Middlesbrough superstar Chris Rea speaks exclusively about recovering from illness and his return to touring

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Middlesbrough superstar Chris Rea speaks exclusively about recovering from illness and his return to touring

Posted: 05 Mar 2010

Middlesbrough superstar Chris Rea speaks exclusively about recovering from illness and his return to touring

The Road to Hell and back

Michael Hamilton talks to the smoky-voiced singer, songwriter and guitarist Chris Rea - he plays Newcastle City Hall on March 17 & 18, 2010 - about his surprise comeback after illness

(*This interview was recorded during his last UK tour in 2008)


Middlesbrough superstar Chris Rea, who stared death in the face at the turn of the millennium, is defiant when he declares: 

‘I’ll keep going as long as I can. It gives me something to live and breathe for. I just love being on tour. I never want to give it up. It would be the best job in the world – if only I had a different body.'

The Boro boy has always stayed close to his blues roots, even though he has enjoyed phenomenal commercial success with hits including the Road to Hell – also the name of his first number one album in the UK in 1989. He has sold 30 million records world-wide with Fool If You Think It’s Over one his most enduring single tracks.

But Chris,58, confesses: ‘I’m always a bit nervous when I come back to the City Hall. It’s holy ground. I used to go there and see all my heroes like Little Feat and Ry Cooder. It’s bigger than Wembley to me.

‘Even when I stand there and do my sound check I’ll get butterflies. It means everything. I did my first big gig there supporting Lindisfarne.’

His classic hit Driving Home for Christmas – which made the UK top 40 again last December – of course contains the immortal line: ‘Get my feet on holy ground.’

His two-hour shows will feature a mixture of the hits and blues-orientated instrumentals from the new 20-track album – which also features a beautiful book of his paintings with three CDs and real vinyl records. The package is called The Return of the Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes and it’s a true labour of love. 

Being on the road is tough enough if you are 100 per cent fit. But after a severe bout of pancreatitis in 2001, Chris lost his pancreas, duodenum and gall bladder. He was only given a 50/50 chance of survival after an operation called a Whipple procedure.

‘It’s a twelve-and-a-half-hour operation and it takes you a year after to see if you will even recover from it. The two guys who went in with me to have it didn’t get through.’

He adds with typical black humour: ‘The nurse told me before I went in nobody ever knows they’ve died, you know.’

But his brush with death has given him a greater appreciation of life.

‘I was 15 stone 4 when I went in and only eight stone when I came out – I’m back to about 11 stone now.

‘It’s not until you become seriously ill and you nearly die and you’re at home for six months that you suddenly stop and realise that this isn’t the way I intended it to be in the beginning.

‘Everything that you’ve done falls away and you start wondering why you went through all that rock business stuff.

‘Now I don’t look any further forward than today, I really do live day to day. What my health problems have given me is constant optimism. If it rains, I say great rain is nice.’

I caught up with him in Zagreb as he took a break from the European leg of his tour and he is clearly loving being back on the road after a two-year break which many thought would be permanent.

‘My wife asks me why I carry on. It’s because I’m bothered. I care about it. I love music. The problem is the way my health is, when I am touring I have to factor in medical days off.

‘She thinks this tour is too long and she’s probably right. But I have to take days off from performing to get off the pills that get me through the gigs. 

Life without a pancreas also means he has to train hard to avoid muscle wastage and maintain a healthy circulation. It has also left him diabetic.

Chris says: ‘I have to inject myself seven times a day. Diabetes is one of the major things you are left with when you haven’t got a pancreas.

‘I’ve just been to the gym and I hate it. If they ever get the technology to make me a new pancreas I’m going to throw a mega-party and burn the running shoes! I hate training – it’s so boring.’ 

His medical condition has inevitably curbed the rock and roll lifestyle somewhat.

‘I’m still allowed to have a beer,’ he confides. ‘I can have two or three pints. But I must say I get drunk a lot easier than I used to. Well, it saves me money.’

I remember first meeting Chris in the Eighties, when I was working for The Tube – the Channel Four music show made by Tyne Tees Television. He came to the TV studios to record some tracks for the show. 

