Joe makes touring a family affair
[private]Simply put – and many would agree – Joe Brown is a legend. Over the years, he has earned the respect of his peers and the love of his many fans. He has never stopped working and has never lost the twinkle in his eye. Now in his seventies, our Joe is as busy as ever and has a touring schedule that would leave most of today’s artists begging for mercy. Joe and his band are taking to the road for a 34-date Spring Tour during which he will be playing some tracks from his latest album – The Ukulele Album.
At his home in Buckinghamshire, Joe told me why he decided to record an album where the humble ukulele is the lead instrument.
“Ukulele’s have become popular again. There is a lot of players out there, and my daughter Sam runs two ukulele clubs, so I thought I’d better do it before someone else did. And I’m very happy that it’s been quite successful.”
The album contains familiar numbers such as Mr Blue Sky, I’m Not In Love and Motorhead’s Ace of Spades. “Yes, there is a lot of covers on the album, but we do them our own way.” Of course the album will comprise a major part of the set-list for the tour.
“Yes, we will feature it, but we have to be careful with our tours. We want to give the audience what they want and also play the other stuff. We change the set-list every tour – apart from a few songs – as we don’t repeat ourselves too much.”
We seem to think of Joe as a ‘cheeky Cockney”, but he is in fact a Lincolnshire lad, and his diverse career has now been at full throttle for more than 50 years! He was spotted by Jack Good playing his guitar (actually Joe is a multi-instrumentalist, playing mandolin, fiddle, banjo and dobro, to name but a few) and he put Joe in the ‘Boy Meets Girls’ show of 1959. Allegedly impresario Larry Parnes tried to make him change his name to Elmer Twitch, but Joe was having none of it.
In the early days, he played guitar with Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran; and in some of his tours in the north-west, the opening slot of the show was given to an upcoming band called The Beatles!
In 1960 he formed his own group – Joe Brown and The Bruvvers – and had a string of chart hits, most notably Picture Of You which topped the charts. Not content with chart success, Joe set about becoming an all-round entertainer, and his happy-go-lucky persona meant that it wasn’t long before he became one of the countries’ most popular acts. He even made six films!
The stage also beckoned, and he played opposite Dame Anna Neagle in Charlie Girl, and even acted in a stage version of Sleuth. Joe also took time out to have his own TV shows. Was there anything he couldn’t do?
A big country music fan, he has, in recent years, worked extensively in Nashville – both writing songs for the American market and recording his own albums. In 1992, he won the BASCA Sold Badge of Merit for services to British Music, as judged by his peers in the songwriting and music publishing communities.
In November 2002, he played what he calls the highlight of his career, in the Concert for George Harrison at the Royal Albert Hall. He was asked especially by George’s widow Olivia to take part. George was best man at Joe’s second marriage in 2000.
And he brought the house down with the show’s finale – the emotive ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams‘. This song, during which he accompanied himself on the ukulele, led to a 10-fold increase in the sales of the instrument.
But, of course, there have been many highlights, he told me. “There’s always highlights. I could name a thousand and that’s lovely. It’s the reason we all do it. Even if you’re feeling down, you can get up on stage and, if it’s a good show, then that’s great. It’s when it starts to get boring that I’ll pack in.”
Despite his success, Joe is very modest, and the one thing that gives him the most pride is his longevity, as he told me. “I’m very proud that we’re still going and doing a job that we love to do. And not because of any exposure, but because of our reputation. We’re still doing in the region of 120 shows a year, which can’t be bad.” Joining Joe on the road will be his trusty band.
“I love playing with these guys. They’re a great bunch of musicians – and we have a new guitar player, as well as Phil Capaldi – brother of Traffic’s Jim Capaldi – on drums.” Another talented musician in the band, who plays lap-steel guitar, mandola, slide guitar and mandolin, is Pete Brown, Joe’s son. And, of course, Joe’s daughter Sam is involved with his music.
The song, during which he accompanied himself on the ukulele, led to a 10-fold increase in sales of the instrument.
“It’s great working with my children. Pete isn’t only a great musician, he’s also a fantastic producer and has actually taken a lot off my back in running the band. Sam sometimes tours with us but she’s had a throat problem. The operation she had, didn’t work too well so these days she doesn’t sing so much – and of course there’s her ukulele clubs!”
Having achieved practically everything there is to achieve in show-business, I wondered whether he still had any ambitions… and he does!
“I’ve not really been ambitious, but I’d really like to write a hit song… not for me, but for someone else. It’d be like a pension, ‘cos – as you know – there’s no pension in this business.” But it may be some time before he gets time to write the song in question. “I probably won’t do it until I stop touring ‘cos you have to apply yourself to writing. And I won’t stop touring until I start to embarrass myself on stage.” Luckily, that doesn’t seem to be an option for quite some time as, already, plans are being made for tours next Autumn.
Joe Brown is a National Treasure, no less: the last of the great UK Rock and Roll pioneers: not bad for a lad with humble beginnings in his mum’s pub in Plaistow and who now has an entry in Debrett’s! Strangely enough, despite his success on record, making records isn’t Joe’s favourite pastime. “I don’t particularly like recording, I like to get out on stage and entertain.” And he certainly does that.
Joe Brown and his band will be on their Spring Tour in the UK from February 20 to April 13.
By Martin Hutchinson[/private]