Daily Mirror Exclusive “I wanted to be a successful songwriter but it wasn’t about the money or the glamour”

14th July 2015 - 8 minutes read

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22:15, 7 JULY 2015 BY RACHAEL BLETCHLY

Gilbert O’Sullivan tells how he created his geeky character, how he became the biggest selling British-based artist in the world and how his star faded in the 1980s

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Glam rock’s platform boots were stomping up the charts, Donny and his brothers had sparked Osmondmania and Elton John was on the yellow brick road to mega-stardom.

But in 1972 the biggest selling British-based artist in the world was a bloke with a pudding-basin haircut and cloth cap sitting at a piano singing about frozen peas.

Shy Gilbert O’Sullivan cut an unlikely figure in the glittering world of 1970s pop. But for five years the Irish-born singer-songwriter was just as famous as flamboyant Elton, selling millions of records and notching up six No 1 singles.

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His beautiful melodies and witty, kitchen-sink lyrics made huge hits of songs like Clair, Nothing Rhymed and Matrimony and won him two prestigious Ivor Novello awards.

He also cracked Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Canada and topped the US charts for six weeks with his single Alone Again (Naturally) – not bad for a song about bereavement and suicide.

Gilbert outsold Elton, but while the Rocket Man remained in orbit throughout the next four decades, O’Sullivan’s star began to fade. A legal battle with his manager, Gordon Mills, meant he couldn’t release a record for five years – and when he did return in the 1980s he never had the same success.

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Gilbert just carried on doing what he does best – writing, recording and performing songs. But he also changed the course of the record industry by standing up for the rights of the artist in two landmark court cases – one over publishing rights and the other on illegal sampling.

“I never wanted global fame you know,” explains Gilbert in his soft Irish burr. I never liked being ‘a star’. .

“When I started out I thought just hearing one of my records on the radio would be magical. Fortunately, that naivety has always stayed with me. Because when you’ve had massive success and it tapers off people lose interest in you. So you have to work even harder to generate interest .

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“The way I do that is to keep coming up with good songs and when I do a concert, I make sure I give a good performance. It’s not rocket science. I’ve never wanted to stop. It’s all about the writing. Without the songs there’d be no me.”

Now 68, Gilbert has just brought out his 23rd studio album and is planning a new tour. Latin Ala G is inspired by his love of Spanish music and two 1960s Latin-themed albums by his friend Peggy Lee. But the melodies are unmistakeably Gilbert and the lyrics warm and touching as ever.

“One track on this album is called Love I You – because you can always find a new way to say ‘I love you,” he says. I have a studio at home in Jersey and I sit at the piano for eight hours a day, five days a week, to try and come up with a good melody. If I get one I switch on my cassette player and record it. I tried digital recorders in but couldn’t stand them so I’ve gone back to cassettes.

“I love it – it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I may be 68 but, as a songwriter, I’m still that 21 year old hustler.

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“I’m still a shy person too. I always have been. On stage in front of 2000 people I’m OK and I have no qualms because I am very confident performing my songs. But privately, if I have to meet people afterwards, I crawl into the corner. I don’t go to parties or showbiz affairs. I’m just not comfortable.

“That’s why I created the character of ‘Gilbert’ with the haircut, cap and boots. It was something I could hide behind.”

Born Raymond Edward O’Sullivan in Ireland in 1946 his parents moved to England when he was seven and he grew up in Swindon, Wiltshire. The radio sparked his interest in music, but he also became fascinated with words.

In his 1971 song, Matrimony, an anxious groom famously tells his late-running bride: “I don’t think the registrar will be very pleased. When we show up an hour late like two frozen peas.”

“Everyone mentions the frozen peas,” he smiles. “It all stems from my English upbringing. I don’t write about tequila and Route 66 – I write about tea and the M4. It brings a smile to my face if I can come up with something witty.”

Raymond went to art college and played drums in a band with Rick Davis (later of Supertramp) who taught him the play piano. He moved to London in 1967 and while working as a postal clerk played with several other bands.

He won his first record contract the same year, changing his name to Gilbert as a play on the famous operetta composers Gilbert & Sullivan.

He invented his own image with the hair, cap and boots. Manager Gord­­on Mills, who also looked after Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdink, hated it. Gilbert says: “The Beatles changed everything . I knew I couldn’t compete, couldn’t be as cool, so I went completely the other way. I always felt image was only 20% of success – 80% was about the seriousness of songwriting. But the look and the songs worked.”

His first Top 10 hit was Nothing Rhymed in 1970. It’s a timeless song that was recently covered by Morrissey.

He soon changed his image, growing his hair and wearing US college jumpers with a letter G. He was even a bit of a heart-throb. Hit after hit followed with Alone Again making him an international star in 1972 and winning him his first gold disc. Clair, written about Gordon Mills’ little daughter, made No 2 a few months later and Get Down netted another gold disc.

But then things turned sour. In 1970 Mills had promised Gilbert a share of the publishing rights to his music, but by 1975 noting had happened. The two parted and Gilbert sued.