As Jools Holland prepares to bring his brand of rhythm and blues to Yorkshire, he talks to Sarah Freeman about his transformation from anarchic presenter to national treasure.
When Jools Holland accidentally swore during a live trailer for The Tube back in 1987 it confirmed his status as chief of the celebrities least likely to find themselves among the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Long before Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand became persona non grata in the wake of Sachgate, Holland and fellow presenter Paula Yates were held up as serious threats to the moral good. The resulting furore saw the show, which by then had already seen Rik Mayall vomiting into a camera and Frankie Goes to Hollywood sporting some rather dubious bondage gear for a tea-time performance, suspended for three weeks and countless newspaper editorials demanded The Tube, broadcast live each week from Newcastle, be axed.
Their calls were answered. The Tube never made it to a sixth series, but during the intervening years Holland, the man Mary Whitehouse loved to hate, somehow became a national treasure and guardian of the nation’s New Year’s Eve celebrations.
So much so, in 2003 he was awarded an OBE, three years later was made Deputy Lieutenant for Kent and just to cement his now wholesome reputation he has performed a number of charity concerts to raise money for the upkeep of the nation’s cathedrals.
“I guess it is a case of a poacher turned gamekeeper,” he laughs. “I think The Tube was great and it really was anarchic. There was always a sense that you didn’t really know what was going to happen and that made it a really exciting place to work. You really couldn’t get away with it now and I’m afraid it probably did open the floodgates for an awful lot of rubbish on television, but it was something really quite special.
“I don’t know about being a national treasure, but I’ll take it as a compliment.”
While at 54 Holland has become part of the establishment’s fixtures and fittings, there’s one thing which has remained constant throughout his life and that’s his love of music. Born in Blackheath in south London in January 1958, when Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock was just beginning its three week stay at the top of the UK charts, it was his grandma who first introduced him to the piano. “Her mother had bought her a piano as a wedding present in 1937 and it sat in the front room of her little house in Charlton,” he says. “It had history that piano. During the war, bombs had dropped at the end of her street. In the blast the windows of her house were shattered and the piano case was left completely blackened. When I was little, maybe about eight years old, I remember being sat on her knee at the piano and she said, ‘The outside may be charred, but inside it’s as good as new’. She opened it up and I just remember staring at all this lovely rosewood which looked the same as the day it had been made.”
Holland was hooked and it was not long before discordant notes turned into his trademark boogie woogie sound. Once he’d mastered WC Handy’s St Louis Blues, described by many as the jazzman’s Hamlet, there was no looking back for the largely self-taught musician.
“I learned to play long before I could read music and that makes complete sense to me. After all, children learn to speak before they read or write,” he says. “However, while I did much of the groundwork myself, when I was in secondary school I had a music teacher who was incredibly inspirational. He had a very traditional approach to music and it was thanks to him that I learnt the theory, how time signatures work and what chords are. I was already in love with the piano by then, but he just gave me a greater appreciation of the music I wanted to play.”
Having proved the time he spent at his grandmother’s wasn’t just a passing fad, at 14 Holland was bought his own piano and two years later was playing the pubs and clubs of Greenwich docks. At the same time, he began plying his trade as a session musician, notching up his first professional booking in 1976 with punk band Wayne Country and the Electric Chairs.
The days and nights spent in studios recording for other musicians was just a precursor and by the end of the decade Holland was living the dream performing in his own band. Holland founded Squeeze along with Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford and when they were later joined by drummer Gilson Lavis, who had already played with BB King and Chuck Berry, the line-up was complete.
The likes of Up the Junction and Cool for Cats secured them fans and lucrative record sales on both sides of the Atlantic and Holland admits now that success seemed to come easy.
“Of course when we were just starting out we all dreamed of making it, what band doesn’t? But I can’t say it was hard because it all just seemed to happen. With the bravado of youth, I guess we were already a success in our minds and we were just lucky that other people seemed to like what we were doing.”
Holland hasn’t had it all his own way. The most successful song he’s ever played on was Fine Young Cannibals’ Good Thing, the second single from their 1988 album The Raw and the Cooked. The track went to number one in 17 countries, but Holland was paid the statutory session fee of £150.
If he’s bitter, he doesn’t show it and besides he’s had more than enough to take his mind off the occasional snub. While Squeeze have enjoyed various reunions since they first split in 1982, much of Holland’s time and energy has been poured into his eponymous Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.
Since it formed in 1987, the orchestra, which regularly drafts in new faces, has become a summer festival sell-out, playing to audiences in excess of 500,000 each year.
Given its popularity it would be easy for Holland to turn up and simply go through the motions, but music has always been about more than paying the mortgage. On Later...with Jools Holland he has performed with a number of musical heroes, but it has also become a way of spotting new talent.
The orchestra has just gone back on the road for a series of spring dates and when they perform at the Bridlington Spa next week the concert will also provide a platform for a new young singer who he first met on his BBC show.
“The orchestra is always changing from the musicians to the special guest singers,” says Holland. “To be honest I can’t tell you how many people are in it these days, but I do know their names. When you embark on something like this, you have to find a way of keeping it fresh.
“You can’t expect an audience to love a performance if you feel you’re just doing the same old thing again and again.
“So when we come to Bridlington we will have a young fellow with us called Gregory Porter, a jazz singer from New York. Some might see it as a bit of a risk, but I’ve played his record on my radio shows and you get a feeling for a singer who will fit right in.
“Someone like Ruby Turner is a perfect example. I first met her when we were both doing a charity gig in Wolverhampton. As soon as I heard her voice I knew I wanted her to sing with the orchestra. Her voice is incredible, she’s like a person from a different age. Ruby can sing the blues, she can sing gospel music, basically she can sing anything and she’s always completely captivating.
“I’ve done a lot of open-air shows with the orchestra, which means you have to work an awful lot harder if it rains, which it does a lot. For this tour we’re playing auditoriums and I’m really looking forward to Bridlington. I love that town. I love the new bit, the old bit, it just has a really special atmosphere.”
Having collaborated with everyone from Chrissie Hynde to George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel and well, the list goes on, Holland admits he has led something of a charmed life. In between performing, he’s also produced a couple of documentaries, written his biography, Barefaced Lies and Boogie Woogie Boasts, penned a six-part series with Roland Rivron about a Martian visiting Earth and who can forget his cameo appearance in Spice World?
It’s hard to imagine how he ever got time to oversee the building of his own recording studio, Helicon Mountain, designed in homage to the 1960s television series The Prisoner and its location Portmeirion or when he indulges his passion for model railways, which he shared with friend Rod Stewart.
“There’s always time to do the things you love.” he says. “The Prisoner obsession has always been slightly overblown. To be honest, I never really understood the point of the series, but I did love the architecture of Portmeirion.
“When it came to building my own studio, it seemed to make sense to do something that I found pleasing on the eye. As for model railways, I guess it’s childhood thing that I never gave up and there’s nothing wrong with that. People ask me about ambitions and wish lists, but playing the piano still has the same effect on me know as it did when I was a kid and for me that’s more than enough.”
Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, Bridlington Spa, May 17. 01262 678258, www.thespabridlington.com