Probably best known as a member of the Notting Hillbillies, Brendan Croker was also a well-respected singer/songwriter and session guitarist both before and after his involvement with that band. Drawing on strong folk, blues, and country roots, Yorkshireman Croker brought a strong, Woody Guthrie-ish lyrical outlook to his musical palette, and was equally at home with Van Morrison-style blues or American country music of any era. In fact, his deep knowledge of and affection for American roots music, coupled with his fine singing and guitar playing, at one point gave rise to Croker being hailed as "the British Ry Cooder".
Born on August 15, 1953 in Bradford, Yorkshire, Brendan Croker studied sculpture at art school before turning to music. Teaming up with guitarist Steve Phillips in the late '70s, the two formed a blues duo called Nev & Norris and became a popular Leeds attraction over the next couple of years. Phillips, however, left performing in 1980 to start a career building guitars, and Croker consequently established himself as a solo artist, dubbing his ever-changing band of backing musicians (usually a second guitarist and a bassist) "the Five O'Clock Shadows". Croker's first indie release, A Close Shave (1986) came out on the Unamerican Activities label, and featured the single "That's the Way All My Money Goes."
1986 was also an important year for Croker in other ways, as he made two important and long-lasting musical alliances before the year was out. The first was with legendary Leeds-based punk rockers the Mekons. As the band was making their move towards their unique brew of country & western English cowpunk, they recruited Croker as an auxiliary player to add guitars to the LP Edge of the World. Croker then stayed on as a "deputy Mekon" throughout all of the widely hailed band's subsequent late-'80s releases, up to and including the classic Mekons Rock ‘n' Roll (1989). He would also become an official member of Mekons spin-off group, Sally Timms & the Drifting Cowgirls.
The second alliance was hooking up with Mark Knopfler, via an unusual path. It so happened that, in the years since Nev & Norris broke up, Croker's old partner, Steve Phillips, had become a guitar builder for the Dire Straits axeman, amongst others. By 1986, with Brothers in Arms riding high on the charts for the second straight year, Knopfler was an international superstar looking for a low-profile gig in which he could just relax and play some old favorite country-blues standards and obscurities. So Knopfler convinced Phillips to un-retire from performing and play a few pub gigs with him; Phillips then conscripted his old mate Croker into the loose pick-up group, which was dubbed the Notting Hillbillies. Initially just a hobby band with no intentions of pursuing a recording career, the Notting Hillbillies featured lead vocal turns from all three members, and was crucial to exposing Croker to a brand-new (and much wider) audience.
In 1987, Croker (along with a completely different set of Five O'Clock Shadows) released a second album, Boat Trips in the Bay. The following year, Croker became the first artist signed to Andrew Lauder's Silvertone Records, and released a soundtrack album done in conjunction with Dire Straits keyboardist Guy Fletcher for the British TV series On the Big Hill. This was followed in 1989 by his proper debut Silvertone release, Brendan Croker & the Five O'Clock Shadows. This big-budget album was a marked departure from his earlier records, and featured horns and strings, as well as a guest list that included Eric Clapton and Tanita Tikaram. The single "No Money at All" also featured Mark Knopfler's unmistakable guitar playing, but sadly, the public didn't take to the album in Brothers in Arms-like numbers. Croker also found time to release a second album in 1989, the instrumental Country Blues Guitar.
The following year, the Notting Hillbillies decided to enter the recording studio at long last. Adding keyboardist Fletcher to their ranks, the band issued Missing...Presumed Having a Good Time in 1990. The refreshingly low-key album consisted mostly of country and blues covers, with Croker penning one number ("That's Where I Belong"). Although most of the press attention focused on Knopfler, Croker was definitely an equal partner in the group's well-reviewed sound, contributing lead vocals on several tracks, as well as guitar and harmony vocals throughout.
Thereafter, Knopfler and Fletcher drifted back to Dire Straits, and Croker resumed his solo career, phasing out the Five O'Clock Shadows from the billing. The Nashville-recorded The Great Indoors was released in 1991, featuring guest turns from Knopfler, Chet Atkins, and Tony Joe White. The seemingly inexhaustible Croker then hooked up with new backing band the Serious Offenders for two live recordings: Time Off (1993) and Made in Europe (1994). Later '90 albums for Croker included Redneck State of the Art (1995), and Three Chord Love Songs (1996). The album The Kershaw Sessions was released in 1995; it featured various acoustic Croker recordings that had been captured by Andy Kershaw over the years, including a couple of Notting Hillbillies sessions. Croker also began to find himself in demand as a songwriter during this phase of his career; in the early and mid-'90s, he penned songs for both British blues legend John Mayall and American country star Wynonna Judd.
Throughout all this recording and writing activity, Croker toured regularly throughout Europe, playing both solo gigs and full-band shows. In 1997, The Notting Hillbillies re-formed for a series of concerts and charity gigs. The band would go on to play a very sporadic series of U.K. dates over the next several years, but deliberately avoided going back into the recording studio. Croker also mounted U.K. tours with Steve Phillips in 1998, and blues-folk cult hero Kevin Coyne a few years later. A best-of collection, entitled Not Just a Hillbilly, More Like a Best of Brendan Croker appeared in 2000. Finally, in 2002, after an uncharacteristically long absence from the recording scene, Croker got together with Kevin Coyne to release Life Is Almost Wonderful, with Coyne handling all the lead vocals on the disc. ~ Rudyard Kennedy, Rovi