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Les Reed Interview

Introduction by Jim Liddane
Les Reed. has had a long and extremely successful songwriting career, scoring (to date), more than 40 hits, including songs recorded by Tom Jones, Elvis Presley, Engelbert Humperdinck, Lulu, The Fortunes, Perry Como, Dean Martin, The Dave Clark Five, The Drifters, Gene Pitney, Herman’s Hermits, Cher, Garth Brooks, Vic Damone, Marvin Gaye, Robbie Williams.Petula Clark, Bing Crosby, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Luciano Pavarotti and many many more.

One of his biggest successes “It’s Not Unusual” has achieved over four million plays on American radio alone, and he has collaborated with the cream of the world's songwriting talent, including Gordon Mills, Barry Mason, Geoff Stephens, Roger Greenaway, Roger Cook, Peter Callander, Sammy Cahn, Mitch Murray, Don Black, Tim Rice, Tony Hiller, Bill Martin, Guy Fletcher, Eddie Seago and Johnny Worth.

Born Leslie David Reed on July 24, 1935, in London, Les played piano with the John Barry 7 (arranging their hits "Walk Don’t Run" and "Hit And Miss"), and when Russ Conway felt he needed a second pianist alongside him on his own hit "Pepe", he picked Les for the job.

Later he would back Adam Faith both on record and on tour, while Adam would go on to become best man at Reed’s 1960 wedding to June Williams. In 1964, having arranged hit records for Joe Brown and Emile Ford, he scored his first Top Ten hit as a songwriter with "Tell Me When" by The Applejacks, which he co-wrote with Geoff Stephens.

Other successes quickly followed, including such classics as "Delilah" and "It's Not Unusual" (Tom Jones), "The Last Waltz" (Engelbert Humperdinck), "There's A Kind of Hush" (Herman's Hermits and also The Carpenters), "I'm Coming Home" (Tom Jones), "Here It Comes Again" (The Fortunes), "Everybody Knows" (The Dave Clark Five), "I Pretend" (Des O'Connor), "Girl of Mine", "Sylvia" and "This Is Our Dance" (Elvis Presley), "Does Anybody Miss Me" (Shirley Bassey) and even Bing Crosby ("That's What Life Is All About").

An accomplished pianist and arranger (he penned the arrangement for one of Tom Jones’s biggest hits "Green, Green Grass of Home"), Les has also had a stellar recording career of his own with the Les Reed Orchestra releasing more than twenty albums to date.

And of course, the man himself can boast not only countless Gold Discs, several Ivor Novello Awards, and the British Academy Gold Badge of Merit - he is even a Freeman of the City of London (awarded for his contributions to music), and in 1998, was honoured with an OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth 11.

Jim Birmingham interviewed Les for the International Songwriters Association's publication "Songwriter Magazine".

When did it all start for you?
Even at the age of four years, I was aware of popular pianists of the period, such as Charlie Kunz, Billy Mayerl, Carroll Gibbons and, later, Semprini. I would try (even at that age) to emulate these artists, albeit in a very amateurish manner, but I was obviously hooked on piano music and so my father bought me a second-hand upright piano to play.

In 1940, when I was five, I started piano lessons with Rita C. Rowe who, in the ensuing years, taught me Mozart, Bach etc. and guided me through the London College of Music examinations which I completed successfully by 1948. During and after the war, my father (Ralph Reed) started a troupe of entertainers called “The Westfield Kids”, which included singers/tap-dancers/magicians etc., all under the age of twelve. I accompanied the act on piano and also performed a solo spot on accordion, which I started to play when I was seven. Accordionists, Toralf Tollefson and Tito Burns were my idols on this instrument and, when I was 16, I performed in the same show as these two icons at The Albert Hall Extravaganza.

My favourite bands of this period, were Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman who, later on in my career, became a good friend and, along with his brothers Harry and Gene, published some of my songs in the USA. My first audition as pianist was at the age of 14 for Harry Leader’s band at The Astoria Ballroom, Charing Cross Road. I arranged a number of songs for Harry’s band and continued playing in London nightclubs until my call-up for military service in 1954.

