Although they never strayed from their gritty R&B based sound, Dr Feelgood was a fixture of England’s Pub Rock scene since the early 70s.
While they were comparative latecomers to the scene – not playing their first London pub gig until July 1973 – they burst out of Canvey Island (Essex) like a force nine gale, and it wasn’t long before they were showing everybody else how it was done.
The secret of their success lay not so much in their music – a sharply defined beat group R&B which harked straight back to the early Stones and The Pretty Things – but in their image and attitude, both built on naked aggression.
Plus, in singer Lee Brilleaux (born Lee Collinson) and guitarist Wilko Johnson (real name John Wilkinson) – zig-zagging around the stage like a broken Dalek – they boasted two bona fide gold-plated stars (the NME would later dub them ‘the new Jagger and Richards’.) They also had a brutally effective rhythm section called Sparko (John Sparks) and The Big Figure (John Martin), who looked like debt collectors . . .
The Feelgoods signed to United Artists late in the summer of 1974 and recorded their first album, Down By The Jetty, with the late Vic Maile producing. Its black and white sleeve and mono sound mix captured the band’s urgent, intense musical character perfectly.
In October that year, their second album – the self-produced Malpractice – hit #17 in the UK albums chart, providing final confirmation that the band had arrived. But it was ultimately their live album, Stupidity (October 1976), which was to rocket them to the top of the charts.
Dr Feelgood constantly travelled England, playing to sold-out clubs across the country – venues where rough rock & roll bands could pound out R&B, pop and simple three-chord rock.
With their devoted following, they proved that these clubs were profitable and helped pave the way for the success of punk rock in England. Punk bands played the same bars and clubs that Dr Feelgood, Brinsley Schwarz and other pub rockers played in the early 70s.
In 1977, amid much acrimony, Wilko Johnson – Pete Townshend to Brilleaux’s Roger Daltrey, the songwriter, the Moody One – was fired from the band. He was replaced by Hammersmith-born John ‘Gypie’ Mayo (pictured below) whose guitar style helped catapult the band to new heights and the second phase of a highly successful career.
Outside songwriters like Mickey Jupp and Nick Lowe took up some of the slack, and the Feelgoods started having hits like She’s A Wind-Up, Milk And Alcohol and Down At The Doctors – the latter famed for Brilleaux’s off-hand announcement: “Eight bars on the pianna”, followed immediately by an eight-bar bass and drum passage with nary a keyboard (or any other lead instrument) in earshot.
Gradually the hits slowed down. Mayo left in 1981, replaced by US expatriate and bar-band veteran Johnny Guitar, and then – virtually in mid-tour – the backroom stalwarts, Figure and Sparko, also flew the coop in 1982.
They were replaced briefly by Buzz Barwell and Pat McMullen, then Phil Mitchell, Kevin Morris and Gordon Russell formed the musical foundation of the group with Steve Walwyn and Dave Bronze taking over on guitar and bass in the group’s latter incarnation.
Lee Brilleaux (pictured below) was the only constant member over the years, and his energy never diminished as he got older – his consistently vibrant live performances were the reason why Dr Feelgood was such a concert draw.
Even though he had been performing for twenty years, Brilleaux remained a force to be reckoned with when he was on stage, right until his untimely death.
I once had the absolute pleasure of meeting Lee Brilleaux at a party in Sydney, Australia. It was the mid-80s, and Dr Feelgood had just finished a series of gigs which took my breath away and were unwinding at a bash at the home of Gary Hosie (The Sets, Mustard Club) and the late Don Hosie – vocalist with Sydney R&B legends, Stupidity (themselves named after the Feelgoods classic live album).
A more polite, considerate and gentle man I am yet to meet.
Lee Brilleaux passed away on 7 April 1994 from throat cancer. He will be sadly missed by a great many people. Veteran Pete Gage took on the role of singer and the group was reborn and continues to gig today.
Gypie Mayo passed away on 23 October 2013.
In 2013, Wilko Johnson survived what was initially diagnosed as a terminal case of pancreatic cancer. He decided to refuse any chemotherapy to continue performing for as long as possible.
Later tests discovered that the guitarist’s pancreatic cancer was, in fact, a rare and less aggressive neuroendocrine tumour. He underwent a radical, 11-hour operation that removed his pancreas, spleen and parts of his stomach and intestines and was declared cancer-free in 2014.
Wilko passed away on 21 November 2022, aged 75.
Lee Brilleaux (Collinson)
Wilko Johnson (John Wilkinson)
John ‘Sparko’ Sparks
The Big Figure (John Martin)
John ‘Gypie’ Mayo (Cawthra)
Johnny Guitar (Crippen)