Hollies’ legend Bobby Elliott keeps on drumming
Life is good for Bobby Elliott. He’s a member of one of the world’s most famous groups who’ve been making distinctive music for more than 50 years. He plays to huge audiences around the world – yet he can still get behind his drums for a jamming session in a small pub with musicians he’s never met before.
Bobby and guitarist Tony Hicks are the driving force of The Hollies. Since appearing on the first Top Of The Pops on New Year’s Day 1964 The Hollies’ unmistakeable sound has been a part of British culture. They haven’t had a record in the charts since 1993 but they are still hugely popular – and not only with fans who’ve been around since the Swinging Sixties.
As they prepare for a new UK tour Bobby spoke to me from his home on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border about the band’s longevity, the personnel changes that have taken place over the band’s 50-year career and why their gig at Buxton Opera House may be better than ever.
Buxton is the first date of the tour so the group will have a production day 24 hours before they play in Derbyshire.
“We’re going to fine tune the show a little bit, make a few alterations and hopefully improve it. It gives our technicians time to settle in and see what lighting they’re going to use. They always surprise us with some new effects.
“It also gives the sound guys time to try out the new mixing desk that they’re using. We haven’t had a production day for a while so this will make the show even better.”
The Hollies will also be at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. Bobby is disappointed they won’t be at the now closed Assembly Rooms in Derby where they have played to enthusiastic crowds in the past.
Anyone who goes to a Hollies’ show will hear many of the hits which entered the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. As Bobby admits, that’s why the fans go to see them.
“We’re not fools – we know what they want. We’ll surprise them with a few newer things. There’s a song that our singer Peter and I wrote called Priceless and he just does that by himself. We put it in two or three years ago and the regulars want it in all the time. If we drop it there’s a commotion.”
So what is the typical audience for a Hollies’ gig?
“We’ve obviously got the survivors who’ve grown up alongside us. You get a few younger ones, budding musicians who want to know where the early stuff came from and how we started.
“You get questions at the stage door sometimes and I’m always happy to answer those because I like to encourage young talent. I find it quite uplifting to see youngsters coming up with the talent to play and master an instrument and move on hopefully to being professional musicians.”
Robert Hartley Elliott was born 8 December 1941 in Burnley, Lancashire. In his mother’s grocery shop he would drum on an assortment of empty containers until he paid £2 for his first snare drum.
He was mainly into jazz and was influenced by drummers such as Earl Palmer who played on recordings by Little Richard, Gene Krupa, Ronnie Verrell and Kenny Clare.
Bobby got to know Verrell and Clare well. He even has one of Clare’s drum kits that he played on many hit records including Chris Farlowe’s Out of Time. Bobby has no fewer than seven kits in his barn.
Bobby played in a couple of bands before joining The Dolphins which featured Tony Hicks. When The Hollies needed a guitarist they approached Hicks who insisted that Elliott should be the group’s drummer.
The pair have worked together ever since. They became related when Bobby married Tony’s sister Maureen.
The Hollies were spotted at the Cavern Club in Liverpool and their recording career began at Abbey Road Studios in London.
They scored their first British top ten hit in 1964 with Stay and followed that with Just One Look, Here I Go Again, We’re Through, Yes I Will and I’m Alive which became their first UK number one.
Vocalist Allan Clarke and singer-guitarist Graham Nash had formed The Hollies and the line-up was completed by bass player Eric Haydock, Hicks and Elliott.
The band pioneered three-way vocal harmonies and were recognised as innovators.
Nash later left to form the supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash. Clarke left a couple of times before returning until he had to stop singing because of poor health towards the end of the ‘90s.
Bobby pays tribute to him: “He was a joy to work with, great songwriter, great harmonica player. He wrote a song called Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress that was number one in the States. He wrote that with Roger Cook. I owe him a great debt of gratitude for that.”
“Fortunately we didn’t get involved in any scandals.”
After Clarke’s retirement the group brought in former singer of The Move Carl Wayne. He died from cancer in 2004.
In the early days The Hollies always gave the impression of being a clean-cut group who didn’t resort to excesses normally associated with pop stars.
“That might be something to do with our first manager who was a tailor!” says Bobby. “Fortunately we didn’t get involved in any scandals. I don’t recall throwing any televisions out of hotel bedroom windows although I do recall somewhere in the mid-west of the States going to bed one night after quite a few drinks and seeing an upright piano balancing on the end of a diving board. We did have our moments.”
Since the early days The Hollies have taken on a sixth member, keyboard player Ian Parker who joined the band in 1991.
In the 1970s they used orchestral arrangements on some of their songs. He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother which featured a young Elton John on piano included strings and when they performed the song live they toured with musicians from the Manchester-based Halle Orchestra.
“It was quite successful I suppose but it was expensive and technically it was difficult to get a good sound from the stage through to the audience with all those violins, cellos and whatever else,” says Bobby.
“It was costing us a fortune. Fortunately the synthesiser and string machines arrived. Our first keyboard player was a guy called Pete Wingfield. Over the years we’ve had various keyboard players and hence we’re not five but six.”
It’s difficult to believe that the current line-up has been the same for the past 12 years. Hicks, Elliott and Parker line up alongside former Mud bass player Ray Stiles, guitarist Steve Lauri and vocalist Peter Howarth.
Bobby outlines Howarth’s contribution to the group: “He’s a guy who doesn’t know how to sing out of tune. That guy has perfect pitch. Although we don’t see much during the show he’s a fantastic guitar player as well. He’s a lovely lad and a joy to work with.”
Bobby is keen to point out that The Hollies’ team is like a family: “There’s always a great atmosphere backstage. The crew and technicians are part of the family. There’s always that buzz, there’s always chuckling and stories. That radiates through to the audience when it comes to show time.
“The great thing about our show is that it’s just us – there’s nobody else in that theatre, only people connected with the Hollies. It’s our home for the day. It’s something you don’t want to give up. It’s very special and it’s a great privilege to be still doing it.”
Drummers are generally considered to be eccentric but not Bobby, although he admits he is a bit different because he writes poetry and is into ornithology, drawing and painting. He has kept a diary since he was a schoolboy and is currently writing his memoirs.
He can usually be seen wearing a hat, a habit he took to in his teenage years.
“I never really had hair. I started to lose it when I was about 17 or 18. Then by the time the band got going it was cool to wear a hat. It’s a trademark now.”
After the UK tour ends The Hollies will go to Australia and New Zealand in the new year for a month. Smaller tours of Germany and Norway follow.
Two of the group’s albums, Evolution and Butterfly, are being re-released on vinyl as the popularity of the band, inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, continues.
The reason they’re still playing, according to Bobby, is because they enjoy it and don’t want to Stop Stop Stop: “If these Hollies gigs weren’t fun we probably wouldn’t be doing them because we’re not skint.
“It’s still a joy to do and as long as the old body and mind hold up and, more importantly, people want to come and see us, we’ll do it.”
* This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of Country Images magazine