The voice of Steve Ellis first burst out of radios on The Love Affair's 1967 recording of "Everlasting Love." A chart-topper in the U.K. and a hit throughout Europe, it failed to chart in the U.S. but set Ellis on a path of music-making that continues to this day. Edsel has taken a deep dive into his extensive career for an impressive new box set. Over 10 discs, Finchley Boy chronicles the Steve Ellis story both as a solo artist and with the groups Love Affair, Ellis, and Widowmaker.
In the period between January 1968 and July 1969, The Love Affair scored five U.K. Top 20 hits. Vocalist Ellis, drummer Maurice "Mo" Bacon, guitarist Rex Brayley, bassist Mick Jackson, and keyboardist Morgan Fisher created the classic Love Affair line-up (though a sabbatical from Fisher led to a revolving door of keyboardists). Playing on bills with artists like Long John Baldry, The Marmalade and The Iveys (later Badfinger), the group attracted the attention of Decca Records' marketing director John Cokell. After just one single on Decca, Muff Winwood arranged to bring the band to CBS Records. CD 1 of Finchley Boy chronicles the band's time at CBS including the entirety of the Everlasting Love Affair LP and its associated non-LP singles.
Producer Mike Smith and arranger Keith Mansfield backed Steve Ellis with the cream of London's studio crop on Buzz Cason and Mac Gayden's "Everlasting Love," already a hit for American singer Robert Knight. The December 1967 release entered the charts in January 1968 at No. 36; following a publicity onslaught from CBS, it made it to pole position on February 3. The Love Affair followed up the hit with another cover of a song popularized by Robert Knight, "Rainbow Valley," and then tapped songwriter Phillip Goodhand-Tait for subsequent A-sides such as "A Day Without Love," "One Road," and "Bringing on Back the Good Times." The Everlasting Love Affair featured these lushly-arranged pop nuggets alongside original band compositions and covers of songs such as Cat Stevens' "The First Cut is the Deepest," Joe South's "Hush," and Mike d'Abo's "Handbags and Gladrags." (The band members were allowed to play on the album tracks and B-sides though studio musicians were called upon for the A-sides.)
Successful package tours with artists including Herman's Hermits, Amen Corner, The Tremeloes and Scott Walker kept The Love Affair's profile high, but the band members were dogged by their identification as pure pop rather than rock. In December 1969, amidst frustration with the way management was handling the finances, Steve Ellis announced his departure from the group. The remaining members and new lead singer Gus Eadon pressed on, redubbing themselves as "L.A." and recording a sophomore album, 1970's New Day. CBS wasn't eager to lose Ellis, and signed him to a solo contract.
He was ushered into the studio to record both big orchestral numbers with "Everlasting Love" arranger Keith Mansfield and more rock-oriented material with Caleb Quaye and Hookfoot. For the Mansfield sessions, Ellis had access to the U.S. and U.K.'s top tunesmiths - hence the big recordings of Mann and Weil's "Good Time Livin'" and "Take Your Love" (the former with Blood, Sweat & Tears-esque brass and the latter given a bubblegum-style chart), Rogers Cook and Greenaway's "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart" (a hit for Gene Pitney and much later, Pitney and Marc Almond) and Jimmy Webb's lovely "Evie" (also recorded by Johnny Mathis and Bill Medley). Neil Diamond's "Holly Holy" was a more unexpected choice that ideally suited Ellis' commanding voice. With Hookfoot, Ellis persuasively tackled Leon Russell ("Pisces Apple Lady"), The Rolling Stones ("Gimme Shelter"), Dave Mason ("Can't Stop Worrying, Can't Stop Loving"), and Elton John and Bernie Taupin ("Take Me to the Pilot"). But only six sides were released on 45 RPM by CBS, and Ellis' debut album sat on the shelf until 2013. That album, now titled Rollin' with the '69 Crew, features on CD 2 here along with the balance of Ellis' diverse 1969-1970 CBS recordings including a boogieing take on Randy Newman's "Have You Seen My Baby" produced by Chas Chandler and featuring Zoot Money on piano and Jimmy McCulloch on guitar.
