An appointment with Dr Hook – the Dennis Locorriere interview

Medicine Showman: Dennis Locorriere, back out there playing the Dr Hook hits

Medicine Showman: Dennis Locorriere, back out there playing the Dr Hook hits

Dr. Hook were always something of a musical conundrum for me. Sharp, witty purveyors of great songs, but somewhat disregarded by the professors of cool on account of their more chart-friendly fodder.

As a kid turned on to punk and new wave, I steered clear of admitting interest in a band best known at the time for hits like Sexy Eyes and When You’re In Love with a Beautiful Woman. Yet I have good memories of my big sister playing the sublime Sylvia’s Mother on her dansette, and also of the regular airplay over the 1976 summer drought for A Little Bit More, followed that year by the poignant If Not You.

This was a band camped just the right side of middle of the road rock and country as far as these young ears were concerned, and perhaps there was always more to Dr Hook than met the eyepatch. There was the Hook of the heartfelt ballads but also another, far cheekier, more irreverent band, one enjoying the fruits of their success after all those years on the breadline putting out more edgy product.

Fact is that Dr Hook rode the international pop, rock and country charts for around 15 years, attaining more than 60 gold and platinum albums and gaining No. 1 chart status in more than 42 countries. What’s more, there was proof that the affection remained 30 years on, judging by the success of their 2014 retrospective double disc set, Timeless. And now, Dennis Locorriere, a founding member and the band’s distinctive lead vocalist and guitarist, is out on the road playing those hits again.

It was Dennis who put together Universal Music’s Timeless collection, selecting and sequencing 40 tracks from Hook’s extensive catalogue, writing its liner notes too. And while bandmate Ray Sawyer – with that highly-recognisable eyepatch (having lost an eye in a near-fatal roadcrash in 1967) and upturned cowboy hat – was key to the original Dr Hook image, it was the voice of Dennis that set them apart.

He certainly became the face of the latest compilation, undertaking a punishing press schedule of TV and radio in the UK. And after successful Timeless tours with his band in New Zealand and Australia in 2015, he’s bringing the show to these shores later this year. Furthermore, Dennis – resident here since around the time of the millennium – promises not only great music, but also the fun and humour synonymous with the band’s name.

When I caught up with the very entertaining Mr Locorriere on the phone at his place on the south coast, he was trying to get to grips with another lacking British summertime (clearly just before that late heatwave caught us all out). And it was soon pretty clear that this had all the hallmarks of a pretty much laidback chat, with absolutely no hint of any side or that I was addressing some kind of distant superstar.

“The sun’s out, but by the time I’m done talking to you it might not be! July’s been more like November. But hey look, if I was really a weather guy I’d probably not live in the UK. When I grew up in New York, seasons were like clockwork. You could set your watch by them. ’Hey, it’s Spring – before the catalogues come out, buy your corduroys’. I thought that was how things go. I’ve been here 15 years and there was a semblance of a summer for a while, but then it was like, ‘We’re going to scrap that’.”

First Footings: Dr Hook, the self-titled debut album from 1971

First Footings: Dr Hook’s self-titled 1971 debut album

It seems to be the time for me to be talking to treasured US imports, I tell this amiable 67-year-old, having also recently conversed with Geno Washington of the Ram Jam Band fame.

“Hey, with the year this has been for celebrities, I’m happy to be spoken to rather than about! I’m glad this is an interview and not an obituary. But do you know why it’s so shocking now? Stars used to be around until maybe they were 40 then they thought it was unbecoming and disappeared. You’d see a photograph of them shopping with sunglasses on when they were 60, then you’d hear they’d died.

“Now they dance right to the precipice – baby boomers like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, leaping off amplifiers. So when these guys go, we’re like, ‘What!’ It’s sad, but I chuckle a little when people in their 70s are dying, especially those who lived the way that they did! Rock’n’roll takes its toll.”

You’ve moved around a bit over the years, and were based in Nashville for a while, I understand.

“Yeah, maybe 20 years.”

But now you’re on the Sussex coast. So why the move over here?

“I like it here, and always liked it here. In the last decade or so it’s become a matter of the heart, and also for romantic reasons. But I’ve always liked the UK, because they’ve always liked me.

“Also, with America, after the farewell tour of 1985 I wrote songs and sang on other people’s albums but didn’t really pursue the road thing, because with Hook we did it 300 days a year for 15 years. That was the way you did it then, when people wanted to see you. We did a lot of that, but then I packed it in and my son, who was 15, came to live with me and my life became a little more about earthly concerns. But when you step back into it, you have to travel and do all those things again.”

He’s playing down the writing side there, Dennis having had his songs recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan, Crystal Gayle, Helen Reddy, Willie Nelson, Southside Johnny and Jerry Lee Lewis. There was a stint playing with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings too. Was that a good way to get back into it all?

“Well, the road is the road, and that’s why you have to love why you’re on the road. The rest of it is a crap shoot. What will I eat? When will I eat? Will there be time? What’s the hotel going to be like? Will there be traffic? Everything is a variable apart from the time you hit the stage every night, giving people what they came for.

“The day I don’t like the reason I’m on the road, then I’m just riding around on the motorways looking for bad tea! But when you walk out there and the show makes sense, people are happy and you feel like you did what you were supposed to do, the rest of the bother of the day melts away.”

Seconds Out: Note avoidance of any innuendo in caption for the band's 1972 follow-up album

Seconds Out: Note avoidance of any innuendo in caption for the band’s 1972 follow-up album

Does this New Jersey lad who teamed up with a bunch of lads from the Southern states ever get back to Union City? Do you still have friends and family there?

“I don’t. The last time I was there was around 20 years ago with my best friend, who lives in San Francisco. We grew up there and walked around and found it so different. The neighbourhood I came from burned down when I was in my 40s and was completely rebuilt. If you spun me around and pushed me there I wouldn’t have known where I was.

“To address the Bill Wyman question though, that was so amazing. I met Bill at a charity event we did for Jim Capaldi at The Roundhouse, where I was in this unbelievable band with all of Jim’s friends – from Paul Weller and Pete Townshend to Bill Wyman (also Joe Walsh, Steve Winwood and Yusuf Islam).

“As a child of the ‘60s, to see Bill, I was over the moon. Last time I’d seen him was on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was a kid. I went up, in my exuberance, and said I’d love to sit in with his band sometime. A couple of months later his guitar player Terry Taylor came to me and asked if I still wanted to do that. I said, ‘Yeah’, expecting to show up at a venue and sit in, but they sent me a 30-city itinerary, so I realised I was in the band!

“On a simple level, being at the back of the coach and looking up front to see Bill Wyman up there was a full circle for me. I ain’t looking for much. People would be shocked how little I’ve ever really wanted. I didn’t do all this for celebrity and certainly not for money, because when you get it you just roll it back on to the table and gamble again. It’s these little full circle things that make it, and that’s one of the highlights of my life, even though it didn’t happen until I was 60.”

There were just under a decade of huge hits? Did that all become a little surreal? Was it an enjoyable ride, or did it put a strain on friendships.

“It didn’t put a strain on friendships. We actually fared well that way. We were friends and relied on each other a lot – like a pack of chimpanzees. The road if anything bonded us. We were all different kinds of people, but still had this common bond. It was like being in the Army. Doesn’t matter where you’re from originally when the tracer bullets go over your head. You’re all on the same team.

“It did get a little ‘Where are we now?’ But you only ever look at your success later in life. When you’re doing it, it’s like ‘That was cool’. When Sylvia’s Mother went to No.1 we kind of hugged each other, but then realised we had to do the same again. It wasn’t like we were going to dine out on that one record for the rest of our lives.

“Everything you accomplish puts the pressure on you to accomplish something else. We did have a good run, but once we got to a point where people were looking at us like ‘I remember you’ status, maybe we’d done it and it was time to do something else. I’d just turned 34 on the farewell tour and had been doing it since I was 19. And I think that’s a fair shot at it.”

The Dr Hook years only really accounted for 18 years though, while you’ve been a solo act for around 30 years.

“I was talking to someone last night about Paul McCartney. The Beatles had their success over seven years, while the band he’s got now has been together longer than that.”

Solo Days: Dennis Locorriere's most recent offering, from 2010

Solo Days: Dennis’s most recent offering, from 2010

Has your impressive solo material been relatively overlooked, do you think?

“In as much as when I was with Dr Hook I had Sony and EMI behind me, whereas my solo material came out on an independent label – sure. When I put out my solo albums and go to TV or radio everything’s really cool, but when I talk about Dr Hook it seems to make sense to everybody – it’s familiar and something they know.

“Let’s face it, my last solo album, Post Cool (2010) – I loved that album, and the fans I have are pleased with those records. I have fans that want to know what I’m doing now. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be killer sellers, but that they’ve always liked this guy and wonder what he’s doing now.

“It always perplexes me when people stop trusting you. They wanna talk about a record I put out in 1976 and still listen to. It makes me wonder, ‘Have you heard my new album? You’d like that.’

“But music has the power to be the soundtrack of people’s lives, and a Dr Hook album will remind someone of when they were 20, while Post Cool will remind someone of when they were 60. I’m lucky also because when I play the audience winds up being that generation but also their kids … and if the timing’s right, their kids’ kids. And I absolutely love that. For one thing it means your audience won’t suddenly all die one year! And it’s nice to know it has that longevity.”

I had a similar conversation a while back with one of your ‘70s singer-songwriting chart contemporaries, Gilbert O’Sullivan, and will ask you the same – do you tend to get a lot of people telling you they were the product of a romantic night with Dr Hook playing in the background?

“Well, I wonder how it worked so well for them and not me! But to broaden that, I get people walk up and say, ‘My Dad loves you. We’d go camping and sing Dr Hook songs on the journey’. They’d start talking to me as if they’ve known me forever.

“I have to tell you, I’m not a guy who tends to carry celebrity around on my shoulder. Sometimes I’ll be stopped on a street and asked, ‘Can we take a photo?’ And for a split-second, I think, ‘Why?’ but then say, ‘Okay’.

“I was in a teashop and this guy was looking at me in the queue, then came over and said, ‘Is it strange that you’re standing here and no one knows who you are?’ I said, ‘Well, first of all, you do!’ Secondly I wasn’t looking around to see if anyone had spotted me. I was just hoping the next three people in front of me didn’t order a Panini!

“My concerns are more ground-based. But if you’re eating or you’re busy, you can’t just dismiss that. I know how I would feel – as a massive Beatles fan – if I rushed up to Paul McCartney and said something and he shouted, ‘Security!’

Timeless Machine: 40 tracks from Dr Hook's extensive catalogue

Time Machine: 40 tracks from Hook’s back story

“You’ve got to take that into consideration. That’s a power you get handed. You could ruin that guy’s day. I talked to a guy for about 20 minutes the other day and he told me I made his whole summer. And I said, ‘Well, remember that tomorrow when it’s pissing (down).’”

So why did you feel – after all the solo years – that the time had finally come to reflect on the Dr Hook era, first in 2007, then with the Timeless collection and subsequent touring?

“I’ve touched on it every once in a while. It’s my history and my legacy. In the last dozen years I’ve done a lot of solo tours, just me and a guitar, this journeyman guy with 40 years’ worth of songs. And obviously some of that involved Hook stuff. But I was also singing people new songs, and when they liked them, I recorded them and put them out – that made me feel like a real artist.

“But what opened my eyes to the Hook thing – despite daily reminders of who I used to be! – was that in 2014 Universal acquired a lot of catalogues from EMI and now have all the Dr Hook stuff. They came to me and said they were told I was the guy to talk to. They wanted to put out a comprehensive set and wanted me to help. I jumped in and compiled a two-CD set, Timeless, the first containing most of the songs people know and the other the funny ones, rocky ones and more obscure ones.

“I did a lot of promo for that, including TV and a lot of radio, spoke to a lot of people, and it started to really click that this stuff meant a lot of people, hearing endless stories of how much that meant in their lives. I was going into TV stations and having girls coming out of the back offices to say hello. I’m 67 now and thought, ‘If you’re ever going to do this …’

“I can still sing and kind of look like an older version of the same guy, so when I walk out on stage people don’t say to each other, ‘Who the hell is this?’ I thought maybe this would be a good time.

“After all the promo, I went to Australia for a 26-date solo tour, having not been there for 15 years, then back to New Zealand and Australia last year promoting Timeless. That went really well. And this was for 40-year-old material!

“I’m not a big nostalgia guy. I respect my past and I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to end up singing Sylvia’s Mother in a chicken-in-a-basket place. I will fade away integrally, I hope. But if I didn’t do this, I’d always wonder if I should have.”

Time marches on, and Dr Hook lost drummer John Wolters (with the band from 1973 to 1985) in 1997, bass player Jance Garfat (1972 to 1985) in 2006, keyboard player and fellow founder member Billy Francis (1967 to 1985) in 2010, and guitarist Rod Smarr (1980 to 1985) in 2012. So is this the closest we’ll ever get to a reunion?

“Oh yeah. Four of the guys are gone, while Rik (Elswit, guitarist, 1972-85) lives out in California and has his own life. He’s in his 70s, teaches guitar and still plays in bands.