Modest and reserved, he had a healthy disregard for the commercialism of the music business even in those early days. He hasn’t changed.

‘When I came back from the illness the record people offered me a fortune to do duets with young pop stars. I thought I just can’t do this any more,’ says Chris.

‘The guys who said they weren’t in it for the fame and fortune are still around, like Mark Knopfler. We’re here because we love it. I don’t have to compromise any more. I do what I want.’

Chris had the last laugh.

Industry bosses turned down his offerings so he set up his own JazzeeBlue label in 2003 and released Blue Street (Five Guitars) and The Blue Jukebox both to critical acclaim. Another album Dancing Down the Stony Road went gold.

Of course it was the single Stainsby Girls – a tribute to his wife Joan, who attended Stainsby Secondary Modern School – that first brought him to the attention of UK audiences in 1985. The following year he played to 95,000 fans at Slane Castle in Ireland supporting supergroup Queen.

Chris’s lyrics are peppered with references to growing up in Middlesbrough with its heavy industry, chemical processing, steel-making and shipbuilding.

In The Road to Hell he sings of the River Tees at its most polluted in the Sixties:

I’m standing by a river, but the water doesn’t flow

It boils with every poison you can think of.

The song Steel River celebrates the now-clean Tees which has salmon running in it once more, but nowadays little industry. Windy Town meanwhile is a memory of Boro from a touring musician’s viewpoint.

The son of Winifred and Camillo Rea – an Italian immigrant whose family ran Middlesbrough’s biggest ice-cream business – Chris is proud of his northern roots. 

He reminisces: ‘I miss the bits of Middlesbrough that aren’t there any more. It’s very hard to accept that Ayresome Park no longer exists. I know I sound very old when I say things like that.

‘When I meet up with people from the North East on my travels we all miss the days gone by. But you can’t have them back. You can’t cling to the past.

‘Those terraced streets are no longer there. But I miss the old character of the place, the guys with the fruit barrows and all that.

‘Somebody was trying to explain to me the other day where the new Middlesbrough ground was and it was completely alien to me. I couldn’t work out where it was. I thought there was an old pawnbroker’s shop there.

‘But I still watch out for their results every Saturday night – it’s always the first team I look for.’

Chris left the North East 22 years ago and set up home in Cookham, Berkshire with Joan and daughters Josephine, now 24, and Julia, 19. It’s where he produced some of his later albums at Sol Mill Recording studios.

‘The girls have grown up in the south and don’t really know the North East. But having daughters in their early twenties and late teens does provide me with great market research,’ he says. 

‘What I notice from them is how sad the music business has become. Digital has just about done in the music business. But the girls and their friends are into eclectic stuff, guys like Ben Harper – a slide guitar player like me – and I’ve got his albums.

‘All their friends try to steal his stuff from my house. They think he’s the coolest guy in the world – somewhere between Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix.’

People sometimes forget that Chris came late to music. He was 19 before he picked up a guitar, then he spent the next two years teaching himself and practising until, in 1973, he joined local Teesside band Magdalene when singer David Coverdale left to join Deep Purple.

The band cut a single in 1974 and won Melody Maker's Best Newcomers award in 1975, but very little else came of them and they split. 

In 1978 after going solo, Chris released his debut single, the haunting Fool if You Think it's Over. It did nothing at first, but after success with the single in the US, his record company re-promoted it in the UK and it reached number 30 that September.

He released eight albums in the 1980s including Shamrock Diaries, On The Beach and Dancing With Strangers, and the New Light Through Old Windows compilation album in 1988 brought him great success. The follow-up to the Road to Hell, Auberge, was equally popular.

Now he has put together a new band with Robert Whwai on guitar, Neil Drinkwater on keyboards, Colin Hodgkinson on bass and Martin Ditcham on drums.

The tour is a tribute to the iconic early Sixties Hofner guitar – Chris’s first ever guitar was a 1961 Hofner V3 which he bought from a second hand shop in his home town for the princely sum of 32 guineas, while working in his dad’s ice cream parlour in 1970.

‘That is the music that I have always wanted to play: real genuine guitar music,’ he explains.

‘It’s just my first love. You know if you take music as romance, then blues was my first love you know, it’s my wife.’



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