A proud Yorkshireman, Stuart Colman was one of UK’s most successful record producers, largely working with artists who shared his love for 1950s rock’n’roll. His long run of successes with Shakin’ Stevens included the No 1’s “This Ole House” and “Green Door”, both 1981, but the biggest seller was the Comic Relief single “Living Doll” by Cliff Richard and The Young Ones in 1986. Colman produced over 100 acts, creating 33 UK hit singles, 15 of which made the top 20.
There are two main, related themes to his work: one is the allure of that 1950s music and the other is the importance of music as entertainment. “I know rock’n’roll should never take itself too seriously,” he told me in 2003. “It is not art school and it has not gone to university. It is a fun thing and I try to inject fun into it. The TV producer Jack Good told me that he loved my records with Shakin’ Stevens because Shaky laughs and chuckles in them and you can tell he is having a good time.”
Colman was born in Harrogate in 1944 with a musical background, as his father, Walter, played piano and ran a dance band. Colman recorded The Walter Colman Collection in 1987, a charity album for his father’s church to mark his 80th birthday. In 1973 he married Janet Hyland. They divorced in 2002. The couple had a son and two daughters, who survive him along with Annie Shutte, who he married in 2010.
Colman started playing bass shortly before moving to Rugby in 1961 where he formed an R’n’B outfit, The Beat Preachers, who recorded for Pye as The Caribbean. Next came the hit-making Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours and, in 1969, they recorded “Smile a Little Smile for Me”, changed their name to Flying Machine and made the US top five. Colman moved on two years later, becoming the presenter of several popular radio shows including It’s Rock ’n’ Roll on Radio 1 (1976-1979) and Echoes on BBC Radio London (1978-88). He joined Capital Gold as the presenter of the Saturday Night Rock ’n’ Roll Party, and hosted their drivetime programme. He was well spoken with a friendly delivery and although not intimidating, he could be a voice of authority in a studio.
The BBC producer Dave Price showed Colman how to produce live acts in the studio and Sony invited him to produce Shakin’ Stevens, a Welsh rock’n’roller who had found West End success in Elvis. “It wasn’t rocket science,” said Colman, who also played bass on the sessions. “I got him some great players – Albert Lee, Geraint Watkins, BJ Cole, Mickey Gee – and everybody said yes because Shaky had a good reputation. I found him two or three good original songs, some fine oldies and chose a good studio, which was Eden Studios in Chiswick. And then the hits started coming. He turned to Freya Miller, who was Joe Brown’s manager and could get him on television. He was so good looking that he couldn’t fail.”
Colman produced Stevens for four hit-making years, but let him go because it was difficult to arrange sessions when he was touring non-stop. Colman had hits with the neo-rockabilly band, The Jets: “Yes Tonight Josephine” (1981) and “Love Makes the World Go Round” (1982). Very often Colman took middle of the road songs from the rock’n’roll era and transformed them with The Jets; hits from Johnnie Ray and Perry Como.
From time to time, Stevens dipped into the Billy Fury songbook, and so Colman was delighted to work with the real thing, although there were problems: “The sessions were a sad state of affairs because Billy wasn’t well. He was frail but his voice was immaculate and he was in wonderful form. When we cut ‘Devil or Angel’, he said, ‘I didn’t think I could sing like that anymore.’ If you listen to the first middle eight, he sounds exactly as he did when he was 18, and he was amazed that he could do that.”
Colman recorded a hit duet, “She Means Nothing to Me”, for Cliff Richard and Phil Everly, but his singles for the Liverpool acting family, the McGanns, and the Radio 1 DJ Mike Read didn’t take off. He also made an album, Rodeo Radio, with the London eccentric, Hank Wangford.
In 1984 Colman found Alvin Stardust a hit song in “I Won’t Run Away” from John David. “It was about a guy making a girl pregnant and promising that he would stick with her. It was heavy going for its time but it rang true with young ears. He sang it beautifully and it was a top 10 single.”
By 1986 Colman had his own studio, Master Rock, in Kilburn; the first record to be made there was “Living Doll”. The juxtaposition of the two acts was highly comic and Colman enjoyed hearing the public repeating lines from the record. He followed it with another comedy hit, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree”, revived by Mel Smith and Kim Wilde.
In 1986 Colman produced his ultimate hero, Little Richard, and the album Lifetime Friend was made in London. Colman encountered, as much as he anticipated, a character considerably larger than life. “To see him work in the studio was spine-tingling. He psyches himself into singing and it’s rather like watching a wrestler or a weightlifter.”
In 1987 Colman produced the music for an Elvis Presley special, Love Me Tender, for Central Television, working with Roger Daltrey, Ben E King, Duane Eddy and the Pet Shop Boys.
He worked with Mud and Showaddywaddy but their time had passed. He was luckier with Jeff Beck and the Big Town Playboys who combined forces for a tribute to Gene Vincent, Crazy Legs (1993). “That was Jeff Beck’s labour of love. He knew my reputation as a rock’n’roll producer and we recorded that album at the Town House in Shepherd’s Bush. It was a large studio with a trapdoor and in there was a giant reverb unit which hadn’t been used for years. It took several of us to get it working again. We got a delay and Jeff was delighted, but I didn’t want it to sound retro. We got a punchy, ballsy sound and it was a fabulous record to make.”
Colman felt he was running out of challenges and so moved to Nashville in 1995. He worked with many young acts and made an album, Too Much Monday Morning, in a barn on a working farm with Buddy Holly’s former group, the Crickets. He made albums with Connie Francis and Jerry Lee Lewis’s sister, Linda Gail Lewis, as well as western swing with Don Walser, pop with the Osmonds, and country with Crystal Gayle and Nanci Griffith. On most of the tracks, he was still playing his bass, which he always enjoyed.
Colman was divorced in 2002 and he returned to the UK, working with various artists but also compiling and annotating compilation CDs and writing for the rock’n’roll magazine, Now Dig This.
Ian Stuart Colman, record producer, born 19 December 1944, died 19 April 2018
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