Unsung local hero Gerry Colvin talks to Dave Woodhall.
Gerry Colvin has been a doyen of the Birmingham music scene for decades, first coming to notice with The Man Upstairs and then the cowpunk/skiffle duo Terry & Gerry. He’s done lots of other things as well, and with his own band he’ll be playing the Crescent Theatre on 23rd November.
That’s reason enough to get together and start talking about shared memories and mutual acquaintances. In amongst the reminiscing there were also a few questions, such as what Gerry’s doing with himself now.
“The Gerry Colvin band, which is normally a four piece, I’m still writing my own material, no covers. We’ve played America and go to Holland maybe twice a year.
“Holland is great, they seem to get my sense of humour. It’s got this system of music clubs, venues that are run by the local community and there’s a whole circuit of them. There’s one in the north near Gronigen which puts on music seven days a week so you can even gets gigs on a Monday night, which in Britain is difficult. They’re council backed and they get some sort of tax relief on taking European bands. They don’t call, they call it acoustic music or just music, it’s a very interesting and great place to go.”
I can imagine councils in Britain having a fit if they were asked to subsidise music venues. Closing them down, yes, but paying to keep them open? Certainly not round here. Coming from outside, you must have found Birmingham a strange place to try to enjoy when you arrived.
“The Man Upstairs got a record deal with Graduate in Dudley, so we moved to Birmingham to be nearby. The band evolved into a more laid back jazz style, I met Terry Lilley who was in Vision Collision, in the Prince of Wales in Moseley and after a conversation about Buddy Holly and the Everley Brothers we formed Terry & Jerry.
“It was a great time to be in Birmingham, there were some great bands and venues like Peacocks at the Imperial Hotel and then a couple of years later Dave Travis started promoting at Burberries. The mainstream pubs in the city centre were pretty dreadful – John Bright Street was a nightmare with the dress restrictions and the ten thirty closing.”
It’s often said that there were so few people controlling the city centre entertainment scene that they had no incentive to make it better because if you came in you had to give them your money anyway.
“That’s true, but it was so bad that it brought people out of the woodwork and places like Kings Heath and Moseley or Stratford Road began to come to life because landlords were looking to do something different for this scene. We also used to travel around to places like Stoke and Leicester, which got us out of Birmingham and helped make our name.”
“I was playing in The Man Upstairs and Terry & Gerry at the same time. I had to choose between the two and Terry & Gerry could pay the rent so that was who I stayed with.”
They were part of the cowpunk scene that was going at the time, and you certainly got some attention.
“We played The Tube, the Old Grey Whistle Test, we did a Peel Session. The Tube was fantastic, we were on with Cliff Richard and Killing Joke. We got that though Chris Phipps, who worked on the programme and lived in Birmingham. He offered us an audition, we did it in Terry’s living room and after thirty seconds Chris stopped us and said ‘You’re on next week’.
“We’d just got a deal with Vindaloo and in the same week we got a Peel session through an absolute fluke. It was two weeks of madness, we thought we were going to be the Beatles. We never did that but we had a good run until about 1989, 90 and we still get together now.”
Is it a myth, or did you have contracts that said you could charge promoters every time you were billed as Terry & Jerry?
“There is a grain of truth in it, but it was our agent who did that. We were always being called by the wrong nane – Terry and June was a good one – although I don’t know if anyone ever paid up.”
Again, as we keep coming back to, there was no exclusively Birmingham scene to be a part of.
“There wasn’t. There’s never really been a movement in Birmingham. Reggae and bhangra maybe but when Terry & Gerry were playing we were the only band doing this, nobody else in Birmingham was doing rockabilly.”
“The city’s scene has always been fragmented, there’s never been anyone to bring it all together. Dave I mentioned earlier, John Mostyn gave it a good go, Jim Simpson was rooted in jazz, Martin Horne did a lot to improve the city. And the number of free gigs does us no favours either, which is why I have a rule that I’ll never play anywhere that people haven’t paid to see music.”
“We have an audience who are happy to come along and pay fifteen quid a ticket and don’t think that’s a particular hardship. And you find these days that people will travel; I do a venue in the Lake District where two hundred people will come to this hall in the middle of nowhere. There are lots of opportunities at the moment with lots of venues and promoters.”
There are certainly some different venues being used locally. Your gig at the Crescent for example. That’s not really a place that’s on the live circuit.
“It’s a gorgeous building, it holds about 350. We’ve done the Kitchen Garden Cafe for the past ten years, we always pack it out and i thought it was time to do something different. We’ve got a string section horns, drums, a three-piece choir. It’s going to be a very different and surprising night. We’ve still got a few tickets to go and fingers crossed we’ll get rid of them.”
The Gerry Colvin Band plays the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham on 23rd November. Tickets