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DIVIDING TIME

Rob Russell Poster

 

 

 

 I suppose I divide into 2 people. Or perhaps you could say that I'm one person with 2 jobs. By day I'm a songwriter, writer and music producer, delving into the imagination and always searching for new ideas. But by night I'm out in the clubs and cabaret circuit bashing away at my keyboards and doing cover versions of other people's songs. Here, warts and all, is my story so far...

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those in a bit of a rush, and just time for a quick burger and chips, here's...

The Short Story:

Now based in Leeds, UK, Rob grew up in South Africa where he studied classical music while playing in stage shows, orchestras and military bands. After a reasonable teenage rebellion he let the hair grow and headed down the rock and pop route. Early bands include the funky Flagship, show band Wizard and the duo, Anthem.

He moved back to the UK to join Wozani (also known as Jester Turtle) and later formed the duo Sample This with Tim Delaney. In 1996 he was selected as the first duelling pianist from the north of England for the new Jumpin Jaks venues springing up all over the UK. In 2013 he appeared on ITV's Britain's Got Talent as one half of Rob n Craig's Incredible Duelling Pianos eventually performing in the semi-finals. He now performs live in cabaret venues and clubs under the name, Rob Russell.

 Rob began song writing in earnest in the 90s and his first musical The Garden of Eden was premiered at The Playhouse Theatre in Durban / South Africa in 1995.

He's the first songwriter to win the Tipperary International Song of Peace Competition twice winning in 2003 and 2006. A finalist and semi-finalist in the UK Songwriting Competition 2005 he's had songs published in the USA and radio play in the UK, Ireland, USA, South Africa and Australia.

In 2015 he published his first novel: A Little Town in Africa and is currently working on more book ideas. 

Rob Russell Davies Cartoon

 For those with a little more time on their hands, and time for a full 3 course meal with coffee and a mint, here's...

The Long Story:

The Bug - Durban / South Africa

It all began as a kid really. I still remember the thrill of hearing an arrangement I'd just done of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ for our kids band Peanuts. The line-up was 2 recorders, a melodica (remember them?), piano, trumpet, trombone and a snare drum. But it kind-a worked and it was something I could direct, control and expand on. The bug was there, and I knew I loved writing.

By the age of 14, life had taken many different directions. By now I was studying both piano and trumpet, but for the first time, it wasn't just practice... practice... practice. Now I was getting involved with lots of different things and actually starting to have fun with my music. There were stage shows with the Durban Opera Group and the Westville Theatre Company, and I played trumpet with local orchestras including the Durban Symphony and even a long stint with the local military band. (Although marching was never my forte!).

Money was starting to trickle in too; I was getting gigs in restaurants and playing for weddings and other functions. School work? Well, I'm afraid it took a bit of a back seat. I wouldn't actually leave school for another few years, but in a sense, I'd left already. You see, I already knew my lot in life. Yep, you guest it, I was a ‘muso’!

My Rock 'n' Roll - Southern Africa

My best friend at the time, Ian (the Bean) lent me a couple of records to listen to. Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Now Mr. Emerson was not only classically trained and a wonderful keyboard player but he did interesting things too - like stick knives in keyboards, pick at the piano strings with his fingers and guitar picks, bounce Hammond organs up and down the stage and play them backwards. Then there were the strange and wonderful sounds he got out of early Moog synthesizers. I wanted a bit of this, this was my rock 'n' roll - get me into a band and call me a keyboard player!

My first professional band was called Flagship and was a good opportunity to work with some of South Africa's best musicians including drummer/singer, Richard Pickett and guitarist, Maurice Fry. As luck would have it, our style turned out to be funk, rather than progressive rock - think Wild Cherry and Earth Wind and Fire. A great experience and an excellent grounding for the timing and feel side of music.

Flagship

Taken at the Is American club in Port Elizabeth. From L to R: Maurice Fry, Richard Pickett, club bouncer Dennis, yours truly and Gary Ellis

After Flagship disbanded, I joined up with one of the country's best known show bands, Wizard. For over 10 years we gigged all over South Africa and Rhodesia (as it then was) before finally settling down in Johannesburg. We played 3 or 6 month residencies in different hotels usually being accommodated in the hotel itself. These were fun times, and perhaps the ex-UK Prime Minister Harold's words best sum it up: 'you've never had it so good'! I also found time to revisit my classical roots, putting in a 3 year music correspondence course at the University of South Africa.

