Janet Kay chats with Kevin Cooper about appearing on Top Of The Pops, her Japanese fans, her love of Motown music, her new album and her forthcoming appearance at Spanky Van Dykes in Nottingham.
Janet Kay is a British vocalist, who, born in the 60’s was exposed to many of the singing greats, especially those from the Tamla Motown stable. As a result, her love for singing was born. After being introduced to producer Alton Ellis in 1977, she recorded a cover version of Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Loving You’, which became a reggae smash hit; topping the reggae charts for many weeks.
The following year, 1978, saw her record two more cover versions, ‘I Do Love You’ and ‘That’s What Friends Are For’, both of which also spent several weeks at number 1 in the reggae charts. Her hit single, ‘Silly Games’ followed in 1979 and reached number 2 in the UK charts.
With the release of her new album, Classic Covers Collection Volume 1 and whilst working on Volume 2, she took time out from her busy schedule to chat with Kevin Cooper, and this is what she had to say:
Hi Janet how are you?
I’m not too bad and you?
I’m good thanks; it’s good to speak to you. Firstly can I say that I have heard the new album, Classic Covers Collection Volume 1 and I think that it’s fantastic. But with so many classic tracks how did you decide what went on to the album?
Well thank you very much Kevin. I’ve actually got a bunch of songs that I put together but there were too many to put on one album which is why I called that Volume 1 because there will be a Volume 2 at some point later this year. They were the songs that I have liked over the years and have grown up with, and I just decided to record them.
And you, like me, have a love of Motown so I could see where you were coming from.
Yes Kevin that was my inspiration, and that was what I was brought up on, and loved to sing. Most girls I think, more than boys do the whole hairbrush thing in front of the mirror pretending that they are on television and Motown was what I used to do that too (laughter).
Is there any other music because I haven’t found it yet (laughter)?
(Hysterical laughter) I don’t know either.
I have to ask, who gave you the title The Queen Of Lovers Rock?
Back in 1979, just after the whole Top Of The Pops thing, and during my first professional photo shoot they had on my portrait photograph, the Queen Of Reggae. Later on that year I had won three awards at the Reggae awards show; one was for the best 7” single, the youngsters of today will say ‘well what the hell was that’ (laughter) and the best 12” single, ‘what’s a 12’ (laughter). I had also won the award for the best female vocalist and it was at that point that I was given the title The Queen Of Lovers Rock and it has stuck with me ever since.
So you have got the magazine Black Echoes to thank for that then?
Yes I have Kevin (laughter).
You have mentioned Top Of The Pops, what was the experience like performing on there for the first time?
I had not done any live performances ever really before that and I had not sung in front of an audience professionally. So for me performing live on Top Of The Pops was my very first live performance and it just happened to be on National Television which was bizarre. I had to just go with the flow as I really didn’t have much time to think about it. I remember that they wanted me to mime and I thought ‘what’s miming’. I didn’t know how to mime (laughter) and I just wanted to sing the song. I was really persistent with that. I think that for them, if an artist mimes, then it means less wiring up; less bother about setting up the microphones and making sure that everything is ok. But I just couldn’t do that, as I was worrying that my mouth might not move at the same time as the backing track (laughter) and I just wanted to sing it live. They did allow me to sing it live.
All in all I did Top Of The Pops three times; twice I sang live but when they asked me to do the Christmas show where they got all of the Number One’s together, I had to mime on that one because everyone had to mime. They were not making any exceptions on that one (laughter). It was really nice for me as Silly Games didn’t get to Number One it got to Number Two but they treated it as though it was a Number One and they invited me back on the Christmas show. To be fair Kevin, I can’t say that it was the best experience of my life. I didn’t feel that at the time but on reflection, it was one of the highlights. For me as a young child growing up and being a Top Of The Pops fan it was like a dream come true for me but when it was actually happening, it all happened so quickly, that I didn’t really have the time to digest it or to think about it. Because I didn’t really have any management and I didn’t really have that whole machinery buzz around me, I felt like I was on my own really. So I have to say that it was scary but kind of good at the same time if that makes sense Kevin (laughter).
Who has been the biggest influence on you career?