Postcool Customer: Dennis Locorriere, back out on the road

Postcool Customer: Dennis Locorriere, back out on the road

“Ray (Sawyer) is 80 and not in the best of health, I hear. We haven’t spoken in a long time. People think that means we’re enemies, but we weren’t the same people. He’s 13 years older and from Alabama, and when we came off the road he’d go fishing while I’d go to New York, visiting bookstores. It’s not unusual we have separate interests.

“For me, right now, I can’t bring back the band. But I was the singer and I’ve got a band that plays this stuff as it’s supposed to be played. It’s like a sense-memory. That’s dawned on me too – like smelling chicken soup and remembering your grandma’s house. You hear this music and it brings you to a place.

“We need to respect that and embrace that, playing this music like they remember it. I thought this would be a good time to do that, and the New Zealand shows confirmed that. And now I’m getting to do the Timeless tour I didn’t do in 2014.”

Much of the earlier Hook material came from the pen of the multi-talented Shel Silverstein, not least classics like Sylvia’s Mother, Carry me, Carrie and The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. In fact there’s some great footage out there of the band playing a couple of those songs in 1972 on Shel’s houseboat in Sausalito, California. Let’s just say it looks like they’re having a good time. Did Shel inspire you to write your own songs, to make your own way?

“I’d always written, however credible. But you could hardly turn down songs like Carry Me, Carrie and The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. I was a big Shel Silverstein fan before I’d ever met him, so knowing I was going to work with him just blew me away. I embraced that and embrace that to this day.

“The answer to your question though is almost the opposite of what you might expect. It probably kept me from writing, or at least kept me from presenting my material to the band. When you’ve got a genius like that then say, ‘Okay fellas, now I’d like us to gamble our lives and careers on this little ditty I’ve penned’!

“I always drew cartoons and wrote poetry too, and put out a book of those a few years ago and had a really nice response and good reviews. I was just putting them on my blog because I didn’t know what to do with them. Then a publishing house approached me and said. ‘We love this, would you like to put it out?’

“It dawned on me then that I was hiding my light under a bushel. I think part of me felt I was going to be seen as a Shel clone, although I don’t write like him or draw like him. But he inspired me to express myself always, and I never felt that singing one of his songs was a lack of self expression. He had this worldly material.

“I asked him in his later years (Shel died in 1999, aged 68), after doing a one-man play of his, ‘Man, why did you trust a kid with all these worldly songs?’ And he said, ‘Because I always felt you were an old soul’. I love that. And the body of work – Sylvia’s Mother, I Don’t Want to Be Alone Tonight … I mean, great! It’s no disgrace. Look at someone like Sinatra, who wrote nothing. Being an interpreter is valid.”

Taking your ‘old soul’ point, the band were introduced to the world as Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Tonic for the Soul on an early poster. That was a pretty perceptive description – or prescription – as band statements go.

See Shel: Dr Hook and the Medicine Show collaborator of note, Shel Silverstein

See Shel: The Medicine Show’s legendary collaborator, Shel Silverstein

“Yeah, that was on a poster we stuck in the window of a bar, because the guy there said we needed a name. It was hardly calculated, and certainly nothing I thought I’d still be talking about now!”

Harking back to those formative band days, your fellow founders previously played together as The Chocolate Papers. Did you ever get to see them live?

“No, that was something George (Cummings), Ray (Sawyer) and Billy (Francis) did as kids. You can go to websites where they call everybody who was in that band ‘former members of Dr Hook’. But that’s not true. If it was, what about my best friend who lives in San Francisco? Dr Hook didn’t start until Ray and George went up to Union City and met me, then said they knew a keyboard player and sent for Billy. When The Chocolate Papers was happening I was probably 14.”

I’m sure this can’t be an easy question, but which Dr Hook songs are you most proud of and look forward to playing most after all these years?

“It changes. As a singer and performer I like the story-songs. I have something more to sink my teeth into. Sing something like Lucy Jordan and you get involved. Sing something like Sexy Eyes, it’s a good radio record, sounds great and was a big hit, but it’s not quite the same literature.

“When I try to write I try to say something. When people say I’ve a lovely voice, I think, ‘Maybe I should say something with it’. Otherwise, I should have just learned to play saxophone!”

Let’s be honest, here – growing up, I wouldn’t have admitted my appreciation of your finer works, let alone the – shall we say – more orchestrated material like Sexy Eyes and Better Love Next Time. It took me a while to go back and realise just how good many of those songs were. Do you still encounter plenty of snobbery like that about the band’s output?

“People often say that’s where Dr Hook sold out, but for all the Carry Me, Carrie and Lucy Jordan type songs, if we hadn’t had that body of mainstream hits we’d be a footnote. And our families would have starved. We had to make a conscious effort. We were a bunch of hippies, but had families and were going bankrupt.

“Looking for radio material kept people coming to the shows. We still did our show, but I’d always say when Hook had another hit record our show would just get three minutes longer! Yet you hear all the time, ‘This is where Dr Hook got twee’ or ‘This is where they sold out’.”

Despite what I said about some of the later material, seeing you play those songs live today – having stripped away the more ‘80s production – certainly proves they’re great songs.

“That’s one of the things I love about the solo performances. It’s a man and a guitar. Even if you get Kiss and take away the blood and explosions, you get a guy singing you a song. So is it a good one?

Light Saver: Dennis Locorriere's 2000 album, Out of the Dark

Light Saver: Dennis’s 2000 LP, Out of the Dark

“If you’re going to be out there alone, you want songs you can practically recite. With the Hook thing now, it’s tougher with a band – it’s like travelling with a circus. But it makes my life easier in going out on stage armed with material I know they love. That was one of the reasons I stopped doing it – the atrophy. Why was I writing a new song when they had plenty they already liked?

“I didn’t want my past to shrivel me up and make me die. I wanted a little bit more …”

I know a song about that, but keep quiet, and Dennis carries on.

“It wasn’t an ego thing, but more, ‘Can I lift this weight and do this myself?’ Now I’ve done some acting, the poetry book, the solo stuff, played with Bill Wyman, and I’ve done a lot these past 25 years. So going out and doing the Dr Hook thing seems like a part of my life I’m re-investing in.

“It doesn’t feel like ‘You better do that, pal – it’s all you’ve got!’ Because then you wind up resenting your own success, when people come up and say, ‘Man, I remember you!’ Check your f***ing pulse! After a while it’s like going up to an older person and saying, ‘Wow, I bet you used to be gorgeous!’

“One of the most horrible ones I ever heard was, ‘You used to be the good looking one’.  Compared to what? What should I do? Stand around ugly people a lot, so I don’t lose that credit? Constantly I have to stand back and tell myself, ‘Okay, I know what they meant’.”

Is that something you bear in mind when you hire band members now – how good looking they’ll look up on the stage with you?

“No, but it’s hard not to avoid being the oldest! And the funniest thing is that I used to be the youngest, by 12 or 13 years. Now I’ve got guys in the band who are hot-shots and great players. My drummer was having a birthday and said, ‘Ah man, I’m going to be 47.’ I said, ‘Oh, shut up! If I was 47 I’d still have 20 years to play with!’

“Before you go, I’ll tell you this. When we recorded and started playing The Ballad of Lucy Jordan I was in my mid-20s, while Shel wrote that when he was probably pushing 40. So the line ’At the age of 37 …’ probably meant something to him. To me, at that age, I’d think, ‘Wow – 37!’ Now I think, ‘Shut up! You’re 37 and on the roof?’

“Your perspective changes. You mentioned If Not You, and a guy recently told me, ‘I love that song, and every time I have a new relationship I introduce that. Thanks for writing it’. I laughed and said, ‘Ah, but what if I wrote that for someone I didn’t really care for?’ That’s not the case, but where it comes from and where it lands is two different places!”

At this point, Dennis realises he’s gone off on one (and with good reason) and reins himself back in, closing our already over-running conversation (and I certainly wasn’t complaining) with a concluding line.

“Anyway, come see the show. I’d like you to know I don’t just talk a good game. It’ll be a great show.”

Guitar Man: Dennis Locorriere, prescribing to Dr Hook's back catalogue again

Guitar Man: Dennis Locorriere, prescribing to Dr Hook’s back catalogue again, and coming to a town near you

This feature was originally commissioned to promote Dr Hook starring Dennis Locorriere’s Timeless world tour visit to Preston Guild Hall on Friday, December 9 (7.30pm), with tickets £34/£31 via the box office (01772 80 44 44).

For the rest of the UK tour dates and all the latest from Dennis, head to his website, or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

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Return of the Magnificent Maytals – the Toots Hibbert interview

Reggae Original: Toots Hibbert, returning to the UK with the Maytals for a series of live shows

Reggae Original: Toots Hibbert, returning to the UK with the Maytals for a series of live shows

I’m not quite sure where Frederick Hibbert, better known as ‘Toots’, is when I get through, but I’m guessing it’s Jamaica’s own back of beyond, with the phone reception poor. It doesn’t help that he’s en route between engagements, nor that he’s struggling to pick up what this Lancashire-based Englishman on the line is saying.

More to the point I get off to a bad start, following his introductory, laidback ‘Yeah, man!’ response to me asking if he’s doing okay, with a question about how life is now he’s in his mid-70s.

“No, no, no! I’m not! Where did you get your information from?”

With that we lost contact, and I wondered if he’d taken umbrage and cut me off. But I tried again and this time – while still a little testy at first – Toots was more forthcoming.

The charismatic multi-instrumentalist will be touring this August and September, back at the helm of the legendary Toots and the Maytals, one of the world’s best-loved ska and reggae groups, one he co-founded in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1961 with Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ Mathias and Raleigh Gordon. They start their latest UK visit with outdoor appearances over the August bank holiday weekend at Alex James’ The Big Feastival in the Cotswolds, then as special guests that Monday, August 29, of Madness for the House of Common showcase on Clapham Common. And then comes Toots and The Maytals’ own eight-date tour, starting at Bristol’s Motion on Wednesday, August 31, and ending on Saturday, September 10 at Manchester Academy.

Maytal Master: Toots the multi-instrumentalist in live action

Maytal Master: Toots the multi-instrumentalist in live action

But that was still some way off when I tracked down Toots back home in Jamaica, the reggae legend resuming our conversation by explaining that he’s on the road so might well lose contact again. What’s more, he wasn’t quite done with me on the question of his age.

“I was born in 1945, although people believe I was born in 1942. But I can’t do anything about it!”

There’s humour in his reply this time, and I remark that it serves me right for believing what I read on the internet, before asking if he feels his age some days.

“I don’t think of it – I never think of it.”

Taking the hint, I switch from tackling Toots’ personal history to that of his band, mentioning how it’s now 55 years since the Maytals formed. Has that time flown?

“We started in 1944, while Bob Marley and the Beatles started in 1942, you know.”

I’m confused there, knowing full well Toots and the Maytals didn’t start out until the early ‘60s, with Bob Marley (another artist born in 1945) and his band the Wailers following in their wake and proving similarly influential. As for that Liverpudlian outfit he mentioned, John Lennon’s early group the Quarrymen didn’t even attract the attention of a passing Paul McCartney at a church fete in Woolton until 1957. But perhaps Toots’ point was that we become artists from birth. At least I think that’s what he meant.

toots and the maytals Monkey Man1Seeing as we were talking roots again, I got back to his upbringing. Is that right that he was the youngest of seven children?

“No, that’s wrong!”

That’s wrong as well? I’m not doing very well here. I think I’ll start avoiding the internet altogether from now on, I tell him.

“There were actually 14 of us.”

Wow, and was his very much a musical family?

“Yes, we were.”

I gather there was a lot of gospel music in his background, I venture.

“Yes, we grew up going to church, and that’s where I learned to sing.”

Toots certainly seems to have walked the line between his Christian and Rastafarian beliefs throughout his career.

“Yes, but Rastafari came long after that. First, I went to church with my parents, and we would sing.”

That spiritual side appears to have been the backbone in all Toots set out to achieve in music. Is that right?

“Yes, yes!”

He also quickly proved himself to be an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. Did that come easily?

“Yes, it come naturally.”

sweetHe might not be telling me too much, but one thing is beyond doubt – from his pioneering recordings in ska and rocksteady to helping establish what became known as reggae, Toots and the Maytals proved an inspiration for generations of popular musicians, their influence stretching way beyond Jamaica.

He’s also been covered in many different styles, from Two Tone to Dancehall, and proved an influence on so many great artists over the years – from The Clash and The Specials through to Amy Winehouse. I put this to him, suggesting that’s something to be proud of. He’s not convinced though, or at least he’s not one to lap up any flattery.

“Well, you could say that, but I’m not proud of myself. I just do what I have to do and hope to do it well. And sometimes I do it better, you know!”

His influence has certainly been recognised in recent years, to a point where he’s even been awarded the prestigious Order of Jamaica back home. I can see he’s not one to take such adulation too well though, so instead I mention his involvement as a judge for the Independent Music Awards. Is that a bit of payback for all the success he’s enjoyed from music?

“That’s just to acknowledge the work I’ve done … and who I am.”

Back in the 1960s, Toots and his band shone through, despite a wealth of talent from his home island. Going back a bit again, did he feel there was a good sense of competition with all the other acts he worked alongside, not least the Maytals’ old musical sparring partners the Wailers? And was there ever resentment from the Maytals’ camp that Bob Marley and his band became a bigger name all over the world? Or was Toots happy enough with his comparatively-modest amount of success?

