Almost five decades after their debut single, The Real Thing are still out there, treading the boards, with no intention of slowing down for co-founders Chris Amoo and Dave Smith.
The passing of Chris’ older brother Eddie Amoo in February 2018, aged 73 put that in doubt. But as long as there’s an appreciative audience, they decided the show will go on. And it’s never just been about record sales for this popular Merseyside combo.
Was there ever a doubt they’d carry on after losing Eddie last February, I asked Chris, when I called him at home in Liverpool. After all, his big brother hadn’t been part of the band at the start.
“At first there was. He was my right arm. And we never ever pictured ourselves without each other. It was a hard decision to carry on. We felt there was no way we were going to try and replace him. For me and Dave he was irreplaceable.
“We wanted to always be known as the original Real Thing, rather than bringing someone else in and making it into something else. But we can do that because I was the lead singer. While I’m there we’ve still got the Real Thing sound.
“What I have, basically – and this is technology for you – I’ve sung all Eddie’s parts, and our keyboard player can play them along with us while we’re singing. So we’ve still got that nice three-part harmony.”
I guess in that sense, it seems like he’s still out there with you.
“Of course, And we’ve never known anybody else- there was me and Dave, Eddie and Ray. We’ve never known anybody else, from when we were in school, we were together. Me and Dave know each other inside out and we know how to carry the show. And we know what we’ve always done to carry a show. So we’ve just carried on, and it’s been very successful.”
Big time success followed shortly after Eddie’s arrival. Was he the missing link before then, in a sense?
“No, he wasn’t. We were quite proficient before, but at some stage he was going to join. We were brothers and we were already doing all the writing and working on the musical direction of the band, so it was always obvious that he was going to join. And he added another level, because his voice was higher than the parts we had, so we could do a nice four-part harmony.”
I equate The Real Thing with the long hot summers of my youth in suburban Surrey, a key part of the soundtrack accompanying my childhood, their singles blasting out of the transistor radio and my older sister’s Dansette. And as she was (and remains) a big David Essex fan, that makes even more sense now, the band having recorded with and toured internationally beside Plaistow-born David.
What’s more, I’m reminded now that their Ken Gold-produced big hit, ‘You To Me Are Everything’, recorded at Camden’s Roundhouse Studios and becoming their sole UK No.1 (also a minor US pop and soul hit), reached the top during the long hot summer of 1976, the group only kept off the summit with follow-up ‘Can’t Get by Without You’ that autumn by Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’.
While I was primarily about punk and new wave by 1979, that track still resonated with this pre-teen when they reached the top-five again with ‘Can You Feel the Force?’. And at a stage when I was closer to the indie scene in the mid-‘80s, there was still a more soulful side to my growing singles collection when they climbed the charts again with commercially-successful remixes of the old hits.
It was only in later years that I was introduced to a less pop-influenced side of The Real Thing, discovering late on their 1977 long player, Four From Eight, a whole different aspect to this accomplished outfit revealed. But more of that later.
Before I get on to The Real Thing, I should go back a bit and talk a little about influential 1960s’ Liverpool doo-wop outfit The Chants, the vocal group from which Eddie Amoo emerged. Seen as the UK’s first black acapella quintet, The Beatles and several other Merseybeat outfits were among their fans.
Apparently, a chance meeting with Paul McCartney at a Little Richard show at Birkenhead’s Tower Ballroom led to them being invited to audition for The Beatles at the Cavern Club, the Fab Four so knocked out by the group’s sound that they invited them to appear with them that night, to the reluctance of Brian Epstein. And thanks to John Lennon’s persistence, they did so, the Beatles manager going on to briefly represent them.
They were signed to Pye Records by Tony Hatch, but despite touring for 13 years they never quite reached the next level. That doesn’t mean they weren’t a major influence on Eddie’s younger brother though.
“They were like our big brothers, and an influence in as much as how it showed us it can be done and you can have a career on stage. Unfortunately, they never ever made it, but at least they had a living doing it, which was all we wanted to do at the time.”
I guess they proved that a band from Toxteth, Liverpool 8, could make it.
“That’s what I mean. We could always look to them and we could always – even if we’d never had a hit – we knew we could go around and do it professionally.”
Founded in 1970 by Chris, Dave, Kenny Davis and Ray Lake, and later briefly joined by Edward Ankrah, younger brother of Joe Ankrah from The Chants, The Real Thing were originally known as The Sophisticated Soul Brothers, manager Tony Hall – the London-based A&R man – renaming them after taking the band on in early 1972, inspired by seeing a Coca-Cola neon sign while stuck at traffic lights at Piccadilly Circus.
They soon secured a recording deal with EMI, having taken that next big step closer to fame by winning an episode of Hughie Green-fronted Thames TV national talent show Opportunity Knocks, with a cover of ‘Grazin’ the Grass’.
“Opportunity Knocks opened the door to the nation, but David Essex made us really. It takes a lot to make it, because there are so many people wanting to make it in this business. You need elements of luck, and the first we got was meeting Tony Hall. That was the very first piece of magic, because there was nobody quite like him in this country for black music. And he was respected worldwide.”
