Simply Red – Biography 2009
Photographer: Hamish Brown
| This year Mick Hucknall celebrates 25 years of unbroken service with the band he founded, fronted and named. Simply Red emerged out of the streets and clubs of Manchester in the post-punk era of 1984 and within 12 months were riding in the British charts.
The original line-up of singer Hucknall, bassist Tony Bowers, drummer Chris Joyce, guitarist Dave Fryman, keyboardist/singer Fritz McIntyre and horn player Tim Kellet became regulars on the thriving club circuit and soon caught the attention of record company scouts on the hunt for new talent.
Executives at the UK arm of renowned US label Elektra were the most persistent – and most generous – and Simply Red found
themselves with a major record deal within six months of starting up and on their way to a recording studio with ace American producer Stewart Levine.
At this point the band experienced their first change as guitarist Sylvan Richardson replaced Dave Fryman during the making their first album Picture Book which was released in October 1985 and climbed to number two thanks to the top 20 success of debut hit Money’s Too Tight (Too Mention).
While four more tracks from the album made minor indentations on the chart, it was a song Hucknall wrote in his bedroom which announced Simply Red’s arrival in the big time. While Picture Book peaked inside the US top 20, Holding Back The Years found its way to the very top of the American singles chart in July 1986 while in the UK, on its re-release six month after peaking at 51, the record climbed to number two.
While album number two – Men And Women – featured the same band with the addition of horn player Ian Kirkham and vocalist Janette Sewell, a new producer in the shape of Alex Sadkin was at the helm for the March 1987 release. A new writing team also appeared with Hucknall sharing the credits with Motown legend Lamont Dozier while tracks by Cole Porter (the classic Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye) and reggae legends Bunny Wailer and Sylvester Stewart augmented Hucknall’s solo efforts.
Boasting four chart singles, Men And Women became Simply Red’s second successive UK album to stall at number two. It also took the band back on the road and following major UK, European and American tours, they broke new ground in Australia, Japan and New Zealand. In fact in 1987 Simply Red spent nigh on nine months on the road, playing an impressive 120 live shows.
Simply Red’s third album A New Flame was issued in February 1989 and it signalled another breakthrough for the band which now sported Heitor T.P. on guitar. After topping the UK album chart for the first time, Simply Red’s version of the Kenny Gamble/Leon Huff soul classic If You Don’t Know Me By Now swept to number two in the UK but went one better in America. Topping the US singles chart for the second time put Simply Red alongside fellow British acts such as John Lennon, David Bowie and Queen.
The quality and success of the new album – it sold a million in the UK and over 6 million worldwide – also heralded the band’s move from club and theatre dates to major arenas including playing to 60,000 people in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Between October 1988 and March 1990 Simply Red once again set off to conquer the world, playing 140 shows along the way. At the same time Hucknall was planning the band’s fourth album which would again break new ground.
Stars was the first album to feature a collection of songs written entirely by Hucknall and while eight were solo efforts, two were created with fellow band member McIntyre. With three top 20 hits – Something Got Me Started, Stars and For Your Babies –the band’s fourth album was again produced by Levine who had returned to the fold on A New Flame. It also featured new bass player Shaun Ward and percussionist Gota alongside Hucknall, McIntyre, Kirkham, Kellett and Heitor.
For band leader Mick Hucknall and Simply Red, Stars became an album of truly classic proportions. In America, where it wasn’t considered radio friendly, the album still managed sales of 700,000 while it topped the 8 million mark worldwide, including over 4 million in the UK.
While the album Stars was a genuine global triumph and the accompanying tour – taking in places like Israel, Greece and Singapore for the first time – attracted over 1.5 million people, it was in the UK where new records were set. It topped the album chart on five separate occasions for a total of 12 weeks, spent 134 weeks on the chart, was the biggest selling album in both 1991 and 1992 and earned the band BRIT Awards and World Music Awards for Best Album.
It would now be a further four years before Simply Red returned with a new studio album but a highly regarded live EP recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1992 earned them new fans and kept them in the charts.
