Guitar hero Mark Knopfler has sold an astonishing 110 million albums in a 30-year showbusiness career in which he led Eighties supergroup Dire Straits to phenomenal success. But away from the rock and roll razzmatazz he is a very private man.
- His new album is Get Lucky and all proceeds from the singles Remembrance Day and Piper to the End will go to the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.
Profile by Michael Hamilton
Mark Knopfler stepped out of the shade, into the spotlight, strummed the opening notes to one of his classic hits - Romeo and Juliet - and the roof almost lifted off Newcastle City Hall.
The Gosforth guitar genius, famous for tunes like Local Hero, was back home among his own people in May 2008 playing to an adoring sell-out crowd.
It was an emotional return. His first time back in the North East since he was honoured by the Variety Club of Great Britain’s northern region with a prestigious Silver Heart award at Newcastle Civic Centre.
Guests at the ceremony – which raised a tremendous £80,000 for the charity – included pals such as former England and Newcastle star Alan Shearer, Auf Wiedersehen actors Tim Healy and Jimmy Nail and the Shadows’ Brian Welch.
Surrounded by his family, including wife Kitty, Geordie Mark said he was honoured and humbled by his celebrity friends’ comments and tributes.
‘I’ve been presented with all sorts of things over the years, including Grammies and gold records but this is extremely special,’ he said.
‘It’s such a big thing for me to receive it in Newcastle which is such a wonderful place.’
Chairman Peter Johnson – who presented the award – told me: ‘He may be a superstar but he’s actually a very shy man. It took us a long time to get him to agree to do it. There are certainly no airs and graces about him.
‘He was very honoured to receive it. It’s the highest accolade that we can bestow and marks outstanding achievement. The event raised £80,000 on the day, which is just fantastic.’
Away from the stage, this archetypal quiet man of rock gets embarrassed when fans tell him how much they have been affected by his songs and how his music has changed their lives.
For Mark, 60, remains at heart a family man who loves nothing better than to spend time with his wife and his daughters Isabella, ten, and Katya, five.
The City Hall show on May 21 last year came in the middle of a massive world tour, which took in Europe and the States, to promote his fifth solo album Kill to Get Crimson.
It’s just the latest chapter in an amazing success story for the lad who went to Gosforth High School and grew up worshipping Sixties stars The Shadows with their bright red guitars.
The excited youngster had his heart set on a red Fender Stratocaster just like The Shadows Geordie guitarist Hank Marvin played, and pestered his dad for one. In the end he had to settle for a £50 Hofner Super Solid – in red naturally. Fifty quid was a lot of money then.
He recalls: ‘It was because of them that my first guitar had to be red. It cost my poor old dad a lot of money in those days.
‘I didn’t have the nerve to ask him for an amplifier so I plugged it into the radio and blew it up. I was 15.
‘I knew I wanted to play but I don’t know whether I though about being world famous. I just loved the music so much, I just wanted to play it, be part of the music.
‘I was a great admirer of them but never met them as a kid. It was amazing to find yourself on stage with them years later.’
Mark’s career statistics are simply staggering. By the mid Eighties Dire Straits were dubbed ‘the biggest band in the world’ and had just released Brothers in Arms, one of the biggest selling albums of all time. It was the first CD to sell a million copies. And in a BBC poll it was voted second best rock album of all time. That tour alone saw them play 234 shows to 2.5million fans over 12 months.
Aside from the colossal record sales – which have made him a multi-millionaire – he has played with such musical luminaries as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Sting, Tina Turner, Van Morrison and James Taylor. He was also included in Rolling Stone magazine’s best 100 guitarists of all time, coming in at number 27.
In 1993 he was made an honorary Doctor of Music at Newcastle University, an honour that was repeated by Sunderland University last July.
He has done more than his fair share for high profile charities too.
Dire Straits did a total of three concerts for the Prince’s Trust in front of Prince Charles and Diana. They appeared at the 1985 Live Aid concert and the 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th birthday concert.
In 1995 Mark featured on the chart-topping single Knocking on Heaven’s Door to help those affected by the Dunblane tragedy. His Notting Hillbillies have also performed many charity concerts helping to raise money for a whole range of deserving causes.
He has penned classic hit after hit with pop anthems like Money for Nothing – also the first ever video to be played on MTV in the UK – Romeo and Juliet, Walk of Life, Private Investigations and Local Hero, of course. That particular anthem is still occasionally played at St. James’ Park on match day.
It’s all a far cry from Dire Straits’ humble beginnings in 1977 when first manager Ed Bicknell saw them in Dingwall’s club in North London. It was 13th December and Mark was playing Down to the Waterline on his trademark red Fender Stratocaster guitar.
Ed signed them up there and then to support the American band Talking Heads at £50 a night – ten times their fee for the Dingwall’s gig! The rest is history.
