I had been working at International House for about five months when John Haycraft changed my life. I will tell you how, but first a bit of back story
I was quite a good singer when I was little. My friend Alan Anderson and I were in the junior church choir when we were 10. We were the youngest choristers but we had to rehearse the same hours as the older ones. The choirmaster was a gnarled, ogrous beast (and yes, I am choosing my words carefully), whose name I have thankfully forgotten.
It was after eight o’clock on a cold November night and we were standing in the choir stalls at Hope Church, Pendleton. Alan, who was very tired, yawned very loudly. The choir master turned round and angrily demanded to know who had yawned. Alan, being an honest lad, admitted the sinful deed.
“Get out and don’t come back!” yelled the monster.
I walked out in sympathy. Alan was close to tears all the way home.
The next day, when I got home from school, my mother told me that the choir master had been round to see her. He had told her that I had a voice you only find once in a generation. I was ecstatic, and my first thought was to run down the street and tell Alan. I ran out of the house in the direction of his house. He was running towards me. The choirmaster had told his mother the same thing.
We didn’t go back.
It was the 60s and the music was good. I’m amazed to think that the first live band I ever saw were The Beatles. (Or should that be ‘was The Beatles? Help, somebody!).
I saw them at Manchester’s Ardwick Apollo in 1963. Roy Orbison and Gerry and the Pacemakers were on the same bill. According to Shout!, Philip Norman’s excellent book about The Beatles, Orbison had been headline act at the start of the tour, but had been playing to rows of empty seats because the audiences left when the Beatles had finished their set. He generously suggested that the Fab Four should top the bill for the remainder of the tour.
Fast forward to university and I learnt to play the guitar. The person who taught me was someone in my philosophy class, a girl from Sheffield called Liz Rackham who, amongst other talents, was a pretty good singer and guitarist. She sang mournful Joan Baez songs, almost all in a minor key, and she taught me my first three chords. She carefully placed my fingers on the frets to make an A minor shape. It was such a lovely experience, I pretended to be a slow learner.
I got a little bit better, and improved a lot when I was living in Seville. So, by the time I started work at International House, I was an OK guitarist with an OK-ish voice.
One day, I walked into the staff room at 40 Shaftesbury Avenue, and saw a distinctive guitar case under a table. The hard black plastic case had been lovingly covered in white paper in the shape of flowers (this was still the 60s, after all).
Without a second thought, I opened the case, and took out the guitar. I gasped when I saw it was an old Gibson (actually very old, and very valuable).
My fingers were just forming an A minor shape on the fretboard when a stunning young woman walked into the room. She had long blonde hair and was wearing a brown sweater, a suede mini-skirt and knee-length leather boots. I smiled at her, dazzled.
She didn’t smile back.
“Who the hell said you could play my guitar?” she demanded, in what sounded suspiciously like an American accent.
“Can you play?”
“Yeah, a bit.”
“Can you sing?”
“Well, I was in the church choir for a while.” I smiled cheesily to indicate that this was meant to be funny. She didn’t smile back.
“We have a music club on Friday nights. If you come along and sing, I will forgive you.”
No prizes for guessing that this was Dede Brewer, now Dede Wilson.
At the music club, I met Dede’s best friend in London, a South African called Michael Klein. A few weeks later, I met his friend Alan Wakeman (anyone remember English Fast?), who was a song-writer as well as an ELT author. Dede, Michael and I decided to try to form a band. A Brazilian/Scottish student of mine called Lucia Turnbull joined us.
So an American, a South African, a Brazilian and a lad from Salford formed a band. And what did we call ourselves? Gulp, here goes. The Solid British Hat Band.
What WERE we thinking of??
Lucia had to go back to Brazil, where she had some success as a recording artist (check her out on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2o9ygOorLuk)
My brother’s ex-wife’s sister Gillian Dickinson joined us.
We rehearsed at the weekends and on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, so I brought my guitar to school on those days and left it under the table in the staff room. One day, someone said there had been a theft the night before, so I took the guitar with me to class for safe-keeping.
I had an intermediate class at the time. They were really great students. I was 22 years old, and most of the students were the same age as me. There were whoops of delight when I walked into the classroom with the guitar. I wondered later if this was a reflection on the dullness of our normal classes.
The students demanded that I play the guitar. The more I hesitated, the more insistent they became. I wasn’t sure whether the school would think this was the best use of their time. Eventually, I promised to bring some song words the following Friday and we would learn a song together. Hell, we were together for ten hours a week – surely the school wouldn’t mind if I spent a little bit of time singing?
Although I was always a bit worried that we were having too much ‘fun’, the class clamoured for more, and we spent the whole of our two-hour class on Friday mornings learning more and more songs. The Beatles were a particular favourite.
When this class finally disbanded, I was heart-broken. My next class were beginners so I couldn’t use the Friday morning songs. However, by this time I was convinced that using songs was useful as well as enjoyable. With no material available that was easy enough for my beginners’ class to sing, I started to write my own songs for them.
One day, John Haycraft stopped me in the corridor.
‘I understand that you’ve been writing songs for your class,’ he said.
I hesitated a moment before admitting it. Was he going to censure me for wasting the students’ time? Not a bit of it!
‘I’m going to see if I can get one of the publishers interested,’ said John.
And he was as good as his word. I had an interview with a publisher a few weeks later. The result was that before my 23rd birthday, I had signed a contract to write, record and produce a collection of English teaching songs.
The album Mister Monday appeared the following year. At the time, I was the youngest-ever published ELT author. I don’t know if I still hold this record. Mister Monday was an international success and the start of my career as an ELT author.
At the time, however, I wondered if I had made a dreadful mistake. With hardly any experience of recording, Dede, Gillian, Michael and I were going to go into a studio and MAKE AN ALBUM!!!!
How did we get on? I’ll tell you next time!