Woodstock Performers: Keef Hartley Band

Updated on April 29, 2020
Kaili Bisson profile image

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.


This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Appearing on Day 2 before Keef and his mates was John B. Sebastian, who had helped to cool things down a tad after Santana's performance. Next on the bill after Keef Hartley would come the Incredible String Band, who had been rescheduled when they refused to play in the rain on Friday.

The Keef Hartley Band, named for their powerhouse drummer, was poised for greatness. Though not quite a household name, Keef Hartley was well known in England, and his band was embarking on their first tour of the US, with Woodstock being their first stop. Sadly, they were to become another of the footnotes of the festival.

Who Was Keef Hartley?

If you are a fan of the early British bluesmen, people like Eric Clapton, Peter Green (founder of Fleetwood Mac) and John Mayall, chances are you have heard Keef Hartley play.

Born on March March 8, 1944 in Preston, Lancashire, England, Keef (which is cockney for Keith) was influenced very early on by listening to the likes of Buddy Rich and knew he wanted to make his living drumming. In 1962, Keef began playing with a local band called The Thunderbeats, who were well-liked and performed on a regular basis around the northwest part of England, even appearing with The Beatles at the Floral Hall Ballroom in Morecambe.

When a club owner from Liverpool who had heard Keef play learned that he wanted to start playing professionally, he offered him the opportunity to replace Ringo Starr in the band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Keef wasn't overly keen on the band, but wanted a paying gig and a shot at getting off the club circuit in that part of England. The Hurricanes were booked regularly and even recorded a few tracks during their time together.

In October 1963, the Hurricanes returned to Hamburg for a two-month gig at The Star Club, where The Beatles had their residency in 1962. More and more disenchanted with the Hurricanes, Keef was pondering heading back home to England when opportunity came knocking. Freddy Starr, who was booked to replace The Hurricanes at The Star, had arrived in Hamburg without a drummer. Keef was hired on the spot, and became the drummer for the short-lived Freddy Starr and the Starr Boys.

Photo of Artwoods LP "Art Gallery"
Photo of Artwoods LP "Art Gallery" | Source

With Merseybeat dying, Freddy left the Starr Boys in the spring of 1964, and Keef started looking about for other opportunities while continuing to play with the remaining Starr Boys in Blackpool. In September 1964, Keef headed for London, where he struggled to find work in among all the musicians seeking their fortunes in the big city. Spotting an ad for a drummer in the weekly music magazine Melody Maker, he went for an audition with The Artwoods, and landed the job with this mostly R&B band.

The band took their name from their lead singer Art Wood, older brother of Ron Wood (who would go on to fame with the Faces and Rolling Stones). Members of the band (including future Deep Purple member Jon Lord) would often moonlight to supplement their income, and Keef was becoming sought after as a session drummer. He played live gigs with artists like Howlin' Wolf, and regularly sat in on recording sessions for Champion Jack Dupree and Jimmy Witherspoon and Little Walter. Keef's friendship with Decca producer Mike Vernon enabled him to land these and other well-paid studio sessions, including work with Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, and John Mayall. As with so many others, Keef often wasn't even acknowledged on the album notes.

The Artwoods would record a number of singles, and also released an album on the Decca label in 1966 called "Art Gallery." But rising tensions within the Artwoods, coupled with a lack of commercial success, led Keef to quit the band. Starting his search for a new home, he wandered into a pub and who should he run into but John Mayall, who told Keef he was about to sack his drummer and needed a replacement.

And so it was in 1967 that Keef joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Keef was with John's band for both 1967's "Crusade" and 1968's "Diary Of A Band," the latter put together by Mayall from over 60-hours of live shows recorded during the Bluesbreakers' 1967 tour dates. Keef was also the only other player besides Mayall on 1967's The Blues Alone and though he doesn't appear on all tracks, this is a superb CD featuring two great musicians who had tremendous respect for each other. Keef learned so much from John during their time together, but it was time for Keef to start his own band.

Photo of Keef Hartley's debut LP "Halfbreed"
Photo of Keef Hartley's debut LP "Halfbreed"

The Keef Hartley Band—Peter Dines (organ and harpsichord), Ian Cruickshank (guitar), Gary Thain (bass), Henry Lowther (trumpet, violin) and of course Keef on drums—entered the studio to lay down tracks for their first album. When Keef heard the tracks they had recorded for this mostly jazz-influenced Chicago blues LP, he realized the vocals were off. Their original lead singer was an amazing talent in live shows, but for whatever reason, lost his mojo in the studio. He was quickly replaced by Miller Anderson, who went into the studio to re-record the vocals. "Halfbreed," showing Keef in full Native American headdress, was released in 1969 and entered the U.S. charts with a bullet. This meant a U.S. tour, which was hastily arranged.

First stop, Woodstock.

"We had our set list sorted and started with a slow number. It went downhill from there."

