You to me are everything….the sweetest song that I could sing.
Liverpool has always been a groundbreaking city when it comes to music and culture and the city’s black musicians have long had a respected and popular narrative to be told — as our Head of UNESCO City of Music Kevin highlights.
“Liverpool is a city that is rightly proud of its incredible diversity. We celebrate our status as a port and the mix of cultures that’s a direct result of this. Historically we were once seen as the gateway to the world and that’s why we have Europe’s oldest Chinese community, and why we have long established African and Caribbean communities. We have enjoyed generations of Irish immigration here from those escaping the potato famine in the mid nineteenth century through to people like my Mum and Dad who came here in the 1950s to find work and ended up exchanging the picturesque farmland where they’d grown up for the dockside bleakness of beautiful Bootle.
The city’s cultural offer generally does a pretty good job of reflecting this amazingly rich mix of people, their stories and their histories but if we are honest there are some major gaps. A couple of things prompted me to write this piece. The first was the Black Lives Matter movement and some subsequent conversations I’ve been involved in with colleagues on the Music Board and through a panel discussion I chaired recently as part of the LIMF Presents…Music City: Next Phase event. The questions that keep coming up are along the lines of: why haven’t there been more musical success stories from Liverpool’s black communities and what can we do to change this? Why don’t we make more of the success stories that we have had? And why when we ‘sell’ the city as a music and cultural destination don’t we make more of the huge contribution made by the city’s black musicians.
The failure to give due credit to the black music that has emerged from the city is most obvious in the case of The Real Thing and it is timely that the BBC are showing Everything, a documentary about this ground breaking group this weekend. But it does beg the question why they aren’t front and centre when we celebrate Liverpool’s musical greatness? I love Billy Fury, The Beatles, and Cilla as much as any Liverpool music fan and it is fitting that they all have city centre statues dedicated to them. But where is equivalent tribute to the Amoo brothers?
Hopefully the BBC’s screening of the Everything documentary will help a wider audience to realise not just how brilliant a group The Real Thing were but their overall importance for Liverpool music and for black British music generally. They were, as they say themselves, pioneers in soul, funk, and dance music. They were the most successful black British group of the 1970s with a string of hits including the gorgeous You To Me Are Everything which provided Liverpool with another Number One single in 1976. They were a group that were proud of their roots in Liverpool 8, going as far as to name their second album 4 From 8. This album contained the wonderful Amoo brothers track Children of the Ghetto, a beautiful song and a powerful piece of social commentary that’s just as relevant now as it was back in the 1970s.(It is such a great tune that it has been covered by musical giants like Mary J Blige and Courtney Pine but do yourself a favour and listen to the original version). Hopefully you will watch the documentary, discover or rediscover how good The Real Thing actually were and wonder why we don’t hear more about their remarkable career. The last time I saw them was at a joyous homecoming performance at LIMF a few years ago when they brought a smile to everyone who was lucky enough to be in Sefton Park that day. Sadly Eddie Amoo and Ray Lake have now both passed away but Chris Amoo and his childhood friend and fellow founder member Dave Smith continue to perform, showcasing the amazing legacy of what are one of Liverpool’s most overlooked musical gems.
A previous band of Eddie Amoo’s, The Chants, are often neglected too. They didn’t have the success of The Real Thing but had an important role to play at a time which music fans generally only associate with The Beatles and other Mersey Beat groups. The Chants were a vocal harmony group who according to some stories impressed Paul McCartney so much when he saw them that he invited them to audition at the Cavern where The Beatles themselves backed them on stage. They put out a number of records but failed to achieve the success they deserved. You can easily find plenty of their music online so have a listen. A favourite of mine is I Could Write A Book which apparently The Beatles voted as a hit during one of their Juke Box Jury appearances. I was lucky enough to get to know Alan Harding from the band years later when we played five a side together every week and I’d always try to tease the odd story from him about those days.
