Obituary: Pete Zorn, musician

Born: Somerset, Pennsylvania, 29 May 1950. Died: London, England, 19 April 2016, aged 65.
Musician was known for his work with Richard Thompson and Steeleye SpanMusician was known for his work with Richard Thompson and Steeleye Span
Musician was known for his work with Richard Thompson and Steeleye Span

Pete Zorn was a multi-talented folk and rock musician who played a number of instruments including guitar, bass guitar, mandolin, saxophone and flute. Most well-known throughout his career as a member of Fairport Convention founder Richard Thompson’s solo band live and on record, his extensive work as a session musician and composer also included a lengthy collaboration with the Dunfermline-born singer Barbara Dickson and six years from 2009 onwards as a member of Steeleye Span.

In 1978 he and former CBS Records A&R man Paul Phillips formed a musical duo, hitting the top ten as Driver 67 with a folksy novelty record named Car 67 about a lovelorn taxi driver. Selling half a million copies over several weeks, it was reportedly only kept off the number one spot in the week of its release because the label underestimated demand and didn’t press enough copies to meet all orders.

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It wasn’t the only notable nearly-but-not-quite story of Zorn’s career. Another of his regular collaborators was the Scots former leader of Stealer’s Wheel, Gerry Rafferty, and as the singer had it, Zorn was his first choice to play the instantly recognisable saxophone line of his enduring hit Baker Street. There’s more than one story of the song’s composition, but Rafferty’s own is that he wrote the part on electric guitar, asked Zorn to play it and was turned down because Zorn was unavailable; Rafferty turned instead to Scots session player Raphael Ravenscroft.

Yet alongside these career curios, Zorn put together a significant body of work through the breadth of his musical ability and the range of different talents he worked with. When he first came to London, it was as part of the downhome country rock trio Fishbaugh, Fishbaugh and Zorn alongside husband and wife duo Gary and Paula Fishbaugh; they weren’t a success, but they did manage to release an eponymous album and several singles on the CBS label in the early 1970s.

After this project he switched to the life of a session musician. Notable projects Zorn worked on throughout the 1970s included the Goodies’ 1973 comedy album Sing Songs from the Goodies, the soundtrack to Willy Russell’s 1975 stage musical John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert, Glaswegian singer Chris Rainbow’s albums Looking Over My Shoulder (1978) and White Trails (1979), and on the 1978 album Restless by the St Andrews-born folk singer Rab Noakes.

Through these projects, Zorn had become a member of a group of loosely-collaborating musicians of the time who all happened to be Scottish. He worked with Gerry Rafferty on the albums Snakes & Ladders (1980), North & South (1988) and Over My Head (1994), and through his early work with Rafferty was introduced to Thompson, whose final record as part of the Richard and Linda Thompson partnership was released in 1982. Named Shoot Out the Lights, it was funded by Rafferty and saw Zorn play on half of its tracks, its acclaim launching Thompson back out of the career doldrums he had been in.

Zorn played one of two saxophones on Thompson’s next record, the solo Hand of Kindness (1983), including on one of his signature tracks Tear-Stained Letter. He also collaborated with him on the soundtrack to Taylor Hackford’s film Sweet Talker (1991), the Grammy-nominated live album Dream Attic (2010) and its Glasgow-recorded accompanying DVD Live at Celtic Connections, as well as numerous lives dates and tours. As Thompson once said of Zorn, “his versatility brings with it so many arrangement possibilities, he’s like three people for the same money.”

It was through John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert that Zorn had first performed with Dickson, and this was another fruitful collaboration which included the albums Gold (1985), After Dark (1987) and Parcel of Rogues (1994). Dickson called him “my great friend and musical mainstay of the last thirty-five years” in her autobiography. Other projects included the trio WAZ! with Martin Allcock and Fairport Convention’s Dave Whetstone, which released an album in 1998; the Albion Dance Band, which Zorn played with occasionally; and the 1979 album Hey Mister Record Man by Tax Loss, an extension of the Driver 67 project, which also featured his brother Bill Zorn. With Steeleye Span, he played on the live album Now We Are Six Again (2011) and the Terry Pratchett-inspired studio album Wintersmith (2013).

Peter Zorn was born in Somerset County, Pennsylvania in 1950, and raised between there, Ohio and Arizona. At the age of 19 he moved to Los Angeles and two years later he was in London, a city which he would make home for the rest of his life.

He was in school bands throughout his early years, learning flute and then saxophone, and was a fan of Bob Dylan’s backing group the Band in his youth.

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Paul Phillips of Driver 67 was Zorn’s friend and also his brother in law, through Zorn’s marriage to his sister Shan. Writing a blog post after Zorn’s death on his multiple talents as a musician, Phillips said: “Back then… his bass-playing was what people most wanted. Like Paul McCartney, he used the bass not only to lay down a rhythmic bedrock, but also as a lead instrument that would create previously unimagined melodies weaving in and out of whatever else was going on. His was a stunning talent, and he didn’t squander it.”

Zorn remained married to Shan for the rest of his life, living together in Gipsy Hill within the London borough of Lambeth, and in an interview he once described his greatest achievement as their grandchildren together. Diagnosed with lung and brain cancer in early 2016, he died of the disease on the 19th of April that year.