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The DJ That Rocked: “Singles Collection” Compiles Best of Tony Blackburn

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Richard Curtis’ 2009 film The Boat That Rocked paid affectionate homage to the pirate radio stations of the 1960s, but real-life pirate DJ Tony Blackburn said that “we didn’t have the fun that they obviously had in the film.”  Rose-colored glasses or not, Curtis’ film dramatized the period when offshore radio stations challenged the rigid formatting of the BBC.  Blackburn was just 21 in 1964 when he first set sail on Radio Caroline.  He jumped ship two years later for Radio London, and survived the demise of the pirates when, in 1967, he became the very first DJ on pop station BBC Radio 1, the official (and long-overdue) answer to pirate radio.  In no time flat, he earned audiences in excess of eighteen million listeners with his morning show.  But the beloved disc jockey, who still broadcasts today on shows including Radio 2’s Pick of the Pops, also had a less distninguished career as a vocalist.  But “less distinguished” doesn’t mean “less interesting,” as proven by The Singles Collection 1965-1980, the very first release on Cherry Red’s The Collector label.

Phil “The Collector” Swern, producer of some of Blackburn’s singles, is the compiler of this unique and enjoyable set, aided and abetted by the singer himself.  Both Swern and Blackburn take an understandably tongue-in-cheek approach to the notes in the copiously-annotated 16-page booklet, with Blackburn wryly noting that “I was persuaded…to release these long-lost gems, copies of which I have been led to believe have been changing hands for as much as twenty pence at a time.”  But, for my money, the whopping 29 tracks contained on The Singles Collection are worth at least a few quid…

Based on the songs here, Blackburn recorded with regularity through the early portion of the 1970s.  The first 24 tracks bring us through 1972, during which time singles were released on the Fontana, MGM, Polydor and RCA labels.  The final five tracks appeared between 1975 and 1980 on Decca, RCA, Casino Classics and DJS, and include a couple of pseudonymous cuts recorded under aliases like Big Daddy and the Sugarcanes, and the Brandy Snaps!

Hit the jump for a closer look at Tony Blackburn’s offbeat career as a pop vocalist, including an order link and the full track listing with discography!

Even before taking the microphone at Radio Caroline, Blackburn had been a singer with local orchestras and bands.  So he was no stranger to singing when his professional recording career kicked off.  And it began somewhat auspiciously, as Al Gorgoni, Bernie Baum and Florence Kaye’s “Don’t Get Off That Train” and its B-side “Just to Be with You Again” (1965) are solid examples of mid-60s Brill Building-style pop.  Mariachi brass recalls the Jay and the Americans sound of songs like “Come a Little Bit Closer,” and Blackburn shows a pleasingly light voice, although he didn’t exactly give Tom Jones or even Engelbert Humperdinck a run for their money!  (Sample of the pithy track-by-track liner notes: “After recording this rare groove…he quickly jumped into a waiting taxi…to board a boat to take him back to the ship that was three and a half miles away from land and well out of reach of the public.”)  But Blackburn clearly had great taste in his material, covering the tricky Burt Bacharach and Hal David rarity “Is There Another Way to Love You” (“Dionne [Warwick] was unavailable for comment but has not spoken to [Blackburn] since.”)  Its flipside, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” is an “It’s Not Unusual” sound-alike from the co-writer of that song, Les Reed, with his frequent partner Barry Mason.

Blackburn actually grazed the U.K. Top 40 with his cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “So Goes Love,” another example of that fine taste in songwriters!  “She’s My Girl,” another Barry Mason cut, is a big piano ballad with lush backing vocals and Bacharach-style dynamics; it might have been a hit in the hands of The Walker Brothers.  Other songs are more hit-or-miss.  “It’s Only Love,” written by Ritchie Cordell for Tommy James and the Shondells, features The Majority on its rocking backing track, but is more notable for its bizarre appropriation of the melody to “This Old Man” (as in “with a nick-nack, paddy-wack”).  Its B-side, “Open Your Eyes,” is a more psychedelic outing from Paul Ryan’s pen, arranged by Keith Mansfield to highlight a groovy organ part and breathy, intoned vocals.  On a French release, “Open Your Eyes” was replaced with “Janie.”  The latter could boast “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” arpeggios and dramatic production, but didn’t score Blackburn a hit record.

