Back in 1964, Chris Norman, Terry Uttley and Alan Silson were all at school together and, with another guy, formed a group together.
The band, called first The Yen and then The Sphinx, practiced regularly on Saturday mornings, rehearsing a lot of stuff that was in the charts – and the highlight of their existence was one lone gig, a school dance, soon after which they all left school and disbanded.
Terry got himself a job and stuck to it reasonably well, but Alan and Chris went through a number of spells of being apprenticed in various trades until Alan suddenly got offered the job of lead guitarist in an amateur band operating in the Bradford area (where all Smokie’s members come from).
He accepted with reservations, because he didn’t think much of the group’s singer, then contacted Chris to see if he would be interested in joining the band as its lead singer if the guy already occupying that position could be persuaded to step down.
Chris agreed, the other singer was ousted to make way for him, and the group got down to work.
At first, determined to be ‘dead psychedelic’, they called themselves Long Side Down (abbreviated equals LSD), then changed their name to The Elizabethans.
In 1967 and 1968 they gradually built up a good local reputation and were getting a lot of bookings to play clubs, dance halls etc. They decided to go professional, but their bass player wasn’t keen to risk it, so they went and asked Terry if he’d be interested in taking his place.
At first, though, Terry proved a dead loss. “Yes,” he said, “I’d love to.” But the snag was that he’d become a mad bopping mod, went to a different club every night of the week and was only prepared to keep Sunday mornings free for rehearsal.
A few months later, a second approach was made and by this time Terry, now slightly weary of his nightly dancing excursions, agreed. He joined up, the group turned professional and immediately began a summer season at Butlin’s Holiday Camp.
A week later they were sacked. “We were supposed to play three hours a night,” explains Chris, “but unfortunately, we only knew about fifteen numbers, so we’d play ’em all, then start at the beginning again. It didn’t take the management too long to notice and then we were out.”
But work continued to come in nice and regular and then they began getting work from the BBC, doing spots on Radio One Club and the like. That led in turn to a TV appearance, which drew the attention of RCA Records, who signed them up to make a single, which came out under yet another name – Kindness.
Kindness were not long with RCA. Angry because the record company wanted session men to play on the record instead of the group, they accepted a new deal with a guy who had an arrangement with Bell Records.
They cut a single, but before it could be released, their man fell out with Bell and so ended another deal. After that fiasco, Kindness signed with Decca where they got as far as having four records, not just recorded but released.
During their time with Decca, Kindness had one more change of personnel, the line-up comprising Chris, Alan, Terry and new man Pete Spencer on drums. They had also acquired a new manager, Bill Hurley, who quickly realised that the Decca deal was not going to make stars of his boys.
The band weren’t too sure it was a good idea, but let him get on with it and the dauntless Bill sent tapes by the group to Messrs Chinn and Chapman, then followed up by plaguing the famed songwriters on the phone for six months until eventually, in the hope of getting him off their backs, they agreed to go and see the group.
Chapman went first, was impressed, then took Chinn along with him a couple of weeks later when he went for a second hearing. After that Kindness, without any further ado, were signed up and again changed their name – this time to Smokey (later altered to Smokie to avoid confusion with Smokey Robinson).
The signing gave the group new confidence. “We wanted a hit,” recalls Chris, “and we felt certain they could give us one. If they’d wanted us to do a remake of the Sweet’s Funny Funny we’d have done it. We wouldn’t have been happy about it, but we wouldn’t have argued. We were really pleased though that Chinn and Chapman didn’t want to turn us into another Sweet or Mud and that the way they saw us developing accorded with everything we felt ourselves.”
Smokie’s first Chinn & Chapman single Pass It Around came out early in ’75, quickly followed by an album of the same name. “The single didn’t get much airplay,” says Chris, “and when it became obvious that it wasn’t going to be a hit, we were very disappointed. We began to think there was a jinx on us.”
Chinn and Chapman were less worried, “Smokie will make it eventually,” they both proclaimed with unshakeable faith, “though it may take a little time.”
Out came the group’s second single, If You Think You Know How To Love Me, and for four or five weeks it sold only in little dribs and drabs. The group wrote it off as another failure and Chinn said, “I agree it doesn’t look as if it’ll make it, but we’ll keep trying.”
A week later, and after an appearance on the TV show, 45, the record was in the breakers under the top fifty – then came the offer of a Top of the Pops spot and after that, the record started climbing fast. It went on to become a long-running chart success and sold around 230,000.
In the Autumn, out came Smokie’s follow-up, Don’t Play Your Rock & Roll To Me, and a second album named after the band. The single sold equally well as its predecessor and, to the group’s great surprise, the album too made a quick appearance in the charts.
Smokie deliberately spent time breaking the German market, strenuous 12-week tours that established them at grassroots level. It turns out that they slipped in through the back door by latching onto a Pop/Disco roadshow run by the German magazine Pop in conjunction with a major banking group.
The principle of the exercise was that these shows (the disco was the main attraction and Smokie were the support) visited many of the small towns surrounding cities. After three tours on the roadshow, Smokie dared stage their own concerts in the cities, hoping that the kids they had played to previously would remember them. They did, and Smokie’s popularity grew fast.
The band eventually chalked up twelve hit singles between 1975 and 1980.
Living Next Door To Alice was their biggest hit, but it actually dated back four years earlier when ex-pat Australian trio, New World, recorded it for RAK Records under the guidance of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman.
Lead guitar, vocals