INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
“The Business Side of Beauty”
The first thing Stuart Reid did when he’d signed me to a management deal in September 1973 was put me in the studio to demo the songs he’d heard me play at The Troubadour a few evenings earlier.
The studios were situated between Bond Street and Hanover Square, down some steps outside Chappell Music Publishing’s offices, to the basement. This meant that Stuart could leave his office and pop downstairs anytime to see what I was working on, but he usually gave me a couple of hours to put some demos down before he joined me and the engineer, Chris.
My first session went well, Chris was a really enthusiastic and sympathetic engineer, who genuinely seemed to like my stuff and worked hard at getting a vocal sound he thought suited my voice. What impressed me was how impressed he was by the speed at which I recorded the piano backing tracks, then the lead vocal, then double-tracked the vocal and added a harmony line where needed. We got the tracks, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Family Man, Cue Dream Sequence, Werewolves, Party Deux, Black Leather Lucy, The Business Side of Beauty and Kid In A Big World recorded and mixed in just under three hours, just in time for Stuart to come down and have a listen with Patsy.
“My God!” Chris enthused as his boss took his seat by him at the mixing desk, “This guy is SO fast, Stuart!”
“But is he any good?” Stuart replied, winking at me.
“Listen to these,” Chris said and started the tape.
Stuart started to smile as Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner played, and I knew I’d clinched it. What neither he nor Chris knew, of course, was that, since the age of fourteen, I’d been recording demos on my multi-tracking Grundig tape recorder at home, double-tracking, harmonising with myself, and always, as I’d written any song, imagined the vocal arrangement I would record. The process was second-nature to me, and oddly, a bigger, more professional studio like Chappell didn’t phase me at all. In fact I upped my game, knowing I had to not only please myself but impress a good engineer like Chris and my new manager. Patsy stood behind Stuart and at one point in the second song, Family Man, she put her hand on my shoulder and blinked at me. I learned this was her way of saying, ‘Well done!’.
As the tape played, I could see Stuart getting increasingly excited, his eyes widening when I did a double-tracked falsetto in Werewolves, or a harmony line in Black Leather Lucy. Patsy was well away too, throwing her arms around in a kind of on-the-spot bop, thoroughly loving what she was hearing. As the final track, Kid In A Big World ended, Stuart jumped up, clapped me on the back and began a little jig of his own.
“Fucking brilliant!” he yelled. “Stardom here we fucking come!”
After that first studio session, Stuart asked me if I would go to his office every evening after work (I was still temping at Telephone Rentals during the day) and continue to write more songs. It wasn’t a difficult request, he had a beautiful white grand piano for me to play and always left a bottle of whisky and a glass on a table beside it. I’d arrive about 6.30 in the evening, bid farewell to Stuart as he left for home and settle down until about 10 p.m., happily working on song ideas to my heart’s content. I’d play them for him the next evening and if he liked any of them, he would book Chappell’s for the first available night and I’d go down there to put some more demos down with Chris.
One evening I arrived at Stuart’s office and was introduced to a chap called Eddie Pumer. He was a handsome man with dark brown eyes that burnt into you as he spoke, but he also possessed an endearingly respectful demeanour too.
“I love your songs!” he cried, shaking my hand, as I sat down. “That line in one of them, ‘made up in only beetroot love bites’, great line!”
“The Business Side of Beauty,” I told him.
“That’s the one. Love it. I would really like to record some songs with you, with my band!”
Eddie had been in Kaleidoscope and Fairfield Parlour in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and was now keen to follow his dream to become a full-time producer.
“I think working with a band would be good for you, John,” Stuart said, as if telling me that Eddie would be perfect for me.
So a few nights later, I sat down with Eddie’s four-piece, all Italian chaps who were a delight to work with. I would play the song on the piano as Eddie would sit beside me, studying what I played and write the chords down, then he’d pass around his chord sheets to the two guitar players and bass player, and, along with the drummer, we would spend about twenty minutes routining the song till we were ready to record. They very quickly ‘got’ what I wanted for the song, Eddie egging us on as we got a groove going and then worked it up to a proper arrangement. Eddie would run into the control room, Chris would roll the tape and by the end of the evening we’d done 3 Years (I’m Gonna Make It), Maybe Someday In Miami, Pearl Parade, Small Town, Big Adventures and Third Man. When Stuart arrived at the end of the evening he literally jumped up and down during each track.
“We’ve already got nearly enough for an album, John!” he shouted as Eddie beamed at me and Chris.
Over the next few weeks I wrote several new songs on the white grand, including Spellbound, The Flame, and Deadly Nightshade. They all excited Stuart enough to get me to demo them downstairs but it was when I played him Goodbye Suzie that I thought he was going to cry.
“That’s a hit, John! It’s a fucking hit!” he shouted. Patsy’s blink meant she agreed.
Stuart compiled a tracklisting for what he saw as my ‘album’, his favourite demos, which Chris put together on a reel-to-reel for Stuart to play to record companies.
“They’ll be queuing up to sign you,” he assured me.
On one of my evening visits to Chappell’s offices, I found Stuart looking a bit uneasy. He pointed to a chair by his desk, which was his silent ‘Sit down, John’, and, taking off his reading glasses, which always implied he had something serious to tell me, he said:
“A guy called Peter rang me today.”
For a moment I wasn’t sure who he meant, then as Stuart continued, I realised who it was:
“He said he’d recorded a tape of your songs earlier this year.”
“Yes, he did,” I replied without hesitation, and told Stuart the story of how I’d met Peter and Ann a few months earlier in a Manchester folk club and what had eventually transpired after I’d recorded that tape in the Civic Hall in Ramsbottom. “Is there a problem?” I asked, just checking my memory that I hadn’t signed any pieces of paper for Peter. I hadn’t, and said so.
“Well,” Stuart said, starting to doodle on a pad in front of him, another sign I soon learnt which meant that he was concerned, “he is offering to let me have the tape, if I want it.”
“Do you want it? I’ve demo’d all the songs which were on that tape for you downstairs, in a proper studio.”
“No. I don’t. Especially as this Peter chap has kind of intimated he wants something for the tape.”
