What do Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Oasis, Twisted Sister, Kiki Dee and Chris Rea all have in common? Yes, this wide array of superstars do share one thing in common: they’ve all, at one point in their careers, worked with Stuart Epps.
Since 1967 Epps has immersed himself in the music industry, stating out as an office boy at Dick James Music at the age of fifteen and going on to become a praised producer and engineer. He even toured America with Elton John in the early 70s as his personal assistant.
Mr. Epps was kind enough to call in to The Rock and Roll Report from his UK home for a retrospective chat about his marvelous 40+ year career.
Q: Going back to the very beginning, how did you get involved in the music industry?
A: I was in bands from about the age of eight or nine and one guy who I was in a band with, and I also went to school with, [...] got this job working for Dick James as an office boy. That was probably about 1965 or ‘66 and he use to come home with all these stories [...] that he just went to Paul McCartney’s house, he got the new Beatles album [...] all these stories were just magnificent about him and the music business and how exciting it was.
A year passed and he said that he was looking for his replacement so that he could be promoted and I was just starting school, I was only 14 back then [...] but I just thought, “Wow, this could be an opportunity.” So, I mentioned it to my parents who I just thought would say, “You must be joking, you’ve got to start school,” and my dad said “Well, you know, if you want to do it then go and do it.” I just didn’t need any more encouragement than that.
I went for an interview and got the job as office boy. It was an amazing time. It was 1967 in London, it was flower power and hippie time, and I was earning $10 a week, which was about $9 more than I’d been getting, so I was like a millionaire and getting these incredible jobs: go to Paul McCartney’s house, go to Abbey Road Studios. It was a great way to find out about the music business really. Even though it was the lowest of the lowest jobs, to me it was absolutely brilliant. Everyday was great and I could probably talk about that period for about six hours and we can’t really do that! [laughs]
Q: So you began as an office boy and then where did your career path take you?
A: At that time there was a bit of a natural progression [...] Dick James, it was a music publishers then, one of the biggest in the country, but it wasn’t a record label so you went from office boy to disc cutter, and then from disc cutter you could go in the studio and become assistant engineer and then maybe engineer. And I sort of went from office boy to disc cutter and then I started working in the studio.
At that time I’d also met Elton John, or Reg Dwight, [...] everything happened incredibly quickly. It’s incredible to think that I was there when I was fifteen and by the time I was eighteen I was on tour with Elton as his personal assistant in America. It was quite a big team of people involved in making Elton John into a major recording artist [...] and that’s what everyday was involved in doing really. I was [also] producing at the time. [...] They were unbelievably exciting times. It’s only now that you realize just how exciting they were. Everyday was amazing music being made and incredible bands and it was all very exciting really.
Q: Touring America with Elton John at the age of 18; what was that experience like?
A: I’d never been on tour before, I’d never been to the States, and now we’re embarking on a three-month tour [...] but the thing is it was all kind of new to everyone [...] we were all sort of kids in a way, experiencing it the same. So exciting [but] it’s still a job, it’s still work [...] it’s not all parties and groupies. There were a few, but not for Elton, you know, he was a good boy. [laughs]
The audiences in America and Canada were absolutely incredible. We’d never seen anything like that [and] I haven’t seen anything like that since, to be honest. They took him to their heart instead of just polite, you know, applause. Whopping and yelling: they liked to have a good time. Not like London audiences where they would sit there and see what’s going on, they really loved him, you know, they loved the band. And touring in America you felt you were doing something exciting, whereas in England you just got told you got long hair and get off the bus or something. In America and Canada you felt like a special person doing it.
Q: Was Elton John just as eccentric in those early days as he is now?
A: Absolutely. He was eccentric long before he was eccentric on stage. He was always eccentrically dressed, he’s always been a mad comedian; he’s got an incredible sense of humor. He was never ordinary. Ever. And he was always a larger than life sort of guy and as popularity took him he could just be more eccentric really. And the wealthier he got the more outrageous the costumes got. That’s what he loves to do; be outrageous. In fact, if he weren’t outrageous he’d be extremely shy and would not want to be noticed at all. There’s a lot of people in the business like that: they’re either going to be not noticed and be completely obscure [or dress up] as Mickey Mouse, which is what he did in Central Park [...] but that’s what you need to be a big star: you need to be a bit larger than life.
Q: Getting back to England from the tour, where did you go from there?
A: [Dick James Music] had a record label now and I was working for the head of the record label who was Steve Brown. So, we talked everyday [about] Elton John albums, sorting out album sleeves and more tours and everything to do with the band, and that’s how it went on to 1973. Then Elton and Gus Dudgeon, who was his producer, and Steve Brown decided to form a record company which was Rocket Records. I went to work there as well for the head of that company, so it was a big move really. Dick James wasn’t very pleased we all started leaving.
Q: How where the years at Rocket Records?
A: I was an A&R there and we signed a band called Longdancer who had a guy in the band called Dave Stewart who then went on to form the Eurythmics. We signed Kiki Dee, that was my next big project: getting her band together and getting her albums together, and I did that for quite a few years. In fact we went on tour, that was the last tour I did in America, in 1974 with Elton and Kiki’s support and that was an extremely big tour. We met John Lennon on that tour and John came on stage with Elton at Madison Square Garden’s [...] But then coming back to England [...] It was all not as good as it was. Steve Brown had left, he was the guy that I was really working closely with, and I don’t know, nothing seemed to be the same.
In the mean time I’d met a girl who lived in an ice cream van in Hawaii and I thought, “That’s what I want to do, I’m going to go and live there and sort of retire really.” Just before I did that I was sort of saying goodbye to everyone and then Gus Dudgeon said he was building a studio, the ultimate studio, and would I be interested in looking to see where it was going to be built [in Cookham][...] I just thought the idea was brilliant and it’d been a long time since I’d been involved in making records hands on as producer or engineer and so I just thought, “Wow, this could be great.” So I had to tell the lady in Hawaii that it was all off and I wasn’t coming. I then moved to Cookham [to the Mill Studio] and this was when I was about twenty-three.
Q: So you took on the studio job, how did that go?
A: I worked with Gus, became his engineer and worked on Elton albums again and we worked on Kiki Dee and we had Chris Rea [but] Gus sold it to Jimmy Page in 1980 and then Jimmy wanted to keep me on at the studio [...] I wasn’t a big Zeppelin fan, I mean, I obviously liked them and I knew all about them. Jimmy was quite a strange person; I didn’t actually meet him for three months when I was working with him. It’s like working for Howard Hughes a bit, you know, he really was eccentric and a very strange guy, but I became his engineer and we recorded, we mixed, the last Zeppelin album. Then, because of his connection with heavy rock, I then started producing artists for Atlantic Records, which were Twisted Sister, Vandenberg [...] that was all a very good period as well.
Check in on Saturday, November 7th, for Part 2 of 2.