FUSION ORCHESTRA built a strong and dedicated following during the early 1970s – mostly thanks to the band's musicianship, ambitious musical works and exciting stage act. The fact that they toured constantly and gigged throughout the length and breadth of the country carried their music to a huge audience during the close to six years the band was together.
Fusion Orchestra was formed in 1969 by guitarists and lifelong friends Colin Dawson and Stan Land (who met on their very first day at infants school), together with Dave Bell, who had already been playing drums with Colin and Stan in a rock band which, at the time, was unnamed.
The name Fusion Orchestra was eventually chosen to reflect the diverse styles woven into the band's music. Early performances featured original songs written by Stan Land and Colin Dawson.
In the band's early days, vocal and bass duties were handled by another friend of Colin and Stan – Dave Wheeler, but other interests prevented him from joining the band on a permanent basis.
Although the band played eight gigs with Dave Wheeler on bass, his situation meant the other members were constantly on the lookout for a replacement, which they found in November 1969 in the shape of Mick Sluman. Mick was singing and playing guitar with a local semi-pro band called This Was (a name unashamedly lifted from the title of Jethro Tull's debut album). The band was playing a support spot to Fusion Orchestra.
Mick had a certain stage presence and Colin, Dave and Stan approached him after the gig to find out when and where his band rehearsed. A while later they turned up at a This Was rehearsal and, much to the disquiet of the other members, asked Mick if he wanted to join a good band – he'd have to take up bass guitar though. Mick thought about it for about 30 seconds. He joined and soon began to contribute to the band's material, helping to pen some early band numbers with Colin Dawson and Stan Land, including 'Winter Nights' and 'Outcast in Hell'.
The band built up a strong following gigging around London and the South and, in June 1970, they were spotted by their manager-to-be Steve Parker while playing an open-air gig at Carshalton Carnival in South London. Fusion Orchestra had been booked as third on the bill but their performance stole the show and blew the other bands off stage.
Steve Parker became Fusion Orchestra's manager and set about promoting the band, which continued to gig solidly, playing pubs, clubs and colleges, including legendary rock venues such as The Temple in London's Wardour Street, Hounds (at the Green Man) in East Ham, Sisters Club in Seven Sisters Road, The Red Lion in Leytonstone and The Greyhound in Fulham Palace Road.
Fusion Orchestra appeared regularly at Fulham's Greyhound – until the band's smoke-making device went out of control and filled the pub with smoke at the end of the act. The landlord (a formidable Scotsman named Duncan Ferguson) banned FO because of the incident. But they were soon forgiven and back playing to appreciative audiences not so long after.
The band continued to go down well wherever it played and was building a strong following. However, it was decided that a 'front man' would strengthen the line-up and in September 1970, advertised in what was then the musicians' bible, The Melody Maker. Many great acts were formed through ads in this music paper and the band advertised for a vocalist who could double on another instrument.
Fusion Orchestra held auditions throughout October and had been expecting to take on a male vocalist, so it was a bit of a surprise when Jill Saward applied to audition. She was a big fan of progressive jazz/rock and decided Fusion Orchestra was a band with the style she was looking for. Jill was outstanding at the audition with a powerful voice and tremendous vocal style (The fact that she was a sexy schoolgirl had nothing to do with it!) Jill was just 16 but lied about her age in case the other members thought she was too young. She joined the band and after a week of solid rehearsal, the new line-up was ready to go on the road.
Jill proved a tremendous asset: she was an outstanding vocalist and soon revealed other talents as a flute and keyboard player. She also had a tremendous stage presence.
Jill began to contribute to the band's song writing and helped compose some of their early repertoire, including 'Desolation Railway Station', and 'Greasy Jean, The Funfair Queen'.
Although Jill was self-taught as a vocalist, she had studied classical and jazz piano, as well as guitar and flute, and soon incorporated these instruments into the band. They also began to develop an exciting visual stage act, adding a custom light show.
