Waiting for the family to arrive – back in touch with Don Powell

If it’s Christmas, it must be time for another chat with a member of glam-rock legends Slade. And it seems that drumming colossus Don Powell has had another happening year.

While the credits on 1973 classic ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ read Noddy Holder/Jim Lea, it’s fair to say that record, as the band tend to address it, shaped the lives of Don and guitarist Dave Hill too.

A long-time resident of Denmark, having clocked up 76 years on the planet, it’s fair to say Don’s as fired up about music today as in Slade’s 1970s heydays. But a little housekeeping first, your scribe telling his distinguished interviewee he hopes he can hear him properly. I still had a croaky voice, a few days after succumbing to the latest flu-like cold virus doing the rounds.

“I can hear you fine, Malc. Are you getting better, mate? Or is it one of those things that’s gonna be there forever?”

Well, you never know, do you. And that’s a rather typical start to a conversation with Donald George Powell. He’s been through no end of life-challenging health episodes down the years, yet wants to ensure I’m getting over my cold.

“I tell you what, it’s been like that over here as well, Malcolm. I’m not feeling ill, but just drained, if you know what I mean.”

I tell him that getting up at stupid o’clock in my mid-50s to change nappies doesn’t always help.

“Yeah, the usual! Been there with grandkids, mate. They always want to get into our bed about five o’clock.”

It’s been another busy year for you.

“It’s been fantastic, and I love it with things on the go all the time. I really get off on that.”

And all these years on it appears there are still festive chart battles going on. But it’s not Slade vs Wizzard or Elton John like in ‘73. It’s Don up against former bandmate Jim Lea in the UK Heritage Chart – Don Powell’s Occasional Flames (also featuring old pals Paul Cookson and Les Glover) following success with ‘Just My Cup of Tea’ and ‘I Won’t Be Playing Wonderwall Tonight’ with a festive resurgence of ‘It Isn’t Really Christmas Until Noddy Starts to Sing’ while Jim follows a run with ‘The Smile of Elvis’ with ‘Am I the Greatest Now’.

“I tell you what, some few weeks ago I was in the UK, Jim was doing some solo things, and he asked me to do some drums for him. That was really nice, the first time we’d worked together in that sense for many, many years. And it was great fun, exchanging lots and lots of memories. Everybody else in the studio looked totally blank, not knowing what the bloody hell we were talking about!

“And it was a nice place, near where he lives, part of a farm, pretty well isolated, so there’s no problems with noise, if you know what I mean!”

Ah, you boys and your noize. And Jim seems to be doing quite well with his health at present. It’s a similar tale with you, I guess, after all those recent scares.

“Yeah, Jim seems okay. And I’m fine, since the doctor kicked me out of hospital, saying, ‘You ain’t normal, get out!’ It’s weird. I mean, with the stroke, it was like in in my drinking days. But luckily, our daughter’s a doctor, and said to my wife – her mum – ‘If he was my husband, I would send him to the hospital.’ I couldn’t hold a cup or a glass, things like that. I was sitting upstairs watching TV, and wanted to change the channel, but couldn’t hold the remote. My wife straightaway talked to her, and sent for an ambulance, and they did some testing inside. It’s incredible, all this equipment they’ve got now. And yeah, everything there’s okay now.”

Then there was a cancer scare …

“That was weird. I had a real pain on the right-hand side of my stomach. My wife said, ‘Go and see our doctor. She was a bit concerned and sent us to this specialist hospital about an hour’s drive away, and they put me on one of those beds to the X-Ray department. They said everthing’s all right on the right side, but bad news – we’ve found a tiny cancer, the size of a pea, on the left colon. This was on the Tuesday, and I asked, ‘What shall I do now?’ And they said, ‘Well, you’re booked in for Thursday to have it removed. Be here for six in the morning.’

“They did the operation and kicked me out on the Saturday, bringing it out through my stomach – and it was the size of a golf ball from the size of a pea in less than two days.”

Someone was clearly looking after you, not least with that mystery ailment that flagged it up.

“I know, mate. Like my wife said, ‘You’ve used your nine lives, mate. Be careful.”

I was looking this week at the UK’s Christmas chart from 50 years ago, featuring so many records I recall first time around (I’d just turned five) – Little Jimmy Osmond’s ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’ topping the pile, followed by Chuck Berry’s ‘My Ding-a-Ling’, T-Rex’s ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’, John & Yoko’s ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over), The Osmonds’ ‘Crazy Horses’, and Elton John’s ‘Crocodile Rock’. And what do you reckon was at No.6?

“Err … was it us?”

It was indeed. ‘Gudbuy t’Jane’. Its sixth week in the top 10, having peaked at No.2.

“Wow! That’s it. You just reminded me. I think it was ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ that kept us off the top.”

You got it.

