Tony's long awaited autobiography will be released in Summer 2014. 'A Bride's Nightie' chronicles the tales from the road with the Rubettes, Firm and his session days.
Tony Thorpe is a guitarist who, in his tea half-hour, has also managed to be bassist, drummer, singer, songwriter, arranger, actor, pop star, teacher, journalist and scriptwriter, sometimes all at once. He has worked with the likes of Wee Willie Harris, Tommy Steele, Cilla Black, Jimmy Tarbuck, Denny Laine, Jimmy Smith and Tal Farlow, and despite being too ugly to be a pop star he has sung lead vocal with two different bands on Top of the Pops. The nicest thing anyone ever said about him was ‘Poor Tony Thorpe, if he was 70 years old and American he would undoubtedly be a blues great’. The worst things ever said about him were most certainly by one of Her Majesty’s Government’s many agencies.
His observations on life, the universe and everything, some of them profound, some just plain funny, are rooted in nearly 60 years of experience in the music business and honed by a keen sense of deductive reasoning. The result is as true a picture as you’re likely to get of what it’s been like to be a musician during the second half of the 20th century. Tony is currently working as an Old Age Pensioner and still trying to learn to play the bloody guitar.
I either got the sack from the TV store or it closed down (or both) but either way I was out of work again and preparing to follow the yellow broke road to the labour exchange when I got a telegram. It was from John Richardson. It said ‘something might be happening, come down’. As nothing was happening ‘up’ Shirle and I agreed that I should check it out so I took a coach to London on spec. Our John had become quite an in-demand session drummer since I’d seen him last, most notably on Carl Douglas’s ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, and when we met up he told me that he had recently played on a track produced by Polydor Records to try to persuade TV talent show ‘New Faces’ winners Showaddywaddy to sign up to the label but that they had signed with Bell instead.
This left the track sitting around doing nothing, so John had suggested to Polydor that he put a band together to promote it and they had agreed. Hence the telegram. He played me the track. I didn’t like it much but I kept my counsel. And so began the saga that became the Rubettes, a story of hit records, big successes, missed opportunities, friendships, hostilities and an education in the ways of the record business that no university could hope to provide. I’m not going to write a history of the band here as that’s available elsewhere. I’ll just tell it as I saw it from the inside-out. And there’s only a few of us who can do that.
Starting with a finished track and nothing else presents an interesting challenge, like how do you create a look that ties in with the atmosphere and sound of the record? ‘Sugar Baby Love’ was clearly a pastiche of the Diamonds’ ‘Little Darling’ from the 1950s so we looked back to band uniforms and added some old Shadows steps. Wayne Bickerton (head of A & R at Polydor and co-writer of the song with Tony Waddington) suggested caps (as in Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps) and came up with the name (Diamonds/Rubies/Small Rubies/Rubettes) and I threw in Willie’s old trick of the name on the back of the jackets. Voila! We had an image, but whether anyone would buy it was in the lap of the gods. (Unofficially we in the band later came to call ourselves the Rubbits because that was the way the Germans pronounced it and it just sort of caught on).
Polydor released the record, Radio 1 started playing it and every week we would call to see how it was doing. The first week it was No 51. The second week it was No 51, and the third week it was No 51. And if that’s not consistency I don’t know what is. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like it much. Meanwhile the various members of the band carried on with their various little gigs and sessions, and I filled in wherever I could.
It was on one of these gigs, a dep for Alan Williams at a cabaret club in Watford, that I heard, quite by chance, that Peter Collins had drowned on holiday in the South of France. He was 28 and I was devastated. Not long afterwards I heard that Tommy Steele’s stage manager, Eddie Thornley, had been murdered by ‘queer-baiters’ as he walked across Wetsminster Bridge to see his mum. It was a strange time.
Then we did Top of the Pops. We weren’t scheduled to – Sparks were, but their work permits hadn’t come through and the Beeb needed a replacement fast. The first I knew about it was when I got a call, at home, telling me to get to Television Centre ASAP if not S-er. The others did likewise from various bits of London, and while they did that the secretaries at Polydor were sent out to buy the clothes we’d decided on but not bought.
We did a camera run-through at about 11am, which was a real thrill for all of us, but on leaving the studio we were confronted by a man from the Musicians Union who told us we could not mime to the record, as we had assumed, but must re-record the track in his presence and mime to that. I was gutted. As there was another camera run-though at 3pm, and we were nowhere near a studio, it seemed impossible. But somehow Polydor found us a studio, and the band was good enough to re-record ‘Sugar Baby Love’ in a couple of hours and be back at the Beeb in time to be fitted into the clothes and do the second camera run.
So we did the show, the record jumped to No 25 and we bet each other how high it would be the following week. I don’t think anyone bet higher than about eight, and the rest of us thought that was being ridiculous. When the charts came out it was No 2. The following week it was No 1 and it stayed there for three or four weeks. Now if you’ve been paying attention you will have drawn the same conclusion I did – people didn’t buy the record, they bought the image. And that’s pop music for you.
When we went to Polydor to celebrate there were Rubette posters all over the walls and the desk in Wayne’s office was creaking under the weight of Dom Perignon. I happened to drop in a few weeks later when our follow-up record, ‘Tonight’, had stalled at No 12. There was one bottle of Pomagne on a desk in the outer office and a single Rubette poster hanging diagonally from one corner. It may have been coincidence but it spoke volumes. They all said ‘that’s pop music for you’.
Tony Thorpe 2012
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