“There is always competition. It’s like politics. But we don’t think like that, although people always cheer for me and they cheer for Bob Marley. People may think Jimmy Cliff was the greatest and they may think Bob Marley was the greatest. I don’t even think about that.”

One Time: Toots and the Maytals gives it their all on the stage

One Time: Toots and the Maytals gives it their all on the stage

I guess that above all there was always plenty of respect for each act.

“Yeah.”

From working with Prince Buster and Byron Lee onwards, Toots has been at the forefront of Jamaican music. Who would he say he learned most from within the industry?

“They were before me … but I came along, y’know.”

He’s clearly not taking me up on that question either, and I don’t pursue that line, switching tactics and leaving aside further questions about who he felt he worked best with, citing the likes of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Chris Blackwell at Island, and so on. Instead, I bring up his forthcoming UK dates. It sounds like a great time to catch such a rightly-revered band. Is he excited by the thought of his return?

“Yes, I’m looking forward to that. I’ve a lot of friends in the UK, because I’m the one who coined the word ‘reggae’ and was the inventor of the word ‘reggae’, so I’ve a lot of friends there.”

I was hoping to bring that up – the Maytals’ Do The Reggay, from 1968, is widely acknowledged as the first song ever to feature the term. And Toots and his group certainly helped popularise the reggae sound with hits like Pressure Drop (later covered by The Clash) and Monkey Man (later covered by The Specials and then Amy Winehouse).

Then there was perhaps the song they’re most associated with, 54-46 (That’s My Number), Toots’ memorable take on his 18 months in prison from 1966 for possession of marijuana. And from early hits like Sweet and Dandy through to ‘70s successes Funky Kingston and Reggae Got Soul and beyond, the Maytals hold the current record of number one hits in Jamaica, with 31 chart-toppers altogether.

His band have also toured with the likes of The Rolling Stones and Sheryl Crow, while Toots has guested with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Meanwhile, among five Grammy nominations, his band won a 2005 award for Best Reggae album with True Love, their hits re-recorded with artists such as Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, No Doubt, and Shaggy.

the-maytals-5446-was-my-number-trojanFurthermore, five years ago Toots came out 71st in Rolling Stone’s top 100 greatest singers, Bonnie Raitt calling him ‘one of the most powerful and original soul singers ever’, singling out his ‘gruff, classic style’. The US magazine added that classic Maytals singles like Sweet and Dandy and Monkey Man ‘set a template for a couple of generations of ska revivals and garnered the Jamaican singer well-earned comparisons to Otis Redding. And as Toots himself said at the time, “A hundred years from now, my songs will be played, because it is logical words that people can relate to.”

Unfortunately, he’s been absent from the stage for almost three years after suffering a head injury caused by a drunk fan throwing a glass bottle during a festival performance in Richmond, Virginia. But thankfully, after intensive medical therapy, Toots has been cleared by his doctor to resume touring this year. And as he recently told his UK publicist, “It has been a difficult three years, but I am very happy to be able to now get back together with my musical family and prepare to share my music once again with my incredible fans.”

I don’t bring that up this time. Instead, running out of time with my brief slot, I ask – as he mentioned Jimmy Cliff before – about his experience of being involved in The Harder They Come, the cult 1972 Jamaican movie where the soundtrack included The Maytals’ Pressure Drop and Sweet and Dandy.

“Ah yes, that was a good experience.”

Again I wait expectantly for more illuminating detail, but he doesn’t venture any more, and I’m as good as out of time, his next caller already waiting. Finally, I quickly ask, if there are young musicians out there who like what they’ve heard of Toots and the Maytals (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t?), what advice would he give them after 50-plus years as an innovator in his field?

This time he opens up a bit more, just when the clock has ticked down.

“I’d wish them to listen to music from me … and Jimmy Cliff … and Bob Marley. Young people should listen very attentively and try to write good lyrics and be creative to produce good music. And to do that they have to listen and learn, and pay respect to us – the original singers of reggae music!”

Well, I can’t argue with that logic. In other words – learn from the master. And with that Toots is away, after a brief apology about the quality of the reception, promising better next time.

“When I come to London, we will talk again!”

I look forward to it, Toots. And here’s to that latest Maytals tour, as one of the great names of ska, reggae and rocksteady returns to our shores.

Jamaica Smile: Toots Hibbert, captured live by Lee Abel

Jamaica Smile: Toots Hibbert, captured live by Lee Abel

Toots and The Maytals’ UK tour dates: Wednesday, August 31 – Bristol Motion; Thursday, September 1 – Cardiff Tramshed; Friday, September 2 – Brighton Dome; Tuesday, September 6 – Canterbury Marlowe Theatre; Wednesday, September 7 – Norwich UEA; Thursday, September 8 – Nottingham Rock City; Friday, September 9 – Newcastle The Boiler Shop; Saturday, September 10 – Manchester Academy.

For more details head to the band’s Facebook page, and to check out the links for The Big Feastival head here and for Madness presents House of Common try here.

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Sideways On – the Geno Washington interview

Sideways Live: Geno Washington and bass player Steve Bingham putting some glide into your stride

Sideways Live: Geno Washington and bass player Steve Bingham putting some glide into your stride

I should give prior warning here that this interview involves lots of exclamation marks. But believe me, there could have been many more. Let’s just say that the septuagenarian soul legend on the other end of the line lives life with a permanent exclamation mark.

Some 50 years after he shot to fame, US Mid-West born Geno Washington – surely one of our top UK imports – remains a regular on the live circuit, and has a string of dates ahead of him – between next Friday, July 15th at Chiddfest, Hailsham, and five months later (December 17th) at the Spring Arts and Heritage Centre in Havant.

My excuse to speaking to the man immortalised in song to a new generation (including myself) by a certain 1980 Dexy’s Midnight Runners hit is one of those dates, at Preston Guild Hall on August 12th. But I start by mentioning to Geno – real name William Francis Washington – how I clearly took my eye off the ball, having only just realised he’s turned 72. Where did those years go?

“Oh man! It sneaked up on me. I tell you I’m feeling it now, because I just came out of the hospital. I had two operations on my neck. My hand was going dead, my foot was going dead, and all this. I realise now that I’m in my 70s. But before then I thought I was only about 30!”

With that I get the first of many rasping, somewhat infectious laughs, almost machine gun-like in their intensity, this born performer soon proving as entertaining off stage as on it. It seems inevitable that we slow down as we get older, but I can’t imagine Geno – born in late 1943 in Evansville, Indiana – changing the way he performs. He certainly gives it his all.

“There you go. I can’t change that. That’s part of me, and I love performing and making people happy. A lot of musicians will tell that you can be achey, have a headache, backache, all that. But when it’s showtime, the adrenaline starts flowing. Yeah!”

And now it’s summertime, it appears that Geno’s as busy as ever, with a number of live engagements ahead.

“Yeah, man, you know! The kids are switching on to us, because they haven’t seen nothing like that. There’s no gimmicks, no backing tapes, none of that. This is live … straight from the heart! The Ram Jam Band is geared up to par-tay! Par-tay! Forget about your troubles for that moment, and par-tay!”

Hands Up: Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band in 1965 (Photo courtesy of http://genowashington.blogspot.co.uk/)

Hands Up: Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band in 1965 (Photo courtesy of http://genowashington.blogspot.co.uk/)

Geno’s introduction to his adopted England came about in the early 1960s while stationed in East Anglia with the United States Air Force, in what seemed to be originally his bid to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. And as it turned out he made many friends and changed his life forever, 4,000 miles from home, his love of blues and what became better known as soul music soon finding him jamming with bands in and around the Ipswich area.

He drifted from band to band, perfecting his craft, starting with Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers covers, while polishing up what Peter Doggett called, ‘a potent repertoire of US R’n’B’. And in time this USAF PT instructor became a frequent stand-in at gigs around London, claiming – not for the first time – that his mum was Dinah Washington and his sister was one of Martha Reeves’ Vandellas.

It was a chance dressing room chat with Shane Fenton (the amount of ladies’ underwear landing on the stage while he was singing inspiring Geno to follow his career path) that led to a recommendation from the man who became better known as Alvin Stardust to visit Soho’s blues/jazz-friendly Flamingo Club. And it was there that he started to make his name on a far wider scale, guesting with top R&B acts like Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, as well as Eric Clapton, The Animals, Rod Stewart, and Long John Baldry.

Then, when guitarist Pete Sage – who went on in later days to form Vinegar Joe with Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer – saw him at a club in 1965, he asked him to join his group, one that later became the Ram Jam Band. Pete originally had Jamaican Blue Beat singer Errol Dixon out front, but quickly saw the merits of having an American leading a band performing US soul.

Geno was demobbed back home in early 1965, but quickly returned to the UK – where he felt his prospects were far better – and the Ram Jam Band soon took off. They stuck together for around three years, making a big impact on a homegrown r’n’b and soul scene, and after barely a year together Pye released the first of two commercially-successful live albums, Hand Clappin’, Foot Stompin’, Funky-Butt Live! – in-house producer John Schroder having converted the label’s main London studio into a makeshift club to try and nail that great sound and give it a winning, authentic feel.

That LP reached No.5 on the UK charts, sticking around the top-10 alone for nine months, deep into 1967, when follow-up Hipster Flipsters and Finger Poppin’ Daddies followed suit and reached No.8. In fact, his albums outsold revered LPs from the likes of Bob Dylan, Cream and The Who during that era. And while you could argue that Geno was in effect merely a covers artist, who better to inspire you and turn you on to all that great music at that point in time?

There were a few moderately-successful hit singles, namely Water, Hi Hi Hazel, Que Sera Sera and Michael (The Lover), while in the sleeevenotes of my 2006 Foot Stompin’ Soul CD collection, Peter Doggett talks passionately about Geno’s version of The Precisions’ Northern Soul favourite (If This Is Love) I’d Rather Be Lonely, saying, ‘It might be the greatest Four Tops record that Levi Stubbs never made’. Praise indeed.

Yet it’s generally agreed that the studio recordings never really matched the intensity of those Ram Jam Band live performances, with Geno and the group were chiefly recognised as one of Britain’s most exciting stage outfits, regularly topping bills, few acts daring to follow them on. And let’s face it, Geno has performed alongside James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley and The Everly Brothers, to name but a few. There was also a 1966 appearance on Ready Steady Go! alongside Cilla Black, Wayne Fontana and the Spencer Davis Group, while the following year he joined his band on The Record Star Show and it seems that (according to http://www.garagehangover.com/) there were also performances on the BBC’s Top of the Pops, Pop North and Saturday Club.

So how does the Ram Jam Band today compare to all those years ago? The personnel have clearly changed, but I’d venture that Geno and co. have still got it all going on.

“Oh yeah. I’m back on the good foot, and they’re bitchin’, man! They are really something.”

Live Jam: Geno and his band go through their paces (Photo courtesy of http://genowashington.blogspot.co.uk/)

Live Jam: Geno and his band go through their paces (Photo courtesy of http://genowashington.blogspot.co.uk/)

A mixture of old and young, rubbing off on each other?

“Yeah! What it does is it gives you the experience of the older guys, who teach the younger guys how to act and everything. We’re a party band, but you can’t be getting drunk every night, or turning up late for the gigs. There’s got to be a business flow. We’ve got places to go and we’ve got to travel those miles, then after driving five hours have to go on stage and give it what for, for 50 minutes, an hour 20, an hour and a half …”

It turns out that Geno has two live bands on the go at present, also offering us the Yo Yos – ‘more blues and less sax’, I understand.

“Yeah, because I’m a big blues fan. I was brought up with blues, and when I started singing over here in England I was singing blues before I was recommended to the Ram Jam Band and switched over to soul. A lot of people think blues is boring or a downer, so I wanted to put together a unit to show people the blues is an upper!”

Little is publicly known of Geno’s Indiana roots, but word has it that this bootlegger’s son, brought up by his grandmother while his parents were in jail, hadn’t sung in public until he moved overseas in 1961. Who would he say were the biggest influences on him and the acts that inspired him to first get on a stage?

“It was actually Little Richard. He can do it all – he can play classical, soul, blues, gospel. He got everybody involved and excited. If I was going to do it I wanted to do it the way Little Richard did it. I don’t want people sitting around bored. I want them to get in the act and loosen up! Get lucid and spiritual! In the church, black people – they party!”

Those who don’t know Geno’s story might be taken aback learning that – after a less successful spell as a solo artist when the original Ram Jam Band split – he threw his energies into hypnosis – he’s a member of the Guild of Hypnotists – and meditation studies, when he briefly returned to the US, settling in LA. But maybe there’s a ‘showman’ link with his full-on performances there. He certainly sees it all as part of the same canvas.

“Yeah, man! Really, I’d lost my confidence. I was over in America working with The Beach Boys – who were producing my album – and found they hated each other, had separate managers and were going to break up. What promised to be fantastic became a nightmare! But I went to a hypnotist to get myself straight rather than rely on booze and dope.

“Her name was Pat Collins and she was one of the best in the world. I became her protege, and became a stage hypnotist, doing the top theatres here in the UK. In the first half of the show I would come out with hypnotism, then after a 20-minute break for the second half I’d come out with The Ram Jam Band! I really enjoyed doing that, and we were taking work from Paul McKenna!”

