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.