Rolling Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler discusses how he played up Mick Jagger's poetry on his new album, 'Inside Out'. Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Could Mick Jagger - singer of "Satisfaction," "Paint It Black," "Start Me Up" and dozens more songs you know by heart - be underrated as a lyricist? That's the theory Rolling Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler was working with when he recorded his newest album, Inside Out. "I think that a lot of people who know and love the Rolling Stones miss a lot of important things that are being said," Fowler tells Rolling Stone. "So I didn't want to do a cover record; I wanted to do something radically different."
For Inside Out, he picked eight Stones standouts and rearranged them so that the lyrics would be the star by presenting them as spoken-word poetry. For each track, he plays African- and South American-inspired rhythms on the congas alongside a star-studded cast of musicians including drummer Steve Jordan, guitarist Ray Parker Jr. and Stones bassist Darryl Jones, among others. The effect is more like the untelevised revolution of Gil Scott-Heron than the revolution Jagger called for in "Street Fighting Man." Many of the songs come off the band's 1983 album Undercover, which even diehard fans may have overlooked, a few are Seventies deep cuts ("Sister Morphine," "Time Waits for No One") and then there's "Sympathy for the Devil," with all of the original's "wealth and taste" but a harder-hitting delivery. Fowler clearly enunciates each syllable, so nobody misses the words' meanings this time.
Jagger gave his blessing to the project when he snuck up behind Fowler while the backup singer was jamming out on one of his reinterpretations at a Stones soundcheck a few years back. "He said, 'You know, Bernard, I've heard Rolling Stones songs many different ways except that I've never heard it done like that,'" Fowler recalls. "I said, 'When the tour is over, I'm going to cut it.' He said, 'You should cut it.'"
Since he wrapped up Inside Out, he's started getting praise from the rest of the Stones as well. "My 'Brother B' Fowler puts a whole new Roll on the Stones," Keith Richards tells Rolling Stone in a statement. "I love it!"
Fowler recently caught up with RS on an off date of the recent Celebrating Bowie tour. He spoke at length about his personal history with the Rolling Stones, who should be announcing rescheduled tour dates soon following Jagger's heart operation, and what their songs mean to him.
When did you come up with the idea of doing Rolling Stones songs as Beat poetry? I had been wanting to do a spoken-word record after my last album, The Bura. Then I was doing a tribute to the Rolling Stones at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Steve Jordan. He told me Chuck D would be one of the guests. Chuck missed his first flight, and I told Steve, "I've been toying with this spoken-word idea. Maybe I could do 'Sympathy for the Devil' in spoken word." We played around with it at rehearsal and we did it that night. That was the first time I had done anything like that.
Then during one of the tours, I started practicing my versions of the tunes before the shows. [Keyboardist] Chuck Leavell called out a song and I started playing congas and reciting the lyrics and everyone seemed to get a kick out of it. Then it became a regular thing I would do before a soundcheck. One day, I walked out onstage and Mick was standing behind the congas and saw me. It was really funny. That's when he gave me the green light.
Bernard Fowler. Photo credit: Hans Eder
How did you decide which songs would work best as spoken word? The lyric content was the most important thing because I was not going to sample any of the music from the songs. My initial idea was to have it all just percussion and voice. "Undercover of the Night" was at the top of my list. None of the most popular songs worked, and I tried. I have these Rolling Stones songbooks at home, and I just started reading some of the lyrics, and the ones with strong content jumped out at me. After I saw how strong the message was in those particular songs, I would try to recite them in my head, and if it flowed, I used it.
"Sympathy for the Devil" is on the record, but I didn't want to do it because it's such a popular song. The only reason why I did it was because I was pressed for time and ran out of money. There was no budget to make this record; I did it all on my own.