In 1971, the band signed their first recording contract with Mother Records - a small label ran by Henry Henroyd, who managed the BBC Radio 1 DJ Emperor Rosko. As producer, the label lined up Ashley Kozak, the manager of Donovan and also responsible for many of his hits.
But things were moving too slowly for Fusion Orchestra and after a year without going into the studio, the band took the option to end their contract and seek a bigger company to record them.
During the year without recording, bassist Mick Sluman left the band. The other members were sorry to see him go – he was a great character and very popular – but the commitment to Fusion Orchestra had become too much for him.
He was replaced in June 1972 by Dave Cowell ('Dangerous Dave'), an inventive bass player and tremendous showman. He played his first gig with the band at Thurrock Civic Hall in Grays, Essex, on 23 June. It was the 175th performance for Bell, Dawson and Land and the 140th since Jill Saward joined.
Dave Cowell soon began to contribute to the band's material and helped take Fusion Orchestra into more ambitious and inventive territory musically. Meanwhile, the band's following continued to grow and the band was booked solidly, touring the UK constantly.
The band's first musical tour de force, 'Sonata in Z', co-written by Cowell, Dawson and Saward, made its debut at the unlikely Dolphin Hotel, Botley – the day before the band played the more impressive Weymouth Pavilion Theatre, marking Jill Saward's 200th gig with the band.
Within two months and 30 gigs later, the band had added further ambitious numbers 'Have I Left The Gas On?' and 'Talk To The Man In The Sky' to their set list.
Fusion Orchestra's music moved towards ever more sophisticated compositions incorporating elements of rock, jazz and various other styles, with the emphasis on clever arrangements. In tandem, the stage show developed and the band's lightshow grew in stature to include a lighting gantry.
The music was underpinned by a strong stage show which was dramatic, sometimes breathtaking and sometimes humorous. Every member of the band was featured. Jill played a solo number – 'Queen of Sheba' – accompanying herself on 12-string acoustic guitar. Stan Land and Dave Cowell performed a loose, blues-based harmonica duet and managed to incorporate a show-girl style high-kicking dance. Lead guitarist Colin Dawson played a blistering instrumental version of Summertime, the George Gershwin classic.
Dave Bell's drum solo was a high spot. Not only did he demonstrate a virtuoso command of the kit, he also stepped off to play almost everything percussible in the venue – much to the delight of audiences. At one stage during his solo, a children's junior drum kit, complete with its own drum platform, was wheeled out by the road crew, and subsequently played by Dave as part of the performance.
Then there were the costumes, from Jill's succession of diaphanous gowns to Dave Cowell's weird headgear and dungarees, Stan Land's flasher's mac and old lady's hat, then later, the two Daves' resplendent flag capes. Some of the band's regular followers took to copying the Stan Land trademark attire, arriving at the band's gigs in flasher's macs and Wellington boots outfits.
The band played at London's Marquee club in Wardour Street so regularly, it was almost a spiritual home. On Thursday 1 February 1973, they played to a packed house. Among the audience were representatives from record company EMI and music publisher Acuff-Rose.
A storming performance led to the offer of a record deal with EMI for an album and single, and a publishing contract with Acuff-Rose Music. The band signed in March 1973 and later that year spent a month in the world-renowned Abbey Road Studio.
The resulting album, 'Skeleton in Armour', featured three main numbers from the band's stage performances: 'Sonata in Z', 'Have I Left The Gas On?' and 'Talk To The Man In The Sky'. The title track was work in progress at the beginning of the studio sessions. Dawson had written a theme and suggested chord sequences for a main verse. Jill Saward took these away and days later arrived at a recording session with the lyrics for 'Skeleton In Armour'. The song was immediately adopted as the album title track. Cowell added bass lines for the middle instrumental section, over which Saward played Hammond organ.
The album also reflected the sense of fun Fusion Orchestra demonstrated on stage. The Cowell-Land harmonica duet 'OK Boys, Now's Our Big Chance' and the slightly ludicrous 'Don't Be Silly, Jilly' were not to be taken seriously.
