When I was in Ya Ya we recorded some of the album at Maison Rouge in Fulham. Next door Roger Taylor was recording The Cross album. So we used to regularly meet the Queen guys. There was a bar in Maison Rouge – part of it’s appeal – and one night I was sitting there on my own with a drink and Freddie Mercury plonks himself down on the stool next to me.
He asks how it’s going, Brian and Rog said it was sounding great. I didn’t know what to say…it was Freddie ‘F***ing’ Mercury! So I just said I was a bit bored…’They’re working on guitar amp and bass sounds, so I had nothing to do’.
Freddie looked at me and said quietly, ‘Never ever say you’re bored, there’s always something to do and there are people out there who would give there left arm to do what you’re doing’.
I didn’t know what to say. I was being told off by Freddie Mercury.
You know what, I’ve never said I was bored since, because he was right. We had a drink and chatted about all things singing, which singers love to do, what a wonderful person. Turns out, he knew lots of people I knew and worked with, some of them part of Freddie’s inner circle – funny old world isn’t it.
To the tune of ‘Once in a Lifetime’ (Talking Heads) You may ask yourself how did a boy from Tyneside end up here ? Now living on a houseboat in Twickenham, west London, Sam Blewitt has great stories from his life in music including Ultravox, Dizzee Rascal at Glastonbury, hitting number 1 with Mike Skinner & the Streets and not forgetting his formative years singing in rock bands in the North East.
Sam with Moulin Rouge at Sunderland Locarno late 1970’s.
But first I asked him what got you interested in music and are you from a musical family ? I’m not really from a musical family, but my Dad played the guitar, he’s pretty handy on the keyboard now. What got me interested was my mates in Gosforth, where I grew up, we talked about music the majority of the time.
Also my Aunty Lily worked for a company who changed all the singles on the jukeboxes around Newcastle and Gateshead, she would drop by in her mini-van and drop off piles of singles.
This would have been around ‘68 or ‘69. Me and my sister would pile them up on the record player and listen to every song day after day. I loved the Beatles, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Rolling Stones, Small Faces, The Animals.
We also used to watch all the Saturday night shows on TV, like Cilla, Lulu – I even remember the famous one where Jimi Hendrix starts Sunshine of your Love in the middle of Hey Joe.
There was music everywhere – or so I thought.
Can you remember your first gig ? My first proper gig was at the Cooperage near the Quayside in Newcastle with my first band Moulin Rouge. It was just a party for a friend of one of the band members. We had been rehearsing for a while and it was an ideal way of us starting out properly.
Moulin Rouge gigged anywhere we could to be honest – The Newton Park Hotel with Newcastle band White Heat, The Mayfair, the Old 69 and the Locarno in Sunderland and some workingmen’s clubs. I remember playing a few times in Whitley Bay sharing headline slots with The Tygers of Pan Tang and supporting Geordie at the Mayfair. The line-up changed a few times and we eventually recruited Rob Hunter on drums, who was also a great singer and songwriter. He left to join Raven.
I left Moulin Rouge to join Fastbreeder with Fred Purvis, Dave Drury and Andy Taylor – who later moved on to Duran Duran. They were a great little rock band and we did the Mayfair a couple of times and some workingmens clubs, but after Andy left it sort of fell apart.
Backstage with Emerson at the Whitley Bay Esplanade.
Playing Newcastle Mayfair with Emerson.
Did you travel out of Tyneside ? I joined a band in Cleveland called Axis, they were set up like a proper professional band, and we played a few gigs around the country. Once again a guitarist left, that was Mick Tucker he joined White Spirit.
I then joined Emerson, which included brothers Stu and Bri Emerson, Dru Irving on keys and Jon Sellers on drums, later replaced by Charlie McKenzie. We worked hard with writing sessions and rehearsals every weekend.
Once again we picked up gigs where ever we could like the Whitley Bay Esplanade and some cool ones supporting bands like Nazareth, Budgie, Robin George and Heavy Pettin’. We got quite a few slots in the capital at the Royal Standard, Dingwalls and the Marquee, this led to a lot of interest from the industry in London.
But the band started to break up after a year or two, Bri left and I started getting offers from bands in London. We kept the band going for a while with Norman Appleby replacing Bri Emerson. I eventually left and joined LA Secrets, after a short stint with them I joined Paul Samson’s Empire, that was fun but again only lasted a few months before I joined a band called Ya Ya.
I spent 4 years with them and we were signed to Warner Brothers and released an album called Ya Ya, it got rave reviews. But unfortunately it failed to sell in great numbers. We released a few singles from the album which were fun to promote.
By this time it was 1989 and the band broke up. Looking back on my time in Ya Ya we had toured a fair bit and recorded with some great producers. We supported Roger Taylor’s band The Cross, for a whole tour of the UK, which was fun and got to meet all the Queen guys.
On stage in Russia during the ’80s with Ya Ya.
With Graham Garrett (drummer in Ya Ya, now a top Michelin Star chef) in New York around 1987. I was recording some vocals at Nile Rodgers Studio (Skyline) for the album and having a bit too much fun while we were there.
Where there any offers after Ya Ya ? I worked as a session singer and songwriter for a few years, working with some amazing writers and producers, trying to form new projects. Then in 1992 I joined Ultravox and stayed with them until 1996. In that time we released one studio album Ingenuity, and one live album.
