“Graham who?” was the cry when, in 1979, the irreplaceable Ronnie James Dio was replaced by a relatively unknown singer called Graham Bonnet. The resulting album, Down to Earth, was a shift toward commercialism but still exuded heavy rock with tracks such as ‘Eyes of the World’ providing the weight to offset the Ballard pop rock. The whole album, and new boy Graham’s performance, sparked sufficient interest for my ‘insane have to have everything’ to kick in and sealed my eternal loyalty to this magnificent voice. (I, or rather my wife, suffers from my OCD: Obsessive Collecting Disorder – I have to have every legitimate release from my favourite bands and their members. They are all in physical form and therefore the furniture bill for CD/DVD/LP storage has, she says, to be added to the initial costs!)
In those heady pre-internet days, information was difficult to find, but careful scouring of the music press led me to his recordings of a couple of Bee Gee’s penned songs…’Only One Woman’ and ‘The Walls Fell Down’. Fear not, although very pop, Graham’s voice as always makes them something special. Recorded as The Marbles with his cousin, Trevor Gordon, they made a fairly big impact on the charts, although interest soon waned and he seemed to disappear until 1974 when, through connections with his then partner, Adrienne Posta, he appeared in a British comedy film (interpret that how you will) called ‘Three For All’ where he was on screen as Billy Beethoven in the band that performed in the film. The songs were suitably banal, but are still lifted by Graham’s performance.
The next release I procured, Line Up, came out after his parting of ways with Mr Blackmore and further enhanced his vocal prowess: witness the soaring vocals of the old Motown hit, ‘Be My Baby’ or the superb adaptation of Paul Bliss’s ‘That’s The Way That It Is’ (also done brilliantly by Uriah Heep on ‘Abominog’) and, of course the surprise hit ‘Night Games’. Another lull ensued until my regular scouring of record racks turned to gold when I found his self titled solo album from 1977 on Ringo Starr’s label. This album further cemented his place in my collection, no matter the genres he addressed. Witness his amazing vocals on a Dylan cover: ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ or the song Blackmore memorably got him to sing at Donnington, ‘Will You Still love Me Tomorrow’ and the Micky Moody blessed rock of ‘Soul Seeker’, not forgetting the song he wrote for my birthday: ‘Sunday 16’ (just coincidence for my 18th, but I can dream!)
In 1982 Graham joined Michael Schenker for the glorious ‘Assault Attack’ only to leave shortly afterward due to a wardrobe malfunction (!) on stage and then came the triumphant trilogy of Alcatrazz. The widdly Malmsteen followed by the widdly Vai albums were astounding and the final ‘Dangerous Games’ may have been widdle free but contained stunning performances, particularly from Graham on tracks such as ‘Blue Boar’ (a motorway service station) or the title track and one of many versions of ‘Only One Woman.’ After they parted, Graham fell in with another widdly guitarist, Chris Impelliterri, for the ‘Stand In line’ release. He added some cracking lyrics and vocals to tracks such as the title song and a revisit to ‘Since You’ve Been Gone.’ Rock of a different kind came, as he left after that album and the two Forcefield CDs (‘III – To Oz and Back’ and ‘IV – Let The Wild Run Free’) saw Graham team up with Cozy Powell, Ray Fenwick and Jan Akkerman to deliver some classic covers and originals: try Hendrix’ ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ for example.
The non-rock, but still brilliant ‘No Bad Habits’ from ’78 and ’91’s ‘Here Comes The Night’ are mainly softer, soulful and unmissable…the redoubtable Cherry Red Records have a great box set covering most of his earlier work and I only wish these things were available back in the day as they would have saved a lot of searching and money.
After contributing hugely to Eddie Hardin and Pete York’s musical adaptation of Wind in The Willows, Graham’s output become heavier and, in some cases, metallic: witness the Bob Klick partnership and Blackthorne or the Japanese heavy metal of Anthem and another Impelliteri album, ‘System X.’ These tend, to my ear at least, to blur into a metal maelstrom but with the saving grace of Graham’s superb vocals and his increasing tendency to write real, relatable and oft times amusing lyrics. From Blackthorne try ‘Sex Crime’ or, from the lost second album that came out in 2016 as ‘Don’t Kill The Thrill’, ‘Man In The Black Hat’. Anthem’s album contained the genius of ‘The Juggler’ and System X has ‘Nighttime Lover.’
