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Younger sister of the late John Bonham - Led Zeppelin's iconic drummer - and Michael Bonham - disc jockey, acclaimed photographer, author - Deborah Bonham made her first demo record at the age of 18. With the early encouragement of Led Zeppelin's front man Robert Plant, Deborah has forged her own successful singing career following the chart success of her ‘For You and the Moon’ and the release of a series of subsequent albums which achieved enthusiastic reviews.
Supported by her established band of talented musicians, Deborah tours the UK, Europe and America regularly and attends many of the major music festivals, often performing with top musicians - including Robert Plant and Paul Rodgers. But Deborah has also suffered personal loss and trauma along the way. Prior to her Spring tour and the release of her latest album, ‘Spirit’, 51 year-old Deborah took time out from rehearsals at her beautiful Sussex country home near Chichester to talk to Pennyblackmusic.
Deborah's husband Pete Bullick - lead guitarist in her band for the past two decades - opens the electronic gates for me. As I approach the house set in several acres of attractive woods and pasture, I spot Deborah's horses and notice some of the dogs that she is so passionate about rescuing.
“Yes, I have always loved horses – and dogs,” Deborah tells me when she joins me in her comfortable lounge. “I was put on a horse at the age of three. And I have progressed from there. I was raised in a cottage on the farm at The Old Hyde which my brother John bought. In my young teens I worked for a racehorse trainer and quickly learned that there is a darker side to that superficially glamorous industry. Once these beautiful racehorses don't win any more, they are just sent for slaughter. And I determined then that one day I would like to do something about that.”
“So, when I could afford to, I rescued one and then two and then ten. At the moment there are three here. I have just rescued a beautiful stallion from Dorset who was in a shocking state - but he will be OK now. I used to be a trustee of the Racehorse Sanctuary but now I rescue any kind of horse. And dogs, too. I work with the Willows Sanctuary up in Aberdeen where Paul Rodgers and his wife are patrons and with my local charity for dogs – Mount Noddy in Chichester. Donations for both are always welcome!”
What was life like in Deborah's young days on the farm at The Old Hyde in Worcestershire?
“My dad was a builder, and John and my other brother Michael helped him rebuild The Old Hyde in Cutnall Green near Droitwich. The property was pretty dilapidated when John bought it. He had a vision of how it would be and they achieved that. John moved into the big house and we lived in cottages within the grounds. Sadly it was short-lived as John died quite soon after – in 1980. He was only 32 and I was just 18 at the time. Michael was 12 years older than me. Michael became Led Zeppelin's photographer for a while but I was only six when John joined Led Zeppelin so I remained the little sister. In fact I was only a few years older than John's son Jason, my nephew. We were almost like brother and sister. Jason played drums from the age of four. Like his dad, Jason is a great drummer. Over the years he has often recorded and toured with me.”
“Looking back, my childhood was a very happy time. There was always music in the home. My mum and dad were into Harry James, the trumpeter, and Tommy Dorsey and the big band sound. That's where John got his love for Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, his favourite drummers. I think they styled him musically. John and Michael were into Motown too - as well as James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Spinners, the Drifters, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Maggie Bell, all kinds of people. I was a bit of a Motown girl. My love of the blues and country music came later. I still revert back to that early love of black soul music. From the age of just six, that black music coloured my life, really enriched it. I still love it. So there was a wealth of great music in the house. I grew up surrounded by it. In fact my mother said that before I was born, as soon as the music came on, I was moving around.”
“At my schools there was a lot of music too - but it was very different. I used to sing at my junior school. Then, from the age of 11, my parents paid for me to attend Holy Trinity Convent School in Kidderminster. It was a big sacrifice for them but I did study hard and my mum used to say, 'You always reciprocated.....so it was worth it.' My family weren't Catholic but I loved being taught by the nuns there. Sometimes nuns get a bad press but these people were lovely and caring. They were dedicated teachers too. There was strict discipline but kindness. And wonderful music. I had a great music teacher, Mrs Pullman, and I learned so much from her. We did a lot of choral, religious music but we also performed opera. I was a soloist and won lots of cups in singing competitions – which I still have. But into my teens, whenever I had a private moment, I was always in front of a mirror with the hairbrush pretending to be Janis Joplin or Stevie Nicks or Aretha Franklin or Joni Mitchell. So that was secretly running in parallel with the opera and choral singing. I was also a huge Ian Dury fan.”
“Once I was caught out after I'd sneaked away to one of Ian Dury's concerts just after he'd released his ‘New Boots and Panties’ album. They gave away little round badges at the gig with just Ian's head and shoulders on – in green. There was no writing on the badge, nothing else. But all the girls knew this was Ian Dury. I was a school prefect then and not supposed to wear any other badges. Suddenly the Reverend Mother spotted me and called, 'What's that badge you have there, Deborah?' I was horrified but before I could respond she suddenly smiled and said, ‘Oh, it's the Irish shamrock, isn't it?' - because the badge was green and did look a bit like that. So, fingers crossed and imagining I might be about to blow up in smoke, I replied, 'Yes, Reverend Mother, it is'. She was a wonderful woman - but I swear I'll wait for her to be at the gate when I die going, 'You lied to me, Deborah Bonham'.”