Times change, there was new technology, money was getting tighter, there was Saturday Night Fever and, of course there was... disco. Show bands started turning into trios and duos. Wizard didn't so much as split up, as split into 2 duos and Georg Voros and I formed Anthem. For just over a year we gigged around Jo'burg and Durban, before finally making a few phone calls and decisions and moving to the UK.

Wizard

Wizard during our 'Holiday Inn' days. From L to R: Paul Clifford, Rob, Glen Ashford and Georg Voros

Anthem

Anthem was never shy of taking risks and doing different stuff - our version of 'Tainted Love' sometimes went on for over 10 minutes and included the 'Pink Panther Theme' and Georg's 'wandering about the stage' drum solo!

Home From Home - UK

Two of our musician friends from SA had relocated to Leeds, UK. George Van Dyk and Graham Clifford were getting a big following as Jester Turtle and had signed a publishing deal with Lorimar who quickly decided to expand the duo to a full band. This worked out perfectly for Georg and myself, and with the addition of 2 Leeds lads and some occasional help from London-based percussionists and ethnic dancers the band Wozani was born. (Wozani, by the way is Zulu for 'come and join'). This was no cover-version band; we had some great tunes penned by George and Graham in what's best described as a kind of African rock meets British pop.

Wozani did well for a few years, cutting an album in London, gigging in some of the best venues around the country and building up a good following, especially in Leeds. But the big break we all hoped for and half expected never came. Why? Well that could fill another website, and believe me we're all still debating it! But personally I think that the main reason was politics and a bit of bad luck. Keep in mind we were a mainly white South African band in the late 80s. Of course, no-one ever tells you why their initial interest suddenly goes cold - they just become unavailable, tied up in meetings with secretaries say things like 'don't phone us... just leave us your telephone’! I find the political thing particularly annoying as Wozani'slyrics were full of stories of black Africa, were very critical of the apartheid regime and totally positive towards the idea of change and the rainbow nation soon to come.

Wozani Album Cover

Wozani's UK album cover.

Full Circle

Wozani later reformed in South Africa with some success and a few chart hits. But by now I had put down roots in the UK, was starting to get a broad Yorkshire accent, (well.... not really) and was quite content to keep plugging away this side of the water. Tim Delaney and I formed the duo, Sample This which played clubs, pubs and cabaret venues all over the north of England. We were sometimes billed as an 'award-winning' duo, although we never actually got the clocks to prove it! (Another long story for another website!).

Sample This turned out to be quite a milestone for me. For the first time in many years, I was arranging all of the music and programming everything on computer. And once again I was getting those same feelings I had as a kid when I did my first arrangements; bending and controlling musical ideas to turn cover songs into something different and 'original'. I had gone full circle and now it felt right to take the next step and write my own stuff.

Sample This

Very much the Sample This club photo look. Never was a good idea to spend 10 days in the Ford Transit, Tim !

My first projects were musicals. (Yeah, I know... nothing like diving in the deep end!). The Garden Of Eden was set on a drugs farm in South America, was full of latin rhythms, melodies and dances and was great fun to write and record. During a month over in South Africa I managed to generate some interest with local people which led to the musical being premiered at the Durban Playhouse in 1995. This production was sponsored by the Volkswagen car company and featured a cast of teenagers from the KwaZulu-Natal area. I was flown over as the musical director and I'm sure you can imagine the thrill of seeing something you've written come to life before your own eyes, especially in ‘Durbs’ where I grew up!

 Cast of The Garden of Eden

The cast of The Garden Of Eden. Quite a challenge to try and control this lot! Great kids and I'm sure many of you have gone on to do well.

Jumpin Jaks

Returning to the UK I gigged around with rock n' roll band Blondin for a few months and then started going out solo under the name Rob Russell. In case you're wondering, I didn't use Rob Davies as there's already a famous Rob Davis who used to be in 70s band Mud and who later co-wrote Kylie's 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head' amongst other things. So I went with the middle name Russell for the live stuff and write under the name Rob Russell Davies.

In the mid-nineties a friendly agent told me to go and do an audition in Bradford for a new concept that was being launched around the country. This turned out to be for the Jumpin Jaks chain of night-clubs springing up around the UK. The new concept? Jumpin Jaks' duelling pianos! I'll do my best to explain: 2 pianos on stage were painted with fiery red flames and played by piano players who also sang. The music style was party orientated and in your face, the players expected to be complete showmen and women. In many venues the audience joined us on stage, dancing around the pianos and at first they were even allowed to dance on the pianos themselves! That, of course led to a few drunken individuals falling off, and the idea was scrapped. (Enough material there for another website too!)

It was fun, crazy, sometimes out of control, but when it worked it was brilliant. We got to play in Jaks venues all over the UK from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Carlisle to Lincoln, Wigan, Coventry, Swansea and Southampton. For me, the best part was meeting and working with the talented keyboard players from all over the UK.

Jumpin Jaks Duelling Pianos, Rob Russell

You play on them, you jump on top of them, you do your thing at the front of the stage, and now and again you fall off it!

Catch 22 Chickens and Eggs

On the writing front I began work on a second musical, False Prophet. Loosely based on the Waco siege in Texas, it was meant to be a big project with huge effects, non-stop music, dynamic singing and larger-than-life characters. Before I'd finished writing, I decided to put together a 'taster' CD to try and generate some interest in staging it. And this is where I realised my fundamental problem with writing musicals. It goes like this: You send the CD to someone important and if you get a response, it's along the lines of, 'Quite like it, where can I see it?' So you reply, 'That's why I sent you the CD - I need you to put it on. I need your help.' And, of course, they come back with, 'Unless I actually see it, I'm not really interested!' A chicken and egg situation. Believe me, I did try quite a few different ideas, too numerous to go into here, but they usually ended up with that chicken and egg catching the number 22 bus.

Small is Easier

A musical takes months or even years to write. It's fun but very hard work and you still end up with only one product to try and sell. Individual songs are smaller and you can say a lot in 3 to 4 minutes. In the last few years I've spent more time on writing songs in lots of different styles: pop, blues, ballads, jazz, country, boy-band songs, girl-band songs and African songs. Like most songwriters, I'm sending stuff here, there and everywhere and am also selling direct on the net. (Links to my songwriting albums are below and on the ‘listen’ page.)

In 2003 'Give it a Minute' won the Tipperary Song of Peace Competition and in 2006 'Let Me Find Peace' managed to win it again – the only time this has been done. 'Turn Around' was voted a finalist in the UK Songwriting Competition in 2005 with 'Words You Didn't Say' also coming in as a semi-finalist. 'Haunted Eyes' was chosen to kick off a compilation CD called Ride The Train andwas also a semi-finalist in the UK Songwriting Competition in 2006,  while 'Invisible Ink' got an honourable mention in a lyric writing competition in American Songwriter Magazine.

Tipperary Song of Peace Winners: 2003

Rob and Aiden with the Waterford Crystal trophy in 2003 – winning first prize for the song ‘Give it a Minute’.

Rob 'n Craig's Duelling Pianos

Sadly, Jumpin' Jaks gradually died off as less and less of their venues employed live musicians, relying solely on DJ’s. A few years ago, another Leeds based Jaks piano player/ singer, Craig Michael, and myself had the idea to keep the 'duelling piano' idea going. It seemed to us that it would be an interesting, unusual, but good concept to take into the cabaret and club circuit. After all, you don't see that many keyboard duos around these days!

We moved away from the Jumpin Jaks style of simply 'busking' whatever seemed right at the time, and put together a proper cabaret show specialising in the big feature numbers like Meat Loaf's 'Bat Out Of Hell', 'The Duelling Banjos' from the movie Deliverance, and some of the best songs by the likes of Billy Joel and Elton John. Craig's excellent voice featured on our acoustic versions of 'The Greatest Love Of All' and we still liked to revert back to the Jaks style of 'party music' when people hit the dance floor.

Rob n' Craig's Incredible Duelling Pianos

Craig and I loved the big arrangements and had had some great medley’s including a Blues Brothers special, a cracking Rat Pack assortment and the fastest rock n’ roll medley east of Memphis.  

Telling Tales

A while back I realised that a lot of my songs have one thing in common - they often tell stories. Because I've always hated generalised lyrics, or using words just because they 'sound right', I've subconsciously told tales with beginnings, middles and ends. You could say I'm still writing musicals - they're just a lot shorter! If you want to pigeonhole it, then I suppose I'm a narrative songwriter.

In the last decade, I’ve recorded 2 albums that especially feature this narrative songwriting style: Telling Tales and Crossing The River. In 2008, I brought out Pianoscapes, an album best described as a celebration of piano music featuring 11 instrumentals in different styles, blended together by my style of piano playing and atmospheric sound arranging.