While his spell working with The Beach Boys included recordings that never saw the light of day, Geno later recorded three albums for the DJM label between the mid-70s and the end of the decade. But it took that drying out and refocusing period back home to put him back on the right track. That and a certain early 1980 hit, the co-writer of which was arguably more responsible than anyone in the last 30-odd years for turning a lot of us on to Geno’s past.

dexys_midnight_runners-geno(1)We’re talking Kevin Rowland, of Dexy’s Midnight Runners fame, whose breakthrough No.1  Geno (written with Kevin Archer) paid homage to the man himself. Accordingly, a decade after the 60s’ incarnation of the Ram Jam Band parted ways, he was back to prominence on a worldwide scale, that memorable song continuing to receive regular national radio airplay to this day and having led to encouragement for Geno – then out in LA – to make a comeback. He initially declined while completing his degree in hypnotherapy. But in time he returned to our shores.

“Yeah man, yeah! I thought they just got drunk in the studio and did that as a joke, but Kevin told me, ‘No, no, no, that was no joke! I knew what I was doing!’ I hadn’t realised he was such a fan. He’d come and see me and the Ram Jam Band play, saw us having so much fun and felt, ‘I’ve got to get a piece of that!’ So I’m glad I influenced him.”

There’s a line in that song – despite the underlying nostalgia for Geno in his ‘60s pomp – suggesting he’d lost his way by the end of the ‘70s. Was that fair comment?

“Oh right. At the time I had. I was going through this thing, the original Ram Jam Band had broken up and I was over there with The Beach Boys. But that’s when I got into ‘hypno’ and all that. And that was the turning point for me. I thank him (Kevin Rowland) for all of that, but I didn’t cash in on it. I came back over a year after it was all over. I didn’t come over and live off Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I didn’t want that to happen. If I was going to be around again, I was going to be around on my terms, and able to still cut the mustard on stage.”

I didn’t get the chance to see Geno live until October 1987, when I believe he was backed by the Ram Jam Stars. Rather fittingly, I’d aimed to see Georgie Fame at the Half Moon in Putney that night, but arrived at the venue from Guildford only to find out his show was a sell-out. It must have been fate though, and a quick change of plan led to a great night six miles north-east, at another top watering hole and music venue, The Cricketers in Kennington. And duly inspired by that, I caught Geno again at Aldershot’s West End Centre the following March. I put all this to Geno, who was clearly impressed.

“Yeah man! Yeah!”

I seem to recall he was on fine form at both shows, and my abiding memory of The Cricketers show was Geno telling us he’d decided to do a couple of songs ‘sideways’. We weren’t totally sure what the hell he was on about, but it sure was a groove, and we went with it. Inspirational.

“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah man!”

So is sideways the new way forward?

“That is the new way forward! It all hangs loose then! Ha ha!”

In Tribute: The late, great Otis Redding in his Carousel Club tee shirt (Photo: http://genowashington.blogspot.co.uk/)

In Tribute: The late, great Otis Redding in his Carousel Club tee shirt (Photo: http://genowashington.blogspot.co.uk/)

At this point Geno asks me a couple of questions, quizzing me as to how I ended up moving North. I fill him in on a little biographical background, not least my partner’s Lancashire link, prompting Mr Washington to pronounce, ‘Love will do it every time!’

When we get back to influences, I tell him that when I listen back to his music – not least the afore-mentioned Foot Stompin’ Soul double CD collection (Castle Music/Sanctuary Records, 2006) which couples live and studio recordings from the initial Ram Jam Band years – I hear a lot of other US artists from that era too, not least Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett. Did he see all these bands and think, ‘This could be me’?

“No, they changed their stuff to the way I’d do it! When they got over to England they didn’t think anyone knew them, but people said, ‘We know who you are from Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band!’

“While they were working out deals to release songs in Europe, we were getting imports from sailors and so on. We’d have those songs six months before they’d get them released. I’d never seen these bands before, but when I did they’d changed the way they did their live performances, performing them the same way as the Ram Jam Band, putting some ‘umph’ into it! You listen to the early Otis Redding, and it was more slow. Listen to the later stuff, and he puts some ‘umph’ into it!”

Like Geno, Otis certainly put on a great show. I love those live recordings of his. Such a shame he died so young, I mention.

“Oh yeah! I miss him. Even though I didn’t see him, I was inspired by him. The actual records are so fantastic. And if you’re going to have a party, and want people mixing, and a good atmosphere, you just can’t beat soul! That’s the way it is.”

Over here, the Mod in-crowd latched on to you very early.

“Oh right!”

They stuck with you over the years too, and you’ve always had a good UK following. Any special memories of past Lancashire visits?

“Is Blackburn up there? They had something called The Casino …’

Not far off, Geno – that was in Wigan.

“Yeah, Wigan! We did our second live album at the Casino! That was a big seller too. So we were all around that area. I remember the bars and all-nighters too. All-nighters then were different from all-nighters now. Back then, they went to see the original, live group. Today they listen to the records, and they’re more self-indulgent. Know what I mean? Back in the day, you went to see the group, and it was party time! Everybody was lifting you up, and it was one big party.”

Actually, I’ve since found out (again thanks to http://www.garagehangover.com/ – a mine of information on the Ram Jam Band and many more groups from that era) that Geno might actually have been referring to the band’s third live album for Pye, Running Wild, which was recorded at the Casino Ballroom, Bolton, on August 9th, 1968. That said, the fact that they seemed to appear at the Wigan Casino the same day might have added to the confusion.

Beret Good: Geno Washington today, still out there, putting plenty of zoot into your suit

Beret Good: Geno Washington today, still out there, putting plenty of zoot into your suit

Memories of that era take me on to the last time I chanced upon Geno on the TV screen, picked out in the crowd during a BBC set featuring fellow ‘60s survivor Georgie Fame, who introduces him from the stage between songs, then reminisces about those heady days of late nights and early morning wanders around London seeking out breakfast. It was some scene, wasn’t it?

“Oh man! It was fantastic, and we thought it would never end! We thought, ‘If the ’60s is this good, what are the ‘70s and ’80s going to be like? But it didn’t turn out like that. The 60s were unique. It was like a revolution, and no longer were things the way Mummy and Daddy and Grandma did it. The Mods clicked on. They had The Who, Small Faces, then there was us! Who’s the King? It was a fantastic time. Party time!”

Getting back to the Flamingo, I only realised on the morning of my interview, while reaching for Foot Stompin’ Soul, that it was catalogued (yep, I tend to go off first names) next to my CD version of Georgie Fame’s Live at the Flamingo album. And that seemed rather apt.

“Ha ha! Yeah, man. The Flamingo was a phenomenal club. That’s where Cream came out of, from the Graham Bond Organisation and Eric Clapton playing there with John Mayall. And I got friendly with John Mayall, Zoot Money, Georgie Fame, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, Chris Farlowe …”

There was word that you were in competition with Pye label-mates Jimmy James and the Vagabonds too.

“Yeah, but not really. People would think that, but he couldn’t draw the crowds we drew though. Ha ha!”

Geno has a soft spot for The Marquee too, and – more to the point – another Soho club, the Bag o‘ Nails, where he first met his wife, Frenchie.

“Ah yeah, man, that was fantastic club! The owners of The Flamingo also owned the Bag o’ Nails, and were my managers. And that club was the same place my brother-in-law – check this out – Peter Noone (of Herman’s Hermits fame) met my wife’s sister. Also, Paul McCartney met his wife, Linda (nee Eastman), down there. Ah man, it was a jumping club! We’d all spend our free time down there, talking, drinking, meeting people. You’d get The Four Tops jump up and sing with the band, and The Temptations, and Rufus Thomas, Tom Jones, PJ Proby … oh, man!”

61b0w-GROeL._AC_UL320_SR318,320_So how long have you known Frenchie now?

“Oh, we’ve been together for over 50 years!”

Does she keep you young?

“Yeah! You know that! I didn’t get an ugly one either!”

The inevitable machine-gun laugh follows again, and we soon get on to the Ram Jam Inn, that eaterie on the A1 (Great North Road) in Rutland which gave the band its name. Has Geno ever been back?

“No, it was more a case of trying to find a name for the band. We had formed, but didn’t have a name and went through a thousand names. We then did a gig, working things out, and when we came back down the A1 we came upon the Ram Jam Petrol Station, then the Ram Jam Inn straight after.

“We were laughing about the petrol station owning this restaurant, saying, ‘I hope it isn’t the same guy who changed our tyres fixing those steaks, or giving us sausage, eggs and bacon with greasy gasoline hands! Some 100 miles away from there, we were still laughing about it, and thought it was a silly name but a memorable one, so decided to call ourselves The Ram Jam Band.”

So not only did the Mod in-crowd appreciate you, but you also had an … erm, inn joke to help you bond together.

“Yeah! And do you know what? A lot of folk thought I actually owned the Ram Jam Inn, and would go in and ask, ‘Where’s Geno?’ to which they’d say, ‘We don’t know no damned Geno!’ Ha ha!”

I’ve mentioned a couple of sidelines outside music for Geno, and they also include his writing – for adults and children – and motivational speaking. There’s also been the acting, including appearances in 1995 film Paparazzo, appearing as himself in a 2007 episode of Midsomer Murders (his co-stars including Suzi Quatro), and 2009 movie A Bit of Tom Jones, which won a BAFTA Cymru Best Film award. But that’s all on hold for now.

“Yeah, right now I’ve cut that because I’m concentrating on the band. I’ve got such a fantastic band and people are going crazy over our songs. I will get back to the motivational speaking though. I’m into that.”

The current band sees Geno backed by Steve Bingham (bass, backing vocals, formerly of The Foundations and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, and who has also toured with Gallagher and Lyle, Eddie Floyd, Jimmy James and P.P. Arnold); Geoff Hemsley (drums); Stuart Dixon (guitar, backing vocals); Alan Whetton and Allesandro Carnevali (both tenor sax). So for those not lucky enough to see them live before, what can they expect from Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, 2016 style?

“Well, we’ll come up there and we will play them a live album, and we’re going to put some glide in these strides, so I can get some zoot for my suits. Ha ha ha!”

Road Runners: Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, heading your way (Photo courtesy of Steve Bingham)

Road Runners: Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, heading your way (Photo courtesy of Steve Bingham)

Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band play Preston Guild Hall’s Guild Foyer on Friday, August 12 (7.30pm), with tickets £17.50 from the box office on 01772 80 44 44 or via www.prestonguildhall.com.

You can learn more about Geno via his Facebook page here, and for a full list of 2016 dates try http://genowashington.blogspot.co.uk/.

Thanks also for a little extra background info from Kingsley Harris’s late 2012 interview with Geno, for the http://www.musicfromtheeastzone.co.uk/ website, and to all at http://www.garagehangover.com/.

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Lead us unto The Temptations – the Otis Williams interview

Temptations Today: The band in 2016, with Otis Williams, centre, the sole surviving original member

Temptations Today: The band in 2016, with Otis Williams, centre, the sole surviving original member

At the end of a month in which the world mourned for Muhammad Ali, it seems apt that I’m conducting an interview with the sole surviving original member of a band the revered US boxing legend and civil rights activist once labelled ‘the greatest group in the world’.

Otis Williams – barely 11 weeks older than Ali, who died on June 3, aged 74 – already had a couple of group name changes and minor hits under his belt by the time fellow 18-year-old Cassius Clay won his gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was with The Distants then, having relocated from Texarcana, Texas, to Detroit, Michigan as a youngster, quickly emerging on the local music scene.

By the time Clay had converted to Islam, changed his name and turned pro, Otis had joined forces with the band that made their name as The Temptations, signing to Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records in March 1961. And while Ali was celebrating his first WBA and WBC heavyweight titles in early 1964, The Temptations were enjoying their first major hit, The Way You Do The Things You Do. The stage was set, with Ali already a major figure in the civil rights movement and The Temptations one of the key groups providing a soundtrack for such a pivotal era in American history.

So what did Muhammad Ali mean to Otis Williams?

“You know, when I heard of his passing, in all honesty I cried. I thought about the times Ali and me walked down Broadway, New York City, and people came out of buildings, he stopped traffic, and I was thinking, ‘Here I am, walking with Ali!’

“I was with him with my group when he fought over in Manila in ‘75. One of his fellas called us to his dressing room and we talked together. He asked us to sing Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, which we did, a capella. We used to go to his house when he lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I had some wonderful times with The Greatest. When I heard of his passing I sat there and I cried like a little boy.”

I could go further with those parallels between Ali and the Tempts, charting their own progress at key moments such as when the Louisville, Kentucky-born boxer refused to be conscripted into the military in ’66, citing religious beliefs and opposition to US involvement in Vietnam; the subsequent stripping of his title in ’67 and eventual overturning of the resultant conviction for draft evasion that led to his March 1971 ‘Fight of the Century’ with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, around the time of the Tempts’ third US No.1, Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me). And then there was the afore-mentioned ‘Thrilla in Manila’ with the same opponent in October 1975, at which point the Tempts were on Shakey Ground, their last R&B chart No.1 stateside. But Otis isn’t all about the past, and there have been four decades of Temptations performances since the latter.

In fact, there have been five top-10 hits and 28 top-75 singles in the UK alone over 51 years (starting with My Girl, which surprisingly only reached No.43 this side of the Atlantic first time around). And life certainly goes on apace for the highly-driven Otis Williams.

