Simply Red was the culmination of years of musical experimentation dating back to the late 70s. Along with some Manchester mates, ex-art student Mick Hucknall formed a quasi-punk group called Frantic Elevators, who made a lot of noise and four excellent hard-to-find singles.
The group disbanded in 1982 and Hucknall began “messing around” with bassist Tony Bowers, who’d played in Durutti Column, an artsy Manchester New Wave group. In mid-1984, Hucknall linked up with Fritz McIntyre, whose roots as a gospel pianist provided a down-to-earth grounding for Hucknall’s musical meanderings.
Simply Red began to coalesce around this time, with various members (including a brass section) coming and going. Bowers soon became a fully-fledged member, bringing with him drummer Chris Joyce, another Durutti alumnus.
Trumpeter Tim Kellett, who doubled on keyboards, was summoned back from the exiled brass section.
In the meantime, a buzz spread around England about Hucknall’s remarkable voice. One showcase gig, at Bedford College in London, was so heavily attended that record company people were climbing in the window because they couldn’t get in the door.
A bidding war followed, with offers of advances up to half a million quid.
Simply Red chose Elektra UK, which hadn’t offered the largest advance but had seemed the most enthusiastic. Unfortunately, shortly after the signing, Elektra UK folded and Simply Red wound up with Elektra’s parent company, WEA (except in the US where they remained with Elektra).
Their first single, Money’s Too Tight (To Mention) (1985) was originally recorded by The Valentine Brothers, an LA funk duo. It was a song about life under Reagan, and Hucknall heard the track while working as a club DJ.
In June 1985, Sylvan Richardson, a classically trained guitarist who’d moved into jazz, joined the band, and now a final line-up entered the studio with Stewart Levine – a producer who’d worked with Sly Stone, BB King and Womack and Womack – to record a full album, Picture Book.
Then came hit single Holding Back The Years.
Simply Red supported UB40 on a UK tour before headlining their own world tour throughout 1986 and recording their second album, Men and Women, covering songs by Sly Stone, Bunny Wailer and Cole Porter.
Further hits followed, notably the cool, sparsely arranged version of Cole Porter’s Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, and Hucknall and crew played another sell-out world tour through 1987, despite the vocalist experiencing some serious throat problems.
The album A New Flame (1989) debuted at #1 in the UK charts in February 1989 and spawned Hucknall’s hit interpretations of soul standards It’s Only Love and If You Don’t Know Me By Now – the latter of which topped US listings and won the Grammy for best R&B single of the year.
The band’s career peaked in late 1991 with the release of Stars, which became the best-selling album for two years running in Europe and the UK. The album spawned five Top 40 singles in the UK.
After touring and promoting Stars for two years, Simply Red returned in 1995 with Fairground – the band’s first and only British #1. Its parent album Life sold more than a million copies in the UK alone, making it the fourth-biggest seller of the year.
Fritz McIntyre – the only original remaining band member aside from Hucknall – left the group after the Life album. From 1996 forward, Simply Red became essentially a name for Hucknall to trade under, assisted by a bevy of session musicians.
Hucknall released his first solo album, Tribute to Bobby on 19 May 2008. He announced that the name Simply Red would be retired after a farewell tour that started in early 2009, and ended in 2010.