I think that would have to be the whole Motown thing, especially the Love Songs, which is the kind of songs that I sing. People are always asking me ‘what is Lovers Rock?’ Well for me, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me what I was exposed to growing up was what was on the radio and we didn’t have much in terms of Reggae being played on the radio back in the day, like the late 60’s and early 70’s. So what was on the radio was pop, and I liked to listen to people like Lulu, Sandi Shaw and Dusty Springfield. Those singers I really liked, together with The Beatles and then came The Jackson 5 and that was like ‘wow’ (laughter), in fact Kevin it was ‘really wow’ (hysterical laughter) and then came the whole Motown scene. So the mixture of pop, Motown with all of the lovely love songs, together with the backdrop of my Jamaican heritage of Reggae music and a mixture of all of that, well to me that is what makes Lovers Rock because that is what I was exposed to; the music from my home, the music from British radio, the Motown stuff that I used to buy, and a mixture of that was my influence.
You mention the Reggae influence; in 1977 Tony Gad introduced you to Alton Ellis. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
I always had a dream as a kid, which most kids have, which was to be a star and wanting to sing; and I always wanted to do that. I truly believe that the path of my career was already set before I arrived here and I really do believe that. I just happened to be in the right places at the right times and I just happened to meet somebody. I met Tony Gad in a rehearsal room that I just happened to be in with a friend of mine. There was no one there at the time and I was just messing about singing on the microphones and unbeknown to me he heard me singing.
Tony was living on the same road as Alton Ellis who was looking for a female singer at that time to do a cover version of Minnie Ripperton’s Loving You. Tony told Alton about me and said that he thought that I would be able to sing the song. This was in the pre-mobile phone days so it was an exchange of letters (laughter). I was bought up in a very strict household and I received a letter telling me that they wanted me to go to the studio and record the song. I was so excited and so I went home and asked my parents if I could go to the studio and record the song. I told them that Alton had written to me and asked if I could go. They said ‘no, we don’t know this man so you are not going’ (laughter).
About a week later they told me to invite Alton round to the house and if they liked him and trusted him then they would allow me to go. So Alton had to come round to my parents’ house and ask their permission for me to go and record the track and that is how it all started and the rest Kevin as they say is history (laughter).
So your mum and dad vetted Alton before they would let you record the track, that’s unbelievable (laughter).
Yes they did Kevin, absolutely (laughter) but that is how it was. If someone wanted to take me to the pictures or ask me out, they would have to come to my house and ask my dad. That is how it was in my house. My sisters got off a little more lightly than me because I was the eldest of six but for me that’s how it was (laughter).
I see that you have co-edited a short movie; you are an established machine knitter, a designer, a lace maker, a video editor and a 3D logo animation specialist. How do you fit all of this in with your singing career?
I see myself as a creative person Kevin, and I actually like to create stuff. At the moment I am a great Photoshop addict as well (laughter). I do all kinds of stuff; I have built my own website, I do all of the images that you see on the website, anything that is on there is created by me, so yes I see myself as being creative. Even when I am recording a record, I’m so old fashioned (laughter) because I see it as a blank canvas and when I put the lead vocal on, then that is like a drawing and then the harmonies are like the colouring in. I see everything like that and I just like to create.
And it also keeps you in control.
Absolutely Kevin absolutely, and in this day and age sometimes you have to be everything. Because we are in an age now with the music where you can be a one man band; you need to have a record label behind you, well you do if you are thinking about mass marketing, but for the youngsters coming up they have got YouTube, Facebook and Twitter on which they can promote themselves out there that way. They can put their own music up on line so they have their own store, their own shop, and they can do their own website and it is just so accessible to everyone now, but you still have to have skills.
It seems that the kids in the music business simply want instant success and do not want to get out on the road and learn their craft.
Kevin that is never going to happen, it simply will never happen. I’ve been in the business for 37 years and I feel like I don’t know anything. It is a life-long learning experience.
There is no travelling up and down the M1 in a battered old Transit van anymore is there?
No that’s right (hysterical laughter), oh dear, (laughter). Those were the days.
In 1981 you starred in the black comedy ‘No Problem’. How did that come about?
I got into drama in the early 80’s and I started to do a lot of theatre. The theatre company that I was with was approached by Channel 4 when they had just started to do several TV series and they asked us to come up with an idea. So we did a workshop for about four weeks and came up with a few ideas, and the one that we chose was the family one which was ‘No Problem’. This was the first black comedy to be shown on Channel 4. We did three seasons of that, and I continued to do theatre work over the years and then I stopped for a while. When I had my children in 1985 I didn’t really want to tour, as its quite hard and the hours are long, and the theatre doesn’t pay enough for you to pay a Nanny to look after the kids (laughter).
