The Lost Recordings

Kristi Kimsey, né Barton, recorded a series of her own remarkable songs in the late 1970s, in the early years of her relationship with record producer Chris Kimsey. While Chris built his 50-year career as the “must-have” recording engineer/producer to The Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton, Ten Years After, Johnny Hallyday, Duran Duran, The Proclaimers, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh and many others (eventually reopening London’s legendary recording studios Olympic as a cinema in 2013, and now building a recording studio there), Kristi dedicated herself to her marriage and her family. But she couldn’t forget her own recordings, when she was joined in impromptu sessions by Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, Keith Richards (with whom she was photographed duetting on one of her songs), and Frank Carillo among others.

Both she and Chris believed the recordings lost, until 2020 when they set to sorting out years of accumulated belongings kept in storage. In a “eureka” moment, they unearthed cassettes of these tremendous songs, and Chris was able to engineer the recordings digitally for commercial release. Kristi’s ‘As I Look Back’, is her first LP at the age of 70, released digitally on Chris’s own Undercover Music in 2021 and, this year, on vinyl by Japanese label Bright Size Records. Here she tells us more, all about her fascinating ‘Audio World’…

Tell us about your early life and upbringing… what were your first musical memories, what music did you like growing up and who were the important people who helped form your musical landscape?

I grew up in Minnesota, by Lake Minnetonka outside Minneapolis, until I finished high school, playing with the same group of kids from kindergarten through to high school. It was a very safe and secure environment, yet we had freedom to roam outdoors, or in a ‘putt putt’ boat on the lake. I remember big band music and my parents dancing in the living room. They had big parties and socialised a lot. Gospel was also important: when I visited my grandparents in the south, I had lots of memories of the music and the people who sang it. The first gig I went to was The Beatles in 1965, at the Metropolitan Stadium, Minneapolis, when I was 12 years old. My super cool friend invited six of us for her birthday to the concert and we had binoculars to see the band. It was their only gig in Minnesota. They were in the middle of the field, on the pitcher’s mound. The screaming didn’t stop but we were underneath the speaker so we could hear the “Yea, yea yeas”.

After that I formed a group called the Mop Tops and sung Beatles songs. I started playing piano at a very young age and took lessons. I was always shy and a bookworm. I loved words, writing long poems that morphed into lyrics. I’m a ‘60s hippy through and through and I was so fortunate: all the bands would tour from coast to coast so I hitch-hiked and blagged my way in to see Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors, Bob Marley & The Wailers and all the Soul greats. It was a wonderful age to see live music.

My family were great travellers. I loved the music in Mexico which influenced me: I taught myself guitar after hearing Mariachi bands in Mexico and started writing on the guitar at about 15 years old. Music is my deep love and was always part of who I am, but I never imagined myself as a professional singer songwriter and I was never validated in music until many years later.

How did you pursue this passion and become involved in professional music?

I was busy being out in the world: when I left high school, I wanted to travel - other cultures and languages interested me. I travelled to Mexico, South America, Europe, Paris and London, working and busking on the way to earn money. Throughout my travels, I was an adventurer and a believer in new experiences, so I had no hesitation in just grabbing what life gave. I played my songs and people seemed to like them: they had no clue who I was, but I was entertaining enough. My time in London was really when my musical development began and where my songs were recorded.

There I met a wonderful group of friends including Alvin Lee’s then partner Suzanne Lee. She said, “While you figure things out, stay with us at Hook End Manor.” [Lee’s historic house and recording studio in Oxfordshire, later owned by other music icons including David Gilmour and Trevor Horn]. Suzanne is responsible for Chris and I meeting. He worked with Alvin and Ten Years After and there was such a concentration of talent in that area: Eric Clapton and George Harrison lived close by. Chris worked with Alvin on several projects including an LP with FBI (Funky Bands Inc).

Alvin asked me to sing on various recordings and one day I was playing the piano in the studio when Alvin came in with Mick Ralphs of Bad Company. Alvin said, “What’s that?” I said, “That’s one of my songs.” And he said, “We have to record this now!” I was in shock. Alvin was a friend, but I was in awe of him as a musician – he’d had one of the standout hits of the original Woodstock Festival! I couldn’t believe it - he engineered the recording and it was live and very spontaneous. There was no other agenda than the joy of being able to do it. I thought, “Wow, these are my heroes who I respect and admire and they like my music and my voice!” Up to that point, I hadn’t revealed my music to them.

How did your musical career develop from there?

In the late ‘70s I sung backing vocals for the rock band Strapps, with Chris producing. Later on I ended up working with the French disco group Crystal Grass, on their LP The Love Train. The way it happened was one of those wonderful things. Chris and I had fallen in love and were together as a couple. His career was stratospheric after recording Peter Frampton’s ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ – he was the hottest producer on the planet. We came back to London from New York to see his family and then he had a call to work on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Some Girls’ in Paris. Chris had worked with French rock star Johnny Hallyday and knew Lee Hallyday his producer. Lee asked me to do the lead vocals for the disco album and sing iconic songs in different languages, from London to Greece. I was so out of my comfort zone but with the best musicians, we did a full-on Grace Jones-style disco LP: my kids’ friends love it! We ended up mixing at Pathé Marconi, the same studio that Chris was recording ‘Some Girls’ with the Stones. This is where we all got to know each other, and they got wind that I was a singer.

How did the recording of the duet with Keith Richards happen?

