It was a long time coming, but Lulu’s been fully in charge of her career for at least a quarter of a century now, making up for lost years after at least two decades letting others make her big decisions.
By her own past admission, one of the lowest ebbs in that long career of commercial, creative and personal highs and lows involved a decision to re-record her debut hit Shout as a single in 1986, more than 20 years after it first charted.
It cracked the top-10 again, so it made at least some sense, but also to some extent served as the catalyst that sparked a fresh ambition to finally start taking control. And by the 1990s the Scottish songstress had done just that, turning away from a semi-career of TV turns, pantos and musicals, her old partnership with original mentor Marion Massey by then behind her.
In time, she started to write her own songs too, for the first time, while reintroducing some of the tracks that inspired her in the ‘60s into her live set – re-establishing the more soulful credentials she started out with.
The fact that she’s still out there today, playing the music she loves and recording new material, seems to prove that she got it right, and she’s certainly loving it all. Part-way through her latest big tour, I’m guessing she retains her passion for live work too. Besides, we wait all these years for a new Lulu show then get two big tours in a row.
“It’s been fabulous. We’ve been tearing the house down every night, and I hope that continues. It’s kind of crazy, and everyday I think, ‘How lucky am I?’ I’ve always thought I was lucky, but you work as hard as possible, and I love what I do.”
I put to her on the phone that she’s clearly doing what she wants to now, rather than being at the whim of others pointing her towards a treadmill of variety and light entertainment engagements. Is there an element of making the most of everything now she’s got the chance to choose for herself?
“You’re absolutely right. I’m doing a tiny gig that I want to do. And I can’t wait to get on! Everyone in the band is the same. The prerequisite today before I get a band together is that everyone has to be a good singer in their own right, so we can all sing together. Three of us have been suffering with terrible colds lately, but as soon as we get on they disappear. I think it’s down to the adrenaline. You get on there and you just fly!”
“That’s very perceptive of you! A lot of the time I think has been leading up to now … as is the case for all of us. Everything we’ve done leads to this very moment.
“The difference between now and the past is that I’m living more in the present and I’m more aware of what I’ve got. I’m not searching anymore. It’s the awareness – my consciousness and perception have shifted, because I’m getting older. I’m finally growing up, I think.”
Those who get along to see her forthcoming dates will also hear the story behind several of Lulu’s song choices. Billed as An Evening with Lulu, the Lennoxtown-born songstress performs her hits and other track that have influenced her life, having added several more dates due to public demand.
The new dates come on the back of an exceptionally-successful 2015, which included the release of her first self-penned album, Making Life Rhyme, a well-received Glastonbury Festival appearance, and a UK tour playing solo with her band for the first time in 10 years.
And she decided she had so much fun last time that it was only right to get back out there again this March and April. Is talking to her audience something that comes naturally these days?
“It does now. When I was very, very young, I admired American artists who came on and told stories. I felt us Brits were not like that. But when you’re young, how many stories do you have anyway? Now I have so many stories, and they change every night. I even realise different things about the songs. A lot are my own now.
“Even those that are not I have a personal relationship with or a story about why I’m playing them, where it first came from, where I heard it, where I wrote it … all that.”
The former Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie – the eldest of four children, brought up in Dennistoun, just North of the Clyde – already had two years’ experience under her belt, singing in a band on Saturday nights in Glasgow, when she left for London with her band The Luvvers. She struck a deal with Decca Records in 1964, not least thanks to her mentor Marion Massey.
Her cover of The Isley Brothers’ Shout, released when she was just 15, proved to be the song that broke her, the first of several fine 45s showcasing that mighty voice. A promising 1965 debut LP followed, Something to Shout About including next top-10 hit Leave A Little Love, as later appreciated by Northern Soul aficionados.
By 1967 she had already moved on and was under the wing of producer Mickie Most at Columbia Records, the highlights of her second LP, Love Loves to Love, including next big hit The Boat That I Row, a great version of Morning Dew, and the US chart-topping theme to To Sir With Love, the film in which she starred alongside Sidney Poitier, who remains a close friend to this day.
