An Interview with Louis Cennamo

April-July, 1994

1994 Big Bang Magazine. Used by Permission.

 

A note from the author: This interview was conducted in several sessions between April and July 1994. I sent Louis questions, and he answered them on a tape. Parts of this interview were translated to French and used in a retrospective article on the first Renaissance and its spin-off projects, published in the #6 issue of Big Bang Magazine.

First of all, can you explain why your name is spelt 'Loui' on your recent works?

Well, I shortened it because my friends from America were always calling me Lewis, that is, pronouncing the 's'. But I don't mind now how it is spelt, I used both spellings when I feel like it!

Can you tell us of your beginnings in music? And how old are you?

I was born in London, March 5th 1946, so I'm 48... My first musical interest was at about four years old, when I used to sing along to my father's Italian records, I used to remember all the words and sing along... very happily. Then it went quiet for a few years during schooltime, and... my love for pop and rock'n'roll started when I was about thirteen; I was listening to a strange mixture of things at the time, really, whatever was being played on the radio. My sister had some influence on me, as she is older and she was into Chuck Berry, Ray Charles - very sophisticated people it seemed, at the time, to me... And so I picked up quite a bit from her, at that time, it was a very exciting time.

You apparently joined several bands before Renaissance, notably one with the singer Mike Patto?

Yes, that actually happened as far back as 1965, when I was nineteen. I was in a band called the Five Dimensions, which originally included Rod Stewart, and some others, sort of quite talented blues musicians from Birmingham... I was very young at the time... And Mike Patto... Actually, we were on tour, backing Chuck Berry on a nationwide tour which included people like Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce playing with Graham Bond, and Long John Baldry and the Hoochie-Coochie Men, and... Mike Patto was the compere, he was doing a sort of comedy, a sort of compere routine, he introduced all the acts, and that's how I came to know him. But it wasn't until maybe a couple of years later that we actually played together in the same band, which was called the Chicago Line Blues Band, and included Tim Hinkley on keyboards, Viv Prince from the Pretty Things on drums, and Mike Fellana, an African trumpeter. It was quite an interesting little band, but it didn't last very long. But I stayed in contact with Mike, and through him I met Ivan Zagni and Barry Wilson from Jody Grind, and we later formed a band for a little while, we became friends, and... we stayed in contact. There was a little group of people, musicians from Norfolk, that I stayed in contact during that time, including Boz [Burrell], who later joined Bad Company...

Did you put out any records with either of these bands?

Well, the Five Dimensions... The only recording that I remember us doing of any consequence was... We toured with a lot of r'n'b stars from America, and we managed to get the job backing people, like Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim, Little Walter... And Chuck Berry, we did a three-week tour backing Chuck Berry in 1965. And we went in the studio, and did an album backing him, it was called Chuck Berry In London released on Pye Records at the time, and Chess in America I think. But we didn't get any credit for, he just used us on the album but he didn't give us any mention, so no-one knows we recorded on it, except for us... and him, and a few other people! So that was it, really, that sort of uncredited album... As regards the Chicago Line Blues Band, I don't remember a lot about that, we didn't record, we just did gigs together, and we had no management, and we just broke up before we did any recording.

Then you joined the Herd, Peter Frampton's band...

Yes, they were sort of moving away from blues into more sort of mainstream, quite a progressive band for the time. They later had a couple of hits after I left. At that time, I got to know Peter Frampton, we became very good friends, and remained for quite a long time after, and Andy Bown who's now with Status Quo. I was with them for about a year. I did one single with them, which wasn't a hit, it was a cover of the Rolling Stones song written by Jagger and Richard, I think it was called "So Much In Love". It didn't get very far, it was like, our first single. It wasn't until the band changed management that they had their hit records. That band also included Mick Underwood on drums at that time, who was later replaced by Andrew Steele. I found it quite hard-going with The Herd, because we were into quite a sort of progressive thing for the time, we had make-up and trendy hairstyles and stuff like that, they didn't really agree with me. My deeper musical aspirations were a little bit shaken by that... And I guess I sort of left before the band became really successful. Then I got a job working in a nightclub in the West End playing bass. It was a club run by Andy Bown's girlfriend's mother.

