Louder Than War’s Craig Chaligne interviews legendary soul singer Tony O’Malley who released his latest solo album Back at the Bag in June.
Tony, thanks for taking the time to chat to Louder Than War, can you tell us a little about where and when you started playing in bands?
Well, my first band was called The Defenders, formed with my brother Kevin. Then I joined an Irish show band called The Skyliners, although most of the guys in the band weren’t from Ireland! We worked the Irish halls in London, and we’d play a selection of songs, say three songs in a certain style, like country, rock’n’roll, waltz and pop. The boys and girls would come together onto the floor and dance, then after the third song the MC would announce: “Thank you very much, your next dance please!” and the boys would go back on their side of the hall and the girls on the other. It was hard work as we played for around five hours. We worked mostly around Luton and London, but also ventured to Manchester once in a while.
During your time with The Skyliners you auditioned for the famous songwriter and producer Ian Samwell, who wrote Cliff Richard’s first hit ‘Move It’.
Yes, and Ian had produced a Georgie Fame album that I really loved, particularly the track ‘Moody’s Mood For Love’. We arranged to meet at Harrow-on-the-Hill tube station, but he didn’t turn up. I ended up waiting for two hours, very disappointed – no mobile phones in those days. We did eventually meet however and he introduced me to a soul band called ‘Malcolm Magaron and The Blueshealers’, that I eventually ended up joining. Mitch Mitchell, the future drummer of Jimi Hendrix’s Experience, was also asked to join, but he declined, teaming with Jimi a few months later, and the rest, as they say, is history.
At first I declined the band’s offer, but eventually tired of the Irish Showband scene and joined The Blueshealers. Many of the players were West Indian, and we’d play a lot of Tamla Motown and Stax stuff. That’s when I went abroad for the first time, playing in Biarritz in France and then on to Perpignan in the south for six weeks. Good weather, pretty girls, all that a young musician could ask for really!
Back in London we often played The Bag O’Nails, a really happening club in the heart of the West End that became the inspiration behind the title track of my new album ‘Back At The Bag’. Anybody who was anybody in the music business at that time used to frequent the Bag – The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Stones, Manfred Mann, The Animals, to name but a few. In fact, all the pop stars of the day could be seen getting on down at the Bag O’Nails Club!
Recently I’ve been playing back at the Bag (hence the album title), but these days it’s a totally different place, owned by a lovely guy from Kazhakstan, who’s turned the club into a very high class and desirable venue.
And was it then that you became part of Ronnie Jones and the Q set?
Well, it was more of a continuation. The Blueshealers became Ronnie Jones & The Q Set without Malcolm, and we spent a lot of time in Europe. In fact Ronnie Jones later settled in Italy after one of our tours and carved out a nice career for himself as a singer and DJ.
After The Q Set came The Counts, a band that included Philip Chen, who went on to play with Rod Stewart, Jerry Lewis, Linda Lewis, Jeff Beck, the Doors and many more. He also wrote a book on James Jamerson, the bass player who played on all the early Motown hits of the sixties and the early seventies. All the bass players I know revere Jamerson. In fact, bass players are the unsung heroes of music, the guys who really gave the groove to the records in those days.
Marvin Gaye is known to have said that he wished he’d given James Jamerson more credit. Jamerson sadly died too young at 43. Ask any bass player about Jamerson, and they’ll all say “He da man”!
In which circumstances did you end up joining Arrival?
Now there lies another connection to the Bag O’Nails, because it’s where I met the singers from Arrival for the first time. The Bag was then owned by The Gunnell Agency, whose roster of bands included Jimi Hendrix. The musicians would congregate outside the office in Gerrard Street every Monday waiting eagerly for their meagre wages!
Arrival comprised four singers from Liverpool, and the agency asked me to check them out with a view to backing them, so we rehearsed down the Bag. As soon as I heard them sing I was sold! Fantastic harmonies!