“I must tell you, we were on the same show that Chuck Berry recorded that. In Coventry. He was top of the bill, and there was also the Roy Young Band. Do you remember them? They were actually his backing band. He’d turn up about 10 minutes before and say, ‘When I want you to start, I’ll raise my arm, and when I want you to stop, I’ll stamp my foot.’ Everybody knew his songs anyway. We opened the show, and if I remember right, we were all still skinheads then. Then came Roy Young, then Chuck Berry, and he hardly sang, he just let the audience sing. And when that show finished, they cleared the stage, and an hour or so later Pink Floyd were on, doing Dark Side of the Moon. And I’d never seen anything like that. What a bill that was, eh!”

Promoters wouldn’t dream of putting those acts together today, surely. But bearing in mind Chuck’s novelty hit recorded that night, in retrospect maybe if you’d gone backstage and tweaked with the electrics, it might never have happened, and Slade could have had another No.1 that year.

“Yeah, and of all those incredible songs he’s written, and everybody’s recorded, he gets to No.1 with bloody ‘Ding-a-Ling’!”

As it was, a truly momentous year followed, Slade doubling their tally of UK No.1s, the sixth being the festive classic Don prefers to refer to as that record. And in a way it was very much a golden year for the band.

“Yeah, it was that year that we were on a world tour, and had just finished a big American tour. We had a week off before we went on to Australia. And Chas Chandler, our manager and producer, said, ‘Do you have anything? If you have, we can go in the studio, do something.’ I remember Nod and Jim saying, ‘We’ve got this Christmas song.’ They played it to us, and Chas said, ‘We’ve got to do this!’ So we booked the Record Plant in New York City, the Summer of ’73, 100 degrees outside, and there we were, singing that record. And would you believe now that when we finished it, we didn’t want to release it? Chas thankfully said, ‘I don’t care what you lot say, this is coming out!’

I don’t reckon it’s been out of the top 100 at this time of year since.

“Oh, it’s phenomenal! Everybody must have this bloody record, but it keeps on selling. The funniest thing is, when I’m in a supermarket when it’s playing and I’m getting my groceries, all the attendants are singing it at the top of their voices.”

Fast forward to December 1982, 40 years ago, following the release of the Slade on Stage LP, and I finally got to see you live for the first time, Slade headlining one of two memorable nights at Hammersmith Odeon in December 1982. That was such a key show for me, the atmosphere so special, even across the road at the Britannia pub before. I was barely 15 then, yet loving every moment … and pint.

“I think we had three nights. And that was a great gig. I loved that gig. Lovely memories, eh.”

By this time in 1992 it was all over though, Noddy Holder officially quitting, and Jim Lea following. Yet if I recall right, there may still have been live shows for Dave Hill’s Slade II outfit come December. Were you on board with him again by then?

“Well, it wasn’t Christmas, but he did come round. My then-wife ran hotels and I was just helping out, you know, when he came down and said there’s an opportunity for us to get back on the road. I said yes straight away, and that was it. We started touring. And what was nice about that particular line-up, we managed to get to places like Russia, which we could never get to in the ‘70s. That was a great experience. We did a lot of the old Eastern Bloc, and that was really interesting.”

And this year Don was back in tow with Jim, sharing a stage and a few old stories for a sold-out, live-streamed Q&A at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, forming part of the Black Country Beats exhibition.

“That was great. We could laugh amongst the two of us, only things us know. It was nice to reminisce about lots of stuff in the early days that nobody else would know about … and maybe we could do a tour of the country of those shows.”

That would be brilliant. I’ll wait by my phone for confirmation.

“I tell you what, Malc, I’ll keep you in touch about that.”

I really enjoyed the in-conversation tour show Noddy Holder did with Mark Radcliffe, so that would make for a perfect follow-up.

“I never saw that show with Nod. But I heard it was a good one.”

One story I recall was them talking about you and Dave recruiting a singer one day, Nod contemplating coming along in disguise and auditioning. And that prompted another memory from Don, in pre-classic four-piece days with The Vendors.

“Dave and I were with this particular line-up, and he was with the Memphis Cut-Outs, who became Steve Brett and the Mavericks. Even then, Nod reminded me of a John Lennon type. I remember saying to Dave, ‘I tell you who’d be good …’ But Dave didn’t rate him at the time. It was just a pure coincidence that Dave and myself were in Wolverhampton and bumped into Nod, went and had a coffee in the local department store, and mentioned all that. We’d already recruited Jim Lea by then, but had this rehearsal in this pub opposite where Nod lived with his mum and dad, the Three Men and a Boat. They used to have gigs there. We played there a few times before we met him.

“The first song we played was something we knew and that Nod was playing with his band, ‘Mr Pitiful’ by Otis Redding. And it worked straight away. We just looked at each other, started laughing, and just went into other things the four of us knew. It worked so well, and we thought, ‘This is it, this is the one!’”

Speaking of which, at this time in December ’62, six decades ago, you were in an early line-up of The Vendors with frontman Johnny Howells (who also met Don and Jim at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in early August) and Mick Marston (guitar), before Dave Hill joined you.

“That’s right, just playing weddings and youth clubs. I remember one time when they had Saturday morning matinees at the cinema for kids, and there was one around the corner from where Johnny lived with his Dad, where we were just miming along to three or four songs. Then John came to us and said, ‘I’ve got us a gig, we’re playing this wedding reception … and we’re gonna get paid!’ I looked at him, said, ‘We’re gonna get paid for this?’ We were getting £6 – £2 each. That was incredible. We could have a bag of chips each!”