What would be a typical Les Reed working day?
When I am writing arrangements, whether it be for film, animation or albums/singles, I usually start writing at 6am. I find this the most conducive time for me personally, as the only sounds at that time of the morning are birds and not telephones! Writing songs is a different matter, however, and I usually play the piano for a couple of hours, just meandering, and most times a melody will take shape, and I can record this on tape. Throughout the day, I make many visits to the piano and tape recorder to fine-tune that melody. I will then make contact with a lyricist who, in my opinion, would favour this kind of melody, then arrange a get-together to finish the song.

My work doesn’t stop there however as, depending on who records the song, I am usually expected to produce/ conduct and arrange the potential recording, as per Tom Jones, Engelbert, PJ Proby, The Fortunes. Wayne Fontana, Mireille Matthieu and The Dave Clark Five, amongst the many artists that I have had the privilege to work with over the last 45 years or so.

Do you write all the time even if there isn’t a project on the go?
There are days when meetings/routines and everything “normal” is the last thing on my mind. I believe this has to do with another dimension, which manifests itself and encompasses the spiritual side of my creative output. I retreat into a little world of my own and this seems to be when I am at my most creative. This feeling has a close affinity with my music, and there are wonderful moments when creativity abounds. I write most days, regardless of whether there is a project on the go or not. My favourite composer is Delius and I tend to listen to his music when not working.

You’ve had many covers of your songs. Have you ever been really disappointed with what you’ve heard?
In the main, the many recordings and cover versions of our songs have always pleased me, especially when big-named singers, such as The Carpenters, Perry Como, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby, amongst others, have covered them. However, the three songs of ours that Elvis Presley recorded were quite disappointing. Having said that, he cut the songs in his later life, and his voice lacked the magic of his previous recordings. Obviously, it was a huge honour to have Elvis cut our songs, and I am delighted to say that one of his favourite records of all time was “The Green, Green Grass Of Home”, on which I did the arrangement, played piano and conducted.

What is your favourite cover?
We have had some incredible and wonderful recordings of our songs, but I was delighted to receive a fantastic boxed set, “The Marvin Gaye Collection”, where Marvin sings a wonderful version of “It’s Not Unusual”, live in Memphis. Most major artists in other countries have covered “Delilah” but, to this day, my favourite recording of the song was by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, which is so unique in its approach and completely different to every other recording of “Delilah”. Luciano Pavarotti also sang it well, as do the Welsh International Rugby Team and fans!

Songwriters I’ve spoken to over the last few years like Mike Batt and Graham Lyle, have spoken about releasing an album themselves of songs they’d written that were hits for other people. Is that something you would consider?
I am not generally known as a singer like Mike Batt, Graham Lyle, Justin Hayward and other songwriters, even though I had three releases featuring my voice in the 60s, namely “Don’t Linger With Your Finger On The Trigger” (a country song), “Rain Of Love” and “How Small We Are”, a duet with the beautiful and talented singer, Julie Sullivan.

However, I have recorded 22 albums over the years with my orchestra and most of these albums feature my songs – not least of all “Colour Me”, containing 24 of our major hits. Other artists, including Connie Francis, Mireille Mathieu, Geoffrey Evans & His Orchestra, amongst others, have paid tribute to my songs, with complete albums of my material. Apart from my orchestral albums, my own rock instrumental pieces are featured and released under the name of The Les Reed Combo. All of these albums are due to be re-released in April/May on the Chapter One Records website.

