I can remember well buying Chris Rea’s first record Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? back in 1978, after reading an article in the now defunct, Melody Maker magazine who described him at the time as England’s answer to Bruce Springsteen . I can remember going to Savin’s in Limerick which was one of seven record shops we had in the city.
To my great surprise they had a copy of the record and this was the beginning of a forty year music affair with the man from Middlesbrough which continues right up to this day.
He can best be described as a rock balladeer whose best songs dwell on his North –East England roots, Rea made his greatest impact in Ireland , Germany, and Britain in the mid – eighties.
From an Italian-Irish background, slide guitarist Rea did not take up the instrument until the age of twenty two. His earliest influences were Joe Walsh and Ry Cooder and in 1975 he joined a local rock band called Magdalene, which at one point included vocalist David Coverdale, later leader of Whitesnake.
It was only after the band changed their name to Beautiful Losers that Rea would see progress; the band won a Melody Maker contest with some of his songs.
By that time, Rea had signed a solo recording contract with Michael Levy’s Magnet, the label which launched Alvin Stardust’s career. Produced by Gus Dudgeon, his first album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? included the big ballad ‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’ which became a hit in the United States in 1978. This would help get him noticed in the UK press. The song would become a Top Twenty Hit for Elkie Brooks again in 1982 which would bring further notoriety to the Chris Rea stable.
His album Deltics in 1979 included keyboards players Rod Argent formerly of the Zombies and Pete Wingfield among the backing musicians but despite the minor hit ‘Diamonds’ in 1979, neither it or the follow up album Tennis sold well.
The next album, the Jon Kelly-produced Chris Rea in 1982 included former Jeff Beck sideman Max Middleton on keyboards. He would become a mainstay of Rea’s touring band, which also included a number of Irish musicians, namely Eoghan O’Neill on bass and Anto Drenann on lead guitar. They would also become key members of his touring band over the next five years, which would establish Chris Rea as a major player in the music business.
His breakthrough album came in 1983 when he released the very reflective Water Sign which contained the rather brilliant and hugely significant song in his career in the shape of ‘I Can Hear Your Heartbeat’ which became a hit both in Ireland and Germany and would help establish him as a major star and would become his most successful album to date.
After this Rea would undertake long club tours across Europe in a further effort to help his profile on the back of the album Watersign which had yielded his greatest success to date.
Shamrock Diaries was released in 1985 and included the nostalgic ‘Stainsby Girls’ and’ Steel River’, a moving account of the effects of the industrial decline on his home town. It was also his first album to sell over a million copies throughout Europe.
His next two albums Dancing With Strangers and On The Beach further enhanced his career. Both albums were major successes and also contained hit singles like ‘ It’s All Gone’ ‘On The Beach’ and ‘ Let’s Dance,’ which would help Rea establish himself in the upper echelons of rock music royalty.
In 1988, Chris Rea would release what would become one of the all time great Christmas classics with ‘Driving Home For Christmas.’ There is no doubt that it’s one of the great yuletide songs, but it was the album that followed that would send Rea to super stardom.
The Road To Hell was released in 1989 and would be triple platinum within three months, with sales of over 1 million in the UK alone. It was no doubt helped by the success of the lead single and the title track from the album which would go Top
Ten in the singles charts and was accompanied by a very clever video inspired by London’s orbital motorway.
The other factor about the album was that the songs on the record were no doubt his strongest to date and included ‘Texas’, ‘Tell Me There’s A Heaven’ and ‘ Your Warm and Tender Love’. The album would sell three million copies in the UK alone and the same amount throughout Europe. This gave Chris Rea the overdue success his songs deserved.
The follow up album Auberge would also hit the top spot and the next three studio albums would also become Top Ten Hits.
All this success allowed Chris Rea to turn to one of his passions, film making, when he made the movie called La Passione, which was all about motor racing. The soundtrack included a duet with Shirley Bassey. The soundtrack album failed to ignite the charts, but as a fan, it had many fine moments.
Chris Rea continues to make albums right up to the current day and still tour’s as well, his career has been a wide and varied musical journey, and has produced some memorable songs that will be played for many years to come.
I was recently asked to summarize Chris Rea’s career, and my answer was that he recorded very solid albums which dealt with social issues, economics, love, family, and working life. They’ve stood the test of time but, most importantly, they are instantly recognizable.
The boy from Middlesbrough in the North East of England has done well for himself and will be always having our hearts beat.