I first came across Peter Walker back in 2003 whilst in thrall to the strange and beautiful sounds emanating from my speakers on having acquired a copy of “Inventions” by his friend and label-mate Sandy Bull. The inner sleeves of those old Vanguard albums were resplendent with portrait photographs advertising other artists on the label alongside listings of available recordings. As the twisting, hypnotic rhythms of Sandy’s groove danced around the room, my eye was drawn to a picture of a bespectacled young man dressed in an Indian shirt who seemed to be gazing serenely heavenward in search of some elusive lost truth. Next to the photo were these words written by Timothy Leary: Peter Walker plays on the ancient protein strings of the genetic code. To the left of the picture were listed the titles “Rainy Day Raga” and second “Poem To Karmela”. My interest was well and truly piqued.
Walker was introduced to Timothy Leary, the psychologist renowned for his research into LSD, through mutual Harvard friends. Leary was so impressed with Peter’s playing that in 1965 he asked him to become musical director for the celebrations held at his rambling private estate, Millbrook. Peter’s job was to compose, arrange and play the music. “To carry people away, that was the point of it. Take someone out of themselves for a while, give them a nice experience and bring them back.”
At the same time Peter was appearing as the opening act at venues such as the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, as well as doing studio work for Columbia Records. His regular musical companions were ace folk session man Bruce Langhorne (the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s anthem ‘Mr Tambourine Man’) and guitarist Monte Dunn, who seemed to know everyone in New York.
From working with Leary and playing regular gigs, Peter Walker inevitably began to attract the attention of local record companies. “I had a choice of a couple of labels. I had been playing late night radio in NYC on WBAI with Monte Dunn on the Bob Fass show. Maynard Solomon was president of Vanguard and came down to see me play at the Cafe Au Go Go. He came backstage afterwards and offered me a contract and after a few days I accepted.”
In 1966 the now expanded unit – Walker (guitar), Langhorne (bells and African tambourines), Dunn, (second steel-stringed acoustic guitar), Steig (flute), Alex Lukeman (12-string drone), Jean Pierre Merle (tamboura) and Peter Winters (Om) – assembled in the studio to create “Rainy Day Raga”, one of the most extraordinarily beautiful albums of the era.
“Bruce and Monte were every bit as responsible for the success of the record as I was. Bruce, in combination with Monte put the raga into rock’n’roll. It was their professional and innate understanding as studio pros that made the whole thing work as well as it did. There was one great moment during the four sessions it took to make the album, when many old friends came down from Cambridge to the Vanguard studios on 23rd Street and the vibe was just wonderful. We played it often with the same people before, during and after the recording sessions. Some gigs were solo but when a band was required I always used the same guys until we all went our separate ways in life.”
By Ski Williams