The careers of many heroes of the British Invasion and musicians of the 1960s have been adequately documented in books, films and memoirs. Some performers, nevertheless, have still not yet received the attention and the praise they deserve.
If there was a reliable ranking of the best British soul/blues singers of all times, it could include Eric Burdon, Rod Stewart or Steve Winwood. However, one name would unquestionably be among the top three: Steve Marriott, sharp dresser, unique singer, guitar player and songwriter with legendary Mod band The Small Faces, and later with Humble Pie.
His voice would easily be one of the most powerful and black sounding tornadoes ever to be heard from an English band. He would sing a blend of sound usually attributed to American masters such as Bobby Bland or Otis Redding. Marriott’s stage show was legendary, a natural as soon as the spotlights went on, an ability that was even refined by attending London’s Conti Academy of Theatre Arts for several years; a school that would provide him with numerous minor roles in movies and TV serials when still a teenager. His songwriting abilities in collaboration with Small Faces member Ronnie Lane easily matched those of the Jagger/Richards or Lennon/McCartney output.
When he left the Small Faces in 1969, which broke up the band, he had already been considered to either join the Rolling Stones (to replace Brian Jones) or to front a new band project that included Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Keith Moon (which never took off in that line up for a number of reasons).
His short life, 1947-1991, was a series of experiences, successes, extreme exploitation on the side from record companies (all Small Faces members in 1966 earned nothing but a very small weekly cash-in-hand sum plus an unlimited shopping account for clothes on Carnaby Street), bad contracts, mob contacts and other incidents what after more than two decades with more downs than ups unfortunately ended for impoverished and drug-addicted Marriott in a tragic death in a fire in his house. It probably was caused by a forgotten burning cigarette he was not aware of while asleep on drugs.
Depression, alcoholism and a cocaine psychosis, apart from other illnesses and ulcers, made life for him (and with him) very difficult. One main reason for that definitely was the mistreatment and huge commercial exploitation he experienced, which cost him energy, millions of pounds earned, but never received and a strong sense of massive injustice done to him, that mostly – in his eyes – was never corrected.
The book’s title is derived from The Small Faces’ song of the same name that hit #1 in the UK single charts, a song Marriott wrote to impress Sue Oliver, his fiancee from 1965-66. In a way, the phrase may also concisely describe his attitude and motivation towards life.
The title at hand is not the first book on Marriott, but author Simon Spence, a well-known name when it comes to detailed biographies of bands and people in music business, for his All Or Nothing could assure the support and consent of the Marriott family.
In his own words, the author wrote “… simply put, a celebration, a vain attempt to capture what fueled Marriott’s drive, commitment, determination, ambition, and indefatigability. An exploration of the pain at his core, the devil-may-care attitude he fostered, and his true force and true spirit. It answers, why, for all his faults, he was truly loved, even by those he hurt most.”
Spence talked to many friends, fellow musicians, managers, roadies and hundreds of other people who knew him and shared stages, studios and lifetime with him. The mass of interviews, correspondence and personal memories – from school mates from his teens to band mates of his various outfits in England and the US in the early 1980s – is overwhelming and supplies a very disturbing and often, to a degree, unpleasant picture of the man with the great voice. Who could be both an angel, a close friend, a caring mate and loving father; whenever addiction, alcoholism, psychosis and paranoia allowed. Which unfortunately was rather rare, already in the late 1960s.
His very bright future and “great expectations” were all reduced to massive personal problems, heavy drinking and drug abuse, and repeatedly making the wrong decisions. More than once, he would get tangled up with the wrong people who usually ripped him off, which in show business will be devastating. “On Marriott’s long downward trajectory, senior (and less so) English crime figures and high-ranking members of the American Mafia pervaded his life. His close links to the [London organized crime bosses] Krays stretched back to the sixties and from the mid-seventies until his death, he was informally managed by Laurie O’Leary, Ronnie Kay’s best pal and business associate. In America, his contractual problems saw him negotiate with infamous Mafioso figures…..”
However, no matter how his personality is described, he will always be remembered as one of England’s greatest singers. And a Mod icon as well. With a Steve Marriott who may have had kicked most of his bad habits and addictions, the history of English pop and rock music would definitely be a different one today.
And his priceless contribution to music history would not have ended with his best work as the mastermind behind The Small Faces and singer of Humble Pie. “Maybe he was just the real thing, a rocker – undiluted, uncompromising, cursed and unrepentant, unforgiving – the type that comes around every once in a while, a Jerry Lee Lewis, or a Chuck Berry, even a Hank Williams, the product of a philosophy that runs, boy, hell, you got to live it if you want to make it, you can’t fake it, got to live it.”
The layout style of the book may confuse readers at first: one explanatory paragraph by the author is usually followed by quotations from either Steve, band mates or whoever was interviewed. Those quotes very often are followed by even more quotes over multiple pages, so the linear and edited flow of content is not constantly present, in favor of other people who muse on Steve. Once one gets used to that, it is quite readable.
All Or Nothing is a very intense book, that may give almost too much information on this iconic singer, mostly personal details and recollections of his character, apart from countless details of recording sessions, song writing, concerts, tours or parties. For the first time in a book, Marriott’s years in the US receive a lot of attention. Furthermore, Spence here provides inside information on the world of show biz and musician marketing standards of the sixties; that had the power to tear a sensitive artist who insisted on appreciation for his output apart.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2021
Simon Spence. All or Nothing: The Authorised Story of Steve Marriott. Omnibus Press, 221, 460 p.