Fela Ransome-Kuti and The Africa '70 with Ginger Baker at Abbey Road Studios – The Story Behind The Records with Jeff Jarratt

Fifty years since he released his stunning Afrobeat debut, Fela Fela Fela, Fela Kuti remains a cultural and political icon around the world. It is well documented that Fela recorded three albums at Abbey Road Studios, with two in particular recorded over the space of two days with his band the Africa ’70 and Cream's Ginger Baker.

Former Abbey Road producer Jeff Jarratt, who worked on both these sessions alongside Tony Clark, John Kurlander and John Leckie, shares his account of how the legendary records, Afrodisiac and Live! were recorded over a weekend in Studio Three.

 

The Story Behind The Records with Jeff Jarratt

8 August 1966 was the day I started work at EMI Studios in leafy St John’s Wood, North West London. It was a magical place to be and by the time I was invited to join the EMI production staff five years later in 1971 I’d had the pleasure of working with a multitude of artists from a wide variety of musical genres…The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, John & Yoko, Cliff Richard, The Hollies, Jeff Beck, Procol Harum, Billy Preston, Stan Getz, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Jacqueline Du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, The London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and many, many more. In the first few days of my new position as a Producer I was introduced to the very charismatic Mike Wells, the MD of EMI Nigeria.

He wanted to bring an artist that he had signed to EMI Nigeria across to London to record at the studios everybody now knows as ‘Abbey Road’. Already very successful in Nigeria, that artist was Fela Ransome-Kuti. One of Abbey Road’s most successful engineers at the time, Tony Clark, had been working in Nigeria helping the studio staff there get to grips with some new equipment they had installed. While there he had worked with Fela and his twelve-piece band - the Africa ’70 - and suggested to Mike Wells that if he did bring Fela to London he should ask me to produce the sessions. I had heard some of Fela’s music and his pioneering Afrobeat sound on the John Peel radio show and when Mike asked me to be involved the opportunity of starting my production career with such an exciting artist seemed almost too good to be true – especially when he said that Ginger Baker would be guesting on some of the recordings. This is something I shall forever be grateful to Tony for.

Afternoon and evening sessions were booked in Studio Three for both 24 and 25 July. The plan was to record two albums, one on each day. The first day would be just Fela with his twelve-piece Africa ’70 band and on day two Ginger Baker would join us for an afternoon rehearsal and then a ‘live’ recording in the evening with an audience of invited guests. Tony would be the recording engineer – and because we knew that day two in particular might present some unexpected challenges - we decided to have another senior engineer on hand ‘just in case’ and we asked John Kurlander to join us. The assistant engineer – or ‘tape operator’ as they used to be called – was going to be John Leckie. He too had heard Fela on the John Peel show and jumped at the chance of being on the sessions.

The most important factor in the success of any studio is the quality of its engineers and for this project I could not have had a better team of people. All three were not only excellent and successful in their jobs but were also passionate about music and a joy to work with. Tony had already worked with many major artists and his engineering and production career credits include work with Paul McCartney and Wings, Steve Harley, Olivia Newton John, Badfinger, Cliff Richard, The Beatles, Stéphane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin, The Everly Brothers, Sky, Camel, Sunny Ade, Syd Barrett and The Pretty Things. John Kurlander has won three Grammy Awards for projects he has engineered and a long list of credits which include Elton John, The Beatles, Toto, Greg Lake, Supertramp, several major film soundtracks and has also been a key and integral part of the multi-platinum, silver and gold disc awards received for two of my production projects – Hooked On Classics featuring The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Classic Rock with The London Symphony Orchestra. John Leckie quickly moved on to engineering and producing and has an equally impressive list to add to his name from his work with XTC, the Stone Roses, Radiohead, Muse, Simple Minds, Sonny Okosun, Mark Owen, Kula Shaker, The Verve, The Plastic Ono Band and Pink Floyd. It is easy to understand why so many artists and producers have for so many years chosen Abbey Road as their favourite place to record.
 

Saturday 24 July, 1971 - Recording of Afrodisiac

Fela and his band travelled from Nigeria to London on the evening of 23 July. On 24 July they arrived at the Studios several hours before the session was due to start. They set up their equipment and from the moment they started playing we knew that this was going to be something special. It was unusually cold for the time of year and to begin with several of the band members were struggling with the change of temperature between London and Nigeria. It was particularly difficult for the three conga players whose hands were stinging as they played their complex rhythms. They asked where the toilets were and disappeared for fifteen minutes or so, warming their hands up under the hot water taps. Luckily it solved their problem and once everybody was feeling good you could actually feel the body heat from the guys energetic playing warming up the room.

Fela was polite, articulate and an excellent musician. As well as a singer and composer he was a multi-instrumentalist and had previously studied at London’s Trinity College of Music. Once the music started there was a fire and passion in him that was obviously energising and inspiring for the incredibly talented musicians working with him. His enthusiasm was infectious and he had the character of a born leader. However, if a musician played something he didn’t like he could be quite aggressive in his manner of telling them. He was someone you could love and respect but not someone you would want to upset!