Chris was working on the Stones’ LP ‘Emotional Rescue’ at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, in the Bahamas, and he and I were staying in the studio’s house. The phone rang at midnight, and I thought it was Chris saying he was coming home but it was Keith. I said, “Chris isn’t here,” and he said, “No I want to talk to you”. Keith had heard me jamming one night with some of the band.

Ian Stewart (Stu) suggested I join them for fun.

Keith had always wanted to record ‘Let’s Go Steady Again’, a classic Sam Cooke recording and said, “I want you to sing the song with me,” and I went, “Yea!” The next day I walked into the studio, and everyone was in the control room and that’s where Chris took the polaroid photo. It was cheeky of him as in those days there were no photos allowed in the studio: it was a sacred space.

To sing with Keith was a dream come true, I will always love him for loving my voice. I grew up listening to the Rolling Stones and they are one of my all-time favourite bands in the world.

How were the other songs recorded?

Apart from the first song with Alvin at Hook End and the duet with Keith, all the other songs were recorded at Long View Farm in Massachusetts, a residential studio. Chris was producing Frank Carillo’s album, ‘Rings Around The Moon’ and they needed backing vocals so I joined them. It was very civilised. After the rock and roll, we’d go horse riding. One night they heard me playing one of my songs and they said, “Can we record this?” So we went into the studio and the band learnt my songs, because they were ace musicians and we said, “Let’s go!” It was wonderful how Chris and the band would do their sessions, and they’d say, “OK, can we play one of your songs now?” We’d record my songs after dinner because it was fun and we loved playing together.

And on the LP, you sing a moving song with Frank Carillo, ‘Sweet Elvis’, about Elvis Presley. 

How did that come about?

‘Sweet Elvis’ was the only song that was co-written. The band had gone off to New York City for the weekend and Frank was happy to stay with us at the studio. Frank’s father called to tell him Elvis had just died and the three of us were heartbroken. We reflected on him and his music and what it meant to us. We spontaneously got guitars out and Chris set up the tape machine by the fireplace. We wrote ‘Sweet Elvis’ then and went into studio to finish it: that was our tribute. Elvis was just this handsome sexy guy with the most amazing voice taking black roots and gospel music and authentically making it his own, as a southern white boy. As a young girl I thought he was so cool: recalling the feelings I had for him as a youngster was an innocent, lovely way to remember him.

What is the story behind the rediscovery of these historic tracks and what inspired you to put them out as the ‘As I Look Back’ LP?

At the time, I tried to do more with these songs but the environment or the offers weren’t right and I moved on in life. When I recorded them, I had been travelling for years - since leaving school. We had travelled non-stop all over the world, working in different studios and when our kids were born, they travelled with us. But then school beckoned for them, and I knew my wings would be clipped. Yet I was thrilled to hang up my hat and not pack a suitcase. Chris was still in the height of his rock and roll days and away for months at a time, but I knew that life. I hadn’t been a live performer. My comfort zone is in the studio with other musicians. I knew myself well enough to move into another stage of my life – I was ready to be at home.

Chris and I knew the master tapes of the recordings were lost. They were water-damaged over the years. But he had always used my songs to test the studios he was working in and requested a cassette be made of them (from the master), at places like Electric Lady and Right Track in New York, or Basing Street Studios in London.

During the first lockdown of the pandemic, from March 2020, we went through all our storage and found a box of cassettes in pristine condition. It was like finding lost treasure. One song was ‘Trying to Get back to You - Hook End’, the first song Alvin recorded with me, which meant so much as it was the first time someone acknowledged my music. Both of us cried.

In 2021, Chris set up a digital record label, Undercover Music, as a platform for things he’d worked on that people wouldn’t have a chance to hear: it was something he’d always wanted to do. He released three albums on the label, so he was able to digitise all my songs from the cassettes. If we’d found them 20 years ago it would have been wonderful for us, but we wouldn’t have had the technology to digitise them or do anything further with them. It’s all about timing and it’s amazing how now is the time for these songs to come out.

We put them out in 2021 on Undercover and got Keith’s permission to release ‘Let’s Go Steady Again’ on the LP, not knowing what would happen and the response was unbelievable. Chris put the LP on Facebook and we were contacted by our son’s best friend from school, Cedric Bardawill. He said, “I’m working with an amazing person in Japan, Shu Ikeuchi who founded a label, Bright Size Records, which only releases on vinyl.” Then Shu contacted us and said he’d like to put it out on vinyl. What an amazing moment that was for us. We had both grown up listening and cherishing vinyl records. Staring for hours at the artwork and credits. Shu’s ethos is about treating vinyl as art. For the album artwork design Shu worked with the Commission Design Studio team, a world leader in design branding.

It was half speed mastered for vinyl by Miles Showell at Abbey Road Studios, and he said Chris had done an amazing job. The sleeve is on special paper manufactured by Morikawa in Japan and is beautiful. It was launched in Japan this May, it was a big hit in Japan with a special display in Tower Records.

We had a London celebration in the Olympic Studio with friends, Shu and Morikawa from Japan, it blew our minds when Frank Carillo from USA arrived just for this launch in July, and it’s going to be released in the States. I recently turned 70 and have just got my first vinyl album out! 

What's your favourite Flare product and why?

Chris and I always loved Flare Audio’s vision and pioneering sound so we always supported them. Flare founder Davies Roberts and his wife Naomi are inspirational. They constantly surprise me with their quest to understand how we listen. When Olympic was turned into a cinema, Flare speakers were used for the sound. Chris used the Flare E-Prototype earphones to master my LP: they were so rich and full with amazing bass response. You can’t believe what you’re hearing. I also love their Calmer ear protectors because we live in a busy part of London.

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