Published on July 10, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Long distance inspiration
Poet/singer/songwriter Simma meets a hero
The first time I met Charlie Harcourt was… years ago. I was supporting The Junco Partners, the band he’d been in, on and off, since the Sixties. “I’m Charlie,” he said. “I know who you are,” I replied, approximating the tone of a fifteen-year-old who had just bumped into the latest pop sensation.
Anyone with even a passing interest in North East music knows of Charlie. The Juncos played together for so long that they’ve entertained and influenced generations. Charlie radiates enthusiasm for music in a way I’ve rarely seen, and I’ve never heard him play anything that didn’t sound cool. You could practically dance to him tuning up.
When I went round for a chat for this article, a phrase came up a few times about being a musician – “You can’t not”. He talks with the passion of someone who’s just joined a band. He says he sometimes forgets to practice because he gets so engrossed watching other guitarists on YouTube. He’s the perfect antidote to some of the (much younger) jaded musicians I’ve met.
The story has a familiar ring if you’ve ever seen a documentary about bands inspired by new music from across the Atlantic springing up through the Sixties. Shortly after leaving John Marley School in Newcastle, Charlie formed his first band, The Berries. He has happy memories of playing St Philips Youth Club in the West End of the city.
Although Charlie’s first love was the guitar he always wanted to play boogie piano, inspired by Fats Domino and Little Richard “thumpin the hell out of” the instrument. In those days the lines between skiffle, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll we’re starting to blur, and hearing Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated sent him searching song titles for what he calls “The Real McCoy” – delta blues tunes that would become staples of The Junco Partners’ set.
In any history of North East music, the legendary Club A’GoGo in Newcastle looms large. When their resident band The Animals shot off to London, the Juncos stepped into the breach and ran with it. The list of acts who played and hung out there is staggering, Charlie mentions John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson in conversation like he’s talking about the bloke next door.
In those days, the Juncos often played three sets on a Saturday night; The Old Vic In Whitley Bay, then off to the A’GoGo, and to the Downbeat, then gigging again on the Sunday. One night playing with Jimmie and Vella Cameron – Charlie, keen as ever – stayed on stage to jam with the next act, Cat Mother And The All Night Newsboys. This led to him being asked to join them in California, and the adventure took him around the States, working in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland studios.
After the death of controversial band manager Mike Jeffries, Cat Mother were stuck in limbo and Charlie received a call from the UK asking him to join Lindisfarne MkII, heading straight to Australia on tour. On their return he wrote some songs for the band with Ray Jackson.
On the subject of royalties, the phrase comes up again, “It’s what you’re in it for – you’re not in it for the money, or you’re a mug if you are. You’re in it because you have to be, because you can’t not.”
Charlie had his own band, Harcourt’s Heroes, which he describes as “bloody good players” and an impromptu jam at The Cooperage on Newcastle’s Quayside ended with Charlie back in The Juncos, who he continued to play with until their recent retirement.
The final band Charlie joined – in 2013 – was the newly-reformed Lindisfarne, then recorded a live set last year. He talks about this venture with great enthusiasm.
“It was all about the songs,” he says, “and trading licks with Rod (Clements) was great.”
Talking about this gets Charlie thinking right back to the beginning to his first “horrible old guitar”, made out of balsa wood. He learned two chords and never looked back, going from American folk songs to Buddy Holly to “the supreme Chuck Berry’s intros, still shit-hot to this day”.
Charlie Harcourt has recently had to retire from life on the road due to his health, but hearing him talk about music, especially the early stuff, is exhilarating.