Shakin' Stevens "I Remember"

Jack Watkins

This legend of radio opens up about the most memorable parts of his life

Shaky was the UK's biggest-selling singles artist of the 1980s. Still charting each year with his Christmas classic, Merry Christmas Everyone, the Welsh singer shares his memories of an incredible career…

 

…The home I grew up in was very small. It had three tiny bedrooms and was in the Cardiff suburb of Ely. I was the youngest of 13 children, and eight of us shared one box room and small bedroom. They were so small there was no space for a wardrobe. You hung your clothes on the back of the door.

 

…We all sang in the house. We all had good voices in my family and I was singing from an early age. Although I was born in 1948, there are 25 years between me and my eldest brother, and so the house was full of records from the 1930s to the 1960s.

I grew up listening to a wider range of music than my contemporaries. People like the great early country singer Jimmie Rodgers, Joe Turner, the Big Bopper and Little Richard.

Teenage Shaky in an early band

 

…One of my first bands was called The Denims. I wasn’t wearing the denim that became my later look then, so what a coincidence that was! We played school halls and weddings. We never made any records, but we did at play the famous 2i's Coffee Bar in Soho where Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard had performed a decade earlier. This was in about 1964. We were on for an hour and a half and got paid £4.

 

…Doing lots of jobs before I turned professional musician. I left school at 15 and worked on building sites and in warehouses, did window cleaning and was an apprentice upholsterer, which I liked because I was learning a trade. I’d be doing that during the day and the gigs at night. Hard work, but you get back what you put in. Finally, in 1969, I was able to pack it all in and concentrate on music full-time.

 

…How I got the name Shakin’ Stevens. I was born Michael Barratt. I’ve always respected the name my mother gave me, but it isn’t very rock ‘n’ roll. As a kid messing about in the street, I had this friend Steven Vanderwalker. He’d stand there holding a cricket bat, pretending it was a guitar and, just before I’d sing, he’d shout, “Ladies and gentlemen… Shakin’Stevens!" Well, I remembered that and decided to adopt it as my stage name. I’m glad I did because it stood out, a bit like those old blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Lazy Lester. It's Shaky in conversation and Shakin’ Stevens on the records.

 

…Johnny Rotten said Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets were a great band. That was my band from 1969 to 1976. We were on the major label Parlophone for one album and often performed on the same bill as the punk bands. We were very wild. I’d climb up the lighting stacks and curtains, and jump on the piano. The sax player tossed his instrument up in the air—it would twist and drop, and he’d catch it above his nose. It’s all right doing talent shows but there is nothing like going out on the road and paying your dues as a live performer.

 

…Jack Good chose me to play Elvis on the West End stage. By 1976, I’d gone as far as I could with The Sunsets. But when Jack Good, who’d produced the pioneering TV rock programme Oh Boy! in the late 1950s, saw one of our shows, he asked me to play Elvis Presley in his middle years in the London musical Elvis! I did it for 19 months and it won so many awards. Even Elvis’s old Sun Records label mate Carl Perkins, Mr Blue Suede Shoes himself, came backstage to compliment me.

 

…Being very nervous going on Top of the Pops. The West End musical helped me get a record contract as a solo artist on CBS/Epic. My first chart hit was "Hot Dog" in 1980. I didn’t have a dresser or stylist then—or even now—and didn’t have a lot of money or anything to wear for that first appearance. So I rushed out and got a pair of jeans for £2 and a jacket for £5. The classic “worn” denim look came later.

 

…"This ‘Ole House" spent six months in the top 40 in 1981. That song was my first international hit, launching my career in many countries world-wide. That and "Green Door" were my biggest sellers, but another big seller that gave me special satisfaction was "Oh Julie", which I wrote myself. I remember saying to Geraint Watkins, who played piano on a lot of my albums, “Bring your squeezebox into the studio, I want to do something with a Cajun feel." We got pretty near it on that song.

 

…Becoming frustrated with the direction of my career. The 1980s was so heady for me. I’m told I was the best-selling singles artist of that decade, and I also sold a lot of albums here and overseas, but I was very naïve. My manager was more interested in the money than the music. I’d arrive at a venue and it would be laid out for kids with balloons everywhere. Totally the wrong image. I began to feel I was being denied the chance to move on with my career. My last single for CBS, "Radio" in 1992, with Roger Taylor of Queen on drums and Rod Argent, ex-Zombies, on keyboards, was a step towards the heavier sound I wanted, but after that I left the label and spent years concentrating on the live shows.

 

…Keeping the press at arm's length. I’ve always been a private person. My private life is my private life. Obviously when I’m performing, I’m out there for the public. I’ll see people backstage. I don’t hide away from fans. But it can get intrusive and people don’t always appreciate how vulnerable you are.

 

…Playing Glastonbury in 2008. We were due on the Pyramid Stage at midday. About half an hour before, I’d looked out and there was no-one there. I thought, Oh my God, what have I got myself into? But the time came round and when we walked out, it was packed. They were cheering, somebody in the audience had a big green door, and when I came off, Michael Eavis, the festival boss, said, “You’ve just pulled in the biggest audience for an opening act in our history!”

 

…My partner Sue Davies saved my life after I had a cardiac arrest at home in Bucks. It was in 2010. I’d not been feeling well for some time and had slightly overdone it with some heavy lifting in the garden when I collapsed.

Sue was on the phone to the doctor straight away while pumping away at my chest. She told him, “I think I’ve broken his ribs.” Eventually they got me to the local hospital in High Wycombe, but if I hadn’t had a strong woman like Sue on my side I wouldn’t be here talking about it today.

 

…Researching my family’s past inspired my comeback. Nobody in the family had told me that my ancestors had worked in horrific conditions in the Cornish tin mines or that my father had been married before. I’d been keen to make a bluesy album and the stories we uncovered led to the songs that made the 2016 album Echoes of Our Times. It put me back in the UK album Top 30 for the first time since 2005. The style was so different, a lot of people didn’t believe it was me. It was a big thrill to win acceptance in the Roots and Americana fields.

 

…Listening to over 250 of my songs this spring during the COVID-19 lockdown. There are 266 tracks on my new anthology. We couldn’t get into the studio to listen to the remastering because of the dreaded virus, so they sent it all to me at home. It brought back many memories and I’ve done a commentary on how the songs came about. But I’m still recording new songs and one on there, "I Need You Now," is a gospel-type track. Given what the country’s been have going through, I hope people will find the lyrics comforting.

Shakin’ Stevens’ 19-CD Fire in the Blood anthology, and the 3-CD Singled Out Collection are out now

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