Just eight weeks after becoming part of a band formed by grime artist Lady Leshurr, Bette Wernick stepped out onto the main stage at the Isle of Wight festival.
Two months prior, she and her band mates were strangers; then they were performing to a crowd of 65,000 people.
“It was absolutely wonderful. The crowd loved us,” says the 77-year-old from Barnsley. “We just went down a storm. It was a dream.
“I remember thinking at the time about Jimi Hendrix and that he had appeared on that stage and that I was now on the same one. It was a fantastic experience to appear there.”
Bette’s group was one of two rival bands that took to the stage that day under the mentorship of Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp and MOBO award-winning artist Lady Leshurr.
Their journey to reach that point, in September last year, is the subject of new TV show Rock Till We Drop, currently airing on BBC Two.
The four-part series, which began on March 1, sees the mentors form two competing groups of musicians, all over the age of 64, as they look to show the world that you’re never too old to rock ’n’ roll, if you’ve got the talent.
The mentors audition and form their rock bands, with help from top musical director friends and renowned stage performers including X-Factor finalist Fleur East, soul singer Mica Paris and The Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins.
When the groups then perform on the stage of the Isle of Wight festival after just weeks of rehearsals, it’s up to the crowd to decide which band they love the most.
Bette was invited to London to audition in front of Lady Leshurr after moving the rapper and singer to tears with a video of her singing and a chat about how her late husband would always request to hear her voice right up until his passing ten years ago.
She was “ecstatic” when she was told the news she’d made the band, and would front the group as its lead singer.
“I’d never given up on singing,” she says. “All I can say to anybody out there is don’t give up on your dream because you never know what’s around the corner.”
Bette got into singing as a young child, spending her early years in Monk Bretton, Barnsley.
“I could sing from being a toddler. My dad was a coal miner and we lived in what I can only describe as poverty really, a street of terraced houses with just two toilets for the whole street. There were good times in spite of all the poverty, I had a wonderful childhood.
“My dad was a coal miner and when he used to go out for a drink at the end of the week, he’d bring his mates back and he’d get me up after bed and stand me on the kitchen table and I used to sing for them. I loved it you know looking back.”
Looking to seriously launch a music career, Bette moved to London in the 1960s.“I realised I wasn’t going to get anywhere living in Barnsley,” she recalls, “so my mum and dad gave me a fiver, I had that in my pocket and I got on a train and went to London.”
She secured work at the Melody Maker music magazine and later landed her first ever singing job with vocal group The Rag Dolls. In the late 60s, her vocals featured on chart hit A Way of Life from band The Family Dogg.
Bette auditioned for the West End production of rock musical Hair but says she turned down a lead part “as I really didn’t have the confidence to act at that time”.
“Now I think I must have been out of my tiny mind,” she says. “But also you had to take your clothes off and I just couldn’t imagine what my dad would say to tell you the truth. He would have been horrified and I thought the world of my dad.”
Bette made it as a club singer, doing cabaret performances up and down the country and began working as a house singer with the BBC, often performing with big orchestras, throughout the 70s and 80s.
A short move to Australia followed and Bette’s singing didn’t stop whilst she was over there; she even once performed for then Prime Minister Bob Hawke. But in the years after she returned to the UK in the early 1990s, she pressed pause on her singing career as she focused on caring for her husband through a long illness.
Starting back up again in her late sixties proved tricky. She got herself a PA system and backing tracks and tried to crack the Blackpool scene, close to where she was living in Lytham St Annes, but had little success.
She instead moved back to her hometown and prior to lockdown, had started gigging again at a local club. With a crowd of just under 200 people in Barnsley, it was a long way from the thousands she would perform to at the Isle of Wight festival.
“I found when I tried to get back into singing that it was very difficult,” Bette says. “I had quite a few knock-backs and I’m sure it was because of my age. It didn’t matter that I had a good voice. I hope [Rock Till We Drop] will change people’s perceptions.”
When she’s not performing, Bette enjoys retirement. She looks after friends’ pets, enjoys walking, drinking coffee and watching TV – a far cry from that of your usual lead singer in a rock band.
She hopes, however, that the show will kickstart a revival for her music career. “I hope people will enjoy watching the show, that’s the main thing,” she says.
“But I do hope it will lead somewhere, I think we all do. All the musicians in the band I’m in are hoping it will be a resurgence of their career and I hope the same thing. I’ve still got a good voice and I still want to continue singing.”
Bette’s band mates include 67-year-old guitarist Martin Abrahams, bass player Carol Jason, who is aged 72, 73-year-old drummer Arty Davies and Steve Salvari, aged 68, who is on keys. “We’re all good friends and keep in touch,” she says.
As for their mentor Lady Leshurr, “she’s a wonderful person, very friendly. I enjoyed working with her,” Bette says. “She was just like one of us, I didn’t think of her as a famous person.”
For Bette, taking part in the show was extra special after spending much time alone during the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The whole experience was wonderful, I enjoyed every minute of it,” she reflects. “I live alone and I had been in lockdown, spending many hours alone. For this to then happen, was like a miracle.
“I can only describe it as wonderful, to start singing again and to have a whole new bunch of friends. The whole experience was a joy and I feel very privileged and lucky to have been in that position.”
Rock Till We Drop airs on BBC Two at 9pm on Tuesdays. It is also available on iPlayer.
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