By Lee Zimmerman
Great singers and great songs are intrinsically tied together. And the greater one is, the more potent the other becomes.
In the case of former Hollies singer Allan Clarke, it’s evident that both those strengths worked in tandem. The list of classics that found Clarke front and center dates back some 55 years and includes more than 30 hits—“I’m Alive,” “Look Through Any Window,” “The Air That I Breathe,” “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” “On a Carousel” and “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” being among the very many. But while Clarke’s name will always be identified with The Hollies, the group he and Graham Nash formed in 1962, he can also claim a singular solo career that entails eight individual albums and a notable guest appearance with The Alan Parsons Project on their enduring classic “Breakdown.”
Clarke served two stints with The Hollies. He left the band for the first time in 1971 after announcing his intention to launch a solo career. Fearing that he would desert them the same way Graham Nash had done three years before, they gave him an ultimatum insisting that he devote total attention to the band. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that Clarke’s composition, “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” was promoted as a group effort after Clarke’s departure. He would rejoin the band in 1973 and remained with them for the next 10 years, reasserting his leadership role while releasing his own albums in tandem. Nevertheless, neither entity could reclaim their former success. The Hollies continue to tour, first recruiting the late Carl Wayne (formerly of The Move) and then later, Peter Howarth in Clarke’s stead. A reunion that included both Clarke and Nash and the band took place for the Buddy Holly tribute album Not Fade Away, one which found them harmonizing on “Peggy Sue Got Married” with an archival recording of Holly himself taking the lead. A one-off reunion album, the aptly titled What Goes Around... found Nash briefly back in the fold and even spawned a minor hit in the remake of “Stop in the Name of Love.” A live album, Archive Alive, that included Clarke but not Nash was belatedly issued in 1997.
Clarke himself retired in 1999, citing problems with his vocal chords ad a desire to spend more time with his family as the prime reasons.
“It came to a point where my voice had degraded and I realized I was not hitting those high notes any more,” Clarke confirmed during a recent phone conversation from his home in the English countryside. “I decided that it was time for me to try my hand at gardening rather than poking away at the old songs.”
He also revealed that his wife Jennifer, with whom he’s been married some 55 years, was battling cancer for the second time and that he wanted to be with her for support. “It’s quite scary when these things happen,” he surmised. “So we decided we didn’t want to be apart for any length of time and instead see which way it goes.”
Fortunately, she recovered, but Clarke’s ties to her and their three children—Timothy, age 53, Toby, age 50, and Piper, 47—remain fully entrenched.
“Life things happen when you least expect them,” Clarke muses. “I’m convinced that it was meant that I give up singing and take care of things that had happened in the years before. My family needed me to sort things out, and it (retirement) allowed me to do that. And it’s been great for the past 20 years.”
Now, two decades after he put down the microphone for what appeared to be the final time, Clarke is, at age 77, making a comeback. He recently released Resurgence, his first album in nearly 30 years, and though the songs bear little resemblance to the music made with The Hollies, or, for that matter, even to his efforts on his own, the songs still resonate with an effusive accessibility that proves his pop chops are still intact. One song in particular, the cool and crisp “Long Cool Woman’s Back in Town” also indicates that he’s not about to leave his legacy behind.
Nevertheless, the reason for his return isn’t easily explained. “Things just happen on their own,” Clarke surmises. “It just so happens that one day, I was in my office and I decided I would write some lyrics and maybe start writing songs again. I have a friend in Los Angeles named Saul Davis. He’s married to singer Carla Olson and we’ve known each other for many, many years. He had been trying to get me into the studio for the last 30 years to do a solo thing with him and Carla, but it had always been in my mind that I wouldn’t be able to sing anymore. So I figured what was the point. But I started writing these words down and they came rather quickly. One became a poem called ‘A Love That Never Blooms’ which I then sent off to Carla, and she put a song to it and sent it back. And though I liked what she had done, I didn’t think it was the way I would have actually sung those words, and so I decided to put my own music to the lyrics. That was the first track I put down, although I changed the title to ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ in case Carla wanted to record it as ‘A Love That Never Blooms’ at some point in the future.”
