Jools Holland, pianist, band leader, singer, composer and television presenter chats with Kevin Cooper about his friendship with Ruby Turner, receiving the OBE, meeting his heroes on Later…With Jools Holland and his forthcoming appearance at The Thoresby Estate.
Jools Holland, OBE, DL is an English pianist, band leader, singer, composer and television presenter. He was an original member of the band Squeeze along with Glenn Tilbrook, Chris Difford, Gilson Lavis and John Bentley.
In 1987, Holland formed the Jools Holland Big Band, which consisted of himself and Gilson Lavis the drummer from Squeeze. This gradually became the 18-piece Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra which often includes singer Ruby Turner and his younger brother, singer-songwriter and keyboard player, Christopher Holland.
Since 1992, he has hosted Later… with Jools Holland; a music-based show aired on BBC2, on which his annual show Hootenanny is based. He is also a published author and appears on television shows besides his own and often contributes to radio shows. He also regularly hosts the weekly programme Jools Holland on BBC Radio 2, which is a mix of live and recorded music, general chat and features studio guests, along with members of his orchestra.
He received an OBE in 2003 in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, for services to the British Music Industry as a television presenter and musician. In September 2006 Holland was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for Kent and was appointed an honorary fellow of Canterbury Christ Church University at a ceremony held at Canterbury Cathedral on 30 January 2009.
Whilst busy preparing for his forthcoming summer Festival appearances, he took the time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Mr Holland good morning how are you today?
I’m very good thanks Kevin, how are you?
Thanks for asking, and I am fine thank you.
And where do I find you as I speak to you at this moment?
I’m in Nottingham.
Excellent. That’s lovely. I have a fondness for Nottingham as my dad was stationed up there with the RAF when he was undergoing his National Service. He always used to enjoy going back there; I think that he may have had a girlfriend up there or something (laughter).
Before we move on may I just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
It’s my pleasure and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s great to talk to you.
And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?
Life is great thank you. It’s a nice morning. We did a show late the other night so we got ourselves some Lebanese takeaway which I am just having for my breakfast. Sometimes a curry can be nice the next day if you microwave it, but to be honest with you the Lebanese food was far better when we bought it (laughter).
Now I have to say that you have made me feel rather old this morning because I was trying to remember the first time that I saw you playing with Squeeze. It was back in 1980 at The Milton Keynes Bowl when you were supporting The Police.
Oh yes, was that with Squeeze or was I on my own?
No, you were with Squeeze. Also on the bill were Tom Robinson, UB40 and The Police.
Ah, I remember it well; it poured with rain. That was a very 1980’s bill which I love by the way. With all of those people it was a great 1980’s line-up.
And all for £6.
Exactly. And to be honest I think that we all got paid £6 as well (laughter).
I recently interviewed Tom (Robinson) who told me that Sting still owed him £1 which Tom had loaned him whilst they were in the bar.
Well, all that I can say is that it is typical of Tom to remember that (laughter) and just like Sting to forget it (laughter).
You have mentioned your fondness for Nottingham and I see that you are bringing your Rhythm & Blues Orchestra to the area twice this year. You are playing the Thoresby Estate on Sunday 21st August and then The Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday 30th November.
Yes we are, that’s right. We are closing the Flashback Festival at the Thoresby Estate although I hate to think just what we are harping back to, the 1920’s no doubt (laughter). I personally am looking forward to playing there very much and I am sure that it will be great fun. What you have to remember is that my Rhythm & Blues Orchestra is a huge machine and it is a great sound to bring to a festival setting. It will be lovely. Plus we always enjoy playing at The Concert Hall which is lovely and always has a great atmosphere. I am truly looking forward to both dates up there in Nottingham.
Ours is the only big band that is left which tours on the sort of grand scale that we do and I feel that it is great that people will come out and support us. We have five trombones, a full trumpet section, a piano and Gilson Lavis on the drums who you will recall was with me in Squeeze, and who has been there forever, together with Chris my brother on the organ. We have Louise Marshall who sings with us who is absolutely fantastic together with Beth Rowley who is great. And then on top of all of that we have Ruby Turner who is the fire and the rain and one of the few people who has crossed from the world of Gospel music into the Blues and Boogie-Woogie. Ruby has successfully mashed all of that together.
Don’t you have an old friend coming up to Nottingham with you?
That’s right Kevin. He is not with us all of the time but we will have Chris Difford with us who as you will know also used to play with me in Squeeze. Chris is coming up with us to do a couple of things which will be great fun.
Performing indoors or outdoors; do you have a preference?
I think that if it is a really nice evening then performing outdoors is magical but you are rather weather dependant. There is something really great about being outdoors and performing in a clearing in the woods. You most definitely get a great vibe from playing in a place such as that so I think that it can be really special. What you have to remember is that no two concerts are ever going to be the same. However, playing outdoors in the right circumstances can be a magical thing.
