According to my battered copy of British Record Charts 1955-1979, Gilbert O’Sullivan sold more UK singles than any other solo male artist in 1972, seeing off the likes of fellow top-10 acts Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Donny Osmond, David Cassidy and Elton John.
In fact, he saw off all bar one of those artists the following year too. And when it came to albums, Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart were the only solo blokes who sold more in 1972, while only David Bowie outsold him in 1973.
While those sales started to fall off by the mid-’70s, this Irish-born singer-songwriter – real name Raymond Edward O’Sullivan – never lost the ability to write great songs and snappy lyrics. And some 45 years after stop-you-in-your-tracks debut single Nothing Rhymed cracked the UK top 10 in late 1970, he’s getting plenty of airplay with his latest single, No Way. What’s more, on February 19th, he’s also the star of Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night, performing many of his hits and songs from 2015’s Latin ala G! with the BBC Concert Orchestra.
He may never have been hip, but Gilbert, who has two grown-up daughters and has been based in Jersey since the mid-1980s, continues to be regarded with tremendous affection, his songs loved around the world. The 69-year-old’s not one to stick in a musical rut either, with 2015’s Latin ala G! a prime example, his latest album recorded in Madrid with Spanish musicians.
“We spent three weeks in a studio there, and had a great time. It made sense to give it that Latin flavour, working that way.”
Have those Latino rhythms always had a hold on you and encouraged you to Get Down?
“Well, for want of a better word I write pop songs, so if I write a ballad it will be approached recording-wise in a certain way. You pick the songs you’ve written which sort of work in a rhythmic way, knuckle down and do it. In this particular aspect, I wanted to do an album based on my love of two albums Peggy Lee made in 1960.”
It’s almost 25 years ago since Gilbert worked with the iconic US jazz singer, who died in 2002, recording the quirky Can’t Think Straight together. Was that a major career highlight?
“Yes, it was the first duet I’d ever done and at the time we approached her, I didn’t want to duet with a contemporary artist. I liked the idea of approaching such an iconic figure. She liked the song, and we went to New York and I had it filmed. In fact, on recent tours we’ve shown that video. You have her singing on screen and I sing my part live.”
And in typical – if there is such a thing – O‘Sullivan style, it’s not the obvious high-profile duet – it’s a bit off-the-wall.
“Yeah, it’s unique. I’ve always considered that as a songwriter you learn your craft by listening to great songs, and the greatest female interpreters for me are Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, and arguably the greatest male interpreter is Frank Sinatra.
“Among all my Beatles, Stones and Searchers records in the 1960s, I had albums by Ella singing Cole Porter and Peggy singing the great standards, plus her two Latin albums, Latin a ala Lee and Ole a la Lee. The nice thing about Latin a la G is that we were able to reproduce her album cover, but with me in the middle of two female matadors, a nice tribute.”
Gilbert’s initial break came late in the ’60s, when he sent a demo tape to Tom Jones’ manager Gordon Mills, his first hits and a successful debut LP, Himself, following and 1972’s Alone Again (Naturally) sealing his fame. That memorable 45 topped the US charts for six weeks, bringing three Grammy nominations, and its artist soon had his first three UK No.1s, Clair, Get Down and LP Back to Front.
Major sell-out UK and US tours followed, and in 1974 there was a third Ivor Novello award, going on to sell millions and win various other awards. So what’s most important – the Ivor Novellos, the gold discs or the fact that the radio airplay for the new material’s still there all these years on?
“It’s always nice to be awarded accolades, but the key to your future is pretty much how your music today is accepted. When you get extensive radio airplay for a new track when people assume you’re either dead or retired, rejuvenates you. You get people writing to you, calling radio stations, DJs saying, ‘I didn’t realise this guy was still around!’ But primarily my whole thing with success is around the writing of a song. The time I take to come up with a melody then a lyric – if I achieve that I’m happy, that for me is what I consider real success.”
You drew on something there that I wanted to bring up, somehow. There must be a feeling that you can’t assume there will be lots more albums to come, particularly after the January we’ve had, losing so many great artists, all your kind of age.