On "Tie You Up," the words "Why so divine, the pain of love?" really stand out. I hadn't thought about those lyrics quite like that before. Exactly. I hope it will have the same effect on a lot of people. The thing that struck me when I started reading and reciting them was the flow. It was so familiar to me. I did have a conversation with Mick when I was telling him about cutting that stuff, and we started talking about [Harlem-based poetry group] the Last Poets. He told me, "Yeah, I saw them in England. Someone had a party and brought the Last Poets and they performed." I said, "Wow."
I know Mick has always got his ear to the ground, and Keith has said many times Mick is like a sponge, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if, after seeing the Last Poets, he went home to write for the Stones and that flow stuck with him because some of the lyrics read like that. Like "Tie You Up."
Other than the Last Poets, who else were you thinking of when you came up with these arrangements? Felipe Luciano and Gil Scott-Heron. I saw Luciano on Def Poetry Jam and he did a piece called "Jibaro." I got goosebumps. The hair on my arms is still standing up thinking about his delivery of that. I was like, "Damn. That was beautiful." It was strong.
Didn't you record with Gil Scott-Heron, too, at some point? Yeah on one of his later albums on two or three tracks. The one I remember was a tune called "Re Ron." He wrote it about Ronald Reagan, who was our president at the time.
You have quite an impressive list of guests on Inside Out. What did you tell them your vision was for the album? I said it was important that all the beats represented a different part of South America or Africa. Rhythm is very important to me.
"Sister Morphine" is an interesting one. It also seems relevant today, given the opioid epidemic. It's funny because a lot of this stuff was written a while ago but it's so now. When I was growing up in Queensbridge, there was a serious heroin epidemic. We had more dope in Queensbridge than there was in Harlem. I have a family member that fell addicted to it who was able to come through it, so I saw it firsthand. I was able to conjure that up to help me get the vibe.
You recorded a dramatic intro to "Undercover" that is quite scary, with a man and a woman yelling at each other in Spanish. She says, "No, no." The song's lyrics reference jails in South America, so what's the significance of that? I went online and started looking at clips of the war in Nicaragua. I wrote in English some dialogue of a girl running through the jungle, trying to run away from the war. She's afraid of being caught by the military; that's why it sounds so scary. The man is saying, "There's someone over there, go get her."
I called my fried Carmine Rojas, a bass player I've known for years. He's responsible for me singing with the Stones in a strange way. I said, "Carmine, I need a girl to come to the studio and recite some dialogue I just wrote, but she has to be from Nicaragua." He says, "Oh, OK. I got someone. She's not an actress or a singer. She's never been in a recording studio in her life. She's on her way to you now." I explained to her what I wanted and said, "I need you to do this in espaÃ±ol." She goes, "I don't know, maybe it's a problem." I come to find out she grew up in Nicaragua during the war. When she started reading it, she started to cry. I got goosebumps now thinking about that night. When she was done, she had tears in her eyes, and I'm like, "Oh, baby." I gave her a hug. I'm like, "That's incredible." It just worked perfectly. It's powerful. And Carmine Rojas is the soldier.
You said Carmine introduced you to the Stones. How is that? How did you get into the Stones' orbit? In the early Eighties, I had two really big records with the New York City Peech Boys. I got a call from Bill Laswell, who introduced me to Herbie Hancock. All of the singing on Future Shock is me. I had to use an alias because the Peech Boys got their panties in a bunch, which I thought was pretty funny because they were stealing money from me. But that record was huge. I went out on tour with Herbie - that was my way out of the Peech Boys - and on a break I got a call from Bill. "Bernard, what are you doing? Go to the airport - they have a ticket there for you." I said, "Bill, I just walked in the door."
He met me at the airport, and we rode around London and he asked me about the Rolling Stones. I said, "Yeah, I love the Stones. The first record my dad ever gave me was a Rolling Stones record."
What was the Stones record your dad gave you? It was 12Ã—5. Shit, I played the groove off that record. I grew up listening to my mother and father's records. They were old blues, soul and gospel records, but somewhere along the line, this rock & roll shit got in my head and I loved it. In my neighborhood, nobody really listened to that, but I did. I always felt I was born a bit too late, because I was supposed to be at Woodstock.