You also worked with Tim Hinkley again in Jody Grind?

Well, I actually never was a member of Jody Grind as such, they were friends of mine. I did do a session for them, I played on a couple of tracks on their album, which I don't remember the release date of. So I was probably mentioned on the album cover, but I actually wasn't in the band, I didn't gig with Jody Grind as such. But actually, after Renaissance, for a short while, I teamed up with Ivan Zagni and Barry Wilson, and we formed our own band... More about this later!

You also worked with James Taylor during this period, didn't you?

Yes, I did, that was for Apple Records, I got the gig and did an album with James Taylor, it was his first album, he was very young at the time, as I was. It was very exciting, good fun. I was actually doing quite a lot of session work at the time, for Pete Gage, who used to be the guitarist in the Ram Jam Band of Geno Washington.

I understand Pete was the one who introduced you to Jim McCarty and Keith Relf...

That's right. They knew someone that knew Pete, and they rang him asking if he knew a bass player, cause they had left the Yardbirds by then, and they were forming a different type of band, they wanted something quite spiritual, gentle in contrast to what they'd done with the Yardbirds, I think to some degree... And so Pete Gage and I went down to meet Jim and Keith at Keith's house in Sunbury. We got on instantly very well. They played me some of their ideas, and they were just the sort of things that I was considering doing. So I said something which touched their hearts about sort of hitting me in the astral, or something, that made them laugh. And so that was the beginning of our contact, and we sort of found John Hawken who had just left the Nashville Teens, and was looking for something to do. And that was the beginnings of our rehearsals, we began rehearsing in January 1969 at Jim's house in Surrey.

Eventually, Keith's sister's, Jane, joined the new band too.

Yes, Keith said that his sister wasn't doing much, and... She was a very raw singer at the time, she was very unexperienced, but she had some sort of magic which we really liked. So she came up and joined in with the rehearsals. And that was how Renaissance started.

Did you have much say in the musical direction of the band?

Yes, we all did. We were all putting in whatever abilities we had, really. That was a very lovely time, very creative, and everybody was really enjoying creating something different, cause it wasn't based on anything we'd heard, except maybe John, whose ideas were rather classically oriented. So what tended to happen was that Keith and Jim would come up with lyrics and some chord structures maybe, and John and I worked very hard together, creating a sort of classical style for the music as well. So we blended together some very sort of embryonic song ideas from Jim and Keith, though some of them were pretty well structured but some of them were just vague ideas as well, it was a mixture. And we sort of added, you know, our sort of technique side of it a little bit more, really. Sometimes, you know, we'd all just chip in and say "what about this?" and "what about that?" and "let's try this and see how it sounds"... It was really quite good fun, and we also created a strong bonding as well, we got on very well at that time, it was a very innoncent sort of time in a way, very beautiful to remember...

That didn't last for long, however. Can you tell me what happened to Renaissance during the Illusion sessions?

Well, that album was actually recorded after we'd broken up in a way, or just at the time we were breaking up, that is, around June 1970. And that happened after we toured America after the first album came out. We did a lot of touring, we toured the States, and that went pretty well, but a few problems had emerged, communication-wise, between certain members. It was getting all a little bit hard work, and the fun had disappeared to some degree, and... Jim was also not very well at that time, and unfortunately we had to cancel some gigs in Switzerland and he had to come home. And we sort of not very well managed that, I think... We should have stayed together, but we didn't, and that was a little sad. But, mainly because we had the obligation to Island Records, we did our best to bring out the second album, which Jane had the idea to call Illusion.

Eventually, John Hawken carried on for a while with Jane Relf, while Keith and Jim moved to just a writing role. So you were the first one to leave?