Between these heavyweight releases, there were two exemplary solo albums: ‘Underground’ and ‘The Day I Went Mad’: these were in Graham’s control and were still heavy rock, but with a measured and more melodic approach and both are essential listening. The former included the atmospheric, absorbing title track; the pure genius of ‘Movin’ On’ and a meaningful and fascinating take on Rainbow’s ‘Lost In Hollywood’…as Graham says at the fade: “Me and the boys hope you have a loverly time tonight.” The latter has a great take on The Beatles ‘Oh Darling’, the fabulous ‘Don’t Look Down’ and the inscrutable ‘Lolita Crush’.
Another short lived membership came in 2006, when he teamed up with (and toured with) British guitarist Taz Taylor for the great ‘Welcome To America!’ album: the nostalgic look back at ‘Radio Luxembourg’ or the surprising/excellent ‘Goodbye Mr C’ which is a fascinating adaptation of Ozzy’s ‘Goodbye To Romance.’ Another interesting release was in 2009 from the mysterious J21 and is a sort of prog rock work but, with Graham on the non instrumental tracks, it is really worth seeking out: try the acoustic/electric niceness of ‘Behind The Veil’ for example.
Graham them embarked on his current run of Graham Bonnet Band releases with the excellent ‘The Book’, ‘Meanwhile Back In The Garage’ and 2022’s ‘Day Out In Nowhere’. All of these prove his inherent abilities with melody and lyricism be it the Alcatrazz-y storytelling of ‘Strangest Day’, the bite of ‘Incest Outcest USA’ or the shocking truth behind ‘Uncle John.’ There may be a familiar feel to a lot of the tracks on these three albums (including a whole CD of Rainbow, MSG and Alcatrazz re-recordings with ‘The Book’) but the exceptional performances make them newly familiar. He did revitalise the Alcatrazz name in 2020 with ‘Born Innocent’ album and, before they parted yet again, they laid down some great music with the likes of history lesson ‘London 1666’, the story of his Grandma covered in tattoos on ‘Body Beautiful’, or the touching brass band sound of this tribute to Graham’s brother, ‘For Tony’.
In between Graham has appeared on CD and on stage with Michael Schenker under the Schenker Fest banner with some decent songs that never achieved the highs of ‘Assault Attack’ but are still very worthy. Better than those is the 2017 album with Italian guitarist Dario Mollo called ‘’Feeding The Beast’ which is well worth seeking out as they join together in a fun filled heavy rock work out with interesting new takes on Rainbow’s ‘Eyes Of The World’ and (yet again) ‘Since You Been Gone’ but also tracks such as ‘You Are Your Wallet’, ‘Guys From God’ and the oh, so clever ‘C’est La Vie.’
Apart from being a phenomenal vocalist in the studio, his live performances are the stuff of legend…no matter when or where he appeared; no matter how rough he was feeling, Graham always gives the maximum. I’ve seen him many times: with a Rainbow tribute band backing him in Stourbridge, with the Tax Taylor Band in Southampton and with Conrado and, of course, Beth-Ami in Bristol. After each one I marvelled at how (regardless of age) his voice was the same powerful force with such a range that any song he chose was spot on. Although I am still convinced that tendons and veins should not be that prominent! I also have numerous live albums and concert DVDs with a number of errr, less official concert recordings, all attesting to his power and legacy…a legacy that should be more widely recognised and supported.
This piece is very selective, as the multitude of session work (the best of which are the symphonic metal of ‘Lyraka’ and, from Ian Ashley Hersey, ‘The Holy Grail’) Graham did make for one extremely long list: at one point it seemed the whole world was emailing him tunes to put his considerable talents to work on. I recommend the Bonnet sanctioned ’Behind The Shades’ biography by Steve Wright to access the immense list of sessions…and, yes, I have them all!
I hope this, hardly scratched the surface article, has revealed some new avenues for Graham Bonnet fans to explore, or encouraged new fans to seek out his varied but always superb vocal performances even as, at time of writing, this 74 year old is still recording, performing and hitting all of the notes every time.
Tom Dixon | Now Spinning Magazine