Let’s start at the very beginning, because it’s a very good place to start.
THE VERY EARLY YEARS
Back in the 1950’s when I was three years old I had an uncle, well sort of a pretend uncle who was really just a friend of the family, and he used to play the piano. His name was uncle Nelson and I was intrigued at how he could sit at this big wooden machine and make magic happen. He could play just about any song off the top of his head and the family would all join in and sing along. At such a young age this was very captivating to watch. Naturally this strange phenomenon grew on me, so after pestering my parents to get a piano they said they would only get one if I went to piano lessons. Great I thought, until the day I was taken to a piano teacher called Mrs Bell in South Shields who dropped the bombshell on me by saying I was too young for piano lessons and to come back when I was seven! As a young kid this seemed like a lifetime to wait, and it was.
When seven came I was taken back to the piano teacher who I remember was more interested in my hands and fingers, and she inspected them very carefully to see if I was suitable to play the piano. She then told my parents the type of piano to go and look for and only to return when they had the piano and it had been properly tuned up. I remember going with my parents to look at second hand pianos in some really grimy old houses to see if the pianos would be suitable and they would always ask me to get up and play something on them. I’m sure whatever it was I played wouldn’t have been impressive. Eventually we found a suitable piano and at last I could now start piano lessons.
I recently went to see the film Rocket Man which is the story of Elton John’s life. When I was watching him as a young child I suddenly realised that I was watching my own early life on the big screen. It was just as if I was watching myself when I was young. It was a very moving and surreal moment.
The piano became my life and I was starting to make this big wooden machine make noises that people liked to listen to and actually sing along to! I would hammer away for hours on end and guess I was lucky to have neighbours who used to say they loved to hear me singing and playing on the piano.
THE TEENAGE YEARS
My parents were quite religious and I was always expected to go to church on a Sunday. And it was here in church where I would marvel at an even bigger wooden machine ..... the church organ. How could such a thing make spectacular music and also actually shake the walls of the building? I really needed to get behind one to do it for myself. So I started taking organ lessons from a well respected organist in the town who I remember was called Maurice Powell and he taught me how to play the church organ. Unlike a piano with just one keyboard hitting strings this had three banks of keyboards on it blowing air through twenty foot pipes, and it had an array of stops (the equivalent of very big patch selector buttons of today). He also taught me how to play the bass pedal board with my feet. Wow, I was now on the way to making big noises, extremely big noises!
By the age of thirteen I managed to secure my first musical job by becoming the organist for two churches in the town. I would play four church services every Sunday as well as playing for weddings, funerals and christenings. At that time my father was also a member of the ‘Guild of the Servants of the Sanctuary’!? ... a sort of group of people who served in the churches in the area who went around singing plainsong at each other’s churches. I was invited to play the organ for them which was great because I would not only get to play the organs in all the other churches in the area but I was also privileged to get to play the organ at St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle and also Durham Cathedral.
By the end of my time at secondary school I was an avid follower of Deep Purple and Emerson Lake and Palmer and I was very keen to get a school band together but it never worked. It was only when I left school and attended the local college that I met some fellow musicians and we managed to get my first band onto the stage. We called the band Mushroom and we got our first gig supporting local rock band Lucas Tyson at the Students Union Dance. David Sibbald I believe was the guitarist (who is now with the Counterfeit Sixties band) and Arthur Robertson (who became the trombonist for Alive and Kicking and the Ska-Toons) was on bass.
It was not long after that when I would seal my fate as a working musician.
attending the college I would always go for a liquid lunch to a nearby pub
called The County. Every day I would notice a bright yellow twin wheel Transit van
parked outside with the name of the band Agincourt written on it. In the pub
there was always a bunch of typical musos sitting in the corner drinking,
obviously the band themselves. One day I plucked up the courage to go over and
speak to them. I introduced myself as a keyboard player and their immediate reply
was ‘You’ve got the job!’
