The autobiography of Catherine Howe, age 20, briefly appeared in 1971. Hardly a time to issue a set of memoirs; most artists have hardly established any sort of competence by the age of majority, let alone compositions of such maturity and complexity. What A Beautiful Place, however, is a prodigious effort wrought with the melancholy ruminations of post-adolescence. The album’s eleven songs unfold like a classic bildungsroman, beginning in the smoke stained industrial county of Yorkshire, transformed by the electrified creative landscape of mid-century London, and retiring to the warm pastoral bliss of the county of Dorset on England’s southern coast.
From the opening chimes of “Prologue,” we are immediately transported to another time and place. Her story opens “Up North,” in the town of Halifax, famous for textile mills, factories, and smokestacks that replace the sunlight with soot -- a city marred by terrible poverty; a place where, after long days in the coal pits, “people smile their grimey smiles.” This is Howe’s hometown. Her vocal gift was identified early, and after primary school she was uprooted and sent to the Corona Drama School in London, where she landed serious roles in BBC dramas, London theatre, and even a short-lived stint on the Patrick Trouton led Dr. Who.
By the time Howe left school in 1967, her father had retired and had moved the family to a tiny resort town on the southern coast of England. Swanage became both her muse and the location of the potent creative emanations that yielded What A Beautiful Place. She would wander around the town, seeking out any piano that might be conveniently vacant. She was able to avail herself of a few of pianos that sat unused during the daytime in the resort hotels' ballrooms, and even found empty bench space among the townsfolk.
In 1968, with nearly a dozen original compositions under her belt, Howe set off to find a record deal. Having no reputation, no experience as a musical performer, and no professional training, there was no sensible reason for any company of any standing to give her a record deal. None of these facts deterred her. It was the CBS logo staring out from her turntable, attached to her favorite record; the Bacharach penned "The Look Of Love,” that gave her quest direction. Her appearance in CBS’s London lobby didn’t yield a recording deal, but it did result in a chance encounter with Andrew Cameron Miller, who managed Reflection Records, a tiny independent label that partnered with CBS on many of its releases. Driven on some sort of fated path, the project quickly went from a stack of sheet music, to a recording contract, to a slated production, all with Howe tucked away by the sea, completely unaware of this progress. After a few weeks, Miller frantically tracked Howe down and informed her that musicians had been hired, the producer was flying in from the United States, and that she needed to be at Trident Studios in three days.
Bobby Scott was only 33 when he came to work with Catherine Howe in 1970, but he acted as if his career had reached its apex and was on the decline. Best remembered as the composer of "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," hits for Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell, and the Hollies, Scott was proficient in at least ten instruments, played with every major jazz performer, started the careers of Bobby Hebb and Jesse Colin Young, among many others, and was considered a genius by everyone he met. Unfortunately, his resume contained just as many failures, truancies, and undelivered works as it did triumphs.
Though they had never met before, Catherine and Bobby quickly became two halves of a whole. Scott’s lackluster work ethic was transformed overnight. Where usually his productions would meander completely off page and budget, Scott set about arranging the songs immediately. He worked intently for just a few days to produce the lush, sophisticated orchestration, turning Howe’s sketches into works of art. Scott's masterful and unrelenting effort stretched Reflection’s independent budget into a monumental production on par with lavish major label affairs.
All the elements of the production seemed serendipitously aligned. The hired session players, which included Stan Gorman on drums, Mike Ward on bass, and Lance D’owen on guitar, delivered inspired and highly skilled performances. A portion of the London Symphony orchestra was brought in to fill out the skeletal outlines. Scott got the best execution out of Howe though, who gives a performance that is consistently stirring while maintaining a dramatic edge. She had never performed these songs before, and yet they sound time-tested, like old standards.
Howe had conceived each of these songs on separate canvases, but in the studio Scott suggested that she create “Prologue,” “Interlude,” and “Epilogue” to bind the works together. With this stroke, the songs achieved the congruity of a concept album, though that wasn’t the intention. From the mild samba flair of “It Comes With The Breezes” to the mournful dirge of “Words Through A Locked Door,” each song bears its own mood and emotional content.
After the sessions, Howe came stateside to see Scott and stayed with his partner Phil Gillin, who had bought Reflection out of bankruptcy in 1969. The relationship between Howe and Scott had become serious. Though deeply loving, it was doomed by circumstance and, eventually, distance. They recorded several demos during this time, unfortunately none of them survived. ]It was during this nearly yearlong period between the recording and the release of What A Beautiful Place that things started to fall apart.
With the album complete, Reflection’s next task was to secure either major distribution or the outright sale of the masters. In the past, Miller had been able to press his connections at CBS. When offered Catherine Howe, they inexplicably balked. In an attempt to drum up interest in What A Beautiful Place, Reflection issued a limited number of copies to the media in June of 1971. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive, prompting the BBC’s Radio One to put the album into their rotation. Meanwhile, the situation at Reflection was boiling over. Unrelated problems between Miller, the label manager, and Gillin, the label owner, came to a head and were exacerbated by this latest debacle. Catherine Howe’s debut would be Reflection Records’ last. The album, tied tightly to the label’s mast, would go down with the ship.
Howe returned to London shortly after the album’s untimely failure, waiting tables or acting to pay the bills. She still focused her creative energies on songwriting, and occasionally even shopped those songs on Denmark Street. Ironically, it was a copy of What A Beautiful Place that would resurrect her career. The album was dead everywhere in England except in the London office of Carlin Music, where a friend of Howe’s tattered copy was still in heavy rotation. It eventually caught the ear of Paul Rich, which led to a publishing deal and several demos. One of those demos, “In The Hot Summer,” was originally intended to appear on the album. Ultimately this would lead to a recording contract with RCA. The result was Harry, which, far from a sophomore slump, would become her biggest record.
Not every artist's first release is their best, but there is a certain logic to the idea that an artist spends their entire life creating that first work, and each subsequent work draws from less and less of their experience. Unlike so many artists who began with a false start, or achieved through beginner's luck the raw promise of youth, Catherine Howe's career began with a sublime document of creative expression that should take an entire lifetime of trial and error to achieve. It’s fitting, then, that it would take almost half a lifetime for the world to hear.