Busker's bottler sings the blues
Herald Scotland, 19th August 2015
Carol Grimes might not include I Could Write a Book in her Edinburgh Fringe show, The Singer’s Tale. The London-born survivor of fifty years in the music business would, however, have every right to sing this Rodgers and Hart standard. Indeed, she is currently writing her autobiography after being given encouragement by a literary agent who subsequently disappeared.
“Typical,” says Grimes with a throaty laugh. “My timing has always been abysmal when it comes to business matters, and I know I’m not alone in this regard among musicians. I just like to sing. And write – I’ve been really enjoying getting the story down.”
Grimes’ problem as far as the publishing world’s concerned is that she’s not about to deliver a celebrity kiss and tell because, as she says, she’s not a celebrity. She’s known a few – Joe Cocker was reduced to sleeping on her couch when at a particularly low ebb – and she might have become a bigger name had the albums she made in Nashville and Memphis during the 1970s been promoted properly and had she not been silenced, as a recording artist at least, due to some dodgy deals shortly afterwards.
The story, which includes Grimes pinching herself as she listens to tapes of Otis Redding rehearsals in Stax Records legend Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn’s Memphis home, begins with Grimes not singing but being the ‘bottler’ for a character called 'Paris Nat' Schaffer on the streets of London. He would sing and entertain passers-by and Grimes would collect the takings and look out for the old bill as busking was illegal back in the early 1960s. Schaffer also saw the merit of having an attractive teenage accomplice and encouraged Grimes to pursue her dream as they moved from making quick escapes down dark alleys to playing in London’s folk clubs.
From the moment, as a fourteen-year-old who spent most of her childhood in care, she heard Ella Fitzgerald singing Every Time We Say Goodbye, Grimes had wanted to be a singer. Later, hearing the great British blues singer-guitarist Jo Ann Kelly and Julie Driscoll, who was in the frontline of Steampacket with Rod Stewart and John Baldry at the time, inspired Grimes further. And before too long she got to follow their example by selling out London venues including the Marquee, Klook’s Kleek and the 100 Club.
By this time she had signed with the B&C wing of Charisma Records, then home to Van der Graaf Generator and Genesis. The resultant album, Fools Meeting, would become a collectors’ item and featured Grimes with a band called Delivery, whose members went on to work with Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole, Hatfield & the North and other Canterbury scene notables.
The album’s jazzier, more progressive side took Grimes away from the rhythm and blues she’d previously favoured. But not for long as she was invited to sing some demos with the London Boogie Band, which included her then partner, guitarist Neil Hubbard from Joe Cocker’s Grease band, and while that band morphed into the still active Kokomo, Grimes was propelled towards a solo career that promised much but delivered, as she says, “a nightmare.”
“It did get me to Memphis and recording with the Stax crew and the Memphis Horns, which was a fantastic experience, and much, much later that association led to me being invited onto Soul Britannia on BBC 4 and the subsequent tour, which was great,” she says. “But the album came out and stiffed due to lack of promotion and the guy who had me under contract wouldn’t let me out of the deal and stopped me from recording anything else.”
Grimes moved to Poland with her Polish husband and when she returned to London in the 1980s she became involved in The Shout, a choir organised by composer Orlando Gough that toured across Europe and America and visited Japan. She also took up teaching at the City Literary Institute and working with Parkinsons sufferers through Sing For Joy, a choir that she conducts and finds hugely rewarding.
She’s never stopped gigging as a singer, however, and her Fringe show features the pianist in her current band, Dorian Ford, as her sole accompanist.
“I wish I could bring the whole band because my drummer, Winston Clifford has a great voice and he normally sings behind me as I tell the stories. But I’ll just have to do it with one mouth,” she says. “It’s one of the advantages of never having had a massive hit and having kept working my vocal muscles that I don’t have to go on these 1970s revival tours singing three keys down from the original. And never having been a star, I can be the fly on the wall who played at the first Glastonbury Festival and who can share memories of people who have been written out of history.”