Culture: Joe Brown is a true great of rock 'n' roll
“This is the bare bones of Joe Brown,” says no less than Joe Brown himself.
With more than two hours of music, chat and magical stories in the show Just Joe, the singer and virtuoso guitarist who was Britain’s first true pop star chronicles his career, from his friendship with Johnny Cash to George Harrison being best man at his wedding.
Joe’s career has seen him go from being a young, solo star (his first major hit was A Picture Of You in 1962) to starring in West End musicals such as Charlie Girl (for two-and-a-half years, alongside Dame Anna Neagle) and Pump Boys and Dinettes, to reinventing himself 20 years ago as a generation-crossing solo act with an impressive band. (Rather than the cabaret act so many performers from the past have become).
And yet this isn’t quite a solo show as the cool Cockney – now 76 and armed with guitars, mandolin, banjo and ukulele – is joined by another sterling name from the music world.
Henry Gross, himself no mean singer, songwriter and guitarist, was founder of the rock ‘n’ roll revival band Sha Na Na who played at the famed Woodstock festival – with Henry the youngest performer there.
“We met in Nashville,” says Joe. “I’ve been going out for years and there was this guy I know in a bar, a real redneck geezer, and he kept pestering Henry, ‘Joe Brown’s in town and he wants to borrow a guitar’ and eventually he gave in and said ‘Well, send him round,’ and he did lend me a guitar. And that was 30 years ago.”
The result is an entrancing performance that takes in unexpected instrumental gems such as the Harry Lime Theme and Duelling Banjos alongside more conventional songs, even a guitar-picked reinvention of his light-hearted hit Henry VIII.
“When, instead of a band, you just have two instruments it’s amazing how they sparkle,” says Joe. “I don’t play electric guitar – we do a few rock ‘n’ roll songs and they sound great. An Everly Brothers song, part of a medley with Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, sounds like it probably sounded when they first sang it.
“Henry’s a great performer and he talked me into doing this. I said ‘You’re kidding, I can’t do that, I play instrumentals and stuff, you can’t just go dinging away on a single guitar, you’ve got to have someone to play with, do harmonies with’, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll come with you’, and that was that.”
Every bit as important as the music is the trail of anecdotes with Joe as outrageous as the best stand-up comedian. Everyone from Chas and Dave to Billy Fury, Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin to Dame Anna, comes into the frame.
Joe was a major star at the time of both Fury and Cliff Richard, and even had The Beatles as his support band. “They had their first big hit at the end of ’62, and they opened for me at the beginning of ’62 in Liverpool,” he says. “No one realised back then how big they would be, but I could see they were different.” He and George ended up living near each other and were always popping round each other’s houses. “We loved playing the ukulele together,” he says.
Yet Joe’s life hasn’t been without its heartache. As a young guitarist he backed Johnny Cash along with rock ‘n’ roll heroes Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran on pop TV show Boy Meets Girls. In 1962 he’d been due to go touring with Cochran and Vincent, but plans changed when A Picture of You stormed the charts. Their car crashed, killing Cochran and crippling Vincent. “I would have been in that car,” muses Joe. “I miss Eddie, he taught me so much about rock ’n’ roll.”
Joe’s wife Vicki, who sang with Fifties and Sixties girl groups The Vernon Girls and The Breakaways, died from cancer in 1991. Joe found new happiness when he remarried in 2000, to Manon, former partner of Small Faces singer Steve Marriott.
And music is a family affair with daughter Sam, a star in the 80s and 90s with her own hits, and producer/musician son Pete. Stepdaughter Mollie Marriott is even now set for stardom, her debut album, Truth Is A Wolf, making waves.
When Joe remarried, best man was George Harrison and after the Beatle’s death the following year, Joe played at the Concert For George memorial show. He performed a moving and memorable version of I’ll See You In My Dreams on ukulele.
Joe, awarded an MBE in 2009, never slows down. The latest tour is Joe’s longest single stint on the road – a response to the critical and public acclaim Just Joe received when it made its debut in 2016.
Just Joe is a wonderful night out. It is exactly that, unadulterated Joe. Pure stage magic, this is one show simply not to be missed.
Joe Brown will be at The Apex at 7.30pm on Wednesday, February 28. Call 01284 758000 or visit theapex.co.uk