On Record – Untold & Retold festival takes over the Philharmonic Hall in October for a live streamed showcase highlighting the continuing black contribution to Liverpool music and culture. Two of the most successful groups the city has produced, The Real Thing and MiC LOWRY, will both perform on the night. Ahead of the showcase, Richard Lewis sits down with Chris Amoo and Ben Sharples to talk about the past, present and future of black representation in Liverpool’s musical landscape.
Subject of the highly acclaimed documentary Everything that recently aired on BBC Four, Liverpool soul legends THE REAL THING are finally getting the recognition they’re long overdue. Their classic era line-up of Chris and Eddie Amoo, Dave Smith and Ray Lake – with the exception of post-Beatles solo projects – were the city’s sole flag bearers on the singles and albums chart throughout the 1970s. You To Me Are Everything, which has sold upwards of half a million copies in the UK alone, has been a radio staple ever since. The follow up Can’t Get By Without You landed at number two the same year and Can You Feel The Force? secured a silver disc in 1979.
Wrapped in a sleeve that features the group stood on Upper Stanhope Street backed by a montage of their home suburb, 4 From 8 has been compared by critics to Marvin Gaye’s landmark 1971 LP What’s Goin’ On. Its centrepiece Liverpool 8 Medley features the stunning Children Of The Ghetto, covered by luminaries such as Mary J. Blige, Earth, Wind and Fire alumnus Philip Bailey and UK jazz legend Courtney Pine, along with being sampled a score of times over the past decade.
Fast forward a few decades and vocal harmony group MiC LOWRY occupy a similar space. Formed by schoolfriends Delleile Ankrah, Kaine Ofoeme, Michael Welch and Ben Sharples in 2011, the band have become a flagship group for black Liverpool music in much the same way. Their biggest show to date saw them supporting US pop stalwarts Backstreet Boys at Manchester Arena last summer, while their most recent Liverpool gig last November saw a queue winding round outside of Arts Club several hours before showtime.
With the two bands appearing at On Record – Untold & Retold festival in October, we arranged a chat between Real Thing lead vocalist Chris Amoo and MiC LOWRY’s Ben Sharples to compare notes on the experience for the past, present and future black musicians in Liverpool and the UK at large today.
“The main place we used to rehearse was in my living room, basically all our equipment was a record player and a piano,” Chris says of The Real Thing’s earliest manoeuvres. “We used to put the records on and sing over them, that’s how we learnt harmonies. For a whole year after work, every single evening we’d practice and go through our parts. If you weren’t there and you didn’t show up, you got fined! There were not dreams of record deals, we just wanted to get onstage and perform. As things progressed, we rehearsed at a youth club, Stanley House.”
The social club and community centre on Upper Parliament Street was one of a score of L8 clubs dotted around Parliament Street and Princes Avenue in the 1960s and 70s. “We lined brushes up in the room and pretend they were microphones and we were onstage,” recalls Chris. “It was difficult to get places to rehearse, we needed that much cos we didn’t have instruments. As we started to move on, if Stanley House held a ball they would allow you to bring musicians in. That was in L8, everything was L8, we didn’t go out of it,” Chris emphasises.
The community aspect of a social hub has strong echoes decades later. Growing out of community choir Positive Impact founded by future band manager Barbara Philips, MiC LOWRY also began their journey in Toxteth. “There are so many similarities there,” Ben nods. “Barbara used to run Positive Impact at the Methodist Centre, also down in Toxteth. And if you were young and wanted to get into music, dance or drama that was the place to go. It was brilliant singing in there, sonically, cos of the room reverb.”
Photo: The Real Thing
“Can you see the pattern between the two generations?” Chris smiles. “It’s basically the same. We started singing together when we were at school, we rehearsed in the Methodist Church as well.”
“I think people like the fact that we grew up together,” Ben states. “When we were coming up there were a lot of these big X Factor bands, [so] I think, like, we seemed a bit more real and authentic.”
