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The groove abides

Tony O'MalleyOf all the British bands I went out to hear during my time as an A&R man in the mid-1970s, the one I really ached to sign was Kokomo, a 10-piece soul outfit who played the clubs at the time when pub rock was about to give way to punk rock. Unhappily for me, they had already fallen into the clutches of Steve O’Rourke, Pink Floyd’s manager, who secured them the sort of deal with CBS, a major label, that must have looked like a guarantee of fame and fortune. My souvenir of the nights I heard them play is a cassette tape that includes a live recording of their sublime version of Bobby Womack’s “I Can Understand It”, a great song to which they always did justice.

The tape captures them in their full glory: Tony O’Malley playing keyboards and singing lead, Dyan Birch, Frank Collins and Paddy McHugh singing back-up, Mel Collins on saxophones, Jim Mullen and Neil Hubbard on guitars, Alan Spenner on bass, Terry Stannard on drums and Jody Linscott on congas. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I went to see three of them — O’Malley, Collins and Hubbard — at the 606 Club in a Chelsea basement the other night. I don’t believe in making requests because I think that musicians should be allowed to play exactly what they most feel like playing, but I had my fingers crossed that, almost 40 years later, Womack’s song would still be in the repertoire.

The first reassurance was that, reunited on this occasion under O’Malley’s leadership, the three of them retain all the qualities that made them outstanding almost 40 years ago. The brilliant Collins does the Texas tenor thing, when the circumstances are appropriate, so convincingly that you wouldn’t be surprised if his passport gave his place of birth as Fort Worth rather than the Isle of Man. Hubbard brings the understated soulfulness of Cornell Dupree to any band he’s in. And O’Malley’s lovely warm-hearted Ray Charles growl makes him one of the great blue-eyed soul singers. With Jennifer Maidman on bass guitar and Brad Webb on drums, they blew up a storm.

And, to my joy, they did “I Can’t Understand It”, giving it full value. If you want a taste of it, here and here are clips of a Kokomo reunion at the Sheen Club in Barnes five years ago, Parts 1 & 2 of that very song. And here is a version with a slightly different band at the 606 a year later. You don’t quite get the impact of the way they sounded amid the steaming ambience of the Hope & Anchor on a hot night in 1974, but you get the idea. And, as I was shown on Friday night, the groove abides.

* The photograph of Tony O’Malley, Brad Webb, Jennifer Maidment and Neil Hubbard was taken by Graham Webb, to whom many thanks.

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Many of your postings, Richard, are far too esoteric for me..(there’s a surprise!), but this one rings a major bell. My wife worked for Tony Hall for several years in the late 60’s/early 70’s and Arrival was one of Tony’s major successes in that period (apart from his royalty slices of Joe Cocker and Black Sabbath). As a result she in particular knew Tony, Paddy, Frank & Diane really well, and dragged me off to see them at various London venues and at various ungodly hours of the night. She’d married me and left Tony by the time they morphed into Kokomo, and as you say, the talent never re-turned into success. So I am delighted they are all still alive and still playing occasionally…and, if the 2008 clip is any guide, still sounding very good indeed.

    December 19, 2013
  2. Steve Hurrell #

    I am so envious, as I have exactly the same feeling towards Kokomo, although all I have is memories of Dingwalls in particular. I’d found the clips already but the 606 one is a real bonus. Thanks for reminding me again of a GREAT British band.

    December 19, 2013
  3. Ah, Richard! You have really struck gold for me with this piece. I always loved Kokomo – It was ‘Kitty sittin’ Pretty’ that drew me in – some of the finest syncopation and white-boy groove I’d ever heard, and , after buying both of their albums and travelling from my native Derby to Glasgow to see them following the release of ‘Rise n Shine’, I became convinced that this group of musicians rivalled the hallowed collection that passed through the ranks of Steely Dan in the 70’s. What a joy to see the core of this band still out there doing it. I will be making efforts to check them out when I come over to the UK next.