“I don’t look upon it that way. You accept the age you’re at, but what it did bring to mind was the song I wrote after John Lennon’s death, Lost a Friend. I wrote that about Lennon and Elvis Presley, and what I found interesting with Terry Wogan as much as with David Bowie, was hearing people saying it feels like we’ve lost a friend.
“We did a concert in Dublin’s Church of Ireland cathedral, and I sang that in view of the deaths of Bowie, Glenn Frey and Terry Wogan. The song kind of captures that. But in general terms, you’ve just got to get on with it. People are dying all the time. It’s just that the ones who are celebrities get in the newspapers.”
There have been many cover versions of your songs, most recently by Neil Diamond, Diana Krall and Michael Buble. And I was reminding myself of Rumer’s We Will yesterday. Have you a favourite?
“Every cover! My current favourite is actually by a heavy metal band in Japan, a 100mph version of Alone Again Naturally – the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard! But it’s an honour when people cover your songs, even if it veers way off!
“Rumer’s version of We Will was very interesting, as it’s a very English Catholic song. Actually, Andy Williams in the mid-‘70s rang me and said he wanted to record We Will, but needed to change a line because he didn’t understand what it meant, the line, ‘I bagsy being in goal’. That’s a very English expression, so I allowed him to!
“That’s the thing about being an English songwriter. I’m Irish by birth but in the tradition of Paul McCartney and Ray Davies. That’s where all my background stems from, having grown up in Swindon.”
You’ve previously mentioned The Beatles and Bob Dylan as major influences, so it makes sense that Ray Davies had an impact too.
“And he was extremely prolific. You learn from everyone, and he was a great songwriter. Arguably the stuff he was doing in the ‘80s and ‘90s less so, but in termsin terms of Waterloo Sunset and all that …
“He even wrote a song for Peggy Lee, I Go To Sleep, and it was very unusual in the mid-‘60s, even with The Kinks’ success, to get songs covered by people like Peggy. It was the same when Ella Fitzgerald did Can’t Buy Me Love, which kind of made it into a standard.”
I’m reading a great biography of the Small Faces at the moment, while I interviewed Mick Avory from The Kinks last week, and Colin Blunstone of The Zombies a few weeks before. And it’s struck me that all those artists are around your age, yet you had to wait longer for your breakthrough.
“Well, I was around! In 1967 I was hustling, going to Denmark Street to Don Arden’s office like the Small Faces, looking for my first recording contract, 19 or 20, getting my mother to sign my first contract as I was under-age.
“I had three years of apprenticeship, writing after work, creating this image, hiring a Charlie Chaplin jacket from Berman’s, the theatrical costume house. So none of that bypassed me. The difference between me and everybody else was they had long hair, image was a dirty word and there was this guy with a pudding-basin haircut, breaking the mould!
“It would have happened earlier if I was prepared to compromise and look like a ’67 artist, embracing flower power and all that. I was right in the middle of that. Every record company person and management figure involved with me didn’t like how I looked. But I had this bee in my bonnet. I knew I could write good songs, and that was the backup to just push on with this image.
“Cat Stevens is a barometer for me. His first success was with Mike Hurst, who I went to see with an early demo. He wanted to do something very quickly. I panicked, and walked away. It took me until 1969, meeting Gordon Mills – who also didn’t like how I looked – to get that break. If I’d looked the way students looked then, I’d have probably sold far more records. Mind you, I’m not sure if you’d have wanted to walk around a campus with a Gilbert O’Sullivan album rather than one by James Taylor! But I’ve no regrets, whereas I would if I had compromised.”
Despite a vast catalogue of songs and huge sales across the decades, does it irk you that you’re seen first and foremost as a 1970s’ artist? You’ve made some great records since. Take for example 2003’s Barking up the Wrong Tree or What’s It all Supposed to Mean?
“Well, it’s all about songwriting, and you mention two songs that are very close to my heart, and What’s It All Supposed to Mean covers areas we all deal with. That goes back to what I was saying about having finished those records, without recording them, that to me is the success, because that’s the only thing I have control over. Once it goes to a record company then the marketplace and it’s decided whether you’re going to get any airplay – that’s something you’ve no control over, and neither should you.
