Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Roots Of A Rock And Roll Revivalist

From the mid 70s through early 80s, there were a string of rock and roll revival acts that struck it big on the contemporary music charts. The Retro Universe staff (ie. me, myself & I) have already covered the career achievements of several of these popular acts; Rocky Sharpe & The Replays, (Major) Matchbox, Rocky Burnette, and Australia’s own Ol’55, and you could add the names Alvin Stardust, Showaddywaddy, Mud, and Darts (see future post) to the list of artists that drew inspiration from the rich musical heritage of the 1950s. Though the U.S. had produced its share of roots rock/rockabilly style groups, in the form of Sha Na Na, Flash Cadillac & The Continental Kids, and the incomparable Stray Cats (see future post), Britain seemed to be at the hub of the 50s style rock and roll/rockabilly revival movement, particularly in the late 70s/early 80s (in fact New York’s Stray Cats relocated to London in 1980, gaining a huge boost in their profile as a result). In terms of commercial returns, there was no bigger name to emerge from the scene at that time than Shakin’ Stevens. Stevens notched up no fewer than 39 entries on the British singles charts over a ten year period, including 14 British top ten hits during the first half of the 80s, four of which topped the charts. Though success Stateside largely eluded him, Stevens also scored two #1’s in Australia, and a slew of chart hits across Europe, firmly establishing himself as one of the most bankable popular music commodities of the era, and a keystone figure in the British rock and roll revival movement.

Shakin’ Stevens didn’t shave to endure a prolonged period of taunts at school because of his name, as he had in fact been born with the name Michael Barrett, in the Welsh town of Ely in 1948. Like many good Welsh folk, young Michael had a passion for singing, and was soon doing the rounds as a keen amateur vocalist, whilst still attending high school. His first band was formed with school friends, and went under various names, from The Olympics to The Denims. Shortly after leaving school, he was doing the rounds of his local town as a milkman, though I’m certain his occupation was completely unconnected to his marrying around the same time. The call of rock ‘n’ roll music was louder than the clinking of milk bottles, and by the age of twenty, Michael Barrett had adopted the moniker of Shakin’ Stevens, and formed his first band, called the Sunsets. The band itself had been chugging along in one form or another since the very era that inspired their music, the late 50s, when they’d gone under the name, the Backbeats. Stevens had been a devoted follower of the band since his early teens, and on more than one occasion hopped up on stage to provide guest vocals.

Like the Sunnyboys (see previous post), Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets quickly built up a strong following on local pub and club circuits. They quickly went from being a regional act to establishing themselves as one of Britain’s premier rock ‘n’ roll revival acts, and rumour has it they once appeared as a support act for a Rolling Stones’ show at the Saville Theatre (though several lines down on the bill poster). By 1970 Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets had signed with the Parlophone label. Their debut album, ‘A Legend’, was produced by none other than Dave Edmunds (see Jan 09 post), who was fresh from the band Love Sculpture, and was fast becoming one of the most sought after producers on the scene. It wouldn’t be the last time that Stevens and Edmunds (who also had a love for roots rock) would work together in the studio. During the first half of the 70s, Stevens and his Sunsets recorded a string of albums, including, ‘I’m A J.D.’, ‘Tiger’ and ‘Live at The Rockhouse’, featuring a mix of original and cover material. But their popularity was largely restricted to those who were already enamoured with all things associated with 50s style rock ‘n’ roll or rockabilly. As a live attraction, the Sunsets continued to pack out venues across Britain and continental Europe, but their charismatic front man, Shakin’ Stevens, was destined for greater things.

With a large part of his own stage image built around the style of early Elvis Presley, right down to imitating the famed hip swivel, Shakin’ Stevens was a natural to play the role of ‘The King’ in the London musical ‘Elvis’. During his initial six month stint with the Jack Good produced stage musical, the Sunsets were forced into hiatus. But ‘Elvis’, the musical, proved a run away smash, and Stevens’ signed on for a further eighteen months as the ‘GI era’ Elvis. There was little chance of him returning to his old band in South Wales, and by 1979 the Sunsets’ days were up. With growing attention from media and fans alike, Shakin’ Stevens signed with the small label Track Records during 1978, for whom he recorded his self titled debut solo album. The album failed to make much noise on the charts, though the same year Stevens’ scored his first chart hit in Australia, with ‘Somebody Touched Me’ (OZ#38), distributed through Polydor. When the Track Records label went belly up, the master tapes for a follow up album, ‘Play Loud’, and associated singles, were lost (possibly dumped into a bin by a disgruntled Track Records janitor).

During 1979, Stevens was offered a regular performance role on the revived British TV variety show ‘Oh Boy!’, and several of his previous albums with the Sunsets were re-released (arguably to cash in on the singer’s burgeoning celebrity status). After an aborted attempt to record an album with CBS, Stevens bounced back soon after to sign with CBS subsidiary Epic, who rightly sensed that the whole rock ‘n’ roll revival scene had massive commercial potential, with the roots rock movement bubbling to the surface during this period (see Rockpile post - Jan ‘09).

