CHAR­LIE LANDS­BOR­OUGH Why I owe my ca­reer to Gerry An­der­son, spend­ing time in jail and the song I wrote but never sang

Ahead of his farewell tour, the coun­try singer tells Leona O’Neill how get­ting his songs played on the ra­dio in North­ern Ire­land made him a suc­cess, and why he still lives on the hard streets where he grew up

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW -

At the age of 77, most peo­ple are long re­tired, en­joy­ing the gen­tle­ness of their twi­light years and the easy-go­ing lifestyle that comes with them. But not Liver­pool coun­try mu­sic king Char­lie Lands­bor­ough. The folk and coun­try le­gend is about to em­bark on a mam­moth farewell tour of the UK and Ire­land be­fore fi­nally hang­ing up his gui­tar. And he will end off where it all be­gan, in North­ern Ire­land.

Char­lie says he owes his fame and for­tune to BBC Ra­dio Ul­ster’s Gerry An­der­son. For it was when Gerry played his tracks — in­clud­ing What Colour is the Wind? and My For­ever Friend — on his ra­dio show and had him on his TV show that his ca­reer went stel­lar. Within weeks he was at the top of the Ir­ish charts. He went on to top more charts, win awards and min­gle with some of the best­known names in the coun­try mu­sic world.

He can count the likes of the Everly Broth­ers, John Prine and Wil­lie Nel­son as friends. Not bad for a man who grew up in a de­prived area of Liver­pool and found him­self in jail be­fore he was 18 years old.

“I was a war baby,” he says. “My fam­ily are all from Birken­head. My mam was taken away from the bombs to Wales just be­fore I was born. But I was brought back to the bombs straight af­ter. I was born in Wales, but that is the only con­nec­tion I have with the place. I have noth­ing against it, but I am a Scouser through and through.

“I still live in Birken­head, which is Liver­pool’s poor re­la­tion over the Mersey. It’s a bit run-down, a bit tatty re­ally. But it’s my town and I love it. Some­one asked me once to de­scribe it and I said it’s a bit like an old, di­shev­elled, un­kempt friend who you like for his lack of pre­tence, his hon­esty and his gen­eros­ity, and his sense of hu­mour.”

Char­lie has been mar­ried to Thelma, who was born in Rooskey, Roscom­mon, for 52 years, and they have three sons — Char­lie (49), Alan (48) and Jamie (42) — and five grand­sons.

The singer was a late starter in the mu­sic busi­ness, finding suc­cess in his 50s. But his love of mu­sic was born many years be­fore.

“My broth­ers brought me back a gui­tar from their trav­els in Spain when I was around 13 years old,” he says. “And I started strum­ming away. When I was old enough I would take my gui­tar to the pub and sing all night for noth­ing. I just loved it.

“I’ve been in­volved in mu­sic all my life. I’ve been play­ing in pubs in Birken­head for­ever and all the time I was do­ing a suc­ces­sion of dif­fer­ent jobs. I was a gro­cery store man­ager, I worked in the flour mills, I was a post­man, I was in the Army, a driver, a teacher and a whole host of other jobs. And all the time I was play­ing in the pubs at night. In fact, I used to get re­quests in the play­ground. Kids would say to me that their mam wanted to hear such-and-such a song tonight.

“All the time I was do­ing all these dif­fer­ent jobs and my heart was in the mu­sic, re­ally. And af­ter 20-odd years of get­ting nowhere I started to write my own mu­sic. So with hardly any faith in my­self, I started writ­ing. I started record­ing my own songs, got an al­bum to­gether, Gerry An­der­son played it and the rest was his­tory. It was North­ern Ire­land that gave me the break.”

Re­mem­ber­ing the role that An­der­son played in his ca­reer, Char­lie adds: “It was Gerry who pulled my mu­sic out of a pile of CDs on his desk and played it. And peo­ple rang in and asked him to play it again. He rang me and asked me over to be on the TV, on his show An­der­son on the Box.

“And watch­ing that night was Pat Kenny, from south­ern Ire­land, and he asked me on to his show. And then all of Ire­land went out and bought my CD. I topped the Ir­ish charts.

“It was the peo­ple of North­ern Ire­land who sparked the whole thing off. I have a lot to thank North­ern Ire­land for — for begin­ning the whole process. It was quite mag­i­cal how it worked out.

“I thanked Gerry many times and he would just wave me away. Gerry was an ab­so­lute gem. He was a re­ally unique in­di­vid­ual. Any­one who knew him loved him. He had a style and a swag­ger about him, but he was deadly gen­uine and a funny man. He was larger than life. He wasn’t a big man in phys­i­cal stature, but he was a big man in ev­ery other re­spect. He was a great char­ac­ter and I miss him very much.”

Char­lie has an­other con­nec­tion to North­ern Ire­land. One of his best friends, Lon­don­derry man John Smyth, helped him carve out his ca­reer.

