Heart attack left me wondering who I was says Shakin’ Stevens, heading to Ipswich and Norwich

Shakin' Stevens, heading to Ipswich and Norwich. Photo: Graham Flack

Shakin' Stevens, heading to Ipswich and Norwich. Photo: Graham Flack - Credit: Archant

Shakin’ Stevens knew very little about his large family’s history. A serious heart attack in 2010 inspired the singer, heading to the Ipswich Regent and Norwich Theatre Royal, to change that.

Shakin' Stevens during a previous visit to Ipswich in 1982. Photo: Archant archive

Shakin' Stevens during a previous visit to Ipswich in 1982. Photo: Archant archive - Credit: Archant

“Something like that, you start to think don’t you,” he says of the doctors’ battle to save him after he collapsed while gardening, followed by months in hospital.

“If you don’t do it now you’ll never know. You get to a stage where you want to find out... I thought ‘well, here I am’ and when people think of the background of Shakin’ Stevens they think ‘well, he lives in Wales, Cardiff somewhere and he’s had these hits’ and and that’s it, full stop.”

He and his partner began delving into his ancestry, speaking to relatives mainly on his mother’s side rather than his father’s due to a family row.

Stevens, the youngest of 13, touches on this when discussing the song Love The World. Feuds were allowed to smoulder, ignite and feed rifts within and perhaps if they’d put away their petty arguments the family might’ve been stronger.

Shakin' Stevens unearthed some surprises when researching his family history. Photo: Graham Flack

Shakin' Stevens unearthed some surprises when researching his family history. Photo: Graham Flack - Credit: Archant

“When you popped questions to people it was such a long time ago... When I was growing up, people kept everything hush hush. My parents, certainly my mum, were private. We were asking family to give us answers and we weren’t getting any really, hence the idea of (the song) Behind Those Secrets and Lies. They either promised not to say anything or basically weren’t being honest.”

Nothing could’ve prepared him for what he’d eventually discover.

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“I didn’t know my father was married before and I had another brother” says Stevens, busy preparing for his tour, which stops by the Ipswich Regent on April 29 and the Norwich Theatre Royal on May 7.

“It lasted a year. That lady’s name is on the (birth) certificates for the last seven or eight of us. My mother’s was on them too. That was very strange and we still can’t work it all out. I don’t think we’ll ever know what went on there.”

He learnt about ancestors who toiled in the cruel conditions of the Cornish copper mines; his mother’s brother, a gunner, who died in 1918 and was laid to rest in Ypres... His great grandfather was a Primitive Methodist Preacher, a group which went on to become the start of the Trade Union movement. Determined to help the poorer members of the congregation, himself included, he suffered stonings and ill treatment.

His grandmother was no stranger to hardship and heartache. A spiritual lady she, like many of the family, was a member of the Salvation Army. Living a life lacking luxuries, she put others first but her gift of music making helped lift all around her. Her only munition was the fire in her blood, inspiring the song of the same name.

Discovering these whispers of the past, everything fell into place.

“Why not write songs about it? We’d already started an album going down that rootsy blues, country road. That’s how the album evolved. It is (a radical change in direction) indeed,” says the platinum selling rock ‘n’ roll singer, who’s been “knocked out” by the response to Echoes Of Our Times.

It’s a very personal album, one he’s been wanting to make for a long time.

“One’s career should move on image wise and I really didn’t have the choice to do it. I guess when I first started I was very naïve but I always wanted to sing; I didn’t want to do anything else. It took me a long time to get my first hit. After the first five years of success I should’ve changed then but I didn’t,” he adds, citing changes in management, trying the wrong styles, labels leaving him in limbo...

“I did have an album out called Now Listen, that was what I called a bridge album and that was different for me. So much so the guy on the radio played the first track, the title track, and said ‘who do you think this is?’ It was a good move but the person who signed me left so the album just went into oblivion really. Having said that, it was number eight in Denmark. I was having success with the compilation albums but I think Radio was my last single with Roger Taylor in the early 1990s. Again the label I was with, they did nothing...”

He says he has a better sense of who is thanks to his research and Echoes.

“The intention was to find out about the family and have that contentment. I wasn’t looking for any famous people or money, I just wanted to see what my background was and I’m very pleased. We went way back and we could go even further but it’s a time factor.

“Something was missing and now it’s fulfilled.”

Stevens has been invited to record a documentary with BBC Radio 2 about making Echoes. Ipswich and Norwich fans can expect to hear tracks from it, along with some old favourites.

“I can’t not do the hits. I won’t be doing all of them, but I’ll be doing some of them in a different way. I think that’s nice... It’s fresh for audiences and it’s fresh for me. There will be some surprises and songs people haven’t heard me sing before. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Did you know?

• Despite being one of the biggest artists at the time, Stevens didn’t perform at Live Aid. He didn’t sing on Do They Know It’s Christmas either because was touring out of the country at the time it was recorded

• In 2007 he enjoyed a career resurgence with new album Now Listen. The following year he opened the Glastonbury Festival to a capacity crowd

• He used to be a milkman

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