Tony Cummings spoke at length to ukulele maestro STEVEN SPROAT about his long career in music
There can be few musicians in Britain, apart from Steven Sproat, whose talent has so often NEARLY brought fame and fortune. He has made critically acclaimed singles and albums, appeared on TV's The One Show with Nicky Campbell and the Alan Tidmarsh Show; received radioplay on BBC Radio 2; toured supporting Jools Holland; and written bestselling music books. Yet neither fame nor fortune has come to this charming music veteran and he has no delusions that the release of his latest album 'Fruit For The Soul' is likely to change anything. He said, "I'm just happy to be using my God-given talent and recording some of my songs. I've been making music for a long time now. I have certain creative standards and have always tried to make the best music I can. Have my efforts been successful? Well, that depends on how you measure success. Is it numbers and figures? Or is it the heartfelt appreciation of someone connecting with the music you make? I once read this thing in a book: There are very few people that see beautiful flowers on the tops of mountains. They are still there - no less beautiful and in some ways they may be more beautiful because they stand out more than in a park - but there's only a few people that climb a mountain that will ever see them. Finally it's not about how many people see them."
Steven's long musical journey began in Durham where he was born. His father, though not a musician, instilled in the young Steven an interest in music. "Dad would insist on playing cassette tapes on long holiday journeys from Durham all the way down to Bournemouth, and he would play this guy called George Formby, who played this strange thing called a ukulele - actually a banjo-ukulele. You hear so much music, after a while you start to like it or you never want to listen to it again. I asked my dad, 'Who's that? What's that instrument he plays when he stops singing?' Dad said, 'It's a ukulele. Do you want me to get you one one Christmas?' So sure enough, one Christmas there was a very basic ukulele, and I took it from there."
Another influence on the young Sproat was the Salvation Army. He explained, "At the age of five or six my mum had a good friend who was a Salvationist. I've got to be honest, we didn't always want to go, but we were frogmarched off to the Salvation Army in a place called Leadgate, which is in County Durham. I'm from a village called Lanchester, quite near. For years and years we were in the singing company. It's easy to knock things like the Salvation Army: their style seems to be a little bit old fashioned or out of kilter with today's kind of music. But there was something about the rhythm and there was something about the sincerity of the music - and some catchy songs, to be honest - it must have had an influence."
Having briefly attempted to learn to play the cornet at the Sally Army, Steven showed more interest in his recently acquired ukulele. "My dad took me to somebody who claimed to be a ukulele teacher who really wasn't. However, she did teach me about keeping time and the importance of rhythm, which were important. It wasn't until I joined the George Formby Society back in the '70s that I met some other lads my age playing ukes and I thought 'that's what I want to do'. What happened was that I learned what I wanted to learn Formby-style. I copied his records, I listen to how he played and slowed the records down which you can do with the old vinyl."
George Formby was an unlikely musical hero for the young Sproat. In the war years Formby's mix of comedy and self-written songs had made him a huge star. But tastes changed as Steven explained, "By that time rock and roll had crept in and George Formby was deemed to be pretty un-hip, uncool. The strange thing is that when you think about how well known he is now 50 years after his death - you just have to do a search on YouTube and you see how many hits he's had, you think of some of the adverts on the TV that use Formby records. Last year I had the privilege to meet Gilbert O'Sullivan, he's one of my heroes as well. I went to Gilbert's house, and there in one of his music rooms was a George Formby record. I HAD to ask him about that. He said, 'There's so few artists that are not influenced by him, because he was so unique.' Not everybody likes it, I appreciate that - not everybody likes the banjo ukulele to start with - but Formby was a unique talent. OK, he was a bit smutty: some of the lyrics make you cringe. When you think about, some of those lyrics in the 1930s would have been absolutely shocking; in fact a few of his records were black listed by the BBC. 'When I'm Cleaning Windows' was banned."
When Steven left school he was adept at the ukulele and played a few gigs in working men's clubs. But his musical tastes were changing. He admitted, "I started to go off the Formby thing and started getting into contemporary music. David Bowie was a huge influence; I mentioned Gilbert O'Sullivan, he was too. I started to get into punk, I got into new wave, and I wanted to write my own songs. I took up guitar fairly late, about 17, 18; and I didn't start writing songs until I was probably 24, 25. For a long time I didn't even play the ukulele, because it felt so out of fashion."
With a strong voice and a developing ability to write melodically strong songs Steven began to dream of making a living in music but he found it hard to get gigs. Finally in the late '70s his efforts to land a fulltime job in music paid off through the distinctly uncool route are becoming a Redcoat at a Butlins holiday camp. Said Steven, "I cringe somewhat when I tell people I've been a Butlins Redcoat. I was paid to be an entertainer near Scarborough. I did a lot of shows, the cabaret, mainly doing ukulele: I wasn't doing any guitar stuff then. When I moved to Bournemouth I was trying get work within radio stations with a guy that used to write jingles. So we were trying to get work within radio, and we were doing cabaret at the same time. I did get some gigs but it was very lean time - actually so lean that's how I became a Christian. Things got dramatically bad in lots of ways: the money dried up, almost being kicked out of somewhere to stay, not having food in the pantry. Went to church for all the wrong reasons but in the end it came good."
