The Scottish Mail on Sunday
LIFE GOES ON!
He led his band called Marmalade to the top of the charts but it was a bitter-sweet experience for Dean Ford when drink took over his life and the hits stopped coming. Now still making music, he ref lects how, after all...
EVEN in the crazy world of rock ’n’ roll, there can be few people who have felt the fickleness of fame and fortune more keenly. At the end of the Sixties, Dean Ford had the world at his feet. His band Marmalade were the first Scots to top the UK charts and their follow-up single was playing on radio stations nationwide.
Success continued into the early Seventies, with a string of hit singles, a massive mansion and a beautiful wife. Ford and his bandmates watched football with Elton John, toured with The Who and were mobbed by fans around the world.
Yet by the early Eighties the singer from Lanarkshire had lost almost everything. Drinking heavily, he was broke, rootless, estranged from his family and crazily out of control. Then, after years of fighting the demon alcohol, he dried out and began to pick up the pieces of his life. He delivered pizza and flowers, and worked as a chauffeur with a Los Angeles limo company – driving stars such as Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan and Susan Sarandon, yet never revealing his own celebrity past.
Today, the man whose song Reflections Of My Life has sold more than two million copies has been living off benefits and dwindling royalties from his back catalogue – but at 69 is making a comeback as a musician.
‘The only thing that spoiled my life was alcohol,’ reflects Ford, who once topped the charts with a cover of The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, featuring the cheerful refrain that ‘life goes on’.
‘There’s no one else to blame but me. If I could go back in time, knowing what I do now, I’d say to my young self: “Stop drinking, now!”.’
Born Thomas McAleese in Airdrie, and raised by his parents Thomas senior and Elizabeth in neighbouring Coatbridge, he recalls: ‘When I was very young, my mother was bathing me in a sink – we had no bathtub – and I was singing a nursery rhyme. She was so amazed that she went next door and told a neighbour.
‘When my Dad went for a haircut, he’d get me to sing for the people in the salon, but I was too shy to do that in front of them – so I had to go into a broom cupboard to sing. I got rid of my shyness when I started singing with bands.’
On leaving Clifton High School in Coatbridge at 16, he joined local group The Cravats: ‘They were all older than me, and took me to the pub and sat me in a corner. That’s when I started drinking. That’s when I got the bad habit.
‘I drank because I liked to drink, it was as simple as that, and everyone in the band drank at that point.’
Next came The Reigning Monarchs, then The Gaylords in 1963, when Thomas McAleese changed his name to Dean Ford: ‘They had been known as Tommy Scott and The Gaylords, but they got rid of the singer because his voice was cracking up, and when I joined they said: “You need a name to go in front of the group.”
‘I thought about Dean Martin and Tennessee Ernie Ford (who had a massive hit with Sixteen Tons), and put them together. My mother always called me Tom and I’m still registered as Thomas McAleese on my driving licence and social security card, but I’m Dean Ford when I write and perform songs.’
In 1966, on getting a contract with CBS, the band changed its name to Marmalade: ‘I think our manager got the name from sitting at his breakfast table, thinking it was memorable!’
For a while, the band’s drum-kit used the golliwog symbol of Paisley-founded marmalade manufacturers Robertsons: ‘I hated that, and I think there was some kind of court case over it, but it never came to anything. You’d never get away with that now – it would be considered racist.’
I See The Rain, an early Marmalade number co-written by Ford and coproduced by the Hollies’ Graham Nash, was praised by Jimi Hendrix as ‘the best cut of 1967’ and went to No.1 in the Netherlands, although it flopped in the UK.
Bumping into the walls, falling down drunk... a pint of whisky and then bed
Their hits began the following year, with Ob La Di, which The Beatles were not releasing as a single: ‘Because we were Marmalade, we added, “and if you want some jam…” in the very last line.
‘That song wasn’t something we were really proud of, but it became No.1 and we performed it on Top Of The Pops wearing kilts.’
Ford is more proud of Reflections Of My Life, which he co-wrote, and Marmalade’s tours with The Who and Traffic, and Joe Cocker and Gene Pitney. He also enjoyed duetting with Bobbie Gentry on TV, and watching the FA Cup Final on TV at Elton John’s Berkshire mansion.
‘We sat and watched it on a big screen,’ he recalls. ‘One room in his house had stuff from his performances, including the giant boots he wore in Tommy. Elton told us how he once played table-tennis with Princess Margaret. Although we never made it to his status, we had hit records before he did, and I think he was a fan of the group at the time.