One curio from the early part of Ellis' career is the soundtrack to Loot, director Silvio Narazzano's 1970 film version of late playwright Joe Orton's dark comedy. Keith Mansfield, serving as composer, conductor, and soundtrack producer, tapped the singer to provide vocals for the songs he wrote with Richard Willing-Denton. Steve was joined once again by the A-list session veterans as well as background all-stars Madeline Bell, Doris Troy, Lesley Duncan, and Kay Garner for these (mostly) boisterous, hard-swinging tunes - "More, More, More" says it all - which capture the flavor of London in the late '60s. The Loot soundtrack is joined on the third disc of Finchley Boy by a couple of Italian language sides and an originally-unreleased single by Love Affair as well as by Steve's guest appearance on Peter Bardens' "The Answer."
Ellis was beginning to feel directionless and decided to return to the framework of a band. He was joined in Ellis by Zoot Mooney as well as guitarist Andy Gee, bassist Jim Leverton, drummer Dave Lutton, and percussionist Colin Allen. Signifying the shift in musical direction was the choice of producer: Ellis' good mate Roger Daltrey. The Who's lead singer brought a rootsy, stoned vibe to 1972's Riding on the Crest of a Slump, the first of the two Ellis albums on CD 4. Featuring songs by Steve, Zoot, and their bandmates, Riding was a ragged, bluesy affair that tapped into the zeitgeist of 1972 as much as "Everlasting Love" had in 1968. Closer to Faces than to The Who, the LP introduced Ellis' own compositions including the moody "El Doomo," mellower "Tune for Brownie," and raucous "Your Game," all showcasing the band's tight interplay. Mike Vernon replaced an unavailable Daltrey for the next year's follow-up, Why Not? Steve, Zoot, Andy Gee, and Dave Lutton were joined by new bassist Nick South for an album that's less cohesive than its predecessor if still filled with confident vocals, taut guitar licks, and Zoot's colorful keyboards.
Jon "Mojo" Mills' liner notes quote Zoot Money: "They were trying to turn [Steve] into Andy Williams." The two albums by Ellis rectified that, as would the singer's next endeavor - Widowmaker. The hard rock band fronted by Ellis featured Ariel Bender (a.k.a. Luther Grosvenor) and Huw Lloyd-Langton on guitars, Bob Daisley of Rainbow on bass, and Paul Nicholls of Lindisfarne on drums (with old pal Zoot guesting on keys). Signed to Don Arden's Jet label, Widowmaker toured with fellow Jet signees ELO as well as with The Who and Nazareth. Ellis was clearly at ease as a blues-rock wailer on such riff-heavy tracks as "Such a Shame" and "On the Road," but Widowmaker's self-titled debut also found room for country-tinged balladry ("Pin a Rose on Me"), torrid soul-gospel ("Shine a Light on Me"), and a loose, acoustic blues ("Got a Dream"). Three live tracks from a 1976 radio broadcast supplement the original LP. Tensions got the better of Widowmaker, though, and Ellis departed before the band's second LP. He was replaced by John Butler.
At Roger Daltrey's suggestion, Ellis engaged producer David Courtney for a new solo LP, 1977's The Last Angry Man. Though a small number of cassettes, eight-tracks, and a white label promo trickled out as well as a handful of single sides, the release was cancelled and didn't resurface until the 21st century. It found Ellis continuing on a mainstream rock path, warranting comparisons to Steve Marriott and Rod Stewart. He was joined by a band including A-list guitarists Albert Lee and Henry McCullough on original songs, Courtney's own compositions, and a relaxed cover of Sam Cooke's "Soothe Me." Ellis even revisited a stripped-down "Everlasting Love" in a throaty, Stewart-esque manner. It all added up to a "many sides of Steve Ellis" collection with strains of his past work - blues, country, pop, and hard rock - all evident throughout.
After the disappointing disappearance of The Last Angry Man, Ellis retreated from music entirely. Devastated by the passing in 1978 of close friend Keith Moon and determined to work on his sobriety, the singer became a dockworker. A 1981 accident broke both his feet; it would take years for him to fully regain his mobility. In 1983, he returned to his love of music by recording live-to-tape with a small band consisting of guitarists Eric Wright (with whom he began a songwriting partnership) and Gerry Pinner, bassist Mel Taylor, and drummer Oz Garvey. There's an immediacy and organic quality to these tracks - including a revival of "El Doomo" - which were first collected on the album Basement Days in 2001. The original Basement Days is paired on the seventh disc of Finchley Boy with a brace of demos originally issued as bonus tracks on the hard-to-find Tring release of Steve Ellis' Love Affair: Plugged In - Live at the Cavendish as well as with one live Love Affair cut and five previously unreleased singles including covers of "When a Man Loves a Woman" and the R&B oldie "Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache. Ellis is in fine form throughout, though the synthesized arrangements have aged less well.
