Over 25 years have passed since Dire Straits disbanded, leaving a catalogue of some of the finest compositions and musical performances that the heyday of rock ever produced. If anything, their reputation has only grown with time. Record sales of more than 125 million albums continue to increase as new young fans discover the music and join the band’s massive worldwide following. A trend that is echoed in their 2018 inauguration into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Chris White was available for a quick chat.
When did you discover your love of music and how did you end up becoming most known for the saxophone?
I think music was always a big thing for me from my very earliest memories. I was given the opportunity to learn Violin while at primary school in Bristol. I liked it and quickly found that I could ‘do it’, but I’m not sure I loved it.
I heard someone (maybe John Dankworth) playing on TV when I was about 11 and went to school the next day and asked if I could learn saxophone.
Amazingly, the school had a soprano in a sack in a store cupboard, which they said I could take home, and see how I got on. I knew within about two weeks that I loved it and that was what I wanted to do!
When I was coming to the end of my school years, I wanted to go to music college, but no one would have me because at that time, Saxophone wasn’t considered a “ proper instrument “ so I headed off to London to do a Social Science degree and play saxophone with as many people as I possibly could.
How did you come to tour with Dire Straits and any stand out experiences?
I was making inroads to the London session scene and was getting called for recording sessions with all kinds of people, which was fantastic. One day, I came home to find a yellow post it note stuck to the phone. It said “Wednesday 10am Air Studios, Tenor Sax, Film score. Mark Knopfler. 1 Track maximum 1hour”. I went along, met Mark who said “it’s just a bit of sax on one track Chris, shouldn’t take long”. We recorded that track and Mark said, “Could you just try a bit on another track as well?“ I left the studio three days later having played on just about the whole movie. As I was leaving, Mark said, “Chris, you must come and play with the band …. The Movie was “ Comfort and Joy “
Playing Live Aid with Dire Straits was one of the highlights of my career. It seemed like just everybody from the music business was there, the most incredible atmosphere. We were actually in the middle of a 13 night run of shows at the Wembley Arena (part of the Brothers in Arms tour UK section), so once we had played our set at Live Aid, we walked across the car park from the Stadium and started getting ready to play our own show. As people finished at live aid, some came across and sat in with our show. This was July 13th 1985, which was also my 30th birthday.
It was also a great privilege to play at the Nelson Mandela concert a few years later. Made even more special because Eric Clapton was playing rhythm guitar with us. Another incredible day.
How come Dire Straits seemed to finish whilst they on top?
Dire Straits came to an end some while after the end of the On Every Street Tour. It kind of just happened without any ceremony, really. The Every Street tour had lasted for 18 months and I think I had a total of ten days at home during that time, so at the end of that, everyone was looking forward to a break. Just didn’t know it would be permanent. I started recording with lots of other people after that, and also worked with Mark on a couple of his solo albums, so still felt in touch.
Do you ever think the band would get back together, do you think the appetite is there from the members or the public?
I really don’t think the band will ever get back together. Mark has a very successful solo career now so I think it would be strange for him to go back and play only the Dire Straits songs.
I think the fact that so many people are now coming to see Dire Straits Experience shows that there is definitely an appetite.
How does it feel to still be touring the world playing the songs?
I am surprised to still be touring and playing Dire Straits songs now. People still want to hear them and especially see them played live. The support from fans has been incredible and humbling. It is a testament to Marks Songwriting talent that this is the case. He has written timeless songs.
What can fans expect when they come to see The Dire Straits Experience?
We try to give fans the experience of what it was like to go to a Dire Straits concert. BUT, that doesn’t mean we present a carbon copy of one particular concert note for note! So fans will hear songs like, Telegraph Road, Private Investigations, Walk of Life, Brothers in Arms, Sultans of Swing and all the favourites, as well as some possible less obvious things like Once Upon A Time In The West and Lady Writer, for example. BUT, one of the most exciting things about working with Mark and Dire Straits was that things were different every night. For example, those places where there was interplay between saxophone and guitar, were never scripted; they went where they went, depending on how we felt each night.
To that end, we have assembled a band of musicians who listen and play in that dynamic way, which maintains the live energy and sense of risk taking, which was such an important part of Dire Straits and I think is why so many people are coming to see what we do.
Like Dire Straits, we also have a great lighting designer, so it’s good to look at as well !
