Rolling Stone‘s interview series King for a Day features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and singers who had the difficult job of fronting major rock bands after the departure of an iconic vocalist. Some of them stayed in their bands for years, while others lasted just a few months. In the end, however, they all found out that replacement singers can themselves be replaced. This edition features former Bad Company singer Robert Hart.
When Bad Company needed a gifted blues-rock singer who could recreate Paul Rodgers’ original vocals onstage and help them write new material, they turned to Robert Hart. When Manfred Mann needed a frontman capable of singing anything from “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” to “Blinded by the Light,” he sought out Hart, too. And when former Small Faces/Faces/Who drummer Kenney Jones needed a vocalist who could convincingly sub in for Roger Daltrey, Rod Stewart, and Steve Marriott throughout the course of a single show, guess who he called? That’s right, Robert Hart.
If you’ve never heard of Hart, that’s likely because the U.K.-based singer hasn’t toured America since his last time out with Bad Company in 1996. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band is his main gig these days, but while they enjoy David Hasselhoff levels of popularity in Germany, they haven’t brought their show stateside since 1977, long before Hart joined their ranks. He’s also never sought out the spotlight in a serious way.
That didn’t stop Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford from reaching out to Hart recently to see if he’d join him Sept. 2 to perform Mike and the Mechanics songs acoustically at a special charity show, sharing the bill with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and John Isley from Dire Straits. This time around, Hart will have to sing Mechanics songs originally done by Paul Carrack and the late Paul Young. “I’ll be all the Pauls rolled into one that night,” he jokes to us via Zoom from his home in Poole, England. “I’m a good stand-in. If bands are looking for a singer, I can do it.”
Hart grew up in Dorset, where he worshipped Otis Redding, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. At a young age, he discovered his own voice. “As a little boy, I’d go to the local fish and chips shop,” he says. “If I had no money, I’d sing to the lady behind the counter and she’d give me fish and chips. But I started out in bands as a guitar player. When nobody wanted to sing, I went, ‘I’ll have a go.’ Then I dropped the guitar since it’s easier to just stand and sing.”
Catching local shows by Status Quo, Slade, and Thin Lizzy convinced him that he wanted to devote his life to music, but he was also a very skilled soccer player. When he was 15, Leeds United signed him as an apprentice member of the team. “I was a winger,” he says. “I only lasted three months. It was too much like work. The seed had already been planted with music, so I kept with that, really. Also, my dad was a fisherman. He had a very hard life. He said to me, ‘I never want you to work as hard as I’ve done. I want you to do what you want to do.’ He never pushed me to take a career up since he knew I was so passionate about music.”
Shortly before his brief career in soccer, Hart began playing cubs with the cover band Dice. They repertoire included most of the hard rock hits of the day, including “I’m Going Home” and “Love Like a Man” by Ten Years After, and “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath. When that fizzled out, he dropped out of school, moved to London, and joined a bigger cover band. “I started writing my own songs and sending them off without any response,” he says. “Then I got a call reply from Chris Blackwell, who owned Island Records. He signed me. That was my lucky break.”
It took some time, but that call from Blackwell eventually lead him to everything that followed.
How old were you when Chris Blackwell signed you?
I was 24. I always wanted to have something to do with Chris Blackwell since he had my favorite band, Free. He had Bob Marley and the Wailers and Robert Palmer. Chris was very, very kind to me.
How did you end up meeting him and making your solo album, Cries and Whispers?
It’s the weirdest story. I’m one of these starstruck people. I remember when I went to sign the contract. I walked into his office and he was with Faye Dunaway. I remember thinking, “Blimey, this is quite amazing.” They signed me and put me with a producer, Stewart Levine, who was producing a lot of pop bands in England at the time, like Simply Red and Curiosity Killed the Cat.
He recorded half the album in Los Angeles. Gary Stevenson, who produced Go West, produced the other half of the album. It was wonderful since I had the pick of these great musicians. In England, we had Pino Palladino and [guitarist] Alan Murphy. In L.A., we had [bassist] Nathan East and [drummer] John Robinson and [percussionist] Lenny Castro. I was in heaven.
How did you feel when the album didn’t do very well?
It had an audience. It’s amazing. People still write to me and say they love the album. But the great thing for me was that I was up and running. I was out there.
How did you wind up fronting the Distance with Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson of Chic?
