Mike d’Abo (seen here third from the left) singer and songwriter chats with Kevin Cooper about George Harrison buying a kitten from him, having his royalties frozen by Berry Gordy, touring with The New Amen Corner and his forthcoming appearance at The Ravenshead Village Hall
Mike d’Abo is an English singer and songwriter, best known as the former lead vocalist of Manfred Mann and as the composer of the popular song Handbags And Gladrags.
He joined Manfred Mann in 1966 as a replacement for Paul Jones and he still occasionally tours with them to this day.
He wrote, composed and produced Chris Farlowe’s Handbags And Gladrags, a hit single, which was also notably recorded by Rod Stewart, the Stereophonics and subsequently became the theme tune to the BBC television show The Office.
He also has a successful solo career and it was whilst busy preparing for his forthcoming An Evening With Mike d’Abo tour, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Mike how are you?
I’m very well thank you Kevin. I am enjoying the early spring sunshine (laughter). We are currently enjoying a nice sunny day down here in Gloucestershire after recently suffering Hurricane Doris. But all is forgiven as it is getting a little warmer too. Anyway more to the point how are you today?
I’m great thank you and firstly let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today. It’s been a couple of years now since we last spoke.
Has it really been that long?
Yes it has, in fact it’s been that long that the England cricket team has found itself a new captain (laughter).
(Laughter) yes they have but please, please don’t get me started on that (laughter). Let’s leave that for another time.
Okay well in that case we had better speak about your Evening With Mike d’Abo at the Ravenshead Village Hall on Friday 3rd March. Are you looking forward to that?
Yes I am, I really am. I have never performed in Ravenshead before so it will be a totally new experience for me.
And this is a rare outing for your Evening With show isn’t it?
Yes it is, it is a show which I occasionally do but not as often as I would like too. As you correctly say dear boy, it is called an Evening With Mike d’Abo which involves me telling my life story with a large emphasis on my early musical heroes.
And just who were they?
Funnily enough my mother was a keyboard player and she taught me everything that I know about playing the piano and one day I just happened to randomly pick out a Fats Waller album from her music collection. Fats died in 1943 but boy, he was a larger than life character. So I start off the show with a Fats Waller song called Ain’t Misbehavin’; a wonderful song which was written way back in 1929.
I know that you have one of your personal British favourites in there don’t you?
(Laughter) that’s right I do and so the next thing that I do is Singing The Blues by Tommy Steele which was released in December 1956 and went straight to number one in the UK pop charts. I have to say that I much preferred Tommy’s version of the song to that of Guy Mitchell which I thought was rather dull (laughter) but don’t quote me on that. As you quite rightly point out, Tommy Steel was my very first British hero so it is a pleasure for me to play Singing The Blues.
You weren’t that keen on a certain Mr Haley were you?
That’s right I really wasn’t. Everyone was obviously aware of Bill Haley but in the show I don’t make a big mention of him. (Laughter) I swiftly move on, if I dare say that, to Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Bobby Darin and Elvis Presley.
Where do a certain pair of brothers who I know you adore fit into the show?
(Laughter) well as it happens I then move on from Elvis Presley and make a big fuss of The Everly Brothers who were absolute heroes of mine. Both Don and Phil were devastatingly good looking and they created a great singing sound.
And what about possibly the biggest British band of all-time. They must get a mention, don’t they?
After speaking about Don and Phil I move into the very early 60s and move on from The Everly Brothers to The Beatles. I was lucky enough to actually get to meet The Beatles. Back in 1964 when I was with my very first band, A Band Of Angels, we were performing at a nightclub in Liverpool when The Beatles walked in. (Laughter) I made a bit of a mention of them over the mic and then we played a few Beatles songs. After our set they invited us over to join them at their table for drinks. I clearly remember that there was Cynthia Lennon, Jane Asher, Pattie Boyd and Maureen Cox all sitting around this table with me and The Beatles; it was a truly amazing moment.
Didn’t one of The Beatles contact you to see if you could help him with a certain feline problem?
(Laughter) where do you get your information from, yes they did. Around two years after I had joined Manfred Mann and we had just released Ha Ha Said The Clown, two music papers, Disc and Music Echo were both running a competition called ‘Win a Mike D’Abo Siamese kitten’ because I simply love cats. It was a good bit of publicity for the record, for me and also for Disc and Music Echo. I don’t know how he got hold of my number but George Harrison called me and said “hello Mike it’s George here. Have you got any kittens left” (laughter). I told him that I had and he said that he wanted to buy one for Pattie’s birthday and asked if he could over and buy one from me.
