Trevor Grills: Tenor singer who helped lead the sea-shanty revival with Fisherman's Friends

 

Given the illustrious maritime history of the British Isles, the sea shanty revival spearheaded by Fisherman's Friends, the 10-strong vocal group from the picturesque north Cornish fishing village of Port Isaac, was long overdue. Jon Cleave, the bald, moustachioed MC and bass singer, might have been the most visible member of the ensemble, the one best able to reflect on their continuation of a long-standing tradition and their repertoire of occasionally lewd material, but Trevor Grills, who has died after suffering severe head injuries at a venue in Guildford, Surrey, last weekend, was the tenor singer whose voice sent shivers down the spine of many a listener.

The accident, at the G Live concert hall on 9 February, involved a heavy steel door which collapsed on top of Grills and also caused the death of their tour manager, Paul McMullen, who was killed at the scene.

I first came across Fisherman's Friends at a concert headlined by the Devon-based acoustic duo Show Of Hands at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2001, and watched their slow but steady ascent from warm-up act, via a guest appearance as the majestic "Haul Away" choir on "Roots" by Show Of Hands in 2006 and three self-released albums, to a £1million deal with Universal Music three years ago.

Recorded in a 15th century church in St Kew, the Port Talbot's Fisherman's Friends album was scheduled to be issued on their Marine label when the Radio 2 disc jockey Johnnie Walker tipped off Universal Music's David Clarke, who signed the group. Their Universal debut made the UK Top Ten and was certified gold – sales of over 100,000 – soon after its release in April 2010. The following year they were presented with the Good Tradition Award at the Radio 2 Folk Awards "for keeping folk music alive and bringing it to new audience."

They also were the subject of a one-hour documentary broadcast on ITV1, appeared in a TV commercial for a frozen fish product, performed on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury for the second time, and published a collective autobiography entitled Sailing At Eight Bells, the true story of the ten Cornish seadogs who took the world by storm (Simon & Schuster).

Their heart-warming story continued with the announcement that a biopic based on their remarkable rise would be produced by the revived Ealing Studios, and helmed by Nigel Cole, the Devonian director of the similarly-themed, feelgood, ensemble comedies Calendar Girls and Made In Dagenham.

Born in 1959 in Port Isaac, Trevor Grills attended the local school and Methodist chapel, and took over his father's building and carpentry business. Most days, he could be found, tools in hand, fixing a roof or renovating one of the old cottages that have become in-demand holiday homes for well-to-do outsiders.

Nicknamed "Toastie" because of his rugged good looks, he was a quiet and shy man who took a while to come out of his shell and sing lead with Fisherman's Friends. The group started informally in the late 1990s, and, as well as Cleave and Grills, comprised three brothers, John, Julian and Jeremy Brown, Billy Hawkins, John Lethbridge, Peter Rowe, Nigel Sheratt, who "all grew up within half a mile of Port Isaac", and John McDonnell, originally from Yorkshire.

Three were fishermen while several served as coastguards or lifeboatmen, and naturally embraced the traditional harmony singing of nautical worksongs that reached its apex in the 19th century but has remained a constant in Cornwall, Britanny and other seafaring communities.

Shanties have enjoyed occasional revivals in folk and rock circles through the Beach Boys, who, like Fisherman's Friends, adapted "Sloop John B", Steeleye Span, the Pogues – and the Sex Pistols, who included the bawdy traditional drinking song "Good Ship Venus", aka "Friggin' In The Riggin'", on The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle soundtrack, but Fisherman's Friends were the genuine article, even if they described themselves as "blokes of a certain age who can sing and one or two who can't."

Grills enjoyed singing a cappella with the close-knit group but had to be coerced into taking the lead on the "bloody miserable songs" ideally suited to his clear tenor. Most notable of these was the lament "The Last Leviathan", which Fisherman's Friends recorded on their Suck 'Em And Sea album.

It remained a cornerstone of their live set, as when he last appeared with the group, again with their friends Show Of Hands, at London's Royal Festival Hall on 3 February. The lyric of the protest song about the hunting of whales reads like a fitting epitaph to this self-unassuming man.

"My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding ,
My heart it has been rent and I am crying,
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming,
I am the last of the great whales,
And I am dying."

In a tribute to Grills on their website, Fisherman's Friends said: "Trevor was a much-loved and valued friend to all of us and was an integral part of the Port Isaac community."

Pierre Perrone

Trevor Grills, singer, carpenter and builder: born Port Isaac, Cornwall 2 January 1959; married (three sons); died London 11 February 2013.

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