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Many of us know Mike Read from his Radio One days or as host of TV's ‘Top of the Pops’ or ‘Saturday Superstore’ or ‘Pop Quiz’. But, as Henley-based Mike's newly published autobiography ‘Seize The Day ‘reveals, his achievements range far beyond his broadcasting career.
Mike, now 67, is also an accomplished guitarist who has written an astonishing number of songs - over 550 - with covers by Gene Pitney, Cliff Richard, Don McLean, David Essex, Marc Almond, Leo Sayer and many more top names. He has penned eight musicals including several commercial successes and has worked as a lyricist with Andrew Lloyd Webber. He has been involved in contemporary art with a gallery of “Choc Art” exhibits plus he has authored around forty books on subjects as diverse as archaeology, history, poetry, crime, the life of poet Rupert Brooke, music and songwriting. As if this were not enough, Mike has worked with many charities and in politics, having been invited by the Conservative Party to seek nomination for the 2008 London Mayoral election which Boris Johnson won.
So, when I met Mike at Caversham Park, the majestic home of BBC Radio Berkshire, to talk about his biography, it was hard to know what to focus on first.
“Well, words and melodies are my biggest passion. They always were, right from my earliest days,” Mike began. “I have broad taste in music and enjoy popular standards from the early 20th century, hymns, classical, blues, jazz and a whole range of rock and pop. I can still recall exactly where I first heard songs I loved as a child and how deeply they affected me. So, from a very young age, I was enchanted by the magical world of music and words. Songwriters fascinated me. And I soon wanted more than anything to write lyrics and melodies that would conjure up the whole range of human emotions and touch the lives of others. I was also keen to perform my songs. My grandfather gave me my first guitar and I learned chords from anyone who could be bothered to show me. I never wanted to be a lead guitarist, though – a Hank Marvin or an Eric Clapton. I just wanted enough ability to embark on the far more important business of writing songs!”
“Whilst I was still at Woking Grammar School I was starting to have some success with my music career. At sixteen, I won my first publishing deal with Carlin Music of 17, Savile Row, London. I never heard another word about my first song, ‘Evening Paper’, but the first single with my name on the writing credit followed soon. It was called ‘February's Child’ and is now a collector's item. Not because I wrote it or am lead vocalist on it, but possibly because - rather more excitingly - the backing vocals were by Tim Rice who I'd met back then in the margins of London's Tin Pan Alley.”
Soon after, Mike was to sing backing vocals on demos for an early Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about Richard the Lionheart. Events came full circle years later when Mike found himself invited by Andrew Lloyd Webber to write lyrics for a tune Lloyd Webber had written. The resulting song, ‘No Smoke Without Fire’, was performed at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival in 1997 and was very well received, to Mike's relief.
“There have been many high points in Mike's long career as a songsmith. He was delighted when Cliff Richard, who Mike had always admired, recorded some of his songs. And he was thrilled that several American artists - including Gene Pitney and Don McLean, both talented writers themselves - covered his work. He also achieved a number four hit with his post-Tsunami charity single, ‘Grief Never Grows Old’. This featured Steve Winwood singing along with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Cliff Richard, the Bee Gees and Jon Anderson from Yes with a backing band that included Bill Wyman and Rick Wakeman.
Having known so many big names over the years, who was Mike most thrilled to meet? Was there one special, unforgettable moment?
“That's a really difficult question,” Mike said thoughtfully. “I have been privileged to meet such a wide range of wonderful people of all kinds over the years. Probably some of those who aren't well known have been the most remarkable. Though getting to know Cliff Richard was a particular pleasure. He is a very private person and it is over thirty-five years since we first met. In that time I have played tennis with him, spent holidays in his company, been to parties at his home. My successive girlfriends have all got on really well with Cliff, and he is one of the most generous and genuine friends you could wish for.”
“One time I will never forget is after Cliff had once commented to me that he'd always deeply regretted never meeting either of the two writers of his huge 1961 hit song, ‘The Young Ones’. ‘It is too late now, of course. They are probably both long gone,' Cliff had said sadly.
