Steve Ellis was one third of the holy trinity of ‘Steve’s’- the other two being Marriott and Winwood – who emerged out of the mid-1960s UK rhythm & blues scene and became three of the best blue-eyed soul vocalists of that decade.
Fifty years after Love Affair’s ‘Everlasting Love’ made No. 1 Steve releases ‘Boom! Bang! Twang!’ an expertly crafted mix of new songs and heartfelt covers with guests and long-time friends Paul Weller, COW, Manfred Mann’s Mike D’Abo, Kev Wallbank, Andy Crofts and Ben Gordelier (The Moons) all along for the ride.
How did the new album ‘Boom! Bang! Twang! come about?
I live in Brighton, and one day I was in town, just having a bit of a walkabout and there was this guy starring at me. I walked down the road to where a friend of mine’s got a shop, and the same guy was in there, him and his wife. I said, ‘Haven’t I just seen you?’ So, this was Mark and Maxine from the band COW and we got talking for about an hour, and to cut a long story short we ended up doing this split A-Side single.
You recorded the album at Paul Weller’s Black Barn studio in Surrey.
When we were doing the single I said to Mark what studio are we going to use, and he said Black Barn. So, we were doing the backing track and Paul said why don’t you do an album here? And he’d already offered several times in the past twenty or so years that I’ve known him. Paul said he’d get in Andy Crofts, who I’d met before. We were doing one particular song, and I’d been thinking about a drummer, so I said to Ben Gordelier, “I’ll give you a quid if you play on my record”. So he said, “Alright”. Charles (Rees) is a great engineer, and… um… that’s how it happened.
The album is a mix of new songs and covers. How did the selection come about?
It was all a bit organic. It came together very easily. I already had stuff in mind that I wanted to record. ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ and ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’, both of which I’d played on tour, then I found a Mike D’Abo number that I really liked, ‘Glory Bound’.
That William Bell track is a story in itself. A pal of mine owns a record shop in Brighton, Across The Tracks, and I walked in there on a Saturday morning to have a bit of a nose about. So, my mate Dave… shop full of people and he announces, “This record should be played at least once a day”, and he put on ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’. It blew me away! We did it on tour for a couple of years, and it always went down well. The album’s got a nice feel about it, it all just glues together.
There’s a wealth of talent and experience on the album. Were you running the show or did you just “let it happen”?
The thing is, when you work with a bunch of like-minded people, there’s a bit of larking about in between but Paul’s like a machine. He’s driven – music, music, music. The first time I recorded with him, I’d started this song in London, but when they transferred the files to me in Brighton, the guitars were missing, they lost some of the keyboards… anyway, I mentioned it in conversation with Paul and he said I’ll come down tomorrow. He turned up in a bloody great Dodge van, six guitars in the back, nothing else – I wet myself. He knew what he was doing, so there was no need for me to interfere. I trust him 100%.
How did you first meet Paul?
I first met Paul in the early 80s when he had formed The Style Council. We’ve been mates since then. Dean Powell, the boxing promoter, and me we started the Steve Marriott Memorial Concert at the Ruskin Arms in East Ham, mid nineties. It morphed into a convention, though that had nothing to do with me. It culminated in me getting phone calls, asking would I do a tribute gig at the Astoria? I think this was about 2001, probably on Steve Marriott’s birthday, and I said, yeah, ‘course I’ll do it. So, Paul was on that bill, with Kenney and Mac, bless him, Noel Gallagher and Gem, who was in Oasis at that time. And my mate Jerry Shirley from Humble Pie, Peter Frampton came over, blah-di-blah… and we all ended up onstage doing ‘Tin Soldier’ together. So, that’s the common ground, it’s always been the music.
You’ve stayed true to your R&B and Soul roots. What is it about that music that it stills sounds so fresh and vibrant?
It’s because it’s got soul, because it’s got feeling, because it’s got passion. And because they’re good songs – that’s the most important thing. I cut my teeth on them, that’s what I grew up singing. Sunday night we’d go in the posh front room, and we’d watch Sunday Night at the London Palladium. That’s where I first saw Ray Charles. My Mum, bless her, used to buy me Ray Charles records from the Co-op with her Green Shield Stamps. Things like ‘Hit The Road, Jack’, Georgia On My Mind’, ‘What’d I Say’, ‘Drown In My Own Tears’. And then I was in a sort of gang where I grew up in north London, about eight of us, and we were all into Tamla Motown, Stax, Sue, and all that Mod stuff.
Can you remember the first record you bought and where you bought it?
I think my first record would have been ‘My Generation’, around 1965, with loads of covers on it, like James Brown ‘Please Please Please’, stuff like that. There were two local record shops, one was in the arcade in north Finchley, and one was over the other side of town. Richard Desmond, who used to own the Daily Express, he worked in there.
Before that I used to listen to what my elder sister bought. She worked in the same building where they used to record Ready Steady Go, and she’d tell me all these stories. “I saw the Rolling Stones in the lift today”. “The Pretty Things, what a dirty bunch, looked like they’ve never washed in their lives”. You’d get a running report every week.