Way Back: The Temptations, 1965 style (and I mean style)

Way Back: The Temptations, stepping out, 1965 style (and I mean style)

Otis, based in Los Angeles since 1974, and his group – these days completed by Ron Tyson (on board since 1983), Terry Weeks (since 1997) and new boys Larry Braggs and Willie Green – have plenty of US summer dates before their latest transatlantic travels this autumn, when they join fellow Motown legends The Four Tops and ‘70s disco favourites Tavares in the UK.

The day we spoke, Otis was all set for a weekend show at the Saban Theatre in his adopted city and others at Lake Tahoe and the Napa Valley, followed by ‘a string of one-nighters’. It’s a busy life, I suggested, for a septuagenarian.

“Ah, you know, I can’t complain. I’m doing what I love to do. When you’re all having your holidays, we’re performing for ours! And we love coming to England. I consider England my second home. We’ve been coming there ever since ’64.”

That was for the Motortown Revue, wasn’t it?

“That’s true. We came over and did Ready Steady Go and all those wonderful early shows you had back then.”

Gerri Hirshey said in 1984’s Nowhere to Run – the Story of Soul Music (yes, it gets yet another name-check here, but with good reason as far as I’m concerned), ‘In their prime nobody could work a crowd like the Tempts. No one dressed as well; no set of voices could match their full-court give-and-go. And surely no one could out-dance them.” That’s not a bad way to be remembered, is it?

“Not a bad way at all. And we’ve been told that for quite some time, so I think there’s some truth to that.”

Not least considering the wealth of competition at the time.

“Oh yeah, that makes it even more interesting – competition in showbusiness is thick as thieves, so for people to knock yourselves above that structure is a marvellous feat in itself.”

by-gerri-hirshey-nowhere-to-run-story-of-soul-musicIn the same book, former Temptations member Richard Street, who was with The Distants from 1959/60 and then with The Temptations from 1971/92, identified you and fellow founder Melvin Franklin (who also featured in The Distants) as the ‘heart and brains of the group’. Was that right?

“Well, we’ve been told that since day one, so I guess there’s some truth to that. But all I ever wanted to do was have fun, make money and sing to the girls, get on the stage and do what we do. For me, it’s just been about having fun – which is the operative word!”

You and Melvin were together way before. What do you recall of your first sighting of The Primes’ Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks? Did you feel instinctively you should join forces?

“We didn’t. All I knew at the time – when they were The Primes and my group was the El Domingoes – is that I recognised Paul, Eddie and Kell (Osborne) as fantastic singers, but I had no inclination that in a certain amount of time Paul and Eddie would be joining my group.

“At that time we become The Temptations – Melvin Franklin, Al Bryant and myself – and enter Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks. I knew they could sing but didn’t know fate would have it as such that we would end up getting together, as happened in 1961.”

That said, it took the addition of David Ruffin to see you truly break through.

“David Ruffin was a talent unto himself, and made a few singles as a solo artist. They did okay, but didn’t put him on the map. But my group were so popular in the Detroit area that David and myself used to hang together, run together and go to different parties.

“One day David said, ‘I want to sing with your group’. I was really astounded. He was a hell of a singer and competent performer. He joined at the end of ’63 and we recorded The Way You Do The Things You Do in January ’64, and history was made at that point.”

Getting back to Muhammad Ali, when he saw you play New Jersey one night at the turn of the ’70s, he reckoned you were so good (hence his ‘greatest group’ comment) he heard an extra voice. It turned out that Richard Street was in the wings, ready to deputise for Paul Williams, who was struggling with his health at the time (not least a drug problem).

“Oh yeah. Well, we’ve gone through some changes to carry on The Temptations’ legacy. It’s been an interesting ride, trying to keep us going. But 56 years later we’re still having fun!”

There was certainly a lot of chopping and changing. The Temptations proved a perfect name. Members over the years have succumbed to a few temptations. There have been troubles, shall we say.

First Footing: The band's debut album as the Temptations, from 1964

First Footing: The band’s debut album as the Temptations, from 1964

“Yeah, but life is life, regardless of personalities and what have you. People are going to be people, regardless of what. Sometimes God tests us to see what we’re made of. We’ve been tested quite a bit along the way, and sadly enough I lost my guys. But I was able to continue.

“I’ve been asked before what I look for when I need to find a new talent. But I don’t look for talent first. When I say that, they look at me quizzically, but I look for the head and heart. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you’re not ready to handle showbusiness, you will negate the talent.”

The Temptations clearly have a winning blend – from deep bass to falsetto via your baritone, that rich lead, and so on. There’s the dazzling choreography too. I’m guessing it all works only with a lot of practise.

“Oh sure! We have been blessed to be round some very wonderful talented, consummate performers and entertainers, like our choreographer, the late, great Cholly Atkins; our vocal coach Maurice King and Johnny Allen, who also helped arrange our songs; Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows; and naturally Berry Gordy himself. He instilled a lot of things in us.

“Then there’s Shelly Berger, my manager then and now. I’ve had many wonderful talented people to help shape and mould The Temptations into what we are known for today.”

Ever analysed how you fit into the Motown story? Businesses today talk about unique selling points. What are yours?

“We just enjoy what we do. I try not to analyse. I believe in living life rather than getting analytical. When you do that, you’re not enjoying life. Let things take their course, enjoy the ride.

“But I do know we have self-worth and we’ve made an impact, being voted one of the greatest 100 acts of all time in Rolling Stone. Wow – I never would have imagined that. I’ve had so many amazing things happen, so there’s a reason for The Temptations being here.”

That Rolling Stone accolade from late 2010 (with a link here) saw the Tempts poll 68th out of 100 acts, 11 places higher than The Four Tops and between Cream and Jackie Wilson. All highly arguable of course – I’d have had them much higher. As Rod Stewart put it in print, “I was on holiday with my parents in the late Sixties when I heard I Wish It Would Rain. I lived in England, where it f***ing rains all the time, so it was appropriate. But that’s also when I fell in love with David Ruffin’s tenor — it jumped out of the speakers and ravished my soul. Whether it was Ruffin or Dennis Edwards or Eddie Kendricks or Paul Williams singing lead, the Tempts were always an all-star vocal band. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the Tempts had an unprecedented string of hits: My Girl, The Way You Do the Things You Do, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, Just My Imagination. Later on, they broke ground with the psychedelic soul of Cloud Nine. I remember listening to the hi-hat rhythms on that record over and over with the guys in the Jeff Beck Group. We’d try to change every one of our songs to try and capture their drumbeats. When I got home from holiday, I immediately bought I Wish It Would Rain. At that time I was very much into folk music and turning the corner into R&B, and I’ll never forget seeing that cover, with all the Tempts dressed as Foreign Legionnaires, sitting in the desert. Their outfits were wonderful — I blame them for teaching me to wear loud colors. They also came up with the cutting-edge dance routines. Nobody moved like the Tempts. I’d later become friends with David Ruffin — when our bands would play in Detroit, Ruffin would come to every show and we’d sing (I Know) I’m Losing You, a Temptations cover off my album Every Picture Tells a Story. His voice was so powerful — like a foghorn on the Queen Mary. He was so loud. My children grew up loving the Temptations, and we tried to see them every time they came to town. They would always pick me out of the audience with a spotlight, trying to get me up to the stage. But I never did. I’m too frightened.”

Fellow Founder: Melvin Franklin, still in Otis Williams' thoughts

Fellow Founder: Melvin Franklin, still in Otis’s thoughts

Of the many departures since the start, it must have hit Otis hard losing his long-time friend and colleague Melvin Franklin in early 1995 (less than six years after the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

“Melvin and myself had known each other since we were 16 or 17. We were kids. I lost my friend when he was 52, and still miss him today.”

God willing, you hit 75 later this year. Playing devil’s advocate, why keep going? It can’t be about money.

“I still love what I do. When I stop and think about God blessing me to do what I do, we bring happiness to a lot of people. That’s priceless, y’know. You’re right, it’s not about money. If I feel good, I do good, and just plan on continuing to ride the horse.”

You’ve always been surrounded by talent, not least in the Hitsville USA era. I believe you heard Aretha Franklin long before her big break, while walking her older sister, future singer-songwriter Carolyn Franklin, home from school.

“I used to stay about a block and half from Aretha. I dated her younger sister. I was crazy about Carolyn, and we were in a room talking one day when Aretha walked in. I was like a little boy, saying, ‘Oh my God – Aretha Franklin!’

“Even then her name meant something. Detroit would sit down when she sang every Sunday night. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, had her sing in church, and the city would shut down listening to Aretha.”

What gave you the drive to emerge as The Temptations’ group leader?

“That was happenstance! I don’t know where it came from, but I was a stickler for time, and one day Johnnie Mae Matthews called a rehearsal – before we came to Motown – and I got there about half an hour before anybody. She said. ‘Otis, you’re never late!’ I told her my reason and she said, ‘Hold it – you be the group leader!’ Little did I know what that would encompass years later.

“When we left Johnnie, disenchanted, Mr Gordy had given me a card and said, ‘Come see me!’, so I called and met Mickey Stevens, the A&R man, who said, ‘If you wanna make Mr Gordy mad – be late!’

“I was already priding myself on being on time. Entertainers, people think, are always late, come with attitude and think the world should stop and revolve around them. We wanted to way-lay all that. Once you lose time, you can never get that back!”

downloadTaking the man they call ‘Big Daddy’ back to his Texas roots, where do you think your musical inclination came from? And did it take your move to Detroit to stir all that up?

“My grandparents.  My grandmother was a singer down in Texas. I’d go and see her sing in the choir. I was into doo-wop when we moved to Detroit when I was 12, and the birth of rock’n’roll was really taking shape.

“I’d go see those wonderful rock’n’roll shows at the Fox Theatre. I was amazed what people were doing on stage, at a venue known as the second largest indoor theatre in America (after Radio City). Seeing 5,000-plus people going crazy at what five guys were doing on stage – wow!”

All these years on, you’ve sold tens of millions of records – a staggering amount. I have a particular love for so many, not least the better-known singles like My Girl through to those four great 45s from ’66 (Get Ready, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, Beauty is Only Skin Deep and (I Know) I’m Losing You), ’68’s I Wish It Would Rain, ’71’s Just My Imagination (Running Away From Me) and ’72’s Papa Was A Rolling Stone. But which songs are Otis most proud of?

“I’m equally proud of them all, but must say the standout will always be My Girl. When we finished it and Mr Paul Riser put the strings on that, I told Smokey (Robinson, who co-wrote the song) in the control room, ‘I don’t know how big a record this will be, but I think we got something!’

“That was December 1964, and February ‘65 we were at the Apollo Theatre, Mr Gordy saying there’s a telegram congratulating us on a No.1 record. Also, The Beatles sent a telegram to the Theatre congratulating us!”

That US No.1 arrived five long years after the more local success of Come On by The Distants, and at one stage you were dubbed ‘The Hitless Temptations’. Was there ever doubt in your mind it would all come together?

“Well, you know, we were hopeful. Come On did fairly well and gave us a name. But when we came to Motown in ’61 we had about seven singles released by Mr Gordy before the first big one, The Way You Do the Things You Do.”

At that point, unfortunately, the line is briefly muted and Otis comes back to tell me he has another call coming in. That ruled out – at least this time around – questions about the band’s later years and their psychedelic soul phase, more about the Motortown Revues and sheer wealth of talent on board, later moments of high dramas when David Ruffin refused to be ousted from the band and was known to sneak into shows and wrestle the mic. off his replacement Dennis Edwards on Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, his thoughts on Richard Street’s Ball of Confusion: My Life as a Temptin’ Temptation (2014, written with Gary Flanigan), and so much more.

But if you want to read up further on Otis and his group, there’s always his 1988 autobiography Temptations (co-written with Patricia Romanowski), an inspiration behind the NBC miniseries dramatisation of The Temptations story a few years ago. More to the point, Otis himself is still out there, putting on live shows with the current line-up of The Temptations. And then there’s the music, and that will never be taken away from us.

My Guys: The Temptations in 2016, coming to a city near you

My Guys: The Temptations in 2016, still so dapper, and coming to a city near you

For this site’s April 29th, 2016, interview with Duke Fakir, sole surviving original member of The Four Tops, head here.  

The Four Tops, The Temptations and Tavares visit Liverpool Echo Arena on October 21 (www.echoarena.com) and Manchester Arena on October 22 (http://www.manchester-arena.com). Both shows start at 7.30pm, with tickets £45/£40 via www.ticketline.co.uk and 24-hour ticket-line 0844 888 9991 too. For more detail go to fourtopsenterprises.com, http://www.temptationssing.com/ or http://www.tavaresbrothers.com/

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Paying homage to the blues – the Joe Bonamassa interview

Blues Ambassador: Joe Bonamassa (Photo: Marty Moffatt)

Blues Ambassador: Joe Bonamassa in live action (Photo: Marty Moffatt)

Joe Bonamassa has not long finished his latest tour on home soil, involving 20-plus dates in barely a month, taking in – as he put it – ‘all the great metropolitan cities of the United States of America’.

That came on the back of a couple of Australian festival dates, more shows in England and Germany, and before that back home, including those heading out on the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship from Florida, a Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea showcase.