“Their names were Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett, and they were songwriting heroes of mine,” Mike explained. “Now, I didn't tell Cliff then, but I knew both these guys were still around because, when I'd been researching my book about songwriters, ‘Major to Minor’, I'd been in touch with Roy Bennett. Tepper and Bennett had been writing songs together since 1939, and had composed famous forties, fifties and sixties numbers recorded by people like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Andy Williams as well as Elvis Presley for whom they'd written over fifty songs. And for Cliff they'd provided several hits in addition to ‘The Young Ones’ which was a massive international success for him as it was the theme to the film of the same name.”
“By coincidence, Roy Bennett had previously commented to me that he'd met almost all the artists who had recorded his and Sid's material but had never met Cliff. So I flew Roy over with his wife Ruth and took them to an event in Birmingham where Cliff was performing. Cliff didn't have a clue and, just as he walked on stage to start his set, I stepped out and said to the audience, 'Cliff has no idea what I'm doing – but there's one very famous songwriter who Cliff has always wanted to meet. With his partner, he's written fifty songs for Elvis and, do you remember Cliff's ‘Travellin' Light’? ‘The Young Ones?' etc etc - by now there were screams of 'Yes' - and then out walked Roy to huge applause. Cliff was totally shocked but thrilled - almost in tears. And then they sang ‘The Young Ones’ together. It is a night I'll never forget. Not least because songwriters have always meant so much to me and it was great to see Roy Bennett getting all that well-deserved adulation.
Years previously, Mike had still seen his main career in songwriting when, after brief forays into estate agency and various administrative roles, he joined the new Thames Valley-based Radio 210 commercial station at its opening in 1976. He co-hosted ‘The Read and Wright Show’ with Steve Wright which was fairly anarchic and very original for the time. It became hugely popular. So much so that Mike was soon recruited by Radio Luxembourg - Steve was to follow him there - to be poached again by BBC Radio One in 1978. Again, Steve Wright followed Mike to Radio One – though, sadly, the two have rarely worked together since.
“We got on very well on the radio; we just dovetailed,” Mike remembers. “So many radio duos are like arranged marriages and can be hard work. But Steve and I really clicked. We don't meet much socially but still speak often. Radio One only put us together on air once. Maybe by then we were too expensive to both be on the same show? Having said that, I am due to appear on Steve's Radio Two show soon to talk about ‘Seize The Day’.”
In the four decades since those early radio days, Mike has appeared on too many TV and radio shows to count. He has presented shows on BBC Radio Two, Capital Gold - which at the time also employed Kenny Everett, Tony Blackburn and Emperor Rosko, on Classical FM - which Mike especially enjoyed, Jazz FM and many more stations. These days he hosts the afternoon weekday show on BBC Radio Berkshire where other famous broadcasting names include Tony Blackburn, Anne Diamond, Dave Cash and Henry Kelly. Mike is also a regular on the nation's TV screens, either reviewing the newspapers for Sky News or as a guest on programmes like the BBC's ‘The One Show’ or on ITV's ‘Alan Titchmarsh Show’.
“It is ironic that first and foremost I always saw myself as a songwriter, yet broadcasting has been such a big part of my working life,” Mike mused. “I have thoroughly enjoyed all of it. I am very comfortable here at BBC Radio Berkshire which is one of the BBC's flagship local stations with a big and important catchment area stretching right across the county and also covering South Oxfordshire, South Buckinghamshire and North Hampshire. Looking back down the years, some peak times were when Radio One first said, 'We'd like you to join us' ,and then my first ‘Top of the Pops’, on BBC TV plus the first TV ‘Pop Quiz’ I did. I was also on the very last ‘Top of the Pops’ in 2006.”
“Presenting my first ‘Top of the Pops’ was a particular magic moment for me as years before I had been due to appear on the show as a musician after Tony Blackburn had named a single I was involved with as his 'Pick of the Week'. But just before we were due on air I was told I couldn't appear because I wasn't in the musicians' union. I was distraught! So, it was especially satisfying to be hosting the show a few years later. A personal triumph! These were all good career moments – though I think the really golden times in my life were probably back in my youth, discovering guitars, new music, pop on the radio and girls. Everything kicks in at the same time, and you start to find your own first footsteps. Probably nothing later ever tops that!”
