Sunday, 13 July 2014

70s heroes: Jim Hickman and Little Acre. Bostin.

The day after Glastonbury wound up, I went to Lower Gornal to meet Jim Hickman. 40 years ago, Hickman was the lynchpin of a killer band that came so, so close to getting there: Little Acre. They had impeccable credentials and terrific Black Country and Birmingham connections. As is so often the case, success and ultimate failure was driven by factors well out of the band's control. Little Acre had a rotating personnel of up to ten, which lead to crowded stages and small returns from gigs. But they were one of the UK's very first successful blue-eyed soul bands. Working in that chronological gap between Rock and Punk, they had a lot of room to move.

Jim was a bass player and powerhouse singer. He's getting on now, could be healthier, but the voice is still there. We met up, caught up... and talked for hours

I think you were the first band we pulled into the old BRMB to do a session. All of you, in one tiny studio, recording backing tracks live to stereo, bouncing down if we had to, and then adding vocals. 
I remember the night very well, it was fabulous. We put the tracks on a private album, just for old friends. Mostly it was a cassette of a reunion gig at the Coach and Horses, Willenhall. Roy Williams did a fabulous job on it, on reel to reel. And the BRMB session tracks.
I'm glad they survived! Very little BRMB stuff did. Tell me how the band came together.
I'd just come back from Italy – we'd gone out as a band called State Express, to do 15 days. We stayed three years. We were based in Turin. Three of us came back, two stayed, I did a normal job for a year and when the other two came back, we got together with a few other people in a cellar in Upper Gornal. It went from there, other people came in, some left... 
Tell me something. I remember UK soul bands in the 60s. Mostly they were, frankly, embarrassing. Guys trying to sound like Otis, and failing miserably. Same with the blues bands. If you dig out very early Stones R'n'B cuts, they're pretty awful. But by the 70s, things seemed to have sorted themselves out. You weren't the only ones... but you were one of the bands that hit that spot. Can you explain why?
Influences. Little Acre, as a band of people, enjoyed each other's company. We liked each other. We liked what we were doing. And State Express, the first band, used to back all the soul acts that came over – James and Bobby Purify, Edwin Starr, Sam and Dave... loads of them. And that's where I learned a lot. One of my favourite ladies was Inez Foxx. We did a fabulous tour with her. She was a fantastic Hammond player. Really, really nice. And we did Mocking Bird, and I sang Charlie's part. It used to change on the night, and she insisted that it changed. Experiment with it!
So you got some groove right from the source.
They'd explain things. You'd get this rhythm... 'think of it this way: one foot on the pavement, one foot in the gutter'. Boom–tschk, boom-tschk. They'd use these analogies and you'd get it. 
Now it's gone worldwide
That's the web. Here's a story about the web....I played with Ricky Cool and the Rialtos after Little Acre. Ricky's still going; lovely man. We did a reunion with the Rialtos a couple of years back, at the Robin Hood in Bilston. There was Ricky Cool with the Rialtos, the Big Town Playboys and the Hoola Boola Boys. A night for Ricky, fabulous guys. We were sat in the dressing room having a drink. And all of a sudden the door bursts open and Robert - Robert Plant - walks in, cursing us. 
'You didn't tell me you were bloody playing tonight!' 
Cos the Rialtos were the Honeydrippers for one tour, you see. 
'We didn't know you were in the country!'
'Well, I gotta get up and do something!' 
Which he did; he played for an hour. Anyway, I went to the bar to get a drink, and the place was rammed. There were people there I hadn't seen for years. And I asked a few of them how they knew this was going on... and it was on the net. Great night, and we all got a good wedge. 
Little Acre came to an end – and we'll come to that – but along the way, they recorded with Bob Lamb, in the same King's Heath bedsit studio he used for the first UB40 album. So in a way, they bridged from the soulful sixties right up to the stroppy late seventies; as they were winding down, UB40 were winding up. And their paths crossed in the same studio. 
We recorded some really good stuff. We used to go over, and get him out of bed...
So what happened with Little Acre? You should have made it. You were plenty good enough. 
We were playing the right places in London, we were lined up with a manager, he'd got Atlantic Records nicely warmed up. And then, punk hit. And everybody wanted a punk band. And of course, just before us, there'd been a band called Kokomo. They'd made it hard for other bands like us. A couple of them were a bit starry. So nobody wanted big line-ups.
I think that the industry always wants new kids, not only so they can present the next big thing, but being very cynical, because they can sign them cheap on dodgy contracts. You guys had been knocking around for ten years or so. 
But kids today aren't that stupid.
I've heard a few stories... But that was basically it?
It was sad at the time. We were talking to Mercury Records as well; Chris Rea, bless him, had introduced us. And it all went Pete Tong too. 
To cut a long story short, two members of the band were detained at her Majesty's pleasure for three months, just as punk came in, and that was enough to lose the impetus.

So you carried on working?
Yes. I was with Ricky Cool and the Rialtos, and then Zoo-Q, and then I started writing my own material. And I went off and did other things. The music's not a career. I just write the songs. Now we (Jim and Dave Lowe) work on a laptop, with a time signature, an acoustic guitar, and vocals - I very rarely do retakes. Dave Lowe does the rest.
Its not for everyone, to stay performing or to carry on writing. 
No, I don't think it is. You're part of a jigsaw puzzle, and you don't have control over most of the pieces. So at the end of the day, it's luck. If they out there doh like it, it doh matter how much work you put in to it. 
The conversation wound on. We'd both been watching bits of Glastonbury on the beeb. Robert Plant and Dolly Parton were the subjects – the topics were of survival and craft. Jim was and is a fine musician. He's worked with Plant, and a host of others who went on to great success. 

So do you feel bad about Little Acre getting that close and not making it?
No, no I don't. I have fabulous memories. We did these gigs... some gigs, we only did three numbers. We'd start on a funk groove and stick there. The crowd went with it. I feel very privileged to have been there. It was a fabulous time. But you, know, some of the young bands now... it's such a pleasure to see them too.
It's interesting to look back at the 70s. The early years were a bit... vague. Progrock and Psychedelia had had a good run; Heavy metal was splintering to sub genres; the British Blues Boom had run its course too. The Beatles were over; the Stones were faltering again. Glamrock was big. Image started to really matter. In the middle of all this, a host of bands tried out different grooves, before punk upset the apple cart. Little Acre had their day in the sun, but it should have gone on for longer.


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great band. Good to see that Jim is still doing stuff. Also Roy Williams was (and hopefully still is) a gent. JBs, Bathams, Little Acre - a Dudley sub-culture!