After John Paul Jones (whose name recognition, in fairness, got a big boost in 1968 with the formation of Led Zepellin), Herbie Flowers is probably the best-known session bassist in England and has been for decades. He also belongs to a tiny fraternity of rock musicians (of whom King Crimson's Ian McDonald is probably the most visible) who can trace their musical career to military service. Having been drafted into the Royal Air Force, Flowers chose service in the RAF Central Band as an alternative to combat training. He was taught the tuba, an instrument of singularly little utility in rock music, and spent nine years in uniform as a bandsman.
After his release from the air force in the early '60s, he passed through the lineups of several Dixieland jazz outfits, not knowing a lot about music but needing to make a living. His discovery of modern jazz, however, led him to take up the double-bass and abandon Dixieland jazz. In 1965, Flowers got a gig playing in a band aboard the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth which allowed him to visit New York where, for the first time, he heard an electric bass in action in a jazz context. He abandoned the acoustic bass first chance he got, purchasing a solid-body electric instrument.
Flowers' natural acumen with the instrument turned him into one of the top session bassists in England during the second half of the 1960s, second only to John Paul Jones. In 1970, Flowers co-founded the group Blue Mink with Madeline Bell and Roger Cook, with which he and Cook co-authored numerous songs. He left the group during 1974 when he joined David Bowie's band for the tour behind the Diamond Dogs album, after which he joined T. Rex for a short stint before returning to his old group late in the decade. Flowers' main activity during the 1970s, however, was as a session bassist, a role in which he had no peer in England. He played on recordings by Elton John (Tumbleweed Connection etc.), David Bowie (Man of Words/Space Oddity etc.), Lou Reed (including "Walk on the Wild Side"), David Essex, Ian Gomm, Allan Clarke, Al Kooper, Harry Nilsson, and Cat Stevens. By the end of the decade, Flowers' bass work was associated with an estimated 500 hit recordings.
Flowers recorded the first of two solo albums, Plant Life (which also featured such luminaries as Chris Spedding backing him up) in 1975 on the Philips Records label, and followed it up five years later with A Little Potty, but neither record made a major impression on the public. He was much more successful in the late '70s for his linkup with guitarist John Williams, keyboard virtuoso Francis Monkman, guitarist Kevin Peek, and drummer Tristan Fry to form Sky, a progressive rock/jazz fusion ensemble. Sky became a major part of Flowers' output for most of the 1990s, but he has also remained very visible as a session musician, branching into soundtrack music and orchestral recordings in addition to his work in rock music. Such was the demand for his services, that beginning in the late '70s, Flowers was spending a quarter of each year in America simply to fulfill professional commitments for his services in the United States.