When you first took your Rhythm & Blues Orchestra out on the road could you ever have imagined just how popular it would be?
No, I had no idea at all. However, what you have to remember is that when we first started it was just me and Gilson the drummer and I used to say “ladies and gentlemen please welcome to the stage Gilson Lavis” and he would come out and he was the big band. It has literally slowly evolved into a big band and as the orchestra grew its popularity grew. I am just so pleased that people like it and that they come out and see it because without those people it simply wouldn’t exist. Also what you have to remember is that it is not a sound-alike orchestra, we actually do play our own music.
Obviously we do play the odd Duke Ellington or Count Basie number but we also play our own songs too. In there are elements of Ska music, Blues music together with my own music and some British Pop music which is all mashed up into the one thing. That’s what keeps us alive and why people come to see us. That’s what we live for really.
You fondly mention Gilson; you have been playing together now for over thirty-five years. It must be a special kind of relationship that the two of you have?
I think that there is a great thing that if you play music a lot with people, then you don’t really have to use words too much. You don’t have to say to them “would you mind playing it like this”, you understand what one another are looking for in the music and I think that is one of the things that Gilson has always had. The other thing is that he is such a fantastic drummer to watch. He is not just a great drummer; you simply can’t stop watching him play. Drummers are literally the heartbeat of every band. You can’t have a good band without a good drummer, and if you go back through the history of all of the great bands they always have to change drummers before they can move on to the next level.
Whether that be The Beatles, Oasis, or whatever there is always a drummer change which then allows them to move onto the next level. So I had better change our drummer (laughter).
You have performed with some of the greats; is there anyone whom you would like to perform with but it’s not quite worked out to date?
I suppose that first of all my first thoughts would go to the dead artists. I think that it would have been great to have done something with John Lennon. It would have been great to have been in a group with John Lennon, Bessie Smith and maybe Bach arranging the strings with Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet. But that was not going to be. However I feel that I have been very fortunate especially with the newer artists like Amy Winehouse or the great legendary artists like Tom Jones. I have been very fortunate to perform and record and do shows with those people. I have been blessed to have been able to work with some of the greatest artists in the world.
I have always loved Aretha Franklin and it would be wonderful if I could do something with her but unfortunately she doesn’t like to travel and also she doesn’t like to fly. It is not always people that are well known or legends, quite often there are new people who come along who you are really surprised by just how great they are and the great music that you could make together. That is the thing to try and remember and that is the music, and for me you are the servants of the song. Then it all works out.
I have to ask you, just how special is Ruby Turner?
As far as I am concerned she is the greatest. I have to say that she is a dear friend of mine, we have been around the world together and she is like an aunt to my children. That aside I have had the privilege really of seeing her from my point of view, from sitting at the piano. I watch her perform and nobody has the effect that she has. She comes out onto the stage and has a complete belief in what she is doing. She delivers the songs straight from her heart. There is absolutely nothing phoney about her, it is real; this is it. What you are getting is Ruby being Ruby. You are not getting Ruby pretending to be somebody else. She simply delivers this thing that comes out of another place.
Half of the stuff that we play is stuff that either I have written or she has written. We also play a lot of early Gospel music and she makes all of it her own. She breathes this fire, this life into it. Songs are a little like lanterns; they need to be illuminated and if you manage to get the right artist then the song comes to life. And that is what Ruby does, she brings the songs to life because she is so proud of them and that is what is really great about her. It doesn’t matter if it is one of our songs, a 1930’s Gospel song or a 1950’s Blues song, Ruby will always bring that same thing to it. People can see that and they understand that. Ruby gets the songs with her heart; she can see them, she can feel them and she can understand what it is and that is very clear straightaway.
If I had to push you what has been the highlight of your career so far?
Well I suppose that would have to be this moment now we are chatting (laughter). A friend of mine once told me that the great gurus always say that if this does this and that does that then tomorrow will be the best day ever. However, I always think that paradise is now. I also get a great feeling whenever we play next. I suppose that if I was to look back and pick out one thing it would most probably be a small moment on stage when I feel totally connected with the audience at that one moment in time. It’s great when you see that they are feeling the music as you are and they are tapping their feet and moving in time to the music that you are playing.
That is the highlight for me. Being at one with a load of people who are getting the music that you are playing. You can’t ask people to love the music that you are playing unless you love the music yourself. That oneness with the people has been the highlight for me. That was a rather longwinded answer I’m afraid Kevin but I’m sure that you will understand what I am saying. If you can put that into one sentence, well done (laughter).
Later… with Jools Holland has now been on the TV for forty-two series. When you aired the very first series could you ever imagine yourself still doing it in 2016?
