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Singer Chris Rea: 'Coping with not having a pancreas can be pretty awful'

Ahead of his concert in Belfast next Sunday, Chris Rea talks to Andy Welch about his battles with his health, Ferraris and why he's convinced 60 is the new 30.

In his signature gruff, North-East accent Chris Rea says: "How do?". He's in Leipzig as part of his European tour - which includes a stop in Belfast next Sunday - and by his own admission, having a lovely time.

"We're lucky enough to still tour at a level where we can be comfortable," he says. "And we'll be on the road for three or four months every two years, so it's great. Rather than missing home when I'm on tour, I miss tour when I'm at home. No stress."

The man behind festive hit single Driving Home for Christmas is about as down-to-earth as people who've sold 30 million albums get, and speaking to him, it's impossible to understand how he was mistaken for an American artist when he first launched his career way back in 1978.

"'Elton Joel', that was the idea the record label had for me," he says, describing the piano-playing, singer-songwriter Elton John/Billy Joel mix he was touted as, which gave record-buyers the wrong impression for three or four years.

"Fool If You Think It's Over is still the only song I've ever not played guitar on, but it just so happened to be my first single, and it just so happened to be a massive hit. It was in the US Top 10 for seven weeks."

By 1983, he says enough music journalists had written about him to spread the word that he wasn't in fact an American balladeer, but one of the finest guitarists the UK has ever had.

"I was late to the guitar," he says. "I didn't pick up the instrument 'til I was 21. Think about how much the likes of Mark Knopfler or Eric Clapton had done before I even started? There had been beat groups in the area, lots of them, but they'd gone when I started playing. I was on the dole, didn't know any musicians ... I definitely missed the boat, I think."

He didn't waste much time once he had his ears pricked by the guitar, though, particularly the slide guitar he's become synonymous with.

"It was a blues player called Charlie Patton that got me started," he says. "I heard him on Saturday afternoon radio. It sounds so historical now, but they'd have satellite broadcasts from the States. I heard his voice and this weird sound coming from his guitar."

That night, he sought out some blues players in Middlesbrough who told Rea that Patton had been using a glass bottleneck to play slide blues.

"That was it for me, I was gone from that day on," he recalls.

He soon went on to perform in various bands, including one in which he replaced David Coverdale who later formed Whitesnake, and also played on a Hank Marvin solo album.

His debut album Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? (a reference to the stage name his record label wanted him to adopt) was released in 1978. Ironically, Fool If You Think It's Over was nominated for a Grammy that year, and lost out to Billy Joel's Just The Way You Are.

He didn't find such success again for a few years, but by the time his eighth album On The Beach, spawning a hit single of the same name, was released, he was a star in the UK and around Europe, and had sporadic hits in the US. When Road To Hell was released in 1989, he became one of the biggest solo stars in the UK, and cemented himself as a favourite among a predominantly male audience of a certain age.

In certain quarters, Rea makes deeply uncool music which dads listen to while driving. But dads who buy CDs to play in the car can keep artists going for an entire career. And Rea - who is a father himself to two daughters, Josephine (31) and Julia Christina (25), with his wife Joan - really doesn't sound like he could care less whether you think he's cool or not.

"We're playing all the old hits on this coming tour," he says. "But most are new versions of the old songs. We tend to tweak and mess about with them. We've just got a new version of On The Beach sorted, which is half reggae.

"We do stuff like that to keep it interesting, for us as well as the audience. And we've got two layers now; we get a lot of hoots and claps and whistles for some of the newer stuff, the more recent blues stuff from albums like (2002's) Dancing Down The Stony Road."

Rea, now 63, says the more recent forays into swampy blues have attracted a younger crowd and injected new life into his career.

"I feel I've had three careers in one, really," he explains. "There was the Benny Santini stuff, that came with a general sense of, 'Who the hell is he?' And then there was The Road To Hell stuff and now there's the blues stuff. We're just happy. To be on tour in Europe, heading to the UK, this far down the line in a career, I feel very lucky."

His career isn't the only reason Rea should feel lucky. There's also his health.

In 2001, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had his pancreas removed. It was during this period of recuperation he took up painting, and promised himself he'd return to his blues-playing roots. It has meant his lifestyle has changed, however, with a fat-free diet now essential, along with a rigorous workout regime.

"Once they've taken your pancreas away, the rest of your life is dealing with not having a pancreas, which is pretty awful sometimes, but I'm still here," he says.

When he's not on tour, writing or painting, his other main passion is cars, particularly, given his Italian heritage, Ferraris. He hopes to have a Ferrari 156 restored later this year, which has been a 22-year labour of love tracking down all the parts.

"It's extremely rare, this shark-nosed racing car," he says proudly. "There were only two made, in 1961. We found the engine in a garage in Godalming in Surrey, just sitting there. When it's done, we're going to race it. It's the car I had a poster of on my wall when I was a kid."

For now, however, he's just content to be on tour, and hopes to see the crowds on their feet dancing.

"We have big arguments with promoters over this, because when we play gigs in Europe we have half standing, and they are the best gigs because the people who like a dance can get up. English promoters think if you're not 16-years-old, you want to sit down and not move.

"It drives me round the bend. We're not young anymore, and neither are a lot of the audience, but it doesn't mean we're geriatric.

"I read an article about 60 being the new 30 the other week and I think it's very true. Our generation has not done what previous generations did, and just got old and sat in a corner.

"I'm not ready to sit in an armchair and fall asleep just yet."

  • Chris Rea plays the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on December 7. For details, visit www.waterfront.co.uk

Songs we drive home to at Christmas

As the man behind the festive hit Driving Home for Christmas, Chris Rea has earned his place in the canon of Yuletide pop songs. We asked a few local celebrities to share their favourites with us as well:

Claire McCollum (39) is a TV and radio presenter, she says:

"For me Last Christmas, by Wham!, is a timeless classic. It's probably one of the first songs played each year so you hear it in the car or in the house. I love Wham! and when I was younger I even had their posters up in my bedroom. I love Christmas full-stop - just as well as my two children have birthdays around the same time."

Rebecca McKinney (28) is co-presenter of the Cool FM breakfast show each weekday morning. She says:

"I love the Britney Spears Christmas song, My Only Wish (This Year). It's my guilty Christmas pleasure and I think it's a good alternative to Mariah Carey's song All I Want for Christmas is You. We're already playing Christmas songs on the show. We've decided the songs from the film Frozen are Christmas songs, so we're playing those and the new Band Aid song."

Frank Mitchell (51) presents his phone-in show on U105 each weekday morning. He says:

"My favourite Christmas song is by Steve Earle and it's called Nothing But A Child. I'm a huge fan of Steve and I listen to a lot of his music. One week before Christmas I stuck on a CD in the car and that song came on. I thought it was a brilliant story about the birth of Jesus."

Ralph McLean (44) is a TV and radio presenter for BBC NI. He says:

"I love Christmas songs, particularly soulful ones. My favourite is by James Brown and it's called Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto. James Brown has a great way of doing Christmas songs - he has a whole Christmas album - as they are really impassioned and socially aware. They make you think about the less fortunate at that time of year.

I love Christmas songs and the really great ones like Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody and Fairytale of New York by The Pogues. I tend to go for songs with an edge."

Martin Lynch (64) is a playwright and theatre director. He says:

"Generally speaking Christmas songs drive me mad but the one that's the most heartfelt is John Lennon's Happy Xmas (War Is Over). The vast majority of others grate on you, but I think that song is soulful and makes you think around Christmas time."

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