Sing when you're winning: One town, four pub singers, and the battle to make a living
Oldham is just one of many towns in the north-west with a grand tradition of pub singing. But, as the scene dwindles, what does the future hold for its entertainers?
It took less than a century for King Cotton to turn Oldham from a windswept Pennine village into an industrial powerhouse whose manufacturing prowess was unrivalled anywhere in the world.
At its height, 360 mills dotted the horizon. And it was not just cotton spinning – there was coal, too, and engineering. There were jobs galore. Platt Brothers, the world's biggest manufacturer of industrial machinery, employed 12,000 people.
The population grew 14-fold during the course of the 19th century, with eager workers drawn from all over Yorkshire, Lancashire, Ireland, Scotland and further afield.
With so many men earning wages in what could be hot, dirty and outright dangerous conditions, there was always the demand to slake a thirst and relax over a pint. Little wonder that as the factories and mills went up, every red-brick street corner seemed to sprout a pub.
And in those pubs, where the people of so many different regions and countries would meet, a new language developed – the language of song.
Oldham and its seven outlying townships grew a proud and independent tradition: somewhere which could look neighbouring Manchester and Liverpool in the eye as an equal.
A musical culture developed high up in the hills, centred on the pubs and its people.
It flourished around sport. The buses on the old A62 trans-Pennine route, before the advent of the motorway, would stop in the town centre every Saturday decanting thirsty rugby league-goers into waiting hostelries.
But much has changed. During the second-half of the 20th century, the mills closed as manufacturing declined. New waves of immigrants arrived from the Indian sub-continent, although many of these workers were Muslim and had little use for the pubs. Job losses also hit the licensed trade hard, along with the smoking ban and the rise of cheap supermarket booze.
Whereas once 200 pubs could be found in the town – up to a third are believed to have closed with a similar number now considered at risk. Yet although the future of the pubs may be in peril, the tradition of singing lives on, for now.
'In the Eighties, people would pay £5 to see you in a pub. Now, they won't pay 50p'
Anyone who has drunk in a pub or club in Oldham in the past 40 years will likely have heard of Morgan Fletcher. At 62 years of age, he is tanned, trim and can still pack a room, where he is not adverse to stripping to the waist and indulging in some old-fashioned hell-raising. "It's a cliché, but it's all about girls. I must have had the showing-off thing inside me from the start," he says.
When Fletcher first began singing, the town was a hotbed of visiting beat and folk groups. "You would see a band in the local youth club one week. The next week they would be on Top of the Pops," he says. "Oldham was a prosperous town. In 1967 it wasn't the case of can I get a job? It was what do you want to do?" What Fletcher wanted to do was buy a guitar and busk his way down to Cornwall. On his return he formed a band, but the advent of punk made long-haired Seventies guitar rockers unfashionable overnight.
He formed a successful touring duo with a drummer pal, and went on to put together Morgan's Every Which Way. By now, punk was dead and hair rock was back. It was a virtuous circle for bands and venue owners. "We were decent-looking young lads. The girls would come in to see us and then you get the blokes starting to make an effort as well," he says.
When the inevitable break-up hit, Fletcher struck out on his own, turning professional in 1996. There were so many venues and such an audience, there was no need to leave the town, he recalls. "I used to joke that if I couldn't see the venue from my bedroom, I didn't do it."
But tastes and times changed. As the factories and mills closed, so did the pubs. "I always used to say to the lads in the band that if I ever got like that [playing solo with a backing tape] then shoot me. But the rot had set in in the entertainment industry. Pubs said they couldn't pay us. In the late Eighties, people would pay £5 to see you. Now, they won't pay 50p."
Fletcher still sings for two and a half hours a night, spending half his time performing in Tenerife where he and his wife Adele have an apartment. Like others, he tried his luck on talent shows, in his case New Faces.
"I've had a cracking do: Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, I have had the best years. You look at what you have done rather than what you haven't. I'm getting out as the entertainment industry is closing down."