    December 19, 2013
  4. I loved that band. I don’t know how many times I saw Kokomo in their pomp but I don’t remember ever seeing a duff show. They were gloriously funky and genuinely seemed to be having as good a time as the audience (my teenage crush on both Dyan Birch and Jody Linscott didn’t hurt, either).
    I’m Sorry Babe was a particular favourite and I still use for it DJing from time to time (it sits particularly well next to prime Meters I find).
    I saw Jennifer Maidman for the first time earlier this year with, the still extraordinary and equally under appreciated, Terry Reid, and she is quite a player.
    Thanks as always Richard. The next best thing to being there …

    December 19, 2013
  5. stewart #

    I was lucky enough to see Kokomo in their heyday, a fantastic live act. It’s so good that the spirit lives on, with Mr O’Malley regularly recreating the groove, with a mix of original members & other gifted musicians, who always seem to thoroughly enjoy the experience..

    Mr Hubbard is just the sweetest guitarist, and a perfect gentleman to boot.

    I count myself lucky that I am able to catch these guys a couple of times a year, at great local venues, but surely they deserve a wider audience. Is it too much to hope for the surviving members to engineer a revival? There’s a growing groundswell…….

    December 19, 2013
  6. Chris C #

    I saw them at the Bottom Line in NY and they were fantastic, especially McNally – but missing out on signing them may have been a blessing in disguise for offstage a more drunken, disorganized, belligerent bunch of rabble rousers I have yet to meet. My mate Glen Colson was their tour manager, and I think I’m right in saying this was the period when his hair started to turn white.

    December 20, 2013
  7. those hope & anchor weekends seeing kokomo are some of my fondest musical memories, too. there were nights we’d leave the hope saying “no matter what happens in the (musical) future, it won’t get much better than this.” spenner and mullen were just incredible.

    December 20, 2013
  8. I am so pleased to read your blog and the great comments too. Being rather sad, I set up a Facebook group, Bring Back Kokomo, a few years ago as a bit of fun, to see how many others out there loved the groove that this band generated. There are over 300 members and it would be great if you and others could join us. Sadly I never managed to Kokomo them play live – hence the motivation to set up the FB group – but I’ve had the privilege of hearing Tony O’Malley and friends (who I dub Half a Kokomo) do their wonderful thing, in my case as a trio (Tony, Jennifer and drummer Andy Treacey) at a pub in Abergavenny on an autumnal Sunday afternoon. Bliss, absolute bliss.

    December 23, 2013
  9. richard galvin #

    from roots around the world website…

    KOKOMO TO REFORM

    Roots Around the World is delighted to announce that 8 original members of 70’s most revered and respected British Soul pioneers – KOKOMO, whose line-up reads like pages from Who’s Who in British Music, are reuniting for a series of festival and gig dates in August/September 2014.

    KOKOMO will be headlining Richmond Fine Food & Real Ale Festival, Old Deer Park, Surrey, on Sunday 24 August (Bank Holiday weekend).

    The line-up: Tony O’Malley (vocals/keys), Frank Collins (vocals), Paddie McHugh (vocals), Dyan Birch (vocals), Neil Hubbard (guitar), Jim Mullen (guitar), Mel Collins (sax), Jody Linscott (congas), drums and bass to be confirmed.

    February 22, 2014
    • What marvellous news — not least because Old Deer Park is only a 15-minute walk away…

      February 22, 2014
      • We will be there – only 30 minutes by car from us.

        February 22, 2014
  10. richard galvin #

    Kokomo reunion dates 2014

    Thursday 21 August
    St John’s Church
    Farncombe, Nr Godalming
    GU7 3EJ
    Box office: 01483 421520 / 07769 592452

    Sunday 24 August
    Richmond Fine Food & Real Ale Festival
    Old Deer Park, Richmond-Upon-Thames, Surrey

    Wednesday 27 August
    100 Club
    100 Oxford Street, London
    W1D 1LL

    Thursday 28 August
    The Half Moon
    93 Lower Richmond Rd, Putney, London
    SW15 1EU

    Friday 29 August
    The Brook
    466 Portswood Road, Portswood, Southampton SO17 3SD
    Box Office: 1pm-7pm-Mon-Sat (023) 8055 5366

    Saturday 30 August
    Weyfest Music Festival
    Reeds Road, Tilford, Farnham, Surrey,
    GU10 2DL

    March 31, 2014

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