John Leo Waters (from The Downbeat magazine)
Chris Farlowe has been accorded many accolades in his eighty years on earth - The Voice, Mr. Blues, The finest Blue Eyed Soul Artist, Living legend - the list goes on. One thing is for sure, there is only one Chris Farlowe!
He was born, John Henry Deighton on 13th Ocober 1940 which makes him a contemporary of Cliff Richard (actually he is a day older than the Peter Pan of Pop!).
He was born in Offord Road, Islington. Offord Road was very much a 'working class' area of large Victorian houses. His father Harry worked in the print industry and during the war was a military policeman. John Henry's mother, Eva worked as a dinner lady at Thornhill School where young John was a pupil. John Henry never really knew his father as he serving abroad with British forces during the war, returning when Chris was six - "He was quite a strict man. If I did anything wrong, he would take off his army leather belt and smack me across the arse."
Eva played and sang in the local pub at night at it was there that young John Henry performed for the first time when backed by Eva he would sing Doris Day songs!.
John Henry was bitten by the performing bug and when left school he entered local talent contests such as the 'Stars of The Future' - sponsored by Islington Council ( he came second, aged 15).
The mid fifties saw the rise of skiffle in the UK. A mish mash of American folk and blues performed using homemade instruments and guitars, skiffle briefly became the preferred sound for Britain's teenagers. John Henry wasted no time latching on to this 'new' music. He had been sitting in with local musician and entrepeneur Dave Duggan and recruited some fellow musicians to form the John Henry Skiffle Group with John Henry as featured vocalist and guitarist.
They practiced in the local youth club at St Giles Mission Hall or in the communal laundry room of a tenement block in Downham Road.
Chris had left school with no academic qualifications. According to Chris "I passed my eleven plus but my old man sigend the form in the wrong place and I ended up in secondary school!" He took a job with a local engineering company making instruments and "some very good pokers!" but soon moved on to an apprenticeship at a Holloway carpentry company specializing in making church pews! Despite his love for making furniture he eventually had to leave
“I was sacked for persistent singing. I was doing Ray Charles, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and all that – and they must have got fed up with it. When I made number one, I went back there with my big new car, a lovely white Buick Riviera – and I walked in and I said ‘Hello – remember me?’ ”
He was also a pretty talented young boxer and reportedly could have made a career in the ring but music was his first love.
In 1958 he entered the 'All England Skiffle Championship' held at Tottenham Royal Ballroom. In spite of the 1300 entrants the John Henry Skiffle Group came first winning the princely sum of £25 and legend has it, beating a Geordie skiffle band called The Railroaders who would later change their name to The Shadows!
John Henry increasingly expanded his repetoire to include Blues numbers and he formed the Johnny Burns Rhythm and Blues Quartet taking the name Chris Farlowe in tribute to jazz guitarist Tal Farlow. The group went through a few name changes before settling with The Thunderbirds, named after the Ford Thunderbird 54. Chris always had a love for classic American cars.
The Thunderbirds began touring prolifically. - "We had some great musicians involved, especially our guitarist of that time, Bobby Taylor. They toured all over the country and began to build a good reputation."
His mother Eva always supported Chris and was very proud of his achievements, Chris' father Harry was never able to accept his choice of choice of career and even at the height of his success, never saw one of his shows.
Chris Farlowe was a far cry from the 'conventional' pop singers of the day. The charts were full of clean cut 'pretty boy' singers who achieved fame on their 'look' rather than their voices. Chris did not have 'film star' looks and his harsh cockney accent did not endear him to a teenage generation being weaned on a diet of Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard.
But what Chris had that few others possessed was that voice! Often described as the UK's most authentic Blues/Soul singer, his voice was considered somewhat unique and had more in common with Southside Chicago than Islington, North London! He never understood why he was gifted with such a voice as according to Chris "When I sing, I fill my lungs, open my mouth and blast out!"
