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Chris Rea

An unassuming singer/songwriter and guitarist, CHRIS REA has enjoyed a long and fruitful career in both the albums and singles market. Having skirted around the fringes for years, the latter half of the 80s saw him finally join the AOR big league in Britain, with a run of top-selling sets from “On The Beach” in 1986, to his 1989 chart-topping “The Road To Hell”. And like MARK KNOPFLER, a fellow northerner whom he’d often been compared, and who’d also carved a separate career in film scoring, gravel-voxed REA’s mature, bluesy songwriting lent itself well to the demands of the big screen; albeit briefly in ‘96 with Neil Jordan’s “La Passione”. While REA wrote both the semi-autobiographical screenplay and the score, neither the film nor the soundtrack met with great critical or commercial success. It was no coincidence then that his singles successes dried up thereafter.
Born 4 March 1951, Middlesbrough, England (from Irish/Italian stock), Christopher Anton Rea picked up the guitar in the early 70s. By 1973, he’d had joined locals Magdalene; taking the place of DAVID COVERDALE who’d since departed for DEEP PURPLE (and later, WHITESNAKE). The following year, REA released a debut solo single for the burgeoning Magnet Records: `So Much Love’. Magdalene, meanwhile, duly changed their name to The Beautiful Losers, and although they won a Melody Maker “Best Newcomer Award”, the band finally had to call it a day in ‘77.
As well as guesting on HANK MARVIN’s `Guitar Syndicate’ set, REA struck out on a long and fairly fruitful solo career, signing a new long-term deal at the aforesaid Magnet. Almost instant fulfillment came the following year by way of `Fool (If You Think It’s Over)’; Chris’s CLAPTON-esque, gravel-voiced AOR appeal sitting well within the American market where the single almost gate-crashed the Top 10. Later that autumn, the song was re-promoted back in Old Blighty where he secured his first domestic hit by narrowly scraping into the Top 30. Amid this early excitement, his Gus Dudgeon-produced parent album, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BENNY SANTINI? (1978) {*6} also cracked the US Top 50; the Grammy-nominated record’s title referring to the frankly ridiculous name his label wanted him to adopt. This bluff northerner was assuredly his own man, and soon he was building up a tidy following whilst consistently nudging into the lower regions of the UK charts with easy-on-the-ear albums such as DELTICS (1979) {*5}, TENNIS (1980) {*5}, CHRIS REA (1982) {*6}, WATER SIGN (1983) {*7} and his Top 40 breakthrough WIRED TO THE MOON (1984) {*7}.
And sandwiched either side of covers specialist ELKIE BROOKS’ Top 20 interpretation of `Fool’, Chris also fed the lower reaches of the singles charts with `Diamonds’, `Loving You’, `I Can Hear Your Heartbeat’ and the up-to-the-minute, `I Don’t Know What It Is But I Love It’.
Comparisons were often made with MARK KNOPFLER, and indeed they shared a certain slow-burning charm as well as similar audiences.
By the release of 1985’s chart-shaking SHAMROCK DIARIES {*7}, REA finally began reaping significant commercial rewards with this, and his best performing single to date, `Stainsby Girls’ (in homage to wife Joan); having already achieved superstar status in Germany. Back to his roots on so many levels, he’d closed the doors to sniping critics on the likes of soft-shoe ballads `Josephine’ (written for his eldest daughter), `Chisel Hill’ and `One Golden Rule’. But if there was one song that shook the leaves from the trees, so to speak, it was the 8-minute finale, `Hired Gun’.
Dispatched the following spring to accompany its sun-kissed title track, the classy ON THE BEACH {*7} was a great slumber set; perfect to lounge horizontal in a hammock whilst contemplating the end of the world – or was that just the post-apocalyptic novel? Anyhow, the most dangerous side of this heavy-lidded set was not falling for Chris’s hypnotic hue while er… driving home for Christmas. Only the slightly upbeat cod-reggae of `Lucky Day’ could shake out the sea-shells on the sea-shore of `Little Blonde Plaits’ and the lengthy `It’s All Gone’.
Subsequently signed to Motown (but only in the States), the brassy `Let’s Dance’ gave REA his biggest UK hit to date at No.12, whilst the accompanying album, DANCING WITH STRANGERS (1987) {*7}, was only kept off the top spot by MICHAEL JACKSON’s “Bad”. If `Joys Of Christmas’ and `Que Sera’ hadn’t quite set these times alight, the imperious REA had further warmed the cockles of many a housewife’s heart with his perennial yuletide chestnut, `Driving Home For Christmas’ (originally released as a B-side ode to “Joys…”).
1988 brought the first chapter of the singer-songwriter’s career to some kind of conclusion when he inked a new deal with WEA/East West Records. As a re-issue of the “On The Beach” album breached the Top 40 again, so to did a “Summer ‘88” re-recording single hit pay-dirt. Indeed, a summation of the cream of his work to date, NEW LIGHT THROUGH OLD WINDOWS: THE BEST OF CHRIS REA {*7} – always mistakenly perceived as a compilation – gave the as yet unaffiliated fan a chance to catch up.
