The power of music can do so much good
Award-winning singer songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan tells MARION McMULLEN why music is so special to him... even though he can never listen to his own biggest hits
NEIL DIAMOND once recorded a version of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s moving anthem Alone Again (Naturally) and sent him a copy with a written note asking him what he thought of the cover.
“I wrote back and said it was terrible,” jokes Gilbert with a merry laugh.
“No, it was really sweet. It’s always a compliment to you as a songwriter when people want to record your music, but when you get performers of the calibre of Neil Diamond or Michael Bublé and Diana Krall it’s very flattering.”
He adds with a soft chuckle: “I can listen and enjoy their versions more than I can listen to myself. I never listen to my own recordings. My two daughters used to say when they were growing up that they only got to hear daddy’s songs when they went to the homes of their friends.”
The singer-songwriter, born Raymond O’Sullivan in Waterford in Ireland, helped provide the sound track of the 1970s with hits like Alone Again (Naturally), Clair, Nothing Rhymed, Get Down and Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day.
It led to three Ivor Novello awards, including the Songwriter Of The Year trophy, while Alone Again (Naturally) topped the American charts for six weeks and was nominated for three Grammy awards.
The love of music began at an early age. “I played on an old upright piano,” he laughs. “It was that working class thing of, even if families didn’t have much they had a piano. And, if you could play, you could earn a few bob in the pub.
“I was one of six children and the only one I suppose with a musical bent. I did take piano lessons, but I was found out,” he adds with a laugh. “I was playing one time and the teacher realised I wasn’t reading the music, but playing from memory.
“I’ve always had a good ear, but I still can’t read music. Paul McCartney, Ray Davies, Pau I Simon – none of us reads music. We just loved playing and writing songs.
“Back in the 50s I was listening to Cliff Richard and the Shadows and I bought their record Apache, but you never felt you could be Cliff Richard or one of The Shadows and then the Beatles came along and everything changed. They looked different, they could write music and you could identify with them and suddenly all of us wanted to be in a band.”
The love of music has remained a constant in Gilbert’s life and his new self-titled album has just come out, with BBC Radio 2 playing the catchy single The Same The Whole World Over.
Most of the album was recorded in his studio, at his home in Jersey, with producer Ethan Johns and features some special guests like Chas Hodges, of Chas and Dave fame, and Welsh rock ‘n’ roll pianist Geraint Watkins.
“We put them both in the George Martin Studio in London with two pianos and let them battle it out,” he smiles. “Chas put a harmony on the demo we sent him and, being a solo singer, I’m not used to harmonies, but it was so good we kept it. So it’s a Chas and Ray track instead of a Chas and Dave.”
At the age of 71, Gilbert still goes into his music room to work every day from Monday to Friday, but takes Saturday and Sunday off.
“I don’t touch the piano then,” he says. “I might do a spot of weeding or go to church. I was brought up a Catholic, but was a lapsed Catholic. I find it very soothing to go now, although when Sunday morning comes along you think ‘I don’t want to go’, but it’s one hour of your life and when I go I’m happy.
“There’s the Spanish Church at Marylebone in London which is just beautiful. I might not listen to the priest, but just being in a church sometimes makes me feel better. There’s no first class or business class like on trains... and you can sit anywhere.”
Gilbert could be found dancing on top of his piano last year while leading a crowd of more than 40,000 in a chorus of Get Down at the BBC Proms in the Park in Hyde Park.
“Everyone says ‘don’t do it,” but, hey, as long as I’ve still got my health, why not? It might inspire people of my age to do a bit of exercise as well.”
He says he needs his energy to keep up with his two-and-a-halfyear-old granddaughter Jeanie Marie. “I’m not mad about being called grandad,” he grimaces, “so she calls me Dad-Dad. You need a lot of energy to keep up with her. She’s like a marathon runner. She’s there and then she’s gone.”
Gilbert will be back in front of an audience next month as part of the nationwide series of Get Loud concert dates in aid off music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins. It offers a range of programmes for everything from hospices and dementia patients to people dealing with mental health issues and children suffering from illness and trauma.
All Saints, Katie Melua, Lisa Stansfield, Enter Shikari, Nina Nesbitt, The Darkness, The Beat, The Skints, Hot Dub Time Machine and Everything Everything are among those taking part.
Gilbert says: “Nordoff Robbins asked me to take part and it was something I was happy to do. Music is very special to me and the power of music can do so much good. It’s a wonderful cause.” ■ Go to get loud. org.uk for concert details and tickets.
Gilbert O’Sullivan at work in his garden shed
Gilbert, pictured in around 1975. His music provided a soundtrack for the 70s