Can you recall your first proper show?
Cheltenham Town Hall was where I played my first professional gig, aged 15. My math’s teacher at school was also my saxophone teacher. He had been a professional musician in London for many years, before relocating to Bristol and teaching Math’s. One Wednesday morning in my math’s lesson, he came and stood beside my desk and asked was I busy that night. I said no, he asked me if I would go to Cheltenham and deputise for him at his gig at the town hall. I jumped at the chance. He arranged a lift for me so off I went and played with the Mike Slocombe big band. It was great AND I got paid £7.50!!!!
You have played with some true legends over the years, any stories you would care to share?
I toured with Joe Cocker In Europe and America on his Just Around Midnight tour. This has another strange beginning, I had a call on a Friday from Barrie Marshall who promoted Dire Straits, he said, “Chris, Joe needs a sax player, can you get to Marseille next Wednesday?“ “Yes, I can do that Barrie“ “Can you play Congas and Accordion as well?” “I’ve played a bit of Congas, I haven’t played Accordion, but I do play keyboards” “So you can then?” “I guess I can then Barrie“ “Great I’ll let him know you’re coming “
I loved working with Joe. He was a lovely man and had a completely unique style on stage.
I recorded one album with Mick Jagger and also recorded and played on a few tours with Robbie including the massive Knebworth show. It was a hoot. One of the career highlights was playing one gig with Ray Charles and I loved it. He was such a hero of mine. The gig was in the basement of the Louvre in Paris. It was all a bit surreal.
The Dire Straits Experience Tour is heading out in May and June across the UK and coming to Liverpool Philharmonic on the 26th June, did you ever work with any of the fab four in your time?
The Beatles were a massive influence. I was definitely a fan, so getting the chance to work with Paul McCartney was immense. I was recording the North Of A Miracle album with Nick Hayward at Air studios at the time. The producer was Geoff Emerick, the man who had engineered all of the Beatles recordings with George Martin, both legends in the business. Geoff was also engineering the music for Paul’s film Give My Regards To Broad Street, so he was working one week on Nick, and one week on the film.
One day during recording with Nick, I had a call from the producer of the film asking me to go along to Elstree studios because they need a sax player for the recording of Silly Love Songs in the movie. I went along, was offered the job. A few days later, they called and asked if I would go in for a make up day, they had an idea for the scene and wanted to try something out.
On the day, as I was sitting in the make up chair, I heard Paul going down the corridor, saying hello to everyone as he passed the rooms. He said “hello Barbara” to Barbara Daly, who was making me up as he passed our room. After a few steps, he turned around and came back and walked into the room and said
“You’re Chris aren’t you? Pleased to meet you“
“Yes, very pleased to meet you“
“Do you know what this is about?”
“Yes, I’m here to try out make up“
“No, I mean do you know what the movie is about?“
At which point, he drew up a chair and sat beside me for fifteen minutes giving me a synopsis of the movie. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t hear a word he said! All I could think was this is Paul McCartney sitting here talking to me. That is Paul McCartney…. I had one of the most enjoyable weeks ever working on that movie.
Thinking about Liverpool, I did a gig in Sefton Park with Nick Heyward in the early eighties. It was a very sunny day and quite a few people in the audience had been drinking quite a lot. The stage was set up on a little island in a lake. On about the third song, a lager bottle came flying across the lake and hit the trombone player square in the testicles. Then a few more, then a fight broke out in the audience and people were wading into the lake, heading for the stage. We were pulled offstage and never went back on.
The tour finishes in London at the Shepherds Bush Empire; does that iconic venue hold many memories?
I have played Shepherds Bush Empire with a few people, including Mark Knopfler and Jimmy Nail. Its one of my favourite London venues, it has a real rock and roll feel. The last time I played Shepherds Bush Empire was with The Straits, a forerunner of the Dire Straits Experience. We had a great night there for the Sarah Greene Tribute Fund for Breast Cancer Now.
Thursday 10th May – Bournemouth O2 Academy
Friday 18th May – Cambridge Corn Exchange
Saturday 19th May – Cheltenham Centaur
Friday 22nd June – Guildford G Live
Tuesday 26th June – Liverpool Philharmonic
Thursday 28th June – London O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
Tickets onsale via musicplussport.com
Tickets available from £30 (London £35)