Testing the Big Band theory – the Jools Holland interview

Big Time: Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra

Big Time: Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra

It’s difficult to write about Jools Holland without going down the retro route. He is after all a man who carved out a career celebrating the best in popular music from the past century.

His long-running BBC television show Later With Jools Holland provides the best elements of old and new music, while his BBC Radio 2 show offers an eclectic mix of tunes from his own vast record collection.

There are also his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra live shows, a big band in every sense switching between blues and boogie-woogie. Jazz, ska, soul and country.

Then there’s his new wave past with Squeeze and the days he co-fronted Channel 4’s cult entertainment and music show The Tube.

That’s as good a place to start as any, so I put it to Jools that I find it hard to believe it’s now 30 years since he filmed with Paula Yates for The Tube at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool.

As he put it in entertaining 2007 autobiography Bare-faced Lies and Boogie-Woogie Boasts, ‘We all, with the exception of Paula, thought there was something rather romantic about empty holiday seaside destinations off season’.

Tube Station: Paula Yates and Jools Holland on the set of Channel 4's The Tube

Tube Station: Paula Yates and Jools Holland on the set of Channel 4’s The Tube

It appears that’s still the case for Jools, three decades after his first Fylde coast filming stint.

“I’ve some lovely memories from then. Blackpool has changed since, but has a certain atmosphere, and is a magical place. It has a romance to it, and is one of the most iconic towns in Britain.

“When you have a place where people have gathered and enjoyed themselves over the years, even when they’re not there a certain resonance stays.

“I think that’s happened in Blackpool, particularly at the Empress Ballroom, where we are this time. All those that saw big bands there and enjoyed themselves – something of that stays in the room, even when all the people have gone.

“So it’s very nice to bring it all back and resurrect it. It will be great fun. We won’t sound like the big bands back then, but we’ll be paying tribute to a lot of those who came before, going through the history of big band music, from my point of view taking in a lot of the blues and swing.”

It would be something to be a fly on the wall during those golden years, wouldn’t it?

“Exactly … as long as I didn’t get squatted.”

The Empress Ballroom Big Band Special free show (details at the foot of this feature) is on Wednesday, June 24, and is set to be broadcast on BBC 4 in July.

Ballroom Bliss: Blackpool's Empress Ballroom

Ballroom Bliss: Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom

On the night, Jools aims to give a personal view of the genre, with a little insight into Big Band greats such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton.

“I’ve always been a fan of Big Band music and think this is a great way to take the music genre to a wider audience.

“We are going to have one big party, and I’m looking forward to playing at an iconic venue steeped in music history.”

Furthermore, the charismatic Londoner will make Blackpool his home over the next month while filming a documentary to coincide with the performance.

In a separate BBC 2 documentary, Strictly Come Dancing’s Len Goodman and historian Lucy Worsley join Jools to explore how Big Band music helped keep the nation’s spirits up during World War Two, also delving into fashion and dance crazes.

What’s more, Jools also plays nearby Preston Guild Hall on Friday, July 24 with his 20-piece Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, including guest vocalists Ruby Turner and Louise Marshall.

And it was that date that got me thinking back to the first time I saw his big band – or at least an earlier, smaller line-up – in Avenham Park in 1992 at a free festival marking that year’s town Guild celebrations.

“I remember it! Once in a Preston Guild, as they say!”

Just Jools: The bandleader himself enjoys a good blather

Just Jools: The bandleader himself enjoys a good blather

Well yes, although Jools did miss the last one. But he’s a busy man, and has barely sat still for the past two decades other than his stints at the piano.

I remember it well too, not least spotting him stood on the riverbank of the Ribble, taking a short break amid the event soundchecks, gazing towards the Victorian railway bridges that midsummer afternoon.

I wanted to speak to him, to talk music or even railways maybe, but felt he was having a reflective moment, so just nodded, smiled, said hello, and moved on.

I think I’ve regretted it ever since, the briefest of pleasantries somehow not enough considering all we have in common.

“Well, you can always get me talking on any of those subjects. I’ll blather on and on.”

That year proved a bit of a turning point for an artist carving out his post-Squeeze and The Tube solo career as well as filming interviews for The Beatles Anthology, his music show also just getting going.

“That’s right. Later had just started around that time.”

So had he – to paraphrase his Squeeze writing buddies Difford and Tilbrook – ever thought it could happen at that point, bearing in mind all he’s achieved in the two decades since?