Clarke claims that he never intended the songs to go any further than that, and they were really only meant for his own enjoyment, a therapeutic exercise in a way. “Once I managed to learn Garage Band, I realized I could probably do more,” he explained. “So I started writing more lyrics, and as I wrote lyrics, I began putting tunes to them. I was quite pleased with the way things were going. I put some lead guitar on a couple of them and then some bass. If you’ve got your own time and there’s no one with a stop watch, it can be very relaxing. I wasn’t thinking that this would turn into an album in any way, shape or form. But I got the point where I had nine songs and I was thinking, ‘Well what do I do with them now?’ They were very good, but the recordings were what you might consider as demos. So I got an old friend of mine who used to be with The Hollies in the ’80s named Francis (Denis) Haines. I had worked with him in the past and I knew how great he was arranging at demos, so I invited him to my home and played him some of these tunes and he said he liked them, but still wanted to make them a little bit better. So I said, ‘Okay, let’s go for it’ and I flew down to London, which was a bit like going back to work, and we booked a studio.”
Each time Clarke finished. a track he would send it to Saul Davis, and the reaction he received in return affirmed his enthusiasm as well as the fact that he ought to continue.
“I was singing four notes lower, but at least it still sounded like Allan Clarke,” he says in retrospect.
His friend Saul Davis set up a meeting for Clarke with the head of BMG Records and it was agreed that the label would release the album. “This wasn’t supposed to be happening,” Clarke says, his astonishment still apparent. “But the whole thing took on a life of its own. All of a sudden I’m doing radio interviews, I’ve got an album out, and the reaction has been lovely. It’s really great for me, but I’m still slightly shocked. Everybody has been so nice. It’s just wonderful to be in this sort of situation. I enjoyed every minute of the recording of the album. And to be speaking to people in America again... it’s just mind blowing.”
Although Clarke and Haines are the primary musicians on the album, Clarke credits his grandson Sam with contributing on lead guitar on two tracks. “He had indicated some interest in what I was doing and wanted to be involved,” Clarke explains. “I had just finished the track called ‘The Door Is Slowly Closing’ and I invited him over to listen to it. I put it on and played it through as he stood behind me. And when I finished, he was quiet, but then he put his arms around me and said — pardon my French —‘Grandpa, that was f**king sick!’ That’s a compliment, especially from your grandson. It made me feel wonderful. Those are the sort of nice little things that came out of it.”
Clarke said he’s already been asked by interviewers if he’ll tour behind the album, but at this point he’s still unsure. He’s hesitant to rely on his classics to flush out his set list, which he insists, he can only sing in a lower register. “I’m not that Allan Clarke anymore,” he suggests. “Those high notes aren’t there anymore. And I can’t go out and do two and a half hours. I know my friend Bruce Springsteen does it all the time, but he doesn’t have to go that high.”
As a result, Clarke said he’s committing to only consider the possibilities. In the past, he never actually toured on his own, even during his solo career.
Nevertheless, he doesn’t hold back when discussing what led up to his original departure from The Hollies. “When I went to the boys and told them that I had all these songs that I wanted to record on my own, they didn’t like the idea,” he muses. “I can understand why though. They probably still had that problem with Graham leaving and having such wonderful solo success, and they believed if I followed in Graham’s footsteps, I would leave the group and go out on my own. That was not my intention whatsoever, but they gave me little choice. ‘Ifyou do a solo album, then you have to leave the band.’ So that put me in a bit of a quandary. I had all these nice songs and The Hollies didn’t want to do them, so I’d have to do them on my own.”
It was a difficult decision Clarke admits. After all, The Hollies had been one of the most successful bands in the world throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, so leaving them behind was not only a tough choice personally, but it had financial implications as well.