So what happened in London with Bill? We pulled up to a big white house, ring the doorbell and this big black dude answers the door. "Hi, Bill. He's in that room." Who the fuck is "he"? There's a guy sitting on the floor. I could just see the back of him and his guitar. Bill walks in and says, "This is Bernard Fowler. This is the guy I've been telling you about." The guy turns around and it's Mick, and I was in shock. Mick says, "Come down here on the floor." He's strumming, we're humming, and he gives me a cassette and says, "We're going to work on this tomorrow." I worked up some vocal arrangements on a multitrack cassette player that night. I played it for him the next day and he says, "You did all that after you left me?" I ended up recording [Jagger's first solo LP] She's the Boss with him.
How did that lead to doing more with him? I went back on the road with Herbie Hancock and when I was in New York, some people called me saying, "I hear Mick Jagger's looking for a male background singer to go on the road. Have you heard anything?" I'm like, "No, no one's called me." I was rehearsing for a tour at a studio with Carmine Rojas and I walked out of the room to go to the bathroom, and I see this entourage of people come down the corridor and I see Mick. I say, "Hey, Mick. How you doing?" He looks at me and didn't speak so I went to the bathroom. Then later a woman walks in and says, "Is there a Bernard Fowler here? Mick would like to know if you'd audition for his tour." She gave me a cassette of three or four songs and left.
I say, "Audition? I did his first solo album. What is this audition shit? Fuck that. I'm not going in there." Carmine Rojas, bless his heart, grabbed me by the arm and took me in the corner. He said, "You go in there and you kill them." I went into the bathroom, listened to the four songs, walked into his room and the band, and all the big dogs were there - Doug Wimbish, Joe Satriani, Jimmy Rip, Simon Phillips - and I guess they'd been auditioning all these singers. They looked at me and curled their lips up and were like, "Are you ready?" Like, "Oh, no. here's another chump." I took offense to "Are you ready?" and said to myself, "I'm going to show them." I started singing those three songs and I was spitting fire. At the end, I took the cassette, gave it to them and walked out of the room. I heard somebody say, "Oh, shit. I guess he's got the gig."
The same girl comes back in and says, "We'd like you do to the tour, and we want to know if you can start rehearsals tomorrow." I said, "Nope." She said, "No?" I said, "I can start after I complete the gig I'm preparing for now. I'll be back in a week." She left and came back and said, "That will be OK." That was my introduction into the Rolling Stones, and I've been there on and off for 31 years.
What is it like singing for Mick? Has he given you advice on singing? No, he's never given me any advice. I would say that early on, when I first started working with him, he was a taskmaster. He and Keith did all that singing on the early records, so it was always important to me to sing those parts with some familiarity, and it was a job because it was only me and [fellow backup singer] Lisa Fischer. Basically, Lisa and I found a way to make two people sound like we're singing big, so it was bigger than just two people. Mick would sometimes give us a scowl that means, "That's not working. You need to do something else." When he's got that face on, it means it ain't working. That's the way it was.
What's your favorite song to sing live with the Stones? "Midnight Rambler." Oh, my God. When the stars line up and those boys are on fire, you can't fuck with it. It takes me on such a journey with all the time changes. It starts one tempo and goes to another and breaks down. Mick gets his little dance on, and it's like, "Oh, shit. Watch out, everybody. He's getting ready to set your head on fire." It's incredible.
Are you planning on taking your Inside Out interpretations of the Stones on the road? I'm trying to figure that out. I'm even thinking I could be my own opening act, because the spoken word stuff is not that taxing on me. I can do that record and finish the night with songs.
The spoken-word stuff is a whole different experience. You feel it in a whole different way, and I'm hoping that people hear these songs like they never heard the before. That was the whole point of it, to put it in a different environment. It's not a cover record; it's a recreation of something.