Chris’ late brother, Eddie, eight years his senior, was a member of ground-breaking a cappella group The Chants in the 1960s, who backed The Beatles at several dates. The Real Thing benefited from Eddie’s industry experience with The Chants; similarly, MiC LOWRY were mentored by fellow Scouser Esco Williams.
“Esco used to run a vocal workshop which was open to everyone, it was free to go along,” Ben recalls. “He brought a lot of industry experience. He was a big influence musically as well as helping us move up the ladder.”
“Initially when we started off, due to Barbara’s connections, if an event needed music, she’d make sure we got on the bill,” Ben adds. “One of the first gigs was at the Brouhaha Festival in Princes Park. After a few years we started to do school tours which was great, you’d head up and down the country. That was the first time we’d done an actual tour with consistent dates. That was a big help that experience.”
Winding back several decades, The Real Thing began to make inroads into the city’s clubs. “When we got an agent we started playing outside of Toxteth in places like the Mardi Gras on Mount Pleasant, which was run by [former BBC Radio Merseyside DJ] Billy Butler. That was the only club in Liverpool back then where all the American soul acts would play. To get in there was amazing.”
An avenue that many musicians based outside the capital consider at some point is whether to move down to London, the allure of being in the Big Smoke the same now as it was in the 1970s.
“When we started speaking, not many people expected a Scouse accent. A lot of people tend to think we’re American, and if we’re British they assume from London,” Ben explains. “There’s always the question of moving down there, like when people get to a certain level that’s the done thing. We battled that for a little while and it’s in the back of your mind whether it’s something you should do. When we were coming up, the scene in Liverpool back then was indie, guitar-based bands. When we were trying to get on bills, there wasn’t really the appetite or the audience for it. When we started to build a foundation and grow, we could put on bigger shows in London than Liverpool, which was strange for us.
“Liverpool’s a small place and everyone kinda knows each other. We’d go to London and we’d be a new thing, whereas we’d play Liverpool and it’d be like, ‘Oh, yeh, I went to Calderstones with one of those guys’. There’s not the same kind of excitement cos people think they know you.”
“Basically it’s just as Ben said, he’s taken the words out of my mouth,” Chris, who still has strong connections to L8, states. “The difference is, when we came up there wasn’t anybody else apart from Eddie’s band The Chants. People certainly thought we were from America, we still get that even now, occasionally. London was the hub, that’s where our management was. If we wanted to do anything, it meant getting down to London, whether it was Top Of The Pops, Radio One. I know that I could’ve done a lot more collaborations with a lot more artists had I been living in London. When you’re not living down there you’re sort of off the radar, it’s a scene going on down there.
“I’ve never wanted to move to London, none of us did,” Chris concedes. “Our manager advised us on many occasions to move down. We never wanted to. Liverpool’s our home. Even if it’s the case, like Ben says, of ‘Oh, they’re the guys from down the road’. When you make it, it’s even stronger. It’s a case of [proudly], ‘They’re the guys from our city!’”
A huge question to tackle, but do you feel that black music from Liverpool now gets the recognition and kudos it deserves?
“No,” Chris says, sadly. “Same answer,” Ben adds. “As Chris was saying, there are people even now who don’t know The Real Thing are Scousers. As soon as you say you’re from Liverpool, people say it’s got such as great history and music heritage, but not a lot of it is dedicated to black music. It’s strange when you’ve got The Chants, The Real Thing, The Christians, there are so many amazing artists and groups who’ve come out of Liverpool”.
“It’s not really renowned for soul music, really never has been,” Chris ruminates. “Liverpool’s more of a rock-oriented city, musically. There aren’t a lot of openings for black music in Liverpool itself. Which isn’t to say there aren’t any and you can’t do it, cos you can. But it’s a lot more difficult.”
