In 1960 RICKY VALENCE had a number one pop hit with 'Tell Laura I Love Her". In 1998 he sees his first CCM album released. David Waite reports on the pop singer's long road home.
In 1960 pop music in Britain stood at a crossroads. The wildmen of '50s rock (Elvis, Little Richard, etc) had been all but tamed and the Beatles were still to emerge from the dark maw of the Hamburg nightclubs. A lot of the British pop acts were still locked into the system operated for decades by Tin Pan Alley, with music publishers ensuring every new American hit was covered by a UK young hopeful. Onto Britain's pop scene was released a record by Ricky Valance, a moody looking newcomer from South Wales who took a rock ballad on its way to selling a million in the States for Ray Peterson and came up with a doomy, angst-ridden rendition of the song which shot all the way to number one in the UK charts. What caused the song's huge notoriety was its lyrics. For "Tell Laura I Love Her" was a death record recounting a mournful tale of a teenager's undying love for his sweetheart Laura with lines like "And as they pulled his body from the twisted wreck/With his dying breath they heard him say/Tell Laura I love her." Today Ricky has made a most unusual comeback. His ICC album 'The Way Home' is a gospel project produced by Paul Field. I spoke to the veteran singer about his past and present.
Ricky Valance was born David Spencer in South Wales, the eldest of seven children, and his early life could justifiably be described as hard. The local youths formed themselves into gangs and violence became a way of life. In spite of the fact that he attended the local chapel, where his love for singing was nurtured, he had several scrapes with the law. One such incident, for which Ricky was falsely accused, resulted in him being sent to an approved school for 18 months. "It was a difficult time, when I was separated from family and friends, although my mum used to come and see me. I'd decided to steer clear of any more run-ins with the law, and so, after trying one or two jobs, I joined the RAF at the age of 17." But Ricky's love of music, and of singing, was working away in his heart. And his mum was giving him all the encouragement that she could. She had wanted to be a singer in her youth but had not found it to be possible, so there was no way she was going to stand in his way.
Moving to London with his wife Evelyn and with a lot of hope in his heart, Ricky was soon picking up engagements in the clubs and nightspots of Yorkshire. He was spotted -and signed - by bandleader Syd Phillips, securing a position on the ladder of success. "It was about that time that I signed up with EMI," said Ricky. "They offered me the song 'Tell Laura I Love Her' to record, but frankly I didn't think I could improve on the version that had already been released in the States. Then it was suggested to me that I sing it like a hymn. I realised that it could be sung in that way and it seemed to work well. Everyone was pleased with the final result."
Problems lay ahead though, which would ultimately work to Ricky's advantage. In the early 1960s standards and attitudes towards many things were completely different to how they are today. Subjects like death were not mentioned in polite society and the word God was only used in the most reverential terms. So because the song dealt with the death of a young man in a motorbike accident, the all-powerful BBC decided to ban it. But most of the youth of Great Britain tuned their transistors in to Radio Luxembourg, a station that was more than willing to spin this disc. Requests for the tune to be played kept coming and "Tell Laura I Love Her" sped to the top of the charts, beating Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and Roy Orbison, remaining in the charts for many weeks afterwards.
"I started to go on tour after the record was released, both in this country and abroad. It was good fun, but really tiring. We seemed to be at one end of the country one day, and the other the next! But we were all young and having a great time. Looking back though it must have taken its toll on all of us. At least I knew how to look after my voice, as I had had singing lessons since I was a youngster."
Travel became a way of life for Ricky, but not without a price. Over the years that followed he was involved in two car accidents, together with a coach crash, from which he and his family emerged unscathed. Add to that the time that he almost drowned, and it's not surprising that he started to think about the meaning of life. Finally, all the various things that he had experienced started to catch up with him, with devastating consequences. "I was driving to an engagement one day when I started to shake quite violently. I managed to pull the car over to the side of the road, wondering what on earth was going on. I didn't know it at the time, but it was the start of a nervous breakdown, which left me with severe bouts of depression. It was like going through Hell," continued Ricky. "I experienced fear, loneliness and desolation in a way that I wouldn't wish on any other person. Words can't really describe what it was like."
It was during one of these low times that Ricky visited his local golf club. Teamed with a man he hadn't met before, he apologised for not feeling too much like talking. In order to explain why, Ricky told the man, whose name was Brian, about the nervous breakdown. Ricky had no idea that Brian was a committed Christian and an elder of one of the local Christian fellowships. Brian told Ricky about his faith and offered to pray with him, before inviting him to his church the following Sunday.
"I went out of curiosity the first week," said Ricky, "but the people there showed me such kindness that I found myself going back, again and again. Then I was invited to attend an Alpha course which the church was running, which is a programme designed to introduce people to the Christian faith. It was following that course that I asked Jesus to take full control of my life."
Priorities started to change in Ricky's life, although he candidly admits that not all his problems disappeared overnight. In fact, he still suffers from depression occasionally, but now knows that his life has a real purpose. Ricky takes every opportunity to talk - and sing - about his faith and for the last 18 months has been performing at gospel outreach concerts where he shares his dramatic life story and sings a selection of gospel and country music including a few favourites from the '60s. Appearing in everything from theatres and large concert halls to small churches, it is sharing his personal faith that really matters to Ricky during these outreach concerts and he makes himself available to chat to as many people as possible after the performances.
At the beginning of the year Ricky and his gospel manager, Marilyn, met with ICC to negotiate his first Christian album. Entitled 'The Way Home', it showcases Ricky's distinctive voice and gives him a chance to sing some Christian standards like "One Day At A Time" and "I Saw The Light" as well as singing two brand new songs especially penned for him by the increasingly sought after singer /song-writer Paul Field. The songs, "All This Time" and "Into The Light", show how able Ricky is at interpreting new songs as well as their more established ones.
Since becoming a Christian, Ricky has been baptised. He prays regularly and reads the Bible, finding it easier to focus on small sections at a time. "I can honestly say that I feel that Jesus is directing my life now," he said sincerely. "The most important thing now as far as I am concerned is doing the Lord's work - he must come first in my life. And I guess one of the ways in which I can serve him best is through my musical ability."
Show business has been kind to Ricky, so I wondered what advice he would give to any youngster contemplating a career in that particular field. "Find something else to do," he said, laughing. "No. But seriously, it really is quite a tough business and although the pressure was bad enough when I was starting out, it's so much worse now, with drugs and sex and everything else that people associate with the show biz scene. But I guess at the end of the day if people have a burning desire to sing, like I did, nothing will stop them and I would at least suggest that they get to know how to look after their voice, if they plan to be a singer or actor, and they take time to learn their craft."
So what has Ricky discovered since becoming a Christian, I wondered. "I've started to understand myself more and found that I don't need to be so hard on myself. If God forgives me for the things I do, then I need to be able to do the same. And I guess it's made me see others in a different light too. But what I don't still quite understand is why so many Christians behave like they belong to a secret society? Why don't they go out and tell others the Good News? Also, I've noticed how some Christians can get into an argument about what a particular Bible verse means, when it's what Jesus did for us all on the Cross that really matters."
When Ricky is doing one of his gospel outreach concerts he always includes his most famous song. "People expect me to sing 'Laura' wherever I go and I understand that. On the other hand, I now put a couple of Christian numbers in my secular act, which the public love. It's my way of saying how important my faith is to me now."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.