“Not sure. Money, a stake in you, perhaps. I don’t know. We didn’t get that far. I told him I wasn’t interested, that you were now signed to me, and that he should walk away and not call me again.”
Although Stuart’s story disturbed me, it didn’t sound like Peter at all to make such a call, or to want anything from anyone. When I got home I rang him, but it was Ann who answered the phone. She was initially a little cool when she heard my voice:
“Peter’s not here,” she told me. “Shall I ask him to call you when he gets in?”
I heard a baby crying and realised,
“Oh! You’ve had the baby!”
“Yes! A little girl.” Ann’s voice warmed.
“I was thinking of coming to see you and Peter.”
“That would be nice.”
“When would be convenient for you?”
We arranged that I’d pop round that weekend.
Ann met me at the door as I walked up the path and welcomed me in with a smile, holding her new sleeping baby girl as she led me through to the sitting-room. I hadn’t been back to the house since I’d moved out a few weeks earlier, but it was as cosy and homely as I remembered, with that recognisable smell of baking permeating through the house.
“Would you like some tea?” Ann asked me.
There was no Sophie this time to offer me Jasmine, in fact none of the kids were there. They’d gone out to the playground with their dad, Ann explained.
I followed Ann to the kitchen and stood leaning against one of the units as I asked her how she was coping with being a new mum again, watching her gently put the little girl into her 1950s style huge pram.
“Like riding a bike,” she said, and went over to put on the kettle.
I decided to jump right in and risk drowning:
“I am so sorry about Peter’s phone call with Stuart, Ann.”
“Yes,” she said, turning to face me. “He was, well, he was very hurt, John.”
“I only found out about it when Stuart told me about it.”
“Your manager seemed to think Peter wanted something for the tape.” She glanced over at me with wide-eyes, tears forming in them. “He didn’t, John. He just thought it might be useful, there may be something there your manager could use.”
I didn’t say anything of what Stuart had intimated to me, that he thought Peter did want something in return and just said,
“I know Peter wouldn’t even think of such a thing. Obviously a misunderstanding. Stuart is a good guy, Ann. He really believes in me.”
As she poured the tea into little bone china cups, added milk and handed mine to me she said,
“Yes, I’m sure he is. But, be careful, John. He did seem to Peter to feel like he now owned you.”
“I guess, musically at least, he now does. I’ve signed a contract with him to manage me for the next five years. He’s spending his money to put me in the studios, and next week his wife and I are going to look for clothes for me, which again Stuart is paying for.”
“What’s wrong with the ones you’ve got? You look fine to me as you are.”
We sat down at the scrubbed pine kitchen table:
“Stuart feels I could be a star, so he wants to make me look like one.”
Ann stared into the middle-distance:
“Hm. All I would say is…don’t lose yourself, who you are is great, it was, apart from your music, what attracted Peter and I to you, you were so natural on stage. Not at all star-like, just lovely to watch.”
I smiled at her, nodded my head, but inside felt she was wrong. If I was to be the Big Star I wanted to be, I had to follow what a professional manager planned for me. I knew nothing about how to make it, while Stuart had been involved with star names since the 1960s. At that point, the front door opened and in ran the kids, all excited to see me, hurling questions at me, telling me how much they’d missed me, Sophie asking if it was jasmine tea I was drinking. When I told her, no, it was PG Tips, she turned to her mum and, looking very cross, said,
“Oh mum! John loves jasmine tea!”
“It’s fine,” I said, “you can make me a jasmine tea next time.”
Then Peter walked in. He smiled a little distantly at me, came and shook my hand, but no hug, and leaned against a work-top, arms folded. He asked me how I was doing, what news I had, and listened intently as I told him about the demo sessions and Stuart’s plans for me. Finally he nodded, almost to himself, and just said quietly, more to the floor than to me,
“Sounds like you’ve found the right guy.”
When he looked up at me, he seemed very sad.
“I hope so, Peter,” I replied, trying to throw him a smile, but it wasn’t received and hovered above us. Ann caught it instead and smiled at Peter, going over to hold his hand:
“It’s very exciting for you, John!” She nudged Peter who finally smiled at me.
“I wish you all the best,” he said. “You deserve it.”
We all sat round the table, with the kids running in and out all the while, and chatted amiably for another ten minutes or so, but it was obvious that Ann needed to get a meal going for her family, so I excused myself, kissed Ann on the cheek, said goodbye to the kids as Peter followed me to the door alone.
“Take care, John,” he said as he shook my hand again. “A step at a time, eh?”
I wanted to apologise to him personally for the phone call but decided not to. It would have sounded rather empty and I hoped Ann would tell him what I had said about it. As I turned to go, Peter said,
“Be amazing. I know you will be.”
I turned to reply but he was already closing the door with a final glance in my direction. I never saw him, Ann or the kids again. Our time together, and we all knew it, was over.
One little postscript to this. After my phone to Ann before my final visit, I had called to chat to my mum, as I regularly did, and mentioned to her that Ann had had a new baby. Always thrilled about new arrivals, she had knitted a little baby outfit for her and posted it in a brown paper parcel to Ann. The next time I went to visit Mum, a few weeks later, she told me how she had never had a response to her gift, obviously hurt and disappointed. I said it had probably got lost in the post. It may have done. Who knows? I could have rung to find out if they’d got it but didn’t. I should have, of course, if only to find out for my mum that it had never arrived. Anyhow, I thought at the time it was best to let Mum believe it had been mislaid in the post, and somehow, another uncomfortable conversation where misunderstandings could have been flying down the phone line, was not something I wanted to have with either Ann or Peter.
Have there been regrets I didn’t call? Of course.
One crisp sunny morning in early October, feeling very excited, if a little apprehensive, I met Patsy at Chappell’s from where we trotted off, first of all, to Biba in Kensington High Street. The huge art deco store had become the place all fashionable folk went to at that time, especially after Roxy Music had credited the store on their album sleeves, ‘Clothes by Biba’. While it was great to visit and rather lovely to wander round its cavernous rooms and admire the satin shirts, billowing trousers, paisley scarves, sequinned shoes and various odd-looking cape things which were draped around naked mannequins, I wasn’t in truth all that impressed. The store felt more like an art gallery or clothes museum, under-stocked, over-priced tat, as though someone with a lot of spare cash had bought the biggest shop they could find and then discovered they didn’t have enough things to fill it. There were enormous areas of under-lit empty floor spaces filled more with the sound of David Bowie and Roxy Music blaring out from sound-surround speakers than actual merchandise, or indeed enough lighting to see what was on offer. Staff tended to stand around aimlessly in little groups looking gorgeously bored, more like models awaiting their call to strut their stuff than shop assistants. The latter part of their job description hadn’t been explained to them, whereas ‘staring vacuously’ obviously had.
