A TRIBUTE to IAN LEES who passed away at age 74 on July 30, 2018. Ian was a well-known Black Country comedian and entertainer who used to make regular appearances on the popular "Tiswas" children's TV show. Some may not know that Ian began his long performing career during the 1960s as a pop singer who fronted a number of significant West Midlands bands.
The son of a coal miner, Ian grew up in Cannock with future Trapeze and Deep Purple singer Glenn Hughes who gave Ian his unusual nickname. A life-long supporter of "The Wolves" (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Ian recalled while a schoolboy playing football as goalie with his friends and diving for the ball until he became covered in mud. Glenn called him "Sludge" that day and the name stuck ever since.
Ian's academic career went out the window after he first heard American rock 'n' roll played on the radio and television. Buddy Holly was an early influence with Ian getting a guitar and imitating his hero. Following an appearance in a talent contest "Carol Levis Junior Discoveries" on TV in 1959 he recalled; "I was signing autographs round Cannock when I was 15 years old. I'd take my guitar and sing on the playground wall, then I'd be round the pubs. My dad went round with a pint glass collecting half-crowns. I used to sing for hours at the Black Horse in Cannock."
It was inevitable that Ian Lees would join a local beat group and so he became vocalist for "The Telstars" with whom he gained much experience before later "turning pro" and joining one of Wolverhampton's professional recording groups Finders Keepers in 1967 after working for them initially as a roadie. Ian said; "I had twenty jobs in two years, but all I was really interested in was getting a microphone in my hands and entertaining people."
Finders Keepers went over to Germany where Ian shared lead vocal duties with Roy "Dripper" Kent. The line-up changed on their return to the UK with Roy Kent leaving to form a new group called Light Fantastic - named after the first Finders Keepers record release. Bass guitarist Jake Elcock also left to join Wolverhampton pop group The Montanas.
Finders Keepers recorded their second single with Ian Lees on lead vocal titled 'Friday Kind Of Monday' and composed by John Barry, at the Fontana studios in London. This record had a big production job by producer Irving Martin with session musicians that included Clem Cattini and "Big Jim" Sullivan. The B-side was a group-written psychedelic sounding number called 'On The Beach'
Friday Kind Of Monday wasn't a hit but Finders Keepers remained one of the area's top bands. Ian Lees brought his old friends Mel Galley and Glenn Hughes into the line-up. Dave Holland from pop group "Pinkerton's Assorted Colours" and who later found fame in Judas Priest was their drummer during this time.
Finders Keepers split in 1969 to form a local 'supergroup' called Trapeze following lack of success of a third single titled 'Sadie The Cleaning Lady' although the song was later a big hit in Australia when covered by Melbourne pop singer Johnny Farnham. Mel Galley eventually found fame as guitarist for David Coverdale's band "Whitesnake".
Ian Lees then joined the well-known Wolverhampton pop group The Montanas in 1969 following the departure of their vocalist Johnny Jones and keyboard player Terry Rowley who both left to join Trapeze. Ian went on to record a single with The Montanas titled 'Lets Get A Little Sentimental' that was issued on the MCA label.
'Let's Get A Little Sentimental' gained a lot of airplay on many radio stations and very nearly became a chart hit in the UK. Amazingly, the record did make the Top 20 in America on east coast radio station charts in June of 1970 thus echoing the success of one of their previous singles 'You've Got To Be Loved' that was a "surprise" chart hit on the American west coast a few years earlier.
Ian Lees recalled; "I'd joined the band (The Montanas) temporarily. They wanted a good looking singer with an image but they couldn't find one so we went out on the road. I got George Davis from Cannock in on keyboards. 'Let's Get A Little Sentimental' was a fantastic record. Mike Leander produced it."
A year later however, Ian had to leave The Montanas when John Jones and Terry Rowley re-joined the band following disagreements after the release of the first Trapeze album.
Sludge soon joined Light Fantastic as their front man following the departure of their original vocalist "Dripper" Kent who Ian had performed with in Finders Keepers. Ian went over to Germany with them where they performed long hours into the night around Hamburg's notorious "Red Light" district.
Light Fantastic made a number of great records including a cover of The Hollywood Argyle's classic 'Alley Oop' for which Ian Lees would memorably perform on-stage wearing a leopard skin "caveman" outfit. Another song that gained them much attention was "The Monster Mash" sung by Ian while their bass guitarist Ron Dickson wearing fake fangs dripping blood would emerge from a coffin and run into the audience, terrifying many who were there!
Light Fantastic went on national tours in support of top groups "The Sweet" and "Mud" and also did much touring as headliners in Europe where they gained many fans. They appeared twice on the popular TV show "Opportunity Knocks" and made some brilliant records including 'Jeanie' that was written and produced by The Sweet, and 'Take Me Shake Me' neither of which, for whatever reason, were hits.
During this time, Ian Lees tried his hand part-time as a comedian. Already having a reputation as "A very funny man", he was never short of jokes so started doing a few spots of his own at working men's clubs where he was well received. He was offered more comedy gigs (and more money) which became a problem while still fronting Light Fantastic.
Ian recalled; "The booking agent George Sommers said give me a ring and I'll get you some Sunday lunch time spots. So I also did a bit of singing - David Essex 'Hold Me Close' and 'Stoned In Love With You' whatever... and started doing half-hour lunch times at fifteen and twenty quid. And then I was offered Wednesday nights at forty quid! I was still in the band then."
By 1975, Light Fantastic had the same management and record label as hit group "Showaddywaddy". They made another great record titled 'We Are The Song', but it was tough going always out on the road and chasing that elusive chart success. Ian Lees decided to give up the band and return to the West Midlands and do comedy full-time although he later made a few records of his own for the Philips and Charisma labels after leaving the group.
Ian Lees' trade-mark big head of curly hair and colourful "Liquorice Allsorts" jackets made him an obvious choice for television, making memorable appearances on the popular and anarchic kids show "TIZWAS". He also went on the long-running TV show "The Comedians". Wether it be a summer season at a holiday camp or long hours in many one night stands at smoky working men's clubs, Ian Lees was never short of work on the comedy circuit.
Ian Sludge Lees went on to make a name for himself and was much loved for his "naughty sea-side postcard" and "mother-in-law" type jokes that could not compete today against the modern and more politically correct "sophisticated" type of comedy.
Ian "Sludge" Lees will be missed by many and a sad loss of one of the Black Country's most colourful characters. His wry sense of humour was demonstrated when he recalled finishing second in the finals on "New Faces", a popular television show forerunner to "Britain’s Got Talent". True to form he said; "The winner went to Las Vegas. I went to Walsall Wood working men’s club!"
Selected quotes are from "Life Stories" Des Tong interview with Ian Lees.
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