Chris Blackwell stuck with me. When Robert Palmer made the “Addicted to Love” record, which was produced by Bernard Edwards, with [drummer] Tony Thompson, [keyboardist] Jeff Bova, and [guitarist] Eddie Martinez, they wanted to keep the nucleus of the band together since it sounded so good. But they wanted an unknown, British, white singer, and Chris Blackwell sent me for the job. That’s how the Distance formed.
What was the audition like?
It was the weirdest audition ever. I went to Los Angeles. I was like a fish out of water. I turned up in this bright yellow-and-blue-checked suit. Bernard gave me a piece of music and went, “You have 20 minutes to write some lyrics. Then you’re going to walk in the studio and sing what you’ve written,” to a backing track that they’d recorded.
I went in and did it. After about 20 seconds, he pushed the button and went, “You got the job.” The song that we recorded actually made the album. We were working on a film soundtrack to the Whoopi Goldberg movie Burglar. He just kept it as it was. That was a compliment.
It’s a shame Bernard Edwards isn’t more well-known these days. He was so brilliant. Tell me more about working with him.
What a genius. I was blessed to have known him as a friend, and then to work with him and write with him. He had something about him that you couldn’t explain. It was like, when you’re in a room with a great person, you just know. He had this air about him. He was also an amazing musician.
Why didn’t the Distance find a bigger audience?
It was a great band. I think there was politics behind it. At the time, Warner Bros. wanted Chic to get back together with Nile and Bernard. They threw the carrot at us. We spent a year in Power Station in New York making this record. Sadly, it didn’t find an audience. It was really sad.
I get the label’s perspective. If you have a band with members of Chic in it, why not get Nile Rodgers back too and call it Chic?
Were you a fan of Bad Company back in the Seventies?
Oh, dear me. I remember going on the bus to buy Bad Company, their first album. These were the days where you could open them up and just stare at them. My dream was to be in Bad Company. For me, Paul Rodgers is still the greatest. You can never replace Paul Rodgers or Steve Marriott. To get the opportunity to be in that band was amazing.
What do you admire about Paul as a singer?
If you listen to Free, his first band, he was 17 or 18, he already had the voice of a mature man. It was just so good, and still is. I think there’s certain people in life that are unique. Steve Marriott was the same. He was a unique singer. Robert Plant, too.
What did you think of the Brian Howe era of Bad Company?
I didn’t think it was a true representation of the sound of Bad Company, but I thought he sang brilliantly. I thought they made some great AOR pop records. They didn’t really have much to do with Bad Company, but they were successful, and they had a great sound to them. Terry Thomas produced them.
Simon Kirke said later that producers made those records, and he didn’t feel a great connection to them.
Yep. I don’t think they had a lot to do with them, the band. I think Terry Thomas played a lot of the guitars. Brian, bless his heart, had a very unique-sounding voice, very distinctive. The records did great. They were successful.
How did you first hear that there was a possibility of that band looking for a new singer?
It was the weirdest thing ever. This is quite a story. I was at my mum and dad’s house. I was about 30. The phone rang and my mum picked it up. She said, “There’s a man on the phone. He says he’s from Foreigner.” It was from Rick Wills, the bass player. He said to me, “Do you want to join Foreigner? Can you be on a plane tomorrow to New York? We’ll send you a ticket. You do know the songs, don’t you?” I go, “Yes, yes.”
And so I flew to New York. Then I auditioned. We worked for three weeks. I was with Rick Wills, [guitarist/band leader] Mick Jones, and Dennis Elliott on drums. But it just wasn’t… It would have suited Brian Howe, actually, because the songs are in that high Lou Gramm rage. They worked and worked and worked with me, but it wasn’t working out.
The manager, however, Bud Prager, also managed Bad Company. They wanted Brian Howe to go. They said, “There’s another job if you want it, with Bad Company.” And so I went back to England and auditioned.
What was that audition like?
They put on the first album and took off Paul’s voice. I knew the album backwards, being a kid and buying it. The audition was me singing to the original album.
Were you nervous?
I was more nervous with Foreigner since in my heart, I knew it wasn’t for me. But with Bad Company, I felt really at home. Simon and [guitarist] Mick Ralphs are such lovely people, real sweethearts. So I found my place with Bad Company.
Were you trying to sing like Paul, yourself, or some sort of combination?
