Smokie (originally spelt as Smokey) are an English rock band from Bradford, Yorkshire. The band found success at home as well as the rest of the world after teaming up with Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn. Along the way they have had a number of line-up changes and were still actively touring in 2012. Their most famous hit singles include "If You Think You Know How to Love Me", "Don't Play Your Rock 'n' Roll to Me", "Lay Back in the Arms of Someone". Their most popular hit single, "Living Next Door to Alice", peaked at No. 5 on the UK Singles Chart and, in March 1977, reached No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Originally called "The Yen", then "The Sphynx", and later "Essence", the band was formed in 1965 after a chance meeting between Ron Kelly and Alan Silson in Moore's Music Shop, North Parade, Bradford, in October 1963. Two days after that meeting they were joined by Chris Norman for rehearsals, but without finding a suitable bass player, just practiced together for a year. The addition of Terry Uttley on bass guitar at the beginning of 1965 completed the line up and The Yen's first gig was at Birkenshaw School in February 1965. It was composed of Chris Norman (lead vocals/rhythm guitar), Terry Uttley (bass/vocals), Alan Silson (lead guitar/vocals) and Ron Kelly(drums). As Essence, they toured small clubs in Bradford and the surrounding communities before they split in 1966. The Black Cats were already a working band when Ron Kelly joined them at Dewsbury College, in September 1966. The Black Cats at this time were Peter Eastwood on guitar/vocals and Arthur Higgins on bass. Kelly replaced the drummer they had at the time. Alan Silson joined the band initially alongside Pete Eastwood, but the latter soon left and was replaced by Chris Norman. In November 1967 the band changed their name to "The Four Corners".
In April 1968 the group found a manager in Mark Jordan, who advised them to rename themselves "The Elizabethans". The group now became fully professional, and the members garnered higher salaries. In June 1968 Terry Uttley joined the group as replacement for Arthur Higgins, who had left the band in order to carry on his education. 9 December 1968 saw the group having their first TV appearance on Yorkshire Television's news and magazine show Calendar. In August 1969 the four performed two songs for the BBC show High Jinx. Enthused with this successful performance, Jordan had them record their first demo tape. In January 1970 RCA showed an interest in the band and suggested a name change to "Kindness". A single was recorded and the double A-side "Light of Love"/"Lindy Lou" was released on 3 April 1970. 300 copies were sold, but no other tracks were released, and RCA subsequently terminated the record contract.
An arrangement was made with Ronnie Storm (no connection to Rory Storm) to back him on the single release "My Desire", and it was released under the pseudonym "Fuzzy and The Barnets" due to contractual difficulties encountered by Storm. At the same time Steve Rowland, of Family Dogg fame, heard the band playing live on Radio One Club and offered to sign them to his production company. He arranged for Albert Hammond, who was also in Family Dogg, to write a number for the band, which Hammond duly did. This track was entitled "It Never Rains In Southern California", but before it could be released, he decided that he wanted to record it for himself. Kelly was later asked by Steve Rowland to play drums on it. Accordingly, Hammond wrote a few other songs for the band, and a single "You Ring a Bell/Have You Met Angela" was recorded and prepared for release, but due to various problems in Rowland's organisation, it was never released. In late 1971 the band's management was taken over by Dave Eager, the Radio One DJ, and Norman suffered a serious infection that affected his vocal cords. After his recovery, his voice sounded much rougher, which the other group members considered an interesting addition to their sound. Eager introduced them to Decca, which resulted in recordings in February 1972, their first single being "Oh Julie/I Love You Carolina". Shortly thereafter, their next single was released. "Let the Good Times Roll" was well liked by the media and was selected as the show's opening theme for Emperor Rosco's Radio One Saturday show, but this popularity did not translate into record sales. The last single on Decca was "Make it Better"/"Lonely Long Lady", which flopped and led to Decca terminating their contracts.
