Legendary Slade bass player, violinist and co-writer Jim Lea very rarely gives interviews, so MALCOLM WYATT was exceptionally star-struck to be granted an audience with one of his 1970s’ music heroes
It’s not, erm, every day I get to talk to a childhood hero, but Jim Lea definitely falls into that category. I was barely four when his band scored the first of six UK No.1s with ‘Coz I Luv You’ in 1971, but my older brother soon ensured lots of Slade was blasting out around the house.
Teen-mag coverage and Top of the Pops appearances also ensured mighty-voiced singer/guitarist Noddy Holder, lead guitarist/garish clothes-horse Dave Hill, gum-chewing drummer Don Powell, and bass player/violinist Jim were as good as housemates to me.
The latter was always deemed the best musician but also the quiet one, so I was shocked when word reached me he was up for an interview, plugging new EP, ‘Lost in Space’.
That follows a return to Bilston’s Robin 2 for an emotional Q&A at a club where he staged a rare gig in 2002, a decade after the Lea-Holder songwriting team quit the band that made their name. What’s more, we were on the phone nearly an hour, Jim one of my most engaging and entertaining interviewees. Call it early nerves, but he quickly homed in on my awkward opener, ‘Where do I find you today’. I might as well have said, ‘When are you, Nod, Dave and Don getting back together again?’ Outside the gym after a work-out, aiming to regain his health after prostate cancer, he threw that back with exaggerated quaintness, asking, ‘Where do I find you, kind sir?’ But he was soon rolling.
“I just ate a couple of boiled eggs with spinach, and I’m reading an article about creepy-crawlies, how without them we wouldn’t exist. That’s how you find me!”
Blackpool tribute to legends of 70s pop
For some older musicians – Jim’s 69 - live performance helps keep them young. But he’s hardly been a gig regular since quitting Slade.
“Ha! Well, I was always very low-key, but did one gig in 2002 I can’t get away from, at the Robin Hood.”
I tell him I’m looking at my CD version, included with his 2009 LP, Therapy, appearing as James Whild Lea. There’s a lot of energy on that, I suggest.
“I only ever played with energy. I was always loud and proud. They still get phone calls at the club 16 years later, seeing if I’m coming back.”
You went back for this Q&A session, didn’t you?
“That was a strange thing. I’d never done anything like that other than stand up and talk to the crowd 16 years ago. At the end, I say, ‘I bet you’ve been wondering where I’ve been since Slade split. Well, it’s to get away from you lot! They laughed, and I said, ‘You think I’m joking?’ This time I said, ‘Guess what? Here I am again, talking to you lot! I was mobbed on the way in and out. More than in the band days.”
Do you keep in touch with your old bandmates?
“We’ve all lost contact. By the by, really. It’s okay. I‘ve always been writing, sticking things down on tape recorders, computers and what-not. I always play all my own instruments, so I’m self-supporting!”
What do you head for first when writing songs? Piano? Guitar?
“I used to write on the piano … but then I found it was much better to use some paper.”
While he’s a joker, he’s also an amazing musican, first shining in Staffordshire’s Youth Orchestra.
“My grandad was leader of the orchestra at the Hippodrome, Wolverhampton. He died a horrible death, throat cancer, and I was born nine months to the day after.
“Mum said when I was about nine, ‘Your grandmother and I have been wondering if you might want to play violin’. I wasn’t bothered really, but went along for lessons. I always felt out of place, listening to John Mayall, The Yardbirds, thinking, ‘How does Eric Clapton get his guitar to sound like a violin? ”
How about your Blue Flame club audition, aged 16, with Dave and Don’s band the ‘N Betweens?
“I went along with my bass in a polythene bag, the last auditioned. A guy looking like a blond Mick Jagger was playing, singing ‘My Girl’. It sounded fantastic. Unbeknown to me they told him he’d got the job. But then I walked up there. Don asked, ‘Is there anybody else out there?’
“He was told, ‘There’s a little kid with a bass as big as him in a polythene bag. They agreed to get me up, let me play, then send me home. They didn’t reckon with what they were going to get!”
Good times are coming to Lytham, says Nile
I gather your mum – now 93 – wasn’t pleased at you turning down art college and the youth orchestra. When did she finally accept this was a ‘proper’ job?
“About two years ago! I played her something, playing cello and double bass. She said, ‘That sounds great, James. Do you know, you could have done something with yourself.’”
Meanwhile, Jim’s been with his beloved Louise 52 years.
“We got together in 1966. We were an item, y’know … I liked her. And I was never a womaniser.”
He must have been surrounded by temptation.
“Yeah, but I was never interested. People always told me I was different, and there you are, I suppose.”
Once you’re fully fit again, could there be another gig?
“I’d love to do it if I got the energy back. My brother’s got all sorts of
ideas to get me up there. I’m looking at a Big Issue ad for a festival
(Cropredy’s Fairport Convention) with Brian Wilson, The Oyster Band, and so on. Maybe you’ll see me down the bottom of one of those.”
Jim’s six-track EP ‘Lost In Space’ is out now, along with a limited-edition An Audience with Jim Lea at the Robin 2, both available via www.jimleamusic.com