Sometimes the difference between success and obscurity in the music business is all in a name. Even though ’70s British pop rockers Smokie sold over 30 million records worldwide, they remained relatively unknown in the US. According to founder Chris Norman, who formed the band together with school mate Terry Uttley and Alan Silson back in 1968, it may have been the band’s name that held them back in the place where the real fame, money and recognition derived.
“I don’t think we realized how much the word ‘Smokie’ was connected in the US to Smokey Robinson and Motown. In fact, we were forced to change the spelling from Smokey to Smokie. We didn’t think it would be a problem, but we got a letter from Motown,” the 58-year-old guitarist said from his home on the Isle of Man.
“I think, looking back, the radio stations were influenced by Motown, and they said ‘who do these guys think they are? There’s only one Smokey.’ “So maybe we didn’t get the radio play we might have gotten otherwise. When you think about the music, it was perfect for what was going on around it. It’s a real shame. But I really think that if we’d had a different name, we would have been big in the US.”
Smokie was big just about everywhere else, though, with their bright, tuneful harmonies featured on a string of hits including their signature tune, “Living Next Door to Alice.” But besides the name snafu, Smokie broke one of the main rules of rock & roll – they never toured in America.
“We did have some success in the US – “Alice” was number 16 and we had a Top-50 album, but there was never enough promotion to really break through,” recalled Norman.
“Our management had the strategy that we shouldn’t tour until there was a big hit. That could have been another reason why we didn’t make it. And I’m not sure if it was the right strategy. We were playing everywhere else. And obviously, you need to tour in order to break out. Maybe we could have changed peoples’ minds and exposed ourselves if we had toured, but it’s too late now.”
Norman didn’t ponder the mystery for too long. He scored his own hit in the US in 1978 with “Stumbling On,” a duet with Suzie Quatro, which encouraged him to leave the band a few years later and launch a solo career that has equaled Smokie’s accomplishments. Since 1986, soft rock hits like “Midnight Lady,” “Some Hearts are Diamonds” and “Baby I Miss You” have made him a star in his own right throughout Europe. While his name-recognition factor in the US may not be any higher than Smokie’s, he’s a superstar in many European countries, and will make his way to Tel Aviv for a show on February 18 at the Mann Auditorium and the next night at Haifa’s Congress Center.
THE AFFABLE Norman became hooked on rock & roll like just about every other British kid in the ’50s – via Elvis Presley.
“I was born in 1950, and by the time I was seven, I was, like everyone else, listening to Elvis and to Lonnie Donegan,” said Norman, noting that his parents were both entertainers who toured around England.
“I don’t know if them being musicians affected me much; I was very shy, and didn’t want anything to do with side of their lives. I used to hide, and hated it when I got near the stage. They used to try and teach me to tap dance. It wasn’t like I wasn’t interested, though; I always had a good ear for music and already sang good harmony as a kid – I just wasn’t interested in show business.”
It wasn’t until The Beatles became a household name in England in 1962 that Norman picked up the performing bug.
“It felt a bit like the world exploding around you. Everyone I knew was going around, learning guitar and forming groups and growing their hair. Most of the groups fell by the wayside,” he said.
Finding kindred spirits in Uttley and Silson, Norman put together bands in various formats until settling on Smokie in 1968. But there was no overnight success for the group, which saw them do everything from playing cabarets to backing the former leader of Herman’s Hermits, Peter Noone, on his first solo tour.
“Everything we did was helping us take steps forward. We went pro in 1968 and you think that everything is going to happen quickly and you’ll get famous fast. But when we got our first record contract in 1969, our first single flopped, then more singles flopped,” said Norman.
Then they got the gig backing Peter Noone, which, Norman says, “was good experience to learn how to survive on the road. Everything we did was a step toward more experience. We thought backing Peter was going to be our big break, but it wasn’t. But it was experience. Eventually we got to the point where we did everything, and by the time we did become successful, we had a solid foundation behind us.”
DESPITE THEIR “nice guy” image, ironically, Smokie has become infamous due to off-color cover versions of “Living Next Door to Alice” recorded in 1995 by the Dutch band Gompie, and later that year by British comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown – both versions featured the addition of a line in the chorus of “Who the **** is Alice?”
The remaining members of Smokie decided to capitalize on the unexpected resurgence of their name by also recording the risque rendition of the song, a move that Norman looked down upon.
“The first time I heard it, I thought, that’s kind of funny, but I thought it was a mistake for Smokie to record it,” he said. “It was silly, even though it was a light, fun record in the first place. But nevertheless, putting it out was a mistake.”
Norman still performs “Alice” in concert, even though he said it wasn’t one of his favorite Smokie songs. And even though, it’s become indelibly linked to its ribald football cheer addition, audiences usually treats it respectfully by refraining from shouting it out.
“The audience doesn’t usually scream out that line when I perform “Alice.” Maybe sometimes when I do a festival you hear it, because it’s not my crowd and it’s more boisterous,” said Norman.
Boisterousness is not part of Norman’s DNA – he’s been married to the same woman, Linda, for 38 years, and they have five children and four grandchildren. When he’s not touring, Norman leads a quiet life, rarely leaving his Isle of Man home, where he has his own recording studio.
“I’m not an out-and-about kind of guy. I’m away on tour quite a bit and when I’m home, when I’m not relaxing and recuperating, I’m always working on different projects. I’ve got my own home recording studio, and lately I’ve been recording with some of my kids – three of them are musicians,” said Norman.
“I don’t go down to the local pub to watch the football match. It would be like a busman’s holiday for me to go to the pub. For me to get home after a tour and then go out doesn’t make any sense.”
Sensible is the key word for Norman’s music and his entire career. While he was drawn to music, he said he was never fully committed to it until he was confident it would be a viable means of making a living.
“When I was a teenager I always dreamt of being a musician. But it
wasn’t something that was thought of as a career move. When you met
with your guidance counselor, you didn’t discuss the option of being a
pop star,” he said. “When I did go professional, I realized that if I
did it the right way, I might be able to make a living out of it, even
if I can’t be hugely successful. That’s when it became a
musician-for-life thing for me.”
And even without the accolades from the US, Norman has done just fine on his career path.