Live at Parky's pub: the fast lane to stardom

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The Independent Online

With its commendable but unexceptional range of hearty ales and traditional pub decor, some might baulk at paying £850 per table for a night out at the Royal Oak in the Berkshire village of Paley Street.

But then few rural boozers can put names such as the jazz star Jamie Cullum or Welsh soprano Katherine Jenkins on their list of live entertainers or boast Michael Parkinson as landlord.

When the avuncular chat show host bought the pub near Windsor in 2001 with his son, Nicholas, a Savoy-trained chef, he said he intended to use it for "a quiet drink with my friends". Three years later, it has become an unlikely showcase and proving ground for the hottest talents in Britain's burgeoning "easy-listening" music market as it aims to satisfy demand from middle-aged consumers, who now buy more CDs than teenagers.

The normally sedate gastro-pub has turned into a key venue on the live music circuit after record company executives desperate to find a space in Parkinson's schedule (and a slot on his primetime BBC Radio 2 and ITV shows) offered to bring their performers to his door. From Cullum and Jenkins, who between them have sold some three million records, to rising stars such as Lucie Silvas and James Morrison, the "guest band" chalk board at the pub has carried some of the most lucrative names in mid-market music.

The result is that on more than 20 nights a year, regulars nursing their pints find themselves sharing bar space with a long line of A&R men looking to sign the next chart-topping act.

Such opportunities do not come cheap. A forthcoming performance by Peter Grant, the latest youthful crooner to hit the big time after playing at the Royal Oak, costs £850 for a table of 10.

The profits from the performances, either in the pub or an adjoining marquee, go to a charitable trust set up by Parkinson, who lives nearby in the village of Bray, for a school in South Africa.

Nicholas Parkinson, who manages the pub and its 40-seater restaurant when not moonlighting as an impresario, said: "It started when Universal Records wanted to showcase some of their artists for my dad in London and he couldn't come along because of his busy schedule. So instead the idea came that they bring their performers down here. Jamie was one of the first ... He was still an unknown, dad invited him on to his radio show and then he took off. Now we have the record companies phoning up to send their people down. They book a table, bring down some journalists ... It's become an important part of what we do."

Other musicians who have gone on to greater things after a night at the Royal Oak include the jazz vocalist Clare Teale, who signed a seven-figure recording deal with Sony BMG, and Grant, whose debut album last year won him plaudits as a successor to Harry Connick Jnr.

But with 45 per cent of all CD purchases now being made by the over-40s and the easy listening and classical "crossover" market worth more than £230m in Britain, established performers are keen to secure an audience with the Royal Oak's regulars. It is also a draw for veterans of the live circuit - forthcoming shows by Tony Christie and Chris Rea have already sold out.

Alan Bates, the head of Candid Records, which originally signed Jamie Cullum, said: "It's become essential promotion for any artist. The rich and famous feel relaxed there and the beauty of it is that it's an archetypal English country pub."

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