Mick Donnelly has been passionate about music since he was a young boy. Brought up in Hartlepool, North East of England, his love affair with music started when he first picked up a recorder at the tender age of nine. By the time he was at secondary school he had progressed to the saxophone and has been addicted ever since.
Apart from his love of music, Mick was also a keen sportsman and played semi-professional football, was a county Rugby player and a black-belt in Judo. If all that wasn't enough to pass the time away, after leaving school at 16 he began an apprenticeship to become a plumber but he continued playing in bands to earn some extra money whenever the opportunity arose.
His life changed forever soon after being offered his first professional contract as a musician playing saxophone on a Caribbean cruise liner. After that, has never looked back. His talents led him to perform around the world with the likes of Swing Out Sister, Sting, Madness, Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, Sammy Davis Junior and Stevie Wonder to name but a few. He has also featured on a number of television programmes including Top of the Pops, The Tube and played at the Royal Variety Performance.
I caught up with Mick during a rare and quiet moment at the start of Lisa Stansfield's European tour before the band headed off for their soundcheck. He graciously offers to conduct our chat on the bands luxurious tour bus and I happily obliged, it would have been rude not to of course. So we made our way upstairs into one of the bands cosy living room spaces, decked out with all the latest gadgets, a wide screen TV, plenty of DVD's to watch on their travels, and surrounded with the finest leather seating area that I've ever sat myself down on, in particular on a double-decker bus!
Bev: Good to see you again Mick and welcome back to Switzerland. How are you feeling after your overnight travels from London?
Mick: Yes…! It’s been good, I’m quite refreshed now. It's been quite hard as I left my hometown on Monday morning at 6am, so this is the first time I’ve had a really good sleep.
Bev: It must be really crazy, preparing yourself and packing up to go on tour for a month.
Mick: Well it’s weird, coz we’ve done it so many times. I can pack in ten minutes, I know exactly what I need and you know if I forget anything, I just pick it up on the road.
Bev: What about all your tour needs such as instruments and tour clothes etc?
Mick: Well, that’s one thing that I do well before. I prep well in advance, I make sure that my music is there, all my gadgets are there, all the things I’m gonna need while I’m away and my instruments are all cleaned and repaired. Clothes-wise, I don’t really care. Whatever I forget I just pick up on the road. I just spend most of my time in my PJ’s anyway!
Bev: You've been an established musician for many years now, when did it all begin for you?
Mick: Well I started off on the recorder when I was nine at primary school.
Bev: Did you start off with learning “London’s Burning”?
Mick: Hahaha... No I didn’t, I started off very classical with “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. Luckily my recorder teacher was the woodwind teacher, then at my secondary school my teacher was an ex professional. So both myself and Johnny (Thirkell) were lucky enough to be mentored and taught by ex-professionals
Bev: So both you and Johnny went to the same school together?
Mick: Yeah, we were school buddies. We’ve been in each-others pockets close on 40 years now. So our friendship goes back a long way and we used to live three miles away from each other.
Bev: So which part of the UK are you originally from?
Mick: I’m from Hartlepool, which is the north east of England and Johnny is from Horden (village in County Durham) which is an old colliery just outside Hartlepool.
Bev: So did you ever go into mining?
Mick: No not me, but Johnny was in mining yeah and I was a plumber as my dad wouldn’t let me become a professional musician.
Bev: What other instruments did you learn how to play?
Mick: They gave me a clarinet first and I couldn’t get a note out of that. I couldn’t get a note out of the flute either so then I picked up the saxophone then as soon as I got a squeak out of it, they said, "That’s it, you’re gonna be a saxophone player, no choice." At the time there were free lessons at school and we were lucky enough back then to have those professional teachers. They not just taught us the instruments, they taught us what the business would be like. So we had a really good musical upbringing.
Bev: Did you ever think at the time that one day you were going to make a career as a musician?