Rise to fame:
During the band's Decca contract, Eager used his contacts with the Manchester based agency Kennedy Street Enterprises, to gain the band an audition to be Peter Noone's (of Herman's Hermits fame) backing band. The band were immediately asked to become his permanent band after their audition at Noone's House in Denham (Bucks) and soon they embarked on a nationwide tour with him. Noone didn't bring the boys any luck, but during the tour Bill Hurley offered to manage them. Hurley convinced Eager to release the boys from the contract with him. Ron Kelly left Kindness on 8 August 1973 and the band recruited an old school friend, Pete Spencer (drums/vocals), who had played in various groups, to drum for them (ex The Chevrons, The Common Bond, The Collection, Dave and Dee Dees Playground, London Fog, Sugar and Spice, Brenda and The Collection). This line-up performed on a sightseeing boat in Frankfurt, Germany. Hurley introduced the band to composers Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (aka Chinnichap), who also wrote songs for glam rock contemporaries Sweet, Mud and Suzi Quatro, as well as for Hot Chocolate. At first "Chinnichap" turned them down, but Hurley's tenacity eventually convinced the composers/producers to give the young group a chance. Hurley and Chinnichap started working intensely with the band, and suggested yet another name change, to "Smokey". An attempt to dress the band up in leather clothes (similar to Suzi Quatro) was dropped, and the four won acceptance for their jeans outfit.
They purchased new instruments and in late 1974 began recording sessions for their debut album Pass It Around which was released 14 February 1975. The album spawned the title track as a single but failed to gain significant attention from the British audience. In April that year Smokey opened for Pilot on tour.
Height of popularity:
On 22 September 1975, Smokey released their second album Changing All the Time. This LP sounded much softer than the debut, contained string arrangements on some songs, and heavily leaned toward acoustic guitar arrangements with close harmony vocals, which became their signature sound. The first single from the new album, "If You Think You Know How to Love Me", quickly became a big hit in many European countries, peaking at No. 3 in Britain, and won Smokey a wider audience. They followed it with "Don't Play Your Rock 'n' Roll to Me".
Around this time the US soul legend Smokey Robinson threatened to file a lawsuit, alleging that the band's name would confuse the audience. In order to avoid legal action, the group changed the spelling to "Smokie" and proceeded to commence their first tour as headline act, after the release of the second album.
The third LP was partly produced in the US, where Nicky Chinn had moved for various reasons (tax being just one of them). Called Midnight Café, it built on the popularity of Changing All the Time and established the group as a new pop phenomenon. The subsequent years yielded a string of successful singles. "Something's Been Making Me Blue", "Wild Wild Angels" and "I'll Meet You At Midnight" gained a faithful following among younger listeners. When their single, a cover of Australian band New World's single, "Living Next Door to Alice", was released in November 1976 it quickly became the group's biggest hit, followed by the similarly successful "Lay Back in the Arms of Someone". Smokie now found themselves European superstars with sold-out tours and million-selling albums. The next two albums, 1977's Bright Lights & Back Alleys and The Montreux Album (1978), cemented their status and were both chart successes. From "Bright Lights etc" came two hit singles, the reggae influenced "It's Your Life" and a cover of the 1960s Jackie De Shannon/Searchers song "Needles and Pins".
At the peak of Smokie's success in 1978, Chris Norman teamed up with Suzi Quatro (who had just decided to return to Chinnichap after looking at separation from them) and released a duet single, "Stumblin' In" -- another Chinnichap composition. Norman and Quatro were on top of the European charts for some time, and it reached the US Top 10, though no higher than No. 41 in Britain. Smokie's subsequent 45 was "Mexican Girl". Composed by Norman and Spencer, the record saw the group actively distance itself from Chinnichap. Smokie's next act was to produce British football star Kevin Keegan's first single, "Head Over Heels in Love", which charted in many European countries.
In 1979, the album The Other Side of the Road was released, entirely recorded in Australia. It spawned two more hits for the band, "Do to Me" and "Babe It's Up to You", but it became clear that their sales were declining. Only a subsequent non-album single release, the melancholic "Run to Me", became another hit.
Smokie met with a hiatus before Solid Ground was released in 1981. The advance single was neither a Chinnichap composition nor penned by any Smokie member, but a cover of Del Shannon's 1963 hit, "Little Town Flirt" -- the last Smokie single to chart.
