Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Tam White, born to the Blues

The Scotsman, 16 July 2002

Everywhere he goes in Edinburgh, somebody knows Tam White, even behind his sunglasses. In the close below the Grassmarket flat where he spent his childhood, a woman stops and tells her teenage daughter: "See him, he's a great singer, he's famous." And next door in the White Hart Inn, the landlady greets White with the extravagant warmth of an old friend - even though he's been off the bevvy for 20 years.

We're revisiting his old haunts in the capital and each and every place throws up a friend or a fan. Outside the old Platform One, it's one of his stonemason buddies who greets him; at his former secondary school, the steely-faced headmistress comes to check out the group of people taking his publicity photos near the gates. She recognises Tam: "Good luck to you," she says, her mouth cracking into a smile, "I enjoy your music." "All this fame and no money," says White to no-one in particular. It's been like this for years.

At least at the Queen's Hall, Tam White will receive the recognition he deserves with his 60th birthday celebration. The show features this great blues singer with his own band, Shoestring, and then, on the same bill and for the first time in his career, at the heart of big band Power of Scotland.

It's the ideal opportunity to see an artist who's been called "one of the great European blues singers", a performer who reckons he's at the height of his powers. The critics appear to agree: The Crossing, his recent collaboration with pianist Brian Kellock, received the kinds of notice that most performers can only dream about.

If he seems the quintessential Edinburgh man, White has gigged with the greats in London and all over the world. He's played on Beale Street in Memphis, with Kellock at the Adelaide festival, and shared bills with Long John Baldry, Alexis Korner and the Animals. For six months in the mid-1960s his band, the Boston Dexters, were resident at the Pontiac Club in Putney, alongside the legendary John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, who also featured Eric Clapton in their line-up.

It's all been a fantastic buzz, he says. "It's like being in a gang, a tribe, a footballer in a team - that's what it's like in a band. You're all working together: no man is an island. Any adulation I've ever had has been down to the good fortune of working with great people. We've always had a rapport."

Music is in his blood. White's grandfather was bandmaster in Gilmerton, the mining village on Edinburgh's southern fringe, who had six sons who played in the local band. His mother, Marion, sang and Matthew, his father - "the most laid-back man I've ever known" - loved music. The pair used to cycle on a tandem at weekends up to Perth or down to Moffat, "him on the front, me at the back, singing."

It's a matter of pride that the family home was above the tavern where Burns spent his time during his last visit to Edinburgh, and you sense the songs of Burns in the moodiness of White's music. "What about Times Tougher than Tough?" he asks. "It's just the same deal as A Man's a Man for 'a That."

As a boy he took piano lessons - though he never learned to read music - and he was in the school choir. At Darroch Senior Secondary he sang tenor in the Mikado and the Beggar's Opera and, encouraged by his music teacher, auditioned with the Edinburgh Opera Company. "My teacher wanted me to join, but rock 'n' roll had just hit the streets," he says, as if no further explanation is required.

At 15 he was out of school and learning to be a stonemason. He made his musical debut in a skiffle band at Sandy Bell's, but honed his tastes for new American sounds on Lothian Road, where US servicemen hung out. "I got friendly with a couple of guys and they turned me on to Jimmy Witherspoon, so I got into blues, the jazzier side of blues. Then I got turned on to Mose Allison. He was doing all these songs with jazzy chords and good scenarios like Seventh Son, which was more interesting that: 'My baby woke up this morning'. I just kept moving on."

White moved happily into a booming Edinburgh club scene, with the Place and the Gamp club open for business on Victoria St, the Green Light Club on Gilmore Place and the Blue Door at Churchill. These were stages set for his band, the Boston Dexters. The Dexters have gone down in legend on the blues scene. These days their singles from the 1960s change hands for anything between £10 and £75, and one of their tracks, Ray Charles's I Believe to My Soul features on the EMI compilation, R&B at Abbey Road.

But the Dexters' stay in London was ultimately disastrous. Signed to Columbia, like many bands before them they were cast as "the next Merseybeats". Their single I've Got Something to Tell You, foisted on them by record company executives, was a disaster, completely at odds with their R&B style. " It blew our credibility," growls White.

There was more pushiness to endure from the entertainment business. "Decca wanted me to be the next Tom Jones. Everyone wanted me to be somebody else. I did a series for STV in the 1970s, my own show, and I ended up in a monkey suit - it was incredibly embarrassing - and doing working men's clubs, I got hooked into that, anything to make a living. And then I stopped and went back to the stonemasonry."

Later, as White set about reviving his singing career in the 1980s, he showed he had learnt his lesson, when his agent rang and asked if he would consider doing a commercial. "For a while I was walking up and down my house singing: 'Food GloriRoss food' then I thought: 'What are you doing man?' I rang my agent and told her to forget it. She said: 'But it's a lot of money.' 'I don't care, forget it.' She said: 'But Ken Russell's directing.' 'Tell Ken to fucking sing it himself then'.

"The funny thing was they made the advert with a director sitting with his back to the camera, and singers, dressed up like clowns, coming on and going: "Food ..." And then he'd shout: 'Next'. It would have ruined my image all over again."

White's return to stage and to top form began at a gig in Norway in 1982, and was swiftly followed by the reformation of the Dexters as a ten-piece band. Later, he started writing his own material and for a while in the 1980s hooked up with Boz Burrell; he also had headline gigs at Ronnie Scott's and even made a live album there. White's gravelly voice became known to millions when he sang the role of Danny McGlone for Robbie Coltrane in John Byrne's Tv classic Tutti Frutti. Coltrane was good, but an octave or two above where he should have been. "It's strange that," reckons White. "Sometimes you get big men with wee high voices."

Throw in the matter of a small acting career, including a part in Braveheart, his children, his grandchildren and a happy and enduring marriage, and you might wonder what Tam White's blues are all about, and what drives him on.

"It's just in my nature to perform, man," he answers. "I have to do it. I like the message in the music I play. Music is communication."

Tam White 60th Birthday Celebration, Queen's Hall, 26 July. Tam White's Shoestring Band, Bridge Jazz Bar, 82 South Bridge. 18-25 August.

Watch Tam White and Brian Kellock perform The Water is Wide.

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