I never knew Bernard Jewry or Shane Fenton. I only knew Alvin. Or Bert, as he preferred to be called, off duty. I read a glowing tribute to him in a newspaper recently that made much of his slightly threatening black leather image, and the almost accidental, contrived nature of his successes. But the “real” Alvin (did I really say that?) – was a warm, modest, talented and thoughtful friend who was respected and liked by all who knew him.
He wasn’t even the original Shane Fenton. He was Bernard Jewry. Then his friend, Johnny Theakstone, – who called himself Shane Fenton died, leaving his band without a front man. Alvin was their roadie – and stood in to become the new Shane. He was a brilliant live performer and had a great realism when it came to grabbing an opportunity and giving it everything he had.
Many years later, after a medium-to-Ok run as Shane Fenton, we now fast-forward to the early seventies when writer/producer Peter Shelley, a great friend of mine who had a hit “Love Me, Love My Dog” under his own name, – had made a record which he literally created by instructing John Fiddy, the arranger, to copy “Spirit In The Sky” which had been a massive hit for Norman Greenbaum. Peter then edited the tape around so that only the guitar riff was recognisable but the chords fell in different places. He then wrote a new tune and lyrics over the resulting backing track. He put his own voice singing what he hoped were the most stupid lyrics he could think of “Coo, Coo, I just want you”. Pete had a great sense of humour and an appetite for the ridiculous.
Peter then gave the record to his accountant Michael Levy (now a Labour peer) who took it to Dick Asher, MD of CBS Records (now Sony). Dick loved it but couldn’t get “his people” to buy into it. He told Michael he couldn’t help. Michael begged. Ultimately Dick relented and gave Michael a pressing and distribution deal for his own label, which became Magnet records. But one thing was missing. An artist. Peter had already thought up the most ridiculous name he could – by using Gary Glitter as a model. Alvin was, as a name, a bit like Gary. Stardust was a bit like Glitter. So Alvin Stardust was created, with the one important detail. He did not yet actually exist. Peter’s own voice had sung the lead vocal, and he had no interest in becoming “Alvin”.
With the record released and starting to climb the charts under the fictitious “Alvin” persona, Pete had a problem. Then one day he was walking down Bond Street and he ran into Shane Fenton (at least that’s the way Pete told it. I’ve also heard the less interesting version that he was in fact suggested by his agent). Pete told him of the problem and Bernard/Bert/Shane offered to be Alvin and go on TV and front the record, miming Pete’s voice. It was a brilliant moment of pop “creativity”. I remember standing in my Womble costume at Top Of The Pops, with Pan’s People, Slade and all the others waiting around behind the cameras in the dark studio ready to go on, when Alvin’s spot was announced. Two security guards flanked him as he swept into the studio without speaking to any of us, took off his cape to reveal the black leather outfit with the big silver rings on his fingers, and went straight into ”My Coo Ca Choo”. After the song he swept out, equally unsociably. The genius of the moment was that where Pete had made the record as a joke, Bernard/Shane/Bert/Alvin “sold” it for real, as an ominous, commanding, powerful piece of hybrid pop/rock. A star was born, or should I say “reborn”. Alvin had arrived. The “novelty” record became a lengthy career with many top ten successes, purely because of Alvin’s savvy presentation and continued career energy.
Some years later after his glowing run of seven top forty singles had subsided, I myself returned from a two year trip around the world in a boat – and was in the middle of a very acrimonious divorce. Alvin and I had by then become good friends. He and his then wife, the actress Liza Goddard, invited me round for dinner. I remember the occasion vividly. A glowing fire, a bottle or two of red wine, dinner, stories and maybe even a few tears, just the three of us. Bert asked me to have a go on the piano. I played him this new song I’d written, inspired by the love of a girl I had met, who was occupying my every thought. The relationship looked as if it was dead in the water because of geographical distance and the other difficulties of my private life. I felt like Buddy Holly, because it was raining in my heart. So I had written it down. I played it to my friend.
He said “Who’s going to sing it?”. I said “Dunno yet”. I had in mind that it would be a currently hot singer – I hadn’t thought about my friend Alvin, who was commercially as cold as ice; not the guy you would first think of to take your song into the top ten. But friends are friends. “Can I have a go?”, he said. Well, we did of course “have a go” – and a lovely vocal job he did on it, too. Then the small matter of his Glam rock image came up. I had done a deal with Chris Wright at Chrysalis records but they were a bit afraid of the single going out with Alvin’s name on it, for fear that radio producers would chuck it in the bin without listening to it. So the promo guys took it round to Radio One with a blank white label, offering a bottle of champagne to the producer who could successfully identify the singer. Nobody won the champagne, and by this time they were power-playing the record. By the time we revealed it was the “commercially cold” Alvin Stardust singing it, it was too late for them to say they didn’t like it. “I Feel Like Buddy Holly” became a top ten hit, and relaunched his career. Another example of pop smoke and mirrors winning over against industry snobbishness!
Alvin was such a gentle, kind, modest and yet steely professional player. He had an innate professionalism that was evident in everything he did. The name bothered him a bit. He found it odd to be addressed as “Mr Stardust” by hotel porters. In fact, once we even made a record under the band name “The Jury” (to reflect his real name “Jewry”). Sadly it wasn’t a hit.
I fondly remember recording a song/tribute to him with his then young sons Shaun and Adam, for “This Is Your Life”. However I had lost touch with Alvin in recent years. There was no reason for this, other than the fact that one becomes socially lazy. We would occasionally bump into each other and say “we must get together” as one often does, but sadly neither of us took the initiative. The last time I saw him was two years ago at the Ivor Novello Awards, with his wife Julie. It would be the last time I would see him. And now the man whose main success was triggered by the inspiration of “Spirit In The Sky” has become one. God bless him.