Legendary North East promoter Geoff Docherty is standing looking out of the window of the 12th storey Sunderland city centre flat that he’s lived in for the last 40 years. In the 1960’s and 1970’s Docherty brought all the big names to the area-Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Marc Bolan, Santana and countless others.
He’s thinking back to 1974 and his friend and reluctant house guest of three months, Paul Kossoff, the troubled guitarist of Free . Music writer Ian Ravendale reports.
“He used to stand here watching the girls coming out of Annabels night club, all mini skirts and legs and I could tell his juices were starting to flow. In the end I took him to the club, giving him a tenner so he could get his round in”.
Kossoff’s stay in Sunderland wasn’t a holiday; Docherty had effectively kidnapped and locked him in his flat in an attempt to get him off the toxic cocktail of drugs that had taken over his life. Trips out were conducted under strict supervision with the former bouncer never letting the guitarist out of his sight.
One night, from his camp bed in the living room Docherty hears Kossoff’s bedroom door open. The guitarist crawls past him to the kitchen where he suspects his prescription drugs are hidden. Docherty jumps up, switches the light on and orders his guest back to bed, telling him he’s not due a tablet for another couple of hours.
“What you’re doing is illegal!. You’ve made me a prisoner!” yells Kossoff before throwing Docherty’s telephone at him. The heavy 1970’s phone hits Docherty on the shoulder, the tough-guy promoter loses his temper and warns his charge never to do it again. Docherty knows the task he’s given himself isn’t going to be easy.
“I had to be strong because I knew that if I did let him out he’d be straight back on the drugs. He wasn’t himself and was still coming off them. Cold Turkey. That was the danger period where it could have gone right or wrong.
“Fortunately it went right and I started taking him out. We’d go down the beach and to the park because I knew the fresh air and exercise would do him good”.
Paul Kossoff’s problems with drugs were well known and generally blamed for the final breakup of Free in 1973. He spends several spells in rehab in 1974 without success and heroin and cocaine have been added to his lethal line up of illegal pharmaceuticals. Now an addicted recluse Kossoff is so unreliable that even his long-time supporters at Island Records won’t give him session work to help pay the bills.
Docherty is in London for a gig by Beckett, the South Shields band he manages who frequently supported Free. They’re down a guitarist and after the show decide to see if Kossoff could be persuaded to join. Band and promoter call round at midnight to his house in Golbourne Mews, off the Portobello Road. Kossoff’s girlfriend Sandie Chard answers the door and lets Docherty and Beckett vocalist Terry Wilson Slesser in.
Kossoff’s visitors are appalled at what they find, as Slesser remembers; “Paul was asleep in a rocking chair in a darkened room with a cigarette burning his fingers. He’d piled the weight on because all he’d been doing was lounging around. We knew there was something not right. I was only 22 or 23 and had never seen anybody as stoned as that. You could see bags of pills. Back then people would take a Mandrax for a hit. Paul would take four! He was drugged out of his head.”
Geoff Docherty elaborates; “I knew that Paul’s problem with drugs by then was very serious. I asked Sandie why she didn’t stop him and she said that there was nothing she could do.
“While we were there there was a knock at the door. Sandie answered and it was a drug dealer. She shook Paul awake, he got his chequebook and crawled on all fours to the door, signed something, was given a load of drugs and started swallowing them.
“Me being a promoter and him being in a band then went out of the window. This had become a tragedy.”
Docherty knows that he has to act at once. Sandie Chard gives Geoff the phone number of Paul’s father, the actor David Kossoff and the promoter rings him.
“I told David Kossoff what I’d seen and that Paul was out of his head and didn’t know what he was doing” Docherty remembers. “If something wasn’t done he was going to die. I told him that I wanted to take Paul up to my flat in Sunderland. There was no dealers knocking on my door and I’d get him off drugs.”
Kossoff senior gives Docherty the go-ahead and the guitarist is walked out the house. Continues Slesser; “Our roadie Kevin picks up Koss’s guitar and we steer Paul into our Mercedes van. He tells us he needed to have something for the journey-meaning drugs,
which we weren’t going to give him. So we had to go to an off-license to buy three bottles of Mateus Rose. Koss was asleep for most of the journey up to Sunderland.”