A bit of both. It’s so funny. When Simon and Mick play together, you can’t help but sound a bit more like Paul since it’s the tapestry of the band. Free and Bad Company were three-piece bands with a singer. Three people make the noise, and one person sings.
How did they tell you that you had the job?
Mick Ralphs told me to come over to his house, but I don’t think they ever did tell me I had the job. We just sort of did it. We’d hang out, play, rehearse. It was very casual.
Your job was easier than Brian’s job in some ways, since he was coming right after Paul.
He sounded brilliant on all the records he made, like Holy Water and all that stuff. I think it was more difficult for him on “Shooting Star” and “Can’t Get Enough.” Those songs weren’t built for a high-range singer. So it was easier for me in many ways.
Simon told the press when you joined that he wanted Bad Company to return to a bluesier, rootsier sound.
Yes. Simon Kirke is a brilliant piano player, and a brilliant guitar player, and he’s a great songwriter. He got more involved in the writing. Mick has always obviously been a great writer. Dave “Bucket” Colwell was playing guitar with Mick. Funny enough, [former/future Bad Company bassist] Boz Burrell had recommended me to Mick Ralphs too.
We had a flag system, since Brian didn’t know he wasn’t going to be doing it anymore. I’d go down to Chiswick to this recording studio, and they’ve have this white flag up if it was OK for me to go in. If it was the red one, I knew that he was there. It was a bit odd at first. But it was a special time.
Do you remember the first concert you played with them?
That’s another thing. I was just pushed into this rock & roll world with them. We were rehearsing in Canada for the first tour while the Rolling Stones were rehearsing one studio over [for the Voodoo Lounge tour]. And Simon Kirke was best friends with Keith Richards. I think our first concert was in Tampa, Florida.
How did you feel the first time you walked onstage and had to sing those songs?
I was very nervous at first. These were big crowds. Also, you’re trying to fill another man’s shoes, and you can’t. It’s a very difficult thing. I did eventually get my own followers, if you like. I remember feeling nervous, and being incredibly relieved when it was all over.
I’m sure you were fearing signs like “Where’s Paul?” or even “Where’s Brian?”
“Who is this limey running up and down?” So yeah, it was a bit strange. We were touring with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
From what I read, the first few shows were with Fleetwood Mac in 1994.
Oh yeah. It’s so strange. I moved to Nashville after the second Bad Company album I did. I got signed to a publishing company and my writing partner was Billy Burnette, who was in Fleetwood Mac.
Did you get to know Billy and Bekka Bramlett when you toured with them?
Very well. She sings a duet with me on Stories Told & Untold. I love Bekka. She’s a fun character.
Fleetwood Mac and Bad Company were in the same exact boat at that time, since they were both rolling out new singers.
Absolutely. The audience seemed to go with it. You’re going to get the die-hard fans that are not going to go along with it. But in general, they were very, very lovely to me.
Were you doing any of the Brian Howe songs?
No. I think Mick and Simon had enough of that. They didn’t do those.
It was basically a big reboot of the band.
Yeah. I love the Brian period myself, but I think they had a bad taste in their mouth about many things. And maybe it was because they were successful and it wasn’t really Bad Company. You can’t deny success, and it was successful.
How was the band traveling? Were you all on a bus together?
Yeah. We were on an Eagle tour bus except when we toured with Bon Jovi. When we did that, we flew with them a few times, which was lovely.
What were your favorite songs to sing? Some of them must have been tough to sing every night.
Wow. Some of them were hard. I loved “Movin’ On.” I loved “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad,” which is quite a high one. I obviously loved “Can’t Get Enough” and “Ready for Love.” They were just great songs to sing.
Was it tough on your voice to sing these songs every night?
You know what? It was tougher when I had a night off, because the next night, after the night off, you had to warm it up again. We would do, like, 13 shows in a row. Then we’d have a night off. We would tour for six months at a time. When you come off the tour, you’d lose loads of weight and probably couldn’t speak for a fortnight.
Did you get close to Mick and Simon as friends?
Yes. Very much so. Me and Mick were inseparable. We used to always hang out together. Sadly, he’s not very well at the moment. He still calls me “boy.” “Hello, boy.”
Did you know Simon’s family? His daughters have been really successful.
Jemima has done amazing.
Lola and Domino, too.
Yeah. He used to take all his kids on the tour bus. Sometimes he’d follow the bus on his Harley, and we’d be there with all his kids. I knew them all really well.
How was the tour Bad Company did with Ted Nugent? Did you get to know him?