He came over and climbed up the four flights of stairs to my flat in Knightsbridge and there he was, George Harrison was standing at my door wanting to buy a kitten (laughter). I invited him in and showed him all of the kittens and he chose the one that had climbed right to the top of the curtains saying “that one looks like an individual; I think I’ll have him”. George insisted on writing me a cheque for £10 and of course I kept that cheque for ever and ever in my wallet to show off with (laughter). However, one day when I was low on funds and really needed to use that £10 I cashed George’s cheque only to get a letter back from the bank a month later to say that the account was closed and they never returned my lovely George Harrison cheque. So I never saw it again.
Not only do you play some of your favourite songs but you also tell a few stories.
Yes that’s right. I tell a few stories especially about the time that I replaced Paul Jones in Manfred Mann and how I was as nervous as hell. The first Manfred Mann song that I sang on was Just Like A Woman which was a hit, and I also talk about Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James. I actually played on four Manfred Mann songs which were hits but I don’t concentrate solely on those. I like to talk about the other songs as well; the ones which weren’t hits. I actually finish the first half of the show with Handbags And Gladrags and explain the story behind it. It’s not so much about how I wrote it but the stories that surround the song.
You didn’t have to try too hard with Handbags And Gladrags did you?
No I didn’t, you are quite right in saying that. I was very lucky as that song came to me over a period of twenty four hours. I was only 23 at the time living in London and if you believe that such things are possible it felt as though I was communicating with my higher self. Or to put it another way, divine inspiration sort of popped into my head and when people talk about ‘the muse’ which is the word from which music is derived, the muse sometimes just descends upon you and you find yourself doing things and you think to yourself ‘where is that coming from?’ I think that all of those elements were at work and at play when I wrote that song.
I had received a call from Andrew Oldham who had just formed a new record label called Immediate asking me if I would like to produce and write for some of his artists. The first one that I was offered was Chris Farlowe so I produced and recorded Handbags And Gladrags with Chris.
How did a certain Rod Stewart come to record his version of the song?
Well, a few weeks later I got another call from Andrew saying that the label had signed a new singer called Rod Stewart who at that time was still singing with The Jeff Beck Group. Andrew asked me to go and check out Rod so I went to a show and immediately I said ‘yes please’ as I loved the sound of his voice. Rod wanted to record Handbags And Gladrags but there was a conflict of interest as I was still producing it with Chris Farlowe. So I got Rod to sing another of my songs, Little Miss Understood in March 1968 and we both agreed that when he had got himself an album deal we would record Handbags And Gladrags. He got himself an album deal a couple of years later and so we started working on his version of Handbags And Gladrags.
So at that point Rod then came over to the house and he told me that he wanted to record the song but he wanted to do it with a variation on the piano riff. So that was Rod’s input in getting me to come up with a flute or an oboe phrase and his version came out on his first album An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. Handbags was regarded as the stand-out track on the album, but we were only allowed to record it in one take because at that time Rod was being produced by another producer and not by me. A couple of years later Rod went global with Maggie May and so everyone started immediately to explore his back catalogue and Handbags And Gladrags was released on a number of compilations.
The Sterophonics played a major part in giving the song a new lease of life.
Yes they did, they really did. As you know the Chris Farlowe version was a minor hit in 1967, and then Rod’s version came out in 1969 and everyone was once again interested in the song. However, after that everything went really quiet for some years; people would play the song and like it and often say ‘that’s a great song’, but it wasn’t until The Stereophonics covered the song which bought the song to a whole new generation of fans. Once again people would start focusing back onto the Rod Stewart version and so over the years the song has actually had a lot of covers but what I do when I do the tour, I obviously play the song and I introduce it as ‘the composers version’ (laughter).
I met Kelly Jones once and he told me that he had been working in America with the Stereophonics and he had a day off whilst in New York and he had gone into a record store and bought a Rod Stewart compilation which featured Handbags And Gladrags as the first track. He told me that from that moment on he was hooked on the song and that he could never get beyond track one, he just kept playing it and playing it. That is the main reason why he copied the arrangement which I had made for Rod, and he was obviously trying to copy Rod as well. Funnily enough, the same week that they were recording the song Ricky Gervais chose it out of the blue as the theme tune to The Office (laughter). The song had been lying dormant since 1969 but suddenly had a resurrection in 2000 and it brings us to the end of the first half of the show.
