David Robson interviews Leee John about his many years in the music industry as he talks Soul, Spandex and Sinitta.
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It’s a rainy autumn day in London, and both myself and Bryon Fear are on our way to Kensington to meet one of the most colourful characters of ’80s R&B, Leee John from Imagination. On the release of a new greatest hits compilation we looked back over Leee’s years in the music industry and talk Soul, Spandex and Sinitta.
“Should we start at the very beginning?” I ask timidly. Leee bursts into his trademark falsetto singing voice, channelling his best Julie Andrews: “A very good place to start.”
Is it true the band was named after John Lennon?
It was. People were saying groups had ‘ations’ you know, and I wasn’t sure! Then one day I was with my friend Steve Ward, who was a huge ’80s DJ at the time, and ‘Imagine’ came on the radio and he said “What about Imagination?” I thought … actually, yeah. Lennon had just been shot and the single was No.1 in the UK Charts and it just felt spiritual. I’m into all that. It was mystical and it instantly clicked.
Leee John was no stranger to the studios before the founding of Imagination. After returning home from the US in his late teens he was already signed to Snazz records and made demos with legendary producer Trevor Horn. He spent time largely on the London club scene with other notable black British music figures and also on the gig circuit, working with big soul names and perfecting his craft. It’s from here he went on to meet his fellow band mates and in 1981 they had their breakthrough hit ‘Body Talk’, which would go on to hit Number 5, sell over £250,000 copies and stay in the UK charts for 18 weeks.
I was in my late teens but I’d been doing this work for a long time. I was signed up to do a musical on Broadway but for schooling reasons I came home to the UK and I was around professional output and who knows what I must have looked like. I was so confident some people thought I was a producer as I walked into the studio (laughs). But I say it all the time, I went home to my Mum’s kitchen in North London one day sat down, wrote ‘Body Talk’ went into the studio and that was it. How you hear it is how it was done.
How do you feel looking back to then and with the release of the new compilation? Is it a sense of pride or a sense of ‘oh my god where has the time gone’?
Oh I think the former, pride for sure. I’d say it because music means a lot to a lot of people. Remember I’d been THAT fan of other people’s work before this, The Jacksons etc, so it made me appreciate the fans a lot more.
Do you have a big vinyl collection?
Yes! Yes I do. Sometimes I think, ‘oh should I get rid of it?’ But no, I never could. Sometimes I just go in my room listen to them and get so lost in it. I was somewhere the other day and bought an old Ashford and Simpson album.
Were they a great influence on you?
Totally. That was like the dynamic we wanted. I was a huge Motown fan. I loved Eddie Kendricks. That was the sound that I wanted to emulate not imitate, but you were so influenced buy it. Everyone was affected my Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. You wanted to make THAT album.
Leee not only spent time on the gig circuit learning from his peers the value of performance and artistry. Interestingly he once worked as a singer/waiter in a place called Encore, off London’s West End, for 8 months. Though he is quick to claim he was a terrible waiter it was still an experience that helped shape him as a performer.
How did this all feed into the coming together of the band?
Well it was intense in those days. It was the analogue world: bus, train, bus, train, walk, session, gig, and then work at Encore. But, we were driven. Compared to now when your shoved onto the TV and then on tour. We had time to grow which I think is really important. You have to work on yourself.
I ask him if that’s a comment on today’s X Factor/want-to-be-a-star-now culture.
I just think these kids are thrust out there and then all of a sudden there’s no time for them to sit and reflect and grow as a person and perfect their craft. For me, I’d been doing demo’s for years with Trevor Horn and the likes but was always told I wasn’t there yet, which was true. I was mingling with the right people, and names that I had no idea were names. Then when the idea came to do the group I thought, ‘well yes, why not?’ I felt ready and it was a perfect chance to hide away in the background.
Can I say I don’t think you hid very well?
Light blue spandex is what I recall!
Oh my God! (laughs)
I have the performance in my head from Channel 4’s show The Tube.
With Sinitta, yes!!
Yes you, her and Ashley are doing some rather interesting routines.
Ha! Well Yeah, she was our backing dancer/singer. Actually, we had three. There was Norma Lewis (Disco Diva), Kimla Edwards and then Sinitta. You know she never had the Diva voice. She could blend well and yes she can sing but, visually on stage she was so sexy and she’d just work it. We all had such laughs.
John’s outfits were as important as the songs and soon the band became infamous for his flamboyant stage performances becoming favourites on shows such as Top Of The Pops in the process.
I was a club scene kid. I came from clubs like Crackers and Birds Nest we were part of a whole North London movement, we were part of Brit Funk. Guys like Junior, The Cool Notes we all hung around together. What you seen on Top Of The Pops was an extension of the club scene and we wanted to bring that into your front room. And it wasn’t just us. The new wave kids were exploding out of it to against this bleak backdrop of Thatcherism.
You were regulars on TOTP for almost every single release which was not heard of much.
For a black British Group to have that level of backing from TV producers was heavy man. We would be half way around Europe and they’d be calling us to come back and perform. We’d be saying screen the video but they didn’t want that. They wanted the live show because with us came the club kids, the characters. We were very privileged.
Celebrating the achievements of black British artists is something of importance to John. He is currently making a movie, Flashback, which looks back from the ’50s up to the ’90s, celebrating the work of British born black artists in the UK charts. He is keen to stress the importance of celebration and hints towards their overlooked contribution and how the music industry didn’t seem to invest as much in them as they could have.
It’s homage to the black people who contributed to soul music in the UK and I want to celebrate it from the start of the charts with snapshots through the decades. I mean, look at Winifred Atwell and Emlie Ford. Top of the charts in the ’50s! We have so many people involved in the project. It’s been hard work and with everything else I have going on its taking it’s time to be finalised but it is coming together. I’m excited. We Brits have our story too and it needs to be heard. For years we’ve had comparisons from our American counterparts of ‘why weren’t you on THAT level’ but yeah, as I said, we have our story.
Imagination’s work may appear minimal in terms of years on the charts. Their greatest chart success was 1981 – 1983 which featured a string of Top 20 UK Hit singles and in the late ’80s a US Billboard Number 1 dance single. But the impact was felt on future generations and across the genres.
How did you feel about Mariah’s re-recording of ‘Just an Illusion’?
Well I got a platinum disc, so that was very nice indeed! (laughs) No it is very nice to be appreciated. I was touched, really touched. Then there was Destiny’s Child sampling the same track on their first album and Jay Z, I mean it’s mad really.
As we near the end of our time together it’s clear to see that Leee John is a man who has a clear passion for and is driven by all types of music. It just oozes out of him with ease. He is humble about his many achievements over the years and is keen to look forward to future projects especially on the stage. It’s here where he seems to really feel at his best, connecting with a strong fan base that has developed over more than 30 years.
The appreciation for me is on stage. London is great but it’s so spoilt in terms of influx of gigs. I love going around the country and through Europe. There’s so much love from out there. I don’t like to just stand there and let the backdrop to the work. I’m old school I like to make a connection with my audience. I don’t like to reflect too much. I don’t want to be that comfortable. I’m just appreciative that people still love the music and want to hear more.
Flashback – The Best of Imagination is out now
If you want to see Lee John on his Flashback: The Imagination 2013/14 tour, follow the links for more information:
Sunday, October 20 – The Button Factory (Dublin)
Tuesday, October 22, – Band on the Wall (Manchester)
Wednesday, October 23, – Under the Bridge (London)
Thursday, October 24, – The Stables (Milton Keynes)
Monday, October 28, – Thekla (Bristol)
Wednesday, October 30, – Jamhouse (Birmingham)