Fantastic! I loved it. At first, I was afraid to death of him because, as you know, he’s got quite a presence. But he was so nice to me. We got on very, very well, except for when I tried to chat his daughter up. [Laughs.] But he was a lovely person to tour with. And he had a great sense of humor.
What happened when you chatted up his daughter?
[Laughs.] We were all very aware that you couldn’t really talk to Ted’s daughter since he might come and beat you up. But he was a charming man underneath all that. Whether or not you agree with him [on politics], he’s got a real presence about him. Not a lot of people have that sort of presence.
Did you trade off nights closing the set?
Yeah. We flip-flopped. We were originally doing that with Lynyrd Skynyrd, too. But we realized after the first show when they were on first that you can’t follow “Free Bird.” We said, “Can we go on first every night?” You just can’t follow “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama” before that.
Did you get to know the Skynyrd guys?
They were lovely. Johnny [Van Zant] is still a dear friend. He’s the only one left now that Gary [Rossington] has passed away. [Guitarist] Rickey Medlocke was very nice, and [pianist] Billy Powell. I got very friendly with Leon Wilkeson, the bass player. His knowledge of music was incredible, the history of records and music and songs. He was an amazing bass player, even though his hand was twisted [as a result of the plane crash that killed several of his bandmates in 1977]. He was still brilliant.
You guys come from pretty different worlds. Was there any sort of culture clash?
I think they thought we were all softies. But I think they loved the fact that we could drink as well as they could. We did have a few of those nights.
How was the Bon Jovi tour? That was in bigger venues in front of younger fans.
Jon Bon Jovi was so nice to us, so gracious. Richie Sambora came and played on our record. Again, just regular blokes, really.
It wasn’t stressful playing in front of 20,000 Bon Jovi fans?
They were big crowds. We played some amazing venues. They were at the top of their game too. I remember being with Jon Bon Jovi in Vancouver, Canada when O.J. Simpson was acquitted. We all watched the verdict together.
Was everyone shocked?
Yes. “Shocked” is the word.
Let’s talk about making the 1995 Bad Company record Company of Strangers. Where was that recorded?
That was recorded at Richard Branson’s studio in Oxford at a place called the Manor, which was a manor house. We lived in it for about four months. What a great experience since everything is on hand. It’s all catered. There’s beautiful rooms. We had a great time making that album.
I want to hear about some of the songs you co-wrote on the album, starting with “Clearwater Highway.”
Bucket originally came up with the idea. We worked on it together. It was a great band for working on songs since they took any idea. It wasn’t like, “Mick writes the songs.” Anyone could turn up with an idea. We’d just start playing them. If they worked, you’d know pretty quickly, and I’d go away and start writing the lyrics. It was very easy to write songs with Bad Company.
You have sole credit on “Judas My Brother.”
Yeah. I came up with the idea. I think I played guitar on it in the end because Mick couldn’t quite get the riff right. I said, “I’ll play it.” I was fortunate to have a single credit on a Bad Company record.
You wrote “Pretty Woman” as a group.
Yes. Again, everybody in the group sort of contributed something, and it wouldn’t have been the song without them. It was very equal in that sense.
How about the song “Company of Strangers?”
I had the guitar idea. Simon and Bucket had a lyrical idea. Funnily enough, it was just used on a TV program. I don’t know which one, but we were just paid for it. It’s some sort of program in America. But that was an equal song. We all had different ideas and we came together as one. Simon is a good lyricist, too.
Were you pleased with the record in the end?
Very much so. I wasn’t sure how it would be received, being the first Bad Company record with me on it, but it was OK. People seemed to like it. And when we toured, we used the album cover as our backdrop. We still got good crowds.
The album peaked at Number 159 in America. The last one was Number 40.
We obviously wished it would have done better. But I think as a band, we were very proud of the record. It was done really organically. We did it all together, every single step of the way.
This was probably pretty bad timing. It was the peak of grunge and alternative rock. You just weren’t going to get radio or MTV to play Bad Company.
Yeah. I remember it being very difficult to get songs on the air. You’d get all these excuses. But like you say, that was the era of music then with Nirvana and the grunge scene. We were more “grudge” than “grunge.” But it was what it was. I was just proud to be part of it, really.
The next record, Stories Told & Untold, was cut in Nashville, and features several older Bad Company songs you re-did.
