The Red Hot’n’Blue story – part 1
The first half of the eighties was an exciting time for rock’n’roll in Great Britain. Rockin’ music saw a new life in the charts, young bands like The Meteors, The Ricochets and the Deltas were experiencing new sounds, taking good old rockabilly in a whole new direction. The Polecats and Restless were there too, making releases that would later be described as Neo-rockabilly.
Then in the wake of the Stargazers a bunch of new bands prefered a more traditionnal sound (paving the way to the « authentic rockabilly » movement of the late 80’s). Among this bands some of the best were the Riverside Trio (rockabilly-hillbilly-blues), the Krewmen (blues with Carl Sonny Leyland), the Blue Rhythm Boys (rockabilly – rockin’ blues) and the one we’re going to talk about in this article: Red Hot’n’Blue.
by Fred “Virgil” Turgis
Thanks a million to Kevin Ellis, Ashley Kingman and Mouse for their help.
In the begining
It all started in 1982 when Mouse Zihni’s ex-girlfriend phoned to tell him that her current boyfriend Dave Bourne who played drums was looking for a singer to start a band. She remembered they both used to go to East Croydon Railway Club where Mouse would sing with the local band and that he had a good voice. At the time his favorite singers were Gene Vincent, Tommy Steele, Billy Fury and later Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner.
A meeting was arranged for a rehearsal and Mouse met the rest of the soon-to-be band, Dave’s twin brother Andy on bass and Sam Crabtree on guitar, in a cellar near Emerson Street where Crabtree worked during the day. The rehearsal went well and a few weeks later he was asked to join the band full time.
They worked a lot, playing covers of the club hits. They gradually started to gig in the South London clubs but didn’t really go anywhere. According to Mouse “Sam didnt want to do new songs, he was happy to cover the songs he knew and that was that, so thats what we did, we were a cover band doing songs from the 50s. it was small time fun and got me some much needed money“.
One night Mouse met guitarist Ashley Kingman who was not totally a stranger to the still unnamed quartet: Sam Crabtree sold him his first guitar and Dave and Andy were in the same school though a bit older. “I met Mouse in the toilet of the Castle pub, they used to have a regular monday DJ there. I seen Mouse with Red Hot n Blue, dug the show and told him I played guitar and was looking to join a band.” recalls the guitar player. They already had a good guitar player but after some debating he was asked to join on rhythm”.
Having played with local combos like The Outer Limits (a psychobilly band) and Dr Muscle Brain Valves, a blues trio with drums, guitar and harp/vocals it wasn’t Kingman’s first band. For the story the drummer in both bands was Gary Bonniface, who later went on to form the Vibes.
The newly formed quintet still needed a name. That’s when Mouse came with Red Hot’n’Blue, a tribute to Dewey Phillips’ radio show, the first one to play Elvis Presley records on air.
But not long after that Crabtree left the band to join the Blue Rhythm Boys “They were doing well and he just wanted the fast train out rather than take the slow train with us” remembers Mouse. After his stint with Paul Ansell’s band Crabtree went on to form Cat Talk. Without lead guitarist the band couldn’t go on. They stopped gigging for about six months but didn’t stop working. They were hard at writing original material (including the future club hit “Sure Like The Look In Your Eyes” and Ashley spent this time to move from rhythm to lead. At this time the band rehearsed in the music shop where Ashley worked.
Introducing Ray Frensham and Northwood Records
When they felt ready they started gigging again and from this moment things moved quickly. Red Hot’n’Blue appeared at the weekender on the Isle of White and that lead to more shows in Europe and up and down the UK and gained the attention of Ray Frensham of Northwood record. He had the project of a compilation album and asked the band to record some songs for it. They agreed and, wanting to expend their sound, asked saxman Kevin Ellis to guest on the recording. Ellis was a well trained musicians being a member of Clive Osborne and the Clearnotes for two years.
So on November 3rd, 1984 Red Hot’n’Blue headed to University of East Anglia for their first recording session produced by Peter Davenport of Stargazers fame. Three songs were cut that day. “Get Back on that Train” written by Andy, “I wanna tell you that I love you baby” and “So Lonely On My Own” both from the pen of the team Kingman/Zihni. Two of them (“Get Back…” and “I Wanna tell you…” ) were released in June 1985 on the compilation album ”Big Noise From Northwood”. The other bands featured on that comp were the Sprites (French rockabilly band influenced by Gene Vincent), The Slingshots, Peter Davenport in full Bill Haley/Jodimars mode with the Roof Raisers and the Riverside Trio. The remaining third track “So Lonely On My Own” would later appear on the band’s debut album. Years later an early version of “It’s My Lucky Day” surfaced and have probably been recorded during the same session as it clearly shows Davenport’s influence.
“Big Noise From Northwood” (Northwood NWLP 1002) received good reviews and Ray Frensham started to consider the possibility of recording a long player with Red Hot’n’Blue. With Kevin now a full time member (since December 1984) the young rockabilly band that played cover has mutated into a tight rockin’- rockabilly – jump blues outfit and was in high demand and appeared in all-dayers in UK and Europe, appearing on stage with the likes of The Jets, Red Hot, the Blue Rhythm Boys, the Keytones,the Riverside Trio, Rochee & the Sarnos and Johnny Powers whom they backed.
The Northwood Years
By 1985 Red Hot’n’Blue was getting more and more attention. More gigs were pouring in and with its popularity rising it was soon obvious that a full length album was the next step. “Ray frensham thought there was a buck to make out of us he signed us up for a album” jokes Ashley.
