HE has had a music career spanning half a century but what do you really know about Shakin’ Stevens?
The 69-year-old may be one of the biggest-selling rock and roll artists of the 80s. Yet most his fans probably do not know about his everyday life, his family and upbringing while younger readers are likely to be more familiar with a reference to the singer in Alan Partridge than his 11 top five singles.
“When people think of me they just know I was born in Cardiff and had these hits. That’s about it,” he said.
Shaky can relate to that because until recently he knew very little about his family tree and the stories of his ancestors. His decision to return to the studio last year coincided with that realisation and his album, Echoes Of Our Times, grew from there.
The platinum-selling artist uncovered tales of poverty and strife in the Cornish copper mines, bravery and loss in the First World War, philanthropic preachers and stoic Salvationists and family feuds.
Shaky added: “You get to a time in your life when you realise you don’t know anything about your family. I wasn’t looking for a connection to royalty or money or anything like that. I just wanted to know where I come from. I wanted to find out who my family was and the stories unfolded.”
Among his most shocking discoveries was that many of his family members worked in terrible conditions in copper mines in Cornwall in the 19th century. Cornwall’s mines were once the richest in the world supplying two-thirds of the world’s copper but the deep, wet mines took their toll with life expectancy generally short for workers.
Shaky was also shocked by the tragic death of his uncle Leonard, on his mum’s side, who lied about his age during the war to become a gunner for the Royal Artillery.
He said: “He was blown up. It took him eights days to die and his son was born eight days later.”
Some of Shaky’s research also revealed secrets from his own childhood when he was known by his birth name of Michael Barratt in Ely, Cardiff.
He added: “Some of my family on my father’s side was living down a road that I used to pass when I went to school. But I didn’t know they were there because of a feud. Every family has secrets.”
Shaky then turned all these stories into songs at Berry Hill Studio in Gloucestershire. His surprise comeback and first album in nine years also saw a radical change in his style in which blues, roots, Americana and classic rock took centre stage.
He said: “I’ve used mandolins and bottle neck guitars for a while but they particularly leant themselves to these tracks. The reaction to the album has been unbelievable but people didn’t realise it was me at first.
“I didn’t want to be on the cover for this one and when it went out on SoundCloud they said: ‘Great. Who is it?’ I’ve kind of taken my fans on another road with different instruments and styles and darker subject matter but they’ve really taken to it. It’s also pulled in another audience for me – a ‘muso’ (keen music fan) audience.”
A recording artist since the 70s, Shaky has seen his music released in all forms. But he is encouraging listeners to buy Echos Of Our Times on CD as it is accompanied with background information on all the family tales he has uncovered.
Shaky, who is performing at Parr Hall on May 19, added: “Remember the days of vinyl when people you used to listen to the music while looking at the record sleeve? This is a similar kind of thing. This album has got information about each track. It’s quite a nice thing to have and look through while you’re listening to the tracks.
“On the tour I’ll be doing all the tracks from the album and some of the hits but in a different way. I’m looking forward to it.”
Shaky, who is back in the charts every festive season with 1985’s Merry Christmas Everyone, started singing when he was about 13 and said he never wanted to do anything else.
He said: “I sang in school, I sang out of school. All I wanted to do was sing. So when I finished school I would keep a job down in the daytime and then get on stage in the evening.
“It got better and better but it was a long road. I think it was more than a decade before I had my first hit. They were the days of sleeping in vans. We couldn’t afford B&Bs when we first started out so we’d all kip in the van.
“It wasn’t very nice really waking up with five guys in a van. But we’d go off and find the next public convenience, wash, have a shave and we’d be off to the next gig.”
One of his breaks was playing The King in the West End hit musical Elvis. That led to his record deal and by 1980 he had his first top 40 hit with Hot Dog. A year later the number one This Ole House turned him into an international star.
Shaky added: “Susan George, Carl Perkins, David Bowie and lots of celebrities used to come to see the musical. I loved it. And when we’d taken the show as far it would go two people came backstage and asked if I had a recording contract and a manager? I said no and the next thing I knew I had a deal with CBS just around the corner.
“I made a few records and nothing really happened. Then I did some more records and something just clicked.”