Now that we know what went on right under the noses of BBC bosses in the 60s and 70s, it seems even more shocking that they could wilfully and knowingly stifle the career of one of this country’s most talented songwriters simply because he was gay, and out.
But that is exactly what happened to John Howard.
From this distance, it’s hard to remember that until 1967, homosexuality was illegal in the UK.
(So was suicide, by the way. God help you if you failed in your attempt; you could be arrested and charged and quite possibly imprisoned).
But you would think that the entertainment industry – heavily populated with gays and Jews – would be a sanctuary for minorities. You would be wrong.
As late as 1984 Elton John got married to a woman (that’s not a misprint) in order to stop media speculation about his sexuality.
Ten years earlier, then, John Howard’s outwardly gay demeanour was both brave and rash.
I found out how rash when John was launched in performance at the Purcell Room on the South Bank.
I sat myself next to Radio One’s most senior producer, someone I had known since my days as radio correspondent at Music Week. He could make or break any record, any artist.
When John had finished performing, I turned to the Radio One man and said: “He’s going to be huge, don’t you think?”
In a tone that turned my stomach to jelly he replied: “We’ll see about that”.
I didn’t tell John at the time, nor anyone else. I felt that the sheer strength of John’s talent might still see him through.
I was wrong.
To start at the beginning – John’s manager/publisher Stuart Reid came to my office with a tape of John’s demos one day in 1973.
I could scarcely contain my excitement. One man, his voice, a style at the piano that suggested a whole orchestra, and some truly exceptional songs – it was all too good to be true. I was going to be George Martin to John’s Beatles! We were going to conquer the world of music, together!
The first spanner in those particular works was thrown by CBS md Dick Asher. He agreed with me 100% about John’s potential. And for that very reason, I wasn’t to be allowed to produce him. I was a rookie producer, and someone of John’s talent was going to require a producer of far greater standing.
The choice was Tony Meehan.
That’s right: the Shadow’s drummer.
I was gobsmacked and devastated. George Martin, yes; or Gus Dudgeon; or Tony Visconti.
But Tony Meehan?
To be fair to Tony, John Howard has always been a cheerleader for him. He enjoyed the experience of working at Abbey Road, and Tony Meehan obviously put a lot of care and attention into the album. Also, to be fair, the album has garnered a lot of kudos and fans in the 40 years since.
But the first sign I had that things were not going my way was when Tony Meehan called me and gave me a list of albums he wanted as reference. Apart from the sheer rudeness of treating me like a personal shopper, it was clear from the list that he intended to shoehorn John Howard into a variety of styles that I would never have considered appropriate.
When I eventually heard what he’d done with John’s songs I was crushed. I left the room in tears, unable to bear the difference between my own vision of John Howard, and the Tony Meehan version.
I immediately set about persuading Stuart Reid that we needed to re-record two of the tracks – the album’s title song, Kid In A Big World, and the one I thought would be an immediate top 10 hit, Family Man. I put my job on the line by agreeing with Stuart that CBS would carry the cost. (Dick Asher went ballistic when he found out. “Don’t you ever, ever, tell any manager or any artist ever again that we will pay their recording costs!”)
The only way to one-up John’s Abbey Road experience was to go into the Beatles’ own studio, in their own building, in Savile Row. So I booked the sessions at Apple Studios with Phil McDonald – truly talented, easy to work with, and yet a man who had been engineer on some of the Beatles later work, and the iconic early solo work by John, George and Ringo.
Kid In A Big World I produced as if it was a cabaret scene from a 1950s black and white film, intimate and tortured. Family Man was exactly as I heard it in my head the first time I heard John’s demo: a light Caribbean lilt, a Donald McGill postcard view of Britain, and a chorus to hook you to death.
Radio One rejected John’s first single, Goodbye Suzie. It was “too depressing”. I was convinced it had more to do with the production than the song. My production/arranging approach was going to make the difference.
Family Man – frothy, poppy, fun and catchy as hell – was the complete antithesis of Goodbye Suzie.
Well, it was unless you were a senior producer at Radio One. The word came back via the promotion guys that Radio One considered Family Man “anti-woman”. It would get zero plays. And that was the end of John Howard’s putative career.
I finally told John about my conversation with the Radio One guy in 2004, just as his ‘rediscovery’ was taking effect. Such was the response to his music from the 70s that people were asking, “How could this guy not have been HUGE?”
He went away and wrote a song called My Beautiful Days. The first half is about his manager trying to get John to be more “manly”, teaching him how to shake hands, how to walk. Later as he languishes in obscurity, he sees gay newcomers (like Rufus Wainwright) allowed to be completely frank and out.
John performed My Beautiful Days live in London late last year. There was barely a dry eye in the house. His cousin, a brittle and somewhat sceptical individual, sat next to me. She was dubious about my claims that her cousin could have been a major star. By the end of his set she was goggle-eyed (she’d never seen him live) and a believer. By the end of My Beautiful Days – the encore – she was in tears.
Here is the audio of that performance. If you want to see some video, Google John Howard at The Servant’s Quarters. If you like what you hear, he’s recorded eight new albums since 2005. Riches await you.