The Beatles never hid the fact that their major musical influences were black American musicians. Indeed renowned Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn in his Tune In book conducts a detailed examination of how deep these influences ran throughout the group’s career. Much closer to home there’s a great 1990s Granada TV documentary called Who Put the Beat In Merseybeat which does a neat job of showing how The Beatles were also strongly influenced by the music they heard being played by local black musicians as well. Joe Ankrah (another family strongly associated with black Liverpool music) is filmed recalling the actual incident where The Chants ended up being championed by and ultimately backed on stage by The Beatles themselves.
L8 and the South End of the city seemed like a world away from where I was brought up in Bootle. For those of you who have never had the pleasure Bootle was a white working class area, and when I first started making journeys into town with my mates in the late 1970s it was a markedly white city centre. This was particularly true when you looked at the nightlife and night clubs of the city centre where local black people were often not welcome or weren’t safe. From those days I only remember a few places, like Kirkands on Hardman Street, where there was a mixed crowd. People from L8 simply didn’t come into town to party as the recent exhibition, Black To The Future, put together by Ray Quarless and the Heritage Development Company Liverpool, evidenced in fascinating detail. It tells the remarkable story of how the local black community established their own clubs in L8 from the 1940s onwards : places where they could party, play music, drink, dance and socialise away from the dangers and often overt racism they would face in the city centre.
The Time Piece, a club on Fleet Street often comes up in these discussions. It was apparently the only club in Liverpool playing black music in the city centre during part of the 1970s with DJ Les Spaine seen as being a hugely influential figure. It is one of those places that is talked about with great affection by anyone who ever went there and its story is told in a great documentary called Back To The Timepiece. (There’s another documentary that Yaw Owusu, co-writer of this piece was involved in producing called L8: A TimePiece which is well worth checking out too on Vimeo).
I started writing about Liverpool music for publications like NME early in the 1980s with the odd exception (including an interview I did with a young Craig Charles in 1982) there was very little coverage of any black Liverpool music. Later in the 1980s Liverpool once again tasted major success with The Christians who had a string of hit singles and a million selling debut album in 1987. They had a sustained period of mainstream success and Gary Christian continues to tour and release records with the band to this day.
Outside of the mainstream success of The Christians the 1980s/early 90s was a period when a few really interesting groups emerged from Liverpool. I had a particular fondness for Bantu, who I saw loads of times and got to know a little bit. They were hip hop outfit who were articulate, inventive and incredibly powerful initial. There was a real buzz about them for a time but the initial industry interest waned and sadly came to nothing. At the time I suspect the UK audience only really wanted to hear hip hop that came out of the US. I remember their then manager Hambi persuaded them to do a Friday night residency for a month in Marsh Lane Community Centre in Bootle. Outside of the band themselves I was probably the only person that attended all the gigs. Bootle at that time just wasn’t ready for Bantu, but the circumstances of the gigs prompted a couple of memorable performances there. Meanwhile Lloyd Massett who had provided his bass playing/songwriting prowess to a number of other Liverpool groups was a having a shot of his own with Raw Unltd. As with Bantu it wasn’t to be. An initial flurry of interest resulted in a record deal for the group and there were a couple of releases (and a great Apollo 440 remix) but it all came to nothing. There was a decent local reggae group around this time as well, called Jah Deanko who I reviewed a few times but who ultimately failed to make a mark and disbanded. It was the same situation with a group of MC’s who were making a bit of a name for themselves in the city at the time but never seemed to break out.
So why hasn’t Liverpool had any success with music from the black community since the days of The Christians? It is a question that is even more puzzling when you think about the sort of music young people in Liverpool and elsewhere are listening to and buying today. I haven’t got the stats to hand but music of black origin must easily be the biggest selling/streaming music of the last ten years. As a city we continue to produce loads of guitar bands, some of whom go on to have success at varying levels with a lucky few developing proper careers in the industry. But this just isn’t happening with music from our black community and there must be a reason for this.
Rebecca Ferguson managed to breakthrough ten years ago but achieved this via the X Factor route which isn’t a vehicle that is available to many and certainly doesn’t have the influence now that it did when she was runner up. Fortunately, Rebecca was talented enough to use this lever to sustain a career unlike many previously winners/finalists.
