"I have been singing at Gay Prides for 36 years all over the world. I have performed at an estimated 150+ events here in the UK, across Europe, America and even South Africa. I am a gay icon."
By Cameron Knibbs| July 15th 2020
Feature Image Credit: Shay Nicol
In Conversation With... Hazell Dean
Hazell Dean has produced many a top ten single during the eighties, including the hits ‘Searchin’ (I Gotta Find A Man)’ and ‘Who’s Leaving Who’, but there is far more to Dean than that. From entering A Song for Europe, and producing top ten singles, through to writing and remixing for other acts, as well as becoming a gay idol, it is amazing that the workaholic ever had time to give an interview, let alone raise a family. Here, Hazell Dean discusses her career from humble beginnings to the heights of the eighties, and her stand on equality…
Usually the first experience of music, what did you grow up listening to?