— Hartley on having to follow Santana at the festival

Keef Hartley's Woodstock

Imagine the shock of some lads from across the pond who were accustomed to playing small clubs and ballrooms when they arrived at the festival site. Besides Keef and their accompanying horn section, none of the other guys had even been to the U.S. before.

The guys had heard Santana's fiery performance, and were scared to death about following them up. Lucky for them, the organizers didn't have everything quite ready to go and so had asked John Sebastian to play for a bit. Keef later recalled that they were very thankful that Sebastian was there to cool things down a bit.

The Woodstock lineup—Hartley (drums), Miller Anderson (guitar and vocals), Gary Thain (bass), Jimmy Jewell (sax) and Henry Lowther (trumpet and violin)—took the stage about 4:45 p.m. and played a six-song, 45-minute set. They opened with the mid-tempo "Spanish Fly" and moved into punchier numbers that had the crowd on their feet, including "Too Much Thinking," off the Halfbreed LP. They finished up with some blues and a medley of tunes from "Halfbreed," including "Sinnin' For You." "Leaving Trunk" and "Just to Cry." Many folks who were hearing them for the first time compared their music to that of Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Unfortunately for the band, their performance was not recorded. Turns out that their manager, Johnny Jones, wasn't having any part of the band being filmed or recorded without a contract, even going so far as to demand money up-front. Now, at this point, organizers weren't even sure there would be a film or album made of the Woodstock artists, but Jones wouldn't budge.

The song "Spanish Fly," which starts at about the three-minute mark in the clip below, comes from audience tapes of the performance. The intro is of Miller Anderson reminiscing about the band's gig at Woodstock.

Life After Woodstock

After Woodstock, the band continued to tour and released three albums in fairly rapid succession, with Lowther and Jewell leaving the band after 1970's "The Time Is Near." Their fourth album for Deram was "Overdog," which yielded a pre-released single called "Roundabout" that was popular enough to elicit an invitation to appear on the wildly popular "Top of the Pops." But Keef refused, saying "we're not that kind of band."

Two more albums followed, including a live album recorded in June 1971 at The Marquee Club in London, featuring a 13-piece band. Unfortunately, the band's main songwriter Miller Anderson left shortly afterward, and the Keef Hartley band was doomed. Keef re-joined John Mayall's outfit for a time, and appeared on 1971's "Back to the Roots" LP. In 1973, Keef released another album as a solo effort. "Lancashire Hustler" contained the song "Dance to the Music," which was written by a certain Sylvester Stewart, aka Sly Stone.

Keef began sitting in as a session player again, but really missed being in a band. In 1975, he formed a short-lived band with former mates Miller Anderson and Derek Griffiths (ex of Artwood) under the name of Dog Soldier. Their United Artists label sent them out on a US tour to promote the album, but the wheels came off after just over half the tour dates had been completed, and Keef quit for good. He returned to the Preston area and started working in construction, playing music and doing session work only when it suited him.

Keef's autobiography, "Halfbreed (A Rock And Roll Journey That Happened Against All The Odds)" was published in 2007. In declining health, Keef entered hospital in Preston, and passed away on November 26, 2011 due to complications from surgery.

Five Musical Facts

  1. Keef Hartley and Phil Collins had the same drum teacher.
  2. Who was the drummer sacked by Mayall? Mick Fleetwood, who had only been with John a few weeks, and went on to be one of the founders of Fleetwood Mac.
  3. Some sources suggest that the Keef Hartley Band played with at least some of Santana's equipment at Woodstock.
  4. Bassist Gary Thain left the Keef Hartley Band in 1972 to join Uriah Heep. Tragically, he became a member of the "27 Club" when he died of a heroin overdose in 1975.
  5. Always in demand, Keef was behind the kit for work with such diverse artists as Martha Velez, Vinegar Joe, Mainsqueeze, later incarnations of The Thunderbeats, numerous times with John Mayall, and even helped out as a guest drummer for Jethro Tull when their own drummer wasn't available.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson


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    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      15 months ago from Canada

      Hi Pamela and thank you.

      For many people, the original 1970 movie and soundtrack is the "official" record of Woodstock. So it is easy to forget the artists who weren't included there.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      15 months ago from Sunny Florida

      Things sure didn't seem to go well ffor Keef Hartley. I don't remember him, although I remember almost everyone else. This is an interesting article about another musician that performed at Woodstock.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      15 months ago from Canada

      Hi Flourish,

      Yes, the stars didn't exactly align for Keef, did they? When Mayall fired Fleetwood, Keef joined Mayall's band. The two of them worked together off and on for many years after that. I have a copy of "The Blues Alone," and the album notes say "the occasional aid of his drummer Keef Hartley." :-)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      15 months ago from USA

      It doesn’t seem like it was meant to be for Keef Hartley between firing Mick Fleetwood not being recorded at Woodstock and other problems. Working construction for a singer is a tough one.


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