Lulu - back to her roots

Eamonn Forde / 16 September 2013 ( 22 March 2019 )

One from the archives: Despite international fame, Lulu reveals that she feels her career has lacked direction. She unburdens a musician’s frustrations and hints that she has finally found her home – singing soul in the kind of nightclubs where it all began, over 50 years ago...

The staff glide silently across the polished floors of Claridge’s as guests eat late breakfasts in reverential silence in the dining room, picking dishes from a menu the size of a fridge door. Then Lulu appears, straight off the red-eye from New York where she has performed two songs with The Beach Boys that weekend – their I Can Hear Music and her own To Sir, With Love (her 1967 song that was as big a hit in America as it was a flop in the UK).

She’s wearing oversized sunglasses, the default setting for anyone famous – overnight flight or not. Her blonde hair is plumped up in a shaggy shoulder-length cut, adding a crucial few inches to her height. The waiter comes to take her order, addressing her by name and asking how her New York trip went. She is clearly known here, but then she is known everywhere in the UK, a star at the age of 15 when her cover of The Isley Brothers’ Shout seared the diminutive Glaswegian on the national consciousness.

A born talker 

Uncertain of what to order, the waiter suggests scrambled eggs and avocado. She hesitates for a moment, running the two ingredients together in her head. ‘Scrambled eggs and… avocado? I like them both but, no…’ She opts for eggs, toast and an espresso to counter the jetlag. The caffeine jolt turns out to be extraneous as she is a born talker – her default setting for half a century when confronted with any microphone.

She is preparing for a London club show – her first one in the UK for ten years – on October 4 at Under The Bridge, a venue by Chelsea FC’s ground, where she will perform songs that reflect her unrelenting love of soul music. She’s already played the same set in New York at the start of the year and talks of how this music compelled her into performing with groups in Glasgow’s clubs at the age of 13. ‘It’s about returning to my roots and doing small venues,’ she says. ‘I’m not doing a [dramatic raising of arms to denote ‘showbiz’] big show.’

Fallen into light entertainment 

She feels her career has fallen into light entertainment a few too many times. These new club shows are going back to the gutsy soul music that made her want to be a singer in the first place: ‘It’s stripped back; I’m not changing clothes and not really getting dressed up for it at all.’ The showbiz side of her life, painting her perhaps as frothy, detracted from what she wanted to achieve. ‘All my life I have been trying to be serious,’ she says. The forthcoming London show is her attempt to reclaim her past and rewrite how people view her.

It’s taken five decades to complete the circle. Born Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie in November 1948, she started singing with her uncle’s accordion band. ‘I was 10 or 11 and I’d get a new sticky-out frock,’ she says. ‘I always sang.’

The moment that was to change her life was seeing Alex Harvey, fresh from the same Hamburg circuit that forged The Beatles, in a Glasgow club. ‘He came back dressed in black leather, completely emaciated,’ she remembers. ‘Heaven knows what he had taken there. I think he would have done speed as they had so many gigs every night.’

New talent 

Harvey – who went on to create The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – did a cover of Shout and her future exploded before her eyes. ‘I was gobsmacked,’ she says, her eyes widening as she recalls the scale of its impact. ‘I could hardly speak. I had to sing that song. I had never seen or heard anything like that before.’

It was to be, just two years later, her breakthrough single, winning her a talent-search competition that resulted in a record-label audition. ‘Because of The Beatles, the whole country was searching for new talent,’ she says.

The audition with EMI came to nothing but she was sent instead to Dick Rowe, the Decca talent scout who had two years earlier turned down The Beatles, infamously telling their manager that ‘guitar groups are on their way out’. Since then he had made amends by signing The Rolling Stones and Lulu was to join them on the label.

This started her recording career but was also the beginning of a long search for direction, something she has pursued with a dizzying array of collaborators, writers and producers – all key architects of post-war popular music. ‘I kind of got derailed a lot,’ she says of a career that she feels had too many false starts and dead-ends.

