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Dyan Birch 1949-2020

Dyan Birch was something special. Her presence on a stage drew the eye and the ear. And now she’s gone, leaving the memory of a soulful essence that was hers alone, however big or small the stage.

She was a teenager working in Brian Epstein’s NEMS record shop in Liverpool when she met the people who shared her love of soul music and with whom she would form the group Arrival: her fellow singers Frank Collins, Paddie McHugh and Carroll Carter. In 1969 they went to London, where they were signed by the Gunnell agency, who put them together with a keyboard player and singer called Tony O’Malley. They were managed by the savvy hipster Tony Hall, and they had chart hits with “Friends”, a Terry Reid song, and “I Will Survive”, written by Collins and arranged by Paul Buckmaster.

I met them en route to the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, in a helicopter chartered by Hall. They played on the Friday bill, which also included Taste, Tony Joe White, Chicago, Family, Procol Harum and the Voices of East Harlem. Curiously, although the festival was being filmed, no footage of their set survives.

Five years later Arrival were no more. Dyan, Frank, Paddie and Tony had been joined by the guitarists Neil Hubbard and Jim Mullen, the saxophonist Mel Collins, the bassist Alan Spenner, the drummer Terry Stannard and the percussionist Jody Linscott. Now they were known as Kokomo, and they became fixtures in London pubs and clubs from the Hope & Anchor in Islington to the Half Moon in Putney and Dingwalls in Camden. Their management was in the hands of Steve O’Rourke, who signed them to CBS.

Sadly, the reaction to their records never lived up to the promise of their live appearances. Here’s a beauty from Rise and Shine, their second album: “Without Me”, written by Dyan, Tony and Frank and produced by Brad Shapiro. Many, including me, believed them to be the best of all the British club and pub bands of the 1970s.

They were much in demand by other artists; you could hear the whole band, half-submerged among a couple of dozen musicians on Bob Dylan’s “Romance in Durango”, from Desire, and on Bryan Ferry’s In Your Mind. Here they are, minus only Hubbard, backing the singer and guitarist Bryn Haworth in 1975, on a track from his second Island album, Sunny Side of the Street; it’s always been a favourite of mine for the way it highlights the special vocal blend that Dyan, Frank and Paddie conjured with so little apparent effort.

Dyan was never a diva, but always a member of the band. There were serious health problems later in her life, affecting her ability to take a full part in the very welcome Kokomo reunions; the last time I saw her, at Richmond Athletic Club four or five years ago, she couldn’t complete the set, greatly to her distress. She always seemed like a lovely person. “Spread your wings,” she and the others sang with Bryn Haworth, “and fly right out of here.” And now she has.

* The photograph of Dyan Birch on stage with Kokomo at the 100 Club in 2014 was taken by Neil Holmes and is used by his kind permission.

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tim Adkin #

    Desperately sad news. An already bad year just got worse. My own favourite Dyan moment was hearing her sing Syreeta’s ‘ ‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers’ with Kokomo on a radio session around the time of their debut album (although it’s not on that record). I’ve only recently rediscovered Bryn Haworth’s brace of Island LPs and there are some real beauties on them – the track in question was a Johnny Walker Single of the Week back in late 1975 if memory serves. Off to play ‘Use Your Imagination’ and ‘I Can Understand It’ now….

    October 23, 2020
  2. Steve Hiurrell #

    That is very sad news. I too loved their live performances around many of London’s haunts in the 1970s. Kokomo had a joie de vivre amongst all their members, but especially the singers. RIP Dyan.

    October 23, 2020
  3. John L Pritchard #

    Very sad news. I saw Kokomo a couple of times in Manchester, including the “Naughty Rhythms” tour, supporting Dr Feelgood at the height of their powers. That was some night.

    October 23, 2020
    • Me too at Manchester Univesity and at The Palace with AWB, loved them then, still love ’em.
      Every member of the band was/were/are class.

      October 23, 2020
  4. Sandy Murray #

    Such sad news.Dyan was a joy to listen to,and so very much an inspiration to my soul singing.From Arrival to Kokomo. I was hoping to see her sing again,in full flow.Alas,she is spirited away.
    R.I.P.

    October 23, 2020
  5. Brent Cunliffe #

    Very sad news. Great live band. 2 underrated albums . I can picture them now steaming through “ I can understand it”. I had quite a crush on Dyan. It’s becoming another horrible year for musical obituaries.

    October 23, 2020
  6. Rob #

    Lovely piece Richard. So sad to hear of Dyan’s passing – Kokomo will always hold special memories for me.

    October 23, 2020
  7. Neil Poole #

    Such sad news Richard. I loved that band. Your’e spot-on – they were just the best live act around in their peak. We followed them all around London at the time after catching them first, as students in Bristol when they were on the Naughty Rhythms tour. Kokomo at the Rock Garden, New Year’s Eve a couple of years running … such lovely, sad memories.