Talking of The Office wasn’t that deal done without your knowledge or agreement?
Yes it was. A friend of mine called me informing me that the song was being used as the theme song to the TV series. So I rang my publishers who knew nothing about it. I called the BBC and the guy said ‘who are you’ and so I told him that I was the guy who had written that song. They said ‘no you’re not, it was written by Rod Stewart’. I just said that no, actually I wrote it and that I wanted to know how they had used it without my permission. I then called my publishers again and asked them how the BBC could be using my song without my permission.
To my surprise and amazement they informed me that the BBC could use my song because there is an agreement in place which allows the television companies to use any piece of music that they want to use as long as they pay a royalty and therefore they don’t have to consult you. The unfortunate thing was that I didn’t find out about The Office until it was a done deal, which obviously did upset me, as I felt that it was the job of the publishers to make me aware before they had done it. I didn’t think that they did justice to my tune in the way that is was used in The Office. Surely, I as the composer should have been consulted and I could have told them how to play the piano part properly. But still such is life.
So tell me about the second half of the show. What can we expect?
Well, having said all of that in the first half, the second half is all about my real hero who is Ray Charles. He has always been a hero together with other major influences such as Bill Withers who I adore, together with a few more Manfred’s hits. I also play The Foundations Build Me Up Butter Cup which I wrote and finish off the evening with The Mighty Quinn and Do Wah Diddy Diddy for good measure too. Hopefully, by the end of the evening the audience has not only been entertained but they may have heard a few anecdotes that are new to them. So it really should be a good evening.
The last time that we spoke you told me that you were intending to slow down, what happened?
(Laughter) the slowing down idea was a great idea but at the end of the day it has to be one of two things. Some people work because they need the money, and I am not saying that I am in that position because things tick over nicely but I do need to work on a moderately regular basis although I don’t work as much as the other Manfred’s do because they work all hours known to man. We have recently done a huge three month UK Tour with P.P. Arnold and Zoot Money and blow me down The Manfred’s are out on another tour now. I basically said to them that I have got young kids; I have recently bought a lovely house three miles from where we used to live which has lots of small projects that I need to do.
I am a very creative songwriter and I love the idea of being able to be at home, record my songs, work on them, and that is most probably why I said that I didn’t want to do the volume of work that they are doing. The thought of being out on the road all of the time, staying overnight in Travel Lodges all around the country, having the idea for a song and writing it down on a scrap of paper, the world tends to take over and you feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day. So the idea behind it was to do less work and enjoy more of the quality of life. It also gives me the opportunity to be more hands-on with the kids. So I think that I have got the balance just about right. The Manfred’s continue to work hard even without me but having said that I am not the sort of guy who can hang up his boots (laughter). As long as I feel that I am in control of my life then I feel better about everything that I do.
So you haven’t closed the door on performing again with The Manfred’s?
No, not at all in fact I am playing six or seven gigs with them later this year. Whenever there is a big Flying Music Tour I get wheeled out because as you know Paul Jones will always be the original singer with Manfred Mann but whenever they play a show where the audiences expects to hear all of the hits, its only right that I should be there. So what you can say is that I am an occasional Manfred and we are all on good terms with one another. The boys have already asked me if I will be available to tour both New Zealand and Australia next year. If we can agree the terms then I will most probably do it (laughter).
I see that you will be playing thirty odd dates this year with The New Amen Corner.
Yes that’s right, they have two guest artists on the tour I am one of them and the other is Mike Pender who you will no doubt remember from The Searchers. In fact Mike and I do work together a lot as special guests, sometimes with Vanity Fare, sometimes with The New Amen Corner, so I do like to think that I have a life outside The Manfred’s. But of course, I also like to know which side my bread is buttered (laughter). If I hadn’t have received the call back in 1966 then I most probably wouldn’t have had a career so I have got to get the balance right and I don’t want to upset anyone but I do want people to accept that I do have a life beyond Manfred Mann and therefore why shouldn’t I go out and work independently if the terms are right (laughter). I’m glad that you understand that Kevin.
Yes I do, very much so. Now then I have to ask you at your stage in your career do you still enjoy touring or has it become a necessary evil?