Were you working then?

“Yes, in the laboratory of this foundry. Then we were just sort of gigging, local pubs and clubs. In fact, I kept in touch with my boss – another Don – until a few years ago. He was really helpful to me. He found out I was in a band – I kept it quiet – but I managed to keep my job. One of the kids in another part of the factory saw us the night before in a local battle of the bands, telling my boss. But he just said, ‘You never told me you were in a band.’ He was great and if need be, he’d let me finish early, the van picking me up outside the factory. Lovely memories.”

As for Wolverhampton in December 1952, what would a Powell family Christmas have involved for six-year-old Donald George and his family, while Al Martino’s ‘Here in My Heart’ was topping the very first official UK festive chart?

“Well, music was far from my mind then. It was basically me, my brother and two sisters, Christmas Day a big family thing in our house. Me and my brother were sleeping in the same room, in a council house, trying to keep awake to catch Father Christmas. We never did though – we never caught him!

“There’d be Christmas wrapping paper all over the house from unwrapping our presents, Dad would go over the pub about lunchtime for a couple of pints, while my mum and eldest sister got the Christmas lunch together. And it’d be all around the table with crackers and party hats then, watching whatever film was on that afternoon. Lovely memories.

“I never knew my grandfathers, but I knew my two grannies, mum’s mum only living a couple of hundred yards away. I remember Gran with a glass of stout and Vimto.”

And will you be in Denmark this Christmas?

“Oh yeah. This is my home now. Nearly 20 years now. And we’ve got six grandchildren. Everybody will be here for Christmas Day lunch, and (Don’s wife) Hanne’s mum and dad, all around the table, then the kids go to their fathers the day after or the day before. It’ll be a lovely Christmas Day and we’ll all be doing the tree in a few days. And over here there’s a special song on Christmas Day where we hold hands and dance around the tree. It’s a Danish tradition. I don’t know the song, but I’ll dance around the tree with all the kids and all the family.”

Chewing gum as you go, yeah?

“No, that’s another story! I don’t do that anymore. It started fetching my fillings out! My dentist kept saying, ‘I can’t keep rebuilding your teeth!’ But he built a gum-shield for me, which is fantastic. And it really works. And when we’re doing a show, you see all the kids down the front looking, pointing at this brilliant white gum shield. I wanted the dentist to black one out, but he wouldn’t do it!”

And will you be reading your younger grandchildren your children’s book, The Adventures of Bibble Brick, written with your biographer and friend, Danish writer Lise Lyng Falkenberg?

“Actually, I never thought of that. They don’t really understand so much English, so I’d have to get one of the parents to read it for them. But I actually wrote that book in the late ‘60s, it got shelved and I never thought anything of it. But I just mentioned it to Lise, in conversation, and she said, ‘Let me read it.’ I got the manuscript, she dotted a few i’s and crossed a few t’s for me, it was taken on, and it’s doing alright. I’ve noticed on my bank statement I’ve had some royalties from Amazon, so yeah – it seems like it’s cleared its costs.”

As for his next studio projects, don tells me he’s recording with some Danish musicians at present.

“We’ve released a version of ‘Far, Far Away’, the Slade classic, calling the band Don and the Dreamers.”

Brilliant. And sometimes it’s hard to keep up with, what with Don Powell’s Occasional Flames, and The Don Powell Band too.

“I know. I’ve got different hats for different things. But I’ll keep you in the loop, and have a great Christmas. I really enjoyed that. Thanks, Malc!”

And with that he was gone, no doubt to practise his moves around the Christmas tree. And if he’s not decked out in one of his one-piece outfits with the cutaway sleeves on the big day, I’ll be very disappointed.

Did you ever get to see Slade, the Black Country legends that claimed the world, live? Do you go back as far as The ‘N Betweens, or even The Vendors or Steve Brett and the Mavericks? Were you around when they made the classic film, Flame? Did you get along to its premiere in Sheffield? Ever catch them on the set of Top of the Pops? Were you there to see them at London’s Command Theatre Studio in 1971, Earl’s Court in 1973, or Reading Festival in 1980? Did you attend any of their memorable mainland European, North American or Australian shows? Have you an entertaining tale or two of bumping into Nod, Jim, Dave or Don down the years that you want to share in print? Or did you just want to tell us about your love for Slade and how important a band they were (and remain so) to you, and the joy of buying that treasured copy of ‘Cum on Feel the Noize’ or Old, New, Borrowed and Blue? And have you any good quality photos of those meetings that you have copyright to use? If so, we’d love to hear from you via thedayiwasthere@gmail.com, ahead of a new publication lined up for early 2023, those memories sharing the pages with a history of the band and their key releases, plus interviews with band members, the latest in Spenwood Books’ A People’s History series, following titles covering Cream, Fairport Convention, Queen, the Rolling Stones, and Thin Lizzy.

For December 2020’s WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Don Powell, and links to past Slade-related interviews and features, head here.

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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