My brother and sisters reacted as though I had brought home a sea lion. They had seen one recently at London Zoo and the box I held in my arms looked as alien and out of place in our sitting room as that sleek sea mammal would have.
I cleared a space on the sideboard and reverently placed the box down. Shirley, my youngest sister, clutched a paper bag in her hands and carefully lifted it up to sit alongside my new acquisition. The tension in the air was palpable and my siblings took a step forward in unison as I approached the machine. I lifted the lid, opened the bag, slid one of the glossy black discs from its sleeve and placed it on the turntable. Everyone held their breath as I switched one lever to the on position and another to 45rpm then carefully placed the stylus on the record.
There was no sound at first then a noise like a helicopter increased in volume until an unearthly tune played on a groundbreaking electronic instrument erupted from the machine. It was like nothing we had ever heard before and sounded so futuristic it could have been 1988! The song was Telstar by The Tornados and it was 1962.
I had bought the portable record player and a selection of 45s with the money from my first wage packet. I was fifteen and had landed a job as a messenger delivering telegrams all over Brighton. It would be a year until I could get a motorbike, a BSA Bantam like all the other blokes rode, so I went everywhere on my trusty bicycle, bearing messages of good news and bad in the days before most people had a telephone.
I was the eldest of five and cemented my role as the cool older brother by bringing the record player into our home. Dad worked a lot doing something boring that he never talked about and Mum spent most of her time in the kitchen so we were able to worship at the altar of pop music without interruption as long as we didn’t play it too loud. Those first 45s I bought are engraved on my memory – Twistin’ the Night Away by the late, great Sam Cooke as well as Ballad of Paladin by Duane Eddy, another instrumental, and Del Shannon’s So Long Baby.
I’d come home from work to find Billy and the girls lying on the floor in the sitting room having spent every minute since they got home from school listening to our growing record collection and squabbling over whose turn it was to get up and change the disc. They earned pocket money doing chores and would club together to buy a record every few weeks. One hot Saturday in July they brought back The
Loco-Motion by Little Eva which I swear wasn’t off the turntable for that whole summer. By September they had created and perfected dance moves of their own and Mum was humming the catchy tune whenever we ventured into the kitchen.
I enjoyed listening to rock ‘n’ roll when I was a kid but as I grew older, pop music became the soundtrack to my life. Inspired by singers like Billy Fury and Joe Brown, I bought myself a guitar and learned how to play, making so many mistakes at first but then growing in confidence. The following year Ready Steady Go!, a whole programme devoted to pop music, aired on ITV so we could watch our idols singing live rather than just listening to their records. The year after that Radio Caroline started broadcasting from the North Sea and BBC launched Top of the Pops. The age of the music-obsessed teenager had arrived.
That year was a decisive one for me. I was seventeen and, although I enjoyed racing around on my bright red motorbike, I had started to think about the future. I was a good looking lad, everyone told me, so I couldn’t see myself getting promoted into a management role like all the old guys at the post office but what did the future hold for me?
It all started with Roy Orbison. I’d been aware of In Dreams, his hit from the previous year, but it hadn’t made it into my collection. I heard It’s Over when I’d just split up with my first girlfriend, Sissy, and as my heart was bruised, if not broken, and the lyrics spoke to me as much as The Big O’s plaintive vocals. This time it was me listening again and again; the kids would roll their eyes and leave the room whenever they heard “the soppy song”.
I made my decision and in May I started my new job as a Redcoat at Butlins in Clacton, ready for that year’s summer season. It was the first time I’d ever been away from home and I relished it. There wasn’t much freedom for the holiday makers, let alone the staff, as the Butlins camps were run with military precision and every minute of your day was accounted for. According to Billy Butlin, if you weren’t doing something, you weren’t having fun.
I organised knobbly knees and glamorous granny competitions during the day and by July had made it on stage as part of the evening entertainment. I sang and danced my heart out and was eventually approached by the entertainments manager who asked me to perform solo singing the latest smash hit, Oh Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison.
It was late September, the end of summer was round the corner and I was wondering what to do next when I received a telegram from Harry Parnell. The Captain, as he was known, was a music impresario who managed a stable of young, photogenic male pop stars who had heard wonderful things from his scout and was keen to meet me. I travelled to London a couple of days later and found my way to the address in Mayfair I’d been given. I was shown into the Captain’s office by a stunningly gorgeous girl wearing the shortest skirt I’d ever seen.
The Captain looked me up and down as he walked across the plush carpet to greet me then shook me warmly by the hand and offered me a seat. He asked a few questions about my family and whether I enjoyed being a Redcoat then asked me to sing for him. I’d never sung unaccompanied before but hoped that The Big O would continue to be my good luck charm and sang It’s Over, trying to evoke as much emotion as I could in three minutes.
The Captain smiled and clapped his hands together once and invited me to take a seat again. He said he’d like to represent me and produced a contract for me to sign, which I did without really reading it as I was so excited. The conversation then turned to names as Ian Johnson was deemed too ordinary for a fledgling pop star. We were searching for something as catchy as Billy Fury or Georgie Fame and eventually settled on Charlie Starlight which I felt hit the right note of working class romantic.
The next few weeks went by in a blur as interviews with teen magazines were set up before I’d even played my first gig. My background had been livened up with tales of Nordic ancestors to play up my blond good looks and before long I was being touted as the Next Big Thing in the music press. My first single, Love Me for the Last Time, received a lot of airplay and went straight in at number 3. The Captain had organised some experienced session musicians to form my backing band and we became Charlie Starlight and the Moonbeams.
The opening night of my sell-out tour arrived on a frosty evening in December. I was nervous about playing my first gig at such a large venue and I was exhausted from working flat out on my album in the studio and rehearsing. Although I hadn’t written them, I was proud of the songs. The Captain had wanted my gig to contain only new material but I had put my foot down and insisted that I sing one cover version as a finale – It’s Over by Roy Orbison.
I stood in the wings wearing a shiny silver suit with my hair styled in a quiff and listened to the girls screaming. I tried to calm the butterflies in my stomach and when I heard the Moonbeams start playing the long intro into Love Me for the Last Time, I walked onto the stage. The bright lights almost blinded me and the screaming reached fever pitch.
As I stood waiting for my cue, I knew that whatever happened after this, whether my career lasted a long time or was a flash in the pan, I would always remember the moment my dream came true.
Attached is a draft of the first chapter of my autobiography. I am pretty happy with it but if you feel the need to employ a ghost writer to “tidy it up”, then please do so. I’ve really enjoyed taking a trip down memory lane and am looking forward to writing about my exploits in the Swinging 60s. I’ve got some stories to tell about the time that Mick Jagger … ah, but I’d better save it for the paying public.