Charlie Landsborough tells Michael McDonagh about a whirlwind quarter-century in which he went from being a Birkenhead primary school teacher to acclaimed singer-songwriter and how the time might be near to hang up his guitar
A little over 20 years ago, an impressive TV appearance and moving performance of his song What Colour is the Wind changed Charlie Landsborough’s life.
Since then he has gone on to sell millions of albums and has performed all over the world, picking up countless prestigious awards along the way.
The Irish World: Hi Charlie, are you well? They were exciting times for you way back then – the mid-90s – when What Colour Is The Wind had such an impact, but how did it start?
“A friend of mine, a Derry man, but before he knew me, had heard me on local radio and he liked it and thought I was a Yank, but his wife said you know that American you like, well he is playing down the road in a pub.
“So, he came along and when I had sung, he came up to me in the gent’s toilet and said that was good, you should play in Northern Ireland and I said ‘Thanks, mate, but that’s not likely to happen.’ This was in Birkenhead the other side of the Mersey from Liverpool and he started to come and watch me, and we became friends.
“Then Gerry Anderson who had a show over there picked my CD from the pile on his desk and liked it, so they called me up and asked me to come over and be on his show.
“Me and the fella from Derry went over and were skint, so we did the show and I played in a pub in Derry. Watching that night when I did Anderson on the Box was Pat Kenny who then wanted me on his show.
“Foster & Allen, who I was friends with, asked me to be the support on their tour and I thought I’ll take the plunge before it is too late, so I got time off from my job as a teacher to give it a go.
“Then in January of 1995 Foster & Allen said ‘Sorry mate, we are not having a support now’ so I came away from the phone feeling disconsolate, but I thought what I can do about this, so I phoned RTE and they said we have been trying to get you for months.
“I went over with just a guitar and played pedals with my feet. Pat Kenny said if we call you back will you sing another song and they did call me back and I sang What Colour is The Wind and all of Ireland was watching and I think they even extended the show to let me finish.
“After the show, I went back home thinking it had been a nice weekend in Dublin but the following week on the Monday my son picked me up from school and said ‘Dad, you are in the Irish charts’. I said: ‘What am I? Number 98’ and I was not joking as I had no notion of being in the charts ever.
“He said: ‘’No dad, you are Number 2’, and the next week it went to Number 1 and the whole thing took off and I packed in my teaching job and at the age of 53 my real music career started. The reaction to the show was incredible the biggest the show has ever had and that is why the record shot up the charts.
“I was thrust into it at the huge Gaiety Theatre from nowhere then we were off on tour.
“Just before that I had been teaching in a primary school for 14 years, before that I’d been a navy and had worked on the railways and was in the army for four years, but I always played in the pubs in the evenings and had played in one pub for 22 years.
“That is what brought the songwriting about really as I thought I am getting nowhere with the singing so perhaps I should try writing songs born out of frustration.
“Ironically, I then started to get a reputation as a songwriter as people like Foster and Allen and Daniel O’Donnell recorded my songs, but I was still playing in the pub. Foster and Allen did I Will Love You All My Life, that had been so big for them that I got to know them, and they invited to me and my family to the Floral Pavilion in Southport and after we all went back to their hotel in Liverpool and sang together till about 5.00 in the morning.
“Then my old car would not start, and they had to push me down the road. They said I’d have to do better than that but, in those days, I had no money. We are still great friends.”
IW: You were no spring Chicken when that song set the world alight with the massive reaction on The Late Late Show. Did that come as a shock to you? As it certainly changed your life.
“Yes, I was 53 when I got the break and my cousin said to me you know it is remarkable as there are many successful performers as old as you, but they have been going for years but you don’t get many people who get their break at your age.
“With hindsight, was it better that your success came for you later in life?
“Well, I am a great believer that him above chose the right time for me. I enjoyed playing in the pubs and meeting great people but perhaps if I had made it as a singer, I would never have written any songs, which are a huge part of my musical life, so I think the time was right for me.
“I mentioned my faith, well around 1994 I was getting despondent and trying to cajole the Almighty to let me do what I wanted to do I said I did not understand why with this gift you have given me why is everybody turning away from me and it was not happening and so I said alright I surrender but if this is going nowhere and if it was your plan for me to stay as a teacher then that’s alright but you are going to have to help me out as I don’t like teaching in Birkenhead very much. It was from that spiritual submission that the whole thing started to evolve.”
IW: You’ve have had a remarkable career – what have been the highlights for you apart from all the awards?
“Well one of them was finding out after that TV shows that I was at the top of the Irish charts. Then going back to Liverpool to play at the Philharmonic Hall, where I had been as a kid was amazing.
“I said at the time that it was like attending your own funeral, as everybody was there to see what had happened to Charlie. There were lads from work and lads from the pubs and everyone in there from nuns to safebreakers and that is literally true.
“Going to Nashville and doing the Oprey was great and then playing the Waterfront with the Liverpool Philharmonic with the full orchestra behind me was wonderful. Anywhere where you have a crowd in front of you that like you is smashing and going to Australia and finding that somebody had even heard of me was marvellous.
IW: Some of your record companies went bust and you were owed money but you seemed to have come through all that unscathed. Now you control your own catalogue and career.
“That’s right it was all very difficult, and it was obvious we were being ripped off but at the start it was new to me. We did big concerts like the Opera House Belfast and thousands of pounds was being taken on merchandise and tickets, but we found we got little and to have two record companies go when I was having success and selling lots of albums was tough.
“Then my brother in law who was a business guy with incredible integrity said he would help me. He did not know much about the music business, but he was an honourable man and said he would learn quickly. From his years in the business he knew how to judge the dodgy people, so he has been really helpful, and he has been responsible for getting many of my publishing copyrights back at last.”
IW: What is your view of record companies in this changing world?
“I think it is incredibly hard now. I heard somebody in Los Angeles had written a song that was covered by somebody big and they said if that had happened a few years ago I would have been able to buy a Ferrari but now they’d be lucky to be able to buy a new cooker for the money. It has all changed.
“I think if somebody came up now, they would not get a chance to do what I did at the age I was but for people starting out it is very hard and even ones who seem to be doing well can’t be making money from record sales like artists used to.”
IW: You are about to start a big tour of Ireland followed by a UK tour.
“About two months ago we came back from a seven-week tour of Australia, which was my final tour of Australia and we have done the same thing in Scotland and the Orkneys and that will be a final tour there.
“Then I’m doing my final tour of Ireland and a final tour of England in the spring. Then we will catch up in October with about a week of dates we could not fit in earlier and that will be me calling it a day.
“I don’t want to outstay my welcome and stop whilst I can still do it. I would not want to embarrass myself or anybody else by sticking around the scene too long.
“I was in a car crash which was not my fault and I came out of it ok and my health is pretty good, but I am 77 now and I feel it is the time to stop.
“I was never driven by money, but it is great to get paid for the thing you love, and I have never been a celebrity person. I’m just an ordinary lad from Birkenhead and all I have ever wanted was to be able to look after my family by doing the thing that I love, and I have achieved that. So, I can’t complain and when I look back, I think I have been dead jammy and when I say my prayers, I thank God for it all. I am very blessed and very grateful.”