Geoff Docherty’s relationship with Paul Kossoff and the rest of Free went back five years. He’d started out handling “security” at the 800 capacity Bay Hotel on Sunderland sea front in 1968. In January 1969, after noticing the ever increasing interest in underground and progressive music he booked the band Family to play, paying them £150 and charging 6 shillings on the door. The gig went well so Docherty quickly booked Pink Floyd at £250 for six weeks later.
To keep the momentum going between Family and Floyd, the novice promoter needs other, less expensive bands. His friend, Sunderland guitarist Mick Grabham, later to join Procol Harem but at that point part of chartsters Plastic Penny, recommends a young band from London called Free.
Following a couple of gigs in Redcar the previous two nights, Free make their Sunderland debut on 13 January 1969 for a fee of £35.
As their debut album Tons Of Sobs is still two months away from release nobody had heard of Free and there’s hardly anyone at The Bay Hotel that evening. And there was another problem, as Docherty recounts; “The people that did come thought it was free to get in! I thought it was a stupid name…. But the band were young and energetic and fitted together very well. I had faith in them”.
Under the cheeky Fillmore North banner, Geoff Docherty’s promotions at The Bay begin to attract national attention. John Peel, the Radio 1 DJ most associated with the new music, had been up several times and had given Docherty’s gigs enthusiastic reviews in his Disc and Music Echo column.
London agents are also taking Docherty seriously and in the first half of 1969 The Bay hosts shows by Country Joe and The Fish, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, The Nice and many others. But the band that everybody wants to see is Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. Knowing that they’d play to a packed house, Docherty takes the opportunity to also re-book Free, this time as support act.
“Half way through the night I got a phone call from Marc’s girlfriend June Child, saying that they’d broken down at Sheffield and would get to the gig very late. Did I still want them to come?”, relates Docherty. “I told her yes and then went to tell the packed house that Tyrannosaurus Rex were going to be a bit late but not to worry because they were coming”.
“A bit later I got another call from June, saying that they’d broken down again, this time 40 miles away at Scotch Corner. Did I still want them to come and would I pay for a taxi?”
The promoter says yes to both questions but knows he has a problem. The kaftan -wearing, joss stick-waving crowd have been patient but have been sitting cross-legged on the floor for a very long time.
“I wondered what to do”, admits Docherty. “Then it occurred to me. I’d put Free on again! The place was completely full which it wasn’t when they went on earlier. So I asked them and Andy Fraser, the band’s bass player and money man, shot back, “Yeah, but you’ll have to pay us again!
“Free went on stage to a packed Bay Hotel and took it apart. Seeing the size of the crowd really lifted the band and they went down fantastic. It was like the Cup Final!”
Bolan and co eventually arrive and also stormed it, giving Docherty one of the best nights he’s ever had.
“Free were so pleased”, he reveals, continuing, “When I was out and about in Sunderland the following week, everyone was asking me when I was getting them back”.
“Free and the North East had a wonderful relationship” remembers Free (and subsequent Bad Company) drummer Simon Kirke. “Our music was stripped down passionate blues and it seemed to appeal to the very downhome people of the North East. Southerners were more reserved. More cool. London audiences were the toughest. They have the chance to see good bands every night so they tend to be more demanding”.
By August of 1969 because he’s now booking acts like The Who and King Crimson, Geoff Docherty widens his operation to include Sunderland Locarno, a 3,000 capacity ballroom more used to putting on dance and cabaret bands. He decides to try Free in the new venue but not even Docherty was ready for the Freemania that’s about to happen.
Tons Of Sobs was the only Free album in shops as the eponymous Free LP is still a month away. All Right Now, the band’s signature number won’t be released until May 1970. Supported by a pre-hits Mott The Hoople Free play the Sunderland Locarno on 12 September 1969 and pull a crowd of 2,500.
“It was a total shock” confesses Docherty. “In the rest of the country Free were mainly doing small gigs or supports. I knew I had a phenomenon on my hands.”
Says Simon Kirke, “The scenes in Sunderland and Newcastle were the wildest I ever encountered in my career. Mayhem! Girls fainting, rapturous audience, the van covered in lipstick messages….Lovely! They knew all the songs and kept quiet during them. They just went nuts before and afterwards!”
The love affair between Free and the North East carries on for the rest of the band’s career with Docherty promoting them every couple of months to ever increasing audiences. Half of 1971’s Free Live is recorded at Sunderland Locarno in January 1970, with the other at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls in September the same year.
