Interview: Steve Ellis (Love Affair)

by Modculture 7 September, 2011

Steve Ellis

Steve Ellis

David Steel interviews legendary Love Affair frontman Steve Ellis.

When a cover of US Southern Soul singer Robert Knight’s ‘Everlasting Love’ hit the number 1 spot in January 1968, Love Affair were well and truly propelled into the Pop limelight. A string of hits followed over the next two years, forever guaranteeing the band’s status as a classic late-60s pop group.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Love Affair’s lead singer Steve Ellis who was kind enough to answer my questions and give us an insight into how he got into the music industry, those early days as The Soul Survivors, his time of stardom with Love Affair and what happened when he went solo.

Tell me a little about how you got into music and how you came to join Love Affair?

Around ’63 I started a band with two brothers, I played drums on biscuit tins. We called ourselves Clifton Bystanders and we rehearsed in their front room. As we were only 13 the novelty wore off, but I had a taste for it. Two years later a friend of mine, who played the guitar, saw an add in the NME for a vocalist and encouraged/dared me to go for it. As I was in a gang of about twelve blokes, I couldn’t lose face so went along to the audition for Soul Survivors, as we eventually called ourselves. Things progressed from there!

You were very much into Mod and the look around this time, weren’t you? How important was that to you and the group?

To me it was very important because that was what I was, it was not a conscious effort on my part and the rest of the band were like minded.

Who were your idols back then, be it vocally, sartorially, etc?

James Brown, The Temptations, Stax, Motown, Ray Charles, etc, and obviously the bands who were influenced by same, such as The Who – great band!

You were known as The Soul Survivors at this time, weren’t you – how well did you go down in the Mod clubs that you played in? You played at places such as Tiles, The Marquee and The Flamingo didn’t you?

Pretty good. We were a bit of a novelty as we were only kids, but we got better and better from playing that circuit and landed a residency at The Marquee, which we were pretty pleased about. We did The Flamingo which was predominantly a blues club, with the likes of Georgie Fame playing regularly so it was a tough audience to front, and the crowd were predominantly black and were into singers, but we got out alive with more than just a little self respect in tact.

What did your set consist of with The Soul Survivors? Any interesting covers?

Aaron Neville’s ‘Tell it like it is’, ‘Summertime’ by Billie Holiday or Billy Eckstein. Lots of Stax, Motown and soul covers.

Listening to them now, those early records (such as ‘Back In Your Life Again’, ‘Woman Woman’, ‘Sweetness & Tenderness’) are fantastic pieces of Mod-Pop. What do you think of them now?

I have recently listened to them for the first time in 30 years, and I have to say I think that they are pretty good pieces of ‘Mod Pop’, even by today’s standards. I hope that people still enjoy them, that’s what it’s all about!

‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ has always been a bit of Mod-circuit favourite (and recently appeared on the Mod/R’n’B/Club Soul comp ‘Empire Made Volume 2’). Is it true that Geno Washington was blown away by that track and wanted to record it?

Yes it’s true, Geno was a bit of a hero of the Soul Survivors, we thought he was great – an excellent show man. He was a fit bloke and was an ex-soldier, so he had it off pretty good as a front man he knew how to work an audience too.

Of course, ‘Everlasting Love’ will forever be associated with you and the band, did you like that tune when it was first presented to you? Were you surprised by it’s success?

Yes, I did like it. It was a Southern Soul hit in the USA by Robert Knight. We were totally surprised by the instant success of it, but it is a good song. I have just done a new version which is on the new album, which I am currently in the studio with and will be out next year.

You were still in your mid-teens (16) when that tune got to number one – how did you handle all that at such a young age? Was that kind of success a burden or did it inspire you? Weren’t you all arrested at some point trying to publicise the record?

We were teenagers and we were enjoying every minute of it! We toured and played almost every night, sometimes twice a night, so it was hard work. It could be a burden because we could not go out as normal people, but who was complaining? Inspired – yes, especially after a really good gig!

Yes, we were arrested for climbing to the top of Eros Piccadilly! This was a mad publicity stunt that appeared to have back fired at the time. We all had to appear in court, were charged and found guilty of breach of the peace, which I think was due to all the traffic having to come to a halt in rush hour. I wouldn’t recommend it now!

Did it annoy you when the press turned against the band (and many of your contemporaries) and used terms such as ‘throwaway’, ‘teenyboppers’, ‘manufactured’ and ‘one-hit wonders’ against you?

Yes, very much so. We worked hard for our success by playing live, but you can’t do anything about the press as they are part of the whole machine. Bands toured and worked live continuously, so it was a bitter pill.

The singles that followed ‘Everlasting Love’ (‘Rainbow Valley’, ‘A Day Without Love’, ‘One Road’, etc) were all great but followed the ‘EL’ formula quite closely – was that a conscious decision on the group’s behalf or just how it came out?

We had the same arranger, a session orchestra and a rhythm section and I put the vocals on. As someone once said, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!

I really rate your b-sides; tracks like ‘Someone Like Me’, ‘Let Me Know’, ‘I’m Happy’ and ‘Accept Me For What I Am’ – do you rate these as better tracks to the a-sides given that you wrote the vast majority of them?