Mick: Well believe it or not, I was a bit of a sportsperson when I was younger! I was going to be a footballer to play for my local club. I had trials for five football teams and Manchester United being one of them. I didn’t make the grade. I was also a county rugby player, I was also a county Judo expert and a black-belt. But unfortunately I got kicked in the lip when I was fifteen years old and it split in half, so I couldn’t play the saxophone for six months, and that’s when I decided I couldn’t be without it!
Bev: What happened next?
Mick: Being without it made me realise that’s what I wanted to do, I was addicted and had the bug. So that’s when I packed in all the sport. I just said, “that's it” to sport and “I’m gonna become a professional musician”. So I came back 6 months later, tried to get into university, couldn’t get in because at the time when I was a teenager, it was a privilege thing and my parents were very working class and didn’t have the money to put me into university, so I ended up becoming a plumber and got a phone call three years into my apprenticeship, I must have been 19, to go on my first ever professional job. And that was to go on a cruise-liner as a musician, as a saxophone player.
Bev: So you were continuously playing in bands at the time?
Mick: Yeah again, me and Johnny were playing in this working mans club called, The Ayresome Quoit club in Middlesborough, which is maybe the worst place in the world. Even the seagulls fly upside down, you know the rest to that one!
Bev: You mean there was nothing below worth crapping on?
Mick: Middlesborough, it’s not great, but this working mans club had a seven piece dance band and our mentor used to play in that band and he would take us along to sit in with ex-professionals and get a feel of it. I was earning money from when I was 16 and we were doing it four nights a week. Then Johnny went off to university and then I got this call that was about to change my life to go and work on a cruise-liner. We then went our separate ways and that’s when I became a professional musician.
Bev: What happened after you served your time, so to speak on the cruise-liner?
Mick: When I came back to Hartlepool, I decided this is what I really wanted to do. I’ve got the bug, I was gonna become a professional musician. So I ended up working in a holiday camp for a whole season. Then it was London! You get that London bug and in any big city, that’s where it’s all happening. I went off to London when I was about 19 or 20 something like that and I found a band called Hollywood UK, a soul band but unfortunately they broke-up because the lead singer with the band joined another band called Heatwave. They were a famous band at the time and I was left on my own. So I stayed around London and tried to get my break. I went to every audition under the sun and eventually, I found my break with a guy called John Watts in his “Fisher-Z “ band. They were big over in mainland Europe actually with a song out called Berlin, which was a massive hit. So that was my first rock band as such and I kept on doing that for a while. Then I joined "Ian Dury and the Blockheads", we’re talking about 1981-82 then after that, for the next five years I got signed by CBS with a band called "Spear Of Destiny" and things just escalated from there and I moved on.
Bev: What about your musical influences growing up?
Mick: I was brought up on Jazz and big bands. So it was really really weird for me to diverse into the rock thing. I dunno though, I just liked the lifestyle that the rock-bands had. I loved the togetherness of the big band, you know twenty musicians making a sound together. But I like soloing, just being more of an individual and I liked being on my own, so the rock-bands gave me that.
Bev: Having diversified musically, has your musical influences changed too?
Mick: It’s gone back, "Big Bands" yeah. I now have my own twenty piece big band in Hartlepool called "Musicians Unlimited". I love teaching, I love giving back what I was given. I love doing that. So I do an awful lot of teaching. So now I have my own big band I just do what I want to do. I’m in a very privileged place to be, where I can pick and choose where I want to be.
Bev: What about if you were not a musician, would you go back to becoming a plumber?
Mick: No no, this is it…! I haven’t had any other job since I was nineteen.
Bev: What if you get a burst pipe or a water leak at home?
Mick: No, I buy it in. I buy a plumber and he will come and fix it for me. This is all I know, I don’t know anything else.
Bev: After "Spear Of Destiny" what other groups did you play with?
Mick: After them, I joined The Armoury Show who were signed to a record label. I was with Richard Jobson and The Skids, so I sort of kept in that punk era.
Bev: I remember Richard, wasn’t he also a journalist and TV presenter?