Andy Lee performing at the Central Conservative Club in Mossley (Gary Calton)
'When I do a pub, I'm a pub singer; when I do a corporate event, I'm a corporate singer'
Down in the recording studio beneath his house on the hilly edges of Oldham, Andy Lee is preparing for the future. After three decades singing in the town's pubs and clubs, he is about to be reborn courtesy of a long, curly, ginger wig which will give him the necessary tonsorial enhancement he needs for his latest act as Mick Hucknall singing the hits of Simply Red.
The 45-year-old father-of-two is all too aware that reinvention is the key to survival, if not success, in a live entertainment industry that is slowly dying.
"The trade is getting harder with so many pubs closing. The beer is too expensive. Everybody is watching their money. When you get to a pub and you have a glass of wine or a beer and that is £3.50 – you can get a crate for £20 at Tesco's," he says.
The dark-haired balladeer is one of the stalwart names on the local scene. Having honed his repertoire from classic pop and soul to the inevitable Michael Bublé, now that the drinkers are staying at home he is building a career in corporate entertainment, curating local festivals and singing at weddings.
"My grandmother always taught me a lesson, which is to keep your feet on the ground and never try and be something you are not, which I haven't. Never be scared as you get older. There may be younger people coming up, but can they stand the test of time? I've paid for my house. I have been making a living out of singing for 20 years. I've put a lot of hours and nights in and talked to a lot of people I didn't necessarily want to talk to – and I've worked in some real holes," he concedes.
Lee developed an early taste for performance. He attended the Oldham Theatre Workshop whose alumni include Anna Friel. He started DJ-ing in his mum and dad's pub and sang publicly for the first time at the Black Swan on Ripponden Road when he was still too young to order a drink at the bar. "I got a buzz. I thought, I quite like this," he recalls.
His last proper job was working the nightshift at the local Warburtons bakery before establishing himself in a number of successful double acts. In 2000, he went solo, seeking new markets for his talents with the encouragement of his wife Rebecca.
He still performs four or even five times a week. "All my Saturdays are gone for the whole year. I've worked on my show and I have got what I have got. I still enjoy doing the pubs. It doesn't matter what I do. I switch it on and I switch it off. When I do a pub, I'm a pub singer; when I do a corporate event, I'm a corporate singer," he says.
Yet although he has never struck the big time, he looks back on his singing career with pride.
"I was always told: you are already successful – everyone is successful. Being famous is being in the right place at the right time. TV is the same. I had my time. I was on Michael Barrymore's show My Kind of People. I could probably have done a bit better, but I don't have any qualms. I've made a really good living.
"I've seen pubs come and go around Oldham – too many to name. My advice is: work hard and go for your dream."
Louise Harper gets ready to perform at the Orrell Park Social Club and Ballroom in Liverpool (Gary Calton)
'There used to be a time when you could go in the pub and every singer was amazing. It was very special'
Louise Harper's ambition has always extended beyond the confines of her home town, where her family have been entertaining audiences for three generations. Last year, she tried her luck on The X Factor, having previously entered The Voice.
The niece of local comic legend Bobby Ball – one half of Eighties comedy stars Cannon and Ball – she had spent 18 years building a strong local reputation as a singer, songwriter and performer. But the reality of reality TV was completely unexpected. Not that the judges didn't like her. Gary Barlow told her "singers would kill for a voice like yours". Louis Walsh compared her to Melissa Etheridge, while Will.i.am called her "the bomb.com". But she did not achieve the breakthrough she so desperately wanted.
"I was a bit dubious about doing it. You hear all these rumours about how they can make you look. My story was that I am 35 years old and in the last-chance saloon," she says. Harper's family and friends travelled to support her at the first auditions of the ITV talent show, where she admits nerves got the better of her.
"My partner, Giles, believes in me more than anyone else. They watched it on a screen and my body language just went into itself. I was like a mouse when I am really this ballsy singer," she adds.