Still, we found a couple of nice blue satin tops and a pair of bell-bottom purple silk trousers, a sequinned top-hat, and a pair of six-inch heeled brown and gold platform shoes. And we enjoyed a snack lunch upstairs in The Rainbow Room restaurant, though the price of a fairly ordinary cheese and salad sandwich, which Patsy paid for without batting an eyelid, made my eyes water. Again the room was huge, all art deco back-lit splendour and Noel Coward trilling away in the background. I wanted to feel excited at being there, but didn’t. I found the whole place pretentious, cheap-looking and ridiculously expensive.
Our next stop was far more productive. Herbie Frogg’s in Jermyn Street oozed tailoring class and a sense of history. Smart shop assistants bubbled around busily, bidding you ‘Good afternoon’ as they walked past with a bolt of fabric in hand. It all felt purposeful and professional. A very pleasant Spanish chap walked towards us, greeted us charmingly, listened carefully to what Patsy told him we needed, and within a few minutes I was being measured for a new suit. We eventually plumped for a pinstripe double-breasted number, “accentuates your slim frame,” Patsy advised. We also bought some white and red embossed cotton shirts and a few beautiful silk ties. I’d also seen in the window a couple of gorgeous wide-brimmed fedora hats, one white, one red, so I tried them on. Patsy and the enthusiastic salesman purred as I looked at myself in the mirror, so they were added in to our purchases. I’d also fallen in love with a pair of black and white brogues one of the mannequins was wearing, so tried those on too. Another box ticked. We got back to Chappell’s laden down with ‘HF’ and Biba shopping bags, which we emptied on Stuart’s desk and showed him everything we’d bought. He was impressed with the Frogg stuff, less so with the Biba frippery.
“The suit will be ready in a couple of days,” Patsy told him.
“I’ll come with you to have that fitted, John,” Stuart said. “I know how a good suit should look and feel.”
He took us for a quick meal to Kettner’s in Soho, all high white stuccoed ceilings and huge sash windows overlooking the bustling West End streets. The dinner-jacketed pianist tinkled away on the Steinway Grand as we tucked into the most expensive egg and chips I had ever eaten. Everytime someone walked in to take their table, Stuart would wave to them, then quietly tell me who they were. Artist managers, producers, publishers, people he’d known for decades. Patsy would reminisce about the Mediterranean holidays they’d taken with so-and-so in the corner, or about the DJ near the window who had played Stuart’s first hit in the ‘60s. The Maitre D’, a dapper octogenarian gent with twinkling eyes, came over and shook Stuart’s hand, kissed Patsy on the cheek and welcomed me warmly to “my beautiful restaurant!”.
Then, meal over, out on the streets of Soho again, we bid Stuart goodbye and Patsy whisked me off to her hairdresser’s in Knightsbridge. I was praying my bosses at Telephone Rentals weren’t out and about there, as I’d rung that morning, once again, to tell them I was sick.
The brightly-lit establishment was a hive of chic and noisy activity as Susan, Patsy’s personal hairdresser, took me to a chair and stroking and combing my long hair, excitedly declared that I had “great hair!” and all it needed was “a bit of styling.”
“We don’t want to lose too much length,” she told Patsy, who nodded in agreement, “just give it a bit of body. Let’s get a fringe thing going as well and go from there.”
Half an hour later, after being preened, washed and cut, I looked in the mirror at this transformed kid, with shiny hair that no longer hung limply from a Lennon centre parting down my back, but now bobbed everytime I moved my head with full-bodied life.
“You look gorgeous!” Susan exclaimed, as I swished my head from side to side like some Silvikrin model.
“He looked gorgeous before, Susan,” Patsy said, doing her blink at me, “just even more so now.”
As we walked back to Hanover Square to meet Stuart for dinner, Patsy told me she was even more convinced now that I would be a star.
“The way you handled everything today, John, it was like you were born to it. I can’t believe that just a few months ago you’d come down from a tiny northern town with very little money and no experience of city life. Look at you now. You even carry yourself like a star!”
A cold autumn wind blew around us but I felt an inner glow no icy temperature outside could cool.
A couple of days later, I was fitted for my suit. Stuart watched me admiringly as I looked at myself in the mirror, the salesman picking at various parts of it and suggesting a nip here, a tuck there.
“I think you just grew another two inches, John,” Stuart said.
“He has!” the salesman cried. “A man born to wear a good suit!”
That evening, Stuart and Patsy took me to the White Elephant restaurant. It was a hubbub of chatter, clinking glasses and crockery which chimed wonderfully with the sense of the confident enjoyment of success. I’d dressed in my new outfit of pinstripe suit, white fedora, white cotton shirt and striped black and white silk tie, finished off with my raised-heel brogues and felt like a million dollars. As we were shown to our table Stuart beamed around the room, waving at various smiling people, his glow reflecting on me like a stage spotlight. As we sat down a broad-shouldered handsome man came over to us, hand outstretched to Stuart.
“Mitch!” Stuart cried, grabbing his hand with both of his. “Let me introduce you to my artist, John Howard. John, meet Mitch Murray.”
“Pleased to meet you, John!” Mitch said, oozing success and confidence. “You’re with the right guy, that’s for sure!” and he patted Stuart on the back.
“Come for dinner!” Patsy said, “Soon!”
“That’s a date, lovely lady!” and he kissed Patsy’s hand.
When he’d gone back to his table, I said:
“Mitch Murray! Wow! He’s written so many hit songs!”
“So many,” Patsy said, shaking her head.
“Yes, he and Peter Callander have a huge catalogue of smash hits to their name,” Stuart agreed.
“Stuart and I have known Mitch for years, John. We celebrated his first Number One with him…”
“How Do You Do It,” Stuart interjected.