No not at all. If you had said to me when you and I bumped into one another backstage at Milton Keynes Bowl when I was trying to settle the argument between Sting and Tom trying to get Tom’s quid back with the help of UB40; if you had appeared to me in a strange veil informing me that you could show me the future and then have taken me into a tent, and you had told me that I would be running a big band consisting of twenty people that would tour all over the world and I would also have this TV show, I would have thought that’s not what I am planning. As they always say if you want to make God laugh then tell him your plans. Things just happen sometimes.
I am really pleased with the way that things have turned out and I am really pleased because I love what I do. I love the music we play but I would never have dreamed that would be the way that things were going to turn out for me. That also goes for Later…I presented The Tube for five years and that seemed forever when I was twenty. After that we started doing Later…and I thought that it was fun and that it would probably last for three series. The longer that it stays on TV it gets harder to believe. I also think that we have been fortunate to have some of the greatest artists in the world, sometimes at the beginning of their careers and sometimes at their last performances.
It’s also great for me because as people come back to appear on the show again I have in fact become friends with a lot of my musical heroes, which for me is both incredible and unbelievable. The world has gone mad. It used to be that if you went and worked for someone such as British Rail then you would have a job for life but all of that has changed now. You used to think that if you went in to do a TV show then at best it would last for five minutes. However Later…has simply gone on and on and on. I think that the reason for the show going on and on is not because it is about me, it is because it has got new music on it all of the time.
The show reinvents itself every week and not because there is a brand new band on there from so and so, that is just one small element of the show. You might have a musician or an artist on the show who is in their seventies, who is very big in the world of what their particular genre is, but who the broader public are not aware of, which is another part of it as well. We also try to get a legendary figure on there from mainstream music and so you get that mix from all manner of different things. But of course the great thing about music is if you have not heard it before and you love it then it doesn’t matter whether the piece of music was written five minutes ago or five hundred years ago, it is still new to you. It is still fresh.
Again with Later…is there anyone that you would like to have on the show but as yet you have not quite managed to get them on there?
Well I think that we would love to get Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder; they are the two people who you would like to tick on the box I suppose. The Rolling Stones would be good but they don’t need it really as wonderful as they are. Although having said that, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts came onto the show with Charlies Boogie-Woogie Band. Also to get Aretha Franklin onto the show would be wonderful too, so legendary people really.
Was it always going to be a career in music for you?
Honestly, I don’t think that I would have been very good at anything else. I don’t think that I would have been such a success at anything else. So in that respect I am really pleased that it has worked out and that music has been my life. However, I must say that I am pretty amazed at the way that it has worked out for me. I think that the most important thing for me is that I have loved what I have played and I have played what I love. I think that is the hardest thing to do in music. Then as you get older you play what you mean and you mean what you play which makes you stronger, or at least I hope you get stronger.
In these days of reformations will we ever see a full Squeeze reunion?
In some ways, when we come up to Nottingham, there will be because there will be three of us on the stage, me, Gilson and Chris Difford. So you have got three fifths of us there I suppose. I would never rule anything out because it is a bit like being backstage at The Milton Keynes Bowl in 1980. If you had told me that I would have been doing this and this, I would have said to you “you are having a laugh, get away and take your crystal ball and your strange veil away” (laughter). What I will say is that you can never tell but we do not have anything planned.
What was the first record that you bought?
That would have been For Once In My Life by Stevie Wonder and to this day it is still probably one of the most incredibly constructed pieces of pop music that I have ever heard. It is a lovely song that is squashed into about two and a half minutes; it has a key change, it has a harmonica solo that you can’t believe and on top of all of that something different happens every five seconds which you can’t believe. I actually took up the chromatic harmonica after hearing that song and then after about six months I put the chromatic harmonica down again (laughter).
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
When I was about thirteen years old I was taken along to see Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins and I can still remember being very impressed with that. It was at The Royal Albert Hall in 1972.
You were awarded the OBE in 2003, how did that feel?
I was very touched, and honoured and felt that it was recognition not just for me but for Boogieists everywhere, because that style of music is not as well recognised as other styles of music. I was very flattered and also very humbled because when I got there you see that you are getting it for music but there are people there who are nurses, doctors, teachers, firemen, policemen and service people who are really working hard for it and are doing things that are saving people’s lives. It makes you feel even more humble if you get something and you see the gravity of the other people who are getting it and what they are doing.
I recently asked Courtney Pine the same question and he said that he is still waiting for someone to knock on his door and take his awards away.
(Laughter) he’s talking about me (laughter) once I have got the quid back off Sting I am going round to see Courtney (laughter).
On that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been great.
It’s my pleasure and it’s been very nice to speak to you Kevin. Thanks again and please do come and say hello when we get to Nottingham.