Sunday, 02 June, 2013 - Modified on Sunday, 02 June, 2013 at 10:11 am
Steve Gibbons was born in Harborne in Birmingham in 1941. His name is synonymous with the explosion of musical talent that emanated from the city in the 1960’s.
Through his work with The Dominettes, The Ugly’s, Balls, the Idle Race and ultimately the Steve Gibbons Band, he is worthy recipient of the prefix ‘legendary’.
Steve spoke exclusively to Village Times recently ahead of the Steve Gibbons Bands’ performance at the upcoming Bridge Inn Beer & Blues Festival.
VT - (Village Times) - So did it all start with Elvis for you?
SG - (Steve Gibbons) – Not necessarily, although he was a great influence both on me and a whole generation’s interest in contemporary music. I didn’t really enjoy music at school, mainly due to the uninspiring way it was taught but I certainly enjoyed it at home growing up as a small boy. As a family we would often be huddled around the radio listening to radio plays and musically I was certainly very aware of that. I had an older brother who was very much into jazz and I enjoyed listening to what he was influenced by. I always refer to one particular programme that was a great influence on me called ‘family favourites’ that was on weekly and was a forces request programme. They would get requests from Servicemen abroad for sweethearts and wives in the UK and they would request songs to be played and occasionally you’d hear songs that would never normally be played on the BBC. They would pick up on a lot of American music wherever they were stationed which was a great influence on me because I got to hear people like Nat King Cole, Fats Waller and early stuff like that.
VT - Those jazz influences were important for a lot of subsequent 60’s bands and artists?
SG – It may well have been but when you think of jazz in Britain you tend to think of Kenny Ball, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk whereas more modern acts are people like Johnny Dankworth, Tubby Hayes; great British players who followed a more modern style. I didn’t particularly like that stuff, but Chris Barber’s band had a great female vocalist called Ottilie Patterson and also bought a lot of American artists over to the UK and I had a lot of time for him. There were some great British dance bands and I think I liked them more than the jazz bands really who tended to copy the American sound but weren’t quite as good at it! I still think of Chris Barber as one of the UK’s best musicians because he tried to bridge the gap between rock, blues and jazz through guests such as Dr. John and Van Morrison. That was a very interesting thing for me.
Then with rock around the clock and heartbreak hotel blasting across the airwaves that was earth shattering for a lot of people. I was a plumbers apprentice at that time and I was committed to fulfilling that but I joined my first band at 18.
VT – Into the 60’s and to quote Bruce Springsteen ‘Elvis freed your body and Dylan freed your mind’……
SG – I’ve heard that quote, it’s certainly one way of putting it! I think Dylan’s easily the most important writer, certainly of my generation. I don’t think anyone has really come close. There are a lot of great writers but they all seem to follow in his wake, he set the mould as did Elvis earlier. Not everyone loved Elvis as much as I did, many musicians have varying opinions on who the most influential rock and roller was. For me Elvis became the first icon, similar to Marilyn in films, she was so obviously a Hollywood star and coinciding with the television age so you could see these people instantly. Those two figures really were the first world stars I suppose, where communication was so fast and everyone got to know about them very quickly.
VT – Lyrically Chuck Berry was also very innovative?
SG – Yes but there were a number of different strands to rock n roll. Buddy Holly was also very important, not only was he a very good guitar player but he was also the first to come over to the UK with a Fender Stratocaster which guitarists over here had never seen before. It was a solid body guitar that had a real space age look about it. Then they started coming fast and furious like Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and of course the Everly Brothers another great example of American brilliance. Whether we like it or not they really lead the way in terms of entertainment and still do today. Even going back to the turn of the century with the great American songbook writers Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael writing for Broadway shows, but the music was grown up, mature and have stood the test of time. It wasn’t until The Beatles that we had anything to compare against it.
By 1963 The Dominettes were re-named The Ugly’s. By 1965 a recording contract with Pye had been secured and their first single ‘Wake up my mind’ was co-written by Gibbons. Further singles and an evolution from RnB to psychedelia followed but by 1968, and with a heavy turnover of members, Gibbons was left as the only original member of the band. During the sixties Birmingham proved to be a seemingly endless source of musical talent.
VT – Birmingham became a real hotbed of talent in the 60’s. How did this all come about and was there great rivalry amongst you all?