Within three months, in April 1972, they released their debut 45, ‘Vicious Circle’, written by Eddie. Listening back now, I suggested to Chris, I detect more than a few traces of The Temptations or perhaps War there.
“Yeah, The Temptations, definitely.”
Was that where you were at by that stage, the Temps, the Philly sound, and all that?
“Yeah, the Temptations – that was the whole thing about that particular record. And at that point there were five of us. And they were one of the first to have those five different lead singers. We were right into that – we could all be in the limelight!”
There’s a band who have regenerated of sorts, bringing in old friends and younger family down the years after original members departed. Is there another generation of Amoo boys or girls waiting to come through the ranks too?
Did you ever get to meet The Temptations?
“Never met The Temptations. They were a little before us.”
You say that, but as with their tour-mates The Four Tops (with original member Duke Fakir still performing), there’s a Temptations line-up still going strong, past WriteWyattUK interviewee Otis Williams touring all these years on.
“Yeah, although the one I would be interested in seeing is Dennis Edwards. He was a big, big influence.”
After ‘Vicious Circle’ there was second single ‘Plastic Man’, again credited to Eddie, earning a first appearance on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops, a few more faltering 45s following before Kenny Davis departed, the band continuing as a trio – backed by a formidable band – until Eddie joined permanently following the demise of The Chants.
Next single ‘Stone Cold Love Affair’, their first for Pye, became a club hit in Europe and the US, and through producer Jeff Wayne the group was introduced to David Essex, who quickly took a shine to the band, inviting them to contribute backing vocals to his 1975 album, All the Fun of the Fair – perhaps most notably on ‘Rolling Stone’ – while writing and producing their next single, ‘Watch Out, Carolina’, released that September.
“Our number two stroke of luck was meeting David Essex and Jeff Wayne, with David taking us under his wing, doing Top of the Pops with him, and things like that. When we got ‘You To Me …’ out, it was snapped up first and foremost by lots of his followers.
“We were quite good by then. By the time we met David we knew exactly what we were about. We were writing good songs – me and Eddie – and out manager was taking us in the right direction, career-wise. When we met David, we were ready for it. And we learned how to put on a proper show, going to America with him, so by the time we’d finished with David and we had our own hit record, we took to doing theatres and knew exactly how to put a show on.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Wayne engaged the band to sing on the soundtrack of his concept album, War of the Worlds, Chris supplying lead vocals on the iconic ‘Forever Autumn’. Yet Pye soon pulled out, the track later re-recorded by The Moody Blues’ Justin Heyward, a major hit following, The Real Thing’s contributions left on the cutting room floor.
The band toured extensively with David Essex though, including his US ‘Lamplight’ tour, and can be heard on an On Tour live LP that saw the light of day in 1976. And that year they also appeared on his next single, ‘City Lights’, including a promo video shot in London’s West End. But pretty soon, they had that elusive hit of their own, ‘You to Me Are Everything’ taking them to a whole new level.
In fact, in the early ‘80s they returned to working with David Essex, featuring on his top-20 hit, ‘Me and My Girl (Nightclubbing)’, and accompanying him on a 1983 tour of South Africa in the era of apartheid, a decision they now consider one of the few regrets of their career.
Did the Amoo brothers – Liverpool-born, with African and Irish roots – and their bandmates ever doubt big time success would follow within four years of recording ‘Vicious Circle’?
“To be honest with you, no – we never ever doubted it, but that’s the arrogance of youth. We never doubted that at some point we were going to crack it, especially having the manager we had. We had a lot of confidence in him. We were only kids.”
Was there music on both sides of your family – in both your Ghanaian and Irish roots?
“Definitely on the Ghanaian side. My Dad used to play guitar, playing in a lot of trios when he first came over, in London.”
In time, you were deemed the most successful UK black soul act of the ‘70s. That’s something to be proud of.
“Absolutely proud. And not many get a chance to record hit records, especially three classics.”
I mentioned before second LP, 1977’s Four from Eight, its title alluding to the Toxteth, Liverpool 8 neighbourhood in which they grew up, the band taking a more socially-aware approach, channelling experiences of growing up in a racially-integrated, low-income area. It included lead single ‘Love’s Such A Wonderful Thing’, a quarter-century later sampled by Daft Punk for a white-label bootleg, then two years later by The Freeloaders for ‘So Much Love to Give’, a major club hit following. And at the heart of the record there was the ground-breaking medley of title track ‘Liverpool 8’, ‘Children of the Ghetto’ and ‘Stanhope Street’, the middle cut later covered by Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, Courtney Pine, Paul Hardcastle and Mary J. Blige.
In his excellent Liverpool: Wondrous Place (Virgin Books, 2002), music writer Paul Du Noyer rightly sees ‘Children of the Ghetto’ ‘in the socially-committed vein of latter-day Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder’. Was that album chiefly about The Real Thing paying their dues?
“It was something we were always really interested in doing, writing that type of song, hence ‘Children of the Ghetto’ and those songs about our experiences of growing up. We were very influenced by people like Curtis Mayfield, doing all those songs like ‘Move On Up’. That was just another step as writers in what we were pursuing. And it was a little bit ahead of the time, actually.”
