‘In Preston Les always got up and played a song with us. We miss him...’
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Paul Carrack is heading for Preston and an emotional show is expected at the Guild Hall, he tells MALCOLM WYATT
It’s fair to say Paul Carrack, despite that great big soulful voice and past success with Mike + The Mechanics and Squeeze, hasn’t been an overnight sensation.
In fact there must have been times, with first band Warm Dust, next project Ace, and even as a solo artist, when he wondered if it would ever happen.
“There were many ups and downs and periods when I thought, ‘Well, that’s it – it’s over’. But fortunately in a way, I can’t do anything else!”
Did Paul, now 63, ever think he might have to give it all up and get a proper job?
“I did think about that, but there’s not much more I can do. I’ve no other talents and I’m absolutely useless with my hands.
“I can’t think my way out of a paper bag, I’ve no qualifications, and when I was reaching 30 and my hair was falling out, I was very worried.”
There was always the family business back in Sheffield to fall back on though, wasn’t there?
“Yeah, painting and decorating. We lived at the back of the shop. My dad was the opposite of me, totally handy, and my mum ran the shop.
“Unfortunately, my dad had an accident at work from which he never recovered, my mum carried on running the shop, and my elder brother, 15 at the time, took over. And he’s still there – bless him.”
Paul is best known for his voice on hits like How Long, Tempted and The Living Years. So people finally know who he is now – right?
“Well, if you say Mike + the Mechanics, they know that name, but not necessarily mine. But that’s the way it is, and it’s a whole lot better.
“I wouldn’t say those days are behind me, but I’ve made a lot of progress and found friends and fans.”
I mentioned Warm Dust. Prog jazz was the description of this early ‘70s outfit, wasn’t it?
“Well, only because we didn’t really know what we were doing!”
I can hear Cream, Small Faces and Traffic influence on those songs. Was it ever going to happen for you?
“No! We were pretty rubbish. We were very committed, and certainly believed in it, though.
“We lived hand-to-mouth. I can’t even believe it myself when I think back to how we were sleeping on floors and in vans.
“Funnily enough, half of that band were from Sheffield and the other half from Lancashire.
“Burnley, in fact, including the lead singer, Les Walker. Sadly, Les died a couple of years ago after a very sudden illness, and passed away very quickly.
“When we played Preston, Les always got up and played a song with us. We really miss him. Whenever we’d play in the area with my band he’d always join us.
“He was a really good singer, one of the reasons why I never sang back then. And his wife Angela will be coming along to the show this time.”
Paul has 17 studio albums to his own name, and has featured on more than 60 others in five decades of music, working with lots of big names.
So when was he first aware that this big old soulful voice might be something that could make him a living?
“Funnily enough, as a kid, people said I had a nice singing voice. But when I started playing in bands, we always had a designated singer and front guy.
“I started off on drums, then keyboards, and never even thought about singing. But when we formed Ace, there were three songwriters in the band, and whoever wrote the song would sing it.
“That’s when I started. And the first recording I did as a singer was on that first Ace album – that big old hit.
“That was my first inclination that there might be something there, the first step on the way to try and discover the voice and develop it.”
That song was How Long, with Burnley-born Terry Comer’s memorable bass-line then that keyboard and a key change, then Paul’s unmistakable soulful voice.
It was later covered by Aswad, Bobby Womack, Rod Stewart and Yazz, among others, featured on 1974 album Five-a-Side. As a single, it reached the UK top 20, but was No.3 in the US and Canada.
You might think it was about a romance, but Paul actually wrote it about Terry, who had been secretly working with other groups.
As it was, both Paul and Terry stayed with Ace – originally Ace Flash and the Dynamos – from 1972 until 1977, becoming pub rock scene regulars.
There’s been a who’s who of names Paul has featured alongside since – from BB King to Elton John, Nick Lowe and Ringo Starr. Did he ever think that could happen?
“I still can’t believe it now, to be honest. If you’re having a conversation and it comes up ‘when I was on the Ringo tour …’ It’s quite amazing really.
“But it’s been the best part of 50 years. No, I could never have imagined all that. I’m self-taught and could hardly play back in those early days.”
There was the session work, too, including recordings by The Pretenders and The Smiths.
“It was just part of the learning process. I was very insecure and never considered myself a session man. Sometimes I’d get there and think, ‘where’s the back door?’”
Can he tell us something we might not have realised he featured on?
“How about the Sheffield Wednesday 1991 FA Cup-winning song? Everyone thought I’d gone mad. I’d just refurbished my studio, and that was the first thing I came out with.”
That was another lifetime’s ambition fulfilled for this Owls fan. Have you been to Preston North End with Wednesday a few times?
“I have actually. We’re in a different division at the moment, of course, but I’ve been to many grounds up and down the country.”
Back to now, and Paul recently released his latest single from hit album Rain or Shine, the ultra-soulful Stepping Stone.
That seems apt for a performer who has also collaborated with Diana Ross, Tom Jones, Michael McDonald, Elton John, Jools Holland and Roxy Music.
“Yeah, but it’s not meant to be particularly significant. It’s just a song. But the album’s done very well. And we’ve also got a compilation out at the moment.”
