Recent sad news reported on the official Rockin' Berries facebook page is that original Berries vocalist and founding member Clive Lea passed away on May 9th, 2021 at the age of 79. The Rockin' Berries were one of the first pop groups from Birmingham to have success in the national record charts and went on to enjoy a performing career lasting more than 50 years.
Robert Clive Lea was born February 16, 1942 in Birmingham and grew up in Longbridge. Clive began performing during the late 1950s with his own rock 'n' roll band known as "Clive Lea and The Phantoms".
In 1958 he won first place in an "Elvis of The Midlands" contest held at the Casino Ballroom in Birmingham. The contest was sponsored by the Evening Despatch newspaper. Clive convincingly performed the Elvis Presley record 'Paralysed' that won him an appearance on "Lunchbox" that was a live locally produced TV show hosted by future Crossroads star Noel Gordon.
It was partly Clive's talent for impersonations that got him the job with the newly-formed Rockin' Berries in 1960. Their ever-increasing number of bookings included trips to Germany in 1961 and 1962 when they were fronted by Jimmy Powell who would go on to be the first BrumBeat recording star.
Clive Lea remembered; "I was working at the time as an apprentice compositor in a printing shop. After I joined the Rockin' Berries I turned pro and we went to Germany. The first place we played at was called the Top Ten Club on the Reeperbahn. The Beatles were actually there at the same time at The Star Club that was just around the corner. They used to come and see us and we used to go and see them."
The Berries underwent a number of line-up changes before securing a recording contract with Decca Records by which time they were Chuck Botfield (lead guitar), Terry Bond (drums), Clive Lea (vocal), Geoff Turton (guitar and vocal), and Roy Austin (bass guitar).
Despite the release of a few singles and a TV appearance on "Ready Steady Go!" The group's contract with Decca proved to be a false-start and they were later dropped. But successful record producer John Schroeder had faith in them and he got the band to record a cover of The Tokens 'He's In Town' that was issued by Piccadilly Records in 1964. The single climbed to Number Three in the charts and the Rockin' Berries were now "pop stars" making regular appearances on radio and TV along with touring all over the country.
The Rockin' Berries photo shown here has from left to right; Roy Austin, Geoff Turton, Terry Bond, Clive Lea, and Chuck Botfield.
Although Geoff Turton sang most of the lead vocals on their records, it was Clive Lea who usually gained the most attention on-stage for his often madcap comedy routines and talent as an impressionist. His imitations of Norman Wisdom, George Formby, Tommy Cooper and many more including political figures, were a hit with audiences at the time.
Clive said; "We were one of the first groups to do comedy. No one else was doing that at the time. It worked very well for us and the audiences loved it. The Barron Knights did something similar but the comedy became a big part of our shows."
The Berries even recorded a single released in 1965 under the alias "The Village Idiots" on which Clive Lea performed comedy songs 'The Laughing Policeman' and 'I Know An Old Lady'. Both tracks were included on their second LP. Clive later recorded a couple of songs for a proposed solo single on Pye Records in 1968 that was never issued.
Despite more hit records including another Top Ten 'Poor Man's Son' in 1965 and having a total of 41 weeks in the UK charts, the Berries didn't gain a lot in financial terms from their records. Clive said; "We didn't get paid all that much you know back in the old days, not like they do today. I've never seen any money from the records we made."
The band's direction changed more towards comedy and cabaret for which Clive Lea's ability as a performer was well suited and in this way they were never short of work. As one of the top performing groups in the country they made a highly coveted appearance at the prestigious London "Royal Variety Performance" in 1967 for an audience that included Her Majesty The Queen and Prince Phillip.
The Berries ultimately went on to enjoy decades of success as a top act on the variety circuit including summer seasons at holiday resorts and Christmas pantomimes in support of many famous names. This involved touring all over the country and many trips abroad, even as far away as Australia. But a life on the road is never easy and Clive was married and divorced twice during his time in show business. He said with some regret; "I never saw my kids growing up."
In 1970, Clive Lea left the Rockin' Berries to go out on his own and during the next decade built up a respectable performing career in his own right. "I also did some work in radio and television with all sorts of well-known people" he said.
In 1980, Clive Lea joined popular performing comedy band "The Black Abbotts" as replacement for comedian Russ Abbott. This group disbanded by the mid 1980s and Clive went back to doing solo performances for a while. He said; "Then an amazing thing happened, something I'd always wanted to do, I went into pantomime, performing with Tom O'Connor at the Liverpool Empire. I loved this and went on to play characters like Old Mother Riley and Dame Edna."
While enjoying a decent living performing with loads of famous names for many years, Clive Lea eventually gave up his comedy career for a nine to five day job and to have more time with his family. This was a decision he never regretted.
Many years ago, I was very fortunate to do a phone interview with Clive Lea at the invitation of his son Marc. I found Clive to be very gracious and forthcoming in my questions and he was able to look back upon his career in show business with justifiable pride. Of course his mischievous sense of humour was still there and I was sworn to never repeat in public some of the stories I was told!
Clive's death comes less than a year after Rockin' Berries guitarist Chuck Botfield passed away in 2020.
My condolences go out to the family and friends of Clive Lea. For more information, go to the official Rockin' Berries facebook page.
To see more about The Rockin' Berries, click HERE.
Copyright © John R Woodhouse