“Researching ‘Seize The Day’, I reflected on the range of things I have done over time,” Mike said. “I wrote eight musicals. The most successful commercially was ‘Great Expectations’ which toured for three years in top theatres with Nyree Dawn Porter, Brian Glover and Darren Day. My show ‘Cliff: The Musical’ did a good West End run, and I felt a real sense of accomplishment writing the shows about ‘Rupert Brooke’, ‘Oscar Wilde’ and ‘Betjeman’ – where I set Betjeman's poetry to music. And, just for fun, I did my ‘Choc Art’ exhibits - recreating Beatles' album covers and the London Underground map in chocolate! Plus I still play my guitar when there's any opportunity.”
“I have also written many books over the years - around forty - on all kinds of things. I edited the first ‘Guinness Book of British Hit Singles’ and have co-written several other Guinness publications. My next book will be the story of Caversham Park, home of BBC Radio Berkshire, which has to be the grandest setting for any local radio station. The park was used for hunting in the 13th century and there have been several mansions here. In the 18th century William, 1st Earl of Cadogan rebuilt the house to vie with Blenheim Palace and Cliveden. Capability Brown landscaped the grounds. Then, after a fire, the house was rebuilt again in 1850 to a design by Horace Jones, the architect who designed Tower Bridge. A lot of dramatic things have happened here - which is why I want to write the book. I have written about history, crime, poetry, music - including songwriting - and have done biography and edited magazines.”
How does Mike ever find the energy – and time – to undertake so many very diverse projects? Where does his work ethic come from? And is there ever an opportunity for a personal life?
“I was an only child, and I think at an early stage I realised it is good to be organised and busy, focusing hard on the things you enjoy and do well. I liked music, history, poetry and sport. But there are all kinds of areas where I'm hopeless – fixing a car, for example. My parents and grandparents had run pubs, and my father was a really good footballer and golfer plus he set up various businesses too. And my mother was into poetry and the theatre and produced lots of plays. So, both were pretty energetic people and some of that probably rubbed off.”
Mike has found time for domestic happiness too. He isn't married and has no children but, as he puts it, he is “very happily involved with a girlfriend”.
‘Seize The Day’ is, however, very definitely not in the kiss and tell category. Mike explained, “The book is not about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll – though there is plenty of rock 'n' roll in it. I don't trawl through my past relationships– I just didn't want to do that to the women I have known over the years. ‘Seize The Day’ isn't really a traditional autobiography. It is really a tale told through stories woven around my life. I researched and wrote it all myself. Originally I wanted it to be called either ‘Read; The Book’ or, my second choice, ‘Carpe Diem’. But my publishers said these titles wouldn't work on Google or Amazon plus they believed having Latin on the cover would never appeal to today's readers. Still, ‘Seize The Day’ is an OK title, and the phrase does pretty much encapsulate my approach to life.”
There are many entertaining anecdotes in the book. Inevitably, quite a few are drawn from Mike's years of rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in music, theatre, broadcasting, film, art, literature, sport and business. There are tales from Mike's youth and others about his love of history and of cricket, soccer and tennis plus there's reference to his involvement in politics too. Understandably, Mike has not included the saga of him being targeted by a particularly persistent stalker some years ago. This episode is widely known because Channel Four Television made a programme about it in 1996 - called ‘I'm Your Number One Fan’. And Mike doesn't dwell either on suffering the financial ups and downs that he, like so many in the entertainment business, has occasionally endured. At one point he had to sell his £1million vinyl record collection - though not before he had stored it all digitally.
‘Seize The Day’ is a rewarding read. It gives a good insight into Mike Read's fascinating life, and demonstrates that he has greater depth and a far wider spread of talents than many people might have appreciated.
'Seize The Day' is published by Bite Back Publishing – see www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/seize-the-day. For news of Mike's show at BBC Radio Berkshire, visit www.bbc.co.uk/radioberkshire and follow Mike on Twitter @MikeReadUK
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Nick Dent-Robinson speaks to former Radio One DJ Mike Read about his new autobiography, 'Seize The Day'
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