Is Roger ready to spend more time with the Family?
(Article from the Leicester Mercury - August 2009)
Picture © Neil Medhurst
It’s 10am at a nice house in Barnes, west London, and the former lead singer of Family, Roger Maxwell Chapman, is quite possibly still a little bit drunk. “It’s the best time to get me,” he cackles, in a voice that hints at last night’s debauchery. “You’re lucky, son. I can’t stop talking. I’m not normally like this at this time of the day. “I did learn, a long time ago, that you don’t really get hangovers if you drink enough of it. It must be that.” He laughs – heartily and endearingly, which he does often. “Harrgh, harrgh, harrgh,” it goes, like Brian Blessed playing Long John Silver after a night on the sauce – and although he’s 100 miles away, the phone in my hand trembles.
Last night, Chappo and pals pitched up at The Bulls Head pub in swanky west London for a fund-raising gig on behalf of the local bowls club. Apparently, the place needs a new green and, like everything in this corner of the capital, it’s not cheap. “So I decided to get a few mates together and do a bit of a show,” says Chapman, a member of the bowls club for 30-odd years. It doesn’t sound that rock ‘n’ roll – a charity gig for the bowls club – but the sound of Chappo’s throaty chortle tells you this was anything but a sedate affair. “What a night, mate,” he says. “I had Jim Cregan down (ex-Family) and Rob Townsend. It’s the first time I’ve played with Rob since Family split in 1973. “Then there was Bobby Tench from Streetwalkers, Maggie Bell – a right old mixed bag. “We just got up and did a few numbers. It was good, a bit ropey at times, but even when we were doing it wrong we pretended it was right. Hargh, hargh, hargh. You learn that after a while.” Then the whiskey came out – a 200-year-old bottle which they were passing round and swigging from the neck, band and audience – and it all concluded at about 2am. “Then,” he whispers, “we brought it all back to my place and we had a few more.”
Roger Chapman is 67 – 67 going on 27. But when you’ve been a freewheeling rock-and-roller all your life, it’s hard to let it go. The reason we’re here, chewing the fat with the former Family and Streetwalkers frontman, is that, officially, after a career spanning 40-odd years, he is about to retire. His winter tour this year – double header at The Y Theatre on December 18 and 19 – is supposed to be his last. That’s the exclusive. But the real story could turn out to be a little different. You don’t have to push Mr Chapman that hard to discover he’s going to find the whole pipeand-slippers routine a bit of a drag. “On our last tour, I got a throat infection. First throat infection I’ve had in 40 years. I had to bark my way through the show that night.” Yet, he laughs, he’s still not sure if anyone knew the difference. “I still got a bloody encore. I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Then my keyboard player got appendicitis and it all seemed a bit draining.” It’s his own fault, he freely admits.
You get 10 or so blokes – of whatever age, it doesn’t matter, even those old enough to knowbetter – get them together and they’re going to drink, he says. “It’s the abuse my liver gets during those tours. I can’t take it any more. Honestly, you have two or three weeks out on theroad with us and you’ll be pining for your bed. “My guitar player has a T-shirt that says ‘The liver is bad and needs to be punished’ and that pretty much sums it up.”
So, officially, these shows – a mini tour of the UK, and on to Germany – will be his last. Unofficially, they might not be. “I don’t think I could stop, forever,” he admits. “I like it too much. I still wake up in the middle of night with a tune in my head that I have to get down.”
The Roger Chapman Story is a heart-warming rags-to-riches tale of a Leicester lad whose voice provided his salvation. Chappo was born on April 8, 1943. His dad left home when he was 18 months old, leaving his mum to look after Roger and his older brother, Tony. They were split up, sent into care, reunited, divided again. It was messy and miserable, he says, and yet, ultimately, character building. “I think it gave me a sense of independence and an attitude that I still have today. In this business, it’s no bad thing.”
He was talented at school, but easily distracted. He was the smart kid at the back of the class who wanted to go to art school but ended up painting and decorating. At 19, with “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles, he married his 17-year-old girlfriend and became a dad a few months later. The marriage lasted a year.
He won a singing competition at the Palais and joined his first band, the Rocking Rs. Poached by rival band The Farinas, Chappo gradually realised his unique, raspy voice could be his ticket out of here. The Farinas became Family and were signed by Reprise Records, which paid for them to live together in in Chelsea. For two years, says Chappo, they were the kings of the world. “We enjoyed all the trappings, shall we say,” he laughs. John Lennon called them “the best band around”. “And you know what,” says Chappo, “he was right ’n’ all.”
Family released seven albums and garnered a cult following for their inventive brand of 70s fusion rock. Their final gig was at Leicester Poly in 1973. Chapman and guitarist Charlie Whitney left to form Streewalkers and made another seven albums before Chapman went solo, releasing 24 albums in 30 years. In that time, he reckons, he made millions – and lost most of it to a succession of managers he refers to as “scumbags”. “If I thought about it too much, it would make me proper bitter,” he says. “So I don’t.” These days he’s managed by his wife, Leone. “It’s better that way,” he says. “We’re like a little corner shop.
His life now is in Barnes, west London, but he’ll never forget his roots. “I’m a Leicester lad,” he says.“Always will be. I’m still a Leicester City fan and I bought that Kasabian album when it came out, just ’cos I’d read somewhere they were from Leicester and I liked the look of ’em.” What do you think? “Yeah, not bad. I like that – [starts humming Club Foot riff] duuur...dur-de-dur-dur-dur-durdur– riff. That’s all right. Good luck to ’em, I say.
“I like coming back. I like going for a curry in Leicester with my old mates. I book into the hotel in Granby Street and it feels good and I get a bit floaty like ‘Here I am, Roger Chapman, I’m back’ – and no bugger knows who I am. Hargh, hargh, hargh.
“I’m a lucky man. Considering what I came from and the person I am – I’m hard work, I admit– I’ve been very lucky. It could have been different.”
With that, the Family man is ready for bed. “I can feel it kicking in, mate,” he groans. “You got me just at the right time.”