Smilin' the Blues Away
Jonathan Wingate discovers that after all these years Jools Holland’s energy and effervescent enthusiasm for a life in music remain undimmed
By Jonathan Wingate
July 4 2023
Sitting in a luxurious leather club chair inside Boisdale’s walk-in humidor at Boisdale of Canary Wharf, two hours shy of showtime, Jools Holland has just finished his soundcheck for his annual Boogie Woogie & Blues Spectacular. With a couple of hundred champagne- quaffing fans milling about outside and the heady pre-show atmosphere slowly intensifying, this is the calm before the rock’n’roll storm erupts upstairs. You may not be surprised to hear that it takes a lot to shut up Jools Holland, but he takes a rare pause for thought when asked to define boogie woogie’s enduring appeal.
“Charlie Watts said everything begins with boogie woogie,” he finally replies. “Two of the boogie-ists we’ve got here tonight are Axel Zwingenberger and Ben Waters. They had a band with Charlie called The ABC & D of Boogie Woogie. I used to do shows with them. Boogie woogie was the beginning of rock’n’roll. It’s a very deep vein to plug into. People like Amos Milburn, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Fats Domino had been listening to boogie woogie when they were kids and transported it into their rock’n’roll music, so that’s where it all starts.
“The great thing about boogie woogie is that there’s a complexity and a simplicity to it at the same time. As a musician you want great technique and a great feel, but getting the feel right is like looking for the Holy Grail or trying to catch lightning in a bottle. That’s what we’ll be doing here tonight. You’re trying to capture that moment. We’re in with a good chance because we’ve got some of the best people here. When it’s done really well it’s fantastic, and when it’s done badly it’s still pretty good. It’s like Bach in that respect.”
Jools Holland’s parents met dancing to Humphrey Lyttleton at the 100 Club in London, and his earliest musical memory is of his mother playing Jelly Roll Morton songs on the family piano.
The young Julian Holland had little interest in school, preferring instead to play the piano whenever he could. It was a working-class upbringing and money was tight. He would have a bath once a week at his Nan’s house, saved every penny to buy records, and playtime was spent scampering around the bombsites that still scarred southeast London.
“When I was about eight, I heard my uncle playing a boogie woogie version of St. Louis Blues and I was immediately obsessed,” he beams. “Literally the chaos of the universe became ordered and I knew what I had to do. He showed me what he was doing and I drove everybody mad playing that one piece of music for a year. Our neighbours must have hated me. My father could see that I had a gift for playing piano. Although my parents didn’t have any money, they managed to send me to some lessons. I didn’t really stick with it because they were trying to teach me The Dance of the Pixies and I’d already started playing boogie, which seemed much more exciting.
“I’d been given this record token, so my father told me to goto a jazz shop in Soho called Dobells. I got on a 53 bus wearing my shorts, long socks, open sandals, cap and cardigan and went skipping off through the streets of Soho past the doorways of beckoning sin. I went in and said, “I’d like to buy a boogie woogie record.” They gave me a pile of records that I took into the listening booth and I played every one. The shop was about to close, so I selected an LP with Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Jimmy Yancey, who were the godfathers of boogie woogie. I took it home and got a bewildering sense of being lifted up and excited.”
Whether he’s talking about vintage cars, his 100ft model railway or the new series of Later… With Jools Holland, he exudes a Tiggerish enthusiasm that’s impossible to resist. He credits his mother, June, for his positive outlook on life.
In his 2007 autobiography, Barefaced Lies and Boogie Woogie Boasts, he recalls that she was once flung off the back of a motorbike. The first thought that came into her head was that she was happy she might get a day off work following the accident.
“I think the joy of music is that you are able to communicate your feelings without using the blunt instruments that we call words,” he grins. “Whether it’s Beethoven, boogie woogie, the blues or the Beatles, all music is about feeling. When you play it has an effect on people, so you see them getting excited. Not many artforms have that. If you go round an art gallery, listen to poetry, or watch a film – marvelous, beautiful things that they are – they don’t have the physical effect that music has. You’re sort of mystified by music. It’s an enigma. Music lifts you up, so I think it keeps you young.
“If you really want to get into the roots of boogie woogie, it’s a phrase that denotes a dance or some sort of amorous behaviour. Then Pinetop Smith made it a dance sensation that swept the nation in 1928. Boogie is coming out of the heart a bit more than the head, and because it’s the grandfather of rock’n’roll, it’s got that same excitement to it. Whether it’s my uncle playing it in my Nan’s front room in Greenwich in 1965, a little shed in Memphis, or here in Boisdale, boogie woogie lifts you up and makes you want to dance. It’s old but sexy – like me!”
Now 65, he is no longer the skinny young man who somehow shifted from pop stardom with the band, Squeeze, to TV presenting for Channel 4’s The Tube before eventually launching the BBC’s flagship music show, Later… With Jools Holland in 1992.
With his winning combination of ready charm, casual wit and chutzpah, he has been a constant presence on our screens for more than 40 years, which perhaps partly explains why in certain circles he is sometimes not taken as seriously as he should be as a musician. Having performed with everyone from Paul McCartney and George Harrison through to Robert Plant and Bono, it’s probably easier to list the legendary names he hasn’t worked with than those he has.
When it comes to the question of the greatest rock’n’roll piano players, some people will rightly mention Little Richard or Fats Domino, Dr John or Jerry Lee Lewis. Whichever names are proposed, every last one of them has to reckon with the unmistakable talents of Jools Holland, who somehow manages to blur the boundaries between boogie woogie, rock’n’roll, rhythm and blues and pretty much every other genre you can think of.
“That’s the best thing that anybody can say, because any musician wants to sound like themselves. What I do is a mash-up of all these different musical genres. One of Squeeze’s first hits was a punk record where I played this little piano figure that I’d learned off this old stride pianist who used to play like Fats Waller in a pub in Greenwich. A reviewer said, “With these riffs, Jools Holland has invented punk piano.” I was so touched, but I’d nicked it off Fats Waller and transposed it onto a punk record. Whether you’re the greatest classical composer or the most modern rapper, nothing comes from nothing. You’ve got to be inspired by the things that have come before you.
“The first session I played on was with Wayne County and the Electric Chairs… a seminal punk record called Fuck Off,” he chuckles. “A very happy memory. Although we weren’t really punks, Squeeze identified with punk because it was a time when you could do things yourself and you couldn’t care less. I think boogie woogie and the blues had that same attitude that punk had. You can like me or dislike me, but this is me. With a lot of other music there was a certain need to be liked.”
Jools has been Boisdale’s Patron of Music since 2011, a role he relishes mainly because he loves its atmosphere as much as its ethos: “It’s a fantastic place to play,” he smiles, as our time together comes to a close. “Boisdale is not dissimilar to one of those great places like New York’s Café Society in the 1930s where people forgot where they were from and just enjoyed being together. It’s got the music and the atmosphere of a place that’s alive with a little echo of somewhere you might have walked into in New York or Chicago in 1947, if you’d been really lucky. On top of all that, Boisdale has a much better wine list than you ever would have got in Chicago in 1947.”
Visit boisdale.co.uk for tickets to The Boisdale Music Awards (20 September 2023), hosted by Jools, and hear him play at Jools Holland’s Boogie Woogie & Blues Spectacular (24 April 2024).