Chris Rea: Confessions of a blues survivor

Chris Rea tells Keith Shadwick how illness led him back to his musical roots

Chris Rea's down-home qualities and all-round good bloke demeanour were strongly in evidence when he ran through the music from his new CD, The Blue Jukebox, at Bush Hall in Shepherd's Bush, London, recently. Playing music that owed more to blues traditions than anything else, his onstage manner suited the old blues phrase "he never said a mumblin' word" as he and his group worked purposefully through the tunes. On that particular night Rea was not only in fine form vocally, but was playing sumptuous slide guitar of a suppleness and individuality beyond most guitarists, which-ever side of the Atlantic they live. Intrigued, I drove to in his Cookham studio complex, in Berkshire, for the interview.

Chris Rea's down-home qualities and all-round good bloke demeanour were strongly in evidence when he ran through the music from his new CD, The Blue Jukebox, at Bush Hall in Shepherd's Bush, London, recently. Playing music that owed more to blues traditions than anything else, his onstage manner suited the old blues phrase "he never said a mumblin' word" as he and his group worked purposefully through the tunes. On that particular night Rea was not only in fine form vocally, but was playing sumptuous slide guitar of a suppleness and individuality beyond most guitarists, which-ever side of the Atlantic they live. Intrigued, I drove to in his Cookham studio complex, in Berkshire, for the interview.

Chris Rea is a bluff speaker and generally a diffident interviewee, only relaxed when not answering the usual straitjacket interview questions, so we talked about things in music he loved. He spoke of an abiding passion for the blues, but also about hearing music when he grew up that ranged from opera (his father, an Italian seaman who settled in Middlesbrough, was a major Wagner fan) to light orchestral classics. This, as well as a temperament that looked naturally for assurance from others, dictated a music career that led him far away from his original inspirations.

"I do have this big weakness", he said as if admitting to a secret vice. "I over-cooperate with people. People say it's because I'm Irish-Italian from Middlesbrough, and me dad was always like that, y'know - 'get the job done'. So when a record company man would say 'For the Swedish version we need to sweeten that up' I'd say 'OK. You can do that'. Then the Swedish version would become the UK version. Millions of weird things like that happened."

This weakness led to his finding both fame and fortune in the 1980s and 1990s The Road to Hell and its follow-ups, but by the time the previous century came to a close he felt he'd lost his way. He'd also committed the cardinal sin for a musician who really cared about music: he'd lost interest in what he was doing.

Then he got very ill indeed, and nearly died, needing major surgery to remove a tenacious cancer. "For a long time afterwards", he remembers, "I was so weak, I couldn't do anything." Around that time his record company had been agitating for him to plan a "duets" record with various rent-a-voice stars. It was a well-tried formula that'd worked for many others. "They offered me millions", Rea recalls, incredulous at the memory. "I might have gone along with it if I hadn't been so ill. I just couldn't do it any more. I'd been so ill, and so weak. I have to be honest and say the change was enforced on me by the illness.

"It's hard to explain, the effect of something like that on someone who writes a song every day. And then you can't even get up. Your life's for ever changed. In all this extended recuperation through a long summer, I'd do little things like clear out a drawer in a cupboard, and I'd come across things from my past. I found an old Sister Rosetta Tharpe album in the bottom of a drawer and I burst into tears..."

Prior to this, in hospital, Rea had experienced a sort of musical epiphany. "I was in hospital for months, and I was tubed up for over a month. They were giving me very heavy morphine... and someone brought me in Kind of Blue [the Miles Davis classic]. I probably wouldn't have played it but I was just like, nothing: incapable. And I put it on and paid attention. Then I started to really like it, then I got a book on modulation... I became quite obsessed with that record. I could even hear them moving in to the microphone to play."

It stayed with him after he checked out. "These days I'll get home, take a canvas out [Rea is now a prodigious painter] and on goes Kind of Blue. I think it's the purest piece of music I've ever heard." All this long process of illness, operation and recovery made Rea face up to what really mattered to him, in life and in music. This in turn led to him deciding to stick to his own musical beliefs in future. He rejected the "duets" idea and returned to his own musical roots by deciding upon a blues-laden album called Dancing Down the Stony Road, much to the horror of his then-record company.

"If the heads of all the music companies had known about music and about Chris Rea fans, they wouldn't have worried about Stony Road. My regular fans have always known that side of me... I knew they wouldn't have a problem with it. So I made Stony Road anyway. All the record companies rejected it. I was very pleased when it eventually went gold."

I asked Rea whether during those years of compromise he'd had pride in what he was doing. "Yeah. It hurt. But y'know when you write something like 'Josephine', and you go 'OK this is a blues song'... that was the Intercontinental Düsseldorf, a Wednesday night at the start of a tour and I was feeling well down. The rhythm track for that song is supposed to be the Yellowjackets, Weather Report, and it grooves like hell, to me. But it didn't groove the way the business wanted it in those days. There was a lack of perception... maybe it was too subtle, but no one picked up on that groove then. It hurt."

This led me to observe that he may be an unwitting participant in this process. The set I'd seen him and his band play in Shepherd's Bush was memorable, not only because Rea himself was clearly inspired, but because his band was rock-solid with him, providing the exact level of support. It didn't come across that way on the new album, The Blue Jukebox, even though Rea himself had overseen its production. "That's my fault", he admitted. "That's why I've never made a live album - I can't bear listening to myself! I was born in the overdub years. I wish there wasn't such a thing as a multitrack tape player, because what you heard would be the record."

Maybe next time that's exactly what it'll be. If so, we'll all be the beneficiaries.

'The Blue Jukebox' is out now on Jazzee Blue

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