With 1989’s aforementioned THE ROAD TO HELL {*8}, REA’s muse took him down to the proverbial crossroads where he presumably signed his musical soul away for a darkly intoxicating multi-platinum set of smooth and spooky blues. His biggest selling album to date, REA was now in the major league alongside CLAPTON, COLLINS, and STING et al. And accompanied by the stylish `The Road To Hell (Part 2)’ – an up-tempo version of the opening missive – the man’s harbinger hue concerning the world’s evils were addressed succinctly under the auspices of `Texas’, `Looking For A Rainbow’ and further chart entry, `Tell Me There’s A Heaven’.
AUBERGE (1991) {*7} gave the smoky-tinted REA his second chart-topping set, having cracked the Top 20 with its title track. The man had now the freedom to open avenues and explores new roads… to anywhere he wanted. In search of a `Heaven’ or posting himself AWOL through `Gone Fishing’, cavalier Chris was sketching out a tempered trip between himself and his maker. His love of the reggae beat (this time through `Every Second Counts’), counterbalanced his past warnings from across the bow; though this set was hopeful and spirited in the shape of `Looking For The Summer’ and `Sing A Song Of Love To Me’.
The wordsmith continued to be a regular Top 10 chart fixture with the likes of GOD’S GREAT BANANA SKIN (1992) {*6} and ESPRESSO LOGIC (1993) {*5}, though attendent big hitters such as `Nothing To Fear’, `God’s Great Banana Skin’ and `Julia’ were not quite the bees knees that one had come to expect from this major mainstream artist. He’d slid into a jazzier/bluesier motif as time went by, whilst his nocturnal coffee-house patina was not quite up to scratch; even if the ELTON JOHN pairing on `If You Were Me’ was aimed at sentimental fans of both parties. It was time then to unleash a proper “Best Of” chart set, and in November 1994, one such title cracked the Top 3 when it was accompanied by the exclusive `You Can Go Your Own Way’.
REA duly evoked some of his Latin heritage for 1996’s LA PASSIONE {*4} soundtrack. It was fair to say that was not his best move. Composed by Chris himself and performed largely by the Gavin Wright Film Orchestra, this lavishly-arranged, theatrically-minded score stood as a stark strike out from the singer/guitarist’s standard studio fare. Being recorded with probably KNOPFLER (or even NEIL DIAMOND’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”) in mind, the OST also came with a mandatory Shirley Bassey duet; although admittedly she also appeared in the film. Forgetting any ideas of PROPELLERHEADS-style chic, however, `Shirley Do You Own A Ferrari?’ was unashamedly mushy melodrama wallowing in orchestral schmaltz. That said, the pair also stepped out together on minor hit, `“Disco” La Passione’, an enjoyably campy romp (check the castanets!) in the best tradition of the PET SHOP BOYS. The debonair `Girl In A Sports Car’ cruised halfway between the two; REA might even have had a hit with this back in the late 70s. Longtime fans looking for something a bit leaner and moodier would have to content themselves with `Only To Fly’ or `You Must Follow’, comparatively humble pickings next to the record’s more ostentatious delusions of grandeur.
1998’s THE BLUE CAFÉ {*6} was a thoughtful set of blues-based, slide-inflected ruminations anchored to contemporary rhythms, and it REA’s final flirtation with the Top 10. On the back of non-plus attempts at re-treading old ground via polar opposites THE ROAD TO HELL PART 2 (1999) {*4} and the sandy KING OF THE BEACH (2000) {*6} – even his classic `On The Beach’ had been successfully transformed into a super-club anthem – the suitably mellow REA was sunning his muse in the Caribbean to create a work of breezy escapism. Again, the dance world picked up on the vibe; duly remixing `All Summer Long’ into an Ibiza classic.
Around this time, Chris truly took the road to (comedy) hell, by lining up with the other masochistic hopefuls to be abused, on Vic & Bob’s brilliant BBC-TV show, Shooting Stars. The beach was probably the subject furthest from REA’s mind when he was recording DANCING DOWN THE STONY ROAD (2002) {*6}; as cathartic an album as he’d ever made, and his first on his own Jazzee Blue imprint. After a scary battle with cancer, the singer returned to his first love with a vengeance, singing or rather, undergoing, the blues like a man possessed, shouting down his demons and emerging emotionally victorious on the other side; examples `Easy Rider’, `Changing Times’ and `Dancing The Blues Away’.
HOFNER BLUE NOTES (2003), {*5}, further instrumental set BLUE STREET (FIVE GUITARS) (2003) {*5} and his return to the Top 30 with THE BLUE JUKEBOX (2004) {*6}, added a little diversity to the man’s long and winding CV. However, these albums had nothing on the ambitious BLUE GUITARS (2005) {*6}; a freshly-cut 11-disc project that concentrated on the history of the genre: from its “Beginnings” (on CD1) to “’60s and ‘70s” (on CD11).
To say our Chris was a workaholic would be an understatement. In all his days as a soft-shoe blues artist REA had never unfettered a live set of songs, but this was remedied with his next return to the Top 40; aptly-titled THE ROAD TO HELL AND BACK (2006) {*6}. And although his retrograde studio follow-up, THE RETURN OF THE FABULOUS HOFNER BLUENOTES (2008) {*5}, floundered in its wake, 2011’s SANTO SPIRITO BLUES {*6} – chronicling the controversial topic of bullfighting – and 2017’s ROAD SONGS FOR LOVERS {*6}, gleaned the evergreen/ever blue REA some top-level chart action once again.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/BG // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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