To be honest with you, there was an option left. We could have taken the money for the next record, split it, and not made the record. But we wanted to make one. The record company wasn’t that bothered. And so we got this producer named Josh Leo. Mick didn’t want to go, so he did some parts in England. But we ended up having Vince Gill, Timothy B. Schmit, Kim Carnes, Alison Krauss. All these people in Nashville came since it was Bad Company. They wanted to play on it.
That was a great time. I love the musicians in Nashville. The studios are wonderful. It was a very happy time making that record when it didn’t really need to be made. We re-worked some of the classics, and I wrote a few new songs.
One of them was “One on One.”
That’s right. I wrote that with Bucket. I think we might have written it in the studio. We also wrote “You’re Never Alone.” It’s quite a good album. I like the album.
What’s “Downpour in Cairo” about?
I haven’t got a clue. I don’t think they ever actually have a downpour in Cairo. I made that one up, but it seemed to work.
I know that Mick Ralphs missed a bunch of shows around this time. What was going on?
That’s right. Sadly, Mick had marital problems. Bucket did it on his own for a while. Then we got Dean Howard from the British band T’Pau for a while. But it’s not the same without Mick. He’s just got his certain way of playing. He’s got these big fingers, butcher’s fingers. I’ve always wondered how he can play guitar with those fingers.
He’s so underrated as a guitarist when you factor in his work with Mott the Hoople.
Absolutely. He’s originally a piano player, so he comes at it from a different angle. He’s just one of life’s nice people. They call him Mr. Pastry since he’s so nice. He’s lovely.
What were the last couple of tours like for you?
We were a bit of a party band. I remember that. Like with most British bands, they like to drink. But I haven’t had a drink for nine and a half years. Simon too. He’s gone longer than I have. You do reckless things when you’re on the road with a rock & roll band, but it’s all part of it, really
Do you remember where the last show took place?
I really don’t. It may have been in New Hampshire. I’m not sure.
This whole time in Bad Company, were you thinking in the back of your mind that Paul might return and you’d be out of a job?
Yes. Always, always, always. It wasn’t a thing that it bothered me since it was his job. I was just on loan, if you like. I wasn’t upset when it did finish. I’m one of those people that has no regrets. It ended when it needed to end, and I’m pleased that Paul came back, and I’m pleased that the fans got to see the original band again, with Boz.
Who told you that Paul was coming back?
I don’t think anybody did. We just finished with the management we had at the time. Then Paul had a Canadian manager and his wife or something, and they sort of just did it. I wished them nothing but success. I wasn’t sore. It’s Paul’s group.
Have you ever met Paul?
I have not. I spoke to him on the phone. We were at a gig, and he was talking to Mick on the phone. Mick handed it to me. He said, “Taking care of my seat?” He really is one of the greats. What’s funny, now that I think about it, is that most great singers are small. Thank of Steve Marriott, Paul… They are tiny guys with these massive voices. Incredible.
What’s funny is that he then joined Queen about a decade later, and he got to experience basically what you experienced. He was suddenly in this much bigger band and had to find a way to please the fans.
Yes. Paul was actually trying to sing like Paul in Queen, which is just going to be impossible.
Imagine the stress of standing in the middle of a soccer stadium next to Brian May, and you’ve got to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” to fans that know every single note of the original.
I mean, it must have been nerve-racking for him. Wow. But God bless him. He did it with pride. It shows you how brilliant he is to even attempt it.
It’s interesting that Bad Company, despite all the touring they’ve done with Paul since he came back, haven’t released a single new album. The last one they did was with you.
Isn’t that weird? That last record was in 1996. It’s strange that they never made another record. How weird. I loved doing “Silver, Blue & Gold” since that was one of my favorite Paul songs.
I read online that you were once asked to join Power Station.
Michael Des Barres wound up doing it. That was just before I did the Distance. The funny thing was I later had a band with [Power Station/Duran Duran guitarist] Andy Taylor. We formed a band called Taylor and Hart. We did one gig and Andy had a seizure. That was the end of the band, really. It was a ridiculous band. We were like, “Why not form a band? You’re Andy Taylor from Duran Duran. I’ve worked with Bernard Edwards.” Tony Thompson played with us. It just wasn’t meant to be, since it was at a time when Andy was really into drugs and stuff. We all were, I guess. But it went nowhere. That was probably 2000 or something like that. Poor Andy. He’s not very well right now. It’s terrible. He’s a very talented man.