The Best of Paul Carrack is a good indicator of what this Yorkshireman is all about, a 19-track package including many hits and near-misses.
All this from a performer fresh from playing in Europe and North America in Eric Clapton’s band.
Now he has his own 60-date UK theatre tour, starting last weekend in Harrogate and including the London Palladium this Sunday, November 2, and Preston Guild Hall on Wednesday, November 19.
He then returns to the region for dates at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on Saturday, January 17, and Salford The Lowry on Friday, February 6.
And the tour runs up to Saturday, March 28 at London’s Cadogan Hall and the next night at Milton Keynes Theatre.
But let’s go back to 1980. Did Paul have time to be disappointed about a lack of commercial success with his debut solo LP, Nightbird?
“I wasn’t disappointed. I was more pleased I’d been able to have a crack at it. But it’s not a great album, and I don’t bring that one up very often!
“I’m a slow burner or a slow-burner – whatever way you want to put it. And people where I come from don’t like those who get above themselves.”
Those Yorkshire roots remain important, even if Paul moved to London in his early 20s. And he never comes over as flash.
“I’d soon get slapped down if I did, believe me! It’s more about the upbringing and the way people are in Sheffield, how people are down to earth.”
Jools Holland was a hard act to follow in Squeeze, yet Paul took his place in 1981, recruited by Glenn Tilbrook, and straight away was part of the critical and commercial success of East Side Story.
That included his lead vocal on Tempted, the band’s biggest US hit at the time.
“As you say, big shoes to fill, in many ways. But I think I was accepted by the band, and it was a very exciting time. The band were red hot at that time.
“It was nice to be involved, but I kind of felt I was along for the ride. I knew it wasn’t my home as a musician. My stuff was a bit more simple, basic, emotional.
“Theirs was … not quirky, but from a different angle. I loved being involved, but as an artist myself, regarding myself as a singer-songwriter, I knew it wouldn’t fit.”
While only staying a year initially, he was back with Squeeze for the critically-acclaimed Some Fantastic Place in 1993.
Thinking of Squeeze songs like Tempted and Loving You Tonight, then Over My Shoulder with Mike + The Mechanics, there’s so much soul or even gospel in that voice.
Was that natural to Paul? Who influenced him on that front?
“Loads! That’s my favourite kind of music, and in my teens it was all about soul music. They were my heroes and the guys I set out to emulate.
“Hopefully you learn something and develop your own style over the years, but I don’t even try to analyse all that.”
Stepping Stone brings to mind The Miracles or The Temptations in places. Is that pretty indicative of where you’re at today?
“It’s been a funny old road, with a lot of side-tracks. Those Squeeze days and early Mike + The Mechanics days were very white. I’d often get told off for over-souling!
“In some ways I had to sort of consciously not do what came naturally to me. My natural inclination is towards that stuff.
“As soon as I started making my own albums for my own label – with the first album Satisfy my Soul – that’s when I started doing things my own way.”
That was in 2000, by which time he was recognised as a songwriter on a wider scale through 1994’s Love will Keep You Alive, a hit for the reformed Eagles, and 1995’s Over My Shoulder for Mike + The Mechanics.
“With Love will Keep You Alive, three of us were involved, but it’s a real accolade when someone like The Eagles do your songs. They don’t do many outside songs, so I’m an honorary member of the club really.”
Was working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Britten Theatre in 2011 another defining moment for this lad from Sheffield?
“It was another moment for sure. I tried not to think of it being this lad from Sheffield at the time. I was trying not to let the side down.
“It’s quite amazing to work with people like that. It does make you feel like an old cowboy, with such an amazingly proficient group of musicians.”
What is it about Sheffield and all these great bands in such a big variety of genres over the years? Can you put your finger on that?
“It’s certainly picked up again recently, with artists like Richard Hawley and Arctic Monkeys. Then there were those bands in the 80s like The Human League.
“But back in the day it was only Joe Cocker, really. He was the only one who got through the net.”
Paul’s new tour runs right up to March. That’s quite an undertaking. I guess he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t enjoy playing though.
“Definitely not. I couldn’t be doing with any politics or aggravation. We’ve got a great band, there’s no drama, and we like what we do.”
Has his current band been with him a while?
“Over 10 years for sure, with very few changes, and that’s the way we like it.”
Will it largely be a greatest hits show to help publicise the new compilation?
“There are a lot of songs to draw from, and we couldn’t be playing the same set every night. We’d soon get fed up. But we couldn’t get away without playing those songs.
“We like to mix and match a bit, freshen it up, and I’d emphatically say it’s not a greatest hits show. There’s always a few off the beaten track, too.”
So what advice might Paul offer his 13-year-old self – a drummer at that stage – if he got to nip back 50 years?
“I would say go for it, son, it’s gonna be fantastic! Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected all this.
“I thought that when I was on tour with Ringo Starr, having seen him at Sheffield City Hall, way back.
“If I’d have known then I was going to end up there myself, it would have saved me an awful lot of worry!”
Paul Carrack plays Preston Guild Hall on Wednesday, November 19 (doors 7.30pm), with tickets priced £28.50 and £38.50. Box office: 01772 80 44 44.