Paul Kossoff’s drug intake is becoming a problem. Says Simon Kirke; “It was after Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser broke up the band the first time that Koss went into a tailspin. We were incredibly young and Island kept applying pressure booking more shows all over the world without consulting us until Paul Rodgers just said; “Fuck it. No more” and that was that. It gutted Koss”.
“All we actually needed was six months off and a bit of head stroking and we would have been fine. But it got worse. After a year Koss was a full blown addict. No one had a clue about addiction in those days. We cancelled gigs…hell, we cancelled tours to accommodate him when he should have been packed off to rehab for a few months.
“We re-formed to try and get Koss better again. A well intentioned move but a dreadful mistake. His drug abuse was awful and the UK tour was the worst I was ever involved in. Koss falling into my drum kit several times, missing cues. I was on my knees in front of him ten minutes before going on at The Albert Hall showing him the fucking chords to All Right Now!”
“It was the saddest, most frustrating part of my life”.
In September 1972 at Newcastle Mayfair, eight gigs into a tour Paul Kossoff goes into a epilectic seizure at the soundcheck is taken to Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary and the tour has to be cancelled. Relates Simon Kirke: “A second show was put in to make up for the cancelled one. But Koss could barely function…I was furious…We all were. We walked off after two songs”.
Three or four numbers into a gig at Newcastle City Hall on February 22 1972. The concert is rescheduled for four days later but pulled at the last minute, due to, as the notice in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle says, “Paul’s illness”.
Beckett supported Free at a lot of Free’s North East gigs. Remembers guitarist Arthur Ramm; Many’s the time Free’s roadie had to usher him onto the stage, stand him in front of the cabinets, plug his lead in, switch the amp on and turn him towards the audience!
” I saw Paul play when he was straight and it was absolutely magnificent. When he was on drugs…..he wasn’t too good. The band would be playing and you could see them wondering; Will Paul come in on time? They must have had horrendous discussions after gigs when it had gone sour.”
At what turns out to be the last ever Free gig, at Newcastle Mayfair on 20 October 1972 just over a month after Paul Kossoff’s hospital stay, the guitarist asks Arthur Ramm whether he can borrow his Gibson Les Paul guitar because he’s broken the neck off his. Ramm loans Kossoff his guitar. He likes it so much that they swop. Kossoff eventually wants his Les Paul back and the two guitarists swop back again after a series of phone calls, many of which which Ramm finds rather unsettling.
“The majority of phone conversations I had with Paul were very, very strange indeed. Whether it was his medication or whatever else he was taking, it seemed like everything was in slow motion to him; “Arthurrrr……thissss isss Paulllll”. Twenty minutes and ten lines of conversation! It could be really difficult. Other times he’d call and it’d be fine. Most times he was pretty incoherent.”
In his Sunderland centre flat with the door locked the ultra health conscious Docherty puts Kossoff on a diet that includes fresh orange juice, boiled cabbage and fresh fish. The walks in the park are occasionally joined by taking the stairs rather than the lift to the 12th floor.
Docherty’s tough love pays off as Terry Wilson Slesser remembers; “The next time I saw Koss was three or four weeks after we brought him up. Geoff had taken him to Annabels and he looked fantastic! He was washed, and groomed, his eyes were bright and he was completely coherent.
“Annabels was a posy sort of place. Beckett were well known there so we were posing around. Geoff was posing about because he’s the North East’s toppromoter. Then….there’s Paul Kossoff of Free!
“All of a sudden there’s a buzz! Paul Kossoff! Everybody forms a half circle. He was signing autographs and chatting”.
Posing or not, Geoff Docherty’s reputation for, as he says “not being soft” means that the Annabels crowd are courteous and polite to the superstar in their midst. But it’s more than bad manners that the promoter is watching out for, as Slesser explains;
“Geoff kept an eye on anyone getting too close to Paul. Anybody could have potentially been a drug dealer who could have slipped him something. Later on when I went back to London with Koss people would approach him with that intention, to give him “presents”. The Portobello Road at that time was Drug Dealer Alley and his daily input was mega. Whereas when he was in Sunderland Paul was totally straight apart from his prescriptions.”