“I have a feeling that there will be some kind of breakthrough in the next five to 10 years,” Ben opines. “I think, when you look at – and I hate this term – ‘urban music’ is always associated with London. But if you look in the last five years or so, it’s stretched out to Birmingham and Manchester. You see a lot of black artists from those cities absolutely smashing it now. That wasn’t the case before. If you said you were from Manchester, everyone would associate you with an indie band. The scene’s developed more. I can see things bubbling in Liverpool where there might be a moment for that soon. I’m feeling confident about it in the next five years, definitely. There’s Culture Deck in Liverpool now. Their event at 24 Kitchen Street sold out, which is amazing. Five years ago I couldn’t picture that.” Culture Deck is one of a handful of emerging media collectives that give a platform for emerging rap, hip hop, grime and RnB acts in the city.
“It was only when we got a manger like Tony Hall, who was probably one of the most respected people in black music at that time,” adds Chris, “that we noticed a change in reception. Hall had handled Jimi Hendrix’s UK promotion in the late 1960s. Because of the respect he had, DJ and industry people started to judge us on our own level, they started giving us a chance.”
“There was only Radio One – if you didn’t get on that station you didn’t have a hit record,” he adds. “They had to cater to everyone, there was only so many soul records played per show. If The O’Jays, Stevie Wonder and The Stylistics had a record out the same week, they’re gonna get priority. It was the same thing with Top Of The Pops, they’re not gonna have a show dominated by black music, they’d have Abba, Slade and Paul McCartney on. That was what we had to come up against and we did it thankfully cos we had a great manager. We had a bit of talent as well…”
“It’s a weird one with radio,” Ben replies. “When we first got signed we had a record out which was quite poppy, it wasn’t one of our more soulful ones. We took it to radio and there was the thing of, you need to go through urban radio in the States first, before you get to the pop one. Even though it’s the same track, the same record. Sometimes it can be frustrating when black artists can get limited to certain stations which wouldn’t have the same reach. These days, though, I don’t think radio is as important cos you’ve got all the streaming platforms, which gives people the power. Like Chris was saying about playlist meetings where a group of people make a decision over what gets heard, with Spotify people have the power, cos if our song’s out there and people are listening to it, they’ll look at the algorithms and go, ‘People like this, let’s put it on that playlist’. It becomes less about someone’s personal decision and more about what people like listening to, so that’s a big help.”
“You can put music out there yourself now, you’re not relying on anyone else. If you’ve got something you believe in, you can get it out there and get in touch with people,” Chris nods.
Throughout the conversation, there are distinct notes of progress over the 40 years that separated the two group’s careers – before continuing on in tandem. But what’s more telling is the systemic limitations and perceptions that have remained, both in Liverpool and across the UK. It shows we’re far from an end goal where artistry can speak for itself, free from prejudice.
However, there’s a sense the tide is changing again for the better, as we begin to round off the conversation. Similar to Ben’s point about London becoming decentralised, the music of Liverpool’s black artists is no longer restricted to L8 or token support slots, with more and more artists applying their craft at the top of the bill on stages in the Baltic Triangle and city centre. Though it must be stressed there is further this inclusiveness and representation can go, with guitar music still the dominant offer.
Equally, in tandem as technology has improved, the nature of industry gatekeepers has changed, with power less concentrated in the hands of a select few nowadays. As Ben notes, popularity can speak for itself and artists have a stronger level of control in writing their own futures.
As we conclude the conversation, we return to the recent documentary, Everything. A scene sees Chris explain how he has altered the lyric from Children Of The Ghetto when singing live. From: “There’s no inspiration / To brighten up their day” to “There’s some inspiration”.
Put simply then, do you feel the situation has improved since the release of 4 From 8 in 1977? “On a worldwide level, there’s a lot of inspiration around now for aspiring black artists,” Chris states emphatically. “The world’s your oyster.”
The Real Thing and MiC LOWRY will appear at the On Record – Untold & Retold showcase live streamed from the Philharmonic Hall on 30th October. limfestival.com/onrecord
Main Photo: MIC LOWRY