In 1961 Chris recorded a twelve song demo in a South London studio, produced and paid for by Jimmy Page. Page had seen Chris performing at a gig and was so impressed he persuaded him to make a recording.
The tracks were eventually released by Page in 2017 and they spotlight Farlowe giving his interpretations of several R&B and R&R standards. The instrumentation demonstrates just what a talented group The Thunderbirds were. Jimmy Page described Farlowe's voice as 'absolutely extraordinary'. Chris Farlowe himself said "It was a fabulous band that we had, with great musicians, and the singer wasn’t bad either!"
According to one blurb 'The album demonstrates the fact that Farlowe was Britain's first R&B singer' - there might be some argument there from followers of Eric Burdon!
Chris was busy touring the UK in the early sixties playing in clubs and halls. They played a lot of American airbases where Chris and the band were introduced to a wealth of R&B material by black servicemen.
In 1962 the band played the Star Club in Hamburg. Their stints in Germany were not pleasant experiences and they found themselves 'roughing' it and being ripped off by unscrupulous promoters. At times the German fans had to help the band with food and accomodation! Chris arrived back in London after one tour with £8.00 and came closing to quitting music but he soldiered on and the experiences did give Chris a faithful German following that has endured throughout his career.
In November 1962 Chris Farlowe's first record 'Air Travel' was released on Decca. the record failed to have any impact, nor did four more records released between 1962 and 1965. These included a couple of records that have gone on to become 'in demand' items, commanding high prices.
'Bluebeat' issued in 1964 by 'The Beazers' was actually the Cyril Stapleton Orchestra with vocals by Farlowe and attempted to cash in on the popular Bluebeat sound that was big in the Soho clubs .
'Buzz With The Fuzz' issued on Columbia in 1965 has become something of a Mod anthem and was reputedly banned by the BBC due to the questionable lyrics.
It was during his tenure at Columbia that a record was released that is often said to be 'the greatest British Blues record ever made' - 'Stormy Monday Blues' by Little Joe Cook.
Chris and his band were warming up for producer, Chris Blackwell and ran through the T - Bone Walker classic. Unbeknowing to them the tape was running. Chris remembered - " About four months later, I was in a record shop and I could hear this version of Stormy Monday Blues. I thought ‘F**k me, that’s me singing!’. I asked who it was by and they told me it was by Little Joe Cook ." Chris was contracted to Columbia so Blackwell issued the song on Sue Records. A lot of people thought the track was by a bona fide US bluesman but it was obvious to most that it could only be Chris Farlowe!
Chris continued to tour extensively throughout the early sixties playing clubs in every city and town all over the UK. From village halls to the top clubs such as The Cavern, Club A Go Go and Twisted Wheel they built a reputation as a live act that was second to none. In London Chris and the band worked tirelessly sometimes playing as many as thirteen gigs in a week with lunchtime sessions.
Over the years The Thunderbirds featured such notable musicians as Nicky Hopkins (Rolling Stones, Kinks), Dave Greenslade (Colosseum), Albert Lee (Heads Hands and Feet), Pete Solley (Procol Harum, Whitesnake), Carl Palmer (ELP), Bobby Taylor and Ricky Chapman. Legendary drummer John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) even sat in on a few gigs.
The Flamingo Club became their second home. Although they never held a residency their contract with Rik Gunnell ensured they were booked often as he ran the all -nighters.
The club was a favourite hang out for musicians who would often drop in when Chris was featured and Chris became friendly with many up and coming stars. Eric Burdon, The Stones and Beatles were all aquaintances.
The Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham was in the audience one night and invited Chris to join his fledgling new label - Immediate
Chris Farlowe's first record on Immediate was a cover of an old country song by Sanford Clark (1956) - 'The Fool'. The record was produced by Eric Burdon. This was Burdon's first venture into the studio as a producer. Issued in 1965, Farlowe's version was a blues tour de force but sadly made no inroads into the British charts.
