I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad recently. It’s not surprising I suppose as it’s a year to the day he passed away. This time last year we were in a very tight lockdown and only 8 of us were allowed to stand around the graveside.
But there have been other reasons my dad has been on my mind and I have to say I have loved thinking about him and hearing his voice in my head.
The last few years were tough on us as a family. It was soul destroying seeing a man so full of love and words and stories slowly lose his voice. I would try to go to see him as often as I could, but it hurt, then came lockdown meaning I couldn’t see him at all, and that hurt even more. The last time we were together in person was a couple of months before he passed away. We saw him on the iPad a couple of times after that, but he was always fast asleep.
My big worry was that I would remember him in his final days rather than in his prime. How wrong I was. As the months have passed Stan has once again become the man who could talk for Wales, who could speak to strangers and tell you the Latin name of every plant in his garden.
He became very real again when I was asked to lead a church service on BBC Local radio. As I wrote in the blog a couple of weeks ago, I am no preacher, but I am the son of a preacher man.
As I tried to put together a script for the service I kept hearing my dad preaching, his 3 points for every sermon, his stories of being a child in Pontrhydyfen, his love of gardening.
Listen again on BBC Sounds https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p09fvfzl
This week my dad has been close to me again. We had a number of family rituals. We would start every morning with all of us gathered for dad to do the daily Bible reading before school and every night he would reach for a plate of buttered Ryvita, take out his diary and write. He had started writing a diary at an early age and wanted me to follow in his footsteps. Just like he had tried to get me to be a teacher or gardener I resisted his encouragement to start writing down my daily thoughts.
This was especially true of my early days signed to Elton John’s Rocket Record Company. Sometimes I would be away for a couple of weeks in London during the school holidays going to parties and football matches and visiting various studios with lots of world class musicians. ‘Write it all down because one day you won’t remember it all’, he would say and with the confidence of youth I would ignore his suggestion. I wish I had listened to him. Yes, I still remember the big highlights but now I wish I had all of the little details that a diary would have given me.
Having said that, they say the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Whilst I don’t write a diary I have realised I do something similar. I write songs. I always think that music is one of the greatest time-travelling devices ever known to man. If I hear T REX’s ‘Jeepster’ I’m back in the Manselton School disco, ‘Bridge over troubled waters’ and I’m lying between the speakers of my brothers stereo hoping he wouldn’t come home and catch me and if I hear any of the Eagles early albums I’m back wearing flares and a cheese cloth shirt, eating Hamburgers on St Helen’s Road with my friends on a Friday night.
It is the same with my own songs. I’ve been writing songs since I was 9 years old and recording them either for radio or on records since I was 12. I’m told most football centre forwards can remember every goal. I’m a bit like that with music. I can remember every song, where I was when I wrote it, how I was feeling and what the recording session was like when we recorded it.
This weekend I’m singing a new version of one of my old song on Songs of Praise and its brought back so many memories.
It all started with a letter that I wrote to Elton John. His Rocket Record Company was a great idea but it seemed every time I started making headway in my career either a major supporter at the company would leave or my voice would drop another few tones and the last lot of recordings would be useless.
In 1976 things had come to a bit of a stand still. Gus Dudgeon, the man who had produced Space Oddity for David Bowie and all of the big Elton John albums was a director of Rocket Records and also my producer. When he left at short notice my career was left in limbo.
I decided to write to the boss. In the letter I said something like ‘I feel like a 16 year old failure’. I still remember the night Elton rang the house in Brynhyfryd. At the time I was performing in the Dynevor Comprehensive School production of Christmas Carol. I was on my way to catch a bus home when my dad’s car suddenly appeared with brother Gareth leaning out of the window.
My dad was a very cautious driver so to see him driving at such speed made me fear the worst. Expecting bad news about an elderly relatively I found myself completely lost for words when my brother shouted for me to get in. ‘Elton’s rung wanting to speak to you and he’s going to call back at 10.’
Elton couldn’t have been nicer or more encouraging. He was sorry that people had left the company and I wasn’t a failure. From now on he was going to take personal charge of my career. True to his word in the first week of January I travelled to London with my dad to record some demos of my latest songs with Elton as producer.
Now at the time Elton was the biggest rock star in the world and had many demands on his time. His original mentor, a man called Steve Brown, had run Rocket when it first started but had left to live on a farm in Kent. He still kept a parental eye on my career. As the months past and no recording dates appeared Steve took matters into his own hands. He wrote to the new CEO at Rocket and told him if they didn’t record my songs ‘The Big Popstar in the sky would make his ears drop off.’
The session was soon booked for Abbey Road in July. Elton had chosen 3 songs from the demos we recorded in January. One of them was called ‘A Child’s Prayer’. It’s a song about the simple faith of a teenage boy from Swansea. The week before the session I went to the FA Cup final courtesy of Elton and stayed the weekend at his mansion in Windsor. We spent the evening eating beans on toast and listening to gospel records.
Years later Elton gave me my songs back and ‘A Child’s Prayer’ really stood out to me. I remembered my teenage passion to ‘save the world’ and it made me think how the years have moulded and changed me, and my faith.
The new final verse talks about how that even though my views have adapted to my changing world and circumstances I am still able to ‘see the child inside the man’. I sent the song to a dear friend and after hearing it she commented that maybe through the original song you could see the man inside the child? And maybe I see my dad in them both.
Anyway, you can make your own minds up. I’ll be singing the song on Songs of Praise tomorrow at 13.15 on BBC 2.
You can stream or download the song together with the original 1977 version by following the links on www.malpope.com