“Gerry and The Pacemakers,” I added. “Their first of three No.1s, and the first British act to achieve that with their first three singles.”
Stuart’s eyes widened, and he nudged Patsy:
“This boy is not only talented, he knows his pop music too!”
“Mitch wrote Gerry’s second No.1, didn’t he?” I asked, though I knew the answer before Stuart told me.
“Yep, I Like It. Great song!”
The waiter came to take our drinks order just as another smiling chap strode over to our table:
“Stuart! Patsy!” he said.
“Les!” Patsy cried.
“Les Reed as I stand and breathe!” Stuart said laughing, and standing to greet him clapped him on the shoulder. “Let me introduce you to my artist, John Howard.”
I stood and shook Les’s hand.
“This is such a great guy, John!” Les said, pointing at Stuart. “The best! We have had so many hits together, Stuart and I!”
Stuart smiled at Les, then at me.
“What was our first hit, Les?”
“It’s Not Unusual!” Les replied. He turned to me. “We offered it to Sandie Shaw, you know, John, and she turned it down, so we gave it to the guy who’d done the demo for me. A certain Tom Jones!”
“My favourite was The Last Waltz,” Patsy said. “Such a great song.”
“How many million did it sell, Les?” Stuart asked. They were quite the double-act.
“Four million and counting, Stuart!”
Stuart patted me on the shoulder and winked at Les:
“This guy, Les, is going to write songs that sell millions too. I guarantee it.”
“With you, Stuart, anything is possible!”
As Les went back to his friends, the waiter, who had politely stood to one side until the jolly conversation came to an end, took our order.
“Champagne!” Stuart said. “I want to celebrate the birth of my new star!”
“Christ! You know everyone, Stuart!” I said, smiling over at Les Reed who smiled back.
“And everyone knows Stuart,” Patsy said. “That, John, is your calling card.”
The next stage in Stuart’s JH portfolio building was arranging a photo session.
“We have got you your Look, now, John, so we must now make sure everyone sees that, every record company A & R man will have your face looking at them as he falls in love with your songs!”
One rainy October evening, he took me to a tiny back street building in Soho, where we ascended a slightly seedy set of stairs and wandered through a scuff-marked off-white door marked ‘Dezo Hoffman – Photographic Studio’ into rather a large empty room. A sturdy middle-aged small man in horn-rimmed glasses came from behind a partition to greet us:
“Stuart! My old friend! How are you?” he cried in an Eastern European accent.
“Dezo!” Stuart cried back, slapping him on the back. “This is my artist John Howard.”
I shook Dezo’s warm large hand and he smiled at me, then at Stuart:
“Good looking boy!”
Stuart beamed at Dezo then at me.
We followed Dezo round the room, as he nattered away about what he could do regarding lighting, set-ups, and showed us various screens which were propped against the cream walls (they were actually white, but hadn’t been painted for years). Lights of different sizes stood at ease as their master started picking out some of them and positioning them, head tilted to one side as he made a lens square with his hands and pointed it at me.
“You have a good slim figure,” he murmured, more to himself than to me, “a young face and good cheekbones, so I will not need to light you too kindly. You can stand some harsh lighting with your features.”
What Stuart may have told me in part as we’d wandered through Soho to Dezo’s studio that rainy evening, but which I probably hadn’t taken in, was that Hoffman, a Slovakian photojournalist, had photographed some of the biggest names in pop music through the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John and Pink Floyd had all been given the Dezo treatment. His black and white shots of pop stars had become iconic. He’d also photographed Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier in his long career. As a young man, he’d worked at Twentieth Century Fox in Paris and gone on various infamous assignments in the 1930s such as filming Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and surviving a period in Spain during the Civil War. He’d met Hemingway and became a great friend of his. In the mid-‘50s he’d started work at Record Mirror and so began his long career photographing pop stars and celebrities.
In 1962, he had struck up a long-standing friendship with The Beatles, after travelling to Liverpool to take photos of the then largely unknown group, and immediately sealing a bond with them. His candid shots of The Fab Four through to about 1966, are now, of course, featured in numerous books and exhibitions. Paul McCartney reportedly once said that Dezo was “the world’s best photographer.”
That October evening, however, I just found him a pleasant little man who worked hard to relax me in front of his peering lens, as it closed in on me, the white lights slightly blinding me. Patsy turned up halfway through the session and Dezo was impressed by the change in my expression as I greeted her.
“Patsy!” he declared, “Go and stand in front of John, out of camera range but close enough so he looks at you…” She settled herself on a stool a few feet from me… “Now, John, look at Patsy…There! You see, Stuart! His whole face changes, softens, relaxes when he’s looking at your wife! You should be a worried man!”
Stuart chuckled, “Oh, I don’t think I need worry about that, Dezo.”
The two men exchanged glances and Dezo nodded knowingly.
“Still, he loves Patsy, that’s for sure!” he said, nodding at her and winking.
I found the session rather stilted and uncomfortable, not used to posing in various outfits as a photographer closed in on me, a bit like being in a dentist’s chair, or having an eye test, the two-hour session was full of bright lights, peering eyes, and a sense that I was being judged every second, every twitch, look, smile, movement of the head was greeted by “Yes! That’s good! Do that again! Lower your head! Look at Patsy! Stand up, over there, yes!”
The results, on sheaths of shiny paper with dozens of tiny black and white shots of me in various poses and settings, looked at through a magnifying glass with Stuart and Patsy the following afternoon at Chappell, were, for all that, rather splendid. Stuart circled about half a dozen of what he thought were the best shots and called in a young lad to take the envelope back to Dezo so he could make up Ten-By-Eights of them.
“Next week I begin the hard work, John. I’m going to put together several John Howard folders, photos, tapes, a biog, and take them to all the top A & R men in London, and wait for the phone to ring – it shouldn’t be long before we’re inundated with offers of a deal!”
After about two weeks, still arriving in the evening to compose new songs on the white grand with a bottle of whisky for company, I plucked up the courage to ask Stuart if he’d heard back from any of the record companies. He shuffled a little in his seat and looked down at his desk, fiddling with a pen, clicking it distractedly. Finally, he let out a long sigh:
“Well, John, I still believe in you, but sadly, I’ve had a pretty negative response so far. EMI and Warners have both said ‘definitely no’, Phonogram and Polydor can’t make up their minds, and CBS seemed interested at first but have gone cool in the last couple of days, not returning my calls.”
