The Real Thing: getting by on luck – and talent
No matter how talented you are, you need a fair amount of luck if you’re to succeed in the music business. And Chris Amoo, a founder of pioneering, million-selling soul and funk band The Real Thing who are best known for their massive hit You To Me Are Everything, knows that well.
During our chat about his career and the band’s upcoming gig in Chesterfield he mentions three times that fortune has played a large part in their becoming the longest-established black group in the history of UK entertainment.
The Real Thing were formed in 1972. As soon as legendary manager Tony Hall saw them he signed them up. Within days they became the first all-black group to appear on a television talent show. Viewers loved them and they won Opportunity Knocks by a huge margin.
They toured extensively with David Essex and sang backing vocals on his album All The Fun Of The Fair.
Producer Jeff Wayne got them to sing on the soundtrack of his concept album War Of The Worlds, with Chris taking lead vocals on Forever Autumn. But bad luck – before the album was released Wayne changed record companies and Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues was asked to sing the track which went on to reach number five on the UK singles chart.The Real Thing struggled for chart success until songwriters Ken Gold and Michael Denne wrote You To Me Are Everything for them. Their luck changed: they were the first all-black UK group to have a number one hit. It stayed at the top for three weeks and sold an incredible 30,000 copies a day.
They followed that with Can’t Get By Without You which got to number two in the charts and later Can You Feel The Force which helped to establish them as Britain’s best-selling black band of all time.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” says Chris who speaks in a pronounced Liverpool accent. “You always need luck in this business. It’s right place right time.”
As well as maintaining he’s “extremely lucky” to have achieved success, Chris took time out to explain how the music industry has changed over the past half century – and how he became a champion dog breeder.
Can he believe the band is still going after all these years?
“This business isn’t easy – it never has been. That’s what makes it so fascinating.”
“We were never going to do anything else, to be quite honest with you. You never know how long a career like ours is going to last. A lot of it depends on (a) the success you have and (b) the passion you’ve got for what you’re doing.”
Chris who is 70 obviously has passion for what he does. He says things haven’t got harder as he’s got older – it’s always been tough.
“This business isn’t easy – it never has been. That’s what makes it so fascinating. You’ve always got to be at the top of your game because if you’re not you get found out. And when you get found out your career doesn’t last that long.”
Chris and another original member Dave Smith have been together for more than 50 years and still love being on the road.
Anyone who goes to see them at the Winding Wheel will hear all their hits because “there’s always going to be a sense of nostalgia about our music. It’s the soundtrack to so many people’s lives and that will never die.”
The Real Thing will also be performing songs from A Brand New Day which was released last year – their first new album of original material in more than 40 years.
Chris wrote most of the songs and revisited some old tracks including Children Of The Ghetto which he brought up to date. He points out that it’s become a lot easier to make records these days.
“You used to have to go to London or go into a studio to record. I can now do it all at home. Because of technology, all our musicians can send their parts to me, I can listen to them and suggest changes. Then when we’ve got the whole product it can be mixed and fine-tuned at home.
“This is one of the most fantastic things that’s happened in the business because it means even if there’s no record company interested, you can still record your product and you’ve got a platform in which to get that product played.”Social media now plays a crucial part in marketing records – but Chris points out one of the disadvantages.
“We wanted to be able to sell A Brand New Day physically on Amazon and they refused to sell it. It made the download charts but they wouldn’t sell CDs. Speaking to a lot of people who do this type of thing, we discovered that since the pandemic Amazon are cutting down on this. They’re dealing mainly with larger companies who can give them good deals and discounts. When you do it on a small scale like us, you can’t do that.
“Basically we just keep ourselves busy. We absolutely love doing it.”
“A lot of people who dig Real Thing songs aren’t necessarily the people who are that much into social media, which is a younger thing. But at least the platform’s there. We got our album out and a lot of people heard it. We got a lot of television because of it. Happy days.”
Speaking of television, Chris reveals there’s been increased interest since a documentary about the band was released in 2020. It’s called Everything – The Real Thing Story. It was shown on the BBC and Netflix. It recounts how four lads from Liverpool, “dubbed ‘the black Beatles’ by the British tabloids”, went “from the tough streets of Toxteth to the bright lights of New York”.
“We’re hoping that the film is going to be shown in Showcase Cinemas,” says Chris. “It was just about to go into that chain when the pandemic happened. It’s also been released in Europe so we’re going to be going over there doing a lot of promotion.
“Basically we just keep ourselves busy. We absolutely love doing it.”
Chris is looking forward to returning to Chesterfield and has fond memories of playing the old Aquarius club in the town many years ago: “We used to work there quite a lot. It was a cabaret place and also a disco. Everybody would be dancing all night. We had a great time.”
Some people may know Chris from his other passion: dog breeding. In 1987 his Afghan Hound, Viscount Grant, won best in show at Crufts. This year his Irish Wolfhound, Paris, won the Hound group at Crufts but wasn’t able to take the top dog title in the final.
“It’s a fantastic hobby for me because it takes me away from the music business and everything else. It’s just so different. I find it very relaxing.”
Chris and his wife Julie had Afghans for more than 30 years but found it took too much time to care for them.
So, the big question: would Chris prefer to have another number one single or have his dog win Crufts?
“A number one hit single. Music’s my first love, so that’s what I would want. Having a number one hit changes your life. Having a best in show at Crufts is fantastic for the moment.
“He (brother Eddy) could never be replaced, which is why we never tried to replace him.”
“Let’s be totally honest: how many people show dogs and how many achieve best in show at Crufts? It’s almost impossible. But then it’s almost impossible to have a number one hit. We’ve been very fortunate.”
The only regret Chris has is that the band’s manager Tony Hall and two original members of the Real Thing are no longer alive. Ray Lake died in 2000 aged 48 from a drugs overdose while Chris’s brother Eddy passed away suddenly in 2018 aged 74.
Chris says it was very difficult being in the band without Eddy: “He could never be replaced, which is why we never tried to replace him.”
The Real Thing, though, says Chris, will continue for as long as possible: “We’ll keep going as long as we love it and as long as people love us.”
- The Real Thing will be at the Winding Wheel, Chesterfield on Friday 17th November
* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine