Rockstar drummer Don Powell – a ‘normal’ Saturday afternoon in an English church

He’s been called the nicest man in rock, by me among thousands of others, and he proves it every day of his life.
Location: St Saviours CoE Church, Retford, England.
Action: Friends and potential ‘friends-to-be’ gather in the car park.
Rockstar enters: Hugs and laughs, hands and kisses – drummer Don Powell doesn’t just know these people, he’s known some of them for nearly 50 years. Slade fans, even though the original band hasn’t played for near 30 years, are Don Powell fans … and personal friends.
Perhaps churches – and temples and mosques – should offer themselves as venues for music of all types. Rock is not anti-religious; religion is not anti-rock, or it shouldn’t be. This is an afternoon with Don Powell, a man who hit life on the head (literally – and it mucked up his memory and taste buds) when Britain’s most popular rock and pop band, Slade, were at the height of their fame.
Slade were not a ‘druggie’ band; only Noddy Holder and Don Powell liked a few drinks – a few too many sometimes, and Don’s struggles have been well-documented, while Jim Lea and band founder Dave Hill were relatively abstemious. They were, in the late 60s and early 70s, four lads from the Black Country who created a phenomenally successful band. No 1s, platinums, live album, film (Slade in Flame is still judged to be one of the very best ‘band’ films), festivals, break up, animosity and financial friction, make-up but not musically, and now just Dave and Don touring Europe with vocalist, bassist and violinist John Berry and guitarist/vocalist Mal McNulty. Don is also talking about Slade and himself. He’s a fascinating character and retains an exceptional ability on drums.
In Retford, on a small, borrowed drum kit, and in a church, Don demonstrated the reasons why Ringo invited him to play with him. Every drummer can knock out a 4/4 and keep the rhythm steady and solid; almost every top ten single 40+ years ago shows that. What makes things different is where the drummer is a percussionist: where the art of drumming is not so much hitting the skins, but not hitting them, hitting air aside from the beat; allowing the beat to creep into the senses of the audience, so that they ‘hear’ a drum that isn’t actually playing. This isn’t just the territory of jazz or prog rock; this is Don Powell land.
Don’t believe me? Listen to those Slade tunes of the 70s and 80s. What made Slade different is that, while they were four mates having fun and loving music, they were also individuals with separate styles. Noddy Holder’s unique voice was not the only signature of a great band.
After two tracks with guitarist/vocalist Les Glover and violinist Graham Bottley, it was time to swop seats, leave the drum kit, and join poet extraordinaire Paul Cookson, compere and question master. Last year we had the first of this Q&A, and both host Paul and star Don, were, this time, rehearsed and much more confident. The humour was fast, flowing and funny – with constant, good-hearted mickey-take of Slade’s Dave Hill, who wasn’t there to answer back or feel aggrieved.
Did the audience learn a lot? Probably not, but there were new snippets to excite the devoted purists, the obsessives, the celebrity music watchers, and anybody with an interest in those heady days of rock. There were tales that can’t be repeated of rock band excesses in the US, Europe, Asia and Japan and Australasia; and stories about rock stars who have died, but this was about a vibrant, living and loving drummer. One word of advice: when you’re in a US hotel bar chatting to a very attractive lady (and several ladies I know claim Don is, and always has been, Mr Handsome), it’s best not to choose the girlfriend of the current world boxing champion – as Don found out when Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, clapped his massive hand on the young Black Country drummer’s shoulder.
At 72 Don should now be putting his feet up. Instead he’s touring Eastern Europe, again, and then a punishing schedule of gigs throughout England before and after Christmas with Slade. Catch him, catch the band – it’ll be a fun evening.
As a finale there were more songs, and a party with balloons all staged for a forthcoming video. Farewells are always hard, but they won’t be for long. Some are going to Europe to catch gigs; most of us will be catching up at gigs in England. Don Powell is a star. He is grateful that life has spared him and he is giving back what he never took in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Rockstar drummer Don Powell – a ‘normal’ Saturday afternoon in an English church”

  1. A great review of an excellent day, Richard. Sharp, concise and accurate.
    You also played an important part in the day with your description of the recording of Slade Alive!

    1. Thanks. It was a long time ago. Sadly – and it’s a fault – I agree with Don that there isn’t much ‘modern rock’ that I like. My appreciation stopped when punk arrived: some good instrumentals, but appalling vocals. Slade were different.

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