After Bad Company, you started In the Company of Snakes with Neil Murray and other ex-Whitesnake people.
Yeah. It was also with Bernie Marsden and Micky Moody. Great band. We did a bit of Whitesnake and a bit of Bad Company.
You went from singing Paul Rodgers to singing David Coverdale.
Yeah. David Cover-version. But I love Coverdale’s voice. He was great in his day. He really had it together.
Did that band last long?
No. Just eight or nine months. We toured. That was it. But I loved it. I could throw out a few shapes and make it as David Cover-version for a while. They were one of the loudest bands I’ve ever been in. Bernie Marsden and Micky Moody were both incredible guitar players. Neil Murray is a great bass player, fantastic.
How did you meet Kenney Jones?
Boz Burrell. Kenney had this fun band. Paul Young was singing in it. Then he couldn’t do it. And it was Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music, [Rod Stewart guitarist] Gary Grainger, Rick Wills from Foreigner…and now this is a funny story. We’ve rehearsed. We’re playing our first gig. We’re doing Who songs, Bad Company songs…songs from all the bands we’ve been in. Midway through the gig, Boz takes his bass off and goes, “This band is far too loud for me. I’m leaving.” He left in the middle of the gig. He just walked off.
Kenney says to the audience, “Does anyone know any Who songs?” This big lad puts his hand up. We played the rest of the gig with someone in the audience playing the bass.
So despite all your history with Bad Company, you only ever played one half a gig with Boz Burrell?
Yeah. That was it. He was a lovely chap though.
When did you start with the Jones Gang?
That was in 2003. Nobody would sign us until this man at Trans World signed us. Then our song “Angel” went to Number One on Billboard [on the Hot Singles Sales chart], which is quite remarkable. We thought, “Oh, this is good!” Turns out the man that was managing us was ripping off all our money and all the PR rights. But we still play it to this day.
I’m doing a really interesting one on Sept. 2 with Kenney and the Jones Gang. We’re playing a gig. Before we go on, I’m singing with Mike Rutherford doing Mike and the Mechanics, just the two of us acoustic. That’s going to be fun. Roger Taylor from Queen is putting it on.
Roger Daltrey, Rod Stewart, Steve Marriott, and Paul Rodgers are some of the best singers in rock history. What’s it like to just glide back and forth between them all night?
It’s a bit of a stretch, to be fair. It’s a compliment that I’m asked to do it. Whether I pull it off or not is another thing. It’s varied. At least in Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, I can sing how I want. The hits those guys have been on, I need to sing them more or less the same. I mean, how brilliant is “Won’t Get Fooled Again”? What an anthem.
Do you do the primal scream at the end?
I can do that one. There’s actually two voices on the record, so Roger was cheating. And Roger Daltrey, another small man with an amazing voice. I love doing that song. It’s my favorite.
Kenney is also a very underrated drummer.
I think so. He’s also the nicest man in rock & roll. He’s very unique, the way he plays. Not a lot of people play like that.
Were you a fan of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in the Seventies?
I loved “Blinded by the Light.” And I love singing it, if you can remember all the lyrics. There’s a lot of lyrics. I loved “Davy’s on the Road.” Manfred Mann’s Earth Band has an amazing following in Europe. We just played to 11,000 people the other night. We played with Beth Hart. It was brilliant. The fans still come out in droves to see Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.
How did you join them?
It was weird. My mate was the drummer, Jimmy Copley, who was in Tears for Fears. I phoned him up to gets tickets for a Go West concert in my local town. Just as he was getting off the phone, he goes, “Oh, do you want a job? Manfred Mann is looking for a new singer.” I called Manfred and got the job. It was as simple as that. By accident, a job. It was very odd. If he hadn’t mentioned it at the end of the call, I never would have gotten the job.
Tell me about learning the material and the early rehearsals.
First off, I love Manfred Mann. He’s very straight. He said, “You must learn the stuff. Don’t come here and say you’ve learned it. Come here and have learned it. It’s lots of lyrics and lots of time changes.” So I did. Then I went to his house. He had one of those small Casio keyboards. I thought I was going to turn up and there’s going to be expensive piano rigs and keyboard rigs. But it was a Casio. We did a couple of songs and he went, “You got it.” That was it. And now I’ve been there for 14 years.