His next outing was a Jagger/Richards composition - 'Think'. This was a big brassy 'Soul' sound perfectly suited for Farlowe's powerful voice and achieved some minor success charting at number 37.
Mick Jagger told Chris he had a song for him and Mick sang the song accompanying himslf on guitar. Chris was not overly impressed - “I didn’t think much of it at the time – I thought it was quite a mundane sort of song”. Thankfully, Mick persevered, and when Chris heard it with full orchestration he changed his mind - " When I heard it in the studio, with all the cellos and everything, I thought it was great."
The song was 'Out Of Time' and went on to become a UK number one in July 1966 - the same week that England won the World Cup. The song also became a big hit in Australia and New Zealand but in spite of local chart success in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York it failed to break into the US top 100.
The song became would become Chris Farlowe's signature but he never tired of singing it - “I love doing it – it was written for me, and it’s my song”. The song actually earned a silver disc for Chris but he only got his hands on it after buying it from a record dealer!
The success of 'Out of Time' was not repeated with the follow up 'Ride On, Baby' which only crept into the charts at number 31 in spite of extensive airplay.
In an effort to get Chris back on the charts Immediate turned to another of the label's artists The Small Faces. Steve Marriot and Ronnie Lane had written 'My Way Of Giving' a year earlier but decided to give it to Chris for his next single. Steve Marriot was a huge fan of Chris Farlowe, believing him to be one of the country's finest singers. Mick Jagger produced the single and both Marriot and Lane joined the Thunderbirds on backing. In spite of the stellar line up the song failed to chart.
It was back to a Mick Jagger song for the next release with 'Yesterdays Papers' another rousing uptempo number which again failed to make an impression commercially.
In a complete shift of style the next single 'Moanin' was based on a late fifties jazz number by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Farlowe's version features some brilliant sitar work from Brian Jones alongside distorted guitar, cymbals, tabla and full brass section fronted by Chris' storming bluesy vocal. Many consider 'Moanin' to be Chris Farlowe's greatest work but alas, once again chart success eluded Chris.
In November 1967, immediate issued 'Handbags and Gladrags' a song written and produced by Mike D'Abo, lead voacalist with Manfred Mann. In spite of the fact that Chris' vocal is considered to be the definitive version of a song that would later provide big hits for both Rod Stewart and Sterephonics, Chris' original only made number 33 on the charts. This would be Chris Farlowe's last chart success.
Away from music Chris was an avid collector. He loved cars and classic cars in particular. One amusing incident made the local paper when Chris bought a 1933 Studebaker only for Islington Council to tow it away thinking it was an abandoned wreck. Chris had to make a mad dash to the wreckers yard to save it from being crushed!
But Chris' main love was collecting WWII memorabelia. Over the years he was often to be found on his stall at Camden Passage or Portobello Road selling his wares. He eventually opened a shop opposite Islington Green called Out Of The Past. The shop often gained adverse publicity due to a minority of rather 'odd' people that could be found there buying Nazi artefacts.
Chris never married but he did get engaged to June Whyton. She was his booking agent and eventually became the group's manager. The romance lasted for a couple of years but sadly they drifted apart.
One major musical regret was missing out on a Beatles classic. The song was 'Yesterday' - "I was having a drink with Paul McCartney at a London club called the Scotch of St James. I asked him what he was up to and he said he’d been working on a song, which later turned out to be Yesterday. He told me he thought it was ideal material for me and asked me to give him a ring. Unfortunately I got blind drunk, woke up the next morning with a hangover and never did anything about it."
