By Jeb Wright
MUNGO JERRY IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S true one-hit wonders! Back in 1970, their worldwide smash “In the Summertime” fit into the day’s music scene like a well-worn hippie moccasin. Frontman Ray Dorset had a certain charm that gave the tune mass appeal. Accidently, this jug band from England became stars.
In the interview that follows, piano player Colin Earl discusses the song and the band’s rapid rise to fame, as well as Mungo’s demise. It should be noted that Colin not only is a well-respected player of the ivories, but he also has some famous DNA, as his brother, Roger Earl, is a founding member and current drummer of the band Foghat.
Colin sheds some light on Mungo Jerry, the band’s big U.S. hit and Monty Python.
GOLDMINE: Tell me how you formed Mungo Jerry?
Colin Earl: I can tell you the brief details of how that happened. I was in a rock and roll band with Ray called The Good Earth. It was the precursor to Mungo Jerry. In 1968, we lost the drummer that we had who was kind of alright but then not very good. We decided that maybe we could not replace him. Ray and I started just playing country blues and then in ’68, we were joined by Paul King, who was a friend of ours. Paul was into jug band and folk music. It was a natural simulation that was happening. That is really where Mungo Jerry came from.
GM: “In the Summertime” was your only hit in the U.S.
CE: I personally think, and I’ve always thought this, because “In the Summertime” was such a big pop hit that it kind of detracted in some ways. People would turn against a pop band. There was a big thing for album bands in England. Our first album did very well, and it got us into the charts. We were not taken as seriously as we thought we were. We were serious about the music. I won’t complain about it, as there is no point.
GM: The success came fast.
CE: One of the weekly music papers came out, and all of sudden it was Mungo Mania and they said we were going to do movies. It was not unpleasant at the time, but if I had thought seriously about it I would have been more careful at that time. We ended up doing the one and only tour of the United States at that point. It was in September 1970. I met up with my brother Roger, who had just finished a tour with Savoy Brown. We met up in a Midtown hotel up in New York. I was just going out on tour, and he was just finishing a tour.
GM: Tell me about the tour.
CE: What was really good about it was that we did The Fillmore East, and it was wonderful. Steve Miller’s band was headlining, and we went on and we did OK. It felt good, as they were professional guys and the PA system was fantastic and you couldn’t complain about the sound. We did The Fillmore West, as well. We did that with Elton John, who was getting really big in the States and Poco. Poco was fantastic. We did the Whisky a Go-Go, which was a publicity thing and we had to do it. We did The Steve Allen Show. I wish I could have spoken to Steve about Jerry Lee, as he was a big fan of his. We did the Troubadour in L.A., which was a small club. We went down really well there, as it was a loose atmosphere and it was a nice place to play.
GM: What happened with Ray?
CE: We loved the fact that he was the front man, but we just wanted him to show up on time and tune his guitar. It was just obvious that it was not going to be that way. When I think back at it, the truth of the matter is that because it was the three of us – Ray sacked the bass player after the tour of America. He struggled. The bass player we took we had only known a few months. We wanted a guy who could play slap bass, and this guy played double bass but he was kind of a modern jazz player in many ways, so it wasn’t ideal. He didn’t have a good tour of the States. Ray said at the end of that tour that he couldn’t play with him anymore. Ray was the one who told him he was sacked.
GM: Did you form another band?
CE: We told the record company that we could no longer work with Ray, so they – in their infinite wisdom, because Ray wrote the hit and he was the singer – stuck with him. They said if Paul and I wanted to be in another band they would back us. We did a band with Virgin, before it was Virgin, really. Richard Branson had a new recording studio in Oxfordshire. He was running it as a sort of part-time thing. He had a really nice studio, and we went down there and recorded the whole album. This was 1972.
Branson was the life and soul of the party. Every night we’d have dinner after we’d recorded, and he would be there. In fact, Paul and I were invited to his first wedding. It was good fun. That boy was always good fun. He had a great big Irish wolfhound. If you wanted to get a glass of water halfway through the night you had to step over this enormous creature. He was one of two, but unfortunately, a farmer saw his brother, or whatever he was, chasing his sheep and shot the poor thing. There was only Boot, that was his name, left. He was a lovely creature. Richard Branson was good fun.
We didn’t have a name, so we called it The King Earl Boogie Band. It was a suggestion of a guy named Tom Allom, who went on to be a famous producer. Tom is a great man. Dave Cousins of The Strawbs produced the album, and we had a single off of it. The style was Mungo Jerry, and we did the traditional song “Plastic Jesus.” The record company thought it would be a good single. We had a traditional jazz band on it, and it sounded good.
Because it was called “Plastic Jesus” and we didn’t change the name, the BBC banned it. The BBC held court back in those days. What they said went. We didn’t get any plays because it was called “Plastic Jesus.” They had tried to ban the third Mungo Jerry song called “Lady Rose.” The B side had a song called “Have a Whiff on Me.” They banned that. They said if we would take it off and change the B side they would reinstall it on their playlist. We didn’t do it. “Have a Whiff” was a cocaine reference, I think. I don’t do that sort of thing, but I think that was it.
GM: Tell me about the time Monty Python opened for you.
CE: When we were hot, in 1971, we played a show with Monty Python in London. It was a sort of a dinner/dining kind of place. Let me get this right – they went on first, I believe. It doesn’t really matter back then who was first and who was second. Being a Monty Python fan, that was very enjoyable. I remember watching them on television and just doubling up in laughter. It was so crazy and off the wall at the time. Anyway, that is not what you’re asking. Yes, we did play with them.
It was OK for us. We had amplification. At the time, there was no such thing as throat mics. They chose not to use above mics or anything like that. The audience had to be relatively quiet and then they would laugh when they saw the joke. All throughout their act – I was loving it, of course – but there were calls from the audience going, “Louder! Louder! Turn it up!” It was really rude. I could hear what it was. It was only because they were making noise that you could not hear them. John Cleese was brilliant. At the end of their show, with people realizing they were going off and that was going to be the end of it, they start going, “More! More!” Cleese came out and put his hand to his ear and he said, “I’m sorry. I can’t hear you.” I thought it was a lovely putdown.
GM: Did you get to meet them?
CE: We did meet them, but in those days it was because we were well known and they were well known, so we just said “Hi” to each other. There was nothing special about it. By the time they were known in the U.S. and they became historic, it was a different thing. There was nothing to it as far as meeting them was concerned. They were a decent bunch of guys. They were educated at university and of the rest of it. It was the stance they took and the way they saw the British mentality. They were able to make fun of it in a very funny way.