Behind the mic – Tony Blackburn

Nov 2019 Behind the mic – Tony Blackburn

By Ian Woolley

MOVING from Guildford to Bournemouth at a very early age, how did Tony Blackburn get into the music business.

“I started performing at the Bournemouth Pavilion ballroom at 19 with the resident orchestra there for about three years as their singer.

Then came Tony Blackburn & The Swinging Bells and we had Al Stewart in the band, who was lead guitarist,” Tony said.

After the band broke up, he started recording singles with ‘So Much Love’ getting into the charts at the same time as he got the job on Radio 1. Although the timing was perfect, not so for Tony.

He explained: “A week after the record was recorded, the printing plant went on strike and nobody could get the record. My singing career never recovered from that!”

Just three years before that, he had joined Radio Caroline two months after it started. “Terrific times out there, breaking the BBC monopoly. I remember going to America and hearing all their commercial stations and then joining and working on the pirate station.

“I was very proud to be part of it because it altered the whole way we broadcast in this country,” he said.

His love for Moown and Soul music (he went on to do the first soul programme in Britain on the Big L, later) was evident in his morning Breakfast Show on Radio 1 where he introduced many upcoming acts and singers from that time. I asked him why he chose Blackberry Way as the first song to be played on its launch?

“It was a big hit at the time, and with that crashing intro to the record, and being upbeat, it was the perfect choice for me to open my first programme” he replied.

With many Top of the Pop appearances with fellow broadcasters, including their 500th special, when they all met up once more, which of them did he admire most?

“I’ve always been a fan of Steve Wright, and back in the 60s, Kenny Everett was amazing – so creative. You don’t get that now because we are not encouraged to be creative.

“Pirate radio was personality radio but a lot of commercial stations do not let this come out of their DJs. Luckily for me, I am allowed freedom on the stations I broadcast on. Today’s radio has lost its way a bit.”

Now, incredibly in his 52nd year of broadcasting with the BBC, 17 of which were on Radio 1, what were the artists and acts he was proud to help bring to his turntable?

“I’m proud of getting Diana Ross’s I’m Still Waiting released as a single – (incidentally now his favourite singer and song of all time.) It was an album track at the time.

“Edwin Starr I adored, having done a lot of tours with the man, as I did with Stevie Wonder. I’m really proud with pioneering soul music in this country.”

Any acts that he wished he’d met?

“The two singers I would have love to have met were Elvis and Marvin Gaye. His What’s Going On album is one of my favourite albums of all time.”

Touching on his brief BBC dismissal, Tony would only say: “Put it this way, we are all friends now.”

Now presenting Sounds of The 60s on Radio 2 which he took over from Brian Matthew, I asked him about whether the popular programme’s early slot would have better listener’s figures being moved later.

“The time slot was allotted before I took over and even Brian Matthew probably wasn’t aware of it at the time up until his sudden death. I think it was a mistake but the listening figures are good and of course people can listen to it on the BBC Sounds app.

The programme is up there in the Top 5 every week. It would help me, for sure, as I have to get up at 3.30am every morning to present the show after finishing 8pm on the previous evening’s show, but I love doing the show.”

Now on tour with his ‘Sounds of the 60s Live’ around the UK, what can fans expect from the show?

“We started in March with four shows left to do this year, but as they are all virtually sold out, we’ve extended it so far until June next year, travelling North of the country. We would love to take it to Scotland and Ireland too.

We have an eight-piece band with a couple of singers from Strictly, with me coming out and doing some talking in between, and in all, there are more than 100 hits throughout the show. It works and we have a lot of fun doing it, with the audience getting up and dancing.” BBC Radio 2’s Sounds of the 60s Live UK tour features songs, stories and memories from the golden decade of pop music performed live by the Sounds Of The 60s All Star Band & Singers. The tour visits 17 venues in the UK, tak-ging the Sounds Of The 60s from the studio to the stage for the first time.