Mari Wilson & The Wilsations! live 1982 and 1983
13th May 1982 and my mate Dave and I are a student dance at New College Durham, in the old buildings up at Nevilles Cross. The headliner was none other than Mari Wilson (aka The Neasden Queen of Soul) and her group the sensational Wilsations!. We’d read a little about this lady and her band in the music press, but didn’t really know what to expect. There was a fun-packed programme for the evening which started with a screening of the movie “Animal House”, followed by a disco (of course) and support band the Sinatras. So by the time Mari took to the stage it was late and the young student crowd had partaken in more than a few drinks and were ready to dance, generally go crazy and be entertained. Nothing could have prepared us for the spectacular that we were about to witness. This was one of those gigs that I try to relive in my mind; to say Mari and the Wilsations! were sensational is an understatement. This was a totally full-on, expertly choreographed and colour co-ordinated rock’n’roll cum doo-wop 1950s review. Imagine seeing a combination of Darts, The Ronettes, and ShaNaNa, fronted by Julie London. And imagine you are at the local hop in an episode of “Happy Days”, or you are a cast member of “Dreamboats and Petticoats”. Got it? Now make it even more colourful, funny, fast, and crazy than you imagined.
From the moment she stepped out on that school-hall style stage (it even “felt” like we were at the hop) we all knew that we were in the presence of a true “star”; 110%. Yes; Mari was centre-stage, wearing a Taffeta dress, and sporting her famous skyscraper beehive hairdo, but the show wasn’t just about her. The fully choreographed 12 piece band (or it may have been 18 piece, there were certainly lots and lots of them) The Wilsations! were a crucial part of the experience. This was an event – pure entertainment. Our compere for the evening was none other than Hank, a larger than life character straight from the high school hop: “Hi I’m Hank and this is the Hank Beehive show. Say “Hi Hank” [we all said “Hi Hank”] and say “Hi” to the band. Tonight we have the two Marines on backing vocals: Kurt L’Amour and Wilbur G Force [Kurt has a penchant for choc dips; throw those dips girls; if you want to win his heart, and Wilbur is a jujitsu expert of some renown and has just completed a karate ballet, drives a Marina and has mated his dogs with the Queen’s corgis]. And providing tonight’s musical accompaniment we have the Wilsations!; all handpicked because their names rhymed with Mari: Harry and Barry (sax and trumpet) [known as the brass monkeys; Harry drives a bottle-green Morris van and Barry has a reputation for anti-rust work on it, and on his trumpet], Larry (pianoforte) [Larry has a tough greaser look], Gary (big drums) [“I got where I am today because my name’s Gary and I know it”], Cary (guitar) [Cary is the resident health freak and has escorted a former Miss World], and Jim (big bass) [Jim always wanted to be in a band but nearly didn’t make it as his name didn’t rhyme with Mari]. And on backing vocals we have the two beautiful Marionettes: Barbarella and Candide [Barbie describes herself as a “professional debutante” and Candide was actually aka Michelle Collins aka Cindy Beale].” [Note: most of the elements in square brackets come from a later programme, by which the names of some of band members may have changed].
The interplay between Hank, the rest of the band, and Mari was hilarious, the dancing was sensational and the costumes perfectly co-ordinated. Mari was simple perfection. The set was a mix of 50s classics, and songs which would soon feature on Mari’s debut album “Showpeople”. This was before she hit the charts with ‘Just What I’ve Always Wanted’. I remember being totally captivated by her performance of ‘Cry Me A River’, the Julie London song which has been a big favourite of mine since I first saw Julie perform it in the film “The Girl Can’t Help It”. A crazy night, where it really felt like we were back in the 50s at the high school hop. I expected to turn around and see the Fonz and Potsie Weber standing next to me 🙂
A few months later and our hero appeared in our own front room, on TV, singing “Just What I’ve Always Wanted” on Top of the Pops. The girl with the big hairdo had done good and had “made it”, just like she always wanted, just like Hank told us she would, and just like we knew show would.
We saw Mari and her Wilsations! a couple of more times, once at Redcar Coatham Bowl on 10th October 1982, and then at Newcastle City Hall on 18th March 1983. The Redcar gig was an equally crazy, fun night. But things changed, somewhere along the way our hero Hank left the band and the membership of the Wilsations! changed (although some of the band members had the same names as their predecessors; isn’t that strange and rather convenient ? 🙂 ). Local north east guitarist, and old mate, Keith Airey joined as guitarist and Julia Fordham joined as one of the two girl vocalists. The City Hall show was good, but the authenticity of “the high school hop” was lost in a larger hall, and things were never the same without Hank. And soon it came to an end and Mari returned to Neasden to knit cardigans or raise a family (actually that’s not true, she continued to sing and does so to this day, moving towards a soul and jazz direction).
For me Mari Wilson and the Wilsations! were at their best that night in 1982 when, at a dance in the old New College hall, we were transported back to the 50s high school hop and Mari simply sang her heart out for us.
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Mari Wilson & The Wilsations! live 1982 and 1983