Before adjusting sounds and levels in the control room it’s essential to listen to what the musicians are creating out in the studio. Only then can you properly set about trying to capture their sounds on your recording. Microphone placement depends on what kind of effect you want to achieve. For this project we wanted to have individual control of what each musician was playing but it was equally important to ensure that we captured the powerful, cohesive sound that the musicians were making as a group. We therefore had close mics for that individual control and distant mics to capture the group sound and room ambience. We used a combination of ribbon and condenser microphones consisting of STC 4038s, AKG D20s, AKG 414s and Neumann U87s, Km 84s and Km86s. A short time before these sessions took place a new mixing console had been installed in Studio Three. It was the first of two EMI custom built TG12345 MK IV models that Abbey Road had ordered and the first 16 track desk ever used at the studios. The second, almost identical console (identical except for its’ cabling system) was installed a few months later in Studio Two. That desk, among many other projects, was used for the recording of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon album and as a consequence was famously sold for $1.8 million dollars at auction in 2017. The quality of these consoles was and still is superb.

We wanted the musicians to feel as comfortable in the studio as they would be when performing so we laid out some low level ‘risers’ along one side of the studio to create a sense of being together on a stage. This worked well and of course was perfect for the ‘live’ recording on the second day. If you are working with great musicians it’s easier to make a great sounding record. On these sessions we were working with artists who were the very best of their genre. They were not just playing the music; they were totally absorbed by it. Fela had been in the studio rehearsing with the band for most of the time we were setting up the sounds. He obviously wanted to hear how everything was sounding in the control room so we recorded a run through of the first title for him to listen back to. He was delighted with the playback, asked us to increase the level of the bass guitar and went back into the studio.

We were ready to start. The band were so well rehearsed that by 10 o’clock in the evening we had master takes of the four titles needed for our first album. It was released in the UK in 1972 titled Afrodisiac. It had been a great day for all of us. Fela and his twelve brilliant musicians were all very happy and we were looking forward to Ginger joining us on day two.
 
 

Sunday 25 July, 1971 - Recording of Live! with Ginger Baker

We had agreed to start the afternoon’s rehearsal at 2:30pm. When I arrived at the studio Fela’s musicians were already rehearsing and - as per the previous day - had apparently been there for several hours. Ginger was not quite so prompt and it was about 3:30pm when the studio receptionist phoned through to say that there was a Mr Baker looking for me. I went to the front entrance and there was Ginger. Cream – Ginger’s band with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce – was, and still is one of my all-time favourite bands. One of the most memorable sessions I ever engineered was recording Eric duetting with Billy Preston in Studio Two on a session with George Harrison producing - and I was now about to have the pleasure of recording one of the greatest rock drummers there has ever been. Ginger and Fela had been friends for many years and the two of them sat talking in the control room while Ginger’s very large, double bass drum kit was being set up. Ginger had a reputation of sometimes being difficult but he was obviously very comfortable in Fela’s company and the whole mood was very relaxed. They were both smokers and some interesting aromas started to fill the air in a room that still lacked air conditioning.

I remember it being about half past four before the drums were in place and I started to get a little anxious about the time left for us to get the drum sounds sorted out, rehearse and be ready before the invited audience started to arrive at 6 o’clock so that we could start recording at our planned time of 6:30pm. I need not have worried as from the moment Ginger started playing he sounded amazing. The drums were beautifully tuned and he immediately blended with the other musicians as if he had always been a member of the group. The interaction between him and Africa 70’s drummer Tony Allen was seamless and it was fascinating to watch them and see how much they were enjoying complimenting each other’s playing.

Six o’clock and the audience started to arrive. We had set out two rows of chairs along the wall opposite the ‘stage’ knowing that those without chairs would be happy to stand or sit on the carpeted floor. We had in fact invited about 100 guests but by the time we were ready to start there must have been 150 people there. As the diagram below shows, by the time all the musicians were in place an audience of 150 people was going to make it a very intimate affair.
 
A diagram of the Studio Three live room with Fela, Ginger and The Africa '70

A diagram of the Studio Three live room with Fela, Ginger and The Africa '70

 
John Kurlander remembers “…the audience were sitting on the floor..hippy-style! We might have invited 100, but a lot more turned up so the room was jam packed, hot, and very smokey.!” and from John Leckie’s memories “…Fela was tough but friendly...and my wife came to the live recording! There were lots of people in the control room, the studio was crowded and there was Ginger’s giant kit with double bass drums”. Brian Gibson was a studio technical engineer at that time who also joined us that evening: “...It seemed like we had the entire population of Brixton there that night! I remember it was really packed - and unbearably hot!”

This hot, crowded and smokey atmosphere must have been reminiscent of some of the clubs that Fela regularly played in back in Nigeria and I’m sure it played a big part in making that evening’s recording work so well. The packed studio however meant that the natural studio acoustic changed and we had to employ the use of an EMT Plate Reverb unit to compensate. The album is a true, unedited version of what the guys played that evening. It’s a record I’m immensely proud of and one which I get as much pleasure from listening to today as when we recorded it. Even more satisfying is knowing how much Ginger enjoyed it. In his book Hellraiser he remembers “…an audience of 150 crammed into a large studio at Abbey Road with coloured spotlights dancing about the walls to give it the feel of a proper live gig.” I don’t remember any flashing lights – although it would have been a good idea! Abbey Road have always been the best for sound recording but their imagination for creative lighting has never been a strong point. From another section of Ginger’s book: “...‘Live’ was recorded in just a few hours and is the one that Ginger is very proud of to this day”.

The day after the sessions Fela and his musician’s went back home to Nigeria. A week later Tony, John and I were back in Studio Three enjoying ourselves mixing the multitrack tapes to make the stereo masters. Great music and wonderful memories.
 
 
A massive thank you to Jeff Jarratt for speaking to us about these historic sessions. With additional thanks to John Kurlander, John Leckie and Brian Gibson for their contribution.