Interview: Mark Flanagan – Jools Holland’s guitarist
An encounter with Jools Holland led Mark Flanagan into a remarkable career as part of the TV star’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, playing alongside some true musical greats…
If you’re tuning into boogie-woogie maestro Jools Holland and his Rhythm And Blues Orchestra this New Year’s Eve – rocking out of 2015 with his annual Hootenanny TV extravaganza, take a peek over his shoulder. You’ll see a guy in trendy threads with a snazzy brim – oh, and a rather cool 60s Gibson ES-335… that’s Mark Flanagan.
Born in Liverpool, and influenced from an early age by Edward Flanagan – his guitar-playing dad – Mark honed his skills on the ukulele before moving onto six strings. Following excursions with Little Ginny and later The Box Brothers, a 27-year tenure with Holland has further broadened Flanagan’s playing expertise.
Having backed up artists ranging from Tom Jones to Ellie Goulding and Buddy Greco to Ed Sheeran, Flanagan can slip into the styles of Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker or Chuck Berry, playing whatever’s needed to suit his band leader.
When that band leader is Jools Holland, you can expect a selection from Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Glenn Miller, BB King and Solomon Burke. His studio credits include playing with George Harrison, whom he describes as “memorably melodic” on the former Beatle’s final solo album. He’s also an accomplished Dobro and acoustic player – having released several albums under his own name.
Holland speaks highly of his long-time guitar player: “Mark plays little figures that fit perfectly with my busy left hand – he’s the first person I’ve known to do it,” he says. “Mark understands everything from jump-jive to modern music – he can swing, then rock it… Eric Clapton describes Mark as a truly great guitarist.”
Flanagan thanks his dad for setting him on the six-string path: “I was very fortunate, because my dad played guitar; and like a lot of men from his generation in Liverpool, he went to sea in the late 40s and 50s. He bought a lovely dance band guitar in Australia – which I still have, and have just had rebuilt by guitar maker Martyn Booth.
“In the mid-60s, he came home with a ukulele. My brother and sister didn’t really bother with it – but I stuck at it – and we played together for the next three or four years, until I was 12, when I got my first real guitar. It was a Barnes & Mullins flat top – with a DeArmond pickup attached. We would play or practise three or four times a week – old favourites like Who’s Sorry Now or Ain’t Misbehaving. My dad was very encouraging – and very patient. All the family would join in with three-part harmonies, and that ‘musical sense’ was all around the house.
“He told me about open E tuning when I was only about 13 or 14 – and how to play slide. I thought it was interesting, but didn’t really look at it again until 30 years later when I bought a Dobro.”
“I noticed when I was playing with him on ukulele, the same chords were popping up – but in a slightly different order… like the same game, but on a different field. He also talked to me a lot about phrasing – and said I should listen to the likes of Frank Sinatra if I wanted to know how to sing. I didn’t really worry about keys from then on – the patterns sort of joined up for me, so when I changed to guitar I knew where I was already. I used to watch George Formby doing the ‘scissors’ thing and I tried to play like that – but it was 40 years later when Joe Brown showed me how to drag the thumb across the strings, to get that syncopation. I still can’t do it!”