What’s so interesting to me about Manfred is that’s he’s clearly a genius at taking pre-existing songs like “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Pretty Flamingo,” “The Mighty Quinn,” “For You,” and “Blinded by the Light” and turning them into something completely new and different. They become even bigger than they were before. He just totally transforms them.
Yep. Bruce Springsteen talks about it in his Broadway show. He goes, “Manfred Mann changes just one or two lyrics. And I never had a hit with it, but he did.”
It’s so nuts that Bruce has never had a Number One hit with any of his own songs. But Manfred pulled it off with the very first song on Bruce’s first record.
Unbelievable, isn’t it? I was fortunate the other week to have a night out with Kiefer Sutherland, who is a friend of Bruce’s. He says that he also talks about Manfred Mann. “He changed one word!”
It’s a weird song. He wrote it with a rhyming dictionary and it’s just this firehose of words. Manfred put the chorus first and chopped it down.
Totally brilliant. It took nine months to do it. He’s not the quickest man in the world. But whatever he does, it’s fantastic.
Chris Thompson, the original singer in the Earth Band, sang “douche.” You sing “deuce.”
That’s the word. I sing “deuce.” Chris Thompson is another brilliant singer. He’s sadly retired because his voice is gone, but I love his voice.
It’s a shame that so few people know his name.
He’s iconic. He wrote the song “You’re the Voice,” the John Farnham song. He wrote that with a couple of people. He’s a brilliant singer.
Same with Paul Jones of the Manfred Mann band in the Sixties.
He’s fantastic. He’s a big blues man over here too. I’ve done his blues program a number of times.
You’ve been singing his songs for years.
Funny, isn’t it? He’s so gracious. He’s got a radio program and he often has us on it. He’s a good chap.
What’s it like to sing “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and “The Mighty Quinn” every night? These are just quintessential Sixties songs.
We do a rock arrangement of “The Mighty Quinn” and it goes down a storm.
Manfred took obscure Bob Dylan songs like “You Angel You” and “Father of Night” and put his spin on them in such unique ways.
That’s where Manfred’s talent is. He can take something you think can’t be changed. I’m surprised he’s never done Neil Young, because that would be interesting if he did. He spends hours trying to turn these things around.
It’s cool the group now plays songs by both the Earth Band and the Sixties Manfred Mann band.
Yep. Both of them. It’s a part of Manfred’s heritage.
The last Manfred Mann’s Earth Band concert in America was in 1977.
Amazing, huh? They always say, “Nobody will come see us if we go to America. Nobody knows us.” Maybe they would know, or maybe we could be on a bill with someone else.
It’s a shame. I hear “Blinded by the Light” on classic rock radio all the time. It’s a staple over here. I hear it as much as any Bruce song, maybe more so.
Wow. We do talk about playing there, but nothing seems to get done. I’m not sure Manfred would want to go now. He might go if it’s the right package. I sure would.
I read that the group has played more than 900 shows in Germany.
It’s unbelievable. They love us in Germany. It’s weird…I don’t want to call us “dinosaur acts,” but in essences, we’re older acts. We’re still rinsing out every last drop. But they love it. Big crowds come to every show.
Why Germany of all countries? What happened?
I don’t know. They love rock & roll bands. Some of the bills we go on will be us and Ten Years After, what’s left of that, Sweet, Slade, all these British rock & roll bands, they love them…Wishbone Ash. They just love it.
Does Manfred make every show himself?
He’s still doing it. He’s a remarkable man. He never misses a gig.
That’s impressive for 82.
Yeah. I hope I get to 82 and I’m still doing it.
What’s Manfred like as a person? I think he’s somewhat of a mystery man to most people.
He is a mystery man, but he’s so lovable. He loves a debate. On any subject, he’ll debate you. He’s brilliant. I love him. When I decided to get sober, he wanted to understand what sobriety meant. He went out and got the big AA book and he read it. That’s what a good man he is. He’s brilliant. He’s a lovable, lovable man, but he is a man of mystery, like Austin Powers.
How often do you play with Kenny Jones these days?
Well, we’ve got two in September. But it’s not many, about five, six, seven, eight, or nine a year. I’m obviously with Manfred for most of the year. When we get together, it’s always great. We rehearse for a day and get back into it. It’s always a lot of fun.
You were in XBad Company for a period of time with other Bad Company alumni.