In time the singles became arguably more throwaway yet no less successful, including 1969 Eurovision winner Boom a Bang-Bang. And a disillusioned Lulu soon ditched Most to sign for Atlantic Records, the resultant 1970 LP New Routes, recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, reintroducing Little Miss Dynamite to her soulful roots. It wasn’t a commercial success though, and she moved on after another LP, her career progression ultimately frustrating Lulu’s ambitions of proving her worth.
Still managed by Marion Massey, she was being increasingly channelled towards the light entertainment market, having her own BBC1 series from 1968 – when she had a 20 million audience – until 1975.
She scored a dozen top-40 hits over her first two decades in the business – including a David Bowie-backed 1974 cover of The Man Who Sold the World. Not everything was a hit though, with her James Bond song The Man with the Golden Gun the only theme failing to chart on both sides of the Atlantic. More to the point, there was definitely a feeling that Lulu’s creative talents weren’t being optimised.
In fact, I put it to her that – as a child in the ‘70s – I saw her chiefly as a Freeman’s catalogue cover star and Saturday night variety show host who just happened to have had a few old hits under her belt. It was only later that I properly realised what a great voice she had.
“That’s really interesting. Gosh, you’ve got a really good insight into it. It’s a career and it’s a long career and I’ve no regrets … even about those things I cried over and didn’t want to do. You’re never forced into it, but you’re influenced by people who are older and you think they know better. They say what’s going to be a hit and it’s going to be a success. Well, 90 per cent of the stuff was, but when I really look back I see the songs that have the brevity are the ones I brought to the table.
“I’ve also lived the life and I’ve had up and downs, like most people in their lives. I’ve had tears, I’ve had pain, I’ve had struggles and disappointments … and fantastic success. All of that’s in the bag and I’m grateful that now I can do what I want to do and can still kick ass. I’m lucky, very fortunate … and I’m savouring it!”
I mentioned Lulu’s on-going love for rhythm and blues and soul, and listening to her now it makes perfect sense when I hear she was a big Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding fan, with at least a couple of the latter’s songs still in her set.
“That’s what I loved. I never cared for British music, which was always copies of and not so good. But that changed when The Beatles came along. Then there was The (Rolling) Stones. They didn’t sound like a white band. They were more blues, and most of us ‘60s kids were influenced by the same things. I loved them and they were very generous about me and we all felt connected.”
In more recent times she’s worked with Jools Holland too, someone else who truly recognises her vocal ability, comparing Lulu to Ray Charles and Brenda Lee among others.
“Yes – Jools gets it! And all my peers know where I’m coming from. The first time I met James Brown he said, ‘Lulu – you and I come from the same pond!’ I think it was a muddy pond, but you get the most beautiful flowers from those muddy ponds!”
I get what you’re saying about having no regrets. But I do wonder whether you could have carried on where you started out on New Routes, seeing more of the soulful Lulu back then.
“I did an album called Back on Track (2004) which never saw the light of day. Someone put it on in the car the other day and I went, ‘Oh, my God, that was a great song!’ then, ‘Oh my God, that’s a great song’ …
“I do one song live off that album, and it has a story. There’s a song off that I do with Bryan Adams that I’m thinking of including too. And there’s another that sounds like Led Zeppelin. Yet the record company were just disinterested. Those who gave me the deal moved on midway though. But who gives a f***? Know what I mean? It happens more often than not.”
I get the impression you’re still discovering tracks you missed out on recording a few years ago. For example, you played Duffy’s Mercy live for a while, and wasn’t there a version of Angel?
“My backing singers weren’t aware of that song. I said we need an anthem to finish the first half. I said if we try this, we’d have everyone standing and singing. One of my backing singers never learns any of the words but just has this thing where she can wail, shout and scream. She did that and just blew everyone’s mind.”
It’s at this point that I realise Lulu’s talking about Robbie Williams’ 1997 Guy Chambers’ co-penned hit Angels rather than Rod Stewart’s 1972 Jimi Hendrix-penned track Angel. So I try again.
“Ah, I don’t think we did that song justice. That album was done on a very low budget. It was a case of recording a song then moving on to the next. We gave it the best we could but I’m not sure that track was anywhere near as good as Jimi or Rod’s versions. I think Rod’s is absolutely brilliant. He was flying at that time.”