I then worked with Vinny Burns – who was the guitarist in Ultravox at that time – on his solo album The Journey. We then joined forces as Burns Blue, to write and record our own album What if.
Then came my time as a ‘hired gun’ session singer, I sang the Phat Beach/Naughty Boy version of The Baywatch theme I’ll Be Ready, which reached the top 30. Plus I sang for Mike Skinner & the Streets on ‘Dry Your Eyes’ which went to number 1 in the UK. This attracted the interest of many hip hop/grime artists and producers.
I sang with The Young Punx on their albums who were recruited to become Dizzee Rascal’s backing band for his 2009/10 tours and TV performances.
I was brought in to sing ‘fix up look sharp’, but ended up joining in with the band singing on most of the songs. We had Guthrie Govan on guitar, Hal Ritson on bass and keys, Alex Reeves on drums, Vula Malinga on vocals and a whole brass section – not too shabby.
I still collaborate with producers Hal Ritson and Richard Adlam on Young Punx, Avicci, Urban Myth and various other releases.
After a PRS guitars party on boat down the Thames with Paul Reed Smith, me, Rob Harris, John McLaughlin, Bernie Marsden, Paul Turner ( from Sunderland) & Alex Toff (Jamiroquai, Whitesnake).
On stage with Ultravox during the ’90s at Camden.
What was your first recording experience ? My first recording experience would have been with Moulin Rouge at Impulse studios in Wallsend. The line-up of the band was Me, Matty Rocks and Ian Wood on guitars, Ian Drury on bass and I forget the drummer’s name – it was a long time ago.
We done a 2 track recording for EMI records. They had seen us at a Melody Maker rock competition in Durham, and much to our surprise – we won, but they didn’t follow up their initial interest.
We were so naive, we didn’t really know what a demo was. The next time I recorded properly would have been with Paul Samson’s Empire, we had a day at the BBC Maida Vale studios in London, which was awesome.
Did you have a manager ? My first proper manager was Diane Wagg, when I first moved to London – we’re still mates now. Then Ira Blacker managed Ya Ya. When I joined Ultravox our managers were Simon Napier Bell and Sir Harry Cowell – a couple of real characters.
At the Jools Holland Hootenanny TV show in 2010 with Dizzee Rascal & the Young Punx.
What were your high points on stage – any magic moments ? My high points have been, playing on the Glastonbury Pyramid stage with Dizzee Rascal in 2010. I was his rock singer with his amazing band The Young Punx. We have no idea how many people were there, but something around 70,000.
In Ultravox we played some cool festivals too, one in particular in Bielefeld, Germany on the same bill as Roger Chapman, one of my musical heroes. One festival we played we were given a one hour slot to play, this was cut short, but we weren’t told and we hadn’t played any of the big songs like Vienna and Dancing with Tears in My Eyes, then we were pulled off stage by the promoter and stage manager after about 45 minutes. I don’t think the audience were too happy, we made the promoter explain the situation – still don’t know if he did or not. It happens.
Have you any road stories ? One of my favourites was myself and Vinny Burns getting a bit merry after a gig, we went back to watch Asia who were headlining, they had lots of dry ice, so we took it upon ourselves to crawl across the stage under the dry ice without being seen. It was all going well until we ended up behind Geoff Downs (the keyboard player) and couldn’t see where we were going but we managed to get back across the stage without being seen. It’s an old UFO trick, great fun.
When Ya Ya were in LA to shoot our video for When the World Cried with Nigel Dick, who also filmed Toto and Guns n Roses, we agreed to meet him at our hotel to have a chat. Ray the guitarist fancied a dip in the hot tub on the roof, we had put a whole bottle of shampoo in the hot tub, we switched on the jacuzzi and he got in just for a laugh.
Nigel pulled up and looked up at the roof, all you could see was foam sliding down the side of the building. He said you could see it about a mile away. The hotel weren’t too happy – it was only soap !
There was a time I was backstage at Glastonbury when Bobby Womack walks up to me and says ‘You remind me of that mutherfucker used to sing with Slade!’ Before I could answer his trumpet player declared…’No man, he remind me of that mutherfucker used to sing with Led Zeppelin!’….then they both walked of, it was hilarious.
Post soundcheck in Barcelona with The Project band in 2019.
Bringing your story up to date what are you doing now ? I’m currently singing with The Project Band, basically the guys from the Alan Parsons Project featuring Lenny Zakatek joint vocals, Stuart Elliot on drums, Laurence Cottle on bass, Richard Cottle on keys and Dave Bainbridge on guitar.
They’re great people and amazing players, just waiting for this pandemic to clear up and we can get back out on the road. I didn’t know much about the Alan Parsons Project, but local boy John Miles was heavily involved and I rate him very highly indeed.
I’m still working as a session singer, which I really like, you never know what they’ll throw at you next.
Finally, what does music mean to you ? Music has meant everything really. Hard work, fun, and a living. It’s a cruel mistress sometimes, some wonderful moments you never forget, days when you wonder what you’re doing there. I’ve met some fantastic people over the years, many great friends, lot’s of people to look up to. There’s always a challenge to look forward to.
Interview by Gary Alikivi May 2020.
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