Pop explosion 

As a teenage girl in the Sixties, she experienced the pop explosion from the inside while her classmates could only watch it unfold on TV and in music magazines. ‘It was both terrifying and exciting,’ she says of her move to London to build her career. ‘I was singing non-stop, but when I went to bed I’d cry because I [laughing] missed my mummy and daddy.’

When she talks of her childhood she seamlessly switches from her polite, anglicised speaking voice to a soft Glaswegian burr, vocally separating the Lulu of then from the Lulu of now. Pop music was, she said, her surrogate school.

‘I come from a real working-class background and I had no education,’ she asserts. ‘None. I literally stopped going to school when I was 13.’

I tell her about the theory that whatever age you first become famous that is the age, mentally and emotionally, you stay frozen at for the rest of your life. She immediately lights up when she contemplates its resonance. ‘That makes perfect sense! Is that true? I’ve never heard that before.’ Her head tips back in a genuine, throaty laugh. ‘Hah hah! I’m not denying it!’

Full of stories 

The sunglasses, at this stage, have long since been removed, but there’s no ‘red eye’ or indeed any other sign of the overnight flight. She is, it must be said, impossibly fresh-faced. If any, let’s say, ‘work’ has been done, it is impossible to tell. Her naturally animated face springs into an endless variety of expressions as she chats, laughing, raising her eyebrows and feigning shock as the conversation requires, illustrating and brightening her stories.

What advice would she, now 64 and knowing what she now knows, offer her teenage self on entering the music business? ‘Maybe I would say to myself just to enjoy it,’ she suggests. ‘I could give myself all sorts of advice, but I don’t think I’d tell myself not to do it.’

Fond grandmother that she is to her son Jordan’s children, Isabella and Teddy, hers is not a career, however, that she would advise for them. ‘If my granddaughter wanted to do what I did, I’d beg my son not to let her,’ she asserts. ‘I wouldn’t want my granddaughter to do it at such a young age. I think I am emotionally stunted [as a result].’

In 1966, she left Decca and worked with producer Mickie Most at Columbia Records. That was to prove a frustrating relationship, despite the fact that their partnership resulted in wondrous tracks such as the stomping The Boats That I Row (a Neil Diamond composition), the offbeat Love Loves To Love, Love and the lushly orchestral To Love Somebody.

‘I signed to him [Most] for three years,’ she says. ‘It was a struggle. He thought I was Herman’s Hermits. And I certainly did not.’ She pulls a determined face, hinting at the arguments and debates of that time.

Dominated by men 

The music industry was dominated by men. "It's very difficult for a woman – the older men seeing me one way and me seeing myself another way. It was a struggle."

She argues it was especially tough for her to be taken seriously in the studio because of her age and the fact that, even though Marion Massey managed her, the UK music industry was almost entirely dominated by men. ‘It’s very difficult for a woman,’ she says. ‘There has always been an imbalance. With the producers, the older men, seeing me one way and me seeing myself another way. It was a struggle.’

She claims she ‘very rarely’ got her own way, but she did with To Sir, With Love – the theme song for the 1967 film of the same name. But Most relegated it to a B-side of Let’s Pretend, against her wishes: ‘As you can imagine, there were a lot of tears.’ It did not ignite in the UK, but in America DJs flipped the single and it exploded. It is the only song by a British artist to go to number one in the US but fail to chart in the UK in its own right. ‘I have had that all my career,’ she sighs. ‘People looking at me and not getting the vibe.’

Modern artists 

She does appear to be relieved to be talking about her music rather than her love life or her fame. As she bounces from topic to topic, her enthusiasm increases and the deep joy that music brings her is unassailable. She reels off the artists who inspired her and is similarly animated when she talks about  modern acts – Rihanna, Calvin Harris, Ed Sheeran and, most of all, Bruno Mars – her fandom and awe at the power of music undimmed.

Her career towards the end of the Sixties was schizophrenic, searching for the right music but also drifting into light entertainment as a TV presenter. It was not all saccharine, however. In 1969, the Jimi Hendrix Experience appeared on her show to perform Hey Joe but cut the song off early to go into a cover of Sunshine Of Your Love as an impromptu tribute to Cream, who had just split up.

