Showman John Shuttleworth recalls the time he ‘almost’ played with Billy Joel

The Northern organist also reveals how he wanted to live on the moon in his hilarious Letter To My Younger Self

When I was 16 I looked about the same as I do now, but with spots, and considerably younger, obviously. Whereas now I groom my hair with a high-quality firm-hold gel, in those days I used Brylcreem. I wore slacks and brown or fawn lace-ups and a polyester long-sleeved shirt and a V-neck jumper and then if it was a bit parky an anorak or windcheater (if it was windy). My auntie bought me a skinny ribbed sweater in the 70s but it made my ribs look a bit skinny, so it had to go. Shame really – it was only doing its job! I did have a photo of Suzi Quatro on my bedroom wall, but only because I admired the motorbike she was sat astride. 

My preoccupations were those of an average teenager – how to get a 10lb box of broken biscuits from the indoor market back home on the bus without damaging them further – problems like that. I grew up in Bamford, a Derbyshire village, before moving to Sheffield aged 12, but I was still a country boy at heart and enjoyed scouring local woods for fir cones et cetera. Once I found an injured magpie and nursed it back to full fitness. I didn’t know then it was bad luck to see a single magpie. I should really have saluted it and said “Morning, Mrs Magpie – are you looking for your husband?” This, apparently, will repel any curse that might befall the single magpie spotter.  

I was quite reserved at school, preferring ‘Tiggy off ground’ to playing football with the rough boys. However, there weren’t enough areas off the ground at our school to make the game viable, so I developed a variation of the game called ‘Tiggy off green’ which required you to be touching something green, and then you couldn’t be caught. It wasn’t allowed to be the green piping round the V-neck of your school jumper, however. If you did that you’d be cheating, and were still eligible to be caught. 

Like many young lads in the 1960s I dearly wanted to become an astronaut and live on the moon. I even made a large moon crater out of crepe paper, but when I tried sleeping in it it proved a bit lumpy and I didn’t get a wink of sleep, so doubts began to set in. Then, after going to a fancy dress party dressed as a rocket and coming last, my ambitions to be an astronaut withered overnight. It just wasn’t worth all the hassle and heartbreak! 

I got into music quite late, purchasing an electronic organ off a retired policeman who couldn’t play for toffee. He was angry because he’d thought it would be easy, because it said on the keyboard ‘single finger play’. Yes, but you still have to know which finger to press down, don’t you? Back at home I listened to an old Winifred Atwell song called ‘Let’s Have a Ding Dong on the Stereo’, and this gave me the inspiration to write my first song called ‘Wanna Crack A Nut With Me?’ It was all about the hilarity of trying to crack a nut with a friend at Christmas, but also the frustration, because the nut often spins out of the crackers and goes under the sofa – heartbreaking! 

If I met the teenage John now, firstly I’d check his hairline for unsightly deposits of Brylcreem, and if any were detected, pass him a comb and march him to the bathroom. I’d be cordial but wary; firm but fair. Obviously, I would know all about my younger self so anything he’d tell me about his life would be met with the reply “Yes, I know you did – I was there!” I would advise him to steer clear of a girl called Barbara, and keep a lookout for a sweet Sheffield lass called Mary, with a hairstyle the shape of a motorcycle helmet. Not a helmet with a full-faced visor – that would suggest a floppy fringe like that lad from A Flock of Seagulls. No, I mean the old-fashioned one like Wallace and Gromit wear. I might envy him his Brylcreem, I suppose. I used to love the smell of it, but Mary has forbidden me to use it as it goes all over my pillow and stinks the bedroom out, she alleges! 

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

The young John would be very welcome at one of my shows as long as he’d purchased a ticket and agreed to sit quietly and listen. Toe tapping is allowed, and even punching the air on more raunchy numbers. I hope he’d be impressed with the way he’d turned out, and enjoy my emotionally mature songs with well-honed lyrics, especially ‘Pigeons in Flight’ – still considered by many to be my finest song to date! I think he’d be impressed by some of my DIY projects, and the neat way I store my tools in the garage. 

Most of the mistakes the younger John made were DIY mistakes, as mentioned in my classic ballad, ‘The Man Who Lives On The M62’. The song is all about mistakes you can’t rectify, and that farmer thinking he could live with a motorway going past his farmhouse surely made a grave error! The song goes: ‘Once I planed a door that was fouling on the floor/Now the wind comes whistling through a gap that wasn’t there before/ A strip of beading I secured with non-returning screws/Is I notice slightly proud, but there’s nothing I can do!’ If my younger self had been there he might have advised against making these cock-ups. He could also have helped hold the wood steady as I sawed it while undertaking DIY tasks about the home. 

A common misconception about me… maybe that I’m a classically trained pianist? No, I don’t think it’s that. Ooh, it’s a tricky one this… Well, sometimes my wife Mary thinks I’ve finished in the bathroom when I haven’t, you know, perhaps I’ve still got to trim my nasal hair, with my new electric nasal trimmer, so that misconception can cause unpleasantness. Occasionally, my next-door neighbour and sole agent Ken Worthington thinks he can walk along the low boundary wall that separates our two properties in his Cuban heels, and I won’t get angry. But I will, I’ll be blinking furious, because it damages the pointing. So I’m constantly watching him through the window, and if I see him even attempting to jump up on to the wall, I’ll be straight outside and reading him the riot act. It’s simply not on, Ken! 

I thought my big break was going to be a gig with Billy Joel, and naturally got very excited. But I’d misheard Ken, my agent.  What he’d actually said was “I’ve got you a gig in a village hall”. You see “village hall” sounds quite similar to “Billy Joel”, hence the misunderstanding. Getting some sandwiches and fairy cakes in cling film once, as well as my petrol money after a gig at the hospice, seemed like a breakthrough moment, but it only happened the once sadly. 

If I could go back to any moment in my life it would be having an ice cream by the reservoir with Mary, my sweater draped over my shoulders. I didn’t slip up as we walked back to the bank. Then Mary went to sit in the car and read her magazine while I checked the tyre pressures and refilled the wiper water.

John Shuttleworth’s UK tour starts on January 21

Image: Tony Briggs