This week, as Professor of Practice at University of Wales Trinity St David, I was invited to meet and greet the new intake of students in the Music Technology department. The location was one of Swansea’s greatest treasures, the old BBC Concert Hall Studio in Alexandra Road.
In many ways the room was the inspiration for my talk. Over the years during my life as a broadcaster I have presented radio and TV programmes from that studio. As a musician I have also written many songs and made records in that inspirational room.
As these students embark on their studies I’m sure they will all have a different vision or dream for where they hope their career will take them.
My ‘dream’ was always to be a singer songwriter. The first time I visited the studio was in 1974 when I was interviewed about my first single release on Elton John’s Rocket Record Company by Anita Morgan for BBC Radio Wales. To be honest the future back then looked pretty straight forward. A hit record would be followed by world tours and millionaire status by the age of 18…
Of course, things didn’t quite work out that way and over the course of the first 10 minutes of my chat I explained how you have to deal with disappointments, you have to roll with the punches.
You might have to change course for a while to survive but through all that you should never give up on your dream. For me that meant becoming a broadcaster, singing cartoons like Fireman Sam, singing at ‘Song for Europe’ and writing music for Film and TV. I tried to explain to this idealistic band of students that none of those experiences were worthless even if they appeared to be a diversion along the way. The contacts made from one project would often lead to a door opening years later in another. I had to do what I had to do to get by…but through it all I still knew what I really wanted to do ‘when I grew up’.
It’s all very well talking about things that have happened in the past so I thought it would be good to take a case in point, my new record ‘Dream Out Loud’.
My new record ‘Dream Out Loud’, is not new at all. It has been something I have been working on for a very long time. The song itself owed it’s very existence to what might be considered to be a series of ‘random events’. I had been commissioned by HTV Wales to present a programme about the similarities and differences between Welsh Hymns and Black Gospel in the Deep South and how both had played a part in helping their people cope with their struggles.
The show meant flying to Memphis and travelling down through the Mississippi delta meeting pastors, historians and civil rights leaders along the way. When embarking on a project like this you need a local ‘fixer’ who can suggest locations and potential guests. Without that TV show and that fixer I would never have met Rev Samuel Billy Kyles.
Rev Kyles had been at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s and had spent that last afternoon in the Lorraine Motel on the day Dr Marin Luther King was assassinated. Over the years I would return to Memphis and every time I would visit with Rev Kyles. To be in his presence was like touching history. Each visit would bring new stories and a new blessing for me. Every time I would come away with the words ‘dreams’ or ‘dreamer’ ringing in my ears.
Over the past few years I have started working with some promotion companies to take my new music to radio and TV Stations. I have known my team for many years, contacts I made through some of the side roads I walked down in the past. When planning a new record release it takes experience and a bit of ‘nous’ to read the signs not just at the music radio stations but also in the country. I mean, I’ve had a song called ‘Best of Times’ ready to release for over a year but none of us, hand on heart, could have any confidence in that song hitting a nerve after all we’ve been through.
It was almost by accident that I found an old double CD I had recorded Live with my band ‘The Jacks’ back in 2003. On that album was a song I had written following one of my trips to Memphis. On a whim I decided to ‘re-release’ the album on the streaming sites.
Within an hour of release I got a call from my plugger, Lisa Davies, saying she loved ‘Dream Out Loud’; it was a shame it was a live recording as that would be a tough ask to get played on radio. I mentioned that we had also recorded the song in the studio and sent her that version.
It was amazing how quickly the ball started rolling. Within a day or so Tim Hamill, ‘Jacks’ guitarist and genius sound engineer had found the original multitrack. As we listened to the recording we were amazed by how fresh everything sounded. In many ways that shouldn’t have been surprising as we had gone for a classic mix of bass, drums, guitars and piano. In fact the piano had been recorded on location at All Saints in Mumbles on their new grand piano so no wonder that sounded good. Next came a new string section and a phone call to Jamaica.
In my other life as session musician I had often sung with Lawrence Johnson on Gospel projects. Lawrence was one of the founders of the London Community Gospel Choir and then went on to be vocal arranger for Simon Cowell. In recent years he has arranged Gospel Choir vocal sessions for Sam Smith, Stormzy, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheerhan. In another of my past lives Lawrence and his band ‘Nu Colours’ had been a guest on my TV show. Singing with them that night was one of the highlights of the series.
When my own musical career stalled in the early 1980’s I started working as a session musician on Gospel projects. That was when I became friends with Les Moir. Since then Les has become one of the stalwarts of Gospel Music in the UK and has a contacts book second to none. It was Les who rang in the summer before last asking if I would co-write a song to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee called ‘Rise Up and Serve’. That recording featured a vocal group arranged by…Lawrence Johnson.
I called Les and explained what Lisa the plugger had said and how I was working on a new version of ‘Dream Out Loud’. I asked if he thought we might be able to get Lawrence involved. Les called Lawrence who was on holiday in Jamaica and then sent him the song. Lawrence would be back in the UK in 7 days, if we could book the studio for a few days later he would put together our choir.
So many threads of my past came together on that day in BAM BAM Studios, South London. As well as Les and Lawrence, my camera men were Dan Evans, who I’d known since he was a boy and had done a great job on last Christmas’s ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’ video, and my son Jackson, who thought he was popping along for a chat, but ended up on 2nd camera. I knew half of the choir, in fact Priscilla Jones was a member of an Apostolic Church in London that regularly came to Wales for the annual Apostolic Convention in Penygroes.
As I brought my talk to an end at BBC Studio I wasn’t sure if I had made any sense to the students. I left them with a quote from Mario Maccarinelli, father and coach to former WBO Cruiserweight Champion. He told me, in life, we all take a punch. We should go down on one knee with our arm on the rope and take the count to 8 before getting up.
These students will experience ups and downs, but the most important thing is to do everything, take chances, make connections… but never let anyone steal the dream.