By early 1980 the name of Shakin’ Stevens had made its first incursion into the British charts, with the single ‘Hot Dog’ (UK#24), a cover of the old Buck Owens’ song (featuring Albert Lee on guitar). His debut album for Epic, the appropriately titled ‘Take One!’ (UK#62), moved steadily up the charts. The lead out single from Steven’s next album , the catchy ‘Marie Marie’, originally recorded by the Blasters, broke Shakin’ Stevens into the British top 20 for the first time during August of 1980 (#19). But it would be the follow up single, and title track, that would shake the British and Australian charts to their very foundations in 1981, and establish Shakin’ Stevens as a bona fide superstar on the contemporary popular music scene.

‘This Ole House’ debuted on the market…err charts in Britain during February of 1981, and within three weeks had moved to #1, where it took out a four week lease. The song (with backing vocals from Matchbox - see July 08 post) had originally been recorded by Stuart Hamblen, but the best known version previously had been the 1954 US/UK#1 by Rosemary Clooney. Shakin’ Stevens’ version may not have found a home on the U.S. charts, but his model of ‘This Ole House’ reached #1 in Australia during June of ‘81. Stevens’ ‘This Ole House’ album, produced by Stuart Coleman, confirmed the singer’s new found superstar status, peaking at #2 in Britain and #6 in Australia. He may have appeared to be an overnight sensation to many people, but Shakin’ Stevens had toiled away for more than a decade paying his dues.

It wasn’t long before record executives began rustling through all the old Sunsets’ master tapes and concocted a compilation of their ‘best’ work, released as the budget price album ‘Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets’ (UK#34) in mid ‘81. The album release sparked a wave of ongoing litigation against Stevens, initiated by former Sunsets’ band mates, in pursuit of alleged unpaid royalties.

In May ‘81, Stevens returned to the chart stratosphere with the Ronnie Harwood penned slice of rockabilly heaven, ‘You Drive Me Crazy’ (cited by Stevens as one of his personal favourites). The track drove record buyers in droves to their local record bar, and peaked at #2 on the British charts mid year. Australia went especially ga-ga for ‘You Drive Me Crazy’, where it reigned supreme on the singles chart for three weeks during September ‘81. For his next single, Shakin’ Stevens returned to the same architecture related theme, that had featured on his first #1. ‘Green Door’ had originally been a hit back in 1956, when it had made the charts in several different versions, by several different artists. Jim Lowe found a U.S. #1 behind his ‘Green Door’ (UK#8), Glen Mason reached #24’s ‘Green Door’ in Britain, whilst Frankie Vaughan was stranded on the doorstep at #2 in the U.K. with his take. 25 years on, Shakin’ Stevens strode confidently through his own ‘Green Door’ to greet the British #1 spot during July of ‘81 (OZ#8). The song rocketed to top spot in just its second week of chart action, and closed the door on its opposition for four weeks. Both ‘You Drive Me Crazy’ and ‘Green Door’ were featured on Stevens’ next album ‘Shaky’, which shimmied and shook its way to #1 on the British album charts during November ‘81 (OZ#11). The album spawned hit another top ten hit with ‘It’s Raining’ (UK#10/OZ#75), the track originally recorded by Irma Thomas, and benefiting from the guitar work of Micky Gee.

A swag of awards and gold/platinum accreditations defined 1981 for Shakin’ Stevens, but still the suits at Epic were concerned that ‘Shaky’ may not be able to sustain his phenomenal level of success. They needn’t have been concerned, at least not during 1982, as in January the latest Shakin’ Stevens’ single ‘Oh Julie’ burst onto the charts. Within three weeks it had peaked at #1 in Britain (OZ#3), in addition to half a dozen European countries, and confirmed that Stevens was not only around for a good time, but a long time. It was the first major hit penned by the man himself, and bore all the hallmarks of one of Stevens’ key influences, Showaddywaddy. Barry Manilow covered the song later in ‘82, and had a US#38 hit with his version. It’s worth noting that during the height of Stevens’ popularity, the singer actually went under the legal name of Clark Kent (a name he officially adopted by deed poll), presumably in an effort to retain a degree of anonymity away from the music scene - though I’m not sure if he went as far as wearing glasses and loitering around telephone boxes.

The British hit singles kept on coming for Shakin’ Stevens throughout 1982. Next cab of the rank was ‘Shirley’ (UK#6), originally a 1959 hit (US#82) for John Fred and his Playboy Band. The Billy Livsey penned ‘Give Me Your Heart Tonight’ (UK#11/OZ#74), was the title track from Stevens’ new album (UK#3), which once more confirmed the singer as more than just a singles artist. The album yielded yet another British top 10 hit with Stevens’ cover of the 1959 US#20 hit for Jackie Wilson, ‘I’ll Be Satisfied’. In December ‘82, ‘The Shakin’ Stevens’ EP was released, featuring the lead track ‘Blue Christmas’, which pushed sales to UK#2 during the festive season, the first, but not the last, time that Shakin’ Stevens would offer up big selling festive fare.

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