Q&A: Leee John
The 56-year-old found fame in the Eighties as a member of soul music trio Imagination, who enjoyed numerous hit singles including Just an Illusion and Music and Lights, and will soon be releasing a new Very Best of... album
Does it feel strange to still be releasing music by Imagination 30 years down the line?
Not really, because I have had a very full international career, including a jazz album that was very successful, and have been doing shows around the world, as well as working as an ambassador with the charity SOS Children's Villages. I'm also producing a film Flashback, about the history of UK black music which I have been working on for the last three years, so I've been pretty pro-active!
You're rather a jack of all trades, aren't you?
You need to be in this environment and this lifestyle. When I first came into the music industry I was performing in pubs, bingo halls, working men's clubs – even as a singing waiter!
What are your memories of playing Belfast in the Eighties?
We played in this place like a bingo hall, which was packed with thousands of people and I remember the hotel where I was staying, the Europa, was surrounded by barbed wire. My assistant snuck me out of the hotel because my management didn't like me to go out after a show and save my voice instead. We went to this speakeasy club in a bombed-out area of Belfast. I thought I was going to get kidnapped or something, but we had a wonderful night out. Everyone treated me so well and it was a lot of fun.
Imagination came along at a very heady time for pop music in the UK. Did you feel like you were part of something big?
Maybe you're not really analysing what it is you're doing at the time; it was after the decade had finished that all of a sudden you had someone like Mariah Carey or Destiny's Child or The Pharcyde covering your records and you think 'Hey, it's reached someplace!'.
There's been a big resurgence in Eighties bands hitting the road. What's kept people interested?
Well, the songs were very strong. Also, we were in a decade where people remember the groups and the personalities. Imagination were very theatrical and our songs were strong. In one year we had four or five singles as hits, not like now where you get a reality television person who you're following for six weeks for a series and then hoping they can make a career out of it.
You knew who wrote the songs and played them and sang background vocals. There was a lot of depth to what we were doing.
Do you think the music a lot of young people buy now is too disposable, compared to what you have done?
Yes, because when they talk to me or listen to the new stuff I've done they say my records seem timeless. We were lucky to capture something and we were trying to get something classic each time.
With all the touring and success you enjoyed, how did you make sure the fame never went to your head?
We were very grounded. My mother is very involved in the community in London, so I probably get a lot of my drive from her.
Flashback: The Very Best Of Imagination will be released on 7 October via Sony Music. For details on Leee's projects, visit leejohn.com