We still do that. We do these rock cruises. I’m doing one next year with Foreigner. It’s me and Dave “Bucket” Colwell doing our version of Bad Company. We’ve got some gigs coming up in Spain and Cyprus. I’m still happy to do that.
Sounds like you’re happy to take whatever gigs are put your way.
Yeah. I’m a working musician. Life is never boring. I’m doing some acoustic shows on my own supporting FM, this British rock band that’s quite popular over here. I’m doing a few of those in August, Kenney is in September, and then Manfred later in September.
How do you keep your voice in good shape?
I don’t have a clue! I don’t do anything special, that’s for sure. I probably eat the wrong foods. The only thing I do is that I go to bed early. The only thing I do to look after my voice is sleep. I’m just lucky I think.
Tell me about your last solo record, Pure.
I just made another one of those records for Escape Music. I think my last one went cardboard in France, so I’m not sure they do that great. But it’s good fun to do. I’ve gone another one of those coming out in September. It just keeps me busy.
When is the last time you toured America in any form?
Was it Bad Company? No. We did a couple shows with the Jones Gang and the Black Eyed Peas around 2006. That’s the last time I played there. Next year, we’re doing this rock cruise with one of my favorite jazzy rock singers, Gino Vannelli. We’re doing that with him and Foreigner and a bunch of other people. I’m looking forward to this.
Bands like Foreigner that have zero original members prove that people simply like going to shows to hear songs they love.
Yeah. Foreigner has great songs. And that singer [Kelly Hansen] is remarkably good. He’s almost as good as the real one. He’s got stamina, the phrasing.
Are you still in touch with Simon Kirke?
I haven’t spoken to Simon for ages. I heard he got remarried. But we haven’t spoken for a few years now.
How about Mick Ralphs?
You know what’s so upsetting? I’m really reluctant to visit since he can’t speak or anything. He doesn’t know who is who, really. That’s heartbreaking. I’ve got all the memories in my heart of Mick. It’s really sad.
Did you ever go and see Bad Company in concert once Paul came back?
No. I didn’t. I could have gone, but I choose not to.
Many singers in your position I talk to left their bands with all sorts of bitterness and negative emotions. That’s clearly not you.
Never. I just wish them all the best. Life’s too short to be bitter. I’m just fortunate enough to be a part of these great names, really. We can all help each other in life, can’t we. It’s too tiny, life, to be bitter. You’ve got to make the most of it.
Out of Paul Rodgers, David Coverdale, Steve Marriott, Roger Daltrey, Rod Stewart, Chris Thompson, and Paul Jones, who is the toughest singer to replicate onstage?
Oh, blimey. Most of the ones you mentioned are in my register, though Roger can go out of my register a bit. The one I find the hardest is Steve Marriott. Most people can’t get anywhere near him. When you listen to [Humble Pie’s] “Black Coffee”… Kenney Jones was in the Small Faces. We have to sing “Tin Soldier” and “All or Nothing.” Some of them I can’t even attempt to do since he’s just somewhere else. I loved Humble Pie. That was a great band! But I never met Steve. Kenney says, “Good job you didn’t,” since I might have been disappointed. But he was one of my favorites. I just loved him.
Do you ever even think about retirement?
No! Not while I’m still fit and healthy, and enjoying it. The great thing is that in the Earth Band, we might do three days on, and then come home for a week. Do another three days, come home or two weeks. It’s sort of like a part-time job with a lot of traveling involved.
Do you look back and wish anything had gone different, like maybe you could have been bigger solo?
Nope. I don’t at all. That would make me feel… I wish things had, but do I regret it? No. There’s so many people, so many great people, that don’t even get a look in, people far better than me. The imperfections that we have are the bits that set you apart from people. If you’re a little bit imperfect, that’s where the answer is, I think.
Do you know what? I was on tour with Alice Cooper a few years back. It was this Rock Meets Classic show I was honored to do, and I’m going to do next year too. He looks and me and goes, “Robert, it’s just show business.” That’s because he’s really normal outside of Alice Cooper. He goes, “It’s only pretend.” And that’s it, really. We’re trying to pretend. I mean, there’s no such thing, really, as a rock star. Even Keith Richards in his mellow moments is just a normal man, besides his music.
You’re earned a decent living as a rock singer for decades. Few people can say that.
Absolutely. I can only be grateful. I have no regrets whatsoever. I’ve seen some nice people, met some nice people, I’ve got some dear friends. And I’ll probably have a curry tonight. What could be better?