East Devon man rubs shoulders with top musicians
- Credit: Archant
He has worked with the biggest musical artists in the world. Steve Jennings spoke to Jake Berry about his early life and career.
Jake Berry is a busy man. Very busy. And he has been most of his working life.
In fact, ever since a meeting that changed everything - that he calls ‘fortuitous’ - handing him backstage passes to the biggest acts on the planet and allowing him to tour the world.
And, at the age of 64, there seems no letting up. I spoke with Jake while he was in Detroit launching U2’s Joshua Tree tour, which had been over ten months in the planning.
Steven “Jake” Berry was born in Exeter in 1953 along with his twin brother, Trevor. The boys’ parents hailed from Farway but moved their family to Dunkeswell and ran the village post office. The brothers schooled in Honiton, attending the town’s primary and secondary schools, catching the bus into town every day. Jake has pleasant memories of a childhood in East Devon, even if one was rather painful at the time: “I remember outside of our house there was a big hill,” he recalls. “I remember coming down it one day on an old kart and crashing; damaging my skull. I think I am still paying for that!
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“But it was good; the villages then were so close knit. It was just normal. Nice.”
Music came along. Aged 12 the brothers formed a group called The Scandal - so-called because the Berrys thought it ‘was scandalous that people would pay money to hear us!’ - with Jake on drums. They played village halls and clubs, but his musical career appeared over when, at 18, Jake sold his drum kit opting to fund a car instead, a secondhand Mini.
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Trevor started work thatching roofs, and still makes a healthy living out of it, while Jake worked as a lorry driver. But in 1974 came that ‘fortuitous’ meeting with the now legendary keyboardist with the band Yes: “My brother happened to be thatching Rick Wakeman’s farmhouse in Woodbury Salterton,” he recalls. “I was working delivering animal feeds and finished early one day and my mother told me Trevor had forgotten some tools and asked if I could run them down to him. So I agreed.
“I got down there about midday and met Rick. We chatted and he said, ‘I’m off down the pub, do you want to come?’. So we went to the pub in Woodbury about 1 and left about 10.30 at night,” he remembers. “Needless to say, I didn’t make work next day, and didn’t last long after that!”
But Jake wasn’t without work for long. Wakeman was planning three shows at Wembley Arena to promote his solo album The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and invited Jake to help him out. Soon after, Wakeman rejoined Yes and Jake was asked on the group’s Going for the One tour as a drum technician. Unwittingly, a whole new chapter had started for him.
Working with Yes also introduced the young Berry to another influential figure, Ian Jeffery. And it would be a well-placed white lie that opened doors again for him: “When I was with Rick, we used to hang out in a pub called The Warrington in Maida Vale, I will never forget it,” he says. “Everyone hung out there and we all got on. Ian became a friend and had gone on to be tour manager for a small Scottish/Australian band called AC/DC.
“Ian told me they needed a keyboard technician and he had told them I was Rick’s keyboard tec, but I wasn’t. So their manager, Peter Mensh said he would try me out.
“So I flew to Oakland, California, they trialled me and I got the job, so AC/DC’s Highway To Hell tour was my first production.”
The tour and album took the band to what Jake describes as a ‘new stratosphere’. Having spent their time previously supporting the likes of Black Sabbath, AC/DC were now huge. And Jake was working full-time with them spending twelve months away on the road.
In February 1980, with the band recording the follow-up Back In Black, disaster struck when lead singer Bon Scott died suddenly. This handed Jake his hardest task ever – one he calls ‘the most gruesome’ - of having to clear out Scott’s apartment.
Jake recalls when Brian Johnson was drafted in to replace Scott. The new singer had made a living singing Hoover commercials but had no money: “I had to lend him a tenner to put petrol in his car,” Jake recites. “He never paid me back.”
With so much time spent on the road, friendships are forged. In 1983, while with AC/DC in San Francisco, Jake got word his father died and he will always be grateful how the band responded: “They got me a car, flew me home, and there was the biggest flower arrangement I have ever seen at the funeral,” he says. “They took care of me.”
Jake went to work briefly for Ronnie James Dio - which led to a fallout - and he headed home to Devon thinking he would never work again. He need not have worried as Motley Crue came calling and Jake remembers playing all fifty states in America with Metallica. Jake was part of many of those tours during this time, breaking new ground with his productions. Artist clients included Cher, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson. And one he particularly enjoyed was Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
In 1993, with Jake’s stock rising, having worked with so many internationally renowned musical artists, he took a call from Canadian concert promoter Michael Cohl, who told him the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world were looking for a new production manager. Jake was going to meet the Rolling Stones.
In part two, Jake tells Steve about meeting Mick, Keith and Madonna.
Editor’s note: this article was written before Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC/DC, died on Saturday, November 18.