Charlie Landsborough: Why I owe my career to Gerry Anderson, spending time in jail and the song I wrote but never sang
Ahead of his farewell tour, the country singer tells Leona O’Neill how getting his songs played on the radio in Northern Ireland made him a success, and why he still lives on the hard streets where he grew up.
At the age of 77, most people are long retired, enjoying the gentleness of their twilight years and the easy-going lifestyle that comes with them. But not Liverpool country music king Charlie Landsborough. The folk and country legend is about to embark on a mammoth farewell tour of the UK and Ireland before finally hanging up his guitar. And he will end off where it all began, in Northern Ireland.
Charlie says he owes his fame and fortune to BBC Radio Ulster’s Gerry Anderson. For it was when Gerry played his tracks — including What Colour is the Wind? and My Forever Friend — on his radio show and had him on his TV show that his career went stellar. Within weeks he was at the top of the Irish charts. He went on to top more charts, win awards and mingle with some of the best-known names in the country music world.
He can count the likes of the Everly Brothers, John Prine and Willie Nelson as friends. Not bad for a man who grew up in a deprived area of Liverpool and found himself in jail before he was 18 years old.
“I was a war baby,” he says. “My family are all from Birkenhead. My mam was taken away from the bombs to Wales just before I was born. But I was brought back to the bombs straight after. I was born in Wales, but that is the only connection I have with the place. I have nothing against it, but I am a Scouser through and through.
“I still live in Birkenhead, which is Liverpool’s poor relation over the Mersey. It’s a bit run-down, a bit tatty really. But it’s my town and I love it. Someone asked me once to describe it and I said it’s a bit like an old, dishevelled, unkempt friend who you like for his lack of pretence, his honesty and his generosity, and his sense of humour.”
Charlie has been married to Thelma, who was born in Rooskey, Roscommon, for 52 years, and they have three sons — Charlie (49), Alan (48) and Jamie (42) — and five grandsons.
The singer was a late starter in the music business, finding success in his 50s. But his love of music was born many years before.
“My brothers brought me back a guitar from their travels in Spain when I was around 13 years old,” he says. “And I started strumming away. When I was old enough I would take my guitar to the pub and sing all night for nothing. I just loved it.
“I’ve been involved in music all my life. I’ve been playing in pubs in Birkenhead forever and all the time I was doing a succession of different jobs. I was a grocery store manager, I worked in the flour mills, I was a postman, I was in the Army, a driver, a teacher and a whole host of other jobs. And all the time I was playing in the pubs at night. In fact, I used to get requests in the playground. Kids would say to me that their mam wanted to hear such-and-such a song tonight.
“All the time I was doing all these different jobs and my heart was in the music, really. And after 20-odd years of getting nowhere I started to write my own music. So with hardly any faith in myself, I started writing. I started recording my own songs, got an album together, Gerry Anderson played it and the rest was history. It was Northern Ireland that gave me the break.”
Remembering the role that Anderson played in his career, Charlie adds: “It was Gerry who pulled my music out of a pile of CDs on his desk and played it. And people rang in and asked him to play it again. He rang me and asked me over to be on the TV, on his show Anderson on the Box.
“And watching that night was Pat Kenny, from southern Ireland, and he asked me on to his show. And then all of Ireland went out and bought my CD. I topped the Irish charts.
“It was the people of Northern Ireland who sparked the whole thing off. I have a lot to thank Northern Ireland for — for beginning the whole process. It was quite magical how it worked out.
“I thanked Gerry many times and he would just wave me away. Gerry was an absolute gem. He was a really unique individual. Anyone who knew him loved him. He had a style and a swagger about him, but he was deadly genuine and a funny man. He was larger than life. He wasn’t a big man in physical stature, but he was a big man in every other respect. He was a great character and I miss him very much.”
Charlie has another connection to Northern Ireland. One of his best friends, Londonderry man John Smyth, helped him carve out his career.
“There was a guy who used to come to my gigs in a pub I always played in,” he says. “He came up to me at one gig and told me that I needed to come to Northern Ireland. He said I would go down great. It was John Smyth, or Smythy as I call him. Over the years we became great friends. And then Gerry Anderson invited me over to Belfast. We were both hard up, me and John. I brought him over as my manager, even though he wasn’t and we were both skint. We stayed in the Culloden Hotel in Belfast. We had never stayed in a hotel in our lives. He came in to me and told me that he couldn’t believe it that he had fruit in his room and he had his T-shirt in the trouser press.
“He was from Derry and he brought me back to his home city. He was like a kid at Christmas, because he was going back home and he was going with me, and people were becoming aware of me. It was great fun. He sells our merchandise on the road now. We are still great friends.”
Charlie says he had a very colourful, loving upbringing which was rocked by the death of his mother before he reached his teenage years.
“I was one of 11 kids growing up in Birkenhead,” he says. “People might imagine it was tough but it was absolutely fantastic. I was the youngest and my brothers were all seafarers. It is what you might call a deprived area now but I was never deprived, I was always well looked after and doted on by my mam.
“My brothers, who sailed the seven seas in the Merchant Navy, came back with gifts every time they landed home. I got suit jackets from Japan, a canoe from west Africa that the natives had done, guitars from Spain. It was wonderful when they came home. The house would be clean and everyone was so excited and they would come with these presents. The house was full of animals. We had chickens in the back — in the middle of the city — as well as a duck that attacked everybody. We had cats and dogs, tropical birds from Africa and we even had a monkey at one stage. It was a fantastic house and my four sisters really looked after me. I was very lucky.
“My Mam died when I was 11 years old, which was an incredible blow. She never had very much at all, but she was a great giver. She was always looking after everyone else.
