You might not know the face but we bet you know the hit song...
- Credit: Archant
Paul Da Vinci, who’s coming to Suffolk, is the voice of a 1970s chart-topper. But which one?
You will… you will remember it… especially if you were a child in 1974, witnessing The Rubettes’ debut on Top of the Pops.
The strikingly-high falsetto voice that began the catchy Sugar Baby Love was like nothing you’d heard before. The song came from nowhere to spend four weeks atop the UK pop charts that May and June, selling millions of copies around the world.
But the irony is that the man with the high voice wasn’t on Top of the Pops… or even a member of the group!
Funny old game, the music industry, as Paul Da Vinci knows. Ahead of his visit to Suffolk, for the www.welovebse.com anniversary bash, he explained the background to that strange Sugar Baby Love story.
Actually, his own story really begins in the late 1960s, when Paul Prewer (as was) sang with “1984”. The Essex-based group recorded a couple of singles in 1969 before splitting in 1971.
Paul became a session vocalist: making demonstration recordings for songwriters hoping to sell their work, lending his voice to major advertising campaigns for firms such as Smith’s Crisps and British Airways, and singing backup on sessions for Ringo Starr, David Essex and others.
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He also did backing vocals for Barry Blue. The falsetto at the end of 1973 hit Do You Wanna Dance is Paul’s.
Then came a call from a couple of songwriters who’d had a bit of a hit in America and were going to do some doo-wop tracks. Was he interested in doing some sessions? Of course.
“After the first session, they basically said to me ‘Wow. We’d be interested in doing something with you.’ But I’d just signed a deal with Penny Farthing (a record label), ‘so won’t be able to do anything, but thanks very much’.
“Then I did the second session. Sugar Baby Love was recorded at 1.30 in the morning (at Lansdowne Studios in Holland Park). The high bit was written an octave lower, and it wasn’t working. I said ‘Hey, guys, it’s got to be higher.’ And they went ‘Yeah… right!’ And I sang it.”
And that seemed to be it. Until he learned The Rubettes, a band made up of session singers, were going to be on Top of the Pops.
Paul understands another band pulled out and The Rubettes were slotted in at short notice. And he says the lead vocals to which the group mimed, including that memorable falsetto, were the ones he’d recorded earlier.
“It was very unfortunate timing, really,” he says with understatement. We won’t rake over all the details of what happened afterwards, four decades ago, but he says a settlement was subsequently reached.
“It was a long time ago, but it was a defining moment in my career,” Paul says. And one not forgotten by many of us who tuned in, avidly, to TOTP each Thursday night in those days.
In hindsight, not being a member of the original Rubettes didn’t appear to dent his career at all. He soon had his own 1974 moment in the limelight, when his song Your Baby Ain’t Your Baby Anymore rose to number 20 in mid August.
Paul’s CV also includes being lead vocalist on the 1981 Tight Fit single Back to the Sixties part 2. He’s sung on albums by Ringo Starr, blues legend Gary Moore and Jeff Wayne, and did backing vocals on Top of the Pops for Elton John and Justin Hayward, and on an album by David Essex.
We can also hear him sing on some records by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
Paul co-wrote Liquid Gold’s 1978 single Anyway You Do It.
A long list of achievements includes being the narrator in The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, in the West End and Essex, and having his own band open for Fats Domino at the Royal Albert Hall.
For good measure, Paul toured as a vocalist in the production That’ll Be The Day from 1990 to 1994, doing more than 300 shows a year.
Then, from 2000 to 2006, he was actually with “The Rubettes featuring Bill Hurd” – Bill part of an earlier line-up.
Paul now performs with his own band, but he still sings that song. It will certainly be on the set-list when he comes to Suffolk before Christmas, for he’s not tired of singing it by any means.
“I do have to warm up a lot more now than I did,” he laughs. “But obviously you’re expected to do it, so I do it. I like singing low as well!”
Does he consciously do anything to keep his voice in trim?
“I have to avoid colds like the blooming plague. Bad analogy… Get a cold and you can lose work. I have to warm up, for a couple of hours, before every show. And I steam my voice.