The summer of 1985 was spent gigging and rehearsing new material for the planned album and in August (19th -21th ) the band went to Alaska studios (just under Waterloo station) with Boz Boorer in the producer seat to record what would be “Wait’n’See”. Cut in three days it’s an extraordinary solid work for a debut album.
It features a majority of self penned songs – mostly by the pair Kingman-Zihni, but Andy co-wrote three songs and producer Boz Boorer contributed the title track – and only three covers (Yes I’m Gonna Love You, Dick Penner’s Move Baby Move and Myron Lee’s Aw C’mon Baby).
It covers a wide range of style : from boogie blues in a Slim Harpo style (Sure Like The Look In Your Eyes) to rockabilly (Clicketty Clack, Move Baby Move) a bit of jump blues (It’s My Lucky Day, Bad Girl), a jazzy ballad (So Lonely On My Own), a latin instrumental with a Django Reinhardt feel in the middle (Hey Gringo) and rockin’ blues in the best Chess Records tradition (Postman Blues with harp played by Little Paul (from the Blubberry Hellbellies) and the Diddley tinged Take A Walk Up The Apple Tree).
It was mostly recorded live with very few overdubs ( the guide vocals part were often kept).
Wait’n’See remains a good memory for all involved : “Most of it was cut live, then we took bits away and added different shit in its place. Amazing but kind of tedious and time consuming. Boz somehow pulled it into shape. I still think its a good record.” says Ashley. “It was good fun and I learnt a lot from it” remembers Kevin and Mouse adds “it was a happy affair and we did a cool job on it”. 15 songs in all were recorded, 13 ended on the album (the 14th track of the record, “So Lonely On My Own”, comes from the sessions made with Peter Davenport the previous November). The remaining two songs were “Without You” and a cover of Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia”. When you listen to it, it’s very close to “Wait’n’See” so it’s probably the reason why it didn’t end on the album. It finally got released on the compilation album “The Northwood Story” on NV Records in 1991.
Mixed in September and October by Boorer and Kingman, it was released in January 1986 and received rave reviews “When it came out it got a four out of five star rating in Record Mirror and other magazines of the day, even INXS only got a 3 star rating, how things changed!”. Red Hot’n’Blue toured to support the release and it sold very well though it seems that the band didn’t see a lot of money from that (same old story).
Even when they were headlining the all dayers, Red Hot’n’Blue kept busking a lot to earn some extra cash. One day while they were playing in the street of Camden, a man approached them, gave his card and told them to call him as he liked the band. The man was Trevor Horne from The Buggles who scored several hits as a producer with Grace Jones, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Art Of Noise… It was a big chance for the band to get a wider audience than the rock’n’roll circuit but it never happened. Mouse : “Ash told Ray Frensham and Ray was over the top and too pushy and Trevor backed off the situation. This was one of the stupid things that Ray did, and the first of many as far as I’m concerned, he could be a real wanker at times…” . For Kevin it was “very sad really because we were onto big things”.
From that moment, things started to decline “[We had] a good ride for about a year and then we kind of all started pulling against each other. We let Ray get wedges in between us and me and Mouse split from the twins.” recalls Ash. Ray didn’t want Dave and Andy in the band any longer and by April 1986 the twins were gone (“not a thing I enjoyed at all, I went along with it, but that was all” says Mouse). They were replaced by Stuart Simpson from the Slingshots on drums and Paul Diffen (Sugar Ray Ford and later Blue Cats) on double bass. Pat Reyford (Sugar Ray Ford too) also joined on alto sax. For Mouse “Ray was trying to run us and mould us into a jump jive sort of blues thing”.
Soon after the twins were gone, Red Hot’n’Blue entered in studio with the new line-up and a session piano player called Sir James (it seems that neither Ray Frensham nor Mouse remember his name). Boz Boorer was also present and added a second guitar on some recordings. The songs made were a reworking of “Sure Like the Look In Your Eyes”, “I Wanna Tell You That I Love You”, “Without You” and “Sad In My Heart”. The latter being a cover of The Man Upstairs that had it released on single on Sideline Records in 1985. The sound was definitely fuller but didn’t really fit Red Hot’n’Blue. Somewhere they had lost what made their specificity, their rocking edge, and Boz’s production this time was more “radio friendly”. This said the version of “Sure Like the Look In Your Eyes” recorded this day still stands well today. It was envisaged as a “cross over” single, backed with “Caldonia”, but it never materialized. This sides were reissued years later on Crazy Love record.
The new direction taken by the band didn’t really please them “It wasn’t what I wanted to do, I wanted to do rock n roll and blues not big band stuff, I liked it but didn’t really want to be in a big jump band” recalls the singer. It was also very hard, and costly, to take such a large band on the road and the twins weren’t too happy with the band using the name Red Hot’n’Blue. At the same time Mouse started to become a popular DJ on the London scene and slowly the excitement of the beginning started to fade away. For Ashley “it wasnt the same after the twins were gone.”. The relation with Ray Frensham weren’t that good too. There was money problems and it wasn’t long before the band and the label parted ways. The line-up changed again with Terry Clancy (Cat Talk / Scat Cat) joining on bass and John Day on second guitar but in the own word of Mouse “the band just ran out of steam and it came to a very quick final shortly after the weekender up in Southport at the end of 86.”.
To be continued