However, she still did enough to convince the judges to recall her for the Wembley Arena audition. But it was not to be. "Thirty seconds in, just as I was about to hit the really high octave note [in a cover of Pink's "Perfect"], Gary put his arm up. That was it. I asked him the reason and he said 'There is no reason'.
"I'm just too different. They wanted different and I gave them different. It was always my problem in life. People look at me and expect one thing and then I open my mouth, they don't expect it," she says. Looking back, it was a difficult time.
"X Factor hit me like a ton of bricks. My friends and family were crying when I came off. I hit rock bottom. It scared me how much I was affected. On the Friday, two days later, I was at St Jude's social club in Wigan. There was no one there and the guy paid me off after the first set. It was dead."
It is a far cry from her early days performing in the home-town duo, Halo, at venues such as the now demolished Bluebell on Broadway. "When you look back you see we had a right good laugh. We were in our twenties, people knew us all over Oldham – they would recognise us in the street. We could stay in bed all day. Our friends were bitter and jealous saying 'We are going to work'. We took advantage and spent all the money we made."
For the mother-of-one, who is now contemplating a career-move to London, it was a golden age for the town. "People came to watch you and they went out especially. It would be packed all week. They came to watch the acts, they came to be entertained. You don't get that now. Oldham is full of talent. There used to be a time when you could go in the pub and every singer was amazing. There was something very special. People would come from all over and they couldn't believe that every night there was so much talent," she recalls.
"I'm always told I'm very down-to-earth. If you take yourself too seriously people will think you are cocky and arrogant, but I am not very confident. I'm confident when I sing, but I can't even speak to someone on the phone. In the middle of gigs, I go and sit in the car because I don't feel comfortable talking to people."
Singer Miriam Gee photographed at her home (Gary Calton)
'I just enjoy singing. I enjoy entertaining people – to be paid for that makes me double-happy'
Miriam Gee has had two singing careers. The first was as a young professional artist in her native Philippines. From the age of 13 she would sing solo or with bands. "It was all I knew," she says. "There are a lot of singers in the Philippines. Most people are at their happiest when they are singing."
As a young woman, she toured the world with an all-female group, Silent Echo. "Living like a gypsy," they played venues across Europe, Japan and Iraq, where she met her future husband, who persuaded her to hang up her microphone and move to Oldham. "When I came to England in 1986, I didn't sing straight away because my husband didn't want me to any more. He was a very jealous person. I became a mother and did some qualifications, but then got divorced. I said 'I am on my own so get back to singing'. It is my first love," she says.
"After 11 years, it was a daunting experience to go back. I went on karaoke to see other people's reaction – to see if I still had it. I did. I always got the applause, so I got an agent and he got me one of his gigs and that became my regular one. The place was in the middle of an estate. The people there liked me."
Soon, she was performing again three or four times a week. Gee's specialities are the hits of the 1970s. Her encore is always Shirley Bassey's bitter-sweet anthem, "This Is My Life". It is a track she never grows tired of. "A lot of her songs I can really justify, but that one I really share the sentiment," she says. Despite her five-foot stature, the 56-year-old mother-of-two has a huge voice. Tina Turner and the late Etta James are her other musical heroines.
But though she looks back fondly on the glamorous days touring with her group, singing solo in England has proved a lonelier experience. "I have a few male singer friends – but ladies, no, I don't have any. The competition between the ladies is too much. You see a lot of bitchiness, I don't know why. To me, my style is my style and their style is their style. The pub owners book you for your style," she says.
Now, as Gee juggles her job as a full-time nursery nurse with an evening singing career in venues which are steadily reducing their appearance fees, she is planning to slow down.
"I just enjoy singing. I enjoy entertaining people – and to see them being entertained with my songs, and to be paid for that, makes me double-happy," she adds. Singing has, in the past, earnt her the unwanted attention of male audiences often the worse for wear. "When I was in the band I used to get marriage proposals – but would you ever get a decent guy who drinks in the pub every night?"
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