What about the first time you were able to buy your own clothes?
We all used to go up to this shop in Finchley, and buy button-downs or tab collars. That’s what you wore at school to be a rebel. That was about ’64, then in ’65 I started buying Levi’s 501s – still wear them – Desert Boots from Wood Green, where my Nan used to live. Real thick soles, used to make your feet go blue when it rained. Terrible. Then we got into army surplus, monkey jackets, Harrington jackets… we were pretty much what they called ‘peanuts’. We were school kids; we couldn’t afford tailor made suits until much later.
My mate and me got into tie-dying Levi 501s, much to my mum’s dismay. She’s say “Stephen” – and whenever she said “Stephen” I knew I was in trouble – where have my bottles of bleach gone?” We had them in the bathroom, we’d put the jeans in the bath, two bottles of bleach in… then we’d get big cherry-red boots, braces, button-down shirts… and this is 1964. But we got fed up with it after about six-months, and moved on.
So you grew up in Finchley, not too far from The Kinks then?
The Kinks were up the road in Muswell Hill. Our little gang, we were fourteen or fifteen years old, we’d play football, games lasting half a day. Then one night Tony Martin said, “Let’s go Kinks spotting”. So, we all walked up to Muswell Hill, eight or ten of us … and we found Dave Davies getting into his car. We all went ‘W’hay!’ and ran at him. He thought we were going to assault him or something.
You started your recording career at CBS Records, now Sony. How does it feel to be back there all these years later?
Good, they treat me well. When I finished this album, I said ‘I don’t care how long it takes, I will get this album placed with a decent label’. Now, that’s not to be dismissive of independents or anything but I pitched it to one, they kept me waiting two months, came back to me and said, “Oh, we love the album but we’re really busy”. And I thought if you love it that much… so I had a bit of a re-think, and decided the perfect place for this is Sony / CBS. They’ve always looked after the back catalogue. I’m going to have a word about perhaps assigning a couple of the solo albums that we did over the last four or five years, to see if they want to take them on as well, it will all be under one roof then.
Are there any plans for live shows to launch ‘Boom! Bang! Twang!’?
The record label said to me Roy Orbison is doing a hologram tour. What do you think about doing the support slot on that? And I said, I’ll have to get me head around this one. So, I phoned back and I said due to the fact that the album’s coming out, I’ll take it. And then they said they want it acoustic. And I say, it won’t work acoustic, mate. All the people that are waiting to see Roy Orbison’s hologram are not going to suffer two people playing acoustic. So, I said forget it. If it was the full band we’d go out there and smash it, do the album, some of the hits, otherwise we’ll be like lambs to the slaughter, people would be talking all the way through. Whoever is doing the support for that I wish ‘em good luck. It’s not for me.
Is that not a little frustrating?
I had an accident in ’93, took me out of the game for a while, and when I got over that I went out on tour for the next ten years, non-stop. All I wanted to do is get out there and play. Get people up, dancing, singing, whatever they want to do. We went out and we played everywhere. We played scooter rallies, you name it we did it. In the last four years, I’ve done four massive tours and I was doing everything, all the hotels, and all the bookings… because I’ve had managers and I don’t trust them. So, to answer your question, I’m having a break from touring.
Beyond this project, what’s the masterplan?
I’m doing a P.J. Proby farewell tour with Gerry Marsden and The Searchers, end of this year, which is quite hard work, to say the very least. I remember seeing Gerry on the telly when I was a kid. People should have more respect for musicians from that era because without them there wouldn’t be a record industry. P. J. is a mate of mine, he’s mad as a box of frogs but he’s still got a full set of pipes. He can hit any note he wants and he’s a total pro. So, that’ll do me and between now and then I might start getting tunes together for the next album. I might even start recording some bits and pieces because we finished ‘Boom! Bang! Twang!’ Christmas before last.
‘Everlasting Love’ is fifty years old this year. Do you still enjoy performing the Love Affair songs?
When I do all the Love Affair stuff, I always do it properly, not like a jukebox act. I hate jukebox Sixties bands. I just think its bollocks; you might as well put the record on, probably sound better as well. I love doing a good Sixties tours because all the people that come want to have a good time, and there’s a really big cross-section as well. It’s not just the old and infirm, you’ve got sixteen year-olds, forty year olds, all the way up. There was even a ninety year old sat in the centre, in front of me – I can’t remember where we were – but I looked down, and I said excuse me for asking but how old are you? She said I’m ninety, and the whole place erupted.
I hope I’m still going to gigs when I’m ninety. That’s what it’s all about. Music makes people happy; it’s a universal language.
‘Boom! Bang! Twang!’ is out now on CD and Vinyl from all good music outlets. Also available for download and streaming.
With thanks to Steve Ellis, Stuart Kirkham, Andy Crofts and Allan, Olivia and Phil at Sony Music.