The next thing I knew was the van outside my house picking up my gear and I was on the road with a real band playing every weekend in the social clubs around the North East. The members of that band were Steve Bell on vocals, Chris Buglass on guitar, Ray Miller on guitar, Dave Giles on Bass and Ian Hutton on drums. I was only sixteen at the time which unfortunately caused me a big problem when the band passed an audition to go away and work in Scandinavia because I was too young to get a work permit to go with them.
The good thing was that I was now on the road and I soon moved from Agincourt to another local band called Mr Jump. This was a very hard working club band and I remember playing thirty two gigs in one month! This was when the social clubs were full every night of the week. We would also play for the strippers on a Sunday afternoon and do ‘doublers’ on a Friday and Saturday night when we would also play at a nightclub after we had finished playing at a social club. The band members were Les Dodd on guitar, Roger ? on vocals, Billy Stevens on bass and ? on drums. (can anyone can help me fill the names in?)
I moved from Mr Jump to help in the formation of a new band called Lazy, and that is where I met Martin Bland. I had seen him performing a couple of years earlier when he was in the local rock band Lucas Tyson. Lazy was a band that played songs of The Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Ace and Steely Dan and featured a lot of good harmonies. The band members were Martin Bland on bass, Cliff Stoddart on guitar, Micky Emms on guitar, ? on vocals, and Gareth Roberts on drums.
I remember we bought an old mobile shop to use as the group van which was great because it was that big it had room in the front for two sofas as well as space in the back for the gear. The only problem was that when it was loaded up the back of the van was so low it would scrape along the road. We solved this by fitting some castors to it. Once when we unloaded it the roof got jammed under a club car park blocking the road so we had bring all the gear back out of the club and load it up again to be able to move it.
Some years later the band Lazy renamed itself Warbeck when Howard Baker joined, and the band changed it’s style to performing rock songs by bands such as Free, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep and Styx. The band did very well around the north east clubs and it had a great following.
The poster shows from left to right: Micky Emms (Guitar), ? (Drums), Cliff Stoddart (Guitar), Martin Bland (Bass), Me (Keyboards) and Howard Baker (Vocals)
THE FOURTEEN YEAR BREAK
It was then in 1977 at the age of twenty one that I open a music shop in South Shields called Music Maker and I stopped playing in bands to concentrate on running the shop. You can read all about the Music Maker story here: https://www.facebook.com/musicmakermusicshop/
For the rest of my twenties I would concentrate on running my businesses which would include HMC a factory making sound equipment, and also operating the transport companies Frontline Express, Frontline Shipping, North East Roadfreight, and a TNT parcel office.
RE-EMERGING AGAIN AS A KEYBOARD PLAYER
Even by the beginning of the 90’s I hadn’t considered going back to playing in bands because I was too busy running my businesses but the economic state of the country in the early 90’s was proving difficult for businesses and I was ready to do something different.
It was one Saturday afternoon in 1991 when my life was suddenly changed around. I was in Newcastle and I happened to go into J.G.Windows music shop just to look at the keyboards they had on display and one of them took my attention. It was the new Yamaha Clavinova digital piano. Digital was totally new to me so I curiously asked if I could try it. Bearing in mind I had never played a keyboard for the past 14 years I was very glad I was given some headphones to try it out. I hesitantly started playing it but then suddenly I took off into a world I had totally forgotten about. I was in heaven, and I was also very surprised that after 14 years I could still play a piano. I hadn’t forgotten any of it. I came out of that shop a changed person and knew that I just had to get one, and I also knew that I had to get myself back performing again. The next week I walked back into the shop and bought it.
As soon as I got home with the keyboard I put an advert in the Newcastle Chronicle as ‘Keyboard player available’ and within a few days I was off for an audition with a local band and got the job. So within about two weeks of first seeing that keyboard in the shop I was out performing again. I never waste time when I want to do something! That band was called Fragile and we performed in the social clubs around the area giving me time to catch up on some keyboard practice.
It was a Saturday morning in 1992, and I was in the back shop of the Music Maker shop when the phone rang. I answered it and the caller asked to speak to me. He said his name was Hilton Valentine and he said that he used to be in a band called The Animals. He told me that he was looking for a keyboard player for a couple of ‘Animals’ type shows in Germany and he asked if I would I be interested. I said I was, and he invited me over to the Pheasant pub in North Shields for an audition on that coming Monday. I must admit, the only song I knew by the Animals at that time was House of The Rising Sun and now all of a sudden I was off for an audition with the band in two days time.
