Music

What led Eddy Grant down to Electric Avenue?

When he was a schoolboy, Eddy Grant snuck in backstage at a James Brown show. He explains how it changed him, in The Music That Made Me.

Eddy Grant on The Music That Made Me

Eddy Grant on The Music That Made Me. Photo: The Big Issue

As a fresh-faced 16-year-old, Eddy Grant saw his life change the day his friend bought him a ticket to see Chuck Berry live in London. Electrified, he would soon form The Equals and top the UK singles chart with Baby, Come Back.

The Eighties saw him go on to become one of the UK’s most beloved stars. He combined reggae, electric pop, rock and funk to produce hits in the form of Electric Avenue, I Don’t Wanna Dance and anti-apartheid song Gimme Hope Jo’Anna.

Born in British Guiana, Eddy Grant, now 73, had come to the UK in 1960, part of the Windrush generation. He joined The Big Issue on The Music That Made Me to take us on a tour of his path to Electric Avenue.

Seeing Chuck Berry live in London in 1964

I was a fan of The Rolling Stones, and I got into furious argument with a friend defending them. He said to me, ‘You don’t know nothing, man. They are doing a lot of Black people’s music.’

Chuck Berry was coming over to the play at the Finsbury Park Astoria [in North London]. We were the only two Black people in the auditorium. Then the MC said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the man you’ve been waiting for – Chuck Berry!’ And my life changed.

He walked on stage and lifted his guitar up in the air, as I tend to do now, and said, ‘Hello, England.’ Well, I think those were the last words I really heard because the place erupted. It was all rockers –leather-jacketed, young studs – and they were going crazy like girls. Screaming, wrecking the place. And I found myself as one of them.

I thought Jesus! Literally, Jesus. This guy is the Alpha and Omega. How could somebody be so great?

Learning to play Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen’s Midnight in Moscow

Prior to having seen Chuck Berry perform, I was very much into traditional jazz. My father was a great jazz player, a great trumpet player, and he made me into one. So before I was ever a guitar player, and or anything else, I was a trumpet player.

There is something very surreal about Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen playing Midnight in Moscow. I learned it and I played it in with my little school jazz band. It had distinct impact on me as a trumpeter.

Since I started playing guitar I haven’t revisited the trumpet. I wanted to when my father passed. His trumpet was the first thing I looked for, hoping that it was still there under the bed. But somebody had nicked it, as they nicked my first guitar.

A backstage meeting with James Brown

My next mentor was James Brown –the greatest stage performer in history. He is the man who said, ‘Say it loud. I’m Black and I’m proud’ when no Black man was proud to be Black.

When James Brown came to England in 1966, he played on [ITV programme] Ready Steady Go! It was like I saw God. If Chuck Berry made me say ‘Jesus’, then this was God. Once I’d seen the light, I had to getto the Walthamstow Granada, which was the next place that he would play. I managed to get there just before he went on stage. But I had no money. So I walked up to the guy at the door. And I said ‘Edmund Grant, Daily Worker’ [pretending to be a journalist]. He let me in! I was in the lap of the gods, in the backstage area.

I got a chance to see this genius at work on stage. I made notes in my mind –this is what I’m going to be like when I become successful. But it was going to be hard work, because James Brown worked hard.

I was lucky enough after the gig to go with the guys to their hotel. Mr Brown came across to the hotel, and he spoke to me. It’s just one of those moments. I’ve never lost that programme. I’ve never lost that autograph.

Phoenix City by Roland Alphonso

This is the motherlode of Jamaican music and Jamaican culture. Phoenix City is the epitome of great ska. This is the music that educated me.

Louis Armstrong’s performance on What a Wonderful World

I got one more for you that will take your head off: Louis Armstrong, What a Wonderful World. As a song, as a sound, as a complete musical entity, I don’t think you can go much further or greater than Louis Armstrong, who everybody in this world would say is not a singer. But the performance of that song is so indelible, in my mind, and in my heart and in my creativity and everything. Louis Armstrong is my mentor when it comes to trumpet playing. He set the standard by which trumpet players all over the world will be judged. I don’t think we could end on a much more beautiful note than this.

I Belong to You by Eddy Grant is out now via www.eddygrant.com along with his entire catalogue of recordings.

See more of The Music That Made Me including Aloe Blacc & Fran Healy

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