BARBARA COMES TO TOWN
She first came to wide public notice in 1974 as the strong-voiced singer whose interpretations of Beatles songs helped to make the stage play "John Paul George Ringo... & Bert" so memorable.
Soon after, she had hits with "Answer Me", then "Another Suitcase In Another Hall" (from "Evita"), "Caravans" from the soundtrack of the film of that name, and "January, February".
Meanwhile, she was appearing on TV as the guest of such as The Two Ronnies, and making increasingly popular concert tours. In 1980, "The Barbara Dickson Album" won a gold disc, and its 1981 successor, "You Know It's Me" was very well received.
This year, her success has reached another level, with the platinum status of "All For A Song", which combined four of her most popular singles with seven new tracks. Aided by a well-planned and executed promotional tour which lasted some few months, the album outdistanced all her previous efforts and saw her at or near the top of the charts for weeks, as area after area of the UK saw the TV advertising, heard her on their local radio stations, and duly went out to buy the record.
Now Barbara Dickson is in the middle of a tour to play for all those hundreds of thousands who bought the record, and on June 28 (at The Dominion) and June 29 (at Wembley Conference Centre) she reaches London. I spoke to her at the beginning of April, when the tour was in the early planning stages, and the platinum album was just announced.
Had she always intended to become a singer? "Oh no, I came from a background, a housing estate in Scotland, where one didn't have any aspirations towards showbusiness, it just wasn't possible. My mother has always been very enthusiastic about music, with the radio and records always on, so I grew up with it all around me, but I never had any confidence, not that sort of pushy personality which would guarantee a place in an audition or anything. I could never claim that I went to drama school and always dreamt of being a star - not at all.
"I left school and got a job in the Civil Service, and just started singing as a hobby. I was singing in folk clubs and such."
What decided her to take it up full-time? "I didn't. What happened was that I was offered some work in Denmark, and I couldn't get leave from the Civil Service, so I resigned. I gave up my job, and found myself unemployed for about two months. Now the person who got me out of that was Hamish Imlach.
"He was incredibly kind. He trailed me around with him, getting up and singing at his gigs, really a plant in the audience, and then he'd say to the promoters, very subtle this, 'If youse don't book her I'm not coming back here.' He used his own ability as a crowd puller to help me. I understand he did something similar for John Martyn. He was responsible for getting me established in English folk clubs, and for my meeting Willy Russell, so he's really responsible for my having a career.
"Archie Fisher was another who was a great help. You see at the time, in Scotland, if you weren't telling jokes, just singing and playing guitar, people got a little bit bored perhaps. They were a bit blase. I just could not make ends meet in Scotland."
For a woman so clearly in charge of her own destiny, Barbara is remarkably ready to acknowledge the help of several men in her career so far, and none more centrally than Bernard Theobald, her personal manager for ten years, and her partner in Theobald Dickson Productions.
"He just came up and introduced himself to me at a gig. He said 'I don't think you should be playing these places. You should be where lots of people can see you because you're very talented'. That is really the first requirement for an artist and manager, if the manager really enjoys the artist's work. I started with him, I've never had another manager, and really we grew up together. At the time he had just finished agricultural college, but he was already a bit of an entrepreneur, he had the character it required. I've always thought he was really clever, lots of personality, shouting and all that. I've always liked somebody strong to do the business, so we've had that respect for each other's strengths."
At the time when Barbara first read "John Paul George...", she was staying with Willy Russell and his wife, and he asked her if she'd like to see his newly-finished commission for the Everyman, Liverpool. "I went to bed and stayed up till 4.30 in the morning reading it, I couldn't go to sleep without finishing it, and I was laughing most of the time through it. But the next day I just said that I liked it very much and gave it back, and went off to my next show.
"About a month and a half later Willy rang Bernard and said he wanted me to do the show, but I couldn't, I'd never sung Beatles songs, and so on. Bernard then said to me, 'Don't be so weedy, go and have a go.' So one Saturday afternoon I went and auditioned, by myself, sitting at the piano in the theatre, playing all the Beatles songs in the keys that I would do them, and afterwards Willy said 'You must do it.' So I was nudged, persuaded, really."
Having had that sort of success in a musical, would she like to go back into the theatre? "I'm interested in the theatre, yes, but not in musicals. "John Paul George..." wasn't a musical, it was a play with music. I don't like all the hoofing around you get in musicals, but something serious with music would be nice. It wouldn't really matter if it was in revue, as long as it was intelligent. I get very bored with the sort of mindlessness of a lot of entertainment, and I won't get involved in anything at all crass."
What does she feel about live work? "It's the best thing. I'm a concert animal, I like having control - which is of course why I'm so particular about stage work I like the idea of acting but only if the right part comes along - and on this tour I'm going to have to find a new keyboards player, since I lost mine to Sheena Easton. I like to keep the same line-up. I've had this one for three and a half years, a long time in this business.
"I hand pick my players, they not only have to be good, but versatile, sing well and really nice people. I can't handle problem people in the band, there just isn't room for that when you are on tour. I don't behave like a superstar; I'm part of a team on the road, and it's just like any other team, and I demand that from everybody else. I don't change much for each tour - just my costumes, the staging and the material. A four piece band suits me. I don't want a huge band with backing singers, horn section, all that."
What about material - does she have much submitted to her? "There are stacks of songs coming in all the time, and I listen to everything, but I have to admit I've never used anything. Well, I do sing one, but only in concert. I've never recorded it. I don't know about my own songs. My idea of a good tune is one that someone can whistle up a ladder, without needing the arrangement and all that - something very simple and terribly clever, like 'Mull of Kintyre', the sort of thing that makes you want to kick yourself for not having written it yourself. If a tune is good anyone can sing it, I mean look at Stevie Wonder's songs, he gets Frank Sinatra singing them."
A final comment on concerts? "I started out, cut my milk teeth on, playing live, and I'm used to playing to small audiences, in an intimate atmosphere. I still try to get that atmosphere, so that people can relate to me and I to them. I'm not a superstar, a marble goddess or whatever, some kind of fantasy. I know I like performers who are genuinely talented and who have a spark of something that gets over to me, and that's what I try to do in my shows, which are after all the only real test of whether what I'm doing is working or not."
"What's On In London", June 1982