Likewise, the timing was somewhat ironic, considering the fact that Clarke’s composition, “Long Cool Woman,” a band song which featured not only his voice sans the band’s traditional harmonies, but also his guitar playing, the clunky riff that reverberates throughout the song, was originally a throw-away that Clarke figured he easily could claim as his own. He told the record company that since he had gone solo, he would like to be the one to promote the song. Instead, his request was shot down because, he was informed, The Hollies would be touring behind it instead.
In fact, it could have been the impetus for a Hollies revival if Clarke had been willing to continue. But by now, there was definitely some ill will due to the fact that the band had essentially usurped his song. “Even (Hollies guitarist) Tony (Hicks) said that had been the wrong thing to do,” Clarke remembers.
Although Clarke insists that another reunion will never take place (“That will never happen,” he maintains), he occasionally finds himself strolling down memory lane. A recent trip to the band’s original home town, Manchester, England, gave him opportunity to revisit some of his old haunts, and, he says, he was delighted that they were still intact and looking much the same as they did nearly 60 years ago. He mentioned that he even made a pilgrimage to the same hotel where he and Nash first encountered their heroes, the Everly Brothers, prior to a concert.
“It brought back a lot memories of when Graham and I were hanging out,” he reflects. “We had a group called the Two Teens when we were doing skiffle and early rock and roll. The Beatles really opened the door for all the English acts. Without them, I don’t know if we would have made it. So when I think about being in the business nearly 60 years, it’s crazy.”
Clarke wavers when asked if he’s the nostalgic sort, but it’s clear he does have an affinity for his earlier existence.“I’m not the kind of guy that goes on Google and puts my name in to see what comes up, or to see myself at 21 doing ‘Carrie Anne’,” he confides. “My kids do that. But when I do think about it, it is kind of mind blowing, especially coming from a guy who was working in the mill for three years. It’s strange to think of the past and then think about where I am now. People have been saying that since I have a lot of memories, I should write a book.”
He says that one of his favorite memories was sharing a meal with Cary Grant. He also mentions that he and Nash are still pals and he even had dinner with him and some mutual friends in London not long ago. He was also on hand to surprise Nash when he presented his friend a lifetime achievement award at a recent ceremony.
“It was quite an emotional experience,” Clarke confides. He adds that there have been some suggestions that the two men ought to figure out a way to work together once again. Clarke says he would be pleased to do so, but he’s uncertain if it will ever come to pass. “We’re from two different worlds now,” he concedes.
Nash’s departure from The Hollies didn’t catch him entirely by surprise, Clarke maintains. “I had a feeling something was happening in America while I was with him. Crosby and Stills were around along with Mama Cass who was in the same circles. I was worrying about that, but I thought, ‘No, he’s never going to do it.’ I thought he was just enjoying himself. I think he felt like he was trapped in The Hollies and he needed to go somewhere else to do what he wanted to do. There was this story that when one of The Beatles threatened to quit, John Lennon would say, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll find someone just like you.’ So that’s what I did. I went out and found Terry Sylvester.”
It’s mentioned that The Hollies decision to record a tribute album to Bob Dylan was rumored to be the catalyst for Nash’s decision that he had had enough. However, Clarke said it was more than that. “There was the psychedelia, Woodstock, that sort of thing. There was no point in us dressing up in the kaftans. We were a pop group. I’m quite honest about that. I suppose Graham wanted to do something other than be in a pop band. But when I think about the songs that Crosby, Stills and Nash did, like “Marrakesh Express” and “OurHouse,” I think of them as pop songs as well. There’s no psychedelia there.”
Nevertheless, Clarke said that he also spent some time in Laurel Canyon and even had occasion to meet and hang out with the Buffalo Springfield, never dreaming that two of its members, Stills and Young, would someday share a stage with his mate Graham Nash. It’s suggested that had his destiny been different, the group that evolved might have been Crosby, Stills, Nash, Clarke and Young.
To that, Clarke responds with a chuckle. “They were in a different state of mind,” he chuckles. “Personally, I wasn’t in that state of mind.”