I tried to sound upbeat, but my heart was sinking. ‘Here we go again,’ I thought.
Stuart suddenly brightened:
“Jonathan King loves you though!” he said. “He thinks Family Man is a hit.”
King was then a hitmaker in his own right, with eight Top Thirty hits of his own, and recently his label UK Records had enjoyed huge success with 10cc, who’d notched up three Top Ten singles and a growing reputation for perfectly crafted pop records.
“Why don’t we sign with him, then?” I asked.
Stuart shook his head:
“I want you to have a deal with a big record company, John,” he explained. “One-off singles are fine, but you should have a long-term career as an albums artist who sells millions of records, you are not just a one-hit wonder.”
The truth was, at that moment, having even one hit single seemed like a great idea to me, and I wanted to push Stuart to accept King’s offer of a singles deal, but I decided to trust my manager’s judgement, and be patient.
The phone rang at my Kilburn flat one evening while I was sitting chatting to Phillipa and Kerry over a bottle of red wine. Philippa’s eyes lit up:
“The call I was waiting for!” she cried and jumped up to answer it.
I heard her bright little voice deflate into disappointment as she said,
“Yes, John’s here, who’s calling?”
She poked her head round the doorframe, trying a smile, “It’s your manager, John.”
Kerry held up the bottle of wine as Philippa sat down, “So Mr Right is Mr No-Show?”
“They’re all Mr No-Shows these days, darling,” she moaned and held out her glass for a refill.
Stuart sounded very perky on the phone:
“John! CBS’s Head of A&R, Dan Loggins has called to say they love your tape and want to see you perform somewhere. I’ve booked a little eaterie-cum-night club in Knightsbridge, Small’s. Do you know it?”
I didn’t, and again hoped none of the Telephone Rentals crowd ate there after work as I’d had quite a few days ‘off sick’ in recent weeks. It was only a temp job and I just got paid for the days I worked. But still, I felt guilty at keep letting them down, even though it was a boring clerical job filling in cards and filing them which anyone with half a brain could do. However, it paid my rent and I couldn’t afford to lose it.
“I’ve booked Small’s for tomorrow night, John, meet Patsy and I at Chappell’s at 6.30, you’re on at 8, CBS are sending their A & R team to see you. Wear the full gear, glamour is the word!”
Small’s was actually quite large, very chic with a lovely white baby grand in the centre of where people ate. As we arrived a handsome man with a thick bushy moustache and twinkling eyes marched towards us and shook my hand:
“John! Great to meet you! I’m Dan Loggins!” he said with a languid American accent I immediately adored.
“Good to meet you too, Dan!” I said as brightly as I could muster, trying to match his American verve. “Loggins? No relation to…?”
“Kenny Loggins is my brother!” Dan said, with an expression which said ‘everyone asks me that.’
I’d loved Kenny’s ‘Danny’s Song’ which Anne Murray had had a hit with a couple of years earlier, and knew some of the Loggins & Messina records.
Standing behind Dan was a younger red-haired chap, who smiled at me rather shyly the whole time I was talking. Dan saw me looking at him and jumped backwards:
“Hey! Sorry Paul! I should introduce you. John, this is my A & R manager, Paul Phillips.”
Paul stepped forward and in a soft Brummie accent shook my hand and said,
“I absolutely love your music, John.”
Feeling very good about things again, I sang well that evening, and loved the piano I was playing. Other diners seemed to enjoy what I played as well. Whenever I looked across at Dan and Paul sitting with Stuart and Patsy, Dan was in deep conversation with Stuart while Patsy and Paul just watched me, smiling to themselves and nodding to each other at the end of each song.
After we made our goodbyes outside the restaurant, with lots of waving and ‘I’ll call you, Stuart!” cries from Dan down Knightsbridge High Street, Stuart and Patsy walked me to the tube. They seemed thrilled with how the evening had gone.
“I’m expecting a phone call from Dan tomorrow!” Stuart assured me as I went down the steps to take the train home.
I arrived as usual at Chappell’s the next evening expecting some good news. So I was surprised to find Stuart looking rather glum, twitchy even. I asked him if he was alright.
“John, come and stand over here,” Stuart replied, rather oddly.
I did as he asked and stood opposite him.
“Now, shake my hand.”
“Yes, Dan’s right,” Stuart said rather despairingly. “Your handshake is terrible, John.”
I was puzzled. He’d never said this to me before.
“Dan says you have to develop a much stronger handshake. He said it was like shaking hands with a waterfall last night.”
“What has that got to do with my music?” I asked.
“Nothing, John, but it has everything to do with how you present yourself to CBS executives.”
He could see how mystified I was.
“A lot of them are rough tough New York guys, John, they expect men to be manly. Soft is fine for women, but not for men.”
I actually laughed out loud:
“What cave did they crawl out of? Hello? Ziggy Stardust was hardly Mr Butch! Marc Bolan was never going to win Mr Universe!”
“But you are not Ziggy Stardust, John. You are not Marc Bolan. You are John Howard, English gent. These Americans see you as an upright masculine British guy, dressed fabulously, chic, full of confidence. Then you shake their hand and they realise…”
“That I’m just a rather effeminate gay guy.”
Stuart looked slightly impatient:
“You can be what you are as often as you like when you’re with friends, John, I don’t give a damn what you do, who you sleep with. You can hang from a chandelier with carrots up your arse for all I care. But John Howard, CBS Recording Artist, he’s a different guy. It’s all about image, perception. I’ve sold you as an all-English boy next door, charming,, funny, erudite, and…”
“I’ve never actually mentioned your sexuality, John. But we have to give them what they want. Or no deal. Now! Shake my hand again!”
Reluctantly, I did.
“Better. Now, shake my hand again, even more firmly, and stop dropping your wrist. It’s like you’re expecting me to kiss your hand.”
“Maybe I am, Stuart!”
“If we get the deal with CBS, I will, John, believe me. But bear with me. Now, shake my hand again!”
