I became a lounge-singer at 15 years old…
My first professional singing engagement was as a singer-pianist at a restaurant called JB’s near Birmingham airport. It was 1989 and my sister, Liz, had taken me to its nightclub where diners would go to after they’d finished their meal. As part of the venue’s regular schedule, they held a weekly ‘grand’ karaoke night. Liz was always persuading me to sing for everyone. She was proud of me and loved singing and music herself but was always pushing me into a spotlight whether I wanted to be there or not. She was like an artist’s manager taking me around to different venues often visiting more than 1 karaoke bar on any given Saturday night! At home, of course, we were normal siblings who would nag at and get cross with one another on a daily basis about the VERY VERY important teenage crises like fashion, makeup and boys! She loved karaoke – loved all the songs and watching people. Her party piece was Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ and she still struts her karaoke-stuff with that number! She would often persuade me to get up on stage but deep down I did it willingly because I had become quite shy in my early teens and knew I had to get over that if I was to have a career as a singer. And that was the ONLY thing that really mattered to me – to be able to sing professionally. Any Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin songs would normally be my choice but any of the big anthemic numbers had the best crowd reaction.
One evening whilst we were at JB’s ‘grand’ karaoke evening, the manager of the club took an interest ‘after Liz had told him I also played the piano. It was late but he asked me to perform a couple of songs at the piano in the closed, darkened restaurant and others who had been watching me sing at the Karaoke wandered in and gathered around the piano as I sang for him and them. He asked if I fancied working there at the piano entertaining his diners?! Would I? Everyone cheered, my sister gushed and I needed to get home immediately to build a repertoire of suitable songs to play for his discerning crowd! The following week I began and guess what – he paid me £20 a night! I was THRILLED! £20 for singing? I would have done it for free!
I only had about 10 songs performance-ready. Beverley Craven’s ‘Promise Me’, Oleta Adams, ‘Get Here’ and Gloria Estefan’s ‘Don’t Wanna Lose You’ were my top 3 but I needed more! An average pop song is just over 3 minutes in duration so I needed over 30 songs to fill a 2-hour stint. And apart from school-concerts, I had never performed to the public before – how would I cope with that!? So as my sister was whooping and celebrating that I had my first ever job singing and that she should take a cut (?!) I was busy working out a longer repertoire that was suitable for a fairly smart pre-nightclub restaurant! What I kept reminding my sister quietly behind closed doors and what the nightclub’s manager didn’t realise was that I was only 15! I was at school! I shouldn’t have been at the nightclub and nor should my 17-year-old sister. We’d kept that bit quiet – “in the name of singing, music and performance..!” and to avoid getting TOTALLY told-off! However I was tall and looked older than I was and being given my first professional singing role was all part of my master plan – to get as much experience as early as possible so that one day when I arrived in London I would get the record deal I’d always dreamt of and spend my life singing amazing songs! What I didn’t realise when accepting that 1st job, was that my journey to Rock Choir was beginning and that everything I experienced good, bad, exciting and sometimes horrendous helped me reach the REAL life plan and that was Rock Choir!
At 16 years old….
Within a few weeks of performing at JB’s restaurant, I was approached by a man who said that he’d heard that a nightclub in central Birmingham was looking for someone like me to entertain their guests. The nightclub was called Liberty’s on the infamous Hagley Road. It had a minimum age entry of 25 but my sister and her friends took me up there for the audition anyway. (We all told age-fibs that night! Sorry Liberty’s! It was again in the name of singing, music…..) The dance music pumped and vibrated through the floor as hits like Salt N Pepper’s ‘Push It’ allowed very sweaty gyrating individuals to get their groove on! I found myself auditioning at another baby-grand piano, a white one this time, in the restaurant situated in the middle of the vast labyrinth of the very busy club. It was intoxicating and exciting but totally intimidating. I was still 15. I wasn’t allowed to be there. Surely someone would realise?! As my group headed for the dance floor on cue (with Heavy D and the Boyz), “Now that we found love what are we gon-na do- with it…?” they left me with the management to sing and play. During my very brief interview I told them I was 25 and grimaced under the surface as I was never dishonest and in turn felt bad to be deceiving someone who was giving me a job BUT this was an opportunity to develop my craft and if he had known I was 15 there would have been no way I would have got the job. He asked how much I charged and I replied £40! I held my breath! That was DOUBLE what I was earning at the restaurant. But would he go for it?!? My best-friend was earning £25 working at Boots on a Saturday so I knew I would be in a terrific position with £40. “£40 it is! Can you start right now?”
So I started singing that same evening, simply carrying on after the audition with my favourite pop songs from the decades competing with the blasting music the DJ was hitting the movers and shakers with through the internal glass windows. I remember watching some very colourful individuals swaggering in and out of the restaurant area stopping at the champagne bar and then back to that dance floor. When it came to closing-time the manager met me at the piano and walked me through the club’s labyrinth to the private basement where we stood in the huge office with an old-fashioned safe reminiscent of something from The Godfather. “£40” he reminded himself – as he turned and reached into the safe. I was very uncomfortable. What had I got myself into? He handed me a stack of notes from inside the safe. “£40?” I replied looking at all the cash placed in my hand. “Per hour. You did 4 hours that’s £160. Don’t tell me you want more!?!”
This was the first of many surprising moments at Liberty’s and the first of a long line of experiences as a lounge-singer. My career-journey in this niche took me to other Birmingham bars, to Manchester and then, after University, into the glamorous but harsh reality of working as a performer in central London. Looking back, at only 15 I really wasn’t prepared for many of the evenings I spent up at Liberty’s. I wasn’t wise and I wasn’t mature enough to process the events I witnessed and manage the more difficult personalities who resided there. My moral-compass was constantly under pressure but pretending to be a grown-up was the only persona I could attempt to create at the time.
It took just over a year for the management to find out I was 15 and eventually 16. Someone tipped them off! I realise now that they could have lost their license but didn’t understand at the time. I was fired! On the spot! At the piano! In front of everyone! The friendly bouncers became ever-so unfriendly and accompanied me and my PA gear out into the car park where they left me. I sat on my speaker in the dark. I didn’t have a car – I was too young to drive. But I was going to be OK…. because guess who came for me?! My Dad! Good old Dad! In his slippers! And to quote Sting, “ I hung my head” all the way home…….
Liberty’s is now a very smart Indian restaurant. The dance floor is still there with tables on the different levels. I visited it when I performed with the Midlands Rockies and Toyah at the Birmingham Symphony Hall (fantastic show!) Walking into Liberty’s with my Team was very odd and the old feelings of intoxication and intimidation were still there – 25 years later!