Talking of early ’70s covers, late greats David Bowie and Mick Ronson both contributed to Lulu’s version of The Man Who Sold the World. I’m guessing David’s shock death and all the others who have followed this year inspire you to keep performing while you can.
“It does sharpen your game. You’re absolutely right. It sharpens your game about life … and his death was an absolute tragedy.”
Speaking of celebrity friendships, re-watching a 2011 BBC documentary about Lulu, her good pal Elton John reckoned she was ‘forever young’ with an ‘incredible zest for life’. So has this former Strictly Come Dancing contestant kept up the street dance skills she learned on Let’s Dance for Comic Relief in 2011, covering Soulja Boy?
“I actually don’t do any dancing anymore. I used to go to hip-hop classes, but gave them up last year. I’ll have to find something else. I’m a bit of a slouch at the moment.”
But she clearly continues to appeal to wider and younger audiences, as seen at Glastonbury Festival last summer.
“That was unbelievable! Having never done the festival before … doing it when you’re 67 or whatever I was. I was amazed at the reaction. They come to see everybody, but the people in that tent … I was very moved by the reaction – as were my band, also not realising what kind of reaction we would get.”
That happens a lot with seasoned performers there. In fact, it’s what Otis Redding might have called a ‘love crowd’.
“A love crowd … absolutely! You’re so right.”
Does it take a lot of hard work to retain that great voice?
“It takes a lot of discipline, and when I’m on a tour like this I don’t speak before 12. I cut our dairy, sugar and gluten, I warm up my voice intermittently through the afternoon, doing very gentle exercises.”
Well, we’ve seen you smoking those ciggies in comedy sketches with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders back in the ‘90s.
“I gave up them a long time ago! Actually, talking on the phone’s the worst thing. This is the only time I’ll speak on here today. I’ll not say another word.”
Well, I’m clearly honoured to be your sole caller then. So, these days you’re Lulu Kennedy-Cairns. Does anyone still know you as Marie?
“A few people … not many. There’s a part of that little girl within me, but I’m just constantly evolving and changing.”
As I suggested before, there have been many high-points and low-points since Lulu’s big break as a young teen, including talk of romances with Davy Jones of The Monkees and the afore-mentioned David Bowie, a four-year marriage to Maurice Gibb of The Bee Gees, and a 14-year marriage to hairdresser John Frieda, with their son Jordan born in 1977.
Does she think her own experiences were enough to put actor-turned-restaurateur Jordan off following her lead into showbusiness?
“I don’t know. He just didn’t want to. He didn’t want to do anything his parents did. But he’s in the restaurant business and he’s doing really well … and is really happy.”
It’s now five decades since her debut hit. Did she ever hear word back from The Isley Brothers about her take on Shout?
“I never did. Not once. And I never had word back from Tina Turner either about her cover of I Don’t Wanna Fight.”
Lulu wrote the latter with her brother, Billy Lawrie, and Steve DuBerry, the song offered to singer Sade, who sent it on to Tina, a major international hit following. That was in 1993, the year Lulu had her first UK No.1 alongside Take That, covering Dan Hartman’s Relight My Fire, her star certainly shining again.
She hasn’t looked back since, and in 2000 Lulu received an OBE in recognition of her career. And two years later, she made her duets LP, Together, featuring among others Elton John, Ronan Keating, Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard and Bobby Womack.
The highpoints continue, not just the live and studio work but also her charity work, her film roles, TV and radio. She also opened the closing ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games back in Glasgow, singing a certain song she helped make famous.
And that takes me back full circle, Lulu having first encountered London during the height of the Swinging ‘60s. Was she old enough to make the most of all that?
“Only in retrospect could I really appreciate that. It was a whirlwind.”
But you’re clearly making up for it now.
“I am! And I’m appreciating every minute.”
Lulu is at Manchester Academy on Saturday, March 26 (7pm, tickets £27.50 via the box office on 0161 832 1111 or via this link) and Preston’s Charter Theatre on Friday, April 8 (7.30pm, tickets £36.50 including booking fee, via the box office on 01772 80 44 44 or www.prestonguildhall.com)
For further tour dates and more information head to Lulu’s official website here.