Well, what occured was, by this time, Colosseum had expressed an interest in me, and Keith and Jim were very tired, I think, of touring... I think they'd realized how much the Yardbirds had taken out of them, really. I think they really didn't have the spirit to carry on either at that time. And so the only one who really wanted to keep it together I think was John Hawken. So how the 70's Renaissance occured was through him. He decided he wanted to carry on, so we let him use the name, and he got his friends together and reformed the band, simple as that, really. And they went through a few face changes, up until the band with Annie Halsam etc. But then a few months later he dropped out and decided to join Spooky Tooth, and so they replaced him. So that was the end of the original members, as far the band goes.

How do you look back on both Renaissance albums you played on?

Well, as I said, I think they were sort of innocent attempts, in a way, to do something original. I remember that with a lot of affection, because we all really put a lot of joy and love into it. The first one was done before Jane had learned to sing, really, which was a shame. By the time we formed Illusion, she had improved so much as a singer, that it was unreal, you know! She was really raw with Renaissance, and struggling a bit to stay in tune, and things like that, which I think was a shame. Somehow we just ignored that as musicians, and just liked the energy she was putting in and her enthusiasm and love, and that somehow seemed to make it work, you know, to some degree anyway. Looking back on it, I think it sounds dated now, but some people seem to disagree with that, so I respect their decisions (laughs)... The second album was obviously nothing like the same as the first one, because we didn't have the freshness or the originality. But there's still some nice things there as well.

So you joined Colosseum?

I was with Colosseum for about three or four months, in the summer of 1970. But the style was so different... and we didn't just quite hit it off. I did do some big gigs with them, and enjoyed that, I played at the Bath Festival in 1970 in Somerset in England, and that was very lovely, there was a quarter of a million people or so in this huge, huge field... It was amazing looking at the faces as you come out on stage, that was very exciting... That's my main memory of Colosseum, really... We played at the Royal Albert Hall, and a few other big gigs in Germany and places in France, I think, too, but I didn't really fit in with the style of the band. They were a bit too heavy for me at that time, I'd just come out of Renaissance, and I was used to creating with Renaissance whereas with Colosseum I just had to sort of play a bit robot style, and I didn't quite make it actually, and it didn't quite work. So I did an album with them, Daughter Of Time, and I left.

Then followed a long stint with Steamhammer...

Yes, shortly after, but actually before that I was working with Jody Grind musicians. I'd decided to have a go at forming a very progressive rock band with Ivan Zagni and Barry Wilson from Jody Grind. It was called Bogomas and lasted a few months, maybe six months or a little more, until we ran out of money. It never really gigged, we just practised together and had plans, it was really sort of avant-garde, the music, mainly instrumental, a lot of solos, it was bit self-indulgent I suppose in some ways. But we didn't actually hit the road with it, we ran out of money, we did get some interest from Island Records, Chris Blackwell, but we broke up. So then, Steamhammer, yes, in early 1971. That was a challenge for me really, they were playing a bit like Cream-style, really, and they were progressive and I liked the musicians as people. So we toured mainly in Germany and on the continent. I just wanted to travel and be part of a band, so I worked with them for a while. I only did one album with them, it was a strange album that didn't quite work, I don't think, it was a bit of mess, I think, though we tried very hard! And then, unfortunately, Mick Bradley, our lovely drummer, died of leukaemia, while we were mixing the album, and that just more or less finished it for us, I think...

What was the music of Steamhammer like?

Well, we actually changed the band from a sort of bluesy, r'n'b rock group into a more sophisticated outfit, really. Eventually, we changed the name of it, when we broke up Steamhammer, the two members that were left and me, we formed an instrumental band called Axis, which was short-lived, but a very good little band. It was with Martin Quittenton, who co-wrote "Maggie May" with Rod Stewart, a very fine writer and he played rhythm guitar, he was an original member of Steamhammer by the way. It didn't last, because we didn't have good management again. And that lasted up until about the end of 1973, just before Armageddon was formed...

