Smokie: Terry Uttley interview

LONG ROAD: Terry Uttley of Smokie.
LONG ROAD: Terry Uttley of Smokie.
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Terry Uttley is the frontman of one of the world’s most successful bands – Smokie – but you probably wouldn’t recognise him in the street.

He tells Neil Hudson about playing to 170,000 people, making Cliff Richard wait and personal invites from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

“The Kremlin is amazing, its absolutely massive inside, they have a working theatre in there and it’s just magnificent. We have played there four times over the years.

In 2004, we received a call from the Foreign Office saying President Putin had personally invited us to play there. The last time was in December and we had been in Russia on tour – we’ve been going there for 20 years now playing everything from small theatres with 800 people in to big arenas with 169,000 people.

We played one gig in Tallinn, Estonia on December 17 and we were asked back stage if we would play the Kremlin again and we said yes, but we never heard anything else and so we all flew back home to start a six-week break. Then we got a phone call the following Monday and we ended up going back there on the 29th.

“We played four songs, including one of the most popular in Russia, which is called What Can I Do?, which someone told me sounds like ‘I love vodka’ in Russian.

The thing about our success in England is, we had the hit with Alice but there just seems to be this mentality over here of ‘okay, what’s next?’ We do about six shows a year in England. Everywhere else, we’ve always been really popular, we have just been in the top five charts in South Africa, Australia and the Far East. We tour everywhere from Sri Lanka to Greenland. We’re away most of the time, last year we did 166 flights and about 80 shows, I have literally got millions of air miles.

“I think the best thing about Leeds is how they’ve made use of all the old buildings and really used the architecture. I was born and brought up in Bradford and it really disappoints me how Bradford city centre has been left behind completely. It’s a real mess and it should be sorted out.

In terms of music, I am most proud of the fact we have been able to continue and people still like us. It has been a long road from 1968 and 1975 when we had our first hit record, If You Think You Know How To Love Me.

“The band was formed when we were at Catholic grammar school. I remember seeing The Shadows on TV and I asked my dad for a guitar. At that time, Burt Weedon was publishing guitar chords in a national paper and I learned three a week.

My first job was in a printers. My dad was a printer, I was meant to be a lithographic printer, which was a really good profession at the time, my name was sort of down from birth to go into that but in the end it didn’t work out for me in that they had too many apprentices for lithographic and so they offered me something else, which I didn’t want. The people I knew from school kept asking me to join them to set up the band and so I went for it. My dad was supportive, even though he thought it was the wrong decision. It could have gone wrong but when you’re young and do not have any money worries, you do things like that. We were all living at home, we had no kids, no responsibility. Later, I remember my dad admitted he was wrong, but added he was also right.

“My philosophy on life is if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I remember playing a gig in South Africa and the winner of their Pop Idol was on, he ended up calling me Uncle Terry, he asked us for some advice and I just said: smile at people and always smell nice.

A funny story was during the 1970s, one of the band, Alan, was driving down the road with a girl and he was pulled over by the police and because he just got out of the car they pulled a gun on him. The police officer asked him where he was from and he just kept saying, ‘East Bierley’, which left the officer a bit nonplussed. I don’t think they’ve heard of that in LA.

We were once playing a gig in Copenhagen and John Miles came to see us and we had a power cut and when we played there another time Cliff Richard came and we had another power cut. He had to wait a while until we got going.

“If I could meet anyone it would be Tommy Shaw from the band Styx, who have been going for about as long as we have. They are one of my favourite bands and I just think Tommy is a magical performer. I’m a huge fan.

To relax I just love being at home with my family and going to the local pub. I am not a night owl any more, although I used to be. I’m not saying I’m in pipe and slipper territory but I do like coming back and being peaceful. As a band, we’ve tended not to live in each other’s pockets, so when we are not on tour, we don’t see each other – I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve lasted so long. I have two children and two grandchildren. My wife, Shirley, and I have been together 36-and-a-half years.

“Something that might surprise people is how we got our name, Smokie. The band had several names beforehand but in the 1970s we had some demos sent off to Los Angeles and as they were listening to them, someone in the studio commented, ‘Hey, that’s a smokey sound’ – it was as simple as that. In the beginning, we were called Smokey with an ‘ey’ but we got a call from Smokey Robinson, who said we couldn’t use that name as everyone called him ‘Smokey’, so we changed it to Smokie with an ‘ie’. In 1975, on our single Changing All The Time, there are two prints, one with the ‘ey’ spelling and one with the ‘ie’.