‘It was shocking at the BBC, darling!’ she squeaks in a mock-posh accent. ‘It was fabulous. I loved it. When I passed by his dressing room afterwards, he said, “I hope it didn’t create any upset for you”. Hendrix was a real gentleman. It was so thrilling, they still talk about it.’

Eurovision Song Contest 

That same year she represented Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest, coming joint first with Boom Bang-a-Bang, a song for which she has no warm feelings. She was only persuaded to do it because of the show’s high ratings. ‘I knew it was business,’ she says. She’s not watched the show since. ‘Been there, done it, got the T-shirt.’

She firmly says she will never perform that song again, before asking me what I think of it. I say it’s a good period piece of the time and, as such, I like it. ‘You think it’s a great song?’ she asks, bewildered. I nod. ‘Well I won’t be doing it at the show in October!’ she laughs.

Days before Eurovision, she’d married Bee Gee Maurice Gibb. ‘They were writing amazing songs,’ she says of the time they met and were together. ‘Everything the Bee Gees have ever done is a standard. They were phenomenal.’ She and Maurice had split up long before Saturday Night Fever made him a megastar, and he died in 2003.

Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles

Her eyes light up when he is mentioned, recalling perhaps that such a talent had treated her music with the gravity she felt it deserved and spent so long shooting for. As a sign of just how erratic her career trajectory was, in 1969 she also signed to Atco, part of Atlantic Records – her favourite label. She did two albums with Jerry Wexler, the man who steered the musical careers of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. This was, on paper, everything that Lulu had ever wanted, but the reality was far from perfect.

‘I don’t think they knew what to do with me,’ she says. ‘There is no great album there. Just a load of songs. No theme. No direction.’

She is equally dismissive of her Bond theme for The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974. ‘I was flailing about all my life, not knowing where to go. With The Man with the Golden Gun, I feel I did a [Shirley] Bassey impersonation.’ The same year she worked with David Bowie and recorded two of his songs – The Man Who Sold the World and Watch that Man.

‘I just thought I was anything but cool and he was a cool dude,’ she recalls. ‘He made me sing differently [here she breaks into “Oh no, not me” very deeply – other diners politely don’t look]. He told me to sing at the back of my throat and told me to smoke lots of cigarettes. Whatever he did, people liked it.’

Take That 

They might have, but again, she didn’t. ‘It wasn’t like listening to You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman or Ray Charles singing Drown In My Own Tears. But it was David Bowie and I think people got caught up with the whole idea of it – the opposites.’ They did two more songs in New York together after that, but she suggests they are unlikely to see the light of day.

In 1993, after several years out of recording, she signed to Dome Records and had a hit with Independence, which made Take That prick up their ears, and later that year they approached her to perform on a cover of the disco classic Relight My Fire. She was initially cautious – ‘They were little boys, I was 40 and I thought, my God, this is ridiculous.’ But it was a number one and she found herself offering them advice on sustaining a career. ‘Robbie Williams used to come to me with his poetry,’ she says. ‘He has a great way of thinking lyrically and expressing himself. The more he wrote with Guy Chambers, the better it got.’

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of her first hit. She’s admitted in the past that she finds ageing ‘tough’ and takes dance and Pilates classes to keep agile. Has she found her voice changing as she gets older? ‘Definitely. I go to a very good vocal coach. The one I go to is in New York and he does a lot of people. I’ve been to him four or five times. But I have him recorded on my iPhone on voice memo so I do my exercises. You don’t go to a teacher to learn to sing, you go to learn techniques to give you longevity. Like an athlete, you have to keep the muscles flexible and you’ve got to be strong.’

Before she goes, as energetic and mischievous as ever, she lets slip some fabulously indiscreet opinions about some acts who emerged at the same time as her and are still touring despite the fact, she says, that they are a mess live.

Did she ever think that she might have one hit single in 1964 and that would be it – missing out on what was to prove a fascinatingly erratic career?

‘Absolutely!’ she cries, her eyes now switched on full beam. ‘I’m still waiting to be discovered.’

Image: Lulu Spotted by Florence Lee

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