How did you come to work with Keith Relf again in Armageddon?

Well, I'd stayed in touch with Keith since the Renaissance days, as friends, and he also helped out with some of the Steamhammer stuff in the studio. So at the end of Steamhammer he rang me up and said "what are you doing?", and I said I was not doing much. So he said "would you fancy going to America?"... And I said "yes". That was in February, 1974, I think... We went off just after my father died, I wanted to do something different and free myself from that situation... Going to America was exciting, cause Keith and I had both had a great time out there when we toured with Renaissance, especially in California, we were drawn towards California... We didn't have a lot of money, but we decided to risk it. And with Martin Pugh, the Steamhammer guitarist, we took a risk and went over to California with very little money, but some good contacts, really, from the Yardbirds and Renaissance tours, and also through Peter Frampton, who gave me some phone numbers. So we ended up in Los Angeles, and we found this very talented drummer who used to play with Johnny Winter, called Bobby Caldwell. So we rehearsed, and we went to A&M, said "we're here", you know, "d'you wanna hear us?", and they said "yeah". So we went in and sort of... we had very little material, really, we just jammed, and because we had quite a dynamic sort of line-up, with Keith's Yardbirds fame helping, we ended up within a few weeks we had a really good contract with A&M. So we went ahead, and we rehearsed pretty solidly, A&M let us use their rehearsal studios, in their, sort of grounds... But then things got a bit difficult. We discovered that Bobby had a drug problem, heroin problem, and it created problems for all of us really, because it was quite bad, and it affected rehearsals. I really don't want to get too personal about this, but he also had a strong influence on Martin, the guitar player, too. So it cause a sort of split in the band, there was Keith and I meditating, and we were getting quite into the spiritual side of Los Angeles. After a while it created some tension and it didn't work anyway, to cut a long story short. The rehearsals got more and more difficult. So after about six months in California, we came back to London and we recorded the Armageddon album at Olympic Studios, late 1974 or early 1975. But more and more problems were coming from the difficulty in rehearsals. It affected my playing quite badly, I just didn't play well, cause I tend to react emotionally to atmospheres and so that was more or less how we split, and also Keith got quite ill, that was just leading up to the time before he died. We became very close friends during that time, and had some amazing experiences... Then I did have a break for a while, and did other things. And then Keith Relf, about six months before he died, he came round and asked me if I was interested in getting something new together with him and Jane, and we did. That was in the Autumn of 1975. Around the time he died, we had already got the band together. So Illusion started in the summer of 1976, we didn't decide on the name until after Keith died. Keith was involved in the beginnings of Illusion, but didn't actually play with Illusion. It started afterwards with the new personnel, we replaced Keith with two other musicians.

Eventually, you reformed the original Renaissance, which led to the band Illusion...

That was Keith and Jane's idea. They came round to see me one day, after Armageddon had broken up, about six months before Keith died, and they said, "well, there seems to be a lot of interest in our old Renaissance albums, what do you think, you know, are you doing much?". And at that time, I wasn't, just doing some sessions, not very much. So I said "yes", and we rang around, and Jim was also quite interested, and John Hawken as well, so we reformed the idea. But that's when Keith died, shortly after, unfortunately, so it did knock us back a little bit. But a after a little while we decided we'd like to carry on, also for his sake, and so we got in John Knightsbridge, who was a friend of John Hawken's, on guitar, and Eddie McNeil who Jim knew, on drums. That was the Illusion line-up, in the summer of 1976. We didn't decide on the name until after Keith died. At that time I was still going on with my spiritual things, and I was studying yoga and going off to India, so I had to blend those two things together which was very difficult. But we carried on rehearsing, and then we took some demoes to Island. And Tim Clark, who was director of Island, really loved them, and so they signed us up. We decided to use the name Illusion, cause we couldn't have the name Renaissance anymore, because of Annie's band. So that was how it happened, in 1976. We recorded the album around that time, it came out in 1977.

