As befits a man who arrived in the UK just two hours ago, Terry Reid’s dress mode is Californian; the tan, expat orange. Crumpled white shorts, red t-shirt and – because it was the first thing he found in his suitcase – a blazer orphaned from the rest of its suit. Now 56, he’s not the sharply-attired mod of his very first publicity pictures, but the blue-eyed glare is unmistakeable. An hour into our rendez-vous, he’ll finally alight upon the one irreducible lesson that life has taught him. “The trouble with record companies is that there’s always trouble with record companies.” So amused is he by this summation that the ensuing laugh momentarily drowns out the sound of a plane taking off nearby.
Star quality never blossomed into stardom for Reid. However, for a brief period, his prospects burned brighter than almost any of his peers. “There are only three things happening in London: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Terry Reid.” said Aretha Franklin in 1969 – while his high-voltage blueswail made him the first person Jimmy Page approached when looking to recruit a singer for his new band. Touring commitments with the Stones, Cream and Jimi Hendrix prevented him from joining what became Led Zeppelin. But then, why would he have wanted to? With hitmaker du jour Mickie Most having procured him a deal, only good things were possible – or so it seemed at the time. But returning from Mick and Bianca Jagger’s wedding in San Tropez, Reid discovered that Most had mastered his second album, Bang Bang You’re Terry Reid, in his absence. “I told him where to stick his five album deal,” recalls the singer, “which effectively put my career in limbo.”
Despite electing not to work with him any more, Most refused to release Reid from his contract. For the next three years, Reid’s live reputation sustained him. By the time he appeared at the first ever Glastonbury festival in 1971, Reid was in the process of relocating to America. His surroundings may have changed; not so his luck. Despite having covered his song Without Expression for their zeitgeist-defining Déjà Vu, Crosby Stills Nash & Young left it off at the last minute. He was due to perform alongside them at Woodstock, but strike action from US helicopter pilots left him in the Pan Am building watching it on television with a forlorn Joni Mitchell. “It was poor Jone I felt sorry for,” contends Reid, his East Anglian burr softened by the years abroad. “Watching [Crosby, Stills Nash & Young] doing her song and she’s humming along watching it on TV.”
An afternoon in the company of Reid only serves to underscore the sense that you might be talking to the boomer-rock Zelig. That some of his more spectacular anecdotes might come with an element of lily-gilding, is perhaps understandable. Bereft of gold discs to account for his place in the annals of rock, Reid has just a small but loyal following to argue his case.
It’s a case strengthened by the 2004 reissue of what, in recent years, has come to be regarded as Reid’s masterpiece. As with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, River is one of those albums that seems to exist apart from its creator’s canon – indeed, apart of almost all popular music. Listen to the three songs that comprise side one and you can hear a gradual cutting loose from Reid’s past – the Soho basements and provincial ballrooms – into the wide vistas of possibility. By the time the title track appears to float in on a Brazilian breeze, the leonine bluesman has swapped his earthly container for a place beyond mere happiness.
The critical re-evaluation accorded to River in recent years seems to have genuinely touched Reid. But he takes the compliments modestly, deflecting them in the direction of Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, who bought Reid out of his contract with Most and suggested he work with legendary soul producer Tom Dowd. “We were blown away, although at the end of the sessions, when we played it to Ahmet, he said, ‘I love it, but it’s… it’s a jazz album. He knew he wasn’t going to be able to sell it to the record company.”
Still only 24 when River sank, Reid made two more albums in the late 70s before no more deals were forthcoming. For Reid, the 80s was a decade eked out with session work for California pals such as Don Henley and Jackson Browne. Then, in 1991, Warner Brothers chairman Rob Dickens tracked Reid down and decided he would be the one to finally launch the singer chartwards. His big idea – that Reid’s voice be let loose on The Waterboys’ 1985 single The Whole Of The Moon – had promise. But, as the single left the pressing plant, The Waterboys’ original was enjoying a bizarre new lease of life as a rave anthem. By the time Reid’s version appeared, its original creators were enjoying a top five hit with it.
What might seem like an extraordinary run of bad luck to some is, to Reid, nothing more than a salutary life-lesson. His point – that “there’s a world of difference between making records and making music” – is worth lingering on. The argument that he could have been a Rod Stewart or a Joe Cocker had things gone his way is a persuasive – until you remember just how many awful records his gravel-voiced contemporaries have made, simply in order to make more awful records. “It comes down to how you want to live,” says Reid. “I got to see my children grow up. And I’ve never stopped playing.”
Indeed not. Before moving out of town in 2004, to a golf course on the outskirts of the Californian desert, his Monday night residency at Los Angeles’ restaurant The Joint attracted a revolving cast of illustrious side musicians: The Eagles’ Joe Walsh, old pal Graham Nash, and Keith Richards. Give or take a few celebrities, it’s essentially this show – a convivial mix of old favourites, new tunes and well-chosen covers – that he brings to Britain this week. How does it feel to be back? “Compared to L.A., nothing much changes over here. I’m staying at my mother’s house tonight. Round about this time of the year, you’ll see her by the side of the road selling plums and damsons from her orchard. People come from all over the country to buy her fruit. They’ve been coming for the last twenty years.”
Like mother, like son. Reid has survived by doing what he has always been doing. With Heathrow behind us, we negotiate a roundabout on which a model of Concorde remains perched, its famous nose pointing upwards. “If you could have told me, in 1969, I’d be going longer than that thing,” smiles Reid, “I would have been happy with that.”