Invariably music and Kossoff collide again. Tiffany’s, the small nightclub within Sunderland Locarno, is commandeered for eight rehearsals that Kossoff insists run from midnight to 4 am. Terry Wilson Slesser, Beckett guitarist Kenny Mountain, drummer Bryson Graham and bass player Jimmy Wiley are the band. Elaborates Slesser,
“Beckett were hanging onto a record contract with CBS and we still wanted Paul for the band which is why we invented the rehearsals. We started by just jamming around and initially had to encourage Paul to play. It started to take shape and, rather than just busk along, Paul came up with a couple of riffs. You could see he was coming together.
“The strength of his fingers was returning and he was coming back into his sound rather than just twiddling around. That’s when Koss realised he wanted to form his own band. I could tell he didn’t like the idea of joining Beckett.”
Shortly after, a clean Kossoff leaves Sunderland and goes back to London. Geoff Docherty isn’t the only one of Paul Kossoff’s friends to try and look after him. Simon Kirke stays with Kossoff and Sandie at the Golbourne Mews house for a time in an attempt to protect him from the dealers and hangers on that flocked to his door.
Says Kirke, “I stayed out of love for Paul. He had no control and couldn’t say no. He was a frail guy at the best of times and the drug use just ate him up. In the end I had to leave for my own self preservation. I’d had enough”.
Kossoff moves into to a house that his father has bought him in Reading. He persuades Terry Wilson Slesser to join him in forming the band Back Street Crawler, named after Kossoff’s 1973 solo album. Island Records’ in-house rhythm section, Texans Tony Braunagel and Terry Wilson along with keyboard player Mike Montgomery, subsequently replaced by John “Rabbit” Bundrick, make up the rest of the outfit.
Fuelled by years of drug abuse, ill health still dogs Kossoff. In August 1975, on the eve of Back Street Crawler’s inaugural UK tour, a stomach ulcer leads to cardiac arrest and Paul Kossoff dies. Doctors and nurses work frantically for 35 minutes and eventually get his heart beating, but he remains in a coma for 24 hours. Further recuperation takes place at a health farm. Kossoff’s right leg has become very swollen during the attack, which doctors attribute to a blood clot. A return to his childhood passion for swimming brings the swelling down.
Four new UK dates are arranged for November 1975 in support of the The Band Plays On album but are marred by Kossoff’s erratic behaviour that includes falling over on stage several times and deliberately baiting Slesser in front of the audience at Newcastle City Hall, the singer’s home gig.
Slesser and Kossoff fly out to Houston on January 1 1976 to join Wilson, Braunagel and Bundrick to start recording the second Back Street Crawler album. A series of American dates are also scheduled but most are cancelled when the guitarist breaks two of the fingers on his left hand and is unable to play. Recording sessions in New York, Los Angeles and Houston go ahead with Snuffy Waldren drafted in to lay down guitar tracks on what becomes Second Street. He’d played on Free’s Wishing Well single and could do a good impersonation of Kossoff’s style. He also fills in on some live dates, which bizarrely have Paul Kossoff at the side of the stage introducing the band.
Kossoff, his fingers now healed, adds his parts later with engineer Richard Digby Smith before the tapes go to Glyn Johns for a final mix.
The fragile Kossoff is in good enough health to play what turn out to be Back Street Crawler’s final gigs, at the 500 capacity Starwood Club in LA on the 4, 5 and 6 of March 1976. Bad Company, with Kossoff’s old Free comrades Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke are also in LA, playing at the Forum and join Crawler onstage for the final two nights. Re-united with his old friends, by all accounts Kossoff plays better and looks happier than he had for years.
On board a flight from LA to New York on 19 March 1976, Paul Kossoff goes to the toilet and never comes back. His death certificate credits cerebral and pulmonary edema as the cause of death, almost certainly a delayed result of his heart attack and the blood clot in his leg moving up to his lungs. Drugs aren’t found in his system.
Terry Wilson Slesser feels that if Kossoff had lived Back Street Crawler would have gone on to much bigger and better things. Geoff Docherty sees it differently; “If he was healthy Paul would have ended up in another big band because he was brilliant. He’d have got in somewhere because he was so good. And such a nice, quiet and intelligent fella. What a waste of a unique talent”.
Ian Ravendale – follow him on Facebook
- This piece was originally commissioned by and appeared in rock magazine The Word.