Mic Lowry are another local group who have a huge profile nationally and internationally but are little known in their home city. Developed initially with support from L8 based organisation Positive Impact they went on to sign to Universal, win a MOBO award and support Justin Bieber on a European stadium tour. Chelcee Grimes is another major talent we don’t shout enough about. She tends to get mentioned more for her football career but as well as being an artist in her own right (signed to RCA) she has written songs for many major industry names including Dua Lipa, and Kylie Minogue. Then you have XamVolo — an artist that started his career whilst here at University and quickly went from a total unknown to being signed by Decca Records and gaining some acclaim within the Jazz-Soul world with about 24 months. While Jetta — who was born and raised in Liverpool — had a song produced by Pharrell Williams on the back of having her song used as the theme of the Super Bowl in the U.S — she is now signed with 3Beat.
Around the Capital of Culture years, Liverpool boasted awesome raw black music talent — KOF, Esco Williams, Future and Janiece Myers. All these artists at various times were being supported on national and international radio, performing across UK, Europe and the U.S and were selling out shows in Liverpool. 10 years later, none are as active as artists anymore — apart from Mic Lowry.
Interestingly in recent years there seems to have been a more concerted effort to ensure better diversity in Liverpool, especially within the music talent development area. Perhaps the frontrunner in this has been the LIMF Academy; the talent development arm of the Liverpool International Music Festival. The Academy helps emerging artists and bands from across Merseyside in many ways, including mentoring, bursaries and showcases. Over its 7 years it has supported thousands of artists but notably has managed to attract and help many diverse artists and bands, with higher than average successful applicants from underrepresented groups. In fact, many of the black music artists that have gone on to crack nationally have come through or been a part of the Academy system including XamVolo, Sub Blue, RVHEEM, IAmKyami and Tee.
In 2019, Levi’s launched their latest iteration of their successful music talent development programme in Liverpool; Levi’s Music Project Liverpool, ran out of the Liverpool Lighthouse, was a diverse music programme but undoubtably had an Urban music slant, perhaps due to it being headed by UK rapper, Loyle Carner. Usually the project is headlined by an artist of said genre from the city hosting it. Again, the will was there but the flagship talent to be the face of it wasn’t. However the project did unearth some really exciting Urban artists — among other genres I must say — that show signs of being able to break out of the grassroots scene such as Remee, SSJ and That’s Juvey.
Right now Liverpool’s black music talent is at its most exciting and bountiful it has been in the last decade. Sure it’s raw, but Aystar, Tremz, SSJ, Sub Blue, Tee, Podge, RVHEEM and Nak (to name a few) could stand next to any emerging talent in any scene in the UK based on talent. Both Aystar and Tremz have a huge national following — with co-signs by some of the top artists in the scene. Tremz even has Drake courting him for a collaboration. Sub Blue has worked with multi-Grammy winning music producers. The talent is there. The question is whether this talent will fare better in establishing themselves solidly amongst their peers who are reaping the fruits of an Urban music hungry industry. There lies the challenge. We cannot let them experience what similar artists from that scene have experienced over the past 40+ years.
As we move forward the city definitely has work to do to ensure greater parity between artists and bands from the black music scene with artists and bands of other genres. A simple benefit will be a greater richness and diversity in our music scene and hopefully prevent the constant talent drain. Long term, if we can help these artists to continue to create, grow and have success — and be celebrated for that success — the scene should grow and that helps everyone. So how do we do that? Well right now the LCR board — among others — are having a go at tackling this. One of the proposed measures include looking at how black music, both contemporary and historical, can be incorporated in the City’s music narrative and given its relative kudos. Another is giving greater support and investment to black music creatives AND professionals and also improving the provision and engagement with emerging black music artists. However it will take a full sector effort to make sure change is fully committed to and plans delivered on to make a sizeable change. It’s a challenge. But one that is not just overdue but necessary.”
Kev McManus, Head of UNESCO City of Music with contributions from Yaw Owusu, LIMF Music Curator