Steve began work on a solo album in 1997 with the working title of A Little Modesty but that full-length set didn't reach fruition until more than a decade later. 2008's Best of Days (here on CD 8) found Ellis in a reflective mood. Though he again returned to the perennials "Everlasting Love" (in acoustic fashion) and "El Doomo" in new arrangements, new material was the main attraction. His friend Paul Weller contributed guitar and keyboards to "Step Inside My Love" and also appeared slinging his guitar for a live version of "Everlasting." Longtime pal Roger Daltrey was back, too, adding bluesy harmonica to "Nu Clear Blues" and a brief jaunt through the oldie "Yellow Rose of Texas." Ellis, who co-produced the album with Iain Dunnet, was revitalized on this collection of potent blue-eyed soul. Four bonus tracks round out the reissue, among them a dance mix of "Step Inside My Love" and covers of Richie Havens' "Indian Rope Man" and Tommy James' "I'm Alive" that first appeared on a 2005 Castle Music compilation.
2011's Ten Commitments, on CD 9, followed in this path as Ellis brought his distinctive sound to a set of some of his favorite songs. He hewed closely but effectively to the original arrangement of Buffalo Springfield's Neil Young-penned "On the Way Home" and reinvented The Beatles' "Please Please Me" with a relaxed mood. Buzz Cason and Mac Gayden's "Healing Touch" evinced his affinity for the "Everlasting Love" writers while "Never Say Never" was borrowed from Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan's 2008 album of the same name. Four bonus tracks have been added, three of which are from Ellis' appearance at the 2001 Memorial Concert for McLagan's late Small Faces bandmate Steve Marriott.
The Steve Ellis story is brought up to the date on the final disc with his 2018 album Boom! Bang! Twang! Paul Weller and Charles Rees co-produced the LP with Ellis at Weller's Black Barn Studios, and the former Jam/Style Council frontman's affectionate stamp is all over the record's varied renditions of songs by Tim Hardin ("Black Sheep Boy"), Jimmy Cliff ("Sitting in Limbo"), William Bell and Booker T. Jones ("I Forgot to Be Your Lover"), Gerry and the Pacemakers ("Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying"), and Mike D'Abo ("Glory Bound"). Their tight band wisely kept the feel rootsy and organic, leaving ample space for Ellis' burnished vocals. Weller co-wrote two tracks. The stomping yet sleek "Lonely No More," with its irresistible, driving soul vibe and Weller tickling the ivories, is a '60s hit that never was. The raw "Cry Me a River" instead recalls the ragged rock-and-roll of the next decade.
Steve Ellis hasn't stopped making music, as evidenced by one of four bonus cuts new to Boom! Bang! Twang! He and Weller recorded their jointly-written "Just to Simplify" in September 2021, evoking a loping Burt Bacharach groove. Ellis reveals in the liner notes that a new album is in the offing as well as a documentary about his extraordinary life in music. Compiled by the artist and Edsel's Val Jennings, Finchley Boy is a comprehensive and compelling look at seven decades of songwriting, singing, and recording from an artist for whom versatility has been paramount. The 36-page booklet boasts Jon "Mojo" Mills' detailed essay as well as photos, memorabilia, and full credits; Ellis has also hand-signed an insert of the cover photo. Each album (all remastered by Phil Kinrade at Alchemy Mastering) is housed in a paper sleeve within the sturdy slipcase. Steve Ellis' love affair with music is one that's clearly built to last.
Finchley Boy is available now at Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada!
David B says
Wow. Incredible review for an underrated talent. But mention must be made of the UKs finest backing singers... the sisters Sue and Sunny. They backed Ellis on Rainbow Valley, his Zoot set, and the Rollin with the 69 crew. Surely a four cd set of their contributions is long overdue. After all they've backed everyone from Mr Ellis to Frank Zappa, Bowie to Brotherhood of Man. But for now it's great to hear them singing with Ellis. Thanks again for the great review. Incidentally America was the only country to chart his Widow Maker set. And El Doomo had always been a favorite of mine.