“The strange this is that none of us can tell what’s around the corner. I heard a man on the radio the other day said he’s done this and that and was therefore a master of his own destiny. But I don’t think anybody is.

“You just never quite know what’s going to turn up. When I was first in Squeeze I wouldn’t have thought I’d have ended up presenting The Tube.

“Then, if somebody had said I’d be running a big band for as long as we have, I don’t think we would have – not least as most big bands died out around 70 years ago.

“And if you’d said Later would have kept going all this time, when most such shows last around five or six years, it seems rather unbelievable.

TV Set: The BBC's Later With Jools Holland has proved a long-running success

TV Set: The BBC’s Later With Jools has proved a long-running success

“So I’m delighted. I love what I do and I’m very fortunate I don’t really so much work as play.”

I think that shows, seeing Jools live on the box sat in with big-name artists or talking to his musical heroes.

Now and again there’s a look on his face across that piano lid suggesting he can’t quite believe his luck. He’s the proverbial kid in the sweet shop.

“Well I am! And the great thing about music is that you continue to surprise yourself. You think, ‘What’s going on here? This is great!’ Even though you’re trying to concentrate.

“The wonderful thing is that if you keep going you learn more. It never fails to move on again.”

A close friend once told me he’s got so much good music in his house that he’s unlikely to ever hear it all again in his lifetime, so there’s no real point seeking out new artists.

I can see his point, but that doesn’t seem to be the Jools Holland way of things.

“No, and I think I’m looking for music for different purposes. For the TV show there are producers and researchers looking for new music, and they pop up almost out of the ether.

“I’m also looking to write new things and maybe look for records around 70 years old to see if there’s a piece of music that’s got lost that I never knew about.

“You’re looking at both ends of it, really. New music could be a week old or 500 years old, but if it’s new to me, that’s great. It’s a bit like you’re looking for your next fix!”

There have been some amazing guest appearances on his show and records over the years, many since lost, like George Harrison, Amy Winehouse, Joe Strummer, Kirsty MacColl, and most recently BB King. That must have given him a different outlook on life.

“That’s right. You’ve got to be very thankful and very grateful – as I am – at having met such wonderful people.

Blues Legend: BB King with his beloved Lucille

Blues Legend: BB King with his beloved Lucille

“BB King was a good example of someone who just kept going. He enjoyed what he was doing, was a master of what he was doing, and just kept playing, and his records just got better.

“I loved to hear him and learn from him, and was so pleased to get to meet him. He was such a wonderful man.

“Also, the other night I went to see Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall, and was walking to my seat when I suddenly had a moment and couldn’t quite believe I play there as well! It’s so hard to see outside of something when you’re in it.”

I reckon that proves my point. You’re clearly still in the right job if you’ve still got that passion for it all after all these years.

“I still have to pinch myself. It’s all so unbelievable.”

I remember seeing Jools’ star vocalist Ruby Turner at Avenham Park a couple of years after him, stepping in as a replacement headline act for Sister Sledge and stealing the show.

“Ruby is fantastic, and I think she’s so amazing because she goes back to the early stuff and can make the boogie come alive.

“She can do the same with the blues, and as a gospel singer has something different again – a delivery that is directed by true belief, that takes you somewhere else.

“We’ve been doing a lot of big band music ahead of Blackpool, but we’re also celebrating some of the less mainstream music – what was at the time underground music but went on to really inspire rock’n’roll.

“One such artist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, played boogie-woogie guitar and gospel with the Lucky Millinder big band. All those greats like Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard and Johnny Cash mentioned her as an influence.

Star Turn: Ruby Turner has real stage presence

Star Turn: Ruby Turner has real stage presence

“Ruby can do that too, not least because we have a big band that likes to boogie. And I don’t think you hear that anywhere else.”

And then, behind the beat, Jools has his long-serving ex-Squeeze team-mate, his ‘Drum King’ Gilson Lavis, a big band ever-present. In fact, Jools’ first ‘big band’ comprised just the two of them.

“Exactly! He really is the nuclear reactor at the centre of what we do, and the pulse of everything.

“I think we have Marc Almond coming to join us for the Blackpool show too, maybe doing an Edith Piaf song from that era.

“That’s something we want to concentrate on. It won’t sound so much like Edith as it does us now, but that’s a good thing too.”

Time was running out at that point with our allotted slot, but I quickly steered the subject on to another mutual love – Clough Williams-Ellis’ innovative architectural designs at Portmeirion, North Wales.