“If I was going to the pictures and my friend Butch never had any money, she would always give him a shilling to go. Little things like that I remember.
“She made an impact upon me because she was an eternal giver.
“Mam had cancer. I remember when she was very ill I read something in the paper about a weeping Madonna somewhere in the world and the tears could cure people. I was only a little kid and I know it sounds daft but I remember wondering if I cried and I dabbed the tears on my mam, would it heal her. I didn’t have the courage to do it in the end.
“When she died I went off the rails a bit. I tried to become one of the lads. To fit in where I lived, it was a bit of a rough area, you had to be either a hard case or a thief.
“And I didn’t have the physique to be a hard case, so I took to petty thieving and finished up in Walton Jail for two months. My family were absolutely aghast because they were all very upright and very honest and I had let them down.
“It taught me a lesson. I came out and I thought, what am I doing? Then I took to preaching at the younger lads on the corners, telling them not to follow all the rubbish. One of those younger lads is still one of my best friends to this day.”
Charlie says that his mother’s influence is still felt in his life and in his music.
“I think she still influences upon my heart,” he says. “You aspire to be somewhat similar. You aspire to kindness and generosity, all the good things that she was. And I can’t help but think that if I’d had this break all those years ago I could have looked after her.
“I wrote a song about my mam. It went: ‘Aggie, you were a lady when the word still had a meaning. A housebound angel dressed in ragged clothes. I don’t think I remember ever hearing you complaining. We all took you for granted, I suppose.’ I never recorded it.”
Charlie says that he never succumbed to the whole drink, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle associated with the music business, although there were a few blips on the road.
“The only thing I ever did was drink,” he says. “But I remember when we were in Germany, with this little band I was in.
“We got over there and someone gave us these drugs to take. They were given to people who were depressed, I think.
“I felt fantastic on it, I loved everyone and wanted to put my arms around the world. But it affected all the lads different. I was loved up, but some of them just stood there with their eyes and their mouths wide open, totally speechless. That was the only time I have ever taken a substance. The rest of the time it is just Guinness and whiskey.”
He says he stays healthy by exercising regularly, and has only had one near death experience in his lifetime.
“I have a treadmill at home,” he says. “I lead a very strange lifestyle. When I’m on the road we drink probably far too much and eat all sorts of rubbish. Then I come home, behave myself, eat sensibly and hardly drink and go on the treadmill once a day. I go out once a week on a Friday with the lads and have a few pints and that’s it.
“I am fortunate to get to this age and still be healthy. I had an operation on an enlarged prostate two years ago and I was involved in a car crash around that time too. A young lad lost control of his car and smashed into me, writing my car off. The airbag exploded. I had to get a lot of stitches in my head.
“It was funny, when they were taking me into the ambulance, an ex-Liverpool FC player and friend of mine, Ian St John, came to the door of the vehicle, saw me covered in blood and asked me if I was okay. And I said to him that when I look out the back of the ambulance I’m thanking God that it was St John and not St Peter talking to me.
“I was very fortunate to get out of that car alive.”
He says life, love and people have always greatly influenced his music and writing.
“Different things inspire me,” he says. “I’ve written about my wife, Thelma. I wrote ‘I Will Love You All My Life’ about her. I was driving to a pub in Liverpool and I sung the first verse without thinking. My brother Jack is brilliant at DIY and I’m useless at it. And Thelma would say that she wished I was a bit more like Jack. And the song was really to say that I am useless at those things, but I will love her forever.
“A lot of my songs are inspired by things that have been said, and by people. I was in Dublin Airport once and I met this older gentleman who said very nice things about my music. And I asked him if he had been on holiday and he said that he was attending his brother’s funeral. I told him I was sorry, and he smiled at me and told me that we were all just passing through. And I often played that song and wondered if he ever heard it.
“I met this lovely older lady in the north east of England, and she told me about her husband Reg who she had lost years before. She told me about the wonderful life she had had. So I wrote a song called ‘My Most Wonderful Time’ which is me imagining I’m singing to her.
“I was fixing an old banger of a car with my brother Johnny years ago. He was great at fixing stuff and I said to him, ‘Johnny, how do you do those things?’ And he said, that’s a good name for a song. So I wrote this really romantic ballad which has nothing to do with motors, but it came from that.
“I’m always listening with a keen ear to titles and situations.”
Charlie says he will be sad to leave the stage, but that he must go before his voice goes.
“It’s bad enough saying goodbye for the final time to one person,” he says. “But saying goodbye to a lot of people will be sad to say the least. I have mixed feelings. I will enjoy it immensely but it will be tinged with sadness and regret because it will be the final one.
“I will miss it immensely because it is all I have ever known all my life. It’s in my blood. It has sustained me and my family and allowed me to meet all these amazing people, go to places I’ve never dreamed I would go. It is going to be hard. I may do an odd gig in the future, but I’ll never do a tour again.
“I can’t go on forever, and I don’t want to stick around and be an embarrassment to myself and everybody. I might already be doing that! But I want to go before my voice goes. I want to be able to sing and do it reasonably well.”
And he will end as he begins, in his beloved Belfast.
“I love Northern Ireland,” he says. “The people are great there. The Northern Irish seem to have an extra injection of life. They have great generosity of spirit and this great life source that seems to be in everybody. Belfast is just a great place and Liverpool is a bit similar. It’s full of character and characters. And if it wasn’t for the Northern Irish, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. So I’ve got extra cause to like them. I love the place.”
Charlie will perform at the Grand Opera House on Monday, January 28 and Tuesday, January 29, 2019. For more information log on to www.goh.co.uk