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Let music be the food of Lenny's funky, feelgood comedy outing

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 09, 2012

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For a man whose early dream was to be a musician, Lenny Henry has made a fine career as a witty and charismatic comedian.

Being funny comes so naturally that it would have been a crime for him to pursue any other route – although he has been taking some much-lauded detours into serious acting in recent years.

But when he first performed on stage, aged 16, at the Queen Mary ballroom in his home town of Dudley, he wasn't telling jokes, he was impersonating Elvis.

Lenny's musical ambition, whetted briefly by a couple of singles in the early 1980s, remains. And it is the tunes that have accompanied his five-and-a-half decade joyride on this earth which steer his new one-man stage show, Pop Life.

"I have loved music since I was little," says Lenny, whose rose to fame following his teenage success on the TV talent show New Faces.

"The music that stays with you is, first of all, what your parents listened to.

"Then it's what you discover yourself between the ages of about 14 to 24, when you are going out and meeting members of the opposite sex and falling in love.

"Once you get into a serious relationship it turns into 'couple music', and that's something different," he adds, referring to the divide between his own taste and that of his ex-wife Dawn French.

From his camp came Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads and Tom Waits. From hers came Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Norah Jones.

"So we had to meet in the middle. Or, to put it another way, Sade."

Pop Life's origins go back to an earlier show called Cradle To Rave, which he toured last year. It was an altogether more emotive affair, coming hot on the heels of a run of life-changing events – the break-up of his 25-year marriage, and four family bereavements in quick succession.

"Cradle to Rave was my first music show, but people were saying things like 'this is great, but it's one of the saddest shows I have ever seen'.

"I wanted to do a happy one," says Lenny, speaking from Newcastle on the northern leg of a tour that brings him to several Westcountry towns later this month.

He has developed the new show with his long term collaborator Kim Fuller who worked with him on Three Of A Kind, The Lenny Henry Show and Saturday Night Live.

"It's basically me telling jokes about music, with lots of funky tunes thrown in," he says, plunging straight into the kind of thought process that produces rich seams of material for the show.

"Music affects you in a way speech doesn't. It's visceral. When Prince is on stage I scream like a 14-year-old girl," he adds, yelping in demonstration.

"When my mum was in the old people's home they would all sing along to songs like Yellow Bird and Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag. I wonder what we'll be listening to when we get older... Gangnam Style? Wonderwall? All The Single Ladies?" muses Lenny, bursting into the distinctive and infectious laugh that peppers our telephone conversation.

"But please, no Katie Melua. What is that all about?"

He declares a preference for music with passion and soul.

"Right now I love Kasabian and Elbow; I love that a bloke who looks like George V has a pop career," he quips.

The Jubilee, the Olympics and Paralympics ceremonies provide rich fodder for his lampooning.

"I loved the way Freddie Mercury turned up at the Olympics. What I wonder is who they are going to wheel out when William and Kate become King and Queen. Will it be Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend?"

The Rolling Stones beg for Lenny's attention too.

"There was a comment from Mick Jagger years ago saying 'if I get to 28 I will be happy'. Now they are old people, but they are still credible."

One of his favourite games is making up words for TV theme tunes. "Doesn't everybody do that?" he quizzes, breaking into song with "London is a grum...py place..." set to the opening bars of the EastEnders theme.

Lenny has a strong and versatile singing voice, used to great effect in the "celebrity" funk function band he fronts – Poor White Trash and the Little Big Horns.

"Hugh Laurie used to be my keyboard player before he found himself a little job in America," he says. "We've got the Haircut 100 brass section, Andy Gangadeen, Ken Bowley, Ally Cain, and Louise Clearmarshall and Emma May on backing vocals.

"We do our own songs, plus things like Knock on Wood, Soul Man, a bit of reggae with Stir It Up

In Pop Life Lenny is building his musical credibility by playing piano on stage for the first time. He's been taking formal lessons for a few years now and recently passed his grade four exam.

"The musicians I like can all read music and play what they like; I'd love to be able to sit at the piano and play anything I want.

"At the moment I can play Wheels on the Bus, the middle bit from Sex Machine and Blueberry Hill; I can play with my right hand and my left hand – unless the audience clap and sing along!

"I didn't start playing until I was 40 and at this rate I should get to grade nine when I'm 108."

Although the tour isn't coming as far as Cornwall this time, London-based Lenny – who lived at Fowey with Dawn before their split – is still a regular visitor to the county, where the couple's daughter, Billie, goes to college.

"It is weird, these different chapters in our lives; but I feel better now than I have for a very long time. I have a relationship and I am happy," he says. "And I am happy that Dawn is happy.

"I am down in Cornwall a lot. And if I'm craving a pasty, I can sneak out and get one; it's not quite the same as an Ivor Dewdney's, though. Now that's a handbag full of meat and veg, isn't it?"

Lenny is never idle. His next project is an August Wilson play called Fences which starts at Bath Theatre Royal at the end of February.

"It's a really good play about family relationships – Denzil Washington played the lead on Broadway a couple of years ago," he says.

Having trod the boards as Othello in 2009, he reveals he will be doing "the Scottish play" at the end of next year. He's writing a sitcom, studying for his doctorate in screenwriting, building on his MA from Royal Holloway, and... in his spare time... he's penning short stories too. And he has a lot to say on his Twitter page, too.

Lenny recently went to see the new Bond movie Skyfall while he was in Gateshead.

"I think Daniel Craig is a very credible 21st century Bond... but I do think there should be a black Bond," he says, immediately breaking into chilled imaginary character. "Hey man, take your time, take it easy..."

Lenny Henry's Pop Life is at the Playhouse Theatre, Weston-super-Mare (01934 645 544) on November 18; Octagon Theatre, Yeovil (01935 422884) on November 19; The Queen's Theatre, Barnstaple (01271 324242) on November 21. See Lenny's blog at www.lennyhenry.org, or follow him on Twitter @itislennyhenry

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