The latest gigs included a brief detour to see his folks in upstate New York, ‘discreetly’ turning up outside their home with tour crew, trucks and all, checking all was well following his Dad’s recent heart attack. Joe, speaking to me from across the water, assured me Len – who runs the Bonamassa Guitars shop in New Hartford – was on the mend now, and family is clearly key to a lad encouraged to play guitar at the age of five.

There’s an illuminating interview online from 1989 – when Joe was 12 and guesting with the likes of BB King and Stephen Stills, and already in a band on the Syracuse blues circuit – where Len talks about his boy mastering Stevie Ray Vaughan solos before he was seven. And more than a quarter of a century later, 39-year-old Joe still thrills audiences around the world, as will be the case for those lucky enough to witness a tour warm-up gig at Liverpool’s Cavern Club next week.

This leg of the tour then kicks off properly with two nights in Dublin (June 29 and 30), before a Saturday, July 2 date at Preston Guild Hall (switched inside from the Hoghton Tower arena outdoor site at the last moment due to torrential rain during the preceding week – see footnote) in Lancashire, Joe headlining the second of three nights (and the only surviving night) of the annual Symphony at the Tower fundraiser for nearby St Catherine’s Hospice. Then it’s on to Glasgow Clyde Auditorium (Sunday July 3), Bristol Colston Hall (Tuesday July 5), Greenwich London Music Time Festival (Thursday July 7), and another heritage site at Newark Castle (Friday, July 8), before dates in mainland Europe in Rotterdam, the Netherlands (Sunday, July 10); Luxembourg (Tuesday, July 12); Padova, Italy (Thursday, July 14); Basel, Switzerland (Friday, July 15); and the Peer Festival in Belgium (Saturday, July 16).

So is Joe excited about the prospect of those dates and the Glasgow, Bristol, Greenwich and Newark shows that follow before he moves on to mainland Europe?

“You know, until we start rehearsing … no – because I don’t know how it’s gonna come out. Truth be told, I never know how this stuff’s gonna turn out until I start rehearsing. It was the same with the Three Kings and Muddy Wolf thing. When we do these kind of gigs, I’ve no idea how it’s gonna sound. If it sounds like shit, I’m not excited!”

I guess that non-complacency at least keeps you hungry for it.

“It keeps you hungry, but also makes me wonder, ‘Why the f***k did I sign up for this shit in the first place? And as I get older, that question’s more and more prevalent in my mind.”

Guitar Man: Joe Bonamassa gives it some (Photo: Laurence Harvey)

Guitar Man: Joe Bonamassa gives it some on the stage (Photo: Laurence Harvey)

The Three Kings tribute show paid homage to blues legends Albert, BB and Freddie King, while the Muddy Wolf shows saluted the music of Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. But this time, Joe’s honouring three UK blues revival guitar legends that reminded America of its music legacy and debt to those original artists, his British Blues Explosion show citing Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.

With that in mind, it makes sense that he gets up and running at a venue a short distance from the original Cavern Club, not only important for links to the ‘60s Merseybeat scene, but also for hosting many UK artists who shone a spotlight on US blues – a special venue for someone so steeped in that whole scene.

“Yes, but I’m going to play my own shit – I’m not going to be pinned to having to do this tribute to my three guitar heroes.”

You could never accuse Joe of being a copyist. I’m guessing it’s more about the spirit.

“As I went through the set-list for my tribute to Clapton, Beck and Page, there were covers, but their own versions. That’s the difference. It’s a fine line between being a cover band and something else, at least making a go at it. That to me’s more important than anything else.”

He’s also set to be commemorated (with a special brick) on the Cavern Club Wall of Fame, joining The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, The Who, Chuck Berry, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, Albert Lee, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Cream, Thin Lizzy. Georgie Fame, Gene Vincent, Rod Stewart, Alexis Korner, Spencer Davis Group … I’ll stop there and let him carry on.

“The whole thing with the Cavern Club was just something my bass player Michael Rhodes and I talked about. We had a six-day rehearsal schedule and rather than just six days in a rehearsal room the idea was to do a small club gig. Michael suggested the Cavern and I said, ‘Alright, I’ll see if they want us there.” And they were gracious enough to accept our little offer.”

It’s a 300-capacity venue, for someone used to much larger crowds. Is there a bit of Joe that still prefers the intimate sweaty clubs to big arenas?

“Every once in a while you want to see the crowds, and in a big gig you don’t see the crowd at all. You’ve got lights in your face and may see one or two rows, but that’s about it. But the problem with the small gigs is, it’s so f***ing loud! You lose your hearing, and we don’t know how to play soft!”

unnamed-2Joe’s said before, ‘If it wasn’t for certain British musicians of the early ‘70s, the blues may well have never have exploded into rock music as we know it today, and indeed may have passed into history.’ Can he enlarge on that?

“We’re keeping the set-list for this show very blues-centric, all pre-1970. You really run the risk of becoming a cover band, and that’s not what I signed up for. It’s a tribute versus being a cover band. We’re covering tunes they covered, such as an Otis Rush song The Yardbirds played. That’s the idea.

“They repackaged the blues in a very interesting way, and that was very influential here. That’s why artists were so enthralled with them in the early ‘70s. It was so fresh and new. Even though Otis Rush was playing gigs in Chicago at the time, it was this weird thing where they were covering artists we took for granted and packing arenas out. Now, here I am paying tribute to them, so it’s ironic on several fronts.”

It’s not just about Beck, Clapton and Page, Joe having highlighted before now the impact of Paul Kossoff, Peter Green, Gary Moore, Rory Gallagher, and Humble Pie too, and a ‘certain sophistication to their approach’.

And like those acts, he too aims to redefine the blues, drawing on the modern rather than seeing blues music as some distant historic art form.

“Well, if you don’t try and do that, it’s very, very boring.”

His latest album, Blues of Desperation, is a fine example, Joe proving – if he needed to – he’s no one-trick pony. Take for instance the more laid-back, reflective Drive, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mark Knopfler or Emmylou Harris album. Then there’s good old blues stonker No Good Place for the Lonely, a harder Led Zep vibe on the title track, and an almost Paul Carrack-like daytime radio feel to The Valley Runs Low. With How Deep This River Runs there’s a more soulful undercurrent, there’s a suggestion of Tom Waits on Livin’ Easy, and a classic late ‘50s/early ‘60s Freddie King vibe on closing track What I’ve Known For a Very Long Time.

“It’s like a set-list. You don’t wanna hear the same song over and over again, so you get the light and shade. You’ve got to cut it with something or it becomes pretty samey and the subtleties get lost. That’s why my records are a bit eclectic.”

However, there are still plenty of traditional blues references – the ’proverbial trains, mountains, valleys’, ‘heartbreak and loneliness’, storming opener This Train a fine example. And what is it about his on-going partnership with producer Kevin Shirley that works?

“It’s twofold. He challenges the norm. He’s not one of those producers who says, ‘OK, we’ve accomplished this’. He starts at zero.”

Album-JewelCase-Back_f9b30607-1e75-4800-858b-2e32c52451d3_largeThis album took just a few days to put together. How much of it was sketched out before he reached the studio?

“We start at zero every time and just hope we make a good album.”

Joe’s studio band is the group we’ll see on his latest visit, and he clearly thrives off the live aspect of making records. Is this his best LP yet and closest to where he wants to be, or just an indication of where he is right now?

“The thing about all records is that they’re just snapshots of where you are in your life and career.”

Going back to his roots, what turned his Dad on to the UK blues revivalists in the first place?

“Oh, he was just a young Zeppelin fan, a Rory Gallagher fan, and a Crosby, Stills and Nash fan. He loved all those classic records – like any of us.”

Joe got to achieve a dream playing with Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall In 2009. Who was proudest – him or his Dad?

“I think it was him. I didn’t have time to reflect. I haven’t had time to reflect on that to this day. It was a once in a lifetime experience. You can never recreate that.”

He’s worked with many iconic figures – from Stephen Stills and Buddy Guy to Steve Winwood and Gregg Allman. That’s a musician’s dream, isn’t it?

“Oh yeah, especially for a guy who’s just a fan.”

Shaw Thing: UK first lady of blues Joanne Shaw Taylor has a bright future

Shaw Thing: UK first lady of blues Joanne Shaw Taylor has a bright future, says no less than JB

Joanne Shaw Taylor also appears at Preston Guild Hall and two more shows. Seeing as Joe has his Black Country Communion offshoot band, it seems apt he has a UK support from our own Black Country, now based between Birmingham and Detroit. Was Joanne – discovered at age 16 by Eurythmics guitarist and music mogul Dave Stewart – a personal choice?

“She’s been a good friend for almost 10 years. We needed an opening act as we wanted to play in the dark, and it doesn’t get dark until 9.30, so needed someone on earlier. It was a no-brainer! She’s a superstar in waiting. I really think she’s going to be – in the next 24 or 36 months – a household name.”

While he hasn’t yet hit 40, 11 of Joe’s 15 albums – in barely a dozen years – have topped the Billboard blues charts, all of them having gone top-10. That turnaround rate suggests he’s not one to rest on his laurels. There’s even a little radio work too. Does he prefer a punishing schedule?

“I used to. It’s not like that any more. Now I appreciate not having to do much. I like to play my gig then go home. I want to be able to not have to work 24-7 on different things’. This will be the last tribute show, for no other reason than I don’t have any more ideas.”

It’s been 27 years since he opened for BB King. Did he realise at that impressionable age how much of a big deal that was?

“I did realise that. Every time I played with the guy was a huge deal.”

Did you get a good look at his beloved guitar, Lucille?

“He had so many of them. It wasn’t like there was one particular one.”

Joe has a mighty collection of guitars himself, such as Rosie, his crimson ‘72 Fender Stratocaster. Are they all named?

“Maybe 10 or 12, but sometimes I bought them with names. That’s a blues folklore thing.”

155a6baJoe also runs the non-profit Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, funding scholarships and providing music education resources to schools in need. Is that a little payback?

“The whole idea was to give back to the kids. If you don’t give back and put instruments in their hands you run the risk of having no scene at all.”

While playing heavy rock with Black Country Communion and jazz-funk with Rock Candy Funk Party, Joe always come back to the blues. And in the words of the opening track of Blues of Desperation, ‘This train don’t stop for no one’. Is he as fired up today as 16 years ago, recording his debut album?

“I feel so much more confident as an artist these days than back in the day. I don’t look back on my records and go, ‘Man, I wish I was 22’. I really don’t. We live in a time when youth and inexperience is celebrated like they have all the f***ing answers – which they don’t! I was young and stupid at one point. Now everything is marketed to them.

“As soon as you turn 35 they’ll throw you away, because I can listen to some f***ing 22-year-old telling me how the world works. I can tell you how the world works – once you become 35 and grow up, you actually have things called bills, and your parents don’t support you. So check that out! That generation’s gonna get a reality check very soon, especially Americans, with this sense of entitlement and lack of work ethic. You just throw your hands up …”

On a similar subject, it seems that America has a madman in waiting in the shape of a certain Republican Party presidential candidate.

“You know of any flats available in London? I’ll put a sale sign on my house for $1 and I’ll come over!”

Well, make sure you vote first.

“This is the thing. This is my attitude on the whole thing. We did it to ourselves. There’s your democracy. If you do it to yourself, you can’t complain. It is what it is.”

With that Joe was on to another call, but he’ll be with us soon enough, so it might be a good time – not least in the light of the exit result of the EU referendum – to put a sale board outside your house and see if you get an offer.

UK Bound: Joe Bonamassa is on his way (Photo: Marty Moffatt)

UK Bound: Joe Bonamassa is on his way these coming weeks (Photo: Marty Moffatt)

Joe Bonamassa’s Salute to the British Blues Explosion visits Preston Guild Hall on Saturday, July 2, with special support from Joanne Shaw Taylor. For more info call the venue on 01254 852986 or visit www.hoghtontower.co.uk.  

Statement from event promoters Cuffe and Taylor: “It is with sadness that we have to announce that two concerts of the weekend’s Symphony At The Tower event in Lancashire have had to be cancelled. Will Young and the Symphony Spectacular were due to take place on Friday July 1 and Sunday July 3 respectively. However, the torrential rain this week has made the Hoghton Tower arena site unsafe and, after taking health and safety advice, we have regrettably taken the decision to cancel both Will Young’s concert and the Symphony Spectacular. We are pleased to announce though that Joe Bonamassa’s Symphony At The Tower concert will go ahead on Saturday July 2 but will now be moved to Preston Guild Hall due to the Hoghton Tower arena site being unsafe. Anyone who purchased tickets for Joe Bonamassa’s Hoghton Tower concert will be able to attend the concert at the Guild Hall. Sadly we cannot reschedule Will Young’s concert or the Symphony Spectacular. Customers who booked online, or by telephone, will receive an automatic refund, of face value of their tickets, within 14 days.”

Symphony At The Tower is St Catherine’s Hospice’s flagship fundraising event, generating income to provide palliative and end-of-life care for people in Central Lancashire.

Meanwhile, there’s a 24-hour ticket hotline for all the shows on Joes’s UK tour via 0844 844 0444, or you can book online via ticketmaster.co.uk or follow a link from www.jbonamassa.com/tour-dates

And for all the latest from Joe Bonamassa, head to his website and keep in touch via his Facebook and Twitter links.

