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A Shirt Box Full of Songs - Barbara Dickson

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Hardcover: 320 pages / Publisher: Hachette Scotland / Published: 15 Oct 2009 / Language: English

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      11.07.2013 07:05
      Very helpful



      The memoirs of singer and actress Barbara Dickson


      Let's start with a statistic that Mrs Cookson of Lincolnshire, a.k.a. Barbara Dickson, found hard to believe when she was told. Not long before she wrote these memoirs, she was informed that she had sold more records in her career than any other solo Scottish female vocalist. Having started out as a folk singer, then had hits from a couple of musicals and been very successful in the pop-meets-easy listening market, and sustained a pretty successful career over three decades, she has many an interesting tale to tell.

      THE BOOK

      Maybe the girl from Dunfermline owed her longevity in the business, or at least her determination to succeed, on an unexpected failure at her Eleven-Plus. It gave her the incentive to make something of herself, the 'Stuff that, I'll show them' attitude. A little later at school, the person to have the greatest influence on her at that stage of her life was Sandy Saddler, the music teacher, who cheerfully encouraged her in her love of both Scottish traditional song and modern American folk artists. That, and a taste for the songs and vocal harmonies of the Everly Brothers, inspired in her a passion for music which made it clear what her vocation would be. In her teens she also loved the Beatles, and was part of an audience at Kirkcaldy which went to watch and scream at them one night without being able to hear a note they played - like thousands of others in their heyday as a live group. At the same time, she was collecting words and music to her favourite songs in an old shirt box of her father's, a receptacle she has treasured to this day. Hence the title of her book.

      Around then she also took up piano and guitar, played with folk groups and often went busking. One evening just before Christmas, she and several friends decided to go carol singing in Edinburgh to raise money for charity and collected a measly three shillings (15p in post-1971 currency), then adjourned to a pub where they thought they would try and sing a carol at the bar. The collection tin began to fill up at once. A few pubs later, they had raised over £20. As one of them said to her (and to all buskers, in fact), the moral is that singing to drunks indoors is preferable, or more profitable, to singing to sober people outside.

      Her tastes were always eclectic, embracing The Who, Jimi Hendrix and more recently Eminem as well as the likes of Bob Dylan and James Taylor. She also got to meet and sometimes work with contemporaries on the Scottish scene who also became close friends such as Rab Noakes, Billy Connolly, 'one of the most generous people I know' - who once memorably said that folk fundamentalists are 'bearded men wearing Aran jumpers singing about dead sailors' - and Gerry Rafferty. (Having loved the recent BBC4 TV tributes to Gerry, that was one of the reasons why I sought this book out). One wee nit-pick - Stealers Wheel's 'Stuck In The Middle' was admittedly a Top 10 hit in the UK, but never a No. 1.

      There are plenty of amusing stories on the way, although one of them has a touch of sadness about it, in view of what eventually became of the 'Baker Street' man. Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, his musical partner in Stealers Wheel, were booked to sing backing vocals on one of her first albums. On arrival at the studio they were accompanied by a distinct clanking noise, though they had not brought any instruments with them. The clanking was a traditional Scottish gift - the carry-oot. Next day, she found out that they had polished off the entire contents of same (so they didn't offer her any?), and as a result there was not much of their work that was usable on the album. She and another singer had to redo most of the backing vocals themselves.

      A job with the civil service for four years paid her a reasonable wage, but at length she had to choose between that and music. We all know what the answer was. From that, it was a short step to landing the musical role in Willy Russell's 'John, Paul, George, Ringo...and Bert', a regular spot on 'The Two Ronnies', a recording contract, her first Top 10 hit in 1976 with 'Answer Me', singing roles in the recordings of 'Evita', and at last a No. 1 single in the form of a duet with Elaine Paige from 'Chess', 'I Know Him So Well'. Just don't expect her to be too nice about the video for that song, though. Later on came the acting career, notably her much-praised roles in 'Blood Brothers' and 'Band of Gold', followed by marriage at the age of nearly 37 and the birth of three sons. Despite family life the career had to continue, and she writes realistically of having to juggle the demands of touring with being a mother.

      Despite all that success, in this book (co-written with John K.V. Eunson) she comes across as quite down-to-earth, modest and self-deprecating at times. She readily admits that it has not all been plain sailing, and that there were times when overwork brought her perilously close to breaking point and the odd enforced rest to save her sanity. She does not really have a bad word to say about anybody, writes very generously of those she has met and worked with, and is almost apologetic to her readers about the lack of drink and drug problems, no scandal, no hotel-trashing, only one marriage and no divorce, etc. From her early days playing folk clubs and busking around Britain and Europe, to headlining on major concert tours, her enthusiasm seems never to have waned. These days she will happily listen to such diverse music as Randy Newman, 12th-century church canticles in Latin, and then Seth Lakeman, and appreciate all three. In an ideal world, she writes towards the end, 'music should touch the heart and soul and be completely free of boundaries.' Who could disagree with that?


      The style is very readable, and I found myself enjoying every page. Oh, and please note, other showbiz memoirists and their publishers, this book has (cue drum roll) a comprehensive index, a list of stage, film, TV and radio credits, and a discography. So many similar books I have read lately have cut corners and dispensed with some if not all of these, so well done and thank you Barbara.

      Anybody who has ever had a soft spot for her music will relish this book. I certainly did.

      [Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]


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