On the wall of Jools Holland’s south London studio is a list of all the musicians who have recorded there. Hand-crafted in gold leaf, it is, to say the least, impressive. Ray Davis, Paul Weller, Dionne Warwick, Robert Plant, Van Morrison, Sting, Amy Winehouse… it’s a very long list.
‘We’ve also had Paul, George and Ringo down here,’ adds Jools with that familiar schoolboy-ish grin. ‘Sadly, not at the same time. That would have been something, wouldn’t it! That side of my life is something I still find strange. There’ve been moments when I’ve had to pinch myself. Here’s me, this south London oik, and I’m standing next to Paul McCartney or Johnny Cash!’
Jools’s enthusiasm is neither faked nor forced. The 60-year-old, most famous for hosting the long-running BBC Two music show Later… with Jools Holland, may have an OBE and live in a multi-million-pound town house next door to Buckingham Palace, but you get the distinct feeling that there’s more than a hint of excitable, south London oik still hiding inside his trademark two-piece suit. Jools is one of those blokes who’s endlessly interested in ‘stuff’. It could be old motorbikes or architecture, Diana Dors, gardening or model railways. Each subject seems to light up his face and he’s off, wandering through a lengthy tale that includes politicians’ legs, Prince Charles and, of course, music.
It’s no surprise, then, that Saga has joined forces with Jools, who will be the musical ‘face’ of The Club by Jools, a 1950s-themed restaurant and bar on the company’s first ever new-build cruise ship, Spirit of Discovery. As you’d expect, he’ll be playing a few on-board gigs and makes his first appearance on the Channel Island Hop Cruise in July 2019.
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‘Every decade has its great music,’ reckons Jools. ‘But the 1950s gave us so much to get excited about: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lonnie Donegan. British kids were discovering the blues for the first time. You had jazz and rhythm ’n’ blues clubs in Soho, plus some wonderful pop songs in the charts.
‘With my own band, the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, I’ve tried to give thanks for all of that incredible music, plus the best of the 1930s, ’40s, ’60s and ’70s. Let’s bring it all together and have a party!’
Jools has got another reason for joining guests on the Spirit of Discovery. He’s a cruise fan.
‘We live in a world where everything is beginning to look the same,’ he says with a sad shake of his head. ‘But when you approach a place by boat, there’s a different appreciation for whichever town you’re visiting. Even if you’ve lived in London all your life, you can take a boat ride up the Thames and see the city in a whole new light. Coming into port is exciting. I know it’s all changed, but I always think of dockers in their reefer jackets and the jolly Jack Tar. Perhaps a raven-haired temptress sitting in a smoky saloon bar.’
Jools has lived in London all his life. Well, almost. He and wife, Christabel, do have a house in rural Kent, but it’s only an hour’s drive from the city. Born in 1958, he grew up in Greenwich, not far from the capital’s docks when they were indeed still full of reefer jackets and the occasional raven-haired temptress.
‘I used to wander down to the river. It always felt slightly dodgy, but, like most young boys, I found that rather thrilling. Hearing people speak Russian. Seeing strange tattoos. The customs men arguing over some illicit cargo.
‘I feel privileged to have seen London before it became what it is today… this modern version. We take so much for granted. Everybody has a computer, a phone, a car, a holiday. But the period I’m talking about is not that long ago. Yes, we had fewer bathrooms, toys, TVs and cars, but it was a gentler London, with a sense of community that I miss.
‘We had live music in the pubs, too. Drunken sing-songs. The sound of the piano spilling out of every home, including my grandmother’s living room, where I was surrounded by relatives who encouraged my interest in music.
‘I have a very clear memory of the whole family listening to She Loves You by The Beatles. We were dancing around the living room, shaking our heads and going “Woooh” at the appropriate moment. I was only six, but music had found me. It was clear what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.’
By all accounts, the Hollands were typical, working-class Londoners. There wasn’t much money and dad, Derek, ducked 'n’ dived his way through a series of jobs. Derek and June, his mum, separated, but then got back together later.
‘We had ups and downs, the same as most families,’ says Jools. ‘Things got messy at times, but all I can tell you is that I remember my childhood with nothing but fondness and joy. I honestly believe that if a child has got enough to occupy him, he’ll be all right.
‘Dad would take me to museums and show me fabulous buildings. He introduced me to jazz. Mum would sing and experiment in the kitchen. Me and my mates were listening to Chuck Berry and smoking fags in the bomb-damaged houses you could still find in south London. I never really got into too much trouble and I was never an “angry young man”.
‘Even today, I don’t really see the point of anger. Certain things make me sad, but shouting at someone isn’t going to achieve very much.’
Jools was living out his nascent dreams of musical stardom as a teenager on the local pub circuit, but things got a lot more serious when his band, Squeeze, had a hit single in 1979 with Cool for Cats.
‘Going to the Top of the Pops studios was quite surreal and I don’t think we took it as seriously as our record company would have liked. All we wanted to do was hang out and have a good laugh.’
Jools became ‘famous’, but the 1980s gradually nudged him away from the band and into the TV studio. Sharp, cheeky and irreverent, he was a natural in front of the camera and landed a presenting job on edgy, new music show The Tube in 1982. He also fronted a short-lived reboot of Juke Box Jury, but then came Later…. The flagship BBC Two music show was launched in 1992 and, 26 years later, it’s still going strong.
‘How old was I when I started on Later?’ he wonders. ‘About 35. At that point, I’d been in a band, toured the world, had a great job on telly. I’d lived a full life and was pretty sure it was all downhill from there. But Later… changed everything.
‘It just goes to show. Doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past, you should never give up. Keep going, because you don’t know what’s around the corner.’