This was in the days before shops were open on Sundays so I had to dash to HMV and buy a couple of Animals CD’s so that I wouldn't make a fool of myself. It was only when I listened to them that I realised Alan Price had his very own unique style of playing which I had to quickly try and copy to make it sound authentic. When I arrived at the audition I was not only met by Hilton the original Animals guitarist, but also Chas Chandler the original bass player and John Steel the original drummer. Also present were members of local band The Alligators who were there to make up the rest of the band. The audition went quite smoothly and I managed to get through all of the songs. I remember thinking that was it, and they might get in touch with me later to let me know if I did or didn’t have the job. But to my surprise I was called over by Hilton to talk to Chas, and Hilton asked Chas what he thought about me. Chas looked at Hilton and simply said ‘He’s the man for the job’. Hilton smiled and said ‘Right Steve, let’s run through the set again’, so that was it, I was in the band.
Chas told us he would have loved to be in the new line up of the band but unfortunately due to health reasons he would find it difficult to play the bass guitar again, so the rest of the band was made up from Alligators members Joss Elliott on bass, Robert Kane on vocals and George Fearon on guitar.
At first it was only supposed to be for a couple of shows in Germany but by the time those shows came around there were other shows rolling in. For the first shows the band performed under the name of Hilton Valentine’s Animals because at the time we were all uncertain about using the original Animals name for the band, just in case there would be any problems with Eric Burdon. George came up with the idea of calling the band Animals II and this name was also used in the early days. I remember Hilton would carry a piece of chalk or a sharpie on him and where the band had been advertised as ‘The Animals’ he would write a big ‘II’ after it on the posters. The name was always a dilemma in the band as everyone wanted it to be the continuation of The Animals band. Chas had always been in favour of us using The Animals name so John decided to call Eric on the phone to ask if he minded the band using the name of The Animals. Apparently Eric’s answer to John was ‘Johnny, you’s were as much the Animals as I was’ and said he didn’t mind us using the name as long as we didn't use The Animals name in America or Germany where he still toured just to avoid any confusion between the bands. It was agreed that we would use the name Animals II in those two countries. So that was it The Animals were officially back on the road, not only in music but also in name.
Those were great days. I got to tour abroad playing shows in Germany, Belgium, France and Scandinavia. I got on really well with Hilton, we became soul mates, and together we shared all the problems and dilemmas that came along with running the band.
John was pretty quiet in the early days, sort of taking a bit of a back seat, but unfortunately bad feelings had been brewing between John and the Alligators members and out of the blue came the announcement that the entire band had been fired! Yep, even I lost my job as well, I still to this day don’t know why but I think I was more a victim of circumstances. John wanted to get new members into the band. Luckily I was asked back into the band and received an apology but they were struggling to find suitable permanent replacements for a guitarist and bass player. This was when I suggested two local musicians who I had worked with in the past, bass player Martin Bland (Warbeck and Lazy) and guitarist Steve Dawson. They were both auditioned and were accepted into the new line up of the band.
It was a great band with the new line up. For over six years we toured all around the World. We went to Australia, New Zealand, Dubai, Jakarta, Bangkok, Singapore, Japan, Abu Dhabi, Manila, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and America as well as touring all around Scandinavia and Europe.
But unfortunately all good things can somehow come to an abrupt end. There had been a lot of back biting going on in the band in the latter years, Hilton and John were also having problems with the management, and then Robert suddenly announced that he was leaving the band to join Dr Feelgood. That unfortunately was the end of a great band. It was a massive shame because that band was destined to have a great future. What happened back then should never have happened and the band broke up simply due to personal misunderstandings.
AFTER THE ANIMALS
I ended up having a hard time after the Animals band split up and Peter Barton who was the manager of the Animals band at that time offered me the job with Alan Silson the original guitarist from Smokie in a band called The Sounds of Smokie, which also featured Jeff Brown from the Tremeloes. Once again I was back in a good band and it had great harmonies. We toured it mainly around Ireland, Scandinavia and Germany.