In 1995 the album Life became Simply Red’s third successive chart topper and it heralded a change in the band’s line up as Kellet and Ward departed and reggae stars Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakepeare and Bootsy Collins augmented the regular line up in the recording studio.
Finally Simply Red also claimed the elusive number one spot in the UK singles chart thanks to Fairground while three other tracks, including We’re In This Together, the official song for the Euro 96 European football championships, also charted. The accompanying Life world tour ran through 1995 and 1996 and brought new bassist Steve Lewinson and vocalist Sarah Brown into the group.
Despite some initial resistance from Hucknall, 1996 saw the release of Simply Red’s long awaited Greatest Hits collection and the 15 track album meant another number one for the band plus the specially recorded top five hit Angel, featuring the considerable talents of the Fugees.
The line up of Simply Red took on a totally new appearance for the 1998 album Blue which was destined to make it five number one albums in a row plus a further four hit singles including Hucknall’s Say You Love Me and the pop classic The Air That I Breathe.
While McIintye and Heitor moved on, so Gota returned as co-producer together with Andy Wright and Hucknall under the banner AGM.
Although the band made only three appearances during 1998 – all in London – they returned to full-time touring the following year, covering South Africa, Europe and Latin America.
As Simply Red neared the end of their long and successful relationship with Warner Music and East West Records, the label they switched to in 1991, they managed one last album for the corporation in the shape of Love And The Russian Winter which delivered a further two chart singles.
By 2002 Hucknall and his management team of Andy Dodd and Ian Grenfell had created a unique and ground-breaking business model in the music industry under the banner simplyred.com which oversaw the band’s recording, touring, merchandising and sponsorship activities. It was an alternative way forward for a band which had collected more than 130 platinum and gold sales awards from around the world.
Home was the first release from the radical new set-up and Simply Red created an album which peaked at number two in the UK and delivered four more hit singles including the top ten hits Sunrise and a version of the Stylistics’ hit You Make Me Feel Brand New. The success of Home earned it the accolade becoming the biggest selling independently released album globally in the history of the music industry.
Following the hugely successful World tour around the Home album, Hucknall continued to search for new challenges for his established team of eleven players. In 2005 he went to work on a Latin inspired unplugged album entitled Simplified which, for the second time, utilised Hucknall’s new home-based studio and led into a series of prestigious Albert Hall dates in London and a major European tour.
The top three UK album and European top ten hit featured Perfect Love and the double A-side Something Got Me Started/A Song For You as single releases before Simply Red – featuring long time players Ian Kirkham, Dave Clayton, Chris De Margary, Dee Johnson, John Johnson, Sarah Brown, Kenji Suzuki, Pete Lewinson, Steve Lewinson, Kevin Robinson – returned to the studio to record the 2007 album Stay.
It was released following concert dates in the UK, Europe, Australia and Canada and Simply Red’s tenth studio album in 22 years made it 10 top ten hits in a row with an impressive number four placing. The album featured Lady – Hucknall’s first joint composition with Jools Holland – and a cover of the inspirational Ronnie Lane song Debris.
Ever anxious to stretch himself musically, Hucknall embarked on debut solo effort in 2008 with his tribute album to the great soul singer Bobby Bland which he followed with a few select Tribute To Bobby concerts ahead of more Simply Red gigs throughout Europe and the UK.
In the run up to Simply Red’s silver anniversary, Hucknall undertook the unenviable task of producing the ultimate Simply Red collection. Released in November 2008, ‘The Greatest Hits 25’ double CD features the top 25 Simply Red tracks from the past two and half decades and includes a brand new cover version of the Moody Blues 1960s smash hit Go Now.
For a band with all-time worldwide sales of over 50 million and 30 top 40 UK hits to their credit – in addition to having played over a 1000 concerts to more then 10 million people – Simply Red are set to create more records with their Greatest Hits and the 2009 world tour.
Back in 1985, in his group’s first official press biography, Mick Hucknall confidently predicted “it’s just the beginning.” Now let’s hope that, despite recent question marks raised over the future of the band, the 25th birthday celebrations don’t bring the curtain down for the last time on Simply Red.