Over the next ten minutes, we went through this bizarre process where I made each handshake firmer than the last, until finally, Stuart flinched:
“Perfect! Strong as a rod of iron! Now keep that up. I want Dan to be writhing in agony next time you shake his hand.”
Disappointingly, after the Small’s gig and the surreal phone call from Dan about my handshake, things went quiet again on the CBS front. I could tell Stuart was getting exasperated. They seemed really enthusiastic one minute then wouldn’t return Stuart’s calls for days. When someone did come to the phone it was to tell him they were still discussing me.
Towards the end of November, I was having dinner at Stuart and Patsy’s house in Willesden Green, just a short walk from my flat in Kilburn, and enjoying the company of a young singer-songwriter called Biddu. ‘Bid’, as he was known, was a long-standing friend of the Reids, a very attractive beautifully dressed Indian man, great stature and a wonderful smile. As he sat playing us his new songs on the guitar he’d brought along, I could hear something special in there, and while he didn’t have the greatest voice, there was a lovely melodic content to what he’d composed. As we went to the table to eat Patsy’s as always glorious food, Bid turned to me and said,
“I really love your music, John. I’d love to produce you.”
Stuart looked at Patsy then at me, and as we tucked into the starter, said to Bid,
“I think we really need a name producer for John, Bid. CBS have said they need a big name to get John noticed.”
I could see how disappointed Bid was, but he took it in good cheer, and we continued to enjoy the meal, listening to Stuart’s always entertaining stories of his time in the music business.
“How are things going at CBS, Stu?” Bid asked.
“Well, it’s difficult to say. They seem really keen on John, love his music, then it goes quiet, then I get weird calls about his handshake…”
Bid look mystified.
“Don’t ask, Bid. It’s crazy. Then today I get a call from someone in marketing saying they want to change his name!”
This was news to me and obviously to Patsy too. She stared at Stuart:
“Change his name? To what?”
“They think Christopher Howard or Sean Howard is more interesting than John Howard.”
“Utter nonsense!” Patsy huffed, helping herself rather stroppily to more salad.
“I can’t see how either name is better,” Bid added, taking the salad bowl and putting some on his plate.
“John?” Stuart said, “What do you think?”
Without hesitation I said, “No way. My name is John Howard. I don’t suddenly want to become Christopher or Sean!”
Stuart banged the table, sending the salad bowl dancing across it:
“Great! My feelings entirely. I’ll call CBS tomorrow and tell them it’s John Howard or nothing!”
As we heard nothing more from the label through December, I assumed it was, sadly, nothing. Then about a week before Christmas, Stuart called me at home:
“John? Get your bags packed my boy, we’re going to Madrid tomorrow!”
The first thing I thought was ‘What am I going to tell my boss at TR this time?’.
“Because, John Howard, you have been commissioned to write the theme song for the next Peter Fonda movie, that’s why!”
It turned out Stuart was an old friend of the film director Peter Collinson, and in conversation he’d mentioned to Stuart he was looking for songs to start and end the movie he was filming with Fonda and William Holden in Spain. Stuart had sent Peter my demo tape and within a week received a call from Peter shouting down the phone, “I want John Howard to write my songs!”
I just spluttered, “Right! What time shall I meet you?” down the phone.
“Taxi’s picking you up at your flat at 7 a.m., John. Set your alarm for six. Don’t be late!”
This was amazing news. Peter Collinson was an iconic director, Up The Junction, The Italian Job to name just two classic films he’d directed. In fact he had featured his godfather Noel Coward in The Italian Job. And now, I was off to Madrid the following morning to meet him and watch the film rushes of his new movie.
As we were off so early in the morning, I begged Phillipa to call TR for me and tell them I had the ‘flu. She was so excited for me she agreed without too much begging being needed.
Stuart chatted to me as we boarded the plane, telling me that Peter had said to him that, until he’d heard my demos, he had been considering Don McLean to write the film’s songs. I was just digesting that information when the steward grabbed hold of my shoulder and said,
“This way, sir.”
I was automatically making for Economy, but, with a thrilled smile, he gently redirected me through a curtain into the First Class seating area.
“If you’d like to take your seat, sir, and we’ll be along shortly to take your breakfast order.”
“This is how it’s going to be from now on, John,” Stuart said as we sat down and were offered a glass of champagne. He lifted his bubbling glass to mine and said, “To success! To stardom!”
We were met at Madrid airport by a suited gentleman who shielded us from the pouring rain as he led us to a limousine, into which we sank, the smell of real leather, wood panelling and an expensive cologne permeating the car. Ten minutes later, we were escorted by the doorman into a beautiful hotel, probably with the largest foyer area I had ever seen, apart from in Fred Astaire movies. Whisked up to a suite of rooms by a respectful porter, I assumed they were for Stuart and I to share. But when he followed the porter along the corridor, I realised all this was mine!
“Settle yourself in, John,” Stuart said over his shoulder. “I’ll call you in a couple of hours and we’ll have an early dinner, ready for tomorrow.”
I closed the door and wandered around my huge suite which seemed to go on forever, comprising an enormous beautifully furnished sitting room, with a beautiful large vase of white lilies on the coffee table, two massive bedrooms, a bathroom which Cleopatra would have felt at home in, and my own fully-stocked mini-bar beneath a smoke-glass counter under dimmed spotlighting, packed with glasses and goblets.
I picked a bedroom, sat on the bed and fell back laughing my head off. Less than six months earlier, I’d been living in a tiny village in Lancashire, working as a postman, playing folk clubs at night for at most £5 a go, and dreaming that perhaps one day I would make it with my music and enjoy some success. And now, here I was, in the centre of Madrid, surrounded by rooms straight out of a Hollywood movie, treated like a star and about to begin work on writing songs for a Peter Fonda movie directed by one of the greatest living film directors. I picked up the phone and rang reception:
“Hello. Could you call a UK number for me and charge it to my room, it’s…”
“Room 150, sir. Yes, immediately. What is the number you wish to call?”
A couple of minutes later I heard my mum answer the phone. She sounded tired, battling as she was with cancer.
“Mum?!” I shouted.
“Ee, hello, love! Are you alright?” Her voice brightened.
