Tony Blackburn: "I remember"

Jack Watkins

Tony Blackburn, 74, is an iconic english DJ who was the first voice to be heard on BBC Radio 1. In 2002, he was the winner of the ITV reality show I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!

 

...being a contented child

I got on really well with my parents. I grew up in a little place called Lilliput, near Poole, Dorset, right by the sea. My sister Jackie still lives there. She’s never been able to walk and she’s been an inspiration to me. She’s got an electric wheelchair and whizzes around everywhere. She’s got more friends than I have.

 

...deciding I could never eat anything that had a face

When I was five, we were on holiday on a farm, and there was this cute chicken running around.  Later I realised it had been dished up on my plate. From that moment on, I’ve never wanted to eat meat or fish. It was quite difficult being a vegetarian in the early days, but I’m not really interested in food. I wish they’d produce a pill I could take instead.

 

...having this thing about Doris Day

My dad and I used to go to see all her films and I still love her in Calamity Jane. That’s why I enjoyed Storm Doris recently. It meant we had a Doris Day!

 

...knowing from an early age I wanted to be in show business 

I left school at 16 and got a job singing and playing guitar at the Bournemouth Pavilion with the Jan Ralfini Orchestra. They were a dance band, doing foxtrots and quicksteps, but I’d come out and do the rock ‘n’ roll stuff.

 

...singing to Marty Wilde

I’d sent my tapes to record companies and wasn’t getting anywhere, but Marty was appearing in Bournemouth and staying down the road from us. My sister met him and mentioned me. He invited me round, I auditioned, and he promised to help. He was going through a rough time in his own career, though, and I never heard from him again. But I did get an audition with Decca. They turned me down, saying I was too much like Cliff Richard and sang too well.

 

...my first day working for the pirate radio broadcaster Radio Caroline 

It took an hour to be taken out on a little boat to the radio station on the Mi Amigo, an ex-passenger ship flying under a Panamanian flag, three and a half miles off the coast of Frinton-on-Sea.

In rough seas it was genuinely dangerous. We had force ten gales and once got shipwrecked. In those days, we really did spin records on turntables.

We’d put a threepenny bit on the stylus arm to weigh it down. We’d be getting thrown around, but the records kept on playing, which was really weird.

 

...hating the Richard Curtis film The Boat That Rocked 

It made us out to be drunks and junkies, with loads of girls and parties. But we had a captain on board and it was run like a proper ship. We were in the North Sea. If you’d got drunk and fallen over the side, you’d have died. The film trivialised what we did, which was the important matter of breaking the monopoly of the BBC.

 

...being the first DJ to broadcast on BBC Radio 1 on its launch in September 1967

After Radio Caroline I joined another pirate station, Radio London, but then I met Harold Davison, who handled people including Frank Sinatra. He became my agent. He warned me the writing was on the wall for the pirate stations with the government about to outlaw them.

He said if I came off the ships there would be a job on a new station the BBC was planning to launch. I was given the BBC Radio 1 breakfast show, and that first morning was the only time I’ve ever read from a script, because they’d filmed the opening or TV the night before and I had to do it exactly the same as I’d done it for the camera. I’ve never been nervous on-air, or dried up in front of the radio microphone.

 

...my first one-liner on that very first show

It was: “You know that expression, ‘The worst is yet to come’? It’s not true—I’m here!” I’ve always found it easy to send myself up. Some of my peers take themselves far too seriously. I did the one-liners because Pete Murray used to do them in the early days, and I found them funny. They came naturally to me, though it backfired in a way because it got me the image of being cheesy. I don’t think people realised how much I loved the music.

 

...having a bit of bad luck with my singing career

Being on BBC Radio 1 revived my ambitions, but two weeks after they released my single “So Much Love”, the pressing plant went on strike. Although it was in demand—it went quickly up to number 31—people couldn’t get it.

It dropped out of the charts again and everyone claimed it was a flop. But I did get to make albums such as Tony Blackburn Sings. The song I really liked was “Blessed Are The Lonely”, which never got anywhere. I always say my records are ahead of their time.

 

...getting a Northern Soul hit as Lenny Gamble

Someone released my version of “I’ll Do Anything” as a single on the Northern Soul scene, under the name Lenny Gamble. I went up to the Wigan Casino and was on stage. I signed my autograph on the record as “Tony Blackburn” and they said, “Oh no, can you put ‘Lenny Gamble’ on it?” I’m not sure if they knew it was me! But it was an awful record. A soul record without any soul.

 

...my first wife turned down my inital marriage proposal 

I wish she’d done it the second time—it would have saved me a fortune. Tessa was a great person, but we were very different. My big mistake was sharing the pain of the break-up with BBC Radio 1 listeners. This was the first time I’d had a disaster and I went on about it too long.

 

...getting to know Alan Freeman

I loved Alan and knew him well. He lived by himself, and was quite a lonely character. You’d invite him round for dinner and he’d say, “That would be lovely,” but then cancel. I think he was scared of going out. He was absolutely dedicated to what he was doing, but he never actually said anything on-air except “Right, now, erm...hey-hey!” and that was it.

However, I learned so much from him because the pace of the programme was very fast and he was very good with timing, and when I did Pick of the Pops, with the chart rundown, I always had Alan Freeman in my min

 

...having a part in getting more black music played on the radio

I’d done the first soul show in the country when I was on pirate radio, and when I came onto BBC Radio 1, I played plenty of artists such as Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. These days I’m on six radio stations and on all the shows but one, soul is my main thing. A lot of it is soul pop by groups such as The Stylistics, The Delfonics and Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, but I also like modern artists including Alicia Keys and Shaun Escoffery. It’s happy music and I just get lost in it. And I think people finally appreciate now that I know quite a bit about the music that’s been my life.

 

...first meeting my second wife Debbie while I was playing Buttons in pantomime

She was in the chorus. Then I was at another show she was appearing in. I left a note at the stage door asking her out to lunch and that was it really. I’ve never been out with another woman since, and we’ve been married nearly 25 years. We live in North West London, down a lane which has a farm at the bottom. It’s like being in the countryside, but if you go up the road you’re in Barnet, so it’s very convenient.

 

...being humiliated by Freddie Starr

He’d seen I was at his show, called me up on stage, and said, “Here’s the funniest man in the world,” then just walked off and left me there for five minutes. I thought, Oh God! I told a few gags that died on their feet and then he came back.

I’m really a quiet person and I like my own company. I also find show business parties rather false. That’s why I love radio. I think most of the better radio DJs are the same way—they’re generally not people who are terribly loud.

 

...doing I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! made me better with people

The others on it were terribly argumentative, and I was the oldest, so they’d come to me to sort out their problems. I became the Henry Kissinger of the jungle. The rainforest was beautiful and I felt very calm inside. And that’s lasted ever since. But when I won, the press made it out it as if it had rescued my career, when I’d thought I was doing very well. I was still on the radio six days a week.

 

...listening to [the late] Brian Matthews on the radio when I was at school

This year I succeeded him on Sounds of the 60s. I do it live though, because I’m a believer in interacting with the listeners. The funny thing is a lot of the records I’m playing were new releases when I first went on the radio in 1964.

 

 

 

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