There are some stylistic diversions, including “Wait for Me,” a country-and-western flavored song with a touch of The Platters’ “Only You” in the melody.  A Tony Orlando-esque bubblegum sound takes over on “Is It Me, Is It You” b/w “Happy,” written by Tony Romeo of Partridge Family fame.  “Chop-Chop” is an odd novelty from producer Swern, arranger Jonny Arthey and songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (“Chop chop chop, you can hear him singing/Chop chop chop, as his axe is swinging!  Chop chop chop, through the woods it’s ringing/Timber!”)  Lou Christie and his songwriting collaborator Twyla Herbert offered Blackburn the oddball “Paper Song,” which the “Lightning Strikes” man himself had recorded in the same year, 1972.  Lightning, alas, didn’t strike with “Paper Song” for either Lou or Tony.  There’s even a reggae pastiche with “Cindy,” from later the same year.  Blackburn came close with the storming Northern Soul of Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Doris Troy’s “I’ll Do Anything (She Wants Me to Do),” originally recorded by Troy in 1965.  His 1978 rendition, as Lenny (!) Gamble, is a fun and faithful take on the girl group soul classic.  Rounding out the package is even a holiday tune from 1980, “Christmas Time,” with a retro-pop vibe.  All together now, as per the singer’s instructions: “Sing ‘Happy Christmas’!”

Though Tony Blackburn was wise not to quit his day job, The Singles Collection is an engaging and enjoyable listen from start to finish.  It’s available now from Cherry Red and The Collector, and can be ordered below.

Tony Blackburn, The Singles Collection 1965-1980 (The Collector/Cherry Red COLLCD1, 2012)

  1. Don’t Get Off That Train (Fontana TF 1078, 1965)
  2. Just to Be with You Again (Fontana TF 1078, 1965)
  3. Is There Another Way to Love You (Fontana TF 601, 1965)
  4. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow (Fontana TF 601, 1965)
  5. Green Light (Fontana TF 729, 1966)
  6. Winter is Through (Fontana TF 729, 1966)
  7. So Much Love (MGM 1375, 1968)
  8. In the Night (MGM 1375, 1968)
  9. She’s My Girl (MGM 1394, 1968)
  10. Closer to a Dream (MGM 1394, 1968)
  11. It’s Only Love (with The Majority) (MGM 1467, 1969)
  12. Open Your Eyes (MGM 1467, 1969)
  13. Janie (MGM (France) 1467, 1969)
  14. Blessed Are The Lonely (Polydor 56360, 1969)
  15. Wait For Me (Polydor 56360, 1969)
  16. Is It Me, Is It You (RCA 2067, 1971)
  17. Happy (RCA 2067, 1971)
  18. Chop-Chop (RCA 2109, 1971)
  19. If You Were a Dream (RCA 2109, 1971)
  20. Money Don’t Make a Man (RCA 2180, 1972)
  21. Paper Song (RCA 2180, 1972)
  22. House of Cards (as Heart) (RCA 2205, 1972)
  23. Cindy (RCA 2247, 1972)
  24. Dusty (RCA 2247, 1972)
  25. Fairy Tales (Decca FR 13570, 1975)
  26. Arnold (Decca FR 13570, 1975)
  27. Tomorrow Night (as Big Daddy and the Sugarcanes) (RCA PB-5025, 1977)
  28. I’ll Do Anything (Anything She Wants Me to Do) (as Lenny Gamble) (Casino Classics CC1, 1978)
  29. Christmas Time (as the Brandy Snaps) (DJS 10960, 1980)

Written by Joe Marchese

July 23, 2012 at 13:25

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