You can’t interview Charlie without a steady stream of name-dropping – his long and winding career is a musical tour through 40 years of popular culture
Charlie North-Lewis was working at BAFTA when he decided it was time to go back to his roots and look for a theatre job.
‘I just happened to see the advert for the Tivoli. It said “Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne, Dorset, is looking for a general manager.” I’m sure it said something along the lines of knowledge of the area useful or helpful or something. And I just thought, well, I went to school in Dorset so that’ll do.’
I came for the interview, but genuinely didn’t expect to hear back from them. I got a phone call, though, and the first thing that was said was: “We don’t think we can afford you. How much do you want to be paid?’
It was higher than they were hoping (but it wasn’t all that high!), so I wished them well and told them to let me know how they got on. Why I said that I’ve no idea. Six weeks later the Tivoli called me back …
There’s incredible community support for the Tivoli. From the box office staff, the people who you buy the tickets from, the front of house staff, the bartenders, the ushers … they are all volunteers.
I’ve never thought about my career as being particularly exciting. It’s just what I do. But then I talk to other people, they moan about only ever working in an office for however long, and I think … you know, I’ve actually been pretty lucky.
A life in music
And so to Charlie’s eight music choices, in no particular order, along with how and why they have stuck in his life:
Nat King Cole
Unbelievably, this is a memory from 40 years ago this year. I was living in Toronto (my first wife was Canadian), and my son James was born in the city’s North York General Hospital. Funnily enough we had an English doctor. Dr. Peridot was his name. I remember going into the delivery room with all the gear on, you know, and he just strode in, eating a sandwich! He put the radio on, and there was Nat King Cole singing Ramblin’ Rose.
It was playing when my son James was born.
It was a close call on my Nat King Cole choice, though. In the late 80s I was in Toronto and saw The Profumo Affair. One of the songs in the film was Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer. Watching the 60s movie, hearing that song, I was taken straight back to my childhood. For some reason, it always makes me think of my parents’ front garden, I have no idea why. Hearing it brings me the scent of an early summer day and the waft of gin and tonic and freshly lit cigarettes because they were having one of their drinks parties or something.
My first marriage broke down and I came back to England in 1997. A job at BAFTA came up and I just applied for it. I got a letter almost by return asking me to come in for an interview (on the way to which I wrote my car off, which is a whole other story). Anyway, I got the job! One of the first things I was asked to do was to revamp BAFTA’s banqueting area in honour of Sir David Lean, the film director. I was hunting for the right production stills from Dr Zhivago, and someone told me to call a place in Camden called the Cabal Collection. I ended up speaking to a lovely voice on the end of the phone.
I’ve no idea quite why I said it, but I alluded to the fact that she must be quite glamorous. I discovered she was Australian (she didn’t sound Australian at all) when I met her the next day – I was so enchanted by her.
She came and saw a film at BAFTA with me and we got married exactly a year later!
I was actually half an hour late to my own wedding because I misjudged how long it would take me to get there.
Fiona had been playing me this song, saying it was one of her favourites and that she wanted it at her funeral. It’s a special song – sad, but the lyrics are beautiful.
It’s about the end of the small, rural communities and small towns, how they’ve been gobbled up. It’s a really lovely song.
For A Dancer
To be honest, I just think this is one of the best songs ever written. That’s it.
I just absolutely love it.
There are several versions of it, but for me the best is on a double CD called Looking Into You, a Tribute to Jackson Browne. It’s his song, but it’s sung by a group called Venice. Of all the versions I’ve heard, this is it.
It’s a song about death. Or rather, some people have interpreted it as being a song about death.
I just think the lyrics are amazing.
Best singer ever. Bar none. He’s been my favourite for decades. In my opinion, Chris Farlowe and Steve Marriott are two of the greatest vocalists this country’s ever produced for British R&B and British soul.
Paul Rogers is another one, actually. And Rod Stewart – if you listen to early Rod Stewart with the Jeff Beck Group he’s phenomenal. And with the Faces. Him and Farlowe and Marriott – you can’t touch them.
Chris Farlowe was the first act I ever booked for the Tivoli, beginning a long association which still continues. He’s back with Colosseum later in May and hopefully in his own right later this year.
Stray Cat Strut
I worked for a concert merchandise company in London after I’d been the in-house sound engineer at Blazes Club in Windsor. Through that job I knew the man who was Andy Williams’ sound engineer (whose wife is Elkie Brooks). On the second time that Andy Williams played at Blazers, in 1981, I asked Trevor to let me know if he heard of any jobs going – I’d seen my future as a sound engineer. About two weeks later I got a phone call from the production manager: “Do you want to go to Europe with Nils Lofgren?” I said yes, and he said “Good, you’ll be doing the merchandising”. I protested that I was a sound engineer. He said: “Take the job. You’ll get paid more than you earn now, you get all your expenses, you’ll travel and you’ll meet people that can be very useful to you.”
He was so right.
It became a Rick Wakeman tour instead. Then I went straight on a Steve Harley tour, which had two London dates, during which my boss abruptly said ‘I’m taking you off this tour’. I thought I’d done something wrong! But no, turned out I was going to Bristol with the Stray Cats.