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The Undertones – Chester Live Rooms

Listening In: Paul McLoone lends us an ear while Damian O'Neill picks out another winning riff and Billy Doherty keeps time turning on Friday night at the Live Rooms (Photo copyright: Helen Leach)

Listening In: Paul McLoone lends us an ear while Damian O’Neill picks out another winning riff and Billy Doherty keeps time turning on Friday night at the Live Rooms (Photo copyright: Helen Leach)

Summer’s really here and it’s time to come out, time to discover what fun is about.

Yep, The Undertones are back, taking on a series of mostly-weekend commitments to mark the 40th anniversary of becoming a proper functioning band, good enough reason for this punter to ‘cancel all other engagements’ and drive down to Chester on Friday night. And I was in for a treat, as I suspected, a mighty 32-song salvo of top tunes from across the years knocked out by a band that remain as bright and sharp now as way back then.

There was no waiting around, Derry’s finest on stage at this headlining sell-out as part of the Chester Live festival shortly after 8.30 and launching straight into third-biggest hit Jimmy Jimmy, the Cheshire set (and many more of us from North-West England, neighbouring Wales, and Ireland) singing along with passion. From there we had a selection of sublime cuts from the first two albums, Jump Boys, Whizz Kids and I Gotta Getta leading to Here Comes the Summer, faster than I recall it, drummer Billy Doherty soon red in the face, while frontman Paul McLoone soaked that shirt under the heat of the house lights, and a lamp-blind Mickey Bradley squinted while miming a hand on fire from his busy bass fretwork.

This being The Undertones, there was plenty of jovial banter between band and crowd, not least involving Bradley and McLoone, with a few mumbled chip-ins from those legendary wing-backs the O’Neill brothers, albeit with much of it lost on the hoi polloi via the PA and rich accents. But they were having fun, and so were we (so we were).

It’s Gonna Happen hadn’t long been out as a single when I first caught this wondrous band in June 1981 at Guildford Civic Hall on the Positive Touch tour, and 35 years on – give or take four days – it has lost none of its sparkle, the guitars making up for the missing brass. That brings me on to my only slight gripe on the night – I couldn’t hear enough of Damian and John’s six-string licks in the mix. Yet luckily I know those lines off by heart, and there was certainly no problem with Mickey’s bass fretwork, as showcased on the sublime Tearproof, that opening line, ‘She’s a girl in a million, and does what a million girls do’ still transporting me. And then came that great 2003 reminder of this band’s continuing songwriting prowess, Thrill Me.

While I’ve a soft spot for Feargal Sharkey’s band swansong, The Sin of Pride, in retrospect I see the production did them few favours, but there was a reminder of how it might have been with the current treatment of late single Love Parade, showing more of the band’s Nuggets lineage than was suggested at the time.

Incidentally, for someone who thought he’d lost this band forever in 1983, it’s difficult to convey the joy of seeing them together again, 17 years after the reformation. McLoone quickly proved his worth in Sharkey’s place back then. and this quintet clearly continue to enjoy the experience now it’s no longer the day-job. Meanwhile, this was my second live sighting of Damian this year (see my February review of The Everlasting Yeah here), and it’s so good to see him back in tow with brother John as well as on fresh ground elsewhere.

We were back on to more universally-revered material soon, pop exclamation mark Family Entertainment followed by one of the finest singles of all time, You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!) then Nine Times out of Ten, the latter described as a song of two halves, like two stolen cars welded together. But while these lads have always worn their influences on their sleeves, the ‘Tones have always been far more than a chop-shop, as proved on a loud and proud Male Model, the band’s anthem Teenage Kicks and – from that same Good Vibrations debut single – a rightly-raw True Confessions.

Jaunty Fellas: The Undertones. From the left - Billy, Damian, Mickey, John, Paul (Photo: BBC Radio Ulster)

Jaunty Fellas: The Undertones (l to r) – Billy, Damian, Mickey, John, Paul (Photo: BBC Radio Ulster)

There was a timely reminder too that they still – if only occasionally – write new songs with Damian’s Stooges-like Much Too Late from three years ago, before Girls That Don’t Talk and Wednesday Week took us back again. And surely there can’t be many first lines as delightful as, ‘Here she comes to say goodnight, I’ll get no sleep tonight’.

A brief plug followed for the most recent album with 2007 album title track Dig Yourself Deep, before we reached further dizzy heights with She’s a Runaround then changed pace for the relatively-sedate Julie Ocean, as beautiful as ever. And lest you should think the songwriting was all down to John and occasionally Dee and Mickey, we had the drummer’s sublime Billy’s Third from the first album, before Listening In and Get Over You earned the band a much deserved break.

They returned of course, although I thought for a moment Mickey was set for a solo spot, the bass leg-end complaining he’d been duped by the others, who insisted via musicians’ union rules they got a full comfort break before a rousing eight-song encore. That started with I Know A Girl and a belted-out version of Belfast outfit The Outcasts’ Just Another Teenage Rebel, the Good Vibrations single that preceded Teenage Kicks.

The crowd was then back in mass-singalong heaven for sole top-10 hit, My Perfect Cousin – ‘another old Northern Irish folk song’ – before fellow Hypnotised fave Girls That Don’t Talk then the other prime cuts from that John Peel-adored debut, Smarter Than U and Emergency Cases.

They still weren’t done, although by now McLoone – his greying beard giving him the air of Roy Keane, although I couldn’t see the Eire footie legend putting in quite so many flamboyant dance moves – was soaked in sweat and Doherty was King Crimson, and Marc Bolan tribute b-side Top Twenty took this awed punter to T-Rextacy before fans’ anthem Mars Bars – which Bradley the Bass earlier said they weren’t playing as it had melted – sent us home with glucose-inspired energy levels restored and huge smiles on faces.

At one stage Mickey dedicated a song to a North Wales-based contingent that chose this Live Rooms happening over The Stone Roses’ Manchester shindig, adding – with a smile – that this was clear evidence of which band was best. I know which outfit I’d rather see, and 42 years after forming, 40 years after the initial shows, 38 years after the debut records, 35 years after my Tones’ live arrival and 16 years after my first McLoone-era sighting, they’ve still got it. We’re all a little older, but become born-again teenagers for at least two hours in such esteemed company. The Undertones – still rocking humdingers, still so hard to beat.

13432289_817465688385949_2637345495225589447_nFor a recent writewyattuk interview with Mickey Bradley, head here. And for a full list of forthcoming Undertones engagements this summer and autumn head over to http://www.theundertones.com/ or keep in touch with the band via Facebook or Twitter.

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Getting up close and personal with Toyah

Acoustic Warrior: Toyah, out and about this summer and autumn - Acoustic, Up Close and Personal (Photo: Dean Stockings for http://toyahwillcox.com/)

Acoustic Warrior: Toyah, out and about this summer and autumn – Acoustic, Up Close and Personal (Photo: Dean Stockings for http://toyahwillcox.com/)

Regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised that this scribe is an avid viewer of BBC 4’s Top of the Pops re-runs, a point I soon confess to my latest interviewee, Toyah Willcox.

“Oh, God bless those!”

The more recently re-aired shows take me back to my early teens, at a time when this highly-recognisable West Midlands raised actress and singer was enjoying a string of hits, not least the distinctive It’s a Mystery, Thunder in the Mountains and I Want To Be Free.

Admittedly, you’ve always had to wade through a lot of rubbish on Top of the Pops, recent examples ranging from Captain Beaky and Joe Dolce to The Snowmen and Starsound. But it also makes me realise how many great characters there were in music at the time. ‘Old bloke with rose-tinted nostalgic specs’ alert, but the charts today just don’t seem to have that same level of OTT theatricality. This was after all an era when the disparate likes of Adam Ant, Buster Bloodvessel, Clare Grogan, Hazel O’Connor, John Lydon, Lee John, Siouxsie Sioux and Ms Willcox herself were beamed into our front rooms on Thursday nights. Just where are the characters now?

“It was phenomenal back then. There were big characters out there. We all had to perform live and came up performing live. There were very few contrived acts. A very different time. We also all wrote, and I think it’s really important to write your own material. It was almost a dirty word to do somebody else’s song.

“I had to be coerced into doing Echo Beach (1987)That was a hit for me, but I felt a sense of shame at the time. Now I absolutely love performing it. Back then it was really important that the songs were your voice.”

With all those top-40 singles (eight) and albums (seven) Toyah had between 1980 and 1985, does she see those years as just one chapter of the career? For while the big hits dried up, she continued to record, and the crowds are still coming out for her.

“How can I explain it? I found it incredibly stressful having to produce four hit singles a year. That dampens your enthusiasm. The only artist I know who’s never lost that enthusiasm is Madonna. By about 1987-88 I had to step away. I wasn’t in love with the business anymore.

Debut Album: Toyah's Sheep Farming in Barnet, from 1979

Debut Album: Toyah’s Sheep Farming in Barnet, from 1979

“I started acting more, touring Shakespeare and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. That just gave me my will to go back into music. Making albums for me has always been much more rewarding. You can be more true to yourself, and more off the wall. Also, being very much anchored in new wave, when dance came in I just didn’t fit that space, at all.”

Toyah has always traversed the acting and music industries. That must keep it all fresh.

“Yeah. And absolutely every artist has found over the last 20 years that audiences slightly shrink. But because of the internet you’re playing to the same people and living off the same income. You’ve created your own world bubble, and that’s kind of relevant to what I’m doing.

“My audiences are there and I can play anywhere in the UK and do very well. But I don’t hire PR companies and don’t really worry about being signed to a record company anymore. Of those people you see in the papers every day, about 40 per cent of their income is going on a press person. And that’s not for me.”

Charismatic, outspoken and nigh on impossible to categorise, Toyah is a somewhat iconic talent, and she’s as busy as ever 37 years after her head-turning, full-on debut LP Sheep Farming in Barnet enjoyed indie chart success. In fact, there have been 14 more studio albums since, plus a couple of live LPs and several compilations. But it’s never been just about the music, and from the start she was involved in the thespian sphere, working her way up from a dresser to the stars, over the years making many memorable theatre, TV and film appearances.

As well as her hit singles and albums, she’s written two books, appeared in more than 40 stage plays, and acted in 15 feature films. It’s a unique CV too, having presented The Good Sex Guide, Holiday and Songs of Praise, supplied voice-overs for iconic children’s show Teletubbies on TV, toured Shakespeare, and starred in cult films Jubilee and Quadrophenia.

But it’s the music taking centre-stage again right now, as will be the case when she visits Preston’s Charter Theatre next weekend (my excuse for calling her), as her Acoustic, Up Close & Personal show offers a chance to experience Toyah in an intimate setting, playing her best-known songs, unplugged, and telling plenty of stories from her colourful career.

She’s joined on those dates by guitarists Chris Wong, from her band The Humans, and Colin Hinds, from China Crisis, the pair combining with the headline act on meticulous, stripped-back acoustic versions of her best-known songs. And as this Birmingham born and bred icon put it, ‘The music has real space to breathe and is lively and energetic but still stripped back in these clever unplugged arrangements’.

“We’ve been touring the show for two years, converting rock music into the acoustic set. But every year we revamp the show a bit, and we’re very familiar with this format now. All three of us sing. It’s really beautiful. People might think, ‘Oh gosh, only two guitars?’ But it sounds incredible. They really put a lot of energy into it.”

You can often tell how good a song is, I add, when it’s stripped down to the basics.

Biggest Hit: Toyah's Anthem album, from 1981

Biggest Hit: Toyah’s Anthem album, from 1981

“Absolutely, and I think the success of this show proves that. And it does tend to sell out wherever we go. People like to hear songs stripped down, hearing nuances you can’t always hear if you’ve got the volume of the drums. It also reveals how the song is written. Everyone’s taken by surprise. Even my late ’70s punk songs work extraordinarily well.”

She’s certainly proved herself to be an eloquent talker. Does Toyah tend to go off-topic on these dates?

“Most nights I have a PowerPoint behind me. I have a visual memory so need visual cues. But if the audience is really up for it you can tell them stories you wouldn’t normally tell. It’s very much how we feel on the evening. It’s music-driven, but I like the audience to go away thinking they know something more about me and have experienced something no one else has because of the uniqueness of this.”

Do Chris and Colin sometimes have to nudge her back in the right direction?

“They don’t, actually. I think they’re probably scared of me … or laughing their heads off behind me. I can be quite irreverent, with some things I say. I don’t go and boast about achievements so much as costume failures, or when you’re on stage and a set falls apart – stuff like that, very light-hearted, lots of fun.”

She saw a fair few malfunctions, I’m guessing, while helping dress the touring stars in your early days in regional theatre.

“Yes, I think the worse was for Peter Pan at Wimbledon Theatre, when my fly-wire got stuck on the scenery as it was being taken off stage. We had to stop the show. Ridiculous. I’ve seen many, many things go wrong.”

Time flies on, and a month ago Toyah celebrated her 58th birthday, which means she was born the same month as two of my musical heroes, fellow May 1958 arrivals Neil Finn and Paul Weller. Was there something special in the air around then?

“Well, the winter months were coming, and perhaps there was a power cut. Prince was also born that year, and Madonna, and Kate Bush. It was a very productive year.”

