It’s not often that I have to reach for my calculator when I go to a concert but last week at the Borough Theatre, Abergavenny that’s exactly what I found myself doing. I’ll explain why a little later.
Kiki Dee has been a part of my life and my story for just over 50 years, in fact 50 years and one week and a half.
On the very first day I walked into The Rocket Records offices at 101 Wardour Street on 3rd October 1973 one of my most enduring memories was of a hand written note sellotaped to the back of a leather chair. It just had the numbers 541. As I looked strangely at the number everyone else in the room started to cheer. ‘What does this mean?’ I remember asking Steve Brown, the boss at Rocket. He explained that what it meant was that Rocket Records had its first hit record. 541 was the previous days sales for Kiki Dee’s single ‘Amoureuse’ and it was heading into the charts.
Rocket Records had been launched on Thursday 26th April 1973 in the unlikely setting of Moreton-in- Marsh in the Cotswolds. The invitation to the launch party came in the form of a first class railway ticket. The ‘Elton John Rocket Records Express ’ a GWR ‘Football Special Train’ was leaving Paddington Station at 6.40pm and anyone who was anyone was going to be on it.
On arrival an odd collection of pop stars and journalists followed a Brass Band to the Village Hall where Elton and various other Rocket Records Artistes performed as the champagne flowed. Among the acts were ‘Longdancer’ who‘s guitarist Dave Stewart went on to form the ‘Eurythmics’ and of course Kiki Dee.
Kiki had been known to the Rocket Record Company management for a number of years. Originally from Bradford she had started singing with a dance band before being spotted by a talent scout and signed to Fontana Records.
She then went on to become the first white British Artist to be signed by Motown. The Label manager at Motown was 19 year John Reid. Wondering what to do when her Motown album didn’t set the world alight Kiki rang Reid who by then was managing a singer songwriter named Elton John. He introduced Kiki to Elton and after she managed to smash all of his Champagne glasses at a party in his London flat they became firm friends.
Up until that point she had sung other people’s songs, but it was Elton who encouraged Kiki to write her own. Sometimes that’s quite a difficult step to take. I remember my old friend Johnny Tudor recounting a conversation with Dorothy Squires. He told Dorothy that he didn’t write, and her reply was, ‘How do you know if you’ve never tried?’.
Elton kept sending her albums by people like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne and that inspired her to write songs that would feature on her first Rocket Album ‘Loving and Free’.
Not only did Elton start her song writing career he also decided to produce her in the studio as well. At the time Elton’s career was taking off in America. He also had a record deal that required him to produce 2 albums a year for the DJM record label, but he believed in Kiki so much that he put his own career on hold for a few months to make sure her first album was as good as he could possibly make it.
It was October 1973 that our stories collided. After my first week recording in London I left for home with all of the latest Rocket Record releases. Rocket had already bought me a really top notch record player and by the end of October I knew all of the words to Kiki’s album.
‘Amoureuse’ was originally written in French but the English lyrics had been written by a man to tell a love story from a woman’s point of view. It was a beautiful record. Even my mum loved it, although I’m not sure if she had really listened to all the words as it was as they used to say back then a little ‘racy’.
Over the next year or so I got to know some of the members of Kiki’s band including the piano player Bias Boshell. Bias was a gentle soul who had played piano on a number of my early recordings. I didn’t realise just how ‘funky’ Bias was until I heard Kiki sing his song ‘I’ve Got the Music in Me’.
The first time I met Kiki properly was at the Glen Ballroom in Llanelli. At that time the Glen Ballroom was one of those regular stops on the rock n’ roll touring circuit. Everyone from the Kinks to Lulu stopped off at the Glen.
Aged 14 I had to ask my dad to take me to the show. My brother Gareth came to keep me company. It was loud, sweaty, and the stars in the band were within touching distance. I loved it. I remember one enthusiastic fan threw his hat to Kiki and she immediately put it on. The thing was Kiki had paid her dues in pubs and clubs over the years. She was more than capable of coping with an over enthusiastic fan in a hat.
It was after the Elton John Concert at the Capitol in Cardiff in 1976 when I first heard about her new duet with Elton. I was waiting in the foyer for my usual audience with Elton and his band. Paul Gambaccini, the Radio DJ, had been a friend since my first Radio session. In fact one year he joined our church youth group at Langland Bay for our annual Easter Monday football kickabout. We must have been talking about Kiki’s performance when he said, ‘Wait until you hear her duet with Elton’.
The record was the constant sound of the summer of ‘76. It was said that when they were recording the song Kiki was having trouble giving her best vocal performance in the studio, so Elton decided to streak to try to help her relax!! I’ve never asked her if that was true but her vocal on that record is perfect.
Since then Kiki’s career like so many artists has been a roller coaster. Every so often a hit record would take her back to the top of the charts. What it has done is given her a catalogue of great hit songs that she could perform in Las Vegas every night of the year if that’s what she wanted to do…but she doesn’t.
29 years ago she met guitarist Carmelo Luggeri. He had been brought in to produce some bonus tracks for ‘The Very Best of Kiki Dee’. It was our old friend Steve Brown who told the couple that something magical happened when Kiki sang, and Carmelo played acoustic guitar. All these years later they are still working together, recording and still touring.
Carmelo still plays acoustic guitar but by using loop pedals and digital delays he creates layers of sound that set the perfect underscore for that fantastic voice. Over the years they have written and produced a number of albums together and the evening in Abergavenny had that mixture of the classics sprinkled with new original material.
So why did I get the calculator app on my phone? It was when Kiki said she had been born in 1947 that I thought my mental arithmetic had gone awry. Surely that couldn’t be right.
It was only after doing the maths twice that I finally had to concede that Kiki Dee was in fact 76 years old. She looked amazing and sounded fantastic. She has always been an inspiration…and she still is.