Pete Zorn and me

Pete Zorn (right), Paul Phillips (in the grey suit), Bill Zorn (Pete’s brother, second left) and Richard Burgess, hiding in a cupboard, hoping to miss the studio call for Driver 67’s Top Of The Pops appearance in 1979.

by Driver 67

What is going on in 2016? The steady shuffling off from this mortal coil of one big star after another is shockingly not slowing down. This week, you’ve heard about Victoria Wood; and you’ve heard about Prince – just the latest in a litany of depressing news.

But for me, obviously, the hardest to bear is the loss of Pete Zorn.

Pete was first a friend. We met on a train in 1971. I was covering CBS’s annual convention for Music Week; he’d just been signed to the label with husband-and-wife duo Paula and Gary Fishbaugh. Hard to believe a group called Fishbaugh, Fishbaugh and Zorn got a major label deal, but they did. 

By the time we got off that train, Paul Phillips and Pete Zorn were fast friends. Something just clicked between us. Music was an obvious bond (I had no idea how talented he was till much later) but also he was hellishly funny. At the click of a finger he could fall into character as a monstrous manager, or a cheesy cabaret singer, or a by-the-cliches radio deejay. A born performer.

We started going places together – he took me to The Hard Rock Cafe, which had just opened in London, to meet Gary and Paula. I took him to a gig or two. One of them, I brought my sister along. No match-making on my part; just wanted Shan to meet my new very interesting friend. I don’t remember the gig, but I do remember them sitting on the floor at The Lyceum, locked in conversation. Talk about a gooseberry.

So my friend became my brother in law. I don’t remember the chronology, but the marriage probably happened after I was asked to join the CBS A&R department. One of my first tasks was to supervise a session with FF&Z to try to get a commercial single out of them. I had my instructions. My boss, Dan Loggins, told me: “Give me a Suzi Quatro-style rock’n’roll single.”

Well, I tried, Dan. But they ran rings round me. “Nah, we want to do it Phil Spector-style,” said Gary. As quite likely The Number One Phil Spector Fan In The World, my resolve to do what Dan wanted crumbled on the spot. He wasn’t best pleased when I played him the result. But he did say, “You produced this?” Hand on heart, I couldn’t say I did, but I was in the control room, directing events and that was enough for him to start trusting me with a lot of very important sessions. Meeting Pete Zorn directly lead me into a parallel career as a producer.

From then on, and for the next 10 years – till I walked away from music as a career – it was a very rare session of mine that Pete wasn’t involved with. I first brought him in to play bass with Nicol & Marsh, my first signing. They were a really interesting duo with a vocal sound I loved. They wrote great songs, at least three of which might have been Top 10 with a fairer wind. Ken Nicol – now renowned in folk circles – was already a first class guitarist, and a writer of very lovely songs.

After that, Pete became my musical ally. He was so prodigiously talented he could put down a whole sax section, instrument by instrument, without a click track. Or he could do you a lovely flute solo, or an utterly fabulous guitar part on his legendary Guild acoustic, or create heavenly harmonies.

Back then, though, his bass-playing was what people most wanted. Like Paul McCartney, he used the bass not only to lay down a rhythmic bedrock, but also as a lead instrument that would create previously unimagined melodies weaving in and out of whatever else was going on. His was a stunning talent, and he didn’t squander it.

I don’t want to test your patience with a recital of all that Pete and I did together. But I will say this: man, we had fun! There were times I literally cried laughing. One session I remember in particular – first I had to lean against a wall for support, and then I slid down the wall till I was on my haunches laughing uncontrollably. (We were making, on-the-hoof, a never-to-be-heard satire – a commercial for ‘the world’s latest laxative – co-cai-ne’. Prudently, we wiped the tape the next day).

Most notably, of course, for the general public (though not for us) we made the single Car 67 and had a Top 10 hit, appearing on Top Of The Pops when TOTP still meant something. There are links to posts on this and other things we did together below.

Two things I’m grateful for in the aftermath of Pete’s death:-

Before he got sick he was persuaded he needed a computer in the house. He and my sister had resisted the late 20th century like the plague. No car, no mobile phone, no computer. But now he had to get with this email thing; that was how work came in. So into their house came the dreaded machine. But at least it gave him access to the internet – and he read every one of my Driver 67 blog posts, more or less in a sitting.

When I visited him at home, after he became ill, already stricken practically voiceless, he croaked: “I read your blog. A fine body of work. It’s practically a book.” Since he played such a part in it, I asked him if I got anything wrong. He shook his head, smiling: ‘No’. Phew – what a relief!

More poignantly, a few months ago, I broke down my home studio and transported it up to Gipsy Hill so that Pete could put saxes on two tracks, part of an album I plan for 2016. It turned out to be the last recording Pete did. When you look at all the great musicians Pete worked with, I’m pretty sure that I – without question the most musically limited – would not have been his first choice for a swan song.

But then again, given our history, maybe he would have seen the perfect circularity of it.

The Brians: the untold story
Working with Ralph Steadman
Not dazzled by Headlights
Top Of The Pops: Power Mad and Irrelevant


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