LS: "How did your love of music develop as a young man growing up in Germany?"
SS: Well, my introduction to music and learning music began with the piano lessons when I was a kid. I remember having to play all of those stupid, boring melodies, when all I really wanted to do was rock along. As I grew up I changed from the piano to the guitar. I also took some classical guitar lessons, but all I learned was to break my fingernails!
The technical side to my musical background started in college when I asked a physics professor to help me devise the circuitry for the wiring for a guitar pick-up. I couldn't afford a guitar myself, so I got myself a guitar-neck and built the rest myself. Sounded like a damned bass - no treble - that is when I realised there's no use being a professor in physics when you want to build a guitar. I studied electronics later on but that's another story...
LS: "How do you recall your introduction to the music industry?"
SS: In the mid-60's I did my first recordings in Nashville as a hopeful pop-singer going under the name of Steff. I received limited chart success, having hits in both the American and European charts. I remember I didn't see any money though, somehow in those days the record companies had a healthy approach - "you sing, we get rich". I suppose things have changed a little, now the artists are getting millions in advances and the record companies all go bust… I guess it's "cause the times they are a changing" to quote Dylan.
LS: "What are/were your musical influences?"
SS: I gobbled up just about everything from that time - jazz, American pop, classical music. Strangely enough, the Beatles completely passed me by, don't ask me why. Musically, my greatest influence came from Brazil. Their music made me understand that you can use clever harmonies and still create music with a poppy feel. The guy who really did it to me was Carlos Jobim. He had these harmonic changes that made anybody else look like a greenhorn. It was so clever and subtle, and yet still so difficult to understand, he drove me nuts... he still does!
LS: "And your lyrical style?"
SS: As far as lyrics are concerned I have been influenced more by the French than by anybody else. The French taught me that poetry and pop music could very well dwell together.
In the late 60's I was living in France, that's where I met Monsieur Nougaro, Monsieur Brel, Monsieur Brassens and Monsieur Léo Ferré. These guys wrote Shakespearean poetry, but they didn't print their poetry and sell it as books… nope, they went on stage and sang their poetry. And their poetry, their stories had something else, something you couldn't quite describe… It wasn't your usual "I'll love you forever…" crap; it was about love going down the drain, about people going down, about losers, about injustice without the political morality finger. It had something of the original Blues and the Country songs in the South, but without the proletarian edge. It had a touch of Ancient Greek tragedy - in the end everybody loses. Time is the great winner. It was incredibly refined at the same time. It was difficult, full of double meanings. It had a ferocious passion for language, for the beauty of words. It was sad, funny, cynical, never corny and never ever boring. It had a fantastic insight into the human condition, but yet you could sing along with it. It was the ultimate mix of sex and brain and the public loved it. I have kept a high esteem for the French ever since. OK, I know on the other side of the Channel you guys have some pretty corny name for the French, but people who buy records with poetry by the millions, who drive around in rotten cars so they can afford a three star restaurant once a year must have something about them, period.
LS: "After recording in America in the mid 60's, there is a definite gap in your discography before the Proud Mary album. What were you doing in the late 1960's?"
SS: I was in my late 20's and in those days I freelanced as a sound engineer doing the Jazz Festivals in Montreux and also doing recordings for various artists at my studios in Bienne and Geneva.
LS: "Would you mind dropping into this conversation the names of some of the artists you recorded during this time?"
SS: During this time I recorded sessions by Thelonious Monk, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Roberta Flack and Dr Timothy Leary in Switzerland. In Montreux I recorded just about everybody with a name including Les McCann, Dr John, Carole King, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Fats Domino.
LS: "And so to Proud Mary - how and where was that recorded?"
SS: The Proud Mary sessions were recorded at my studio in Bienne. It was recorded on my mobile 8-track studio that I used to record the jazz festival sessions in Montreux.
LS: "Could you share with us your recollections of the musicians you assembled for the session"
SS: The vocalist was a girl from Manchester - and her name was indeed Mary - Mary Linn. She walked into the studio one day with an English Rock band called Duffy. I later went on to produce this band. I thought she was outrageously gifted, much too good to be screaming hard rock, so I signed her up. As simple as that. I've since lost touch with her.
Pierre Cavalli was an amazingly talented son-of-a-bitch. We did a lot of sessions together. We just met during a session and decided we liked each other. And we were both freaking for the Brazilian stuff. He had spent some time in Brazil actually. I produced a beautiful instrumental album with him, Brazilian stuff. Unfortunately I just can't seem to find the original master-tape, I deserve the death penalty!
LS: "Who was Dede?"
SS: I don't know much about him. He was a local gipsy kid having only one name: Dede, the "De" was pronounced like the "de" in Deborah. We didn't have any bongos, so he played the back of my acoustic guitar.
LS: "Was it your intention to release the session as an album?"
SS: Initially I had produced a single from the session ("We'll Make It Alright") which was released in America on Bell Records, in France by Barclay and in Germany by Ariola. Then I decided to follow up with a long player. The Yanks weren't interested in releasing the album, but Evasion were. So I had to go with Evasion. There you go - money was ruling the world already in those days.
LS: "How did the releases sell?"
SS: The single did reasonably well, especially in the States. The album didn't do what I think it deserved. Probably a bit too early. That's the main problem in life: it's simply not good enough to do the right thing, you've got do it at the right time too. And sometimes it's better to be a little bit late than a little bit early...
There's this record I did in '67 "Oh, What A Lovely Day" recorded under the name Steff, which did so badly then. Now it keeps showing up on eBay exchanging hands for ridiculous prices and everybody keeps telling me "what a great cut!". I think I'll re-release this single!
LS: "Were you pleased with the album?"
SS: Well frankly, when I produced the Proud Mary album, I adored it. It changed my view of the music industry, my philosophy became "just do what you feel inside and don't prostitute yourself". Don't think thoughts like "are they going to like it?" Like it yourself, and if the others like it, all the better. This is how I built my career in Germany after Proud Mary. But then I forgot about the album, life and music moves on.
LS: "How do you feel about your music being re-issued?"
SS: When you guys turned up, I first thought: crazy weirdoes from Britain. My nephew and niece were raised and still live in the UK so I know what you Brits are like! Seriously, I listened to the tape and I must admit, it felt good as the memories came back to me. The music well, the sounds really, are partially buried by lack of technical means but, in my opinion, it still sounds fresh, young, honest and not outdated at all. And then I thought to myself, "isn't it great that one and half generations later, people dig this up and want to put it back in the open" and you know what? This new generation of music lovers have got taste. And of course I'm flattered. The difficulty in this commercial, material world is to make up one's mind - do you want to be good, or do you want to be successful? Preferably both of course, but when you have to choose, if you choose the latter you eventually betray yourself.
LS: "Stephan, it has been a pleasure talking with you"
SS: Thanks for your interest, thanks for digging up my old stuff, and best of luck with your project.