First Time I Met The Blues: Ali MacKenzie

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Ali MacKenzie helmed Brit R&B group The Birds, best known for including Ronnie Wood in their line-up, from 1964 until they split in 1967 after four singles. In 2009 he assembled a new line-up of the group, and today fronts Band Of 1000 Dances, The Ali Mac Band and Birdwood.

What are your very earliest musical memories?

My sister playing records at home on her little Dansette. I was 11, 12, and that’s how I heard Sam Cooke and he immediately became my hero. His Night Beat album was a favourite. It was his vocal tone that got me. He has got to have the best voice ever – it’s pure electric, pure bliss.

The Birds covered Leaving Here by Eddie Holland and Marvin Gaye’s No Good Without You, both obscure songs at the time. How did you hear them?

Around 1963, ’64, Motown became my thing. It was the fact they used more than one voice – the harmonies really got me. In our early days we used to rehearse in our local music shop, Rainbow Records. They got in all the imports from the States and that’s how we heard so many great songs. I got Leaving Here on the R&B Chart-Makers No.3 EP. I remember playing it over and over again on my record player, trying to learn the words.

Lemmy from Motörhead is a huge Birds fan and covered Leaving Here after hearing your version.

Lemmy always came to see us in Manchester – a lovely guy, but he was a nutter even back then! Keith Moon would come down to the Ealing Club and always wanted to play drums for us; Viv Prince was always there at the 100 Club. He stood at the front of the audience, with his hands on his hips, and then after a while he’d say, ‘Right, it’s my turn now,’ and he’d get up and play drums. Mitch Mitchell did the same thing but at the Starlite Ballroom in Greenford.

How did you get to be the singer in The Birds?

I was in The Renegades, my school band, with Kim Gardner on bass. We were playing West Drayton RAF camp. Ronnie Wood and Tony Munroe had come along to see us because they wanted a bassist for their band and they had heard about Kim. They had an Everly Brothers type duo – they played acoustic guitars and they introduced themselves to us, then snuggled in a corner with Kim. After Kim joined, they approached me to sing because, the story goes, I had an amp and they needed one.

What do you remember of performing on the TV show Thank Your Lucky Stars?

We were going through a phase of all wearing the same shirts, so we went to Star Shirtmakers and we got these dark blue and light blue shirts with epaulettes made – they were really nice. We went to Birmingham where Lemmy met us, went to the studio, then into costume, where someone said: “We’ve got this idea – we’re going to fly you onto the stage with a harnesses.” I put my shirt on and with that the wardrobe lady took her four-foot pair of scissors and slashed the back of the shirt to get the wire through to attach to the harness underneath! We had five rehearsals of flying in and on the last take, Pete [McDaniels, drummer] missed the stage altogether, Tony was back to front, Kim was dangling in the air.

In 1966, The Birds made a cameo appearance in the horror film The Deadly Bees, performing That’s All I Need You For.

We were movie stars for a day and we had to be at the studio early. We were up north the night before and we came in a bit beardy – we had to be made up. We were in a nightclub and we played a little snippet of a number that Tony and Ron wrote – there was a verse, a chorus and an end.

You issued a version of the single with a new line-up of The Birds in 2011.

I rewrote the song, I added another two verses to it then recorded it with my line-up of The Birds, the rest of the band being made up by the Small Fakers. We spent a day in a studio in the New Forest recording it. We put out 500 copies and it did really well.

What are you doing now?

I’ve got Band Of 1000 Dances – we do The Birds material in that set – and then I’ve got The Ali Mac Band, a really tight four-piece pub band, with bassist Bill Phillips from The Glitter Band, drummer Richard Hudson from the Strawbs and Simon Bishop, a session player, on guitar. We’ve been going for 10 years now and it’s great fun. Then two years ago I formed Birdwood with Derek Griffiths from The Artwoods, hence the Birdwood name, an amalgamation of our two bands’ names. Chris Parren from the Strawbs is on keyboards, then Keith Grant from the Downliners Sect and Mark Freeman from The Rollin’ Stoned are in it too, and that’s great fun.