“You will never guess where I am right now…”
Stuart woke me at 6.30 the following morning:
“Good morning, John! Hope you slept well! Order breakfast from room service and meet me in reception at 8 o’clock. They’re sending a car for us at 8.15.”
The limo whisked us through the rain-drenched streets of Madrid as Stuart chatted about how this commission to write the songs for Peter’s film may give CBS the “kick up the pants they need.” Finally, we arrived at a large building on an industrial estate outside the city and, as the car pulled up, a bright-faced red-haired girl came running out of there to greet us:
“Hi! I’m Sue!” she cried, as we got out of the car, “Peter’s inside waiting to see you! God! This weather! What a welcome!”
Trying and failing to shelter us under a tiny pink brolly, she ushered us in to a small ante-room where a tall, gangly bearded man sat smoking an exotic-smelling cigarette. As we entered the room he stood and strode forward:
“Stuart Reid! Do my eyes deceive me? You look even younger than you did last time I saw you!”
Stuart was indeed a very youthful fifty-eight. He laughed, shook Peter’s hand and stood aside to introduce me, but Peter didn’t wait:
“John! It is such a pleasure to meet you! I adore your music! I am extremely honoured that you will be writing songs for my movie.”
I was about to say the honour was all mine when Sue dashed in with a clipboard:
“Peter! William needs to speak to you!”
Peter grinned at us and took a long drag on his cigarette:
“Excuse me, chaps, when the star of one’s movie calls, one runs!”
Sue smiled at me as Peter rushed by her:
“William Holden!” she said nodding excitedly. “You’ll meet him later, John!”
‘Christ!’ I thought. ‘The star of Sunset Boulevard! The fucking star of Sunset fucking Boulevard!’.
Sue offered Stuart and I a coffee and asked if we minded if she smoked. Getting the green light, she took out a pack of Gauloise cigarettes and once again that exotic aroma filled the room as she blew impressive smoke rings, speaking animatedly about how the movie was going:
“Fonda’s a darling but quite mad. Carries a gun everywhere. That’s been a bit of a problemette in Spain, but we’ve managed to keep him out of jail. William is quite different, very quiet, very much a gentleman.” More smoke rings rose to the ceiling, and she stared intensely at me. “This film will blow your mind, John. It will inspire you to write something truly great.”
No pressure then.
Peter returned like a hurricane into the room, explaining to Sue that everything was fine with William, got a cigarette out of her pack, sat down next to me and, looking me straight in the eye, began a long, thoughtful monologue, punctuated with little wags of his finger to emphasise a point:
“John. This film is going to be very big. It’s thought-provoking, yes it’s brutal, but it’s also touching, and it’s heartbreaking. Your music, I know this, will be perfect for it. When I heard the tape Stuart sent me I literally jumped across the room and turned up the volume full…didn’t I Sue?”
Sue nodded eagerly at us all and blew an even bigger smoke ring.
“Sue knows I am not an easy man to please.” Raised eyebrows from Sue. “I demand perfection of my crew, my actors, my production people, and in your music I heard perfection. SO fucking amazing, man!! How old are you?”
“Fucking incredible. You write like a man who has lived a lot longer than twenty years!”
Sue nodded even more eagerly at me.
“What I want you to be aware of, John, is that this film, your involvement in this film, will make the world talk about your music for years to come. This film will change your life.”
Both Sue and Stuart were now nodding at me eagerly. I felt like joining in.
“Now, come with me gents and watch what I believe will be the best film of 1974.”
In a fairly small viewing room, the large screen in front of us lighting up the smoke which rose from various seats – smoke rings rising regularly in the front row – I watched with Stuart as the uncut four hour movie unfolded. Open Season was indeed brutal, it told the story of three young guys, played by Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law and Richard Lynch, who had raped a young, under-age girl, in a car as students. As grown successful businessmen a few years later, and now damaged by their previous experiences in Vietnam, they go on their annual hunting weekends together, but, on this particular weekend, they decide to hunt a different kind of prey. They kidnap a young couple they see at a garage on the way, take them to their hunting lodge and proceed to rape, humiliate and torture them, until finally making them run for their lives as they hunt them down. Their wives back home have no idea what they are getting up to as they return home with a stag tied to the roof of their car, with jolly plans for a venison barbecue the following weekend.
The young girl they had raped years earlier had, unknown to them, given birth to a baby boy and shortly after had killed herself, the boy being raised by her grandfather, played by William Holden. He turns the hunters into the hunted as he follows them to their lodge and, one-by-one, shoots them as they run from him in terror.
It made uncomfortable viewing and everyone was very quiet as the film ended with Holden’s character sailing away from the lodge, job done. As I readied to leave my seat Peter walked over to us and introduced me to Peter Fonda. As I held out my hand to shake his, Fonda mimed shooting me with a gun, blew on his fingers and tipped his hat at me and winked.
“What did you think, guys?” Collinson asked Stuart and me as Fonda carried on up the aisle, slapping his co-actors on the back as they left the viewing room.
“Amazing film,” Stuart replied.
“Incredible,” I said, “Really powerful. I’ve already got an idea for the songs I’m going to write.”
“Yes, well….” Peter put his arm round my shoulder and led me up the aisle into daylight, “…I’ve been thinking. I want you to not only write two songs for the movie, how about also writing some music, or songs, for the scenes on the road and in the boat?”
Those scenes were very disturbing, the three men hailing the puzzled couple in their car, pretending to be traffic cops, kidnapping them at gunpoint, and then, later, taunting the man and woman on a boat as they sailed up a river to their lodge.
“Sure!” I said enthusiastically.
We had a great film crew dinner that evening in a large packed restaurant in the centre of Madrid, Peter regaling us with stories of his godfather Noel Coward, working with him and Michael Caine on The Italian Job and Dennis Waterman on Up The Junction. I felt completely at home with these wonderful creative people. Ramsbottom, Lancs seemed a million miles away.
On the flight home with Stuart the following morning, I wrote down the first couple of verses of what became Casting Shadows. Stuart glanced over and said,
“Inspired already, John?”
“Of course!” I said, writing down another line. “How could I not be?”