That was the start of my long working relationship with Frank, Paddy and Dyan. (The fourth, singer Carroll Carter, left the group after a year or so).
Arrival went on to have two top ten hits, but the management was pressurising the group to go down a more commercial route, something similar to ABBA. We were all too much into soul music, so chose to play the stuff that we liked and eventually ended up forming Kokomo. You could say that we went the way of our hearts instead of the way of sharks…
Was it after the demise of Arrival that you ended up Joining The Mick Cox Band?
Arrival’s two hits were ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘Friends’ (a song written by Terry Reid), and we toured all over the world. Things then started to go wrong because of the management situation. Mick Cox had joined the band a little before along with Glen LeFleur, who incidentally, ended up playing in Kokomo for a while. Mick had recorded a double album produced by Shel Talmy, but didn’t have a singer, so he asked me sing all the songs on the double album!
This was the beginning of my singing career, although I didn’t have what you would call a ‘singing voice’. I was in The Mick Cox Band along with Terry Stannard and Charlie Harrison, who went on to play with Rod Stewart and the country rock group Poco.
Unfortunately, Mick wasn’t the greatest of bandleaders, and during rehearsals he’d be happy just to jam all day long. But Terry and I decided to get our own thing together, so that was the beginning of Kokomo. We hired a boys club to for a few weeks where we’d rehearse and audition musicians. We also had great fun playing football during the breaks, and eventually played our first gig at The Pheasantry in Chelsea.
Chris Thomas, the producer of the first album, says in liner notes of the reissue of the band’s first two albums that this cooperative way of doing things led to the recordings being a bit difficult. The band couldn’t all be there at the same time in the studio and it was difficult for the band to be on same wavelength on everything. What are your thoughts on that?
In retrospect Chris Thomas probably wasn’t the ideal producer for Kokomo. He did a great job and is a wonderful producer, but he was coming from a different direction. We think one of the Atlantic producers, a guy like Arif Mardin, who’d produced Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway and The Bee Gees, would have been more up our street. Arif had also produced The Average White Band, so had that American sensibility that would have suited Kokomo more. Chris Thomas was a very English producer and probably wasn’t the perfect match for the band, although having said that, the first Kokomo album is considered to be a bit of a classic!
Talking about an odd match. Kokomo is generally associated with the pub-rock movement, as you did a tour with Dr Feelgood and Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers. Is this something you’re comfortable with?
Dr Feelgood were very successful on that tour and it made them. For us, it was a bit different. At that time we were managed by Steve O’Rourke, who was also the manager of Pink Floyd, so there was a bit of an element of: “Oh, they’re big time now”, which wasn’t the case at all. We never seemed to secure enough of a fan base in England. Again, our sound was maybe too American for the typical English rock fan, although too rough and ready for American audiences, so we couldn’t win either way! We played big stadiums with The Average White Band and went down well, but we weren’t as slick as them.
Was it getting that American sound you wanted that led you to record Kokomo’s second album ‘Rise and Shine’ in the USA?
CBS (later Sony) set that up, but in the end they didn’t stick with the band. Typical record company story, if the second album doesn’t make it, then end of story. They should have stuck with us while we developed our sound, but I don’t really blame the record company for the lack of success.
Was it the lack of sales of the second album or the fact that the band had such a huge line-up that led to its first demise?
It was a bit of both really, but I think it was also due to lack of confidence. At the time I wasn’t strong enough to be the musician that I wanted to be. I felt I had to go through some shit and come out at the other end. There were also all the usual things that come with being a musician on the road (drink, drugs, etc.) that contributed to the downfall.
You did some session work after that with 10CC and Martha Reeves…
Yes, I did a tour of the Middle East with Martha, playing soul music to the Arabs, that was an interesting situation. Martha and I got on very well. She’d tell loads of wonderful Motown stories about Marvin, Stevie, Berry Gordy and the whole Tamla thing, ‘cos she was there at the beginning. We’d stay up late after the gig, chewing the fat and smoking nice jazz cigarettes.