“There was a guy who used to come to my gigs in a pub I al­ways played in,” he says. “He came up to me at one gig and told me that I needed to come to North­ern Ire­land. He said I would go down great. It was John Smyth, or Smythy as I call him. Over the years we be­came great friends. And then Gerry An­der­son in­vited me over to Belfast. We were both hard up, me and John. I brought him over as my man­ager, even though he wasn’t and we were both skint. We stayed in the Cul­lo­den Ho­tel in Belfast. We had never stayed in a ho­tel in our lives. He came in to me and told me that he couldn’t be­lieve it that he had fruit in his room and he had his T-shirt in the trouser press.

“He was from Derry and he brought me back to his home city. He was like a kid at Christ­mas, be­cause he was go­ing back home and he was go­ing with me, and peo­ple were be­com­ing aware of me. It was great fun. He sells our mer­chan­dise on the road now. We are still great friends.”

Char­lie says he had a very colour­ful, lov­ing up­bring­ing which was rocked by the death of his mother be­fore he reached his teenage years.

“I was one of 11 kids grow­ing up in Birken-

I am a Scouser through and through. Birken­head is my tow­nandIloveit

head,” he says. “Peo­ple might imag­ine it was tough but it was ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic. I was the youngest and my broth­ers were all sea­far­ers. It is what you might call a de­prived area now but I was never de­prived, I was al­ways well looked af­ter and doted on by my mam.

“My broth­ers, who sailed the seven seas in the Merchant Navy, came back with gifts ev­ery time they landed home. I got suit jack­ets from Ja­pan, a ca­noe from west Africa that the na­tives had done, gui­tars from Spain. It was won­der­ful when they came home. The house would be clean and ev­ery­one was so ex­cited and they would come with these presents. The house was full of an­i­mals. We had chick­ens in the back — in the mid­dle of the city — as well as a duck that at­tacked ev­ery­body. We had cats and dogs, trop­i­cal birds from Africa and we even had a mon­key at one stage. It was a fan­tas­tic house and my four sis­ters re­ally looked af­ter me. I was very lucky.

“My Mam died when I was 11 years old, which was an in­cred­i­ble blow. She never had very much at all, but she was a great giver. She was al­ways look­ing af­ter ev­ery­one else.

“If I was go­ing to the pic­tures and my friend Butch never had any money, she would al­ways give him a shilling to go. Lit­tle things like that I re­mem­ber.

“She made an im­pact upon me be­cause she was an eter­nal giver.

“Mam had cancer. I re­mem­ber when she was very ill I read some­thing in the pa­per about a weep­ing Madonna some­where in the world and the tears could cure peo­ple. I was only a lit­tle kid and I know it sounds daft but I re­mem­ber won­der­ing if I cried and I dabbed the tears on my mam, would it heal her. I didn’t have the courage to do it in the end.

“When she died I went off the rails a bit. I tried to be­come one of the lads. To fit in where I lived, it was a bit of a rough area, you had to be ei­ther a hard case or a thief.

“And I didn’t have the physique to be a hard case, so I took to petty thiev­ing and fin­ished up in Wal­ton Jail for two months. My fam­ily were ab­so­lutely aghast be­cause they were all very up­right and very hon­est and I had let them down.

“It taught me a les­son. I came out and I thought, what am I do­ing? Then I took to preach­ing at the younger lads on the cor­ners, telling them not to fol­low all the rub­bish. One of those younger lads is still one of my best friends to this day.”

Char­lie says that his mother’s in­flu­ence is still felt in his life and in his mu­sic.

“I think she still in­flu­ences upon my heart,” he says. “You as­pire to be some­what sim­i­lar. You as­pire to kind­ness and gen­eros­ity, all the good things that she was. And I can’t help but think that if I’d had this break all those years ago I could have looked af­ter her.

“I wrote a song about my mam. It went: ‘Ag­gie, you were a lady when the word still had a mean­ing. A house­bound an­gel dressed in ragged clothes. I don’t think I re­mem­ber ever hear­ing you com­plain­ing. We all took you for granted, I suppose.’ I never recorded it.” Char­lie says that he never suc­cumbed to the whole drink, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle as­so­ci­ated with the mu­sic busi­ness, al­though there were a few blips on the road.

“The only thing I ever did was drink,” he says. “But I re­mem­ber when we were in Ger­many, with this lit­tle band I was in.

‘I love it here ... if it wasn’t for the North­ern Ir­ish, I would not be do­ing what I am do­ing’

“We got over there and some­one gave us these drugs to take. They were given to peo­ple who were de­pressed, I think.

“I felt fan­tas­tic on it, I loved ev­ery­one and wanted to put my arms around the world. But it af­fected all the lads dif­fer­ent. I was loved up, but some of them just stood there with their eyes and their mouths wide open, to­tally speech­less. That was the only time I have ever taken a sub­stance. The rest of the time it is just Guin­ness and whiskey.”

He says he stays healthy by ex­er­cis­ing reg­u­larly, and has only had one near death ex­pe­ri­ence in his life­time.

