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IMAGINATION (LEEE JOHN) INTERVIEW [2003]

WHAT ARE YOU UP TO AT THE MOMENT

I'm doing quite a lot, it's really good... I'm gigging at the moment, doing all these Butlins shows and in between that I've just been offered a deal in Germany, I've got a track coming out on 7pm which is a wicked track - really heavy, plus I've just done a film, so I've got fingers in lots of different pies...

I'M AMAZED YOU COULD FIT A FILM INTO THE SCHEDULE...

Yes, just a quick one - it's called Flamingo Blue and it's based on a 1950's story and I'm just a cameo... like a De Martin character, an impresario with a band, and there's a few other things coming through as well...

AS A MAN WITH MANY DIFFERENT HATS - YOU SING, PERFORM, ACT, WRITE, PRODUCE, AND PRESENT, WHERE DO YOU FEEL MOST COMFORTABLE?

It's hard to say... I love being on the stage - I have to say that, I'm a ham! I just love entertainment. If I'm creating then that's cool, but I do love performing, the drama and the theatre of it all - although sometimes the rock and roll of it all is a bit too heavy...

ON THE BUSINESS SIDE DO YOU MEAN?

Yeah, the business side can really kind of take away all the fun and stuff, but you really do have to deal with it - it's a very important factor and it runs side by side alongside everything else, but as long as I'm having fun and people are enjoying what I'm doing then I'm happy!

ARE YOU HAPPY AT THE MOMENT?

Yes I am... I had this big deal going on last year with a track called 'Passion' and we've done some new mixes of that so there's a lot going on there because they want to release that elsewhere in Europe. There's lots of things going on, but it's just a question of finding the time and the energy...

DO YOU FIND THAT, BECAUSE OF THE SPECTACULAR SUCCESS YOU HAD IN THE EIGHTIES WITH IMAGINATION, PEOPLE SEE YOU AS BEING PART OF THE EIGHTIES RATHER THAN AS A CONTEMPORARY ARTIST?

In today's climate it's kind of different because in the nineties I did work with Arthur Baker, David Morales, and a lot of upcoming DJs and I've managed to flit in and out of all the different trends; a couple of years ago I had a big garage record called 'Mind, Body & Soul' on the Locked On label, which was the years second biggest garage record, and prior to that in '95 I was number two in the Billboard dance charts with a track called 'The Mighty Power Of Love' on the Freetown label... so I kind of stayed ahead of the trends. Rather than just being a full-frontal pop/media person I kind of went the other way, went more underground and moved into a new genre and invented a completely new persona but now the people I grew up with - who have had kids or got married and divorced - are now in their thirties and forties... and everybody's reflecting now and they all want that kind of eighties thing again...

WHICH IS EXACTLY THE SAME PEOPLE WE'RE SETTING OUT TO REACH AT REMEMBER THE EIGHTIES - THE PEOPLE WHO ARE IN A POSITION TO REDISCOVER THE THINGS THEY LOVED WHEN THEY WERE GROWING UP BUT PUT TO ONE SIDE WHILE THEY WERE STARTING CAREERS, SETTLING DOWN, AND HAVING KIDS...

That's exactly it. Personally I didn't find that the nineties, apart from everyone going onto PC or Mac, spiritually fulfilling on the creative front, the nineties were full of samples - every other record had a sample and you just didn't know if it was a current record by the real artist or not... it would start out like a track you know and then turn into something completely different! So it was a combination of all those things.

I suppose I did used to have that slight stigma of being from the eighties - everyone would expect me to be a wrinkly gray haired old man! I've matured to an extent but you're as young as you feel, so it's kind of like that. Obviously things have changed and you have to look after yourself, and look after your body - still have a good time of course, but I don't really look at the barriers of age; I kind of kept in touch with things and worked with the right people, and did a lot of work in Europe... I always seemed to be working with different people in every era, so it all keeps me fresh...but personally I was never a drugs person - people who know me know that I like my red wine and my champagne and that's me...