    Thanks for the post. Neil Poole

    ________________________________

    October 23, 2020
  8. Peter Zec #

    Thank you for the generous appraisal of Dyan, Richard. Kokomo were one of my favourite bands of the mid-70s, and again in the latest incarnation. Some great nights at various venues, with the 3 singers clearly having a great time. Apparently, Jim Mullen famously protested when they all wore dresses on a sweltering night at The Marquee Club!
    Also, she was married to Alan Spenner, who pre-deceased her by many years. Last time I saw her was on a brief return to London at The Rock Garden with The Voice Squad (which I mentioned in Pub Rock thread), having taken my youngest sister with me, who was also a fan. It was great to get the re-issues of the 2 albums on CD, I sent a set to my sister, now in the USA. Great times, but sad news. RIP Dyan.

    October 23, 2020
    • Sedat Nemli #

      Re the “dresses” episode, wasn’t it Paddie who famously quipped that Jim was only upset because he had forgotten to bring along his own dress?

      October 23, 2020
  9. Sedat Nemli #

    Very, very sad news indeed. Was (and still am) a huge fan of Kokomo and always thought that the essence of Dyan’s wonderful talent was best captured on Neil Hubbard’s “Anytime” from their first album, a song on which she shared vocals with Tony O’Malley.

    October 23, 2020
  10. Sad news. I’d forgotten she’d sung BGVs on Bryn Haworth’s ‘Give All You’ve Got To Give’ – that was my introduction to his music when Johnnie Walker had it as his Record of the Week on Radio 1. Did Kokomo ever play on Radio 1 In Concert? It would be great if there were any live tapes around somewhere.

    October 23, 2020
    • Tim Adkin #

      Dave,

      Thanks for confirming that my memory wasn’t playing tricks about Bryn Haworth and Johnny Walker! Kokomo did play at least one Radio 1 In Concert – in early 1975 – which concluded with a version of ‘I Can Understand It’ which eclipses the recorded version on the debut album. There are also CDs out there of a1974 rehearsal tapes (‘To Be Cool’) and a Christmas 1975 gig. I’ve not heard either but the track listing is enticing. BW Tim

      October 23, 2020
      • Oh dear, I seem to have found my way to Discogs. 🙂

        On the Bryn Haworth question, I now have the pleasure of knowing Bryn and his wife Sally. I once mentioned ‘Give All You’ve Got To Give’ being Johnnie Walker’s Record of the Week and they’d completely forgotten!

        October 23, 2020
    • Alan #

      Hers I can Understand It from OGWT. Enjoy
      http://www.kokomo.band/video/i-can-understand-it-old-grey-whistle-test-may-1975/

      October 24, 2020
  11. Richard Galvin #

    As a young lad watching TOTP, I remember a beautiful singer with a powerful voice singing a song called ‘friends’ – it duly became my first 45 purchase.Little did I know I would later watch this captivating singer perform at various gigs both big ( Roundhouse, Naughty Rhythms ) and small ( Torrington Finchley,Black Swan Sheffield) not being able to take my eyes off the coolness of the Kokomo singers.RIP Dyan Birch.

    October 23, 2020
  12. stewart #

    An enduring memory is of the Kokomo singers shimmying across the stage at Birmingham Town Hall, arm in arm & kickin’…that’s how I’ll remember Dyan. RIP

    October 23, 2020
  13. Anne #

    Thanks, Richard, for celebrating Dyan and both bands but especially Kokomo. The soulful harmony between Dyan, Frankie and Paddie is the stuff of legend. I’ve seen them many times over the years but sadly missed her short participation in the more recent gigs. The albums still find their way onto my playlist.

    October 23, 2020
    • Phil Shaw #

      Soulful harmony…you nailed it, Anne. There’s a lot of love for Kokomo on here, and rightly so, but I first discovered Dyan in Arrival…that grown-out Mod feather-cut, that voice. Went to play some of their singles tonight and found I’d got Friends twice with different b-sides. That’s how much I liked it. RIP

      October 23, 2020
  14. I had never heard of Dyan or any of her musical collaborations. I love the song “Without Me” and just watched the “Friends” performance on TOTP via YouTube. Thank you for introducing me to some lovely new music — Dyan’s voice and spirit lives on in her recordings and videos.

    October 23, 2020
  15. GuitarSlinger #

    Sigh …another one …. so what a y’all say we just write 2020 off as a total loss …. call it a day ( year ) and hope for some positive changes to come our way .. preferably much sooner than later … sigh ….

    October 23, 2020
  16. Joachim Kettner #

    RIP Dyan Birch. thanks for the orbit, Richard.

    October 24, 2020
  17. “The Kokomo Singers”..Twas great to have all of ’em all on two of our albums R.I.P Dyan.
    Great words…Richard

    October 24, 2020
  18. John Wood #

    Two sad posts Richard, Dyan Birchand Keith Jarrett; after Eberhard Weber the second of ECM’s oldtimers to have his career ended by a stroke. I can’t rermember Kokomo ever playing in Liverpool where I lived at the time; first heard of them through the MM and Street Life, a great publication, UK’s answer to Rolling Stone. It was a massive disappointment when Street Life folded; I’Ll never forget Roy Harper’s article on cricket….Peter Lever’s bowling boots etc.

    October 26, 2020

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