It wasn’t until the early nineties that I managed to put a band together and started getting regular gigs at Ronnie Scott’s and Club 606, and things started to move a bit. I recorded a live album at Ronnie’s called ‘Naked Flame’, followed by studio albums ‘Sunshine Everyday’ in ‘97 and ‘Freedom Road’ in ‘99 with a load of great musicians.
Then I met my future wife and we moved to Belgium to have our children. I still continued to make records with Marty Townsend, who is a great American guitar player/songwriter based in Belgium. I’d like to work more with Marty, but it’s difficult now as I’m back in the UK. Together we made the self-penned ‘Oh!’ and a standards album, ‘My Foolish Heart’.
What was the reason behind your move to Georgia in 2004?
My Dutch wife Femke worked for the EU and was offered a job as Assistant to the Ambassador of the European Commission in Tbilisi, Georgia. The country had gone through huge political turmoil, with new President Misha Saakashvili having just been sworn into office after the Rose Revolution. Coincidentally, Misha also married a beautiful tall Dutch gal!
At first I didn’t want to go, but did some research. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot on Google ten years ago, but I found this one track by a guy called Temur Tatarashvili who sounded and sang great.
Everybody should visit Georgia at least once in their lives, because it’s a fantastic country!
You seemed to have settled pretty quickly in the musician community over there?
We’d only been there two weeks when I was introduced to the Tbilisi Big Band with around twenty-two musicians. I was taken by friends to a band rehearsal as a surprise, and was then asked to play ‘Georgia On My Mind’, after which the conductor, maestro Givi Gachechiladze, said “Tony, you’re playing with us on Sunday!”
I ended up being a member of that lovely band for more than four years, proper name ‘The Tbilisi Concert Orchestra’. The wages were terrible, but I had a fabulous time with Givi and all the guys. I also played some club gigs with some fantastic musicians, including Lasha Abashmadze, Zaza Tsertsvadze and legendary percussionist Dato Japaridze, plus I made an album with Paata Andriadze. Great musicians and wonderful people! The Georgian people also make the best homemade wines, and, as they say “if you drink Georgian wine, you wake up singing like a bird!”
You’ve been working on ‘Back At The Bag’ for a few years now…
I started the album four years ago but had to stop due to the lack of funds. I started the album while we still lived in Belgium, but then we moved back to England when recording had to take a second seat to all that goes with moving house.
You worked with famous producer Haydn Bendall on this album?
Haydn became very busy, so I had to take over the production duties. It’s tough being the artist and the producer at the same time because things that you thought sounded great when you were recording them don’t always sound as great when you listen to them a few months down the line. Actually, an album is never finished, but you have to know when to stop.
And while you have been working on ‘Back At The Bag’, you’ve also reformed Kokomo on a semi-permanent basis. After a first show at The Half Moon in August last year, you played Islington Assembly Halls in December and you’re playing The Royal Festival Hall on the 21st November with The Average White Band. Things are looking good on that front?
Yes, I’ve never stopped working with most members of the band anyway. Neil Hubbard, Frank Collins are on most of my solo records, along with Jim Mullen, who guests on my first two studio solo albums: ‘Sunshine Everyday’ and ‘Freedom Road’. Kokomo played at Blues On The Farm in Chichester on the 18th of June, a double bill with the Hamish Stuart Band.
I saw Hamish last October at The Jazz Cafe last October. He has a fantastic band…
Actually, I was at the same gig, because I wanted to meet Hamish’s trombone player Neil Sidwell. I had the studio booked for a horn section but had no horn players (laugh)! Thankfully, Neil was free and made two fantastic arrangements for the album in a very short space of time, plus he created some wicked string parts.
For further info on Tony O’Malley you can check his (excellent) official website: tonyomalley.com, his Facebook and / or his twitter: @. Thanks to Lisa Climie Management for facilitating this interview.
All words by Craig Chaligne. More from Craig can be found at his Author’s Archive.