Joe Brown on why he can’t wait to bring stripped back shows to East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 09:10 20 January 2018
Cheeky chappie, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer and a man who has a lifetime of hilarious tales to tell, from Johnny Cash to The Beatles to The Singing Postman, Joe Brown is heading back to East Anglia on his biggest tour ever.
Joe Brown is a real survivor, the musician’s musician, a pioneer of British rock ‘n’ roll who has worked with everyone, seen it all and, consequently, has a lifetime of hilarious tales of life on the road, and he knows how to tell them.
That will be much in evidence when he returns to East Anglia next month for a series of dates as part of a 72-gig tour that will feature just Joe, uncut, solo, uncensored, talking about his early days, growing up in a pub in London’s East End, discovering skiffle, touring with the likes of Eddie Cochran, Billy Fury and Gene Vincent before headlining shows with The Beatles as opening act.
“This is the bare bones,” explains the man himself of a show that will be full of stories, such as his friendship with Johnny Cash and how George Harrison was best man at his wedding.
And yet this isn’t quite a solo show as Joe – now 76 – will be aided and abetted by his old friend Henry Gross.
Gross, himself no mean singer, songwriter and guitarist, was founder of the rock ‘n’ roll revival band Sha Na Na who played at the famed Woodstock festival – with Henry the youngest performer there.
“We met in Nashville,” says Joe. “I’ve been going out for years and there was this guy I know in a bar, a real redneck geezer, and he kept pestering Henry, ‘Joe Brown’s in town and he wants to borrow a guitar’ and he eventually he gave in and said ‘Well, send him round,’ and he did lend me a guitar. And that was 30 years ago.”
He says audiences should expect the unexpected from music they will be playing. Instrumental gems such as the Harry Lime Theme and Duelling Banjos look set to feature, alongside more conventional songs, even a guitar-picked reinvention of his light-hearted hit Henry VIII.
“When, instead of a band, you just have two instruments it’s amazing how they sparkle,” says Joe. “I don’t play electric guitar – we do a few rock ‘n’ roll songs and they sound great. An Everly Brothers song, part of a medley with Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, sounds like it probably sounded when they first sang it.
“Henry’s a great performer and he talked me into doing this. I said ‘You’re kidding, I can’t do that, I play instrumentals and stuff, you can’t just go dinging away on a single guitar, you’ve got to have someone to play with, do harmonies with’, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll come with you’, and that was that.”
The public perception of Joe is of a cheeky cockney geezer, but he is in fact a Lincolnshire lad — he was born in Swarby in 1941 — and his diverse career has now been at full throttle for 60 years.
He was spotted by Jack Good playing his guitar - actually, Joe is a multi-instrumentalist, playing mandolin, fiddle, banjo and dobro to name but a few - and he put Joe in the Boy Meets Girls show of 1959. Allegedly, impresario Larry Parnes tried to make him change his name to Elmer Twitch, but Joe was having none of it.
In the early days he played guitar with touring US stars. In 1960 he formed his own group - Joe Brown and The Bruvvers - and had a string of chart hits, most notably Picture of You, which topped the charts.
Not content with chart success, he set about becoming an all-round entertainer and his happy-go-lucky persona made him one of the countries’ most popular acts.
He starred in West End musicals such as Charlie Girl alongside Dame Anna Neagle and acted in a stage version of Sleuth. He had his own TV series in the 1960s and even made six films, his most famous role being opposite Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa.
But music has always been his first love. A big music fan, he has in recent years worked extensively in Nashville, both writing songs for the American market and recording his own albums.
Every bit as important as the music is the trail of anecdotes with Joe, as outrageous as the best stand-up comedian. Everyone, from Chas and Dave to Billy Fury, Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin to Dame Anna, comes into the frame.
Joe was a major star at the time of both Fury and Cliff Richard, and even had The Beatles as his support band. “They had their first big hit at the end of 1962, and they opened for me at the beginning of 62 in Liverpool,” he recalls. “No one realised back then how big they would be but I could see they were different.”
He and George Harrison ended up living near each other and were always popping round each other’s houses. “We loved playing the ukulele together,” he says.
One of the proudest moments of his career, he says, was in 2002 when he played at the Concert for George Harrison at the Royal Albert Hall. He was asked especially by George’s widow Olivia to take part and he brought the house down with the show’s finale, the emotive I’ll See You In My Dreams.
He accompanied himself on the ukulele and the song led to a ten-fold increase in the sales of the instrument. It also led to The Ukulele Album, which he worked on with his son Pete and daughter Sam. No George Formby novelty record, every song was given the Brown treatment, from Pinball Wizard to The Ace of Spades, but on the uke.
“I have always loved the ukulele. It’s a great little instrument and I wish more children would play it in school. It’s better than those recorders,” said Joe.
Joe’s life hasn’t been without its heartache though. As a young guitarist he backed Johnny Cash along with rock ‘n’ roll heroes Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran on pop TV show Boy Meets Girls. In 1962 he had been due to be touring with Cochran and Vincent, but plans changed when A Picture of You stormed the charts. Their car crashed, killing Cochran and crippling Vincent. “I would have been in that car,” muses Joe. “I miss Eddie, he taught me so much about rock ‘n’ roll.”
Joe’s wife Vicki, who sang with 1950s and 60s girl groups The Vernon Girls and The Breakaways, died from cancer in 1991. Joe found new happiness when he remarried in 2000, to Manon, former partner of Small Faces singer Steve Marriott.
And music is a family affair with daughter Sam, a star in the 80s and 90s with her own hits, and producer/musician son Pete. Stepdaughter Mollie Marriott is even now set for stardom, her debut album, Truth Is A Wolf, making waves.
“It’s great working with my children,” he beams. “Pete isn’t only a great musician he is also a fantastic producer and has actually taken a lot off my back in running the band.
“Sam sometimes tours with us, but she’s had a throat problem and the operation she had didn’t work too well so these days she doesn’t sing so much – and, of course, there are her ukulele clubs.”
His Ukulele Album tour last brought him to the region and he is looking forward to returning.
“I love Norfolk, always have done, and still do,” he said. “I still remember the dear old Singing Postman [folk singer and postman Allan Smethurst, best known for his self-penned novelty song, Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy?].
“He came down to London for my television show and forgot his cap. We could have got him another one but he wanted his own so had to go all the way back to Norfolk to get it. It’s sad what happened to him. His songs were brilliant,” added Joe.
He also always looks forward to dates in Essex. Though born in Lincolnshire his family moved to London when he was two and ran the Sultan public house in Grange Road, Plaistow, then in Essex. He remembers childhood outings to Southend, Walton-on-the-Naze and Clacton.
“My first gig, my first professional job was in Southend,” he adds.
Joe, awarded an MBE in 2009, never slows down. This latest tour is Joe’s longest single stint on the road – a response to the critical and public acclaim Just Joe received when it made its debut in 2016. He won’t be calling it a day anytime soon.
• Joe Brown will be performing at Lowestoft Marina Theatre on February 10; King’s Lynn Corn Exchange on February 11; Cliffs Pavilion, Southend, on February 25; and The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, on February 28.