Chris always claims that the greatest highlight of his career was performing with Otis Redding. - "I was playing at the Flamingo club and someone told me he was in the audience watching me sing. I thought they were having me on but afterwards I was in the dressing room, the door opened and he walked in. He said, 'Man, you’re a great singer, you’re a soul brother'. He was doing a TV show on Friday and asked me to appear on it with him." The show was Ready Steady Go. Chris had his own spot then joined Otis and Eric Burdon for the finale. Chris went on to do some concerts with Otis and they became friends - "It was a terrible shock when he died"
By the end of the sixties Chris Farlow and the Thunderbirds commercial career had stalled although live performances were still very much in demand. In 1970 Chris fomed a new band - The Hill and recorded a one off album titled From Here To Mama Rose. The album recieved critical acclaim but sadly the 'new rock' sound failed to make any mark with the public.
Later in 1970 Chris joined progressive Jazz/Rock group Colosseum alongside former Thunderbirds keyboard virtuoso Dave Greenslade. Farlowe stayed with the band long enough to record three albums before leaving in 1972 to join Atomic Rooster, a band made up, in the main, from members of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Chris' tenure with Atomic Rooster produced a couple of albums but no commercial success
Chris was spending more and more time in his shop and then, one day in 1973, disaster struck. Chris was crossing Upper Street outside the shop when he was involved in an accident. He suffered head injuries, broken arms, ribs and a leg and it was touch and go whether he would survive. He spent months in plaster, unable to lift a finger, being nursed and spoon fed by his mother. It would be almost two years before he fully recovered.
The re-release of 'Out Of time' in 1975 created some interest and Chris was soon back on the road with a new band touring extensively. In 1978 he teamed up again with ex -Thunderbird, Dave Greenslade to record the soundtrack for the BBC TV series 'Gangsters' and shortly afterwards Chris ventured into the acting with the lead part in a BBC2 play called 'Curriculee Curricula'.
Chris took the part of a plumber called Benny trying to find his way around a university and getting no sense out of the intellectuals who work/study there. The 'musical play' was written by Alan Plater with Farlowe and Greenslade providing the music. The play was fairly well received but the critic of The Stage was rather unkind declaring that Chris 'Sang with great vigour but looked uncannily like Peggy Mount!' (Those under 60 may wish to google Peggy Mount!).
1982 saw Chris join up with old friend, Jimmy Page to perform on the soundtrack to the movie Death Wish II and in 1985 he joined old mates Stevie Marriot and P. P. Arnold on a charity single for Ronnie Lane's MS charity and Band Aid Trust. He guested on Jimmy Page's 'Outrider' album in 1988 providing vocals for two tracks.
Chris had opened a wine bar in Islington called 'Farlowe's' but financially all was not well and in 1984, with debts of £30,000 was declared bankrupt. He blamed "Living beyond his income." It was not his first time in court as he also served a couple of days in prison for refusing to pay his coucil rates on a point of principle. Chris remained stoic when asked about the ordeal replying "I'm one for experiences,me"
On July 30th 2016, Farlowe appeared at Wembley Arena in a show commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of England's World Cup win. The show was beamed to over 100 cinemas across the country. For many the most memorable moment was Chris Farlowe performing his 1966 hit "Out of Time". Radio Two DJ, Jeremy Vine described Farlowe's performace as 'absolutely amazing'.
Chris has continued to tour extensively whether as a member of package shows, solo or as a guest artist with the likes of Van Morrison. He has sang with almost every artist of note in the UK and is constantly described as a 'singer's singer'. He has produced a number of self financed CD's over the years and all are worth checking out as they demonstrate what a unique talent Chris Farlowe is.
Unconventional, buccaneering, enigmatic, individual, maybe a little eccentric? all have been used to describe Chris Farlowe. But perhaps the final word should go to Chris himself?
Back in the day, Dionne Warwicke wrote to Melody Maker saying that black people were the only people who could sing the Blues. Chris wrote in to say-
" I was born in London during the early part of the war. We ate bits of bread with dripping on it, went through the bombing, moved out of our homes - suffered!! You are born with a voice and just because you are black doesn't make you a great singer. I was one of those fortunate ones who was given a voice and it is regarded as one of the greatest Blues voices."