“So I don’t mind being categorised, but if we go from the ‘70s through to where we are now, having material that seems to get through to people, I’m really happy.”
Early singles like Nothing Rhymed and Alone Again Naturally remain as powerful to this day. You must have heard many personal stories about the impact they had on others. The latter, for instance, immediately takes me back to my Dad’s funeral, having somehow held it all in for a couple of days only to hear that on the radio as I drove home, knowing full well before a certain verse came that it was going to send me over.
“I never get tired of playing those songs, and once you’ve played them, they’re no longer yours. They belong to people like yourself. You can’t be dismissive of that and go through the motions. However many times I perform those songs I put my heart and soul into them.
“Actually, most people assume Alone Again Naturally was based on a real situation, but a good lyricist has to have a good understanding of those situations, and that allows me to go into an area and write about it in a genuine way.
“It astonishes me when I get people remarking on those songs though, and get letters to that effect. It goes to show the power of music.”
On a similar note, I was wondering how many women called Clair, born in the early 70s, have since introduced themselves and told you their story.
“Absolutely! And when that happens I find it fascinating.”
In your Swindon Art College days, you worked with Rick Davies (who went on to form the mega-successful Supertramp). Were you confident you’d both make it?
“Rick was four years ahead, so when I finished my first year he’d just left, but he’s a brilliant musician and we got on so well together. His mother owned a hairdressing salon and he had the attic, with a drum kit and keyboards up there. We got on straight away when he formed Rick’s Blues.
“He was an original, and was into things I wasn’t. As a populist, I’d take him up a Beatles album and play him Roll over Beethoven and he’d say, ‘That’s okay, but listen to the original!’ He’d play me Bill Doggett and really weird American stuff. He was an absolutely brilliant drummer too, and I went on to play drums as well as sing in his band.
“We went to London to record my songs, and did a talent show in Swindon, again with my songs. I was the one coming up with songs that could move us forward, whereas he was writing songs very similar to those he did for Supertramp, where Roger Hodgson wrote the commercial songs while Rick wrote the album tracks.
“Both of us felt the band could go professional, but the others had apprenticeships and were worried about stepping out. That’s when Rick decided to go his way. He needed to be in a band, while I decided I needed to go on my own.”
Could your graphic design work at the time ever have become the main career?
“I don’t think so. I went to a few interviews for agencies, moving to London, but I was going for jobs just to pay rent to allow me to write songs and was determined that would happen.”
Do you think your musical heritage came from your Irish roots in Waterford?
“Again, I don’t think so. We left Ireland when I was seven so I have no memories of that period. All my musical learning stemmed from growing up with Radio Luxembourg and the BBC Light Programme while living in Swindon.”
Do you remember your first year in this country, in Battersea, South West London?
“I remember it slightly. It was just one year. Dad was in Swindon, going on the housing list, while my mother worked in Hanwell Court as a waitress, where the rich people stayed. She just had a bedsit and my sister and I had a few months there until Dad got our council house. I remember Mum coming back at 10 at night with some amazing food left over.”
Let’s move on to the mid-70s and the law suit against Gordon Mills that more or less put your career on hold until the mid-‘80s. It must have been a frustrating period for you, but that action and the 1991 litigation against rapper Biz Markie (for sampling Alone Again (Naturally) without permission, Gilbert’s victory setting a new benchmark for protection against copyright infringement) led to major test-case wins for artists’ rights, which is something else you can be proud of.
“Well, it wasn’t what I set out to do. I never took Gordon Mills to court for money, but he promised me an interest in my songs in 1970. At that time writers were being offered their own little companies within major companies, giving them interest in publishing, as opposed to just the writer’s share. That was a new phenomenon, offered to me by April Music, my publishers from 1967 through to 1972.
“When I told Gordon this, he said, ‘If you’re successful, I’ll give it to you’. Throughout the early ‘70s with all the success I was having I would remind him and he’d say, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to get it’. I think he might have meant it, but it kept slipping his mind. So when we broke up, acrimonious as it might have appeared, I just felt it was a gentlemanly thing.