It was at this same time that I was also offered the keyboard job in Peter Barton’s own band called Creedence Clearwater Revived which was a very successful Creedence tribute band. We did many shows in the UK and abroad including some massive shows in Russia, Germany and Italy.
Unfortunately Alan came under massive legal pressure from the original members of Smokie by performing with his own band. Unbeknown to us Alan had apparently signed an agreement when he left the original band which stated that he could not perform in any other band that had the name Smokie in its title. Peter Barton was also coming under pressure from John Fogerty of Creedence because the band was attracting a lot of attention due to promoters miss-using the name, so both of these bands came off the road more or less at the same time.
I answered an advert for a keyboard player for the No 1 Eric Clapton Tribute band Classic Clapton. I had previously heard all about Mike Hall and his band After Midnight which performed Clapton songs very well. I remember watching a television documentary about him and was eager to meet him in person. It was a surreal feeling when he answered the door to me and invited me in... It felt as if Eric Clapton had invited me into his house. That was when I realised that Mike has an incredible persona akin to Eric Clapton himself and this is why his tribute band Classic Clapton has become so successful. It is not just because of the great music he plays, when he walks on stage I'm sure the audience imagine they’re watching the real man himself.
I toured the theatres throughout the UK with the band for a couple of years and we even played a festival out in Estonia. I really enjoyed playing the Clapton songs because it was a breath of fresh air for me having to perform the parts previously played by such keyboard greats as Billy Preston, Chuck Leavell, and Chris Stainton.
THE TONY LIDDLE BAND
I left Classic Clapton to join a band that had vocalist Tony Liddle at the fore. The plan was that we intended to form another Animals band together because Tony had also been the vocalist in The Animals at one point. Unfortunately the plan never got off the ground and instead we played in the clubs around Yorkshire and Tyneside performing rock music.
THE UK LEGENDS
In 2005 I received a call from Martin Bland who used to be in The Animals with me. He was looking for a keyboard player to join up with him and two Lancashire musicians who were at that time performing as Lieutenant Pigeon. Although I did one show with them under that name this band was to become the beginning of the UK Legends band. The theme for the band was inspired by the fact that the band members had all been members of famous bands such as The Animals, The Move, and The BeeGees, plus we had all worked with musicians from other bands such as Smokie, Thin Lizzy, John Miles and Joe Cocker. Collectively we were able put together a show performing all of their hits, and that was why it was called UK Legends. The band already had shows lined up in Poland and they wanted me to be their keyboard player so I jumped at the chance and we went across to Poland. At first I was not expecting to be greeted by too big an audience but our first show was at the Spodek Arena in Katowice and we walked out to an audience of 17,000 people. The following shows pulled similar sized audiences all around Poland.
The band also featured on MTV in Poland and we became famous in our own right often getting stopped at service stations and in the street by people asking for our autographs. The UK LEGENDS became a household name in Poland, and at one point we had that much work in Poland playing at the town festivals that we were almost living there.
Unfortunately the work in Poland started slowing down due to a decline in the Polish economic climate so we decided to start performing with the band in the UK. It was so funny when we started doing this. Our first UK show was in a local bar in my home town after being pestered by the bar owner to do it. What he didn’t realise was that we were all used to performing at big outdoor festivals and here we were about to perform the show in his bar! Apart from the fact our equipment took up most of the floor space, quite a large crowd of people had also turned up to see the band. When we kicked off, the band was that loud that all the glasses started falling off the shelves and the ornaments started falling off the walls onto people’s heads. But we went down well and everyone loved it. We then took the band into the UK social clubs where it has been doing well now for quite a few years. We still get to work abroad with the band mainly in Poland and Scandinavia, and just recently we took it to Spain for some festivals in the Costa del Sol. The current line up of the band is Martin Bland (The Animals and Eric Bell's Thin Lizzy), Bernie Lowery (The voice of Smokie), Steve Lamb (Tygers of Pan Tang), and George Defty (Geordie), with myself now only appearing as a special guest on some of the shows.