Decline and Norman's departure:
In early 1982 the last album for EMI/BMG was released, Strangers in Paradise, which was almost a complete failure. The departure from Chinnichap became notable, and the four members of Smokie appeared unable to recreate their success using their own material. Shortly after the release of Strangers In Paradise, work began on two parallel albums, one released by Smokie as Midnight Delight, and the other Chris Norman's solo debut, Rock Away Your Teardrops. Neither release sold well.
Though Smokie had begun work on a comeback, in 1986, Norman, by that stage enthused with the relative success of his second solo album, Some Hearts Are Diamonds, announced that he was to leave the band. He was replaced by Alan Barton, formerly of Black Lace, a friend of the band's, who had a vocal style similar to Norman's. Smokie also recruited keyboard player Martin Bullard. Spencer quit and was replaced on drums by Steve Pinnell. The new line-up released All Fired Up! in 1988, which brought some attention and contained a new version of "Rock Away Your Tear Drops", the song that was initially the title track to Norman's debut album.
Several releases followed over the next years including Boulevard Of Broken Dreams (by Dieter Bohlen), Chasing Shadows and Celebration (1994), which contained old hits in new arrangements accompanied by an orchestra. None had any real success. However, Smokie made a surprise return to the UK singles chart in 1995, with a duet with controversial northern comedian Roy Chubby Brown. Brown knew the band through Steve Pinnel, having taught Pinnel the rudiments of drumming as payment for being his driver in his early club comedy career, on a re-release of "Living Next Door To Alice" which reached #3. The band had noticed that, whilst touring in Ireland, whenever they sang the main line "For 24 years/I've been living next door to Alice" the audience would shout "Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?" The resident DJ in Dutch café Gompie first came up with this phrase and, after a local record producer had noted its popularity and organised a recording, had a number 17-hit with Alice? Who the Fuck is Alice?! in the United Kingdom and in the Netherlands reaching #1. Smokie decided to cover the Gompie-version of their own song and thought that Brown was the ideal man for the job, with Barton singing the song vocals and Brown providing the additional sworn response.
Shortly after the song was recorded Smokie's tour bus careened off of the road during a hailstorm in Germany. Barton, badly injured, died after five days in intensive care. The rest of the band and Brown agreed to donate their royalties from the song to Barton's first wife.
The remaining members decided to continue with the band and went about finding their third lead singer. Friend of the band Mike Craft was chosen; allegedly it only took one song to come to a decision. The band released The World and Elsewhere later that year, followed by Light a Candle -- The Christmas Album.
In 1996, Alan Silson terminated his membership, saying he intended to pursue a solo career and to work with other acts as well, joining Mickey Finn's T. Rex, and that he also no longer wanted to be on the road all the time. Mick McConnell, one of the band's road crew and their guitar technician replaced him as the group's new lead guitarist, this formation producing the next album, Wild Horses - The Nashville Album (1998), precisely in Nashville, Tennessee. In February 2001, Smokie released two albums, Uncovered and Uncovered Too, which consist entirely of cover versions, with no original new songs added.
In 2004 Smokie recorded a studio album, On the Wire, with eleven of the 14 songs written by the band themselves. In 2006, the band released the album From the Heart. Although mainly a compilation, it did contain three brand new tracks.
In 2010 Smokie gained new chart success with a CD of brand new material, Take a Minute. Released initially in Denmark in August of that year, it peaked at number three on the Danish albums chart. Releases in the remainder of Scandinavia and Germany took place during October, with the single "Sally's Song" -- a continuation of the story of the other character in "Living Next Door to Alice" -- also released.
Terry Uttley - bass, vocals (1964-1966, 1968-present),
Martin Bullard - keyboards (1986-present),
Steve Pinnell - drums (1986-present),
Mike Craft - lead vocals, rhythm guitar (1995-present),
Mick McConnell - lead guitar (1996-present),
Alan Silson - lead guitar, vocals (1964-1996),
Chris Norman - lead vocals, rhythm guitar (1964-1986),
Ron Kelly - drums (1964-1973),
Arthur Higgins - bass, vocals (1966-1968),
Pete Spencer - drums (1973-1986),
Alan Barton - lead vocals, rhythm guitar (1986-1995; died 1995),
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license