A few days later I was in Chappell Studios recording piano and voice demos of four songs I’d written for the film. Casting Shadows, which I saw as opening the movie over the scene where the raped girl lifts her hands to a rain-soaked car window after her ordeal; Missing Key, which I imagined as ending the film, over the scene with William Holden riding away on his power boat after killing the three rapists; and two others I saw for the road and boat scenes Peter had mentioned. Stuart sent the tape off to Peter and we waited for his reaction.
Just before Christmas, the response came, Peter calling Stuart as I was eating dinner with him and Patsy at their home. I could hear Stuart talking quietly on the phone in the hall as Patsy smiled at me across the dinner table. Finally, Stuart came back in, all smiles:
“Peter absolutely loves Casting Shadows!”
Patsy grabbed my hand, “Fantastic news, John!”
“However…” Stuart sat down, “He now wants to use an instrumental of that song to end the film, rather than a different song, and has commissioned an Italian composer to write the incidental music for the rest of the movie.”
“Why?” Patsy asked, incredulous.
“I would imagine pressure from the Italian sponsors. Still, we have the theme song for the new Peter Fonda movie! Congratulations, John! I’m very proud of you.”
Patsy lifted her glass of wine and toasted me:
“To John!” Stuart repeated, clinking my raised glass.
Later in bed, I couldn’t help feeling slightly disappointed that the other three songs I’d written hadn’t impressed Peter as much as Casting Shadows. Still, when I rang my parents a few days later and told them I would be recording my song for the film in Rome in the New Year, they sounded suitably thrilled.
I went home for Christmas, knowing this was likely to be my last one spent with Mum. She was remaining apparently well after her operation a year earlier, but I knew the doctors had told my dad she would only last another eighteen months at most after the op. The cancer had spread to all her vital organs and there was no way they could halt it.
However, when I walked in and saw the Christmas Tree all lit up and her beaming face as I walked in, all that was forgotten.
“You got a real tree this time!” I shouted.
“Yes, son, I know how much you love real ones, so we decided to get one just for you this time.”
I hugged her and realised how thin she was. Never a strong lady, always skinny, she felt very bony for all that, and somehow much smaller.
Stuart and Patsy held a party at their house on New Year’s Eve and I returned to London for that. It was a wonderful evening full of some of the music business stellar people. John Burgess, who had started up AIR Studios with George Martin; David Platz who ran Essex Music and had once signed T.Rex, The Move and Joe Cocker to his record labels; songwriter Tony Macaulay gave us fantastic renditions on the piano of some of his hit compositions – Baby Now That I’ve Found You, Last Night I Didn’t Get To Sleep At All, Love Grows, Build Me Up Buttercup, The Lights of Cincinnati, Home Lovin’ Man, finishing off with his current smash hit, The New Seekers’ You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me, which had entered the Top Three that week. Les Reed then took over and gave us The Last Waltz, It’s Not Unusual, There’s A Kind Of Hush, and Delilah, which had everyone singing along in the chorus.
After the sing-song, we’d all settled down to play a few games of charades, when the door bell went. Patsy went to get it and we heard her cry, “Jim!”
In walked Jim Dale, straight from his performance on that evening’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium. He was covered in tinsel as he bounded into the room, shaking everyone’s hands and settling down with a glass of wine cross-legged on the floor next to me. When I mentioned to him how much I loved Kenneth Williams, knowing he’d been in a couple of Carry On movies, he proceeded to give us perfect imitations of Kenneth, and telling us some lovely stories of working with him.
The evening was full of chatter and wine-pouring, everyone having a tale to tell of their careers in the music business, and during one of Stuart’s stories of his time in the ‘50s as a record plugger for Robins Music Publishers, Jim turned to me and said,
“So, John, how do you fit into all…” he waved his hand around the room, “…this?”
“I’m a songwriter,” I replied, feeling very inconsequential at that moment.
“So, is Stuart managing you?”
“Yes. He’s talking to CBS at the moment about a record deal.”
Stuart had finished his story, and had moved to a sofa above us, overhearing our conversation:
“Jim, John is being very modest. He is in fact a wonderful singer and pianist!”
Jim stood, made a sweeping gesture towards the piano and said, “Then, maestro, play for us!”
I hadn’t intended to perform at all, not surrounded by a roomful of hit-makers, and Stuart had kindly not insisted I do.
“John?” he asked me, seeing how I felt about it.
Jim got hold of my hand, lifted me up and took me to the piano:
“If Stuart Reid says you’re great, then you will be great! Now, please,” he made a praying gesture, “please, John, play!”
So I sat rather nervously at the piano and played Family Man. It was greeted at the end by a standing ovation. I felt my legs slightly shaking as I stood to bow.
“Another!” Jim Dale shouted, to cries of “More!” from everyone else.
I looked at Stuart:
“Do my favourite of yours, John,” he said and I knew exactly what that was.
At the end of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Jim walked up to me, took my hand and kissed it.
“You are a bloody marvel, son!” he shouted and waved his arms at everyone to continue the applause.
Stuart proceeded to tell everyone about the commissioned song I had written for Peter Collinson’s movie and, thankfully before anyone had the chance to ask me to play that, Patsy brought in hot snacks for us all. As we ate Jim leaned over to me and said,
“I would love to include Family Man in a one-man show I’m planning, John.”
Patsy, overhearing what Jim said, blinked at me and blew a kiss.
Later as we all linked arms and sang Auld Lang’s Syne to bring in the New Year, I couldn’t help thinking that this year-end was leading to a truly exciting 1974. In just four months since I’d left home for London, here I was, surrounded by pop royalty, feted by them, feeling actually a part of them, and beginning to believe that I could soon be tasting the same success as them. But as always, the Roman Catholic voice of warning and rebuke, which one never escapes, even as a born-again atheist, nibbled at the back of my mind, drowning out the joy of the evening: ‘Who DO you think you are?’ it sneered. Mentally, I swiped it away.
For the first time in my life, I had an answer to that religious nutcase bastard in my head who had nagged away at me for years. While Stuart still hadn’t heard from CBS since he’d informed them that we wouldn’t agree to my name being changed, on that fabulous New Year’s Eve of 1973 I felt it didn’t matter. I had arrived and my self-belief was finally being borne out amongst people who did matter. Now it was just a matter of time.
Copyright John Howard 2016