s impression of him being, perhaps, a little too self-effacing to rock. Eventually he was persuaded, and, with his trusty harp in his jacket pocket, weaved his way through the crowd to the stage. After some brief conferring, it was decided they would play the standard Checkin’ Up On My Baby, a mutual favourite with both Feelgood and Clover. Cal Worthington was among those watching and, unlike most people in the club that night, he knew to expect something explosive, but the crowd’s reaction was almost as entertaining as Lee’s performance.

“Fuck me, I just wish I’d had a camera to catch their faces,” he wrote. “As soon as the music started, Mr Modesty became a wild animal, sinews and veins are sticking out over his sweating, contorted, snarling face… the band cannot believe it. They can not believe it! People have stopped dancing and are clustering around the stage to take full stock of this madman. They’ve never seen anything like it in Palo Alto.”

At one point, Brilleaux swung round to the drummer and barked, “Come on, you fucker! Give it a bit of fucking stick!” “The drummer,” reported Cal, “totally unprepared for such an outburst, just snaps into gear… The partygoers went berserk and Clover fell in love with Lee after that – they were all over him. The song ended and Lee reverted to Mr Modesty. ‘Er, thanks a lot, fellers.’”

Shirley was one of the people dazzled by Lee that night. “The whole place was like, ‘Woah… who is that?’ Short hair, suit jacket… I just thought, ‘Wow! That is radical!’ And everything I saw in his face… it was this personal energy he had going on, and he always had it, right up to the end, he had it.”

Lee Brilleaux: Rock ’N’ Roll Gentleman – The Adventures Of Dr Feelgood’s Iconic Frontman by Zoë Howe is out now via Polygon