Lead singer with Mud
Tuesday 24 February 2004
Thomas Leslie Gray, singer: born Carshalton, Surrey 9 April 1946; married; died Largos, Portugal 21 February 2004.
Les Gray was the lead singer of Mud, one of the most successful bands of the Seventies, whose hit records included "Tiger Feet" (1974), "Lonely This Christmas" (the Christmas No 1 in 1974) and "Oh Boy" (1975).
"I don't know why we called ourselves Mud," said Gray in 1994,
but I know we wanted one short word like The Who or Them because it looks so good on posters. If you're on a festival with a lot of acts, you want big lettering and you don't stand a chance if you're called the Incredible String Band. Mud was also a funny name and we knew we would get all the "Mud in your eye" and "My name is Mud" jokes.
"Tiger Feet" spent four weeks at the top of the charts in 1974. "Mike Chapman played it to us on an acoustic guitar and I thought it was a terrible song," said Gray:
It was just "That's right, that's right, that's right" but, by the time we had worked out the arrangement, it was very strong. That riff at the start had a jazzy feel to it: it was played on a fuzz guitar but a trad band could play it. When we did it on stage, the reaction was incredible. Even now, if I go "Yeaaaah!", people will go "That's right, that's right, that's right". "Tiger Feet" is only a load of geezers shouting at the top of their voices, but it worked, my God, it worked.
Gray was born in Carshalton, Surrey, in 1946. He was influenced by a cousin who played him a 78 rpm of "Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley and he loved Presley's early films like G.I. Blues. While working in London as a copywriter for the cinema advertisers Pearl and Dean, Gray played with different bands around Mitcham, Surrey and eventually, in 1966, the four-piece Mud was formed, with Rob Davis (lead guitar), Dave Mount (drums) and Ray Stiles (bass). They made their first appearance together at the Streatham Ice Rink.
Their first single, "Flower Power" (1967), was released for the Summer of Love and was produced by Junior Campbell of Marmalade; it was followed by a vocal version of the poem "Up the Airy Mountain". "We had taken the poem and put a tune to it," Gray said in 1994:
It was a needletime hit. Nobody bought it, but it was played a hell of a lot, and this helped with gigs. It's a good example of our
approach, actually. We would do anything if we were going to be a wee bit different and cheer people up.
As a semi-pro band, Mud was working hard, so when they made it, said Gray,
it wasn't a shock to our system, as we were doing gigs five or six nights a week and we had daytime jobs. We had five years of working hard every night. We might even do a social club in the early evening and then a cabaret club at midnight. All I remember now is humping the equipment around.
In the late Sixties Mud appeared on Opportunity Knocks but came second. Their many other television spots included Crackerjack! and The Basil Brush Show. Gray said,
We would do anything, because we wanted to work. We never said, "We're rock and roll, we don't do that." It's entertainment and besides, I loved Basil Brush!
"I think that remark sums up Mud," says Mike Brocken, Senior Lecturer in Creative and Performing Arts at Hope University in Liverpool:
Their early records sound like Edison Lighthouse and you can sense that they were waiting for something to happen. It was fortuitous for them that Glam Rock came along when it did. They were Glam Rock without actually being a Glam Rock band, and their records are so indicative of the era that anybody should be able to date them straight away.
In 1972, the owner of RAK Records, Mickie Most, saw Mud at the Revolution Club in London, backing and also supporting Linda Kendrick. He wanted to sign them, but they had a contract elsewhere. Once they were free, they called Most. He asked the songwriters and producers Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman to see them. Chinn says,
We didn't get it right at first with "Crazy" and "Hypnosis", although they were hits. They had tango beats and they would not have been a big band if we had continued like that. When Sweet turned down "Dyna-Mite", we gave it to Mud and that went to No 4 and established the style.
Then in 1974 came their massive hit with "Tiger Feet". Chinn comments,
Of course "Tiger Feet" is repetitive but it sounds so good and is so memorable that it made the song. Sometimes you repeat things because there is nowhere else to go and that is what happened there. Amateur songwriters often write too many lyrics, which is a big mistake, because the public don't remember many words.
