Ian Samwell, the father of British rock

Not many Sacramentans knew that a British rock legend walked among us in this town for two decades. He was a gentle soul, a music-biz lifer, and the twinkle in his eye belied more rock influence than most players here could conjure up in a lifetime.

Ian Samwell, the man dubbed “the father of British rock ’n’ roll,” passed away in his sleep last Thursday afternoon from heart failure. He was 66.

Imagine being a pivotal player in rock ’n’ roll in 1958—that was just a handful of years after Jackie Brenston made the very first rock ’n’ roll song, “Rocket 88,” and one year after Elvis was drafted. It was when guitarist Samwell, then 21, penned “Move It” for his band’s lead singer, Cliff Richard, the first British rock star. In 1999, that shakin’-all-over ditty was voted one of the top 10 rock ’n’ roll records of all time by BBC Radio. In America, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tapped it as one of 500 songs that shaped the genre. Most importantly, John Lennon called “Move It” the most influential British record ever made.

Seven years later, Samwell wrote and produced another landmark song, “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?” It was the song with which The Small Faces, those diminutive Cockney rebels and leaders of the mod movement, roared onto the 1965 charts. It also was the song with the first use of controlled guitar feedback on record.

In 1971, Samwell was a London-based A&R rep for Warner Bros. Records. He not only signed the revamped Faces with rooster-haired Rod Stewart as lead singer, but also was the liaison to North American acts the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell. That same year, an audition tape led him to the biggest commercial success of his career. The singer was Gerry Beckley. His dulcet-harmony group decided to name itself America. Under Samwell’s guiding hand, “A Horse With No Name” became a worldwide smash.

In 1980, Samwell was drawn to Sacramento by the smart, Beatlesque band Bourgeois-Tagg. He produced its 1986 debut album. In the ensuing years, before and after his successful heart transplant in 1991, Samwell continued to mentor local musicians, cut demos, write country songs and tell wonderful stories of rock ’n’ roll lore.

On Sunday, March 23, at the PowerHouse Pub (614 Sutter Street in Folsom) Samwell’s music and influence will be cheered on by many musical friends. At press time, Mick Martin, the Beer Dawgs (whose 2001 album, Blonde on the Bayou, was produced by Samwell), Will Hines (Jett Redd) and Gary Imboden (Ian Shelter) were slated to perform. Former Sacramento songwriter Bob Cheever will fly in from Nashville to host along with Ray Baisden. Celebration time is 8 p.m. Admission is free; the music and camaraderie are priceless.