Mick: Yeah he was a journalist and became a model actually. He used to work for MTV a lot. Anyway, after he left the Armoury Show I joined them and it was all about being signed and I realised that I didn’t want to be signed anymore. I wanted to go and work for some other bands and people and did session work.
Bev: You must have had some very interesting hairstyles back in the day.
Mick: I did! I had some very interesting haircuts indeed. In fact I think my hair has been every colour under the sun. I looked like a skunk at one point, white on the top, black down the side, ponytail down my backside.I don’t even know what colour it is now!
Bev: And you obviously had the clothes to match, right?
Mick: Yep, yeah…I was a proper punk! I was best mates with all of the Sex Pistols and all of that crowd.
Bev: When you were in London, did you used to troop off down to the Kings Road and hang around Worlds End in Chelsea?
Mick: All the time. I used to live in Chelsea, hanging outside Worlds End. In fact Spear Of Destiny's, Kirk Brandon was best mates with Boy George and my first ever meeting with Kirk Brandon, was when I went to a sort of audition and they said, “right you’re in”. Then I went for a meal down the Kings Road with Kirk, their management and Boy George. See ,I didn’t know who Boy George was back then.
Bev: How did you manage to break-away from being in the bands and being signed to a record label?
Mick: It was mainly a thing called “The Session Connection” I think, they decided to take one of every instrument and they just happened to choose me as the sax player. They just use to fly me out anywhere to play.
Bev: So the leading question, how did you get the initial opportunity to work with Lisa?
Mick: Well myself and Johnny have worked with so many people together over the years, Swing Out sister, The Three Degrees and we used to do the Belgium Grammy awards together and there was Barry White, Kool And The Gang.
Bev: Wow, you’ve really worked with some incredible artists.
Mick: Oh, we’ve been very privileged to do so as well...! Johnny and I, we've been on tour together, we've known each-other and being in this confined space. You know only 50% of it is your play, and the other 50% is, "just make sure you get on". So with Lisa, it was just initially six gigs in London, club gigs, which was right at the beginning that you probably know as you came to some of those gigs. So Johnny said to me “ Listen Mick, Lisa wants to give it a go, do you fancy doing it for a while?” I said,“Yeah, yeah!” and here we are again two years later and an album down the road and a major European tour, it's been great and we’ve kept it going with the same band.
Bev: How do you deal with the pressures of being away from home and from your loved ones? Are you used to it after all these years?
Mick: It’s much easier now, coz we’ve got Skype, text, internet. That’s a “have to have”. You know we’re not youngsters anymore, when your dragged away on tour, we’re gonna have family back at home, we’re gonna have responsibilities, so wifi it’s almost a “have-to-have” at some point. There’s got to be some way that we need to get in touch and you never know whats gonna happen.
Bev: Tell us a little bit about your family?
Mick: I’m not married anymore, although I have a girlfriend of five years and I've two boys. One who is actually a professional trumpet player and he’s on the ships at the moment as he just left university. So he’s doing almost everything that I did, except for the university bit.
Bev: Who taught your son how to play the trumpet?
Mick: Some guy at school. His influence was pretty much "John Thirkell" and the funny thing is that he didn’t even know that I knew John, until one day I introduced him, "meet my mate John!"
Bev: Do you manage to find time to break away from the rest of the band and have your time when you’re on tour? If so what do you tend to do on your time off?
Mick: Well there are times where we all need a break, Lisa needs a break, her voice needs a break. You couldn’t do twenty-eight dates flat-out, no one can physically do that, although we probably can do that instrumentally. But she can’t do that with her voice and Andrea can’t either. So they have to take breaks. When Lisa has a break we have a day off, we get a hotel. Usually you find that we don’t see each other. We hole up in the hotel or we go out in pairs, or we’ll go and have a lunch or a few drinks. Usually we try to find a hotel that has somewhere where we can relax, a spa, swimming pool, jacuzzi, gym. I think we can keep fit that way. But to tell you the truth, this is the best way to keep fit anyway, it's when you’re on stage. The amount of perspiration that seeps out your body, with the light, its unbelievable. It’s so hot on stage and you know you’re we're on the move all the time and you know about mine and Johnny’s dancing….so we’re fit as a lop!