‘One night on tour with The Who, I went to a bar in Liverpool with Keith Moon, John Entwhistle and Peter Frampton. A local group was performing, and Keith wanted to go up and play – but the drummer recognised him and said: “He’s not playing with my drum-kit!” There were a lot of stories about Keith... but thank God he was here for the short time he was, shaking things up.
‘Gene Pitney was the only guy who wore a suit when we toured with him. We used to just wear tie-dyed teeshirts all the time. One night, Gene took Joe Cocker into his dressing-room to show him all his suits and said: “Look, this is how a star dresses...” and tried to convince him to wear a suit. In Joe Cocker’s dressing-room, all the guys were smoking dope, and I’d take a few puffs myself. The dressing-room was below the stage, and you could see the smoke coming up through the floorboards when other people were performing.
‘But I really wasn’t into drugs. I was taking some drugs, but not really heavy stuff. I was more of an alcohol guy.’
Ford clearly has mixed feelings about success: ‘When you’re No.1 and you walk down the street, people recognise you and you have to stop and sign autographs. It’s part of the game and you have to accept it, but after a while it gets annoying. But you get money with it, too.
‘We started buying houses, and I bought a nice one in Hampstead Garden Suburb for about £12,500. But I ended up having to sell that house and move on. As a drinker, I spent a lot of money on alcohol. And drinking took me away from what I should have been doing.’
Ford was married from 1968 until 1973, and his ex-wife lives in New York, while their daughter Tracy lives in New Jersey. His relationship with Marmalade also ended in 1973, after he dropped the band’s hits from their live shows in the vain hope of reinventing their image.
A solo album recorded at Abbey Road studios failed to chart and Ford was dropped by EMI: ‘I don’t think I really thought about it at the time because I was drinking too much... I brought it on myself.
‘I did a lot of embarrassing things when I was drinking, like I once threw a chair from a ninth-floor window into a
swimming-pool. It was late at night, so fortunately the pool was empty, but next day I felt terrible about it.’
In 1979, he decided to start a new life in Los Angeles: ‘I was a helluva mess with alcohol and stuff like that. I was drinking in bars here, too, and it wasn’t a lot different to Scotland. Once you realise you’re an alcoholic, it’s hard to get out of it.
‘I delivered pizza for a while, and worked for a flower shop. I was drinking Bourbon in a bar every day after I finished work. Then afterwards I’d go to a supermarket to buy a pint of whisky to drink before going to bed. I was bumping into the walls, falling down drunk.
‘It got to a point when I went: “I’ve got to do something about this.”
‘I met a girl in a bar/restaurant, and I’d seen her years before when she was really down and drunk – and I couldn’t believe that it was the same person.
‘She gave me addresses for AA meetings, and a couple of days later I went along, and I never had a drink again. That was in 1986. I wouldn’t still be around if I hadn’t stopped.’
Becoming sober made Ford think about becoming a musician again: ‘In the late 80s, once I got sober, I started doing open-mics at some small places in Los Angeles. I really enjoyed that.
‘But I’m hopeless at acting. I went to an audition for a cheese company and I was really bad. Lemmy from Motorhead was there and, when I introduced myself, he said: “I know who you are!”’
From 1989 until 2001, Ford worked for the limo company: ‘I drove Jane Wyman, the American actress who was once married to Ronald Reagan – I always felt great when she called me Dean! Susan Sarandon was lovely. She was married to Tim Robbins then and, when she realised from my accent that I’m Scottish, she said: “We went to The Edinburgh Festival last year.”
‘I drove Michael Jackson a few times. He was really nice and easy. I took him to Neverland and he sat in the back of the stretch limo and watched an old Elizabeth Taylor movie on the TV.
‘When we got to Neverland, he invited me in for refreshments before I drove back.
‘I drove Bob Dylan to the LA Forum but didn’t realise it was him until after he’d got out of the car. I also drove Tom Waits, who I really liked, and The Beach Boys, and members of U2 and Guns ’n’ Roses….’
Yet Ford never let on to any of those passengers that he’d also been a star: ‘You’re not supposed to do that when you’re driving.
‘They don’t want to hear it. If it gets back to the guy who owns the company, you’re gone.’
Today, he admits Reflections Of My Life is what keeps him alive financially. He has scraped together $3,000 of the $10,000 he needs to make his comeback album and has recorded three of the planned ten tracks.
‘I hope to get it completed by the end of this year,’ he says. ‘I’m going to put it out there and see what reaction it gets.’
Now single, having never remarried, he will turn 70 in September: ‘I quite enjoy being by myself a lot of the time. I don’t go out much socially.
‘I tend not to look back too often. I don’t like looking back. As I get older, I want to do new things while I still have time.’