Finally, at the age of eighteen, Deborah succumbed to temptation and made her first demo record. How did that come about?
“Well, it beat triple Latin on a Thursday! But it was all a bit difficult. You see, I was up against my brother John who was adamant his little sister would not go into the music industry he knew. He might have accepted me singing opera and he was very proud when I kept winning singing competitions. But he had seen a lot in the 70s rock music world that he thought no sister of his should experience. Women were a bit of a commodity back then. For people like Sandy Denny and Janis Joplin or, earlier, Billie Holiday, it was very difficult. It is still harder for a woman, even now. Having a great voice – like Beyonce, for example – often isn't enough. There have to be videos which verge on soft porn, too. Which is sad. Maybe today women are a bit more empowered in that they are choosing to use sex to sell themselves more - but how much choice is there for some of them? Fortunately there are exceptions like Adele who has a strong will and she's been able to let the music speak for itself. She has such a fantastic voice!”
“Anyway, John had seen all this - as well as the groupie scene - and he was very against me singing professionally whilst he was alive which played on my mind, going against his wishes. But I really wanted to do it. My nephew Jason and I had been playing some music together at home, and I just thought I would phone Robert Plant to see if we could record something I'd written at the studio he had at his home - Palomino Studios, it was called. I think I put Robert in an awkward position - perhaps because he knew John would have been so against it. I don't really know, but Robert graciously agreed.”
“Of course, because John had enjoyed such phenomenal success with Led Zeppelin, I just assumed it was always like that. You made a record, it went straight to number one. That's how it had been in our house, you see. John would come round and say, 'Oh, here's the next album. Yes, it's already at number one.' And there was a point where my mum would just go, 'Oh, that's nice, love.' It was all just the norm. We took it totally for granted. So I had some hard lessons to learn! But I am glad I learned them. If I'd had instant success at eighteen, I don't think I'd have survived until today.”
Not long after her brother John's tragic death in 1980, Robert Plant sat Deborah down to give her some useful advice.
“We talked about the Bonham name. He warned me that people would no doubt try to exploit that and it wasn't going to be easy. He said, 'You have to pay your dues. You must learn what it is like out on stage. You need to get lots of gigs – in local clubs, anywhere. You need a band',” Deborah recalls. “So that's what I did. I took daytime jobs, learned secretarial skills and temped as a typist. I did all kinds of things and worked at the music in the evenings. It was actually a really exciting time, getting a band together, gradually building a reputation. Everywhere we played we went down really, really well - which was great.”
“I then did some more demos. Jason was on drums and Ian Rowley was on bass. Ian is still my bass player today. I sent the new tapes out under a different name and immediately won my first record deal! Which was very satisfying for me.”
“But then it went wrong because the record company didn't want to hide my heritage and my link with John. So I was marketed as 'sister of John Bonham' with lots of Led Zeppelin associations plus I had to wear short skirts, be restyled to look and sound a certain way, go to Germany to record this, have my songs recorded in ways I really disliked and so on. I lost all control and was treated so patronisingly. The attitude was, 'Go away love, just let the big guys deal with everything'. It became very depressing.”
Did Deborah try to kick back against this?
“I didn't know how to....my response was to drink too much! I had a lot of commercial success with ‘For You and the Moon’ which was a BBC Radio One Record of the Week but it was meaningless to me. I still can't bear to listen to that record. I wasn't allowed to be in a band either. I love being in a band – the feed you get off each other on stage is so important to me. I really missed that. It was lonely without it.”
“And then they said I was contractually tied to them for the rest of my life. I couldn't change record companies. I didn't think that could be legal, but I wasn't sure. It was a nightmare with everything spiralling out of control - and I was missing my brother John so much at that point too. So I just quit. I thought, right, I'd better earn some money and just move on with my life. I moved to London and started temping again. I worked for an agency providing temps to the music industry and worked my way through lots of jobs until I was in the huge legal department at Warner Music. Along the way I learned about marketing, PR – and then contracts. With this new legal knowledge I looked again at my old recording contracts and I spotted a loophole. Quickly I applied to get all my royalties and songs back. I succeeded. So I was free again! It took me until my thirties – but it was great to win that battle. When I reflect now, those years were very good for me, though...character-forming plus they gave me a far better sense of perspective. The detailed knowledge I gained of the music business has been really valuable, too.”
Free of the ties to her former record label, Deborah quickly recruited her own band – she would soon marry her guitarist, the gifted but refreshingly grounded Belfast-born Peter Bullick. She released ‘The Old Hyde’ album a decade ago, expressing her feelings about past career problems in the opening track, ‘Shit Happens’. Critics were very positive and the next album, ‘Duchess’, co-produced with Glen Skinner, also received rave reviews. This included a great duet, ‘Hold On’, with Paul Rodgers (of Free and Bad Company) who is one of Deborah's heroes.