EXPENSIVE BUT CLASSY TASTES!

Expensive but classy, exactly! But we looked after ourselves, we weren't the type of band that were into the other stuff, we were around the scene of course, cocaine and ecstasy were rampant, and I saw a lot of destructive situations happen - a lot of tragedies of the eighties - and I was very lucky that it didn't happen to me. Everyone approaches this industry very differently, but I was always very together - sure I was very outrageous and everything but I always had that sense of theatre - very much combining music with theatre, and I think that's what people want now again... younger people want more of it because they weren't exposed to it then, so there's a hunger for it and that's why there's a resurgence of interest in eighties music and all this kind of stuff - plus I think that September the 11th kind of proved to people that we need to just kind of recognise the fact that you have to make every moment count.

WHAT'S THE MUSICAL DIRECTION OF YOUR NEW MATERIAL?

Well, it's the sound of Leee John's voice and therefore it has a mixture of the old and the new; I have got some R&B flavours, some dance flavours, and I've also done some jazz things - it's very eclectic I would say, and also I'm showing various different shades of my voice - before people know the high voice but there's areas of my voice that are now vocally far more exposed - I find I dig deep in my soul and everything comes out!

IS IT EASIER TO FIND THAT EMOTION THAT WITH EXPERIENCE? HAVING DONE MORE, SEEN MORE, AND LIVED MORE?

Yes, I think experience helps a great deal - when I perform I try to make every audience the first audience so therefore it's a new show...

HOW FLAMBOYANT IS THE SHOW TODAY, BECAUSE YOU ALWAYS WERE INCREDIBLY FLAMBOYANT...

Well, it's got to be about the music, but I do always try and do something for the show whether it's the staging or whatever, but it's not like it was, I don't think you can ever bring back what it was - you're in a different age group and you become shyer as you get older, but I still wear some crazy outfits sometimes - not crazy to the point that they take over, but I do wear some wild things sometimes depending on my mood. Sometimes now I think that when I used to wear those sexy and outrageous outfits people would sometimes get distracted from the music... sex is always a part of the music but there were occasions where it could be too much!

PRESUMABLY WHEN YOU PERFORM YOU STILL PLAY ALL THE OLD IMAGINATION HITS?

I always play them! But I mix them up with new things, I perform 'Passion', there's a new track called 'Slipping Slowly', there's a track called 'Make Your Mind Up'... the beauty of it is that when I do perform the new material people think that they know the songs because of the way that they sound - you know you're onto a good thing when you do a track and people are really getting into it...

IMAGINATION DID ALWAYS HAVE A VERY DISTINCTIVE SOULFUL GROOVE, AND I DON'T THINK THAT EVER REALLY GOES OUT OF FASHION...

Totally. The thing is that people need to be able to escape, and with Imagination and the music, and just with being a performer, we take people on a journey, we take you into a fantasy world for the hour or two hours that we're on stage - we take you away, whether you want to be a kid again or whatever and wherever you want to go...

I ASSUME YOU'RE STILL VERY PROUD OF WHAT YOU ACHIEVED AS IMAGINATION?

Oh yes. I mean when we first started in 1981 I'd never have dreamed that we'd have come so far, and it was a great achievement for all of us. When we first started in the eighties I was doing a lot of sessions and a lot of acting - in fact I've kind of gone back to that again now - and it was my choice then whether to have a group or be a solo artist, but believe it or not at the time I didn't have the confidence to go out by myself! Initially the first record that we took to the record company was a track that I had written and co-produced with Trevor Horn before he'd done 'Video Killed The Radio Star' called 'It's Got To Be Good' and the record company wanted it to be the first single - we never used it in the end because I was introduced to Tony Swain, and he had a piece of music that the record company felt could suit my voice - basically it was an experiment - and 'Body Talk' was created and the rest is history...

