Rea on the road again

Chris Rea in concert. Photo:  PA Photo/Handout
Chris Rea in concert. Photo: PA Photo/Handout

“How do?” says Chris Rea, in his signature gruff, North-East accent.

He’s in Leipzig as part of his European tour, and by his own admission, having a lovely time.

“We’re lucky enough to still tour at a level where we can be comfortable,” he says. “And we’ll be on the road for three or four months every two years, so it’s great. Rather than missing home when I’m on tour, I miss tour when I’m at home. No stress.”

He’s about as down-to-earth as people who’ve sold 30 million albums get, and speaking to him, it’s impossible to understand how he was mistaken for an American artist when he first launched his career way back in 1978.

“’Elton Joel’, that was the idea the record label had for me,” he says, describing the piano-playing, singer-songwriter Elton John/Billy Joel mix he was touted as, which gave record-buyers the wrong impression for three or four years.

“Fool If You Think It’s Over is still the only song I’ve ever not played guitar on, but it just so happened to be my first single, and it just so happened to be a massive hit. It was in the US Top 10 for seven weeks.”

By 1983, he says enough music journalists had written about him to spread the word that he wasn’t in fact an American balladeer, but one of the finest British guitarists we’ve ever had.

“I was late to the guitar,” he says. “I didn’t pick up the instrument ‘til I was 21. Think about how much the likes of Mark Knopfler or Eric Clapton had done before I even started? There had been beat groups in the area, lots of them, but they’d gone when I started playing. I was on the dole, didn’t know any musicians... I definitely missed the boat, I think.”

He didn’t waste much time once he had his ears pricked by the guitar though, particularly the slide guitar he’s become synonymous with.

“It was a blues player called Charlie Patton that got me started,” he says. “I heard him on Saturday afternoon radio. It sounds so historical now, but they’d have satellite broadcasts from the States. I heard his voice and this weird sound coming from his guitar.”

That night, he sought out some blues players in Middlesbrough who told Rea that Patton had been using a glass bottleneck to play slide blues.

“That was it for me, I was gone from that day on,” he recalls.

He soon went on to perform in various bands, including one in which he replaced David Coverdale who later formed Whitesnake, and also played on a Hank Marvin solo album.

His debut album Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? (a reference to the stage name his record label wanted him to adopt) was released in 1978. Ironically, Fool If You Think It’s Over was nominated for a Grammy that year, and lost out to Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are.

He didn’t find such success again for a few years, but by the time his eighth album On The Beach, spawning a hit single of the same name, was released, he was a star in the UK and around Europe, and had sporadic hits in the US. When Road To Hell was released in 1989, he became one of the biggest solo stars in the UK, and cemented himself as a favourite among a predominantly male audience of a certain age.

In certain quarters, Rea makes deeply uncool music which dads listen to while driving. But dads who buy CDs to play in the car can keep artists going for an entire career. And Rea really doesn’t sound like he could care less whether you think he’s cool or not.

“We’re playing all the old hits on this coming tour,” he says. “But most are new versions of the old songs. We tend to tweak and mess about with them. We’ve just got a new version of On The Beach sorted, which is half reggae.

“We do stuff like that to keep it interesting, for us as well as the audience. And we’ve got two layers now; we get a lot of hoots and claps and whistles for some of the newer stuff, the more recent blues stuff from albums like [2002’s] Dancing Down The Stony Road.”

Rea, now 63, says the more recent forays into swampy blues have attracted a younger crowd and injected new life into his career.

“I feel I’ve had three careers in one, really,” he explains. “There was the Benny Santini stuff, that came with a general sense of, ‘Who the hell is he?’. And then there was The Road To Hell stuff and now there’s the blues stuff. We’re just happy. To be on tour in Europe, heading to the UK, this far down the line in a career, I feel very lucky.”

His career isn’t the only reason Rea should feel lucky. There’s also his health.

In 2001, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had his pancreas removed. It was during this period of recuperation he took up painting, and promised himself he’d return to his blues-playing roots. It has meant his lifestyle has changed, however, with a fat-free diet now essential, along with a rigorous workout regime.

“Once they’ve taken your pancreas away, the rest of your life is dealing with not having a pancreas, which is pretty awful sometimes, but I’m still here,” he says.

When he’s not on tour, writing or painting, his other main passion is cars, particularly, given his Italian heritage, Ferraris. He hopes to have a Ferrari 156 restored later this year, which has been a 22-year labour of love tracking down all the parts.

“It’s extremely rare, this shark-nosed racing car,” he says proudly. “There were only two made, in 1961. We found the engine in a garage in Godalming in Surrey, just sitting there. When it’s done, we’re going to race it. It’s the car I had a poster of on my wall when I was a kid.”

For now, however, he’s just content to be on tour, and hopes to see the crowds on their feet dancing.

“We have big arguments with promoters over this, because when we play gigs in Europe we have half standing, and they are the best gigs because the people who like a dance can get up.

“English promoters think if you’re not 16 years old, you want to sit down and not move. It drives me round the bend. We’re not young anymore, and neither are a lot of the audience, but it doesn’t mean we’re geriatric.

“I read an article about 60 being the new 30 the other week and I think it’s very true. Our generation has not done what previous generations did, and just got old and sat in a corner.

“I’m not ready to sit in an armchair and fall asleep just yet.”