“I have a tread­mill at home,” he says. “I lead a very strange lifestyle. When I’m on the road we drink prob­a­bly far too much and eat all sorts of rub­bish. Then I come home, be­have my­self, eat sen­si­bly and hardly drink and go on the tread­mill once a day. I go out once a week on a Fri­day with the lads and have a few pints and that’s it.

“I am for­tu­nate to get to this age and still be healthy. I had an op­er­a­tion on an en­larged prostate two years ago and I was in­volved in a car crash around that time too. A young lad lost control of his car and smashed into me, writ­ing my car off. The airbag ex­ploded. I had to get a lot of stitches in my head.

“It was funny, when they were tak­ing me into the am­bu­lance, an ex-Liver­pool FC player and friend of mine, Ian St John, came to the door of the ve­hi­cle, saw me cov­ered in blood and asked me if I was okay. And I said to him that when I look out the back of the am­bu­lance I’m thank­ing God that it was St John and not St Peter talk­ing to me.

“I was very for­tu­nate to get out of that car alive.”

He says life, love and peo­ple have al­ways greatly in­flu­enced his mu­sic and writ­ing.

“Dif­fer­ent things in­spire me,” he says. “I’ve writ­ten about my wife, Thelma. I wrote ‘I Will Love You All My Life’ about her. I was driv­ing to a pub in Liver­pool and I sung the first verse with­out think­ing. My brother Jack is bril­liant at DIY and I’m use­less at it. And Thelma would say that she wished I was a bit more like Jack. And the song was re­ally to say that I am use­less at those things, but I will love her for­ever.

“A lot of my songs are in­spired by things that have been said, and by peo­ple. I was in Dublin Air­port once and I met this older gen­tle­man who said very nice things about my mu­sic. And I asked him if he had been on hol­i­day and he said that he was at­tend­ing his brother’s fu­neral. I told him I was sorry, and he smiled at me and told me that we were all just pass­ing through. And I of­ten played that song and won­dered if he ever heard it. “I met this lovely older lady in the north east of Eng­land, and she told me about her hus­band Reg who she had lost years be­fore. She told me about the won­der­ful life she had had. So I wrote a song called ‘My Most Won­der­ful Time’ which is me imag­in­ing I’m singing to her. “I was fix­ing an old banger of a car with my brother Johnny years ago. He was great at fix­ing stuff and I said to him, ‘Johnny, how do you do those things?’ And he said, that’s a good name for a song. So I wrote this re­ally ro­man­tic bal­lad which has noth­ing to do with mo­tors, but it came from that. “I’m al­ways lis­ten­ing with a keen ear to ti­tles and sit­u­a­tions.” Char­lie says he will be sad to leave the stage, but that he must go be­fore his voice goes. “It’s bad enough say­ing good­bye for the fi­nal time to one per­son,” he says. “But say­ing good­bye to a lot of peo­ple will be sad to say the least. I have mixed feel­ings. I will en­joy it im­mensely but it will be tinged with sad­ness and re­gret be­cause it will be the fi­nal one.

“I will miss it im­mensely be­cause it is all I have ever known all my life. It’s in my blood. It has sus­tained me and my fam­ily and al­lowed me to meet all these amaz­ing peo­ple, go to places I’ve never dreamed I would go. It is go­ing to be hard. I may do an odd gig in the fu­ture, but I’ll never do a tour again.

“I can’t go on for­ever, and I don’t want to stick around and be an em­bar­rass­ment to my­self and ev­ery­body. I might al­ready be do­ing that! But I want to go be­fore my voice goes. I want to be able to sing and do it rea­son­ably well.”

And he will end as he be­gins, in his beloved Belfast.

“I love North­ern Ire­land,” he says. “The peo­ple are great there. The North­ern Ir­ish seem to have an ex­tra in­jec­tion of life. They have great gen­eros­ity of spirit and this great life source that seems to be in ev­ery­body. Belfast is just a great place and Liver­pool is a bit sim­i­lar. It’s full of char­ac­ter and char­ac­ters. And if it wasn’t for the North­ern Ir­ish, I wouldn’t be do­ing what I’m do­ing. So I’ve got ex­tra cause to like them. I love the place.” Char­lie will per­form at the Grand Opera House on Mon­day, Jan­uary 28 and Tues­day, Jan­uary 29, 2019. For more in­for­ma­tion log on to

REEL­ING IN THE YEARS: from left, Char­lie as a child with his sis­ters Doreen, Joyce and Sylvia; with his mum Ag­gie; and with his wife Thelma and singer/ song­writer John Prine

CHAR­LIE’S AN­GELS: clock­wise from top, Char­lie with his wife Thelma and Gerry An­der­son; with sons Char­lie, Al­lan and Jamie; and to­gether with Thelma

MU­SIC MAN:Char­lie Lands­bor­ough and (right top) with Wil­lie Nel­son. Be­low right,Char­lie with (from left) Mick Foster, Joe Dolan, Tony Allen and Daniel O’Don­nell. In­set be­low, on stage with grand­son Ja­cob

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