Like his parents’ marriage, Holland’s own private life hasn’t always been easy. He was in a long-term relationship and had two children, George and Rosie, when he met his wife, Christabel in 1984 – officially, she was Christabel, Lady Durham and married to the Earl of Durham. They fell in love, moved in together, had a daughter, Mabel, and finally got married in 2005.
Rosie and Mabel have followed in dad’s footsteps and are both involved with the music business, but Holland insists he was no pushy parent.
‘You can’t force a child to like music or play an instrument. You have to be patient… let them find their own way. In fact, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from being a parent is patience. As a young man, I would have probably moaned about a screaming baby in a restaurant, but then I became a father and found out that my children screamed in restaurants, too!’
Much has been made of the class divide between Jools and his posh wife – she’s from a landed Scottish family – but he seems unconcerned. ‘In the infinite story of human emotion, does it really matter if this person is from here and this person is from somewhere else? That’s how life is, sometimes. It surprises you.
‘As I was driving here today, I actually passed some of the streets I used to play in. If that callow youth could see how things had turned out, he’d be… well, he wouldn’t believe it. I get paid to play music, I live in a nice house, and two of The Beatles came to my wedding. It’s bonkers!’
McCartney and Starr weren’t the only well-known names on the guest list in 2005. Sadly, Charles and Camilla couldn’t make it, but Jools and Christabel did go to their wedding in Windsor earlier that year.
‘I got to know Prince Charles through my work with the Prince’s Trust,’ he explains. ‘It annoys me that he gets such a hard time. The Trust has done more to help disadvantaged young people in this country than any other charity. Why isn’t that in the news? All we get are the same old headlines.’
There’s a shout from outside the studio window. The photographer’s ready for the cover shoot. Jools is dressed in a smart tweed jacket, expensive-looking shirt, handsomely cut jeans and Chelsea boots, but insists on changing into a suit. There are several hanging up, ready for action.
‘I had this one made in Singapore,’ he says, pulling out something dark and snazzy. ‘This tailor I met made me five. I am proud to say that I do not own a T-shirt and would only wear one for a bet. A friend once invited me onto his boat for a weekend’s sailing and, as usual, I turned up in a three-piece suit. He suggested that I might be overdressed. Pah!’
Holland’s studio, Helicon Mountain, is much more than ‘just’ a studio. Originally a large yard with stables, it’s been converted into a network of cobbled streets, architectural follies, working buildings and a (non-working) railway station, all inspired by Portmeirion, the eccentric Italianate North Wales village where 1960s TV drama The Prisoner was filmed.
‘We started off with the studio and just kept building,’ he explains as we stroll along the cobbled street. Shifting the odd bag of sand and brushing leaves from a bench, he apologises for the mess. Holland does have a reputation for tidiness. In an interview some years back, his younger brother, Chris – who plays keyboards in the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra – revealed that Jools’s garden is all symmetrical rows and neatly trimmed edges. He said that his older brother liked to keep his life similarly neat and tidy.
Jools laughs. ‘I must have a chat with my wonderful brother later. Yes, I will admit that I like a bit of symmetry in the garden, but that’s not how life works, is it? At 60, I can assure you that my world is as littered with odds and sods, half-baked ideas and piles of paperwork as it’s always been. But I like that. A bit of chaos keeps me on my toes.’
Jools Holland’s quickfire Q&A…
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
“Maybe an architect. I’ve designed most of the buildings that make up my studio complex in South London. The trouble is that I’d like to be an architect who dabbled in other fields… like Sir John Vanbrugh. He built Blenheim Palace, became Governor of Greenwich Hospital, was imprisoned in the Bastille for spying and still managed to find time to write a couple of cracking Restoration Comedies.”
Who’s been the most memorable guest on Later… With Jools Holland?
An impossible question to answer, but Amy Winehouse would definitely make the short-list. To me, she was a modern-day Bessie Smith or Edith Piaf. She could take a song and make it come alive. Towards the end, it got very upsetting. I remember rehearsing with her for some awards show and she sounded fantastic. Then she said, ‘It’s a shame it won’t sound like that tonight ’cos I’ll be off me nut’. Her demise was almost Hogarthian. This is what drink can do to you.
Your band, the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, seem to be constantly on tour. Do you ever get tired of playing the piano?
Quite the opposite. I start to feel out of sorts if I don’t play the piano. That’s the great thing about cruise ships; there’s always a piano on board. Have you ever tried taking a piano on a plane? I can guarantee the stewardesses will not be happy!
If you were a young musician in 2018, would you go on TV talent show?
I grew up with punk, where being in a band meant not caring about what people thought of you. The problem today is that most of the people on those shows are obsessed by what people think of them. What we need is a competition where bands go on and say, ‘You’re all wankers and, frankly, we don’t care if you don’t like our music. Fuck off, the lot of you!’ Wouldn’t it be great to see that on a Saturday night.
Could I just add that I won’t be doing that when I’m playing my gigs for Saga. Nor will I be gobbing at the audience!
You’ve got a house that’s a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. What’s it like being the Queen’s neighbour?
Well, I don’t pop round to borrow the sugar, if that’s what you mean. Although London has changed so much in my lifetime, it will always be home. It’s like a really old friend who’s been knocked about a bit, but you know they’ll never let you down.
Do you still like a good cigar?
I don’t smoke as many as I used to. Maybe one or two a month, at most. I’ve got a couple of vintage cars and I always carry a cigar when I go out for a drive. That way, I’ve got something to do if I break down and have to wait for a mechanic. It feels like a special treat and stops me getting annoyed about having to fork out for a new exhaust.