At this time I also did some instrumental composing for a Johannesburg-based company with ties around the world that specialised in making music for TV, radio and corporate functions. Much of this music featured an African style, although I also wrote some bouncy kid’s songs and pieces suited to sport events.

Britain’s Got Talent

2012 found Britain in patriotic spirit, what with the Olympics, the Queen’s Jubilee, Euro 2012 and the announcement of a future royal baby. In celebration, The Duelling Pianos decided to put together a medley featuring tunes from some of the famous war movies like The Great Escape, 633 Squadron and, of course, The Dam Busters. And it true British spirit we called this medley, For Queen and Country, got out the air ace flying helmets, goggles and scarves and put a crazy, fun video on YouTube.

What we didn’t expect, however, was that the production team at Britain’s Got Talent would see it early in 2013 and invite us to audition for the competition. So off we toddled to the Manchester auditions thinking that we’d be up in front of some junior producers, only to find that that we were immediately filmed, interviewed, photographed and…well… you name it. Then, to our horror, we found out that we’d completely by-passed the early auditions and were about to be put straight in front of the famous four: Simon Cowell, David Walliams, Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden and a huge audience.

With no rehearsal time to really get the live arrangement together, we weren’t at our best, but overall, they seemed to like us, finding the idea loads of fun and with a bit of fun and drama, put us through to the next stage. Here’s the official video of the audition:

 

After the audition and with the ‘reveal day’ looming (where the judges knock the final 200 acts down to 48), Craig then decided that he didn’t want to continue in the competition for personal reasons and because he didn’t think it was right for him. A bit of to-ing and fro-ing between the producers and me ensued, and it was eventually decided that I could continue on my own. I went down to London for the ‘reveal day’ to find out that I’d made the live semi-finals.

The semi-final week in London was great fun and an experience not to be forgotten. With hindsight, I don’t think I should have attempted a medley in the 2 minute time-slot allocated and from a talent point-of-view it probably wasn’t wise to go with the producer’s idea of descending from great heights in a rickety mock WW1 bi-plane attired in flying helmet, scarf and goggles. But hey… it was great fun… and who else can claim to have done this live on prime-time telly! The judges had a bit of fun with me, but it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get any further.

Keep in mind that I considered myself quite lucky to even be allowed to stay in the competition once Craig pulled out – they would have had every reason to pull the plug once the act had changed. In a nutshell - great fun, although I would like to try it again with something a bit more serious.

To this end, I’ve recently been working with singer, guitarist and good friend, John Mycroft. Rob n John’s Day Job record only original songs and make different and interesting videos with the aim of generating interest in the recording, TV and radio industry. Please check out some of our videos on the ‘videos’ page.

The Write Stuff

A few years ago I decided to attempt something I’ve had on the ‘bucket list’ for a while: write a novel. I suppose it’s just another way of dealing with that story-telling vein that seems to run through my blood. But hey, “I hear voices in my head,” and if I don’t write ‘em down in one way or another them I’m going to end up sharing them with my psychiatrist. Anyway, book #1 proved just as hard as I thought it would, taking much longer than anticipated to complete.  But complete it I eventually did, and here it is…

 A Little Town in Africa Cover

Click to take you to the bookbaby website. All online stores selling it are listed there.

 What’s it about I hear you ask. Well here’s the back cover description:

 South Africa may now be a rainbow nation, but try telling that to the mainly white and wacky inhabitants of Stillwater. When a black minister is appointed to the local Methodist Church, the congregation are up in arms and the much feared Women’s Auxiliary is on the warpath. And when the new minister’s son gets caught up in a nasty assault, the locals certainly have reason to protest as well as a crime to solve. Can pensioner Teresa Thomas and her sidekick Digby save the reverend from his own doubts, his son’s reckless behaviour and the crazy residents of Stillwater itself?

So there you go. Thanks for taking the time to read the fuller version of my story so far. Please have a listen to the song extracts and browse around the pics. Also drop me a line in the guest book, I'd love to hear from you.

All my CDs are now available at CD Baby - one of the biggest sellers of independent music and a company I trust. Please visit my 'buy' page to get your copies. The albums and individual songs are now also available as downloads.

Rob with Ashley. BGT 2012 winner with Pudsey the dogAll the best...Rob Russell Davies and a cub

Rob.