These were more representative of the band as a whole obviously, but we were using an orchestra for the singles as I said. The singles were a hybrid of soul-pop, hence the orchestra and tight bass/drums. I like a lot of the b-sides, but I would not say that I rated them any higher than the a-sides.

Did you enjoy touring with Love Affair post-‘Everlasting Love’? Obviously The Beatles, Small Faces, Stones, and many others all found touring a chore at various stages in the 60s.

Most of the time, yes. You would easily get on each others nerves, especially with that much energy plus the odd pill or three to keep you going 🙂

What was your opinion of other groups recording and touring around the same time as Love Affair? Any that you particularly loved or hated?

All good, especially Amen Corner, Small Faces and The Who. I can’t say that I hated any of them, to be honest. Terry Reid was excellent as well.

By 1968 you stood out with your short hair and well-cut clothes – was that a conscious effort to stay clear of long hair and psychedelic clothes or just what you were into? You seemed to keep that Mod look well into the late-60s.

It was what I was in to! Still am to a degree. As for hippies; I married one, but don’t tell anybody!

The 1969 (and last Steve Ellis-Love Affair) single ‘Baby I Know’ was a slight change in direction for the band, but as a result less successful than previous singles – did this heavily influence your decision to leave Love Affair?

No, not really as things were already moving that way. We were all growing up and growing apart. Plus I had so much pressure on me as a front man that I needed a break and time to clarify what I was going to do musically.

Why is there no ‘great Love Affair’ album in the vein of ‘Ogdens…’, ‘SF Sorrow’, ‘Odessy & Oracle’, ‘Sgt. Peppers’, ‘The Who Sell Out’, etc? You must have had enough tracks to produce something on that scale?

We were to busy touring! We did one album which was mainly stuff we did live and a few tracks that Morgan and I wrote together, plus a few hits. We never got the opportunity to experiment in the studio. ‘Ogdens…’ is class!

Tell me how you got involved with the soundtrack to ‘Loot’ – you already knew Keith Mansfield prior to this project didn’t you? Do you rate that soundtrack?

Yes. I already knew Keith Mansfield and he was great to work with. I had just left the band and Keith asked me to do it. Great musicians and great backing (Doris Troy, Madeline Bell, Sue & Sunny, etc) – I really enjoyed it. And of course there was Lee Remick…..

On ‘Singles A’s & B’s’, we get 3 solo singles and their b-sides from you – what was it like working with the likes of Keith Mansfield, Zoot Money, Caleb Quaye, Jimmy McCulloch, etc, as against Love Affair?

Jimmy, Zoot and Caleb are seriously talented musicians. Sadly Jimmy died, but a great guitarist and a real shame. I played with a lot of great musicians on those sessions. It was a completely different scenario – there is no comparison.

Looking back, why do you think your solo career was less successful given your huge profile with Love Affair?

Sometimes things don’t work out how you plan them! I went on after this to form Ellis Band with Zoot Money – this was a great band, so if I hadn’t met Zoot it would not have happened. Every cloud has a silver lining! I am in the process of getting these albums re-issued.

Do you expect this new Love Affair/Ellis compilation to give you a new generation of fans? Is that important to you still? How did this new compilation come about?

I just thought it would be nice to get all the A’s & B’s on one CD for those who wanted a concise history of the band. Sony, Evangeline and Angel Air were very helpful, and I hope people enjoy it! New fans? The more the merrier! Then they come to the gigs, which is what I love.

Do you keep in touch with the Mod scene today? Obviously you featured at the Marriott Memorial gig last year.

Steve: ‘No, not consciously, but strangely enough a lot of my friends seem to be second, third and fourth generation mods. It’s just something that seems to have caught people’s imagination and stood the test of time. I love doing the Small Faces convention, as it’s full of the aforementioned and some of them have got it of to a tee! Obviously to have the opportunity to play with people such as Paul Weller at the Steve Marriott memorial concert is a privilege, too. I did three sets that night with three great bands, all with one common aim – to give Marriott the recognition and respect that he so richly deserves, and of course lets not forget Ronnie Lane. Both hugely talented and sadly missed.’

What groups and music do you enjoy today?

Anything with a bit of heart and soul, for example, I heard a tune on the radio and it was Eminem! I had no idea who it was until it had finished and I loved it. It doesn’t mean I like rap anymore than blues, but if something has that honesty and a bit of balls then turn it up!

What next for Steve Ellis? Gigs? Records?

See http://www.steveellis.co.uk, which is being updated for the new year. Lots of CD’s out and a DVD out in January (‘Last Tango in Bradford’ – seriously!). Currently finishing album with a few guests, hope to be on tour next year so several things in the offing. Watch this space, as they say!

Finally, if you had the chance to do it all again would you do anything differently?

You must be f**king joking! The music, the playing – definitely! But not the rest of the bollocks. Read my book out, some time next year.

On behalf of Modculture readers may I take this opportunity to thank you for your time and effort in answering these questions. Given that we’ve sadly lost so many of our 60s idols, it’s great to see one still out there performing just as well today as back in the 60’s. Do you have a message for Modculture readers?

Yeah, enjoy life & keep the faith!