In 1981 we had the worst winter we’d had for 20 years. The snow was appalling and we were ordered out of our vehicles on the M4 because of the snow. We never even got to Chippenham (it wasn’t Bristol after all). So the first gig I actually did with them was in Brighton and I just loved them. It’s the type of music I really like, rockabilly. Apart from the Rolling Stones, the Stray Cats are my favorite band.
It’s strange, touring. You get ten days into a tour and think ‘Oh God, there’s another month to go.’ Because, you know, you don’t get many days off, it’s constant. But then as soon as you come home, you can’t wait to go out again. I did enjoy it … there was only one I really didn’t enjoy. That was my second tour with Kid Creole, but I loved the first.
I was doing a tour with Rose Royce at the time, and worked out with my manager that the two tours didn’t clash, so I could manage them both. I loved it. It was like a family on tour. I had a short break in Canada while my first wife and I got married, and then I was put on this second three-month tour with Kid Creole. It was relentless – just too many dates, no time off, my grandmother died when I was in Germany … I just didn’t enjoy it. I came back and did a tour of France with Murray Head. Then I was taken off that to do a Pat Benatar tour, joined up with my mate Derek and we did a load of tours together. And then I toured with Tears for Fears. And then I moved to Canada!
I just think this is one of their best songs, actually. It was that or a song called Dead Flowers, which I absolutely love, a country song, really, and Mick Jagger sort of does a Johnny Cash voice.
But Gimme Shelter – I just think it’s a powerful song.
The Stones in concert will have a guest vocalist who will come on and sing it with them; I’ve seen them do it with their former backing singer Lisa Fisher, who has one of the best voices. She was the greatest companion vocalist on the song with Mick Jagger. It’s not a terribly nice song, in terms of what it’s about. But it’s just fantastic.
The Small Faces
I think this is one of The Small Faces’ greatest songs. And it just showcases Steve Marriott’s voice brilliantly. I was a fan of his, through The Small Faces and then in Humble Pie – I saw Humble Pie at Oxford Poly. I was just completely blown away by them. But then The Small Faces reformed in about 1976, and I went and saw them at the New Theatre in Oxford. I expected it to be packed – it wasn’t and I couldn’t understand it!
I was just really glad I saw them. Sadly, Ronnie Lane had left them at that point, but all the others were part of it. Marriott’s just one of the greatest vocalists ever.
Hymn for My Soul
Andy Fairweather Low
Andy Fairweather Low is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. He’s got no side to him at all. You can sit and have long chats with him about all sorts of things, he’s great company. I think he’s one of the most unsung heroes – a lot of people don’t realise exactly what he’s done in his life. I mean, he was a pop star in the 60s with Amen Corner. And then he had quite a bit of solo success. And then he ended up becoming a sideman. He was with Eric Clapton for years, he was with Roger Waters for years. And he’s played with all sorts of other people on their records and as a sideman.
In about 2008 that he, Dave Bronze who was Eric Clapton’s bass player, and Chris Stainton, who was Clapton’s keyboard player, would just go out on tour. They played the Tivoli, and I was just blown away by it. What a nice man. He’s been a regular visitor to us almost every year since, until COVID messed things up. I’m hoping he’ll be back soon. I chose his Hymn For My Soul just because of the lyrics.
A book for a castaway
It would be a John Mortimer, but I’m cheating. I cannot decide between Paradise Postponed or the complete Rumpole stories. In Toronto I went to An Evening With John Mortimer. I took my copy of Paradise Postponed and some of my Rumpole books, and he signed them. It was almost as good as seeing the Stones in concert. Not quite, because nothing’s that good.
But it was amazing.
I love Rumpole. In terms of heroes, if one can have a fictional hero, mine would be Horace Rumpole. I want to say he’s the Lenny Bruce of the legal system, but he wasn’t a heroin addict. And he didn’t swear in court. But he just wanted the truth. Rumpole’s thing is the truth. There’s a great documentary about Lenny Bruce called Swear To Tell The Truth (I actually have it tattooed on my arm). Truth is Rumpole’s whole thing. Plus he’s totally irreverent. Another reason why I think he’s really cool.
A luxury item?
My guitar. Well. One of my guitars. I have too many. I won’t say how many in case my wife sees it. The thing is I keep saying ‘right, I haven’t played that one for ages. I’m just gonna sell it’. And then I pick it up to put it in its case. And then I think ‘oh, actually, maybe I won’t sell it’.
I need to be very strict with myself. So yeah, I would take an acoustic guitar, obviously, because there’d be no electricity.
One to keep?
And if a giant wave was coming, and there was only time to snatch one record, which would Charlie save from the water?
‘It would probably have to be Gimme Shelter. I think … maybe … that or Our Town.
It’s so difficult to choose!
*Wimborne’s Art Deco Tivoli
Click to listen to Charlie’s playlist on YouTube
*Tracie’s full interview with Charlie will be included with the May BV podcasts – don’t miss it, we couldn’t include half the stories Charlie shared.