(Laughter) well to be honest with you I am not a natural tourer (laughter). I like playing two or three gigs a week preferably spread out a bit. However, when you find yourself playing six shows a week and you are travelling from Truro to Newcastle then onto Manchester and up to Aberdeen living out of a suitcase for more or less the whole week, I do now find that quite a challenge (laughter). However, once we get out on stage and start playing and you see the audience loving it, then that gives you a warm feeling in the fact that you know that you are delivering a good show. It’s all about getting the balance right.
As I said I am not a happy natural tourer but if you want to be out there being seen then you have just got to do it. However, at my age I really wouldn’t mind if they just spread the dates out a little more so you can have a few days at home. But as you know it doesn’t always work out that way.
You have briefly mentioned Build Me Up Buttercup which you wrote for The Foundations. I was recently speaking to Clem (Curtis) about the song and was wondering if you could clear up an urban myth for me. Did you write the song for The Foundations featuring Clem Curtis?
(Laughter) I am so pleased that you have asked me that. I always point this out discreetly to people; Clem was not a member of The Foundations when that record was recorded. It was actually sung and recorded by Colin Young. I’m not going to say where Clem was but he had decided to take his leave of the band. Clem always tries to give the impression that he was the singer, he wasn’t. Clem sang on the earlier hit Baby Now That I’ve Found You and I have seen him many times over the years, in fact I have played with him from time to time, and he just loves claiming that he sang the song, which he didn’t.
When he first started singing the song I said to him “Clem, if you are going to sing that song then please, sing the right lyrics” he was always singing ‘why don’t you build me up’ when in fact it is ‘why do you build me up’. That alone proves that he was not on the record. So there you go, Clem is a good guy but he sometimes forgets the facts (laughter).
But correct me if I am wrong, the song was never intended to be sung by The Foundations was it?
Where do you get your information from (laughter). Well, I had originally co-written the song with Tony MacAulay and Tony said that he would like to try the song with a certain David Essex. However, David Essex turned the song down because he said that he didn’t want to sing a song about a cow (laughter). Buttercup is traditionally the name of cows along with Petula and Tinkerbell. So after David turned it down we were going to record it with The Paper Dolls but at the last minute they got an extension to their contract to play up in Stockton so we had an empty studio on our hands. At the last minute Tony called me asking if he could try the song with The Foundations, so I once again played the piano on it and we cut the record between 2pm and 5pm and I went away and carried on with my life.
I knew that the song would be a hit in England but what I hadn’t realised was that it actually went to number one over in America. That caused a lot of problems for Tony and I because we were immediately sued by Jobette, the publishing company of Tamla Motown. They claimed that we were infringing a Motown song called I’ll Turn To Stone which had been recorded by The Four Tops and from that moment on they froze all royalties. So I never really earned a penny from Build Me Up Buttercup until some twenty-five years later by which time four million pounds had passed into Motown’s hands. All of these problems caused by a song that we had never even heard, and it wasn’t even a hit. It never got above number seventy in the charts.
It was a Four Tops B Side so that really did leave a bad taste in my mouth until they finally revived the song for the movie There’s Something About Mary about nineteen years ago now. That then gave me the opportunity to earn directly from that song again. In the meantime the deal with Motown had expired and they had taken all of the money which I think was probably naive on Tony and my part because we didn’t have American representation. The court hearing was held in New York and they claimed that two notes were infringing which I would have thought was very unfair but that’s all water under the bridge now.
That was Berry Gordy for you. He was on the ball with everything.
Absolutely, absolutely, you couldn’t have said a truer word. At the end of the day I admire the guy, I think Motown made some great records. I recently heard Diana Ross singing one of her solo hits and thought about how Berry Gordy had guided her career and had taken her away from The Supremes; what a stroke of genius. I remember all of those fantastic records from The Temptations, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye; all of those guys are my absolute heroes.
Do you ever tire of hearing Handbags And Gladrags?
No, to be honest with you I never tire of hearing it. So many people have recorded it and I love every version of the song. However, I do wish that somebody new would record it and give it a new lease of life. I am really proud of that song and it has earned me some useful money, it has enable me to send my kids to private school. The only thing that I would say is that I wish that I could get the inspiration back to write something else that will catch on and bring me a few rewards once again.
It’s been a pleasure. It’s always nice to chat to you Kevin and we will do it again one day. Bye for now.