|Ronnie MacDonald/Flickr/CC By 2.0/cropped and greyscaled from original Clutha Bar mural|
The year 1935 was a monumental one in terms of music, thanks to the birth of Elvis Presley. There was, however, another person born that year, who, while not reaching the absolute fame of Elvis, still impacted on the lives of people in much the same way – Alex Harvey.
Born in Tradeston, Glasgow on 5 February 1935 to Leslie and Greta Harvey, Alex grew up in The Gorbals during the period in which the area was famed for its poverty and gangs, though it wasn’t all completely grim. Alex’s parents encouraged both him and younger brother Les, born in 1945, to get a good education, while Leslie Sr also encouraged reading, with the end result that Alex became an inveterate bookworm himself. The supposed awfulness of The Gorbals also bred a strong sense of community:
“The same kind of conditions that breed a kind of dark terror and fear also breed a form of humanity – like if you leave your door open, people next door just walk in and out.” (Alex in Sounds, November 1973)
Alex still crossed paths with some of the gangster fraternity, described by him as some of the nicest people he’d ever met, but it was music that drew him in. He took up the trumpet, but when he was 19, his Uncle Jimmy Wallace gave Alex his old guitar and taught him some of the basics. From there, Alex was off. He still had to keep up a day job (36 in all he said in one American interview – including, allegedly Lion Tamer), but he would take the guitar busking, camping to sing with his friends and even landed the odd gig in rural bars, getting free board and drinks in return for entertaining the punters. He also taught his brother Les how to play. Les turned out to be immensely talented at it and would later go onto form Stone The Crows with his partner Maggie Bell – who Alex also introduced him to.
Rock and roll hadn’t broken when Alex became active in music. He loved the big jazz bands and played in a number of Glasgow groups, adding banjo to his repertoire of instruments. When rock n roll finally hit, Alex was keen to make the move from jazz. In 1957, he cemented this when he won the Daily Record’s contest to find the ‘Scottish answer’ to Tommy Steele. This resulted in Alex getting several bookings across Scotland and wasn’t without its colourful moments. He and Tommy Steele met, hit it off and had a night on the town in Glasgow. By interesting coincidence, the ship on which Steele had been a cabin boy was in the local docks, leading to a reunion with Steele’s former crew, and ended in the pair doing a runner from the authorities. Alex could also be found playing several locations across Scotland – at the same time as people cashed in on his success. There was also a humanitarian aspect to Alex’s gigs. One he played was a benefit for an elderly man found collapsed in his tenement flat with rats nibbling on him.
In 1958, Alex formed the Alex Harvey Big Soul Band. They were somewhat different to the norm. Alex recollected that they had one of the first bass guitars in Scotland and unusually for the time, wore denims. They also found themselves playing some interesting shows. Like the one in May 1960, when they opened for Johnny Gentle, one of the Larry Parnes stable, at Alloa. Backing Johnny Gentle were John Lennon, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney, with Lennon’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe on bass. A little later, the Big Soul Band were one of many recruited to play the clubs in the Hamburg Reeperbahn, where the Beatles famously cut their teeth. By all accounts, Alex was a fearsome performer with a formidable reputation in Hamburg.
Back in Glasgow, one Dennistoun teenager persuaded her parents to let her go to a Big Soul Band show. The 15-year-old Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie was entranced by Alex’s version of ‘Shout!’ and shortly after, found herself high in the charts as Lulu with her own version of the song that was remarkably similar in style to Alex’s. But in 1963, again in Hamburg, Alex got an opportunity to record with The Big Soul band when Polydor came sniffing. Alex Harvey and his Soul Band was recorded in about 12 hours, with Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes substituting the actual Soul Band at Polydor’s behest. The album was released in 1964 but saw little success. That year, Alex recorded a follow-up, The Blues, also in Hamburg with Les on guitar. Again the album was released the next year. Alex also released a couple of singles ‘Ain’t That Just Too Bad’ with Polydor and ‘Agent 00 Soul’ with the Fontana label. By 1965, things were petering out for The Big Soul band, and they split up.
By now, Alex was living in London. He played a number of house bands and random gigs, but he wasn’t happy and was looking for something more concrete. He joined the pit band for Hair! in 1967 playing guitar and was to remain there for five years. It wasn’t a dry time for Alex – the pit band weren’t a restricted theatre band and could play anywhere they wanted onstage. They also went into the recording studio for the 1969 live album Hair Rave Up, which included some of his own songs. Alex also played gigs around Hair! performances and was involved in Rock Workshop with Ray Russell. He also picked up a lot on staging shows from his experience in Hair! He released another solo album in 1969, Roman Wall Blues. By 1972, he was finding the Hair! band monotonous, and the musical was at risk after the theatre roof caved in. Alex left the pit band and formed a new trio, Unfortunately, the new group lacked the cohesion that Alex looked for.
A horrific incident that same year shook Alex to the core. During a Stone The Crows show at the Swansea Top Rank Theatre on 3 May 1972, Les was killed after being electrocuted by a poorly connected microphone, He was aged 26. His bandmates tried to save him to no avail and his partner, lead singer, Maggie Bell, witnessed the harrowing scene. Many of those closest to Alex believed he never truly recovered from Les’ death. Stone The Crows struggled to continue in the aftermath and disbanded.
Alex tried to deal with his grief by throwing himself into music and was on the lookout for a new band, particularly wanting a Scottish group. He soon heard of the prog-rock group Tear Gas and went to investigate.