“When I fly to Spain (there’s a date due at Benidorm Palace) it will take a couple of days to get over the air-conditioning from the plane. Especially with the falsetto. But I’ve been lucky. I’ve kept it – it’s in good nick – but I’ve had to be careful.”
The date in Suffolk brings him back to a county that he and wife Linda made their home for a while, a decade or more ago.
It was after he “joined half The Rubettes” – that’s The Rubettes featuring Bill Hurd. “We were flying from Stansted all the time, so it was ridiculous coming from Somerset. So we moved down for a couple of years.”
They made their home in the Hadleigh area, near Ipswich, and found Suffolk a lovely county.
“It was ironic, really. We found this beautiful little road and had this Tudor cottage. But we had a lot of problems, actually, because there was a lovely country pub next door, which changed into a ‘Sky pub’, and then the Government in their infinite wisdom changed the licensing laws and we suddenly were getting kids outside, late at night, being really rowdy.”
Paul remembers having about 15 youths kicking their back gate at one point, and this persistent aggravation proved difficult.
“It was such a nuisance, because we really liked it (the area).” But because it was an old cottage, there was no buffer zone between the house and inconsiderate folk walking along the road after a visit to the pub.
Home today is, again, Somerset – near Glastonbury. It’s a long way from Paul’s Essex roots in Grays – he was born in the same road as Denise Van Outen and Russell Brand – but they love it.
He’s enjoyed variety in his music career, too. Paul’s composed classical pieces – such as a 15-minute concerto for 16 string players that was performed at Wigmore Hall in Marylebone.
He found it a very different discipline than writing pop. “Sometimes, what you think is your main theme becomes a subsidiary theme. The counter-melody comes to dominate and you think ‘Ah…!’”
Paul says he’s not musically trained, but would find himself working until 4am or 5am as it all flowed. “I couldn’t write it quickly enough.”
Must be in the genes. Daughter Claire Prewer-Jenkinson is an opera singer (due to appear at the Royal Albert Hall next year) and grandson Aaron Prewer-Jenkinson is also skilled in that direction, as well as playing bass, saxophone and harmonica – and singing – in Paul’s band.
What does Paul think of the modern music industry?
“I think the business has become very, very polished and ultra-professional, in every aspect,” he says.
Would he prefer to be in his pop pomp now or in the 1960s?
“I think it was a much more pure, organic form of expression in the ’60s and ’70s, and the ’80s to an extent, than what it is now.
“There are some fantastic singers out there – really, really accomplished kids. I won’t say who it was, but a friend of mine went to see someone who had won X Factor and this particular singer, she said, was fantastic for two songs, but then they were bored because this person hadn’t trodden the boards and learned their craft. They’d gone on – great singer – but they couldn’t put on a show.
“Judy Garland, Édith Piaf, Shirley Bassey… they would have stood on a stage and been absolutely magic, just on their own – no bells and whistles, just this communication with the audience. I think they’re very professional (today), but it’s very structured now, isn’t it? Almost clinical.”
So which era does he plump for, then? Pause for dramatic effect. “I think perhaps this one, because you might have got all your money!”
Paul and his band are in Suffolk on Saturday, December 16 – and bringing with them classic songs from the 1960s and ’70s to help everyone get in the party spirit, ready for Christmas.
They’re one of five acts booked for “A Night 2 Remember 2”. It’s the second-anniversary celebration of the Facebook-born group We Love Bury St Edmunds, but is open to all.
It’s all in a good cause, too. Profits from the evening will help the My WiSH Charity for West Suffolk Hospital and The Gatehouse Dementia Hub.
The event is at Great Whelnetham Community Centre, starts at 6.30pm, and includes a free first drink, masses of space for parking, and food stations featuring retro party food by Whites Catering.
The other acts are Irish burlesque cabaret artiste Kristin Kapelli, Alison Moyet tribute artiste and Stars in Their Eyes winner Jacquii Cann, impressionist Marea Smithson (who was on Britain’s Got Talent) and the rock’n’roll sounds of Sarah Probert.
See full details, and buy tickets, at www.welovebse.com