And then in 2006 you made the leap into pantomime, when you played The Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, how was that?
In 2006 the kids were by that time old enough to look after themselves and I was approached to take part in a pantomime. I had never acted in a pantomime before and it was a great experience. It was hard work and especially at that time of the year when normally I was so used to winding down, as not much goes on in terms of music unless you have got a couple of gigs, but not a lot happens. You had to be really on it, as sometimes there were two shows a day and that was hard but it was enjoyable and actually, it was a really good production.
Is it something that you would go back to?
I would Kevin yes.
Tell me about the fabulous relationship that you have with your fans in Japan?
That all started back in 1990 and funnily what goes around comes around. The first song that I recorded back in 1977, was the cover of Loving You, which I have actually re-recorded five times now. However when I re-recorded it for the second time it was released in Japan. Unbeknown to me, the track became a massive hit; it was Number One in the charts and was being played on all of the radio stations, but they didn’t know who I was and they couldn’t get hold of me. At that time I had just done a project with Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook) and Beats International and we had just recorded a track called Burundi Blues. Because of that I was doing interviews and I did an interview on The Box and The Box is actually shown in Japan.
In the interview I was speaking about my theatre work, and Sony Japan, who had put the album out, decided to try and investigate who I was and so they contacted the theatre company. They said that they had been trying to get hold of me and that the track was a massive hit over in Japan but they didn’t know who I was (laughter). Once they had tracked me down they invited me over there to do a mini-tour and that was absolutely amazing. I would never have believed in a million years that I would ever even have gone over to a country like Japan. At that time a lot of the Japanese people didn’t speak English, and so everywhere that I went I had to have a translator with me. I remember that one of the first shows that I did I saw that everyone had tissues and I thought ‘my God everyone in this place has got a cold. I don’t want to get a cold’. However it turned out that they were crying. Even though a lot of the fans didn’t speak English, they knew all the words to the songs that I was singing. They embraced the sentiment of the music and it was one of the best times of my life.
After that I was signed by Sony Music in Japan and I had a contract with them for around twelve years. I was going over to Japan every year right up until very recently; in fact I was going right up until the global financial thing went a bit wonky. Obviously after that the promoters are not putting on as many shows as they used too and things have really slowed down. But for over twenty years I was performing in Japan every year and it was absolutely amazing. I have only ever released one album here in the UK but all of the other albums that I have ever made have all been released in Japan. So all of this music of mine that you are now hearing, a lot of it was released for the Japanese market and it wasn’t released anywhere else. However I have now got the rights to release them everywhere else which is why the UK are hearing these tracks now for the very first time.
Talking of the UK you are playing at Spanky Van Dykes here in Nottingham. Are you looking forward to it?
Yes Kevin I am indeed. I was in Nottingham last year with a show that I, Carroll Thompson and Victor Romero Evans devised and it’s called The Lovers Rock Monologues, which maps the story of Lovers Rock; about the clothes we wore, about how we grew up, about which music we liked, about our influences, about our parental background, everything. It’s a bit of comedy, music, theatre, laughter; it’s a bit of everything. So we did that at the Nottingham Playhouse last year, so I am really looking forward to coming back to Nottingham again.
Will we see you on tour more often now?
Yes, we are doing bits and pieces here and now. We play Manchester in October, and we are trying to get around the regions. So yes, you will definitely be seeing me as I want to do something. I want to promote these Classic Cover songs that I have just released.
When will Classic Covers Collection Volume 2 be released?
Probably at the end of the year Kevin, just in time to be out for Christmas.
What has been the biggest highlight of your career so far?
Oh God I hate it when people ask that (laughter) because there have been a few. There is the whole Japan thing, which really was amazing actually. The Top Of The Pop’s thing was mega, because as I have said it was something special for me being a Top Of The Pops fan as a kid so to actually be invited to do Top Of The Pops was ‘wow, really’. And don’t forget Kevin that Top Of The Pops actually put me in the music Guinness Book of Records as the first British black female reggae artist to have a track at the top of the UK charts. So yes, that was massive.
When you were performing on Top Of The Pops were you not nervous knowing that you were about to go into millions of people’s houses?
I didn’t think about it like that Kevin. Also when I watch it back now, I don’t even look as though I was scared, but let me tell you, I was. I was petrified (laughter) but it didn’t come across that way at all.
Janet, let me just say thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me.
Thank you my love. You take care Kevin.