'Body Talk' happened, and then the album, and we sold a lot of records and did a lot of touring, but we were very blessed to get the opportunity to do all this but there were still a lot of bands that didn't want to go out to Europe so in doing that we created our livelihood in places like France and Italy...what we wanted to be was like a black version of The Police - because we'd been in bands when there were ten or twelve people and we knew that when it came down to the money that didn't make so much sense!

ARE YOU STILL IN TOUCH WITH THE OTHER ORIGINAL IMAGINATION MEMBERS?

Not as much - we all went our separate ways. Ashley lives in LA and he was the co-writer on the Des'ree track 'You Gotta Be' which was a very big record and kind of set him up for a long while because it was a big international hit. He's got what he wanted because he's now in LA and he loved the idea of that - last thing I heard he was doing something with

Quincy Jones, a gospel group or something for Quincy Jones' label. Eroll, I believe has a studio in Battersea and I saw him last I think six or seven months ago, but we're all moving so fast - my schedule's now are busier than it ever was then!

SOMETHING I REALLY WANTED TO ASK YOU ABOUT WAS APPEARING IN AN EPISODE OF DOCTOR WHO...

That was right at the beginning of the eighties, it was a great experience - Peter Davidson was the Doctor at the time and it was the same period for us when 'Music And Lights' was a big hit and people were saying that I wouldn't need a costume for the show! It was very funny, and really great experience - of course it's a classic British television show and it's so historical so I was really fortunate to be a part of television history by doing it. The Tardis was funny because it's not what you expect it to be... and I found out that Peter Davidson actually has a bit of black in him! One of his parents is from Guyana but you'd never guess...

SO YOU MEAN HE CAN DANCE AND EVERYTHING?!

Yeah! He's got the soul! It was a great experience, and occasionally when we do shows even now we get a few 'Who-ies' coming along, and they ask for my autograph as the character which is quite bizarre... it still gets shown around the world and I even get little cheques every now and again!

QUITE AN ACHIEVEMENT! LOOKING BACK AT EVERYTHING YOU'VE DONE SO FAR WHAT WOULD YOU SAY HAS MADE YOU PROUDEST?

Oh god... well one of the things I'm proudest of is my mother, when she received an MBE. She's a community worker, and she's also been secretary of the St Lucian Society of London since 1968, and there's a Caribbean centre in north London that she runs... in fact the two of us are invited to Buckingham Palace in July this year - when she got the MBE I couldn't go because I was in Germany so this will be really, really good - I made a lot of sacrifices for Imagination!

There's also a friend of mine Leroy Logan who's in the police force - we went to school together and I was best man at his wedding and everything - he's quite up there in the Stephen Lawrence trial and everything - he's inspector of black and Asian community services, and he got an MBE too, so I'm very proud of both of them.

A career highlight for me was going to South Africa and being invited to Winnie and Nelson Mandela's house which was really a treat - could you ever believe that you'd be there? We were over there with the American group Atlantic Star doing these fantastic arenas and the audiences were all very mixed, but it was the experience of knowing that these people had experienced so much hardship in their lives and they really opened their arms to us, and I've never experienced such love and such warmth. Nelson and Winnie's daughter asked us to come to this little fair they were having on the edge of Sowetto and we said 'why don't we come down and do a couple of songs?', so we took down a few musicians and did a little free show for them in Sowetto, and that was for me a very high point.

I have had some great great moments - I'm very lucky to still be in the business and still doing stuff, and I'm quite excited that I've got so many good things on the boil, so it's been quite eclectic career wise!

AND FINALLY... HOW DID YOU AQUIRE THAT EXTRA 'E' IN YOUR NAME?

Well, a long time ago I was part of a duo called Russ & Lee, and the manager wanted it to be Russ & Lee and I hated the name because I thought it was too similar to Peters & Lee, and just to be vain I added the extra 'e' - I just wanted to be different, I didn't want to be the same as everyone else so I invented Leee John... and the rest as they say, is history!

JUNE 2003

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