Have you got happy memories of your first forays into all this in 1970 – 50 years ago next year?
“Yeah, because basically we had no worries. All we wanted to do was sing and anyone who could give us a microphone we were there. It didn’t matter what pub, what social club … if they had a microphone we’d show up and we’d do a bit of acapella, and we built up a really good following around Liverpool with all the youngsters. They could all relate to you, y’see.”
Think of The Beatles and you think of The Cavern, while later with Echo & the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, and Wah! It was nearby Eric’s. Was there a venue you became associated with more than any other?
“We never had a residence, but we used to do all the clubs in Liverpool – the Mardi Gras and places like that. And then of course we did Opportunity Knocks. We won that, and that opened the door to the nation, really. We were then professional, singing all over England.”
Was it all cover versions at that point, or were you increasingly introducing your own material?
“It was mainly covers, but we did a few of our own songs, like ‘Vicious Circle’ and ‘Children of the Ghetto’.
That suggests you were playing that latter song long before it showed up on a Real Thing album.
“Yes, we were. We used to play a lot of universities, and that was fantastic for those shows. And we were always into that type of song – more so than the poppier stuff.”
Was Liverpool on board with you from the start? It’s always had the reputation of a city that looks outwardly rather than inwardly, welcoming all its residents, regardless of colour.
“I don’t think there was that much popularity for black music in Liverpool, to be honest with you. We were different, but when we cracked it, obviously they took us to their hearts.
“Basically, I think Liverpool was a Beatles-type city, whereas London was more diverse in its music. There was a lot more happening for black music in London. If there was in Liverpool, I can’t remember it. Bands like The Chants were a lot older than us.”
You say that, but it seems that the pioneering bands like The Beatles took on board a lot of outside influences and added their own stamp to those, like American R&B.
When this all started in 1970, could you ever have imagined that you might still be treading the boards five decades on?
“Never thought about it really. We were just worried about the time and what we were enjoying at the time. We never thought about records or anything else, to be quite honest. We were just enjoying being on stage.”
And the band still has a busy schedule. When I spoke to Chris he was fresh from a date in St Alban’s, heading off the following evening to play Hale Barns Carnival in Cheshire, then Felixstowe on Sunday, before my excuses for speaking to him – this weekend’s dates in Morecambe and their home city, Liverpool, their tour set to continue in early August, with at least 28 dates in the diary up until early December.
I’m guessing you wouldn’t still be out there if you weren’t enjoying it.
“Yeah, that’s all we’ve ever done.”
Time moves on, and Dave’s just turned 67, with you not far behind. Do you plan to keep performing as long as possible?
“As long as we can, as long as people want to hear us.”
And what do we get on the ‘Feel the Force’ tour? Is it yourself, Dave and your five-piece band (John Chapman on saxophone, Sam Edwards on keyboards, Stuart Ansell on guitar, Jon Bower on bass and Danny Rose on drums)?
“Yeah, we’ve got a band we’ve had for a long, long time, and they’re super-tight. We’ll be doing hits and some new songs as well, and a mixture of one or two classics that we particularly like.
“You can come along, have a nice sing, you can have a dance, and you can have a nice, relaxing evening … but be prepared – put your dancing shoes on!”
The Real Thing are playing Morecambe Platform this Friday, July 26, with tickets available via this link, and Liverpool’s Let’s Rock Festival at Croxteth Hall Country Park on Saturday, July 27, with details here. And the Feel the Force tour then continues at: Thursday, August 1 – Birmingham Jam House; Saturday, August 3 – Jersey Royal Showground; Friday, August 16 – Bournemouth Canvas; Thursday, August 22 – Alcester Ragley Hall (Warwickshire Festival); Sunday, August 25 – Codicote GoatFest; Saturday, August 31 – London Boisdale; Sunday, September 1 – Bolton Albert Halls; Friday, September 6 – Milton Keynes Stables; Saturday, September 7 – Let’s Rock Essex: Chelmsford Hylands Park / Broxbourne Spotlight; Saturday, September 14 – Kettering Lighthouse Theatre; Friday, September 20 – Worksop Van Dyk Hotel; Friday, September 27 – Bognor Regis Butlin’s; Saturday, September 28 – Selsey Embassy; Sunday, September 29 – Littlecote Warner; Friday, October 4 – Minehead Butlin’s; Friday, October 11 – Great Yarmouth Vauxhall Holiday Park; Saturday, October 19 – Purnerend P3; Friday, October 25 – Peterborough East of England Showground; Saturday, October 26 – Bilston Robin 2; Saturday, November 2 – Croydon Fairfield Hall; Sunday, November 3 – Skegness Butlin’s; Friday, November 8 – Leiden Gebr De Nobel; Saturday, November 9 – Hilversum Vorstin Concert Hall; Friday, November 15 – Skegness Butlin’s; Saturday, November 16 – Whitby Spa Pavilion; Friday, November 29 – Dunstable Grove Theatre; Saturday, November 30 – Eastleigh Concorde; Wednesday, December 4 – High Wycombe Swan.