Memories of his life-changing encounter with God are still vivid in Steven's mind. He recalled, "I was sharing a flat with a friend who wasn't a Christian, and I remember waking him up at two o'clock in the morning and saying what an amazing experience I'd had. It felt like I'd had a ray-gun of love into my heart. I almost felt like my spirit was above my body: it was like an out of the body experience, but it was so real. I remember the next day thinking I wanted go out on the streets and tell people, because this is unbelievably real. Of course, my mate, who I was sharing a flat with, didn't quite see it that way. Even though I'd gone through some pretty tough times, I always look back at that and think, 'I can never deny that happened.' That's helped me through a lot."
In Bournemouth Steven met a girl who had had an equally dramatic conversion experience. Romance bloomed. "She was involved with the New Romantics, she knew about a lot of bands going round at that time - very famous people. She had her own little world as well, she was a fashion model; when she became a Christian that made people think, 'What is this? Is this something we need to know about?' But it was a very slow process: nothing seemed to happen for a long time. We ended up getting married, and we actually went to a Bible college. That was down in Cornwall called Harvest Bible College and it was near Redruth. It was one of these very practical colleges: it wasn't theological, like you would come out of there with a PhD, it was much more about relationships, how to help people in hospital, how to stand up in the pulpit. We'd moved to Redruth while we were at Bible college, and from there we went to work for a church in St Albans in Hertfordshire. It was an Elim Pentecostal church and we were helping the minister - kind of like 'assistant pastor' but it wasn't quite as grand as that. We were just trying to get experience. In that church there was a lot of hospital visitation, a lot of practical visitation with people that had needs. I started to get involved with some of the worship, and I did start to get involved with a bit of preaching; I've never done any since, but music became the thing that I wanted to get into. I started very slowly to get into writing songs and recording."
Sadly Steven's marriage wasn't to last. After his divorce in 1984 many of his songs took on a sad, reflective quality. By the late '80s Steven had written and recorded a large number of demos. He remembered, "I did an album, a demo tape really, called 'There's More To Life'. On that tape was a Christmas song called 'Put The Christ Back Into Christmas'. Severn Sound, the radio station of Gloucester, were the first people to play 'Put The Christ Back Into Christmas'. It was quite a controversial song but it was also quite catchy."
Another demo-come-album followed, 'Straight Down The Line' in 1990. Slowly but surely Steven was gaining a reputation as an excellent singer/songwriter playing numerous pubs, wine bars and the occasional festival. Singles "Thus Lovers Dream" (1991), "This Love Is Here To Stay" (1996) and "Coming To Your Senses" (1997) followed. His beautifully crafted acoustic pop recordings praised by Sound On Sound magazine who in 1998 wrote, "As for the songwriting, Steven's Crowded House-influences certainly show, but the songs can still stand up for themselves. Melodic, with clever and interesting lyrics, they have that air of melancholy." In 1999 BBC Radio 2 finally got to play a Steven Sproat song though it was a 10-year-old track!
Steven explained, "There was a thing on Radio 2 called Where Are You Now?, presented by Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart. Someone had written in who liked the song that I'd released years ago called 'Dance With Me'. The BBC tracked me down and Stewpot played the song!" Encouraged by the interest in his catalogue Steven put together a selection of his recordings from his albums 'Straight Down The Line' and 'There's More To Life' together with singles and demos he recorded between 1988 and 1997 and released two compilation albums 'So Far So Good' and 'Coming To My Senses'. 1999 was a busy year for the songsmith. He made a fresh attempt at landing a hit single and released the double A side "The Big Picture" and "This Christmastime" (a reggae rhythmed version of his "Put Christ Back Into Christmas" oldie). But despite distribution from Apex/BMG it failed to sell.
His failure to catch the ear of mainstream radio understandably affected Steven. He admitted, "I've had this on-and off relationship with music for a long time. I think a lot of musicians are like that. If you've got an artistic temperament which I think I certainly have, you get these moments where you think you're the greatest songwriter on the planet, then you get the downside where you think, 'why bother?'"
By 2004 he was bothering again. He recorded and released the album 'Tomorrow's Road'. It was produced by Dave Pickering Pick, the talented studio man once responsible for UK Christian music hits for Eden Burning. Cross Rhythms were particularly enamoured with the song "You (Turn The Light On)" which it described as a "sunny melodic opener". The track got considerable Cross Rhythms radio airplay and was subsequently released as a single. Then, in 2006, a most unexpected set of events set the veteran singer/songwriter off in a whole new direction.
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