Some people have names that are bound for show business: Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Beyonce. You just know from the moment they pick up the microphone that these are the names that they will take with them on their journey to fame. Other people, on the other hand, aren’t that lucky: no teenage fan is going to be overly eager to sport a tee-shirt bearing the names Charles Hatcher, Stuart Goddard, Doug Trendle or Declan McManus. Michael Barratt firmly belongs to the second group; changing his name to Shakin’ Stevens may have set him up for gleeful tabloid headlines during a less than shining period of his life, but it also made sure that his singing career was enhanced by an original pop star name.
Shakin’ Stevens was immensely popular during the 1980s – and not just for carrying off that fashionable double denim look - and actually holds the honour of being the biggest-selling singles artist of that decade. Go back a few years, to 4 March 1948 and Master Barratt may have found getting attention a little harder, being born the eleventh and last child to his parents in Ely, Cardiff.
Although Michael formed his own band when he was a teenager in the 1960s, fame took a while longer to find him, and he earned a wage as a milkman whilst things got going. Perseverance reaped rewards however, and in 1968, after his band The Denims had supported them, Michael was invited to join the already well-established group The Backbeats. Having admired them for a while he jumped at the chance. Along with the manager Paul Barrett, they turned The Backbeats into Shakin’ Stevens and The Sunsets. There’s no great mystery behind how either Barratt’s or the group’s name came about; a friend’s imagination conjured it up out of nowhere one day a few years before and it had struck Michael as both wacky and memorable. A dream opportunity came their way in December 1969, when the Rolling Stones needed a support band, but nerves proved hard to overcome when following such a big name. After another gig in London in 1970, Radio 1 DJ John Peel positively reviewed them in the music paper Disc and offered them a deal on his own label, Dandelion. Unfortunately the tracks produced with Peel during this time seemed to be heading in a different direction to that with which the band was really comfortable, and so they parted company not long after.
When fellow Cardiff boy Dave Edmunds offered to produce their first album A Legend (maybe a little optimistic at this juncture in your career boys?) and get them signed to his label, Parlophone, it must have felt that they had another chance at success, but it would be a while longer before Shaky would get the taste of fame he was seeking. In the meantime he and The Sunsets regularly played gigs up and down Britain, and experienced some triumph with their songs in Europe.
That was as far as it was going to go however. After seven years together, with nothing more than minor success in the recording studio and on the road, Shaky took a break to play Elvis Presley in a London musical based on his life (called, imaginatively ‘Elvis!’). Producer Jack Good had seen him singing with the band, and decided that his good looks made him perfect to play the swivel-hipped megastar in the prime of his life. Meanwhile, The Sunsets sat in South Wales, and waited for him to return. And waited. (Visions of the group sitting in their rehearsal room looking sadly at their watches and saying ‘He said he wouldn’t be that long…’) The original six month run of Elvis! became a nineteen month run, and the subsequent press exposure that Shaky received ensured that lack of fame was no longer a problem. Appearances on music programmes Oh Boy and Let’s Rock moved him firmly into the limelight, and he released his own distinct recording of Hot Dog (a rockabilly song originally done by American country musician Buck Owens) which gained him his first chart hit.
In 1979 (perhaps The Sunsets were now beginning to think about drafting an ad for a new vocalist) Shaky took the advice of his new manager, Freya Miller, and set off as a solo artist (The Sunsets spent several hours scribbling out ‘Shakin’ Stevens and’ on all their flyers.). This Ole House was released in 1981, becoming his first UK number one, and the song that everybody now associates with him. You might be hard pushed to remember his ten further top five hits (ok, I know you’ll remember the number ones: Green Door, Oh Julie, and the played-to-death seasonal chirpiness of Merry Christmas Everyone, but another seven?) but hits there were, including You Drive Me Crazy, A Love Worth Waiting For, and Teardrops. He also scored a number one album, Shaky in 1981.
Surprisingly, despite his massive popularity in the mid-eighties, Shaky was a noticeable absence on the biggest musical event of the decade, Live Aid. He was touring at the time Do They Know It’s Christmas? was recorded, and when the concert itself took place in July 1985 he had not received an invitation to appear. Considering how much time Shaky had spent in the charts during the early 80s, you would have thought his presence would have been mandatory.
As many recording artists can testify to, it’s very hard to maintain a long-term winning streak. As the decade wound down, and the 1990s began, Steven’s chart positions began to drop. Taking a break from recording new material, he then had to deal with the repercussions caused by the rerelease of the Legend album from his days with The Sunsets. Due to Shaky’s by now established celebrity, the album had sold much better the second time around, and understandably his ex-bandmates wanted their cut of the royalties, and took him to court to get them.
He returned to the live scene in 1999, where he toured for a couple of years before a rough patch in his personal life overtook his career. Being arrested and charged for drink driving in 2002 got Shaky a lot of headlines and negative attention, but he started turning his fortunes around again in 2004, with album success in both Denmark and South Africa. 2005 saw The Collection released in the UK - an album of his greatest hits - and he also took part in the Comic Relief video for Is This The Way To Amarillo? alongside Tony Christie.
Often the sign of a flagging career, Stevens then took part in ITV’s I’m a Has-Been, Get Me Back in the Charts - sorry – Hit Me Baby, One More Time, the show that attempted to revive faded pop darlings’ careers. Shaky won his heat, although as his rivals were Doctor and the Medics, Haddaway, Belinda Carlisle and Jaki Graham (altogether now, one big cry of ‘Who?’)it’s not all that surprising. His momentum continued through the final, and he beat off the likes of Tiffany, Hue & Cry, Shalamar and Chesney Hawkes to win the entire series. To mark this, Shaky released a single containing the two songs he sung on the show, This Ole House and a cover of Pink’s Trouble. It reached number 20 in the UK, and also became his 33rd top 40 UK hit. Another album, Now Listen, came in 2007 followed by a rerelease of Merry Christmas Everyone (because it wasn’t played enough already eh Mr Stevens?) and a celebratory ‘Shaky Week’ on Chris Evans’ Radio 2 show in March 2008 for his 60th birthday. The next few years were a whirlwind of ups and downs; concerts and tours being the high points; an arrest for assault in 2009 and a heart attack in 2010 being what might be considered pretty low. Thankfully he recovered fully from and has since completed his Anniversary Tour (30 years since his first hit) and is working on a new album to be released in 2013.
And for all of you worried about how The Sunsets fared after Shaky headed for fame and fortune, you’re not to worry. They still perform and tour, and even took on Stevens’ nephew Levi Barratt as a new frontman. That’s loyalty for you.