“I wanted to work with other producers and felt that could lead to more success, working with people like Tom Dowd, who produced Rod Stewart. Because he wouldn’t agree with that, I had to decide either to leave things as they were or move on. So we shook hands and as I left I asked, ‘Do I still get the interest in my company?’ and he said, ‘Yes, of course, go and see the managing director of the company on Monday’. I did, but by then news had got out and they basically told me to ‘f-off’! I left the building, not knowing any lawyers, but I knew someone, Gary Davidson, who put me in touch with his father’s lawyers. But when you take on a court case, you open a whole can of worms.
“I wasn’t trying to set a precedent, but I guess if something good comes out of it for other people, it’s worth it.”
That lawsuit finally ended in O’Sullivan’s favour in 1982, the court describing him as a ‘patently honest and decent man’ who had not received a just proportion of the vast income his songs had generated, after prolonged argument over how much money his songs had earned and how much of that money he actually received. He was awarded £7m in damages, but the court battle had put his recording career on hold. In 1980 he returned to his old label, CBS, but released no new material between 1983 and 1986. However, he kept on working away at the piano behind the scenes.
“Yes, I never stopped writing during that whole period of litigation, although there were songs like You Don’t Own Me that could have reflected on my relationship with Gordon and all that.”
Bringing us up to date, singles like No Way and the quality of the Latin a la G! LP suggest this artist remains as inventive as ever, other album highlights including his duet with London-based, Dublin-born artist Ayala on ‘I Guess I’ll Always Love You. And there are many of those sharp O’Sullivan lines and hooks peppered throughout to suggest he’s still on top of his game. So is it fair to suggest he remains prolific?
“I’ve never been unprolific! It’s all about discipline, that mentality of sitting in a room. It was a big room to start with, but then I got my stepfather to put a wall in, so it’s just big enough to hold a piano. That’s where I do all my writing, and it remains a fascinating process. Although I’m now 69 years of age and – touch wood – in reasonably good health, as a songwriter I’m still that 21-year-old, hustling.”
You clearly still have that hunger.
“Yes, and as long as I have that, I’ll continue and put out albums, and get out there and perform.”
So is the next album on its way?
“I think next year. This year is primarily promotion for this album, and will take us to Japan, American and Europe and the UK.”
Then there’s the forthcoming show with the BBC Radio Concert Orchestra at London’s Mermaid Theatre.
“Yes – a 60-piece orchestra – that’ll be interesting! For the first time I’ll be able to do two songs from 1995’s Every Song Has Its Play and Bobby Davro will be playing Showbiz with me. It’s very theatrical and I’ve never done those on stage before. They require those big orchestras to work.”
You’re also taking your regular touring band on a string of UK dates, including – my excuse for talking to Gilbert – Preston Guild Hall next Sunday (February 21).
“Yes, we now do Ooh Wakka Doo, and I like to change the words. For instance, ‘Up in Bradford a chap called Radford’ becomes ‘Here in Dublin a chap named Rudman’ So who knows who will turn up in Preston and make himself known!”
For all those records you’ve sold over the years, is there a specific album or track you think never got the kudos it deserved?
“I’d never say that. If I finish a song, record and release it, I’m really happy with it. But there are songs with a life of their own. Go back to 1970 to arguably my most popular song – almost like a signature tune for me – Matrimony. That was never a hit. How unusual is that? That puts it into perspective.”
Finally, any advice for younger singer-songwriters trying to make their way into the industry today?
“You have to be really determined, and don’t come to be telling me you’ve written hundreds of songs. That doesn’t impress me at all. Come to me and say you’ve got one song out of the many you’ve written which might be good. And make sure you’re doing it for the right reason.”
Gilbert O’Sullivan is at Darlington Civic (February 15th, 01325 486555), Buxton Opera House (February 16th, 01298 72190), Dartford Orchard Theatre (February 18th, 01322 220000), Liverpool Philharmonic (February 20th, 0151 709 3789), Preston Guild Hall (February 21st, 01772 804444), St Albans Alban Arena (February 24th, 01727 844488), Cheltenham Town Hall (February 25th, 0844 576 2210), Huddersfield Town Hall (February 28th, 01484 221900), and Birmingham Town Hall (February 29th, 0121 345 0600). For more tour dates and all the latest from Gilbert, visit his website here.