“The intention is always to produce an album I feel I'd be happy sitting down and listening to in 20 years time. I played ‘Duchess’ again recently and I think I achieved that. The same with ‘The Old Hyde’....I still enjoy listening to that album.”
Deborah has endured many losses over the years. Not very long after the death of her brother John in 1980, she suffered the massive shock of discovering her father dead. Then her brother Michael died in his late forties and, just a couple of years ago, her mother - who had been living with Deborah for almost 20 years - also died.
“When we lost John, I was still in my teens and it was totally devastating. Unless you have some experience of losing people you are just not prepared for the death of someone close to you. Somehow there's a sense that life will always go on as it is without the incredible pain of loss. Some joie de vivre disappeared after that. And of course my mum, dad and Michael were all badly affected too, as well as my sister-in-law and Zoe and Jason. It was horrific, something you never really get over – though you do learn to live with it. Finding my dad dead some years later was awful and so was the loss of Michael. Losing my mum just after I'd started making my new album, ‘Spirit’, was very hard. She had been living with us for nearly twenty years and she was my best friend. There's not a day when I don't miss her.”
“But I had a sort of catharsis that came with my mum's passing. Her strength for me was to know that you have to get on with things. We have only a limited time in this life and we don't know how long that is. So it is wrong to waste it with crying or being distressed or drinking - that's just no good. It has taken me years to really learn that. What is important is having the spirit to carry on, the spirit to get through every bit of crap life throws at you. Which it does. None of us is immune from that. We all have times that feel unbearable. I have had friends who couldn't take it any more and committed suicide. But to me that is unthinkable. I just hope that through the music and the lyrics on this album, maybe someone might be helped if they are feeling very low.”
“To me music is very important. But so is nature – at any time of the year. Pete and I have worked hard for it but I feel very lucky to live in such a beautiful place in the Sussex countryside with our own space and the dogs and horses. I also feel so blessed to have Pete. We have both realised we have come to a point where we love what we do, we love where we are and we are very happy.”
“We are looking forward to the release of ‘Spirit’ which, again, was co-produced with Glen Skinner who previously worked with Deborah Harry and is brilliant. I am very happy with the record.”
The first single from the album, ‘Take Me Down’, which is perhaps a little reminiscent of The Eagles' version of Jackson Browne's ‘Take It Easy’, was very well received. There is some poignant writing in the songs and the album clearly draws on the pain, joy, anger and love that all of us experience over time. The musicianship is superb too - with some really impressive guitar work from Pete Bullick. Deborah and the band are doing a UK tour and will be playing gigs in France, and then going to the USA where they are doing some shows with Nazareth who Deborah adores. They will be at BB King's in New York and the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. Deborah says the current live band are like family to her. Alongside Pete there is Ian Rowley on bass, keyboardist Gerard Louis and Richard Newman on drums. Richard has played with Steve Marriott, Dave Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, Alvin Lee, Rory Gallagher, Joe, Sam and Pete Brown plus many more. On the album, the drumming, however, is by Marco Giovino from Robert Plant's Band of Joy – who has also worked with John Cale and Norah Jones. Marco flew in especially from the USA to record the drums in a chapel close to Deborah's home. She then joined him in Nashville to finish the recording and mix.
“It was fun working in Nashville,” Deborah recalls. “I do admire so many American singers. I would still love to sing a duet with Stevie Nicks or with Bonnie Raitt. I'd also like to do a proper duet with Robert Plant one day. I must twist his arm and try to persuade him to do that! I have known him since I was six – I love him like part of the family. And it is easy to forget what a phenomenal performer and vocalist Robert is. I love all the things he's done since Led Zeppelin finished – constantly reinventing himself. I am a great fan of Robert's solo work. It is such a privilege to get on stage with any of the greats - it is wonderful. I am very lucky to have been able to do that. One of my peak moments was singing with Paul Rodgers. The first time I did that was at the end of a tour with him - it was in Nottingham. He asked me to join him singing ‘Can't Get Enough’ - the Bad Company classic. It was amazing. He is such a great vocalist with so much soul and it was just fantastic to walk out there and sing with him that first time.”
Does Deborah have tips for anyone starting out as a singer?
“Tenacity is the key. And you must believe in what you are doing, feel what you are singing and be yourself. That only comes with time and experience. Sadly the current fashion for TV talent shows will never give people that. Wanting it all now won't work longer-term in the music business. You have to gain a proper grounding and there are no short cuts for that. Which is sometimes hard for a generation used to instant emails, Facebook and tweeting to really grasp. I hope that the present cult of quick celebrity won't continue. It would be good to get back to the music mattering most. To endure – as people like Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks have – you need to be very determined and tenacious. I don't think Simon Cowell can give you that.”
For news of Deborah's tour dates and her ‘Spirit’ album, go to www.deborahbonham.com/
For details of the Mount Noddy dogs sanctuary, see www.mountnoddy.co.uk
The Willows Animal Sanctuary is at www.willowsanimals.com.
The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Alan White.
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