SG – Yes, but it was a friendly rivalry. Birmingham is a vast city and there were excellent pub rooms, social club rooms and coffee bars right across the city which were great meeting places. The nurturing of bands because there were so many places to play helped the explosion and there was also fairly easy availability of buying instruments. Newspapers were full of ads for 10 shillings down, then half a crown a week in order to buy maybe a Hofner guitar. Hofner guitars were the first quality guitars that you could buy relatively cheap, but you could also buy functional cheap guitars that kids could afford so guitars were everywhere and bands mushroomed all over the city. Even a little further afield outside the city in Bromsgrove and places like that there were the youth clubs and village halls.
VT – There’s ultimately been a great inter-connection of Birmingham bands and members over the years?
SG – Of all the big city scenes I think the Birmingham scene is probably most difficult to put down. When I’m telling my story it criss-crosses with so many other musicians and bands. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to even remember it! Laurie Hornsby wrote a great book called ‘Brum Rocked’ and then Pete Frame had a decent stab at it but really only scratched the surface. A lot of bands like the The Vikings, The Nightriders and The Ugly’s rose to prominence feeding other bands. In my case the Steve Gibbons Band came out of The Ugly’s but also from The Idle Race and a band call Tea & Sympathy. The major figures who went onto bigger things would all agree that there were major places you had to play. One of those was the Cedar Club which was owned by Eddie Fewtrell who also owned other nightclubs around the city. He would actively put on live music which was a great shop window and furthered your career if you got into the nightclub scene. From there you could be recognised and build up a following. I know this is my city and my scene but I don’t think enough has been made of what went on here. Other cities have recognised their musical heritage like Manchester and Liverpool but Birmingham hasn’t really done it.
VT - For you specifically there were great hopes for The Ugly’s in the 60’s?
SG – Well with The Ugly’s we did ‘Ready Steady Go’ which was a major TV show of it’s day, ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ likewise and we did regional TV shows, news items and radio too. There was good radio exposure on something called ‘Midland Beat’ which was a pre-commercial radio BBC programme. Originally, when BRMB started the main music guy there was called Robin Valk and he had his own programme and was an early champion of the Steve Gibbons Band. He immersed himself in the scene and he would go out and see bands live and then play them on his show. He was fantastic and to me, what he did was a very important part of local radio that they don’t do anymore.
In 1969 Steve left Birmingham and teamed up with former Move bassist Trevor Burton. Along with ex Moody Blues singer Denny Laine and Ugly’s drummer Keith Smart they formed the group Balls.
Heading for a cottage in the country Balls released just one single, ‘Fight for my country’ in 1971.
Balls broke up in 1971 and on returning to the Midlands Gibbons briefly joined The Idle Race. Within 3 months the band evolved into what became the Steve Gibbons Band.
VT – The Idle Race morphed into the Steve Gibbons Band, but this was quite a departure from what the Idle Race had been doing?
SG – I’d been through the mill with Balls and a fouled up management situation and I’d been living away from Birmingham. I came back two years later and it had changed drastically, DJ’s were in all the pubs, bands had been elbowed out and the scene that I remembered, although it was beginning to dissipate in the late 60’s, had all but gone. With Radio 1 coming to the fore and pushing out all the pirate stations you could hear what you wanted on the radio and not have to go to the pub to listen to a band playing your favourite songs. So I came back to Birmingham and knew the guys from the Idle Race very well. The Idle Race had originated as The Nightriders with a great lead singer, Mike Sheridan but he’d left several years before to be replaced by Jeff Lynne who changed them into the Idle Race. When Jeff left the bottom dropped out and they were looking for another front man. I was kicking my heels a bit and by this time was playing guitar, I only started playing guitar in my mid-twenties, and was by now in my late-twenties. I’d been accompanying myself and playing my own songs and wanted to further that, so Roger Spencer the drummer said come along and see how it goes. At that time the band was been managed by Don Arden and he was getting them good work and they were touring with a Canadian harmonica player, effectively as a backing band. I went along on the tour did a couple of numbers of my own, the Idle Race did a slot then this guy came on at the end. We did about half a dozen gigs and decided that this could work going forward. I particularly liked the fact that they had a piano player, Bob Wilson, but unbeknown to me Bob was foremostly a guitarist and he was only filling in because the harmonica player needed a piano. We then talked about re-naming and re-shaping the band using my songs, which everyone agreed with. Their manager said that if that’s the case then it should be called the Steve Gibbons Band. There were mixed feelings about this, and I certainly had mixed feelings about it but in the end we agreed that was what we’d do.
