Of 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.