Bev: Tell us about the recording sessions that you did for the Lisa’s album?
Mick: It was brilliant! We did our bit, which was five tracks recorded in just two days.
Bev: I understand that you did some of the horn arrangements on with Johnny, such as "So Be It" which by the way, is my favourite track on the album.
Mick: Oh, that’s my favourite track as well. It is a superb song and it was from the very first time I heard it. And you know we never heard that song until we went into the studio. The song was written, the vocals were down and it just needed some brass to smooth it out even more. It was initially a much more aggressive song, not on the vocal side of it though.Then the flute and flugelhorn, baritone sax, tenor and trumpet, being that there is five or six layers of instruments on there, it sort of smoothed it all out and it just worked. And you know what, the whole album is just superb.
Bev: What was the atmosphere like in the studio? Did Lisa come in joke around and and blow kisses at you from behind the mixing deck?
Mick: Yeah, you know it was fantastic because the tracks were already done, Ian came in, he kind of put his ideas over, said “do you like that?” We’d go in, then do a track, he’d go “thank you very much” and then he'd disappear and just leave it to me and Johnny.
Bev: They both sound so easy to work with.
Mick: Yeah you know, when they find musicians they trust, they do trust them implicitly. That’s it, they just go “I’m happy with whatever you wanna do”.
Bev: Having personally seen every tour of Lisa's since 1990, there have been a number of changes with musicians along the way. However it seems to me, that this band have gelled really well together. Do you think that makes Lisa's job easier?
Mick: By a mile! Lisa knows everything… if she knows everything is to how she wants it, she’s just gonna walk into the band room, she doesn’t get anxious, she goes on and does a great show! She comes off stage and she’ll travel on the coach with us no problem, chat with us and have a glass of wine with us and everyones happy!
Bev: Would you say that she’s one of the most down to earth people you’ve worked with?
Mick: Oh yeah, totally! Absolutely…you know there’s some lovely people out there, but there’s an awful lot of people who you just couldn’t get that close to.
Bev: Do you feel like it’s become like a big family for you?
Mick: By a mile! When we finish the tour, I miss everyone but I always miss Johnny anyway. Yeah, every time we see each-other, it is like, “here we go again”
Bev: When you’ve not seen each-other for a while and then when you do get back together again, does it feel like getting back on a bike that you've not ridden for a while?
Mick: Yeah, as if we’ve never been away. It’s been funny recently as there’s been quite a bit of promo, but Lisa’s used different sort of combinations of instruments and musicians. Like Dave’s been away with Lisa doing promo' in Germany.Terry was brought in, walks straight in to do this TV show and they tell us we’re going to do a TV blog. Then myself and Terry who had never played the number together before with Lisa sat right between us. Terry has just fitted right in with us, he’s great! Everyone gets on…!
Bev: As far as this band is concerned, you've got your partner in crime, Johnny. However, do the others guys mix it up too, or do they tend to keep themselves to themselves?
Mick: You know what, the Italian mob the Davide's, they’re funny as, and you would also think that Andrea being the only girl in the band, that there might be some of that. But no, she's straight in there as everyone else is, everyone gets on great!
Bev: What do you have in store for the fans, can you give me a clue whats on the set-list?
Mick: It’s a longer set, not because it’s longer in time, but there’s more songs we’re talking about 20 or 21 songs. We’ve actually just put the set list together.We’ve got nearly all of the new album on there, I don’t think we’ve ditched anything, maybe one or two, and we’ve brought back in some of the really old ones as well, so its gonna be good. We’ve also really condensed it, we’ve made it a lot more segued, a lot more slicker.
Bev: Some new dance moves...?
Mick: Oh Bev... our feet will be a blur…!
Mick Donnelly was interviewed by - © Bev Nathan for www.lisastansfield.net on the European Tour of Seven -
Photos and video clip courtesy of Mick Donnelly and John Thirkell