Mari Wilson told David Hennessy about her forthcoming Christmas shows, having chart success with Just What I Always Wanted and going a different direction although many thought she ‘disappeared’.
Neasden’s very own Queen of Soul, acclaimed songstress Mari Wilson is getting ready for some special Christmas shows featuring her eight-piece band, The New Wilsations.
Joining Mari will be very special guests The Mike Flowers Pops.
In addition to the live shows, Mari has also confirmed that she is currently writing and recording an album of new, original songs for 2024 release.
Mari Wilson first arrived on the scene in the early eighties with her skyscraper beehive hairdo and fully choreographed twelve piece band The Wilsations.
In 1982 Mari’s records began entering the charts and she soon had six hit singles, the biggest being Just What I’ve Always Wanted and Cry Me A River.
In the mid-eighties, after constant touring of the UK, Europe and the United States, Mari changed direction with a more intimate show and spending time enjoying what she calls her “jazz period”.
Mari told The Irish World what people can expect from the forthcoming shows.
“It’s a night of escapism, a night of entertainment,” she says.
“I’ll be doing Christmas songs but I’ll also be doing my stuff that people know and some really nice soul numbers.
“So you’ve got to expect soul, pop and jazz really, it’s like a hybrid because that’s what I’ve done in my career: Those three genres and it’s all come together to become what I do now, you know?
“I’ve got my eight piece band The New Wilsations.
“And I’ve got four go go dancers, that’s a new thing because we didn’t have go go dancers last year.
“And I’ve got Mike Flowers Pops who you may remember did Wonderwall.
“He’s great. I love his voice.”
I guess you have to sing Just What I Always Wanted..
“Absolutely, I always do it. Always.
“That’s why I’m kind of still working really: Because of that song, that’s what got everyone’s attention.
“So yeah, always do it.”
Did you know it was gonna be a special one from the beginning?
“We thought it was great, but it didn’t get a good review.
“There was a show on Radio One at the time called Round Table where they would review singles, and all my singles had had great reviews, but when this came up, because this was very electronic compared with my other stuff and because of my hair and because my style was very kind of 60s, everyone was expecting something very 60s.
“But it wasn’t, it sounded very modern and contemporary so it didn’t get such a good review.
“But then what do they know? It went top 10.”
So did people pre-judge the music based on your look, do you think? “Maybe.
“A lot of the music I did was very influenced by that era.
“But yeah, once people heard it, people did love it.
“I was just doing another interview and he was saying that when he was at school, all the girls were trying to put their hair in beehives which is hilarious because it’s quite hard work.”
Was that a bit crazy for you? To have schoolgirls copying your look like that..
“Well it’s very flattering, isn’t it?
“It was quite retro but in other ways, it wasn’t because no one in the 60s had a beehive quite that big, mine was ridiculous.
“We were kind of having fun with it.”
Mari has also appeared in musical theatre, playing Nickie Pignatelli in Phil Willmott’s production of Sweet Charity, Annabel in the black comedy, The Chainsaw Manicure. In 2000, she was the obvious choice to play Dusty Springfield in Dusty The Musical, which toured number one venues throughout the UK.
As well as being an occasional presenter on BBC London, Mari has also performed theme tunes to various TV shows, including her hit version of Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps for the successful sitcom Coupling.
Mari’s special guest at a London Bush Hall concert was Marc Almond who returned the favour by inviting Mari to be special guest at Soft Cell’s One Night Only concert at London’s O2 Arena.
You have done Top of the Pops numerous times and played famous stages, what stands out as a highlight?
“Things like when we played at the Ritz in New York in 1983, I think we got something like five encores. It was crazy and every encore, I would go off and put another outfit on.
“That was fantastic.
“Playing at the Palladium when bands weren’t really playing there.
“And that night, Paul Young was my special guest and we sang a Motown song together, that was really nice.
“There were loads of things, but really just generally being with the band.
“I was touring with a 12 piece band. I wouldn’t recommend it because it’s very, very expensive but I wouldn’t change it for the world because we had such good fun. It was great fun.
“I liked playing live.