What memories do you keep of this period?

It was again quite an exciting time, I was going back and forth to India, studying yoga and stuff, and doing my best to add ideas into Illusion. But I didn't put so much energy into Illusion as into Renaissance, cause I was more involved in other things. I did what I could, but it was not as creative for me personally, it was much more creative for Jim I think, and Jane. They put a lot of energy into Illusion. I did at times put in my ideas, like on "Louis' Theme" on the second album, which was a song I wrote about a meditation experience I'd had, a blissful experience... We bonded quite well as band, we worked hard to get the style, which was obviously different, it was more middle-of-the-road, really, quite gentle, but with a few hard edges to it, you know, we brought a heavier guitar player and drummer, and Jim was playing the acoustic guitar. Jane sang very sweetly at the time.

Why did Illusion split up so quickly, after the second album?

Well, we did two major tours, and our two albums did pretty well, really. The tours, well, we were backing Bryan Ferry on a tour that he had in Britain and Europe, and Dory Previn in 1978. And we did pretty well, not in terms of money, but in terms of exposure. Those two tours were the main thing we did, really, we didn't do much more than that. And it broke up again through some difficulties with personalities, and with direction... but the main thing was the ongoing upsurging of punk and new-wave music, which meant that Island were going putting all their money into new bands like Ultravox and Eddie And The Hot Rods, and things like this, it was the time of the Sex Pistols and all that stuff, and it wasn't time really for the style of music that we were playing, although we brought in Paul Samwell-Smith to produce the second album, it was very well produced, really, as opposed to the first album. We took it it Island, and Paul presented it to them with a lot of interest, but the only person interested was Tim Clark, the others just wanted to promote punk music. So that really finished the band, we didn't really get the exposure on the radio that we did on with the first album. So through lack of interest, really, we broke up, in 1979...

What did you do after Illusion?

I really did concentrate my energies on my spiritual work, and I did an album called Diamond Harbour during that time, in 1982, which was a spiritual music album, really, with a musician called Eugene Romain, a keyboard player and very fine singer, very pretty music really... And then nothing until Stairway, which started in 1986. Jim and I had a get-together after I left the yoga people I was working with, I went out on my own and... Jim rang me up one day, and said "what are you doing?". He was very interested in his meditation and spiritual things, and we decided to collaborate again. The direction of Stairway was to bring out - as I was working as a healer by then as well, a spiritual healer, to create some music to help people to relax and heal themselves. That was the essence of Stairway. So we've done a few tapes and CD's, started with Aquamarine in 1987, then Moonstone which was a mixture of songs and instrumentals. By this time of course I was playing mainly electro-acoustic guitar, which was more conducive to the style of Stairway, although I still played a little of bass too. We did also two tapes with a chap called Malcolm Stone, who is a sort of spiritual teacher, a psychologist. We made two experiement albums with him called Meditation Dance and Chakra Dance, which were to help people to move to healing music with more rhythms a little bit more scope to it. They were very cheaply produced, not like 'classic' albums, but good fun to work with, and I think they've helped a lot of people, from the feedback we've had, we've helped people to a-tune their minds and things like that. We've had some very warming feedback from people, not so much on the quality of the music, cause as I said they were very cheaply produced, but more to do with the feeling that people got from it.

Is Stairway still in existence?

Well, in name perhaps. Jim and I have moved on to doing other things. He's got his blues band, and I'm working on a few solo things. But yeah, it's still possible we could do some more things, it comes up from time to time, and we're still very good friends.

So what's your current, musical or non-musical, activity?

Well, it's mostly to do with healing music. I've just done a bass session for Jim McCarty, who's putting together an new-age tape in London, and I played a bit of bass on that. Otherwise I'm currently working on some solo guitar sounds, sort of semi-classical, intended really to help people to relax and to heal and things like that...