The great Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals, once sang: “Reggae got soul”. London singer songwriter Frankie Oliver is the reggae man who definitely has soul. Lots of it too. You may remember him from the 1990s and his timeless cuts: “Give Her What She Wants” and “She Lied To Me” from his debut – and only – album, “Looking For The Twist.”
Frankie made a splash when he became the first white artist to be signed to Island Records, and his dreams came true when he was whisked away to record with his heroes Sly & Robbie, the iconic reggae bassist, drummer and hit-maker producers, in Jamaica.
Playing shows with the likes of Ziggy Marley (who really dug Frankie’s stuff), and the pop star lifestyle, didn’t last long. Signed to the major label in December 1995 when he was 30-years-old, his album came out in 1997 and it was all over for him at the end of that year.
Suffering un-diagnosed depression after the loss of his Mother and Father in quick succession, and unhappy with the major label politics, he quit the business and after a period of recovery, spent two years full time on “The Knowledge”, learning every street in London to be able to take the gruelling test to become a licensed black cab driver-owner. A job he has done ever since.
Frankie’s always on the Tele!
But music is in his blood and the clue is to be seen hidden under a coat in the front of his cab; an electric guitar and tiny practice amp he takes with him everywhere. Apart from the odd favour singing backing vocals on a few recordings for mates, Frankie has focused entirely on his family – wife and two kids – and his day job, whole hearing constant nagging in his ears from family and friends about getting back into music and making another album.
He’d not written a song for 15 years, and not set foot on a stage to perform for two decades. But back in 2015, he was woken in the early hours of the morning with a melody whirring arund in his head, which prompted him to get up out of bed and sing it into his Dictaphone. Next day, he started to write a song in tribute to his wife Joanne, from this tune he had dreamed.
That song became the gorgeous blue eyed soul ballad “My Kinda Woman,” opening the door to his comeback. Nipping round to his former song writing partner Delroy Pinnock , a member of the reggae band Black Slate, he played him the tune and asked him to help demo the song. That re-lit the flame inside Frankie to have a second crack at music in a serious way. He called his former manager from back in the day, sent him the song and the reaction was immediate and strong. Soon after, he was signed to Good Deeds Music, the label run by Modern Romance member David James.
Wind forward to recent weeks, Frankie is driving to work when he gets a call on his mobile from a pal. “Get the radio on, quick. Radio 2. You are on it.” He thought his pal was crackers. But sure enough, there on national BBC Radio 2, is his song “Tell Me,” being played for the nation. After a few plays by various DJs, including the most popular track of the day on Ken Bruce’s show, it was added to the Radio 2 playlist. It dented the UK singles chart at # 68. Frankie was back, and Oliver definitely wanted more.
He is gearing up for the imminent release of his fabulous new album, “Here I Am”, on 9th June. A voice that is one of those gifts that doesn’t come along very often, on some finely crafted material. 11 of his own songs, and one cover. Plus, his first concert performance for circa 20 years; at London’s famed 100 Club two days before the album’s release. So how does it feel to be the comeback kid at 53-years-old? “I feel blessed to have the opportunity. It is not something that I thought would happen, with the way my life has headed. I was very comfortable in my surroundings before I stared writing the album. But it is something I always wanted to do, but never got round to doing it. Second time around feels like a blessing, because some people don’t get the chance the first time. It is just an amazing feeling to be back doing what I love doing”.
Scared, nervous, anxious? “All three of those to be honest. Scared that it won’t take off. Anxious because I want it to take off now, and nervous because at the same time, it is all new to me. Completely different to the first time. There was no internet then. No Facebook or social media, which I am told is very important and I have to interact with people in different ways than I did before”. Hearing himself on Radio 2? “Incredible. Absolutely blew my mind. I know how hard it is to get on Radio 2, and how good the songs have to be to get on there. Lump in the throat, tears in the eyes; yeah. I thought then; all the blood, sweat and tears has been worth it to make this album”.
The switch from reggae to blue eyed soul, came as a “complete accident”. Frankie started listening to a lot of stuff he had not taken much notice of before, after watching the film Caddilaac Records, the Chess label story. He got into Al Green and many other soul, R&B and blues artists. That gave him the desire to write again. Then came the light-bulb moment when he woke up with “My Kind Of Woman” in his head, the first time he had written a song in 15 years.
Frankie’s main influences, aside from his hero Bob Marley, range from Al Green, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and James Morrison. You can hear the respectful nods to those legends in his songs on this new album, but as classic as it all sounds, this is no copycat or tribute artist. He first began singing in front of a crowd at the age of 18, in a pub in east London. Not knowing how good he was. “I got up and sang the UB40 song, ‘One in Ten’. I didn’t know I was any good or had anything, until everyone kept telling me I was. For years and years, people have been asking me when you gonna go back. I just said, maybe one day. Now it is happening, everyone is so excited and I just feel I don’t want to let them down. But I’m not gonna beat myself up if it doesn’t work out. I really love music, but did not set out to be rich and famous then or now. I do music because it is in my blood”.