Between 71 and 1975 the Steve Gibbons Band worked the pub and club circuits gradually building up a large following and a reputation as a ‘must see’ band.
VT – From there you went out and developed a reputation as a great live band?
SG – Having already been through it, I knew that the way to build a following was to get a residency. We managed to get two, one was the Old Railway in Digbeth and we also managed to get a central location in a bar underneath the Birmingham Hippodrome and we played there on Saturday afternoons. Once we got the ball rolling it built up pretty quickly and we were getting both places packed out and building a strong following. That led to requests to play further afield at places like arts centres and the college circuit. A lot of social secretaries had good budgets so we would go and support a lot of big names in those days, which was both raising our profile and bringing us to the attention of management and record companies. We were getting offers from various labels to sign us up but as soon as they saw my complicated legal situation a lot shied away. This was until we were bought to the attention of The Who and that was when the situation changed because we signed to The Who’s management and the rest is history!
VT – Would the same approach to building the band up still work today?
SG – It’s not beyond me to still attempt something like that! I think residencies are great whether its rock n roll, jazz, whatever. The consistency of having somewhere to go every week knowing what to expect, appeals to people. They actually like the predictability of it, it doesn’t make it boring you just know what to expect. The essence of a good gig for me is if the ambience of the room feels right, sound of course is very important but sometimes a room just has a nice feel to it.
VT – With a residency I guess there is the pressure to keep introducing new material?
SG – That’s what was so good about it, because you have to stay on the mettle and you can’t just sit back. Sometimes we would practice four times a week, it was just the norm. We did work really hard at it and the deal was that we ended up stockpiling material, which turned out to be very useful when we needed it for recording. The other thing was that with two gigs each week you test out new material and know within a couple of weeks whether it’s working or not. That’s the benefit of having an audience to bounce them off.
VT – You then knock the songs that do work into shape by playing them live?
SG – That’s right and some of them then become absolute essentials whenever you’re putting a setlist together. You can’t go through a gig without playing them because the audience expect it.
The first Steve Gibbons Band album ‘Any Road Up’ was released in 1975 on the Polydor label. 1976 found the band touring with The Who in the UK, Europe and the USA.
VT – Two great albums followed, namely ‘Any Road Up’ and ‘Rollin’ On’?
SG – Thanks. Personally I think ‘Down in The Bunker’ was a great album and was certainly our best in terms of sales. This was a time when we were just peaking and there were a lot of great bands around. Songwriting was strong and it was a strong scene. The college circuit was a fantastic breeding ground for some great bands.
Now recording for RCA, ‘Saints & Sinners’ was released in 1981. This resulted in an invitation from the German Democratic Republic to tour the major cities of East Germany in 1982, becoming the first western rock band to do so.
Further exposure followed in 1986 with an opening slot at the Birmingham Heartbeat Charity concert at the NEC.
At the end of the 1990’s Gibbons formed The Dylan Project, incorporating members of Fairport Convention, presenting innovative arrangements of Bob Dylan songs and original compositions.
VT – What can we expect from the Steve Gibbons Band 2013?
SG – It will be a cross-section of material that I’ve been playing for years, a few relatively new items. I usually do about 50% of my own songs and 50% songs I like.
VT – Do you still play Tupelo Mississippi Flash?
SG – Yes!
VT – You’ve had an amazing career so far, what’s left for Steve Gibbons to do?
SG – For many years I’ve nurtured the idea of doing an album of standards. Songs from the likes of Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee, Sinatra, Nat King Cole; all those great songs. If I had one thing that I’d really like to do it would be to write a song of such quality that it might still be around 100 years from now. I’m not too interested in posterity or whether my name lives on or not, but I’d love a song that lives on. A few years ago I got involved with doing a tribute to the great American writer, Sammy Kahn at Ronnie Scotts in Birmingham. We rehearsed about 15 songs and played there for a week and it was sold out. That was a one-off thing that came out of the blue and was quite daunting because I don’t read the dots and everyone I was playing with were all readers. That was a great challenge, was very well received and was very enjoyable.
Village Times would like to sincerely thank Steve Gibbons for agreeing to do this interview.
The Steve Gibbons Band perform at the Bridge Inn Beer and Blues Festival on Saturday 22nd June. Tickets priced £17.50 are available to personal callers at the Bridge Inn, High Green in Brewood. Tickets are also available online by visiting www.villagetimes.co.uk/brewoodblues and following the link. You can also visit www.brewoodmusicfestival.com.
For more information please visit www.villagetimes.co.uk/brewoodblues