Other Half: Toyah's husband of 30 years, King Crimson founder member Robert Fripp

Other Half: Toyah’s husband of 30 years, King Crimson founder member Robert Fripp

She’s right, and several other notables included Michael Jackson. That said though, I note that Toyah’s beloved – Soft Machine guitar legend Robert Fripp – was 12 when his wife-to-be was born, learning guitar back in Dorset.

“Yes, he started learning at the age of 11, and was playing pro by the age of 14.”

Toyah’s now been singing and acting for getting on for 40 years, more than two-thirds of the lifespan.

“Wow, I hadn’t thought of it that way. That’s great!”

Is that hard to comprehend sometimes?

“No, I feel as if I’ve lived it! Now I’m here, it doesn’t feel long at all, but when I was starting at 23 I couldn’t see beyond the age of 30. Now at the age of 58 I still feel there’s so much I want to learn and achieve and get right. And I find I start panicking, thinking, ‘Don’t waste time!’ I’m not interested in retirement.

“There are so many things I still want to do, mainly in what I want to do. I’d love to be able to play guitar on stage, but I’ve never been good enough. Yes, there are many things within my working sphere which I feel I’ve still got to get right.”

When it comes to that, surely she has a perfect teacher at home in Robert.

“Actually, he’s the last person I want to learn from! He’s so …. You have to play his way, and it’s not for me.”

Is it a bit like having driving lessons with a loved one?

“Absolutely, but he did buy me the most beautiful acoustic guitar for my birthday, creating special tuning for me, based around the strong key of my voice – D, as opposed to E. It’s fabulous. I’m enjoying it so much, and it’s made it so much easier to play.”

Alongside the performing, Toyah wrote her autobiography, Living Out Loud, in 2000, following that with Diary of a Facelift in 2005. Thinking of the former, I put it to her that her parents’ tale was a strong story in itself, not least a romance kindled in Weston-Super–Mare while her Mum, a professional dancer, was supporting Flanagan and Allen. Has she ever considered devising their story for a play or film?

“I think that will happen one day. I won’t be writing it though. It’s out of my ability, but I have been approached by renowned writers who want to do a story about my relationship with my mother.

41RJD0RW16L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“It’s not on my priority list at the moment. The priority is performing live and breaking fantastic ground in the British movie industry. I’ve got four films this year and I’m more interested in performing.

“I love acting and want to get that solid again. I also have a musical opening in London on August 30, with my songs put into Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, mainly from In the Court of the Crimson Queen (2008). I’ve a lot of really good things going on. I’m a performer, so just keep to acting in films and playing live at the moment.”

With a name like Toyah, she was never likely to be cut out for a clerical 9-5 job. It’s been a mighty life story too, overcoming bullying, dyslexia, and so on, as we learn in Living Out Loud. And she knew she wanted to sing and act from around the age of nine, quoted as saying, ‘I was an incredible dreamer when I was at school. I just felt trapped. I wanted to escape, really’. Surely, I put to her, that dreaming wouldn’t go down well with the Nicky Morgans and Michael Goves of this world in our current results-driven UK education system. She doesn’t take my bait though, instead insisting society’s changed for the better since her school days.

“We live in a different world. There’s a fantastic new generation out there. They haven’t been brought up with any form of expectation, thinking the world owes them everything. They know they’ve got to go out there and create it. When I was growing up everything was dictated to women. You were going to do this, would have that, would have children, and will wear that.

“It was socially totally conservative and for me to be the dreamer was because I didn’t like the confines of my gender. I knew I couldn’t meet any of that which was expected of me. But today there’s huge social freedom, especially in Western culture. That’s made for a very different society. When I was a dreamer and really didn’t participate in my education at all, that was very reflective of the world I lived in at the time.”

This ‘Bird of Paradise’ was certainly soon marked out as different in the outside world, her hair wild long before the second half of the 1970s, with plenty of punk spirit way before the term was re-coined.

“That was what was so powerful about punk. We were all punks before we knew what it was. In Birmingham I was dyeing my hair, making my own clothes and rebelling very strongly about three years before I saw the Sex Pistols. So was everyone around me. That was what was so unique about that generation and that movement.”

Was there a bit of David Bowie influence in your attitude and fashion sense?

“We all loved Bowie. Where I grew up he was considered glam rock, but where he really stepped into the punk ethos was with albums like Station to Station and Low, which really said to the punk rockers he was one of us, writing a whole album about depression. He was so chameleon-like that he could fit in with everything and every one during that incredibly creative period in his life.”

41KY4G3Y8FL._AC_UL320_SR206,320_Did you see what was going on and think, ‘I can do that’, or you could be part of that?

“Be part of that, yeah.”

Aged 17, she went to the Old Rep Drama School in Birmingham, her distinctive look marking her out as she worked in theatres in her home city, dressing the touring stars of the day by night. Soon she got her film break, alongside future fellow Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels in 1976 BBC play Glitter, leading to a further National Theatre break. Is that right that the footage for Glitter was lost, but you weren’t too bothered?

“It’s not lost. I’ve got a copy. The Pebble Mill archive was destroyed, and why the BBC would have done that, I don’t know. But it was fine. It was what it was. It was my first professional acting and it’s alongside Phil Daniels, who I continue to work with. So I’m cool about that.”

And now there’s talk of a follow-up to Quadrophenia, with Toyah involved again. Is that really happening?

“Yes.”

Including yourself?

“Yes. It’s not actually Quadrophenia II, but based on a book called To Be Someone.”

She’s not letting on a lot more yet, but – talking of Phil – I tell her I interviewed a certain lady from Coventry around 18 months ago who also starred with him back in the day, a good friend of hers – Hazel O’Connor. We also got on to their respective stints in Hugh Cornwell’s place in The Stranglers during his short spell in HMP Pentonville in 1979, playing two nights at London’s Rainbow Theatre.

“Yes, that was fantastic.”

Hazel said she did (Get a) Grip (On Yourself) and Hanging Around, and you did Duchess and something else. Can you remember what?

Mad Moment: Toyah in her role as Mad in Derek Jarman's Jubilee, from 1978

Mad Moment: Toyah in her role as Mad in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, from 1978

“I did Duchess, and Hazel and I did a song with Ian Dury too, but I can’t remember what.”

She also mentioned how when she did a hospice fundraiser a couple of years ago you were quick to say ‘yes!’ when she asked you to help out, adding ‘that woman is mighty!”

“Yeah, that was for her mother. Hazel and I go back a long way, and Coventry is virtually connected to Birmingham anyway.”

Thinking of those early film roles, who did you learn most from with the two big film roles that helped break you – Derek Jarman in Jubilee or Franc Roddam in Quadrophenia?

“Every film for me is a learning curve. Directors are so radically different. Derek just let you do anything, very rarely reining you in. Franc was more like a documentary-maker. It had to be very defined as there were so many characters. You had to place yourself within a scene to be seen. In Quadrophenia the main character is Phil’s, the rest of us building his history around him. That was a totally different experience.”

Yet I understand Phil’s role as Jimmy was offered first to recent writewyattuk interviewee John Lydon, the former Sex Pistols frontman, currently touring again with his band PiL.

“Franc asked me to put John through the screen-test, me testing for Leslie Ash’s role while John tested for Jimmy. John was absolutely brilliant. He was a natural actor, but I think there were insurance problems. What a great guy though.”

Do you keep in touch?

“No, I don’t really mix much on the music scene. I keep myself very much to myself. I don’t like my thoughts to be distracted. I’m quite insular really.”

Has there been a favourite role over the years, or at least one you felt deserved more recognition?

“I just don’t care about that! I do my job, put 150 per cent in and that’s it. If I feel I should have done something different I’ll make sure I do next time. If anything, when I look back, I wish I wasn’t quite so bouncy. But that’s the only thing that’s ever crossed my mind.”

Quadrophonic Vision: Phil Daniels as Jimmy and Toyah as Monkey in Franc Roddam's 1979 cult hit Quadrophenia

Quadrophonic Vision: Phil Daniels as Jimmy and Toyah as Monkey in Franc Roddam’s 1979 cult hit Quadrophenia

And surely you must be the only person who’s presented Songs of Praise, Holiday and The Good Sex Guide.

“Yeah, and I took that as a compliment.”

Do you still get people (like me) asking about Teletubbies, saying ‘I thought I knew that voice!’

“I very rarely get people saying they thought they recognised my voice – they say they know that voice! It won’t last much longer though. They’ve remade Teletubbies, and I’m not sure who they’ve got in place … at least not yet.”

Back in her early band days, making demos while living in a converted British Rail warehouse turned studio in London, I understand she slept in a coffin on site, reportedly previously used by the French Red Cross to transport victims of fatal accidents. Has she still got that coffin?

“That disappeared about 37 years ago, and I’ve got no idea what became of that!”

Musical fame followed, after her initial indie breakthrough, and by 1981 there were those three aforementioned top-10 singles and her Anthem album reaching No.2 – kept off the top by that dreadful Stars on 45 album by Starsound. We also find Toyah was voted Smash Hits’ Best Female Singer and Most Fanciable Female that year, while the next year there was an early Brit award for Best Female Singer. Furthermore, as recently as 2001, readers of Q magazine voted her the 48th greatest woman in music, while in 2009 she was came seventh in a BBC Queens of British Pop poll.

Visiting Time: Toyah is back out on the road over the coming months (Photo: Dean Stockings for http://toyahwillcox.com/)

Visiting Time: Toyah is back out on the road over the coming months (Photo: Dean Stockings for http://toyahwillcox.com/)

Did recognition like that inspire her to head back to the Old Rep and shove those accolades back at the fella on the grant committee who apparently once wrote ‘she has a lisp and isn’t attractive’?

“I’ve often felt really angry towards that man, but all through my life I’ve seen that if a man has power in a job you want he’ll employ the woman he wants to sleep with. If he doesn’t fancy you or you don’t meet his physical idea of attraction, you don’t get the job. So often I get pissed off and angry, and it doesn’t go unnoticed.

“It does drive me on though. I often wonder if I’d got that grant if I’d have been as hungry as I was. I worked really hard to get my break. That was the greatest thing that ever happened. That got me in everywhere, because I knew the right people. So yeah, I was angry. He was shallow and probably just a dirty old man that didn’t fancy me, but that’s never changed. You see it happening all around you in this business.”

Away from her career, we find Worcestershire-based Toyah has now enjoyed 30 years of marriage. So remind us how you and your ‘soul-mate’ Robert got together.

“We were managed by the same team – Robert for 20 years, me for 10 – but only met when we were at a charity lunch. Princess Michael of Kent wanted a photo with both of us. Then Robert asked if I’d narrate a children’s story for a charity album he was making. Two years later we were married.”

Were his band, King Crimson, who formed in London in 1968, ever on Toyah’s radar?

“Only Discipline. I like that album a lot. Before then, no.”

That album also charted in 1981, incidentally. But was Toyah aware of Robert’s involvement with David Bowie’s Heroes during her punk era?

“Not at the time, because Bowie was Bowie for me. It was only really when I met him.”

Hair Raising: Toyah, still making an impression, 37 years beyond Sheep Farming in Barnet (Photo: Dean Stockings for http://toyahwillcox.com/)

Hair Raising: Toyah, still making an impression, 37 years beyond Sheep Farming in Barnet (Photo: Dean Stockings for http://toyahwillcox.com/)

You collaborated quite early with the hubbie on the Sunday All Over the World project. Is that something that continues to this day (at least over the washing up at your place)?

“Well, that album’s being re-released this year, with a live album coming out as well.”

As well as her on-going Acoustic, Up Close & Personal, there are also a string of Proud, Loud and Electric dates this year, featuring a full band – Toyah and guitarist Chris Wong joined by Andy Doble on keyboards, Tim Rose on bass and John Humphreys on drums.

There are also a number of festival dates, including further appearances on the Rewind gig circuit (July 24th and August 20th), sharing bills with everyone from Marc Almond, Rick Astley, Adam Ant and Big Country through to Midge Ure, Jimmy Somerville, Leo Sayer and Paul Young. So does she find there’s a good bit of camaraderie for those shows, considering a few of those acts were chart rivals all those years ago?

“It’s 100 per cent camaraderie. Last year at Perth with Rewind, Hugh Cornwell was on and you’re starting to get names you think, ‘I never thought he’d do that!’ Some artists won’t do it, but an awful lot will, and it’s an absolute joy. You’re on for 15 minutes – it’s a holiday! The rest of the day you’re with these fantastic people, catching up, reminiscing. It’s really lovely, and I have no regrets about doing that at all.”

Tour Time: Toyah Willcox, coming to a town near you (Photo: Dean Stockings)

Tour Time: Toyah Willcox, coming to a town near you (Photo: Dean Stockings)

Toyah’s Acoustic, Up Close & Personal show reaches Preston’s Charter Theatre on Friday, June 24 (7.30pm, tickets £17.50, via 01772 80 44 44 or http://www.prestonguildhall.com). 

She’s back in Lancashire with the same set-up for Colne’s The Muni on Saturday, October 22 (8pm, tickets £17.50 or £21 on the door, via 01282 661234 or http://www.themuni.co.uk/).

There are also a number of Proud, Loud and Electric shows this summer, the next at The Whole in the Roof in Deal, Kent, on Sunday, June 26th, with details here. For a full list of Toyah dates this year, follow this link to her official website gig itinerary.

And to keep up to date with all things Toyah, try her Facebook page here, and check out David Fleming’s in-depth, regularly updated toyah.net website.

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