Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Shakin' Stevens - Prince of Wales, King of the Charts

Not since the heydays of the fifties had rock 'n' roll enjoyed such hit status as it did in the early eighties. As early as 1976 Hank Mizell's Jungle Rock had inexplicably entered the British charts on a Charly reissue and climbed all the way to the top three. When I was a kid growing up in rural mid-Wales all my school mates were into the punk bands of the day or the likes of Culture Club, Wham, Duran Duran later on. Since '77 me and my sister Sharon had been listening to mums Elvis Greatest Hits Box Set and I'd started getting into other rockers like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. The turn of the 80's proved a great time for rock 'n' roll fans in Britain with the charts starting to house people like the Stray Cats, the Jets, Matchbox and a hip-swivelling Welshman, Shakin' Stevens. By the end of the decade Shaky had become the biggest selling artist in Europe, clocking up 28 Top 30 hits in the UK. The media referred to him as an Elvis soundalike, which was grossly unfair as he sounded like Shaky to me - if anything he was more like Ricky Nelson! He even had a small Dutch hit in the early '70's with Ricky's Lonesome Town. The void left by Shaky has never been filled and perhaps it's time this was rectified, either by Shaky himself or someone like Darrel Higham.
His story began on March 4th,1948 when he was born, Michael Barratt in the Cardiff suburb of Ely, the youngest of eleven kids. As a youngster he was introduced to rock 'n' roll by his brother Roy and it was also during this time that he first heard a friend use the name Shakin' Stevens. There was a rocker band in Cardiff, managed by entrepeneur Paul Barrett (no relation) called the Backbeats whose lead singer Rockin' Louie became Shaky's idol, with the young Shaky sometimes getting up on stage to sing with the band.
After leaving school unqualified, he became a window cleaner but his carefree ways didn't help at this or other trades he tried like furniture upholstery. He had by now fronted various bands like the Cossacks, The Olympics and the Denims. But it was in 1968 when the legendary Shakin' Stevens and The Sunsets formed that things started to become more serious. For nearly ten years the group toured all over the UK and released a couple of albums and singles (Phil will deal with Shaky & Sunsets elsewhere.). Their gigs were wild affairs played to anyone from rockers to hippies to college students. One night at the Greenford Hotel in London, sax madman Tony "Twizzle" Britnall started blowing flames out of his mouth using lighter fluid which was soon all over the floor. Pretty soon the piano burst into flames and Shaky ran and jumped onto it and leapt forward onto a light fitting and swung backwards and forwards over the hysterical crowd. Next thing, the light fused and sparks started flying off it, landing in a teddy boys quiff which erupted into flames. What a sight, the floor burning, the piano covered in fire, Shaky dangling above the crowd on a sizzling light and people slapping a rockers head, trying to kill the flames! Needless to say, he didn't repeat this type of thing when he started appearing on Top Of The Pops.
In 1977, Jack Good produced a West End musical called Elvis, and after seeing Shaky at a London gig, persuaded him to audition for the part of the prime time King. Mike Hurst negotiated a healthy wage for Shaky rising from £100 a week during the rehearsal stage to £200 when the show was up and running. Following one last drunken concert with the Sunsets on October 25th at the Broon in Woolwich, London, Shaky started a new phase in his career, without his mentor Paul Barrett.
During this time Shaky signed with Track Records as a solo act and both artist and label must have been optimistic of success given the exposure Elvis would be giving him. Three singles and an album "Play Loud" were issued but nothing happened and the label went bankrupt. An album was cut for CBS with producer Mike Hurst but they rejected it on first hearing in July '79. That same month also saw the end of Elvis' West End run, but by now Shaky was working with Good on the ITV show Oh Boy and a 26 programme series Let's Rock which even made it onto American television. CBS decided to give him another crack of the whip and with Mike Hurst at the helm they went to the Eden Studios and laid down some rock 'n' roll tracks including a cover of Buck Owens' Hot Dog. Shaky also signed a management agreement with Freya Miller. Three singles on CBS subsidiary Epic had already failed to ignite, but Hot Dog was to change everything. Benefiting from some great Albert Lee licks, Hot Dog entered the UK charts in January 1980 and climbed to the number 24 spot. The album "Take One" was released the following month but only charted for two weeks peaking at 62.
An excellent stab at Hey Mae failed to score but his take on the Blasters' Marie Marie went to number 19 but again the resultant album Marie, Marie, featuring such guitar greats as Welshman Mickey Gee, Albert Lee and Eddie Jones, disappointed, only reaching 56. Shooting Gallery from the album also missed the spot.
For the next single they chose to update Rosemary Clooney's 1954 hit This Ole House. A powerhouse version by Shaky tore up the charts reaching number 1 in the spring of '81. The album rose to number 2 and for the next ten years Shaky had a permanent residency on the UK and European charts, with hits like You Drive Me Crazy, Green Door, Oh Julie, Shirley, It's Raining and A Rockin' Good Way, a duet with fellow countryman Bonnie Tyler. By the end of the eighties, the songs had become more pop styled but their was the occasional rocker amongst them like the great, I Might.
Following a lengthy break, Shaky is now back touring, he's just blown through Britain with the Killer's sister, Linda Gail Lewis. Could he be about to hit the charts again - if he does I hope he continues to use Darrel Higham on guitar, they're one hell of a combination. I caught two of the shows in Cardiff and Porthcawl and was knocked out by the great rockin' sounds. Shaky looks and sounds unbelievably good and both shows were near sell-outs. The crowd was a real mixture of young and old with a surprising number of teenagers. He had a great new phrasing on This Ole House and did a belting Marie Marie. The duets with Linda Gail, Real Gone Lover and A Rockin' Good Way were high spots which were well received. True Love Travels On A Gravel Road was superb and would be an obvious choice when he next records (rumour is that won't be far away). After raising the house lights and paying tribute to the Sunsets in the crowd he went wild with Tear It Up, a breathtaking version with loads of Darrel Higham licks, moving into Heebie Jeebies, Rip It Up etc. It was great fun and I can't wait until November when he could be touring again. It was also good to see producer Stuart Colman playing bass on the tour, its a step in the right direction and hopefully will be the start of another prosperous association. Shaky it's time to sort out our bloody charts again!!
Postscript: Since this was written a few years ago for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Shaky bought out a new album Now Listen which didn't really do anything. It didn't appear to bring him to a new audience and it didn't have anything for the rock 'n roll fans he'd left behind. Shame - a wasted opportunity.

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