SHAKIN’ STEVENS tells Philip Halcrow how in making his new album he drew on stories about members of his family, including a Salvation Army soldier
MUSIC has always been a family affair for Shakin’ Stevens. Now he has turned his family into music. On his new album, Echoes of Our Times, he reflects on the lives of family members from the past, including copperminers, an uncle who died in the First World War and a grandmother who was a member of The Salvation Army.
Shaky explains that, when he was growing up, the family home in Cardiff would be full of the sounds of songs being played on 78s and 45s. ‘All the family were born with a voice,’ he says. ‘My brothers and sisters used to sing at weddings and other get-togethers.’
Shaky decided that being a singer was ‘all I wanted to do’. And he did it. In the 1980s, he took ‘This Ole House’, ‘Green Door’, ‘Oh Julie’ and ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ to the top of the UK singles chart and stacked up tens of other hit singles and albums.
He was in the middle of recording a set of songs for a new album when suddenly the subject of his family grabbed his attention.
‘I came to a time in my life when I realised I knew nothing about my family history,’ he says. ‘Then stories about my family began to
present themselves. So I stopped recording the album and, with my partner and co-writer Sue Davies, began writing songs inspired by the stories I was discovering about my family.‘For instance, “Down in the Hole” is about my family who came from Cornwall. My grandfather was born in 1865 and became a copper-miner at the age of ten. I did some research into what the mines were like in those days. The conditions were terrible. It would take the miners hours to go down the hole on ladders. They’d work in the pitch black, with only a candle on their helmets, breathing in the poisonous dust. Then they’d climb back up, and some of the ladders would come away from the wall, and the miners would slip and fall hundreds of feet back down the hole. ‘We just can’t imagine it.’
A number of other songs on Echoes of Our Times call to mind tough times. The title track acknowledges servicemen and women who have fought in war – including Shaky’s uncle Leonard Venables, who twice overstated his age in order to join the British Army during the First World War and who lost his life only days before his son was born.
‘Behind Those Secrets and Lies’ relays one of Shaky’s discoveries.
‘My dad was one of fourteen children, but I never met any of his siblings. I’ve discovered that every day when I went to school, I would pass their houses in Cathays and yet I didn’t know it. For some reason, our family never spoke about them.
‘It seems that every family has its secrets.’
But another track pays tribute to a family member he did meet, albeit only when he was very young. And Shaky has been able to find out more about the woman who inspired ‘The Fire in Her Blood’ – his grandmother Florence Jessie, who was a member of The Salvation Army.
‘She was musical – she played the squeeze box and, I believe, the mouth organ and maybe a bit of banjo as well. She had a hard life. She had 14 children but only half survived.
‘She was also a lovely lady,’ explains Shaky. ‘My brother Jackie, who’s older than me and knew her better, said she was very spiritual. She converted my grandfather to be a Salvationist when he was 90 – and he spent the next five years converting all his mates.’
Jackie has told Shaky that when he was growing up in the 1920s, the family were so poor that, if they had a visitor, his mother did not always have enough food for everyone. But Jackie would go round to see Florence, who would take him to the Salvation Army hall, where she would feed him.
‘She was a giver and she cared,’ says Shaky. ‘She had a passion for the poor. She worked all over the country, giving food and shelter to people.’
In ‘The Fire in Her Blood’, Shaky honours the woman who – the lyrics say – ‘was a true believer’. He sings: ‘I am proud to say that she’s a beacon for my soul.’
Florence has left an impression on him.
‘When I sing about her, it’s heartfelt,’ he says, ‘because I’m singing about my family.’
The War Cry 24 September
The War Cry
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