Shakin' Stevens on struggling to keep a job, playing Portsmouth and how long he plans to keep going
PUBLISHED: 16:04 02 March 2017 | UPDATED: 16:04 02 March 2017
The UK's biggest selling singles artist of the 80s plays Portsmouth in May. A career spanning almost 50 years has seen some unforgettable musical moments. But, as he tells Claire Pitcher, it hasn't all been rock and roll for Shakin' Stevens
“I prefer Shaky. It’s wacky, yet memorable,” insists one my many teen idols, Shakin’ Stevens, when I ask him if he would prefer if I call him ‘Michael’ (surname Barratt). Like so many children of the 80s, I only had a few choice seven-inch vinyl singles in my plastic record storage case and Shaky’s Merry Christmas Everybody was one of them. The image of him wearing double denim while performing those Elvis-esque dance moves on Top of the Pops was etched into my mind as he spoke about his upcoming tour. “We’re taking in the whole of the UK, 34 dates. I’m particularly looking forward to playing Portsmouth, I haven’t been for a while.” He’ll be on stage on May 14 at Portsmouth Guildhall, proving there’s still plenty left for the 68-year-old Welshman to offer fans. Secretly I’m hoping for some flashbacks to This Ole House and Green Door. “Of course there will be a few hits in the show, but there will be some usual twists on them,” he teases.
Singing while you work
Like many of us admit to doing, Shaky loved to sing and dance around the house when he was growing up. I had a hairbrush for a microphone and would only perform to an empty house. Shaky, however, loved the limelight: “From an early age I used to sing in the house. I’m from a family of 13 and we all used to be musical. My brothers could play guitar and my sisters used to sing at weddings”. Shaky sang his way through junior school, “then when I left I was in various bands. All I ever wanted to do was sing.”
Living out of a van with smelly band members became par for the course: “We kept at it, it wasn’t easy but it’s like everything, you only get out what you put in.”
Gigging and sleeping in vans made holding down a day job tricky: “In those days when you left school you were expected to get a job, pick up your wage packet, then hand the money to your mum. I had many jobs, I didn’t really have a trade; my trade was singing I suppose.” Shaky worked in a warehouse and on a building site: “I couldn’t really keep a job down as with all the gigs in the evening it was hard to keep the other one going. The job I most enjoyed was at an upholstery company. Mostly because they would have the radio on while we worked.”
It wasn’t until his 30s that Shaky had his first UK number one with This Ole House, after working his way from schoolboy to eventual solo artist. “When I left school our band rehearsed in a very small way. We had a beat up old box with not much equipment to keep in it. Then we learnt to drive and managed to gig at church halls, pubs, then universities and colleges. We were Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets for about six years. We gigged in Sweden, Holland and Denmark and made six albums.” But nothing really came from all this hard work, so it was time for Shaky to pull away. “We were performing in London in 1977 and there was a West End musical, Elvis, about to open. The producer Ray Cooney saw us playing and asked me to audition for the time in Elvis’s life when he signed to RCA Records.” After being The King for 19 months Shaky signed a solo deal with CBS, releasing what was to be his first UK hit, Hotdog.
Singing with the stars
Shaky has rubbed shoulders with many celebrities and music stars, but when I asked him who he most enjoyed working with, it was a name I didn’t recognise. “That would definitely be Tony Joe White,” he says without hesitation. Some Googling led me to realise he sang Rainy Night in Georgia. “It was on the ‘Now Listen’ album, in 2006,” he continues. “One of the tracks leant itself towards a ‘swampy’ sound, so I suggested it might be nice to get him involved. Next thing you know we had him on the phone and he agreed. I was over the moon; it was a great feeling to be in the same room as him.”
Got the blues
Unbelievably, there were no new albums to come post 2006 until September last year, when he released his 12th, Echoes Of Our Times. This latest collection of songs is even more personal to Shaky, as they came from him looking into his family history. “Growing up, being from a family of 13, we never seemed to talk about the past and until recently I thought nothing of it. Then you get older and you want to find out more. Just knowing where you were born isn’t the end of what there is to know.”
When he started researching he realised that not all his ancestors were from Wales: “Some were from Cornwall and were copper and tin miners. It was nice to write a song about them. They worked in horrific conditions which led to the song, Down the Hole being quite dark.” Shaky admits that, in fact, the whole album is “quite dark”. “My family definitely kept secrets and it took a lot for them to start talking to me, but in the end many stories unfolded. My dad and uncle were in the First World War; my grandmother was in the Salvation Army, we also had preachers in the family. It all helped me write what is a very personal album.”
The bluesy feel of the album sound a world away from those 80s hits. His songs and voice suit the style and fans in Portsmouth will surely appreciate his new take on life and music. The denim-clad heartthrob I used to shake it to is now approaching 70 - retirement age, surely?
“I’ll keep going until I don’t sell records anymore, I don’t think people are tired of me yet. I’m certainly not tired of them.”
Shakin’ Stevens is playing at Portsmouth Guildhall on May 14 2017. Tickets cost from £25.50 from www.portsmouthguildhall.org.uk or call 0844 8472362. His latest album ‘Echoes of Our Times’ is out now.