Would it be fair to say that a lot of your work is collaborations?
Outside of my instrumental compositions, 90% of my work is collaborative. I do write lyrics, as well as melodies, but prefer to work with the established lyricists. To me, this takes our songs into a different dimension. I find it enthralling and exciting to have a further creative element working as partner on the product. It never ceases to amaze me how lyricists use their incredible craft to tailor a story around my original melody and, conversely, I find it exhilarating to read a lyric which will inspire me to write a beautiful melody. I have been lucky in my choice of partners over the years that include Barry Mason, Geoff Stephens, Gordon Mills, Roger Cook, Peter Callander, Sammy Cahn and Bing Crosby. Most of the SODS (Songwriters Of Distinction) have agreed to partner me over the years, including Mitch Murray, Don Black, Tim Rice, Tony Hiller, Roger Greenaway, Bill Martin, Guy Fletcher and Eddie Seago.

Are you happiest working with others?
It makes me extremely happy to spend a day (in Roger Cook’s case, a week!!) with such great talent, and to be able to come up with a song than may affect a lot of people in the future. Many people met whilst dancing “The Last Waltz” and “Love Is All” is a top favourite at weddings. It’s also wonderful to hear the many football fans sing our songs on the terraces, such as Leeds United (“Marching On Together”), Stoke City (“Delilah”), Millwall (“It’s Not Unusual”) and the Wales Rugby Team at Cardiff Arms Park (“Delilah”).

How do you present a demo of a new work?
Depending on the artist(s) we have written the song for, a similar voiced session singer is approached to sing the demo. I fix the routine and key with him (or her) then lay down a backing track in a studio, using keyboards and, sometimes, authentic musicians. When the track is in place, we lay down the vocal tracks and usually mix the track(s) the same day. The finished demo CD is then sent to the proposed artist with a personal letter. Sometimes we strike lucky and form a good working relationship with the artist from then on.

Who would you like to work with, that you haven’t yet?
I met this particular idol of mine, Hal David, at the Hawaiian International Song Festival, and we spent ten glorious days together. I have scored many arrangements of his songs over the years and would love to write with Hal. His partnership with Burt Bacharach was made in heaven.

Which song are you most proud of and why?
I have to admit to “Delilah” being my favourite commercial hit, and the same applies to “It’s Not Unusual” (both recorded by Tom Jones) but there are other songs, such as “The Last Waltz” (Engelbert), “There’s A Kind Of Hush” (The Carpenters), “Kiss Me Goodbye” (Petula Clark), “Les Bicyclettes De Belsize” (Mireille Mathieu), “I’m Coming Home” (Tom Jones), “Here It Comes Again” (The Fortunes), “Tell Me When” (The Applejacks), “To Make A Big Man Cry” (Jackie Wilson), “One Day” (John Rowles) and “Daughter Of Darkness” (Tom Jones) that hold a special meaning to my career.

Lesser hits, such as “24 Sycamore” (Gene Pitney), “Love Is All” (Malcolm Roberts), “Leave A Little Love” (Lulu), “Everybody Knows” (The Dave Clark Five) and “I Pretend” (Slim Whitman) still give me much pleasure. Other recordings, including “You Bring Out The Woman In Me” (Nancy Wilson) and “Where Do I Go From Here?” (Sammy Davis Jnr.) are also important to our catalogue. However, “If We Lived On The Top Of A Mountain” (Cleo Laine), “Misty Morning Eyes” (James Darren), and “I Love Her” (Arthur Prysock) are my all time favourites. “Man Of Action” (Les Reed Combo) was the signature tune for the pirate station, Radio Northsea for many years, and has been a hit and a top favourite track in Europe over the last thirty years or so. This track is also one of my top favourites.

Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
Apart from a 20-track album to celebrate Engelbert’s 70th birthday, for which I have been asked to write and arrange, I am also working on the music for an animation series for TV called “The Pink Professor Rabbit”, narrated by actor, Robert Powell.

A new stage musical, written with Eddie Seago, called “That Woman” is being considered for a hopeful launch in the provinces early next year. while “Beautiful and Damned”, the musical written with Roger Cook, is being considered for launch in Alabama, Tennessee, after it’s successful four month run at The Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.

Finally, I hope to be working with great American big band singer, Joe Francis on his new album for release later on this year.

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