People ask me why I am not performing locally with the UK Legends band anymore. Well it’s for quite a lot of reasons, but primarily it’s because after being in the band for nearly 15 years I wanted to move on, and every weekend was being taken up with gigs so I wanted to sort of go into semi-retirement to spend more time with my family. Also the on stage volume at some of the local shows was getting too much for me, and is not good for any keyboard player. Another problem was that the band had started to play detuned, and having to play the keyboard detuned was messing up my perfect pitch and I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore. (You can read more about my problems of playing detuned with perfect pitch here)
I do still perform some shows with the UK Legends but mainly at the festivals and special occasions.
After the Animals split up in 2000 I tried to form another Animals band with Martin and we tried many different musicians from the north east but we just couldn't get anything together. It was only when we got the UK Legends band together that we had some form of nucleus to form the Animals III band that would feature myself and Martin from The Animals band. We played some big festivals in Poland but the UK Legends band was taking up most of our time. It was only in 2017 when George Fearon who was also a member of The Animals joined the band that we started to promote it better. The band currently performs as 'Animals III' and 'The Animals Greatest Hits Show' in the UK, Scandinavia, Spain and Belgium, and is also performing as part of a 60’s tour around the UK with other bands from the 1960’s.
I like playing in the band because I enjoy playing the songs that I spent years performing all around the World. I guess it's also what I’m now recognised for.
I also go to Spain a lot performing in a duo with Martin and we play all the hits of The animals. Okay, we’re using an iPad for the drums and guitar backing, but it’s still live keyboards, vocals and bass and it’s quite good fun to do. All expats out there love us and we get to meet lots of other people from all around the World who also live there.
I was trying to cut back my work when I came across an advert for Classic Clapton needing a keyboard player. It was over 15 years since I was in this band and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure whether to apply or not but thought I would give Mike a call because I hadn't actually spoken to him for a few years. As soon as he answered my call he said ‘Hi Steve... Do you want the job?... It’s yours if you want it’. I said I would come to see him but by the time I got there he had already told the other applicants that the job had been taken, so once again I was back in the band. I’m enjoying playing all the Clapton catalogue again and it’s great to have been able to swap from playing the UK clubs to doing theatre work again. You get so much more respect from an audience that have paid to see you. And it’s always an early finish.
THE BLUE FLAMINGOS
This job came totally out of the blue (excuse the pun). Years ago back in the 1970’s I worked with a guy called Howard Baker in the band Warbeck, and I hadn’t really heard from him since back then. Almost fourty years later he sent me a message saying that he needed a keyboard player for a stage show he was doing and asked if I would be interested. We met up and I told him that I was trying to retire but this show did sound very interesting as it was also theatre work and we would be performing songs from the early 1960’s that were hits in the UK and the USA. I somehow said yes and ended up in this band as well. I didn’t realise how complicated some of these old sixties songs were. Their arrangements were so weird I think the songwriters must have been on something when they wrote them. For a keyboard player the songs are quite a challenge because most of the songs feature full orchestration with multiple strings, brass, pianos, organs and vocal parts in them, but luckily that’s where the multi layer Kurzweil keyboard comes to the rescue. So much for retiring, but I do always like a challenge.
SONGS OF SMOKIE
This band is basically the UK Legends tribute to the band Smokie. Having worked with Alan Silson in the past, and the UK Legends being augmented with Bernie Lowery ‘the voice of Smokie’ on vocals, this is quite an impressive show. The shows are very popular in Poland and Scandinavia and we have recently been performing the show on the Butlins 70’s weekends. It’s great for me as a keyboard player to play the music of Smokie because there are a lot of string arrangements within most of the songs. When Smokie were in the charts orchestras were a big feature on the recordings made by bands in the 1970’s.
When I’m not performing with the bands I like to go out and play the keyboards. Does that statement actually make any sense?
Now and again I play as a dep keyboard player for a local band Barely Human of which I used to be a full time member. I also record in the studios with bands and artistes doing session work, as well as undertaking various projects with many other local bands and musicians.
Somehow I think my retirement will just have to wait.