The EMI contract also demanded the band produce a single. Dawson came up with some straight rock chords, leaning a little towards the Rolling Stones' song 'Brown Sugar' over which Saward wrote lyrics and melody for 'When My Mama's Not At Home' – based to some extent on personal experience! Producer Jeff Jarrett added a brass arrangement for a more commercial feel and although the single was included as an album track, it was not typical of the progressive rock fusion music that formed the band's main live act.
Unusually, the band was signed to the main EMI label, not to Harvest, EMI's progressive rock label. Jeff Jarrett was assigned as producer and was not familiar with prog rock music. Among his production credits were a series of Classical Rock albums, where rock songs where scored for symphony orchestra. Sometimes the band found it difficult to get ideas across.
The resulting album, although critically acclaimed by the music press, suffered from limited promotion. EMI's publicity amounted to one press release and two half-page advertisements in Melody Maker, plus one half-page in Sounds. There was no strong publicity machine behind the band and most album sales were achieved probably through the band's live work and their rigorous touring schedule.
Between the recording of 'Skeleton In Armour' and its release in November 1973, Fusion Orchestra continued to gig solidly in Britain and also crossed the Channel to play gigs in Holland and Germany.
At the Scheessel Rock Festival in northern Germany, headlined by legendary performers Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and featuring many leading rock bands, Fusion Orchestra played to a 50,000-plus crowd. With a storming performance that included numbers from 'Skeleton In Armour', as well as feature spots for all band members, the audience wouldn't let the band go without an encore. Happy to oblige, the band had the balls to play their version of 'Whole Lotta Shakin' – a rock 'n' roll song made famous by none other than Jerry Lee himself. They never found out what he thought of their version.
Despite winning the recording contract with EMI, it was clear that Dave Cowell was no longer entirely happy with Fusion Orchestra. Earlier that year, the band was booked to play a charity concert at London's Alexandra Palace. Shortly before they were due on stage, Dave walked out of the venue over some disagreement, the cause of which wasn't immediately obvious. The performance had to cancelled.
After 184 appearances with the band, two months and around 14 gigs after the release of the album, Dave Cowell played his final set with the FO, at Bristol's Colston Hall on 14 December 1973. It was Fusion Orchestra's 358th performance as a band, and marked the 324th appearance for Jill Saward.
Dave Cowell was replaced on bass by Paul Jennings. The band also decided to expand the line-up and took on Martin Slavinec (aka Martin Lee) on keyboards.
After a month of rehearsal, Fusion Orchestra took to the road as a six-piece, playing their first gig with the new line-up on 2 February 1974 at Doncaster College of Education. The gig also saw the debut of new material, including 'Beginning End', 'To A Child', and 'Lazoon' – a vehicle for Dave Bell's drum solo, but which featured an impressive guitar preamble by Colin Dawson.
The band continued to play to packed halls and appreciative audiences. But while new bassist Paul Jennings settled in quickly and contributed to new material, keyboardist Martin Slavinec was less than comfortable with the music. After eleven gigs it seemed clear that he wasn't right for the band. He was to play only four more gigs with Fusion Orchestra and parted company with the band making his final appearance at Swansea's Patti Pavilion on 29 March 1974.
It was the time of the fuel crisis and three-day week. The shortage of petrol had a serious impact on the availability of vinyl for records. Record companies began to cull smaller bands to allow them to concentrate the available vinyl stocks on volume-selling big-name artists. Many smaller bands suffered because of this, and Fusion Orchestra wasn't to escape: EMI chose not to renew the band's contract. It was a blow and while FO continued to work solidly, touring constantly, some of the early enthusiasm was dented. Stan Land, one of the founder members, was also facing personal problems at home, and decided to leave the band in the middle of 1974. He had played more than 400 gigs with FO.
For Jill, Dave and Colin particularly, this was very disappointing. Stan had always been cheerfully crazy and every bit the character audiences saw on stage. Of all the personnel changes, this was probably the most significant.
Stan Land was replaced on second guitar by Andy Blamire, who had been roadying for the band. Andy was a competent player and stepped into the role fairly easily, but the character of the band changed.