“I liked playing on The Tube, because we were playing live.
“Top of the Pops was fantastic, I loved it but of course, you’re miming. It’s a different thing.
“But I was on an iconic TV show that I’d always wanted to be on.
“But doing things like The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube where I was playing live on TV was great.
“Sometimes it was scary.
“I remember we did this thing- I think it was Holland- and it was in a place like Wembley Arena and it was a 60 piece orchestra.
“I did Just What I’ve Always Wanted with the band and then I walked down the end of this catwalk and sat on a stool and sang Cry Me a River with the orchestra live.
“And it was not only live in the room but live to air, it was on TV as well.
“That was fantastic but very scary, and I was very nervous.
“So there were loads of things, having dinner with Nina Simone, stuff like that.
“There were amazing things that happened to me in my career.
“I’m blessed really, I’ve had a great time.”
Singing was just what you always wanted, wasn’t it? You never wanted to do anything else, did you?
“That’s true. Yeah, that’s always what I wanted to do.
“I mean I was terrible at school because I bunked off a lot and the headmistress used to say, ‘Your trouble is Mari,
all you think about is pop music’.
“And I’d think, ‘Yeah, because I’m going to be on Top of the Pops so I don’t need to know about Henry the Eighth’, because she used to teach history.
“So I must have been a right pain in the arse, but that is what I wanted to do.
“I went to America when I was 18. I went to be a nanny in New York and that was in 1973.
“I was there for two and a half years.
“Then I came back and I was working in offices because I had to make some money but I hated it.
“And then I started doing backing vocals with different people and then a studio in Elephant and Castle who was owned by a friend of mine, he called me and said, ‘Look, there’s these guys, they’ve got this song. They’ve tried two or three singers, and it hasn’t really worked out but I think you’d be really good at it because it’s kind of Motown, it’s what you like to sing’.
“And I went and I met Tot Taylor, and I recorded it.
“And then one thing led to another.
“Annie Nightingale played the first couple of singles and then I said, ‘You know, we need to go do some gigs’.
“And he said, ‘Well, you’re gonna need quite a big band to create this Motown sound’.
“So we were doing gigs with a twelve piece band in tiny little pubs in North London, tiny spaces.
“There wasn’t enough room really.
“And then of course, we did have a hit record and we toured the world.”
After the chart success, you went another way, didn’t you?
“I did, I completely disappeared.
“I was having a great time and everything but then there were too many people pulling me in different directions.
“My manager wanted me to do one thing and Tot wanted me to do another and the record company wanted me to do another.
“The record company in retrospect probably had the better idea which was for me to go down more of a Dusty Springfield route.
“But as is my way, I was very loyal to Tot and my manager.
“I just remember walking into my manager’s office and saying, ‘I want to leave the record company. I don’t want to be with them anymore’.
“I was getting asked to do things like Blankety Blank.
“If my records were still selling and I felt like I was making some great records, I probably wouldn’t have felt the way I did.
“But I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to be going on a quiz show because I’m a musician, I’m a singer’.
“And maybe that was it. Maybe I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t feel secure and confident enough in the music I then found myself making.
“The earlier stuff I loved but it was all getting a bit silly really.
“Most people are dropped by the record company, but I did it the other way around.
“So because of that I had an 18 month period where I couldn’t sign another record deal because we were in litigation.
“So my sax player said, ‘Well, you’re really good at singing jazz, let’s put a little quartet together’.
“And that’s what I did. I ended up doing that from about 1986 to- blimey- 2000 really.
“So that’s about 14 years.
“I played at Ronnie Scott’s, doing jazz festivals.
“I was doing great. I was doing great gigs. I supported Ray Charles.
“It was fantastic but to the general public, I had completely disappeared.
“But I was enjoying it. I was enjoying singing all these fantastic songs and it’s what gave me my chops.
“It’s what made me a much, much better singer.
“I was working with great musicians, I was learning from them. It was almost like I was doing my apprenticeship.
“That’s when I really started to learn how to sing.
“And then I did Dusty the Musical and I kind of went, ‘Ooh, this is really what I love singing- Soul music’.