He looks a lot younger than his 53 years, and has that coolness about him; a humble guy who deep down knows he is bloody good at what he does. No arrogance. His look suggests he could be a star of Peaky Blinders or an Italian gangster in a movie. His speaking voice is a dead ringer for Martin Kemp.
It took Frankie eight months to write the 11 originals for his album, and a a total of two years to make the record. Produced by Delroy Pinnock and Sam Bergliter. The track “By The Riverside” is actually on his first album in a reggae style, but it’s been souled out for this album, working with co-writer Delroy to refresh it. The sole cover is a non reggae version of the Gregory Isaac song, “Love Is Overdue”.
“The beauty of this record is we just did it as we heard it, as we wrote the songs. There was no pre-conceived ideas or plan. We didn’t listen to anything else. It just formed in a soul and blues style very naturally”. He has no hesitation in naming “My Kind Of Woman” as his favourite track. The song that started it all off. About his wife Joanne, who he has been married to for 31 years. They have two sons, 27 and 24. But Frankie reveals the most personal track of the set is “Cos Of You” about his Mum.
“Part of the reason I stopped playing in the first place; I was nursing her through illness and when she finally passed away after a stroke, I lost all my inspiration and energy to write. She was ill for three years and she died in March 2000. That is a hard one to sing and to record. Within 18 months, I lost my Dad too. Without Jo, I just couldn’t have done it. I was really, really close to both of them, and she helped me through it.
“I did suffer depression, but I didn’t know it”.
“When I wrote Cos Of You, it was about the little things you learn as a kid. She always used to say, ‘Don’t take the mickey out of others, because you wouldn’t like it done to you. Little things like that which stuck with me all through my adulthood, and I said to my children growing up. Because of that, she made me the person that I am. With the second half of the song, it goes into the relationship I have with Jo, because she helped me become the person that I am as well.
“I did suffer depression, but I didn’t know it. I went to the doctors and he diagnosed depression. I was; ‘what are you talking about? Not me. No way’. But he was right. It was two years before I knew I was depressed, and a year getting out of it. I am absolutely fine now though”.
On his time with Island: “I was being pulled from pillar to post. I had young kids at home and my wonderful wife was left to build everything on her own, because I was never there. I’ve been away from the music industry, but the music never left my heart,” says Frankie. “I don’t regret my time with Island at all. They were great with me. But I had to get my life back under my control. This is a more personal thing. What people are going to get now is the real story.”
You may have seen Frankie sat in his black cab on some taxi rank in London, engine running to keep warm, heater blowing, strumming away on his Fender Telecaster guitar into his iPhone recorder. He wrote five songs on the album that way. So what was the driving force (see what I did there?) for his comeback? “My love of music and my friends and family around me saying; don’t you feel like it is a waste of talent if you don’t do another album. Those words ring in my head. My manager said, if people don’t get to hear these songs it will be the biggest crime”. There’s a couple of famous faces who would probably agree with that sentiment. Jools Holland was in Frankie’s cab, heard one of his tracks, and asked Frankie how come he was driving a cab with a voice that good.
Oaisis legend Noel Gallagher was picked up from a recording studio in Clapham to go home, and he and Frankie were talking about music when he asked why he had the guitar in the car. “I said, I used to be an artist years ago and on Island. Then he said, I remember you, you’re Frankie Oliver. I was surprised, but spotted he had his phone in his hand. He had Googled me!”
While he dreams of playing large venues on tour, just as important is the desire to be happy and enjoy his settled life with family and friends. “I hope this goes well, of course. But I am so happy and content in my life, I don’t want anything to rock the boat, you know”.
Frankie has his own sound, for sure. But when I first heard his tracks, and was knocked out with how strong it sounded, I jotted down a few names of artists his voice and style sounded a little like to me. Jon Allen, Joe Cang, James Morrison, Mick Hucknall, Paul Carrack, James Morrison, Paulo Nutini, OV Wright, James Carr, Hi Records output produced by Willie ‘Pops’ Mitchell (Al Green etc.) Yes, he is that good.
“Tell Me” and “I’ve Got Love” are previous single releases from the album, and the current track out there on the airwaves is, “Cos Of You”. See the video to that song, below this feature. Frankie is already writing for the next album, but come 7th June, his total focus will be on tearing the roof off of the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street, for his album launch and headline gig, at a venue he has probably driven past thousands of times in the last 13 years as a cabbie, and never dreamed he would see the “sold out” signs outside for his own show. Maybe that should read: “Souled Out.”
- ‘Here I Am’ is out 9th June. Frankie headlines The 100 Club on June 7th.
By Simon Redley