Jill Saward, Colin Dawson and Paul Jennings worked on new material. New songs, including 'Sister Reno' and 'Make It Easy', were added to the set. There was a noticeable shift away from the complex, epic numbers of the 'Skeleton In Armour' days toward a more straight-up rock style. The band's management also began to push Jill considerably more to the fore.
Between July 1974 and the end of the year, the band played 50 performances. But during that period, founder-member and lead guitarist Colin Dawson became increasingly disillusioned; at one point, he all but left – then had a change of heart.
But there was no getting away from the fact that Dawson felt the real spirit had gone out of the band and, disappointed at the failure of the band's management to secure a new recording contract, he decided to leave at the end of 1974.
His final gig with Fusion Orchestra was at London's Marquee Club on 22 December 1974. For the remaining original members Dawson and drummer Dave Bell, it would be their 450th professional gig with FO.
It was billed as a 'Special Christmas Party with Fusion Orchestra, featuring the delectable Jill Saward'. Stan Land was to make a 'rare guest appearance'.
The band played some of their new material plus 'Talk To The Man In The Sky' and 'Skeleton in Armour' from the album. Also included were old favourites, 'Summertime', featuring Dawson on guitar, and 'Spinedance', which was written by Dawson specially as a vehicle for Dave Bell's unique drum solo. Stan Land reprised the jokey harmonica number, 'OK Boys, Now's Our Big Chance'. And the act closed with the band's usual climactic performance, seeing Jill Saward give it her all, as usual.
The gig was packed; the audience loved it. Only time prevented Fusion Orchestra playing more than one encore, a rocked-up version of the Tommy James song, Mony Mony, featuring harmony guitar work from Andy Blamire and Colin Dawson.
It was also the last gig for Andy Blamire who decided to quit along with Colin Dawson.
Although Dave Bell wrote 'The end of an era' in his notes, it was not the end for Fusion Orchestra. Accomplished guitarist Alan Murphy, who had been playing with the Long John Baldry Band, was recruited to replace Colin Dawson. The line-up was reduced to four and some new songs were added to the set. The style moved even further away from progressive material to more mainstream rock.
The final Fusion Orchestra line-up played its first gig at The Nowhere Club in Bicester on 31 January 1975. They would play 25 gigs in all, including four appearances at the Marquee, before the band finally split. Fusion Orchestra made its last appearance at Barbarella's in Birmingham, on 4 May 1975 – five years and eight months after the band's first gig at The Greyhound, Redhill, in October 1969. Only Dave Bell remained from the original line-up.
Reasons for the split were quoted in the music press as: "Mainly financial but exaggerated by musical and personal differences."
Jill Saward became a solo artist after Fusion Orchestra, but also played in other bands, including all-girl group Brandy. She eventually joined jazz-funk band Shakatak, with whom she has enjoyed a long and successful career. She is still touring and recording with Shakatak.
Stan Land, Dave Bell, Mick Sluman and Colin Dawson played together in a short-lived rock band called Rampant Robot in the mid-1970s.
Dave Bell played drums with Basil's Balls-Up Band in the '80s and early '90s. He still has a kit but plays very little now.
Dave Wheeler still sings and plays bass and regularly performs with South London blues band B-Mused.
Mick Sluman is still playing solo gigs.
Stan Land is not making public appearances but still plays harmonica and retains his old and valuable Fender Stratocaster.
Dave Cowell joined Colin Dawson in Fusion Orchestra 2 at the end of 2009 but they parted ways again in late 2010. He still plays harmonica and has been know to make the odd guest appearance with his sister's blues band, Bad Influence.
Neither Paul Jennings nor Martin Slavinec are in touch with any of the original band members.
Alan Murphy became a much sought-after session player, performing with high-profile artists and bands such Kate Bush, Go West and Level 42, until his untimely death in 1989 from complications brought on by the HIV virus.
Colin Dawson has played regularly in bands over the past two decades and has now formed Fusion Orchestra 2 to play music from the Skeleton In Armour Album live, plus new material in the same vein. In July 2013, the band released their debut album, Casting Shadows.