“So I kind of went full circle and as a result, my music, my performances and everything is like a hybrid of all of those things: Jazz, pop and soul.
“That’s what I am now and although I disappeared and it’s taken me years to kind of go, ‘Hello, I’m still here, you know, waving not drowning. I’m still out here’.
“Because people would say to me, ‘Oh, you still singing?’
“And I would say, ‘Yeah, more than ever’.
“But if you’re not on the TV or on the radio, I don’t know what people think.
“So it’s been an interesting journey but I’m glad that I had the journey that I did because it made me a better singer.
“Without a doubt, better artist really.”
You have no regrets?
“No, I haven’t.
“And also, being famous- When I look at someone like Madonna for instance, she obviously absolutely loves it and always has loved that whole attention thing.
“Now I’m not saying I’ve got no ego because I have but I don’t need to be centre of attention all the time.
“The only time I’m centre of attention is when I’m on stage, the rest of the time I’m not really like that.
“So when you find you’re in a supermarket and you’re being hounded or in a restaurant- People don’t realise, they don’t mean to upset you. They assume you love it.
“But I kind of didn’t really.
“I thought I was going to.
“There were some elements I really liked.
“I don’t mind being a bit well known but I wouldn’t I want that element of fame and I think there was a part of me that really needed to look after my health because I’ve had type one diabetes since I was 22 so all through that period, I had it and it’s a chronic disease that needs managing.
“You can’t just throw caution to the wind and forget it’s there because you’ll get sick.
“So there was possibly something to do with that.
“I’m only really discovering these things as I’m talking about it to be honest.
“But I wasn’t that bothered about being that famous.
“I just wanted to be successful really.”
How did you navigate the last few years? You were in Scotland on tour when the pandemic hit, is that right?
“I was. I’d just finished a load of gigs with the band and then I was special guest of Allan Stewart, who’s a Scottish comedian who I happen to know. I’ve known him for years. And he does this variety show every year.
“And he said to me, ‘Do you fancy being our musical guest this year?’
“And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s great’.
“So I was up there at The King’s Theatre. It was for a week and sort of towards the end of the week, there was this stuff on the news about this thing, this COVID thing.
“And we were finishing on Saturday 14 March.
“The last couple of days the people at the theatre said, ‘Look, when you finish on Saturday, we’re closing the theatre, because we can’t go ahead’.
“They had to cancel all their shows and I got on the train the next day with a mask on and gloves and God knows what else to keep myself protected, and I got back here to London, and didn’t go out.
“My husband was in LA, he got back so he and I and my daughter, we just hunkered down like everyone else.
“It was lovely because the weather was so good and we were in the garden but it was kind of weird.
“I don’t think we’re over it either.
“I just mean psychologically, what it’s done to us.
“Still I get very nervous.
“I still wear a mask on the tube and in supermarkets, because I’ve got type one diabetes, and I haven’t got the best immune system.
“So I’m very nervous because if I get anything, it always lasts longer than anyone else because I’m not so good at fighting it.”
Thankfully live shows are back and you can perform these special Christmas dates..
“It’s great and I like the idea of people coming out and having a bit of escapism.
“We’re living through awful times, I think, awful: The wars and knife crime and gangs like that whole story that went on in Liverpool recently.
“It’s terribly sad really and also, no one’s got any money and I’m asking people to spend their money to come and see me.
“So that’s why I don’t want it to be just a gig, I want it to be like a show.
“It’s an expensive show to put on because I’ve got eight musicians, four dancers, Mike Flowers, the DJ, sound guy, the transport.
“It’s a lot of money but I just think, ‘Well, it’s Christmas’.
“I couldn’t do this all year round but it’s Christmas so let’s do something that’s going to make people feel good and happy for a couple of hours.”
Mari Wilson presents A Very Mari Christmas Party! At The Sub Rooms in Stroud on 7 December, The Apex in Bury St Edmunds on 11 December, The Stables in Milton Keynes on 16 December and The Bush Hall in London on 17 December.
Tickets on-sale here.
For more information, click here.