Music

Music icon Eddy Grant opens up on disappointing his dad, heart issues and Little Richard

He was going to be a doctor, but the ‘honourable profession’ of being a music icon with a string of classic hits got in the way

Photo: Normski Photography

Eddy Grant was born in Guyana in 1948. While at school, his parents lived in the UK and in 1960 he moved there to join them, settling into North London life.

Grant had aspirations to be a doctor, but decided on a career in music after going to see Chuck Berry play live. He formed The Equals in 1965, and the band had a chart-topper three years later with Baby Come Back.

After suffering a heart attack in 1971, Eddy Grant left The Equals and focused on producing, opening a studio in Stamford Hill. he then embarked on a solo career, which got off the ground with the smash hit Living On The Frontline in 1979. Since then Grant has had a number of worldwide smash hits, including the 1982 UK number one I Don’t Wanna Dance, Electric Avenue (1983) and anti-apartheid anthem Gimme Hope Jo’anna (1988).

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self, Eddy Grant looks back at his incredible career, and how during hard times he’s been helped by the love of a good woman.

I was very studious when I was 16, in terms of academia, sport and music. My whole life, up to that point, was totally dedicated to those three things. My love for school can’t be overlooked. I had great teachers in Guyana and then in England. I was particularly interested in science. I wanted to study medicine. Everything to do with science, I read – physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, even autobiographies of great surgeons. My dad’s father was a pharmacist. So he was one step short of being a doctor. There was some – let’s call it gentle nudging – towards me doing that.  

When I came to England [after 12 years in Guyana] I missed the sunshine. Even today in London – it was blazing hot outside for everybody else. But for me, I still had on a coat [Eddy Grant has lived in Barbados since the early 1980s]. It’s hard to get used to. But I find it easy to fit in to new places because I can make friends quite easily. My father was that kind of a man, he had many friends of all races, colours and creeds. So it was relatively easy for me to follow in his footsteps. 

I was happy to come to London to live with my parents. But it was a terrible loss, having to leave my grandmother and my uncle and aunt in Guyana – they basically were the foundation of me. When I came to England, the love of my life was really my father. Because he just seemed to be the stone on which I would build. I mean, I love my mother. But she was a caretaker, she was a nurse. She took care of other people, and then had to come home and take care of us. And five boys are not easy to take care of.  

My commitment to being a doctor started changing when I started playing music. The final wrench came with the success of The Equals [Eddy Grant’s first band, who had a UK number one hit with Baby Come Back in 1968]. I was still at school. It was becoming extremely difficult to do both – play music until late at night or early in the morning, and then have to pull yourself out of bed to go to school. So when the hit came, it was time to make that wrench away from academia. My father was not happy at all. Oh, my father cried when he talked to me. Sometimes I look back and think, why did I hurt this person so much? But if I hadn’t hurt him, I would have hurt myself. My mother loved the idea. You know mothers, they support their sons, whatever the terrain or the weather is. But my father took it very hard. 

The Equals
1968: The Equals in the year they top the UK singles chart with Baby Come Back (l-r): Eddy Grant, John Hall, Lincoln Gordon, Pat Lloyd and Derv Gordon. Image: Bill Zygmant/Shutterstock

One of my mentors was a guy called Lee Shepherd, who managed The Equals for a time. He was an actor, a RADA student. And he said to me, you wanted to be a doctor, right? Well just like you would train to be a doctor for years, you have to treat music the same way, you have to respect it as an honourable profession. That set my head absolutely straight. And from that day onwards, I saw music as an honourable profession, and one that would look after me. 

My father came to terms with it in some way. He travelled with me across Europe sometimes when I was very young. But he died maybe 10 years ago, and he went to his grave saying to me, look, you’ve been successful as a musician – you’re still young, you can still be a doctor.   

The Equals supported most of the big stars who came to London. We played on bills with Cream, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Procol Harum. We played with everybody, and invariably we acquitted ourselves very well. The New All-Star Club near Liverpool Street was a big, very popular Black club and we played with legendary people like Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. And I got the opportunity to spend time with the James Brown Band when they toured England in the mid-’60s. In terms of professionalism, there was no greater professional than James Brown. To be able to sit and watch him show after show, it was a sobering thing to see somebody so great. 

Eddy Grant live in London, 1986
1986: Eddy Grant performing live in Jubilee Gardens, London. Image: Ian Dickson/Shutterstock

I also saw Little Richard on a couple of occasions. People don’t realise how great Little Richard was, and the impact he had on everybody. Like Chuck Berry – these people weren’t just music contributors, they were starters. Even James Brown got some of his antics from Little Richard. Little Richard is literally the most under-appreciated artist of all time. 

I knew I had a heart problem when I was 14 years old. I told the doctor, I’ve got something wrong with my heart. And he refused to believe me. I was a fairly fit guy but every time I ran a long distance guys who were not as fit or strong as me were beating me, because every time I did a certain amount of yards my heart started to hurt. The doctor told me, it’s not your heart, it’s rheumatism of the sternum. I can never forget those words. I said OK, you’re a doctor, you must know. Then when I was 23, on New Year’s Eve 1971, I went home from a party – I hadn’t done any dancing or anything – and went to bed. Next thing I sparked out and I woke up in bed in Northwick Park Hospital [he’d had a heart attack]. That set me on a different track in my life. I had a different appraisal of my mortality. It was very sobering. 

I’ve continued to have issues with my heart since then. I take medication and I’ve had a stent put in and I’m strong. I’ve always eaten well, I’ve always drunk the right things, never smoked. I’ve looked after myself, and I deserve to be alive.  

Eddy Grant
Getting a stone on the Music Walk of Fame in Camden, North London, 2023. Photo: Normski Photography

When The Equals had a big hit with Baby Come Back it was unbelievable. I had this whacking great afro and I bleached it absolutely white. You can’t imagine – at that time there was nobody like that. I remember the first day I had it done. I walked down the road and cars were running into each other. What was this apparition walking along the road? It was a very exciting time. And then of course, when I had a hit with I Don’t Wanna Dance [Eddy Grant’s 1982 solo UK number one] everybody knew me. I give the story of myself and Mick Jagger walking down the street, going to the cricket, and he’s saying to me, how come everybody shouts out to you? What’s going on? I said, Mick, maybe it’s because I live here. I’ve been instantly recognisable for most of my life, and it’s got its pluses and minuses. 

I got married very young but honestly, she’s a great woman. In 1969 I had a very bad car crash in Germany. I could have lost my leg. I was cut all over, and I was immobile. My wife had to fetch me from the downstairs living room and take me up to the bathroom and back down again. She had to carry me on her back. Which young girl – she’s two years younger than me – would be able to do that? I was broken up, cut all over the place, over my neck and my legs, and I nearly lost a testicle. It really was a trying time for her and me. I still love that person after 55 years together.  

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If I could live any time again, it would be walking with my girlfriend, who became my wife, along the high street in the Isle of Sheppey and finding out Baby Come Back was going to be number one. A couple of young lads walked past and one said, “Oi! Look at him. He’s the one!” And I said, what are you talking about? And he shouted, “You’re going to be number one next week!” So I went to a guy selling magazines and he gave me a Melody Maker. And there I was with The Equals, and it said we were going to be number one. It was quite a moment. My wife has not engaged with my music at all. She just looks after my business. She does not get overly excited about anything. So I didn’t jump up and down. But I was doing backflips in my head. 

Eddy Grant is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his album Killer on The Rampage. Killer on the Rampage 2023 will be reissued in November via Grant’s social and streaming channels.   

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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