Although Mark is left-handed he plays his trademark electric guitars right-handed and uses a distinctive finger-picking style more commonly associated with players of its acoustic cousin. He owns more than 70 guitars including a very rare 1954 Fender Stratocaster – one of the first ever made – which he nicknamed Jurassic Strat, and the treasured 1937 National steel guitar which features on the front cover of Brothers in Arms and on which he plays Romeo and Juliet.
A keen motorcyclist, he was involved in an accident in London’s Belgravia – he lives in nearby Chelsea – in March 2003. He suffered a broken collarbone and shoulder blade and seven broken ribs. He had to cancel his Ragpicker’s Dream tour and didn’t return to the stage until 2004 for his fourth solo album Shangri-La.
Can I quote you on that?
Although a guitar hero Mark is in the troubadour tradition, a songster with a great knack for story-telling – he was actually a junior reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post before he got his big musical break. His talent for telling a tale shines through in songs like Romeo and Juliet and Get Wild, a great nostalgic track from his latest solo album Kill to Get Crimson.
Charities close to his heart
Big-hearted Mark doesn’t make a song and dance about his charity work but he did ask us to give a special mention to three local regional charities very close to his heart – St. Oswald’s Hospice, the Teenage Cancer Trust and Brave Hearts, of which he is patron.
Little Joanne Gillespie is the inspiration behind Brave Hearts. The 11-year-old Teesside girl turned the tragic story of her battle against a recurrent brain tumour into a diary back in 1989.
Robin Alexander, a member of Hexham Round Table, was so moved he launched an appeal to help children with similar stories.
The fundraising drive ended with Dire Straits headlining a gala charity dinner at the famous old Newcastle Mayfair ballroom venue – where The Gate now stands – and raised more than £35,000.
Brave Hearts was registered as a separate charity and since its inception has assisted more than 100 children who have shown incredible courage in battling to overcome illness, handicap or other adversity.
Sadly this story does not have a completely happy ending. Many of the children recognised by Brave Hearts were so ill that they have not survived. Joanne herself died in 1993.
But her mum Kathryn contacted the charity trustees a few weeks ago with a touching message which they relayed to Mark:
‘I just wanted to contact you to say how proud we are that this charity is doing so well and helping so many children.
‘Joanne’s last message was "Don't let people forget me and keep them fighting" – I'm sure no one will forget her and her spirit keeps people fighting. Thank you so much for helping to keep her memory alive and for helping so many young people.’
Brave Hearts’ trustee Dave Hodgkins says: ‘The fact that Mark is our patron is very important to us and he is always very keen to be kept up to date with our fundraising events.
‘I know the letter from Joanne’s mum touched him. He’s been supporting us now for 20 years. He’s been a very loyal supporter in a quiet, discreet way.’
A Brave Hearts sports dinner at St. James Park in January – for which Mark donated a collection of signed CDs of his hit albums – raised more than £10,000 for the charity.
‘Mark’s a local hero to us but then so are all the children he has helped with his generosity over the years,’ added Dave.
Any donations for Brave Hearts of the North East should be sent to:
Nicholson Portnell c/o Mr R Nelson, Priestpopple House, Hexham NE46 1PL
Teenage Cancer Trust
Mark is also a patron of the Teenage Cancer Trust and he donated 10 pairs of VIP tickets for his last City Hall gig, which include entry to the after-show party. They were auctioned at various events to raise the badly needed cash to build a new state-of-the-art unit at Newcastle RVI.
The six-bed ward will treat young people with cancer across the North East. The unit will incorporate social space, chill-out facilities, game consoles, computers, Internet access, large plasma screen and Sky TV to help keep the youngsters occupied during long stays in hospital.
‘Six teenagers are diagnosed with cancer each day – that’s more than 2,000 every year. But these young patients don’t stop being teenagers just because they get cancer. The money we raise ensures that young cancer patients get the best possible care,’ said TCT fundraiser Emily Wheldon.
The units cost around £2million and £1million needs to be raised locally.
For more information about TCT visit www.teenagecancertrust.org Donations can be send to: Teenage Cancer Trust, PO Box 196, Northallerton DL7 7BD
St. Oswald's Hospice
Mark helped launch St. Oswald’s new children’s service at the turn of the millennium by donating one of his signed trademark guitars for a special appeal. It helped raised thousands of pounds to get the unit off the ground.
This Gosforth hospice provides specialist care for adults and children across the North East, but the annual running costs exceed £6million and £4.5million of that has to be raised through voluntary donations.
Fundraiser Steph Whitehead says: ‘Celebrities like Mark can make a big difference to causes like ours and we are very grateful for his support.’
If you would like to help you can do so by phone 0870 700 3030 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.stoswaldsuk.org or by post to St. Oswald’s Hospice Fundraising Dept, Regent Avenue, Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 1EE.