Kiki Dee should be celebrated as a ‘living legend’
The star, born plain Pauline Matthews in Little Hornton, Bradford, won’t hear of postponing our chat though. Her new studio album, The Long Ride Home, came out on Friday [22/4] and she wants the world to know about it. Phrases like “living legend” are used too lightly, but Kiki, 75, surely qualifies. With one of the strongest and most distinctive voices in Seventies pop, she was the first English singer to be signed by Motown, and famously topped the US and UK charts with Elton John on Don’t Go Breaking My Heart in 1976.
They packed out New York’s Madison Square Garden that year.
“I called my mother and offered to fly her and dad over to New York first class, put them up at the Waldorf-Astoria for a week and then sail them home on the QE2,” she recalls. “Mum said, ‘We’d love to, but we’ve just booked a caravan’.”
Kiki, 75, laughs heartily. Her parents Mary and Fred ended up seeing her perform every night for a week. “They’d never travelled outside Britain before; that was their only foreign trip and they loved it,” she smiles.
It was a far cry from family holidays growing up. Kiki, the youngest of three, fondly remembers seaside trips to Scarborough, Whitby, and Bridlington in the mid-50s, with donkey rides, candyfloss and sand castles; and her father rolling up the legs of his Sunday-best trousers to venture onto the beach.
“He worked in the textile mills all of his life, from 14-years-old,” she says. “He was a family man, salt of the earth. He cared so deeply for his children.
“We never had much but mum always made sure there was food on the table.”
Kiki won her first talent contest on a Blackpool holiday, aged ten. She’d been singing since she was six. “I was the youngest in a frantic household, singing a Brenda Lee hit was my way of getting attention.”
The star was renamed as ‘Kiki Dee’ as a teenager
She knew she wanted to turn pro at eleven. At 14, she was singing with local dance bands. At 16, Kiki left school and worked on the men’s counter at Boots in Bradford for twelve weeks – the only proper job she’s ever had. “Twelve weeks selling Wilkinson’s Sword razor blades – we just giggled the whole time…”
A talent scout caught her performing at Leeds Astoria and invited her to audition for Fontana Records. Her father drove her down to London and Jack Baverstock, a jazz era A&R man, signed her on the spot.
She was still 16. “That was the first time I pinched myself,” she says.
Renamed Kiki Dee, she released eleven singles over five years. None charted but she gained a formidable reputation as a session vocalist, singing backing vocals on Love Affair’s Everlasting Love and Robert Plant’s You Better Run.
Her own early single On A Magic Carpet Ride is rated a Northern soul classic – a copy of it sold for £900 the week before, she tells me.
Kiki was 21 when Motown called offering a deal to spend three months working with producer Frank Wilson (himself a Northern Soul icon) in Detroit. A dream job…except she found herself singing to backing tracks that were often not in her key, and her single, The Day Will Come Between Sunday And Monday, bombed.
Kiki was 21 when Motown called and offered a deal
“I worked hard but I came home a bit disappointed. I thought I’d become a star…so I rang John Reid [then Motown’s UK label manager] and told him I’d had a great time but it hadn’t panned out commercially.
“He said, ‘Would you like to meet Elton John? We’re starting a label’…”
Elton signed her to Rocket Records, and encouraged her to write songs and to front her own Kiki Dee band who toured the USA for ten weeks in 1974 as his support act.
“I’d done lots of gigs but I’d never toured at that level. It was lovely! I was so looked after by the sound guys. I’d had a bit of grounding. If you can survive the 1960s cabaret circuit in England, you can survive anything.”
She’d had one UK hit, 1973’s Amoureuse – translated into English by lyricist Gary Osborne, a life-long friend. Her first US hit was 1974’s I’ve Got The Music In Me, written by her keyboardist Toby Boshell.
“I’d met Elton briefly when he did backing vocals; even then he was an interesting character. He had quite a powerful personality and such generosity of spirit.”
Kiki’s 1973’s Amoureuse was a hit
Touring with Elton was “Like being in Pretty Woman,” she laughs. “He took me shopping in Milan and New York. He was so enthusiastic. He insisted I had everything I tried on. He was such fun.”
Kiki met John Lennon when Elton invited him to guest at one Madison Square Garden show. “He was so down-to-earth,” she recalls. “He came back to the Plaza, John with May Pang, me with Davey Johnstone” – Elton’s guitarist and her then boyfriend.
“Being a couple of Northerners, we stayed up all night talking about chip shops and scallops” – sliced potato fried in batter – “and our love of the North. John told me I should wear black leather like Suzi Quatro. It was an amazing night.”
There were no rock’n’roll excesses however. “I’ve got a delicate constitution,” Kiki protests. “If I’d indulged, I wouldn’t have been able to do the job. I gave up smoking at 30 and I’m happy with a nice cup of tea. I need sleep in order to sing well.”
She feels privileged to have met Motown stars Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye too. “Marvin had one of the best soul voices ever, and he was so sweet. They both were. I met him again years later when I was in the studio with Gary Osborne. Marvin was in the studio next door and he invited us in to hear his brand new song, Sexual Healing…”
Oddball fans are a perennial side-product of fame, like the US pastor who started sending her Waterford crystal. “He said he wanted to save my soul. I thought that was a bit presumptuous.”
Kiki says she feels privileged to have met musical stars
Kiki’s Rocket deal “came to a natural end” in 1979, but she had more chart success. Her last Top 3 hit was 1993’s True Love, another duet with Elton, who still sends her an orchid every year on her birthday.
Everlasting love eluded her though. Kiki lived with Davey Johnstone in Hollywood. They were together for four years, until he cheated on her.
In the 80s she was diagnosed with cancer of the womb. Radiation treatment cured her but left her infertile. Kiki responded by throwing herself into work, playing the lead in stage musical Blood Brothers for more than 1,000 shows.
Now she lives in a Hertfordshire village near her great-nephews and great-nieces.
“I suppose I’ve had quite a self-obsessive life because I have no husband or children,” she says. “But I love my family and friends. I came from a very loving background.”
Dee was never rich. She didn’t buy her first flat until 1981; but in 2006, Elton gave her the master tapes of her five Rocket albums, which she sold for a six-figure sum.
She swerves “reality” TV offers, turning down I’m A Celebrity and The Real Marigold Hotel but admits, “I got dragged into doing MasterChef, a nightmare – I don’t cook! I’m quite a sensitive person and I’d have to feel comfortable. I would have done Strictly but I had to turn it down because I’d just lost my sister [Betty].
“She would have been 77 today.”
Kiki would consider an autobiography, she says “If I could find the right ghost-writer, but I like the fact that my voice is the thing people judge me on.”
More than anything, she wants to keep singing. She’s performed and recorded with guitarist-producer Carmelo Luggeri for more than 20years.
Their new album The Long Ride Home is their fourth and their most innovative, with stand-outs tracks such as the graceful and supple The Ballerina Inside and the touching ballad, I’d Be Undone.
She gets her drive from her weaver-overlooker father but knows she has to relax too. “I love a good movie, spending time with people I love, just normal things…I’m so busy, any time I’ve got I just chill out.
“It gets heavy in the eye of the storm [of fame]. I’m much more content now, and I’m just grateful I’m still singing. I’m very at home with myself.”
*The Long Ride Home by Kiki Dee & Carmelo Luggeri is out now.