This was followed with "The Cat Crept In" (which went to No 2) and "Rocket" (No 6), and the group also had a big-selling album with Mudrock. Gray said,
I didn't mind miming on Top of the Pops as we could work out dance routines and some sort of a gimmick, and there was Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust, Sweet, Slade, Suzi Quatro and us all trying to outdo each other. We were mates, but the competition was fierce.
After the Christmas extravaganza in 1973, with hyperactive hits from Slade and Wizzard, Mud had their Christmas No 1 in 1974 with a ballad, "Lonely This Christmas". Chinn, its writer, says,
It was Mud parodying Elvis Presley, and some people did think it was Elvis at first. Les did a great Elvis on that. We didn't write it that way, it was just how he saw the song.
I was doing an Elvis on that but it was really a send-up of all those smoochy songs. It works because it can also be taken seriously. I remember playing it on tour and some of the fans were crying and others were laughing.
In 1975 they had their third chart-topper with a revival of Buddy Holly and the Crickets' "Oh Boy!" Gray admitted:
We stole the idea completely from Steeleye Span. They had recorded an a cappella version of "Rave On", which we loved. We felt we could do something like that as a relief from all the rock'n'roll stuff on our albums.
"Oh Boy!" was recorded as an album track for Mud Rock, Volume 2, but Mickie Most told Gray he had other ideas:
We had finished our deal with RAK and we were moving to Private Stock for more money, and Mickie Most said, "'Oh Boy!' is going to be your last single with us." We thought he was trying to destroy us for leaving him, as it didn't sound like a single. When it went to No 1 within a fortnight, we realised that Mickie Most knew a lot more than we did.
Mud had further hits with "L'L'L'Lucy" and "Show Me You're a Woman". Gray was disappointed that Mud's version of Bill Withers' "Lean On Me" didn't reach the top in 1976 but by then, punk was making its presence felt, which made Mud look outdated. "That could have been a factor," said Gray,
but I think we got too big for our boots. We were thinking we were Steely Dan and we
should have stuck to being a pop band. We made some records that were pretentious. I left the band at the end of 1978 and then Jack Good asked me to take part in a revival of his TV show Oh Boy! on stage at the Astoria and then it was a TV series with myself, Lulu, Alvin Stardust and Shakin' Stevens. It Stevens. It was all Fifties rock'n'roll and I remember Jack driving me around London in a pink, open-top Cadillac and saying, "This is what being a pop star is all about, old chap."
As a solo artist, Gray revived "A Groovy Kind of Love" (1977) and "What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?" (1977) with moderate success. He appeared on Top of the Pops with a full orchestra and performed "A Groovy Kind of Love" live and "it was the first time I had been without my mates and I had never been so frightened in my life."
In 1981 Gray recorded "Rock on Elvis" under the name Tulsa McLean:
When Elvis died, I got about five phone calls asking me to do some sort of tribute and I wouldn't do it, it's cheap, I would feel like I was thieving something. Later on, when Gidea Park did "Beach Boy Gold", we arranged an Elvis medley and it worked out very well. I called myself Tulsa McLean after his character in G.I. Blues. I thought I did a good job but [the Radio 1 DJ] Mike Read sussed it was me. He played it on Radio 1 and said, "That sounds suspiciously like Les Gray to me." I don't know whether that killed the record, but it didn't sell.
Later, Gray formed Les Gray's Mud with members of Sweet and Liquid Gold and played nostalgia shows. "I don't care where I play," said Gray.
Gerry Marsden won't work in a club where he doesn't have his own toilet, but I couldn't care less who sees me having a pee.
When Gray contracted throat cancer, he gave up performing, but he refused surgery, which would have ruined his voice. Although chemotherapy left him unable to sing as he had before, he had planned to make a final appearance with Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers and Alvin Stardust at a huge charity concert, "Blast From the Past", at the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow this Saturday.
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