In fact, he loved the innovative architecture of that Italianate-style village by the Afon Dwyryd so much, that he modelled features on his own land in a similar style.

He’s clearly a man of taste when it comes to such matters, so would Jools ever feel the need to get involved in town planning and vintage fairs like Lancastrian fashion designer (and recent writewyattuk interviewee) Wayne Hemingway?

“Well, I do love all that. I built something where my studio is, tiny by comparison. I don’t think you need to be an expert on town planning though.

Released Prisoner: Jools filming at Portmeirion

Released Prisoner: Jools filming at Portmeirion

“When I go somewhere and realise it’s an agreeable place, I ask myself, ‘Why is that?’ Alternatively, there are places that aren’t so nice, and you think, ‘Why is that?’

“So I make a note of why we all rather like one place and not another. Not everyone likes the same thing, but generally I think small is beautiful.”

That probably goes against the philosophy of his band, but carry on, Jools …

“One of the worries now in London is that there are no scruffy corners left.  In the same way, you don’t want Hong Kong and Singapore to look like other cities in Britain.

“I think it’s important to protect what we have. That might involve that lovely colour of red brick you have in the North West, or the yellow stone in East Anglia. Everywhere should have its own style.

“I think that’s wonderful, and it’s great that people still think things through like that.”

Getting back to Portmeirion, isn’t it time they repeated The Laughing Prisoner, Jools’ 1987 The Tube spin-off spoof of The Prisoner? 

“Funny you should mention that. I’d like to see that again too!”

It had quite a cast too, from Chris Difford, Siouxsie and the Banshees and XTC to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Rowland Rivron, Stanley Unwin and John Peel.

The same goes for another film he made two years before, 1985’s Walking to New Orleans, involving Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, Dr John, The Neville Brothers, Rik Mayall, Robbie Coltrane and Sting, among others.

But there’s been so much since for the … erm, Groovy Fella, including his house band role in Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, the Chris Evans-fronted precursor to newly-reprised Channel 4 show TFI Friday.

And then there’s the recorded material, with 19 original studio and live CDs in my collection alone from 1990’s World Of His Own right through to last year’s Sirens of Song. In fact, it’s not Christmas at mine without at least one new Jools album wrapped up – in the same way that we can’t make it into a New Year without switching on Jools’ Annual Hootenanny.

Band Substance: When Jools was with Squeeze

Band Substance: When Jools was with Squeeze

I think I already knew the answer to this next question, but is Jools ever likely to record with Squeeze again in the future (having served from the band’s formation in 1974 through to 1980 and then again from 1985 to 1990)?

“I wouldn’t have thought so. I was very happy and enjoyed everything we did together, but that was all then.”

Do you keep in touch still?

“Yeah. I saw them just the other day.”

Time was short now – I was already over-running by five minutes – so I (reluctantly) ditched a few more questions about Squeeze, Jools’ solo years, and burning questions such as whether his stolen custom-made piano suit ever turned up again and if Paul Young forgive him for stealing his Fabulous Wealthy Tarts and turning them into Millionaires.

I could have chatted happily about his other big band members too – past and present – too, not least his brothers, Louise Marshall, Sam Brown and ska trombone legend Rico, who has not long since turned 80.

Instead, I asked what he missed most about home when he was out on the road.

“I’m fortunate because I like being on tour, like travelling and looking at things. I suppose what I do miss though is playing the piano at home.

“But the longest I’m away now is maybe two or three weeks, whereas it used to be months on end. My children are all grown up, so time passes quicker anyway.”

With that, he was gone, leaving me with a courteous, “Great to talk to you, and thanks for reminding me about the Preston Guild!”

It was a pleasure, Jools.

Tower Tourist: Jools will be heading for the Fylde coast soon

Tower Tourist: Jools will be heading for the Fylde coast soon

For details of how to register for free tickets for Jools’ Big Band Special on June 24 at Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom (before 4pm on Friday, June 12), head here.  

Tickets for Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra at Preston Guild Hall on July 24 are £34, from the box office on 01772 80 44 44 or via the venue website.

And for other Jools news and tour dates – including guest slots from Marc Almond, KT Tunstall and Melanie C, try his official website here.

Meanwhile, follow these links for past writewyattuk features involving Jools’ fellow Squeeze founder Glenn Tilbrook and his initial replacement Paul Carrack, plus a general appreciation of the band here.    

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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