photo by Dean Budnick

The Skull & Roses Festival originally slated for Southern California’s Ventura County Fairgrounds on April 2-5 has been postponed. The announced lineup includes Billy & The Kids, Oteil & Friends, Voodoo Dead, Grateful Grass, Melvin Seals & JGB, Circles Around the Sun, Midnight North and Moonalice. While we await additional details, Pete Sears takes a few minutes to share his musical journey and reflect on his connection to the event.

I was born May 27, 1948, in Bromley, which is essentially South London.  David Bowie (real name David Jones) and H.G. Wells came from the same town, as a matter of fact. It was borderline country when I was growing up, but now it’s part of the city, really. My first musical memory was of standing on stage at five years old. My big brother (who is five years older than me) pushed me up on a box on stage in front of a bunch of rowdy kids as part of a talent show. I sang “Pack Up Your Troubles” and came second, for which I got a pencil case. 

When I was eight, I started plunking on a friend’s piano, and I must have told my father, ‘cause one day I came home and there was this upright piano pulsating in the corner of my house. I took lessons for about four years and got as far as “Blue Danube” and “Für Elise” and got to read a little bit. My brother listened to [Dave] Brubeck and Jimmy Reed, so that was going in. My friend’s sister married a guy who had a Folkways-type record store on Bromley High Street, and he turned us on to people like Lead Belly and Champion Jack Dupree. He also made us a guitar, so we formed a band called The Strangers, the two of us through an amplifier. We were standing on stage behind the curtain listening to the school orchestra murdering Beethoven or something. Then we went on—we had our little suits, a bow-tie or something. I was maybe 14 at that point. The curtain opened and we played our one-chord original—“Twist and Twang,” I think we called it—and the crowd went absolutely nuts! It was like the movies: The kids were dancing and the parents were looking on in horror. 

I then started playing with a friend in Biggin Hill, where the old World War II R.A.F. Spitfire Hurricane fighter base used to be. We had a band called the Spitfires, and we played at youth clubs—David Bowie was part of the same circuit, with a band called the Konrads. I got to know his guitarist really well—George Underwood, he became a famous artist—who did all kinds of album covers for the Moody Blues, T. Rex, and Bowie. Even then, David just looked like he was going to be successful.

When I was 15, I went to work at a publishing company in London as an office boy, running errands all over the city. I was also going to night school to get my G.C.E. (the English version of the American G.E.D.), but I met a really good guitar player, Mick Hutchinson, on the train one day. A week or so later, these guys in a van showed up in my neck of the woods. They were a band called Sons of Fred, named after the comedian Spike Milligan’s insane TV show, and they needed a bass player. I said, “Why not,” jumped in the van, and plunged headfirst into a life of rock ‘n’ roll. We played R & B and blues, signed a deal with Capital Records, and found ourselves recording at EMI studios—Abbey Road, but it wasn’t called that yet. We released singles, but never did have an album. We were on TV shows like Ready Steady Go and Thank Your Lucky Stars at the same time as The Beatles, The Stones and The Yardbirds were taking off. We had a following and even got mobbed a couple of times, but we never really had a hit record—good band though. 

I was next in a band called The Fleur de Lys for a little while, on piano, playing Motown stuff. Chas Chandler from The Animals was our producer, which is how I met Jimi Hendrix for the first time, at Eric Burdon’s house.  It was before he started The [Jimi Hendrix] Experience, and we hung out for a while in the kitchen. He seemed like a cool, down-to-earth fellow. He played on the tune we were recording then, “Amen,” but the acetate disappeared—I’d like to find that. 

I then embraced psychedelia after seeing a Pink Floyd show at the Marquee Club—by now it was 1967—and joined a band called Sam Gopal Dream on bass and keys. Sam was an Indian tabla player, and we had the amazing Mick Hutchinson on guitar playing ragas. We were a trio and played at the UFO Club, Middle Earth, and Alexandra Palace, often on the same bill as Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, and Soft Machine. Jimi sat in with us once at the Speakeasy. We were all instrumental, had an underground following and played for hours, but we never got around to recording. Sometime after, Jimi’s drummer Mitch Mitchell asked me to join a band he was forming, but I came to the States instead. 

The guitarist from Blue Cheer, Leigh Stephens, came to London and invited me to America, and he, my friend Mickey Waller (the drummer for Jeff Beck), a vocalist and I formed a band called Silver Metre, which Tom Donahue managed. After that, I went back to England. Tom then did Medicine Ball Caravan—a 1970 movie the Grateful Dead backed out of at the last second—with Stoneground, so when they got to England I became part of Stoneground, recording with Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor, who’d stayed with the Caravan when the Dead bailed. When we came back to the states, I was staying at a house in Mill Valley and met John Cipollina and we really hit it off. One night we went down to KSAN and John got Jerry on pedal steel and Bobby on acoustic guitar and John’s little brother Mario on bass, with me on an old upright piano, and it turned out to be KSAN’s first live broadcast—on the Richard Gossett show. I had the reel-to-reel of it in my parent’s closet because I was moving around too much at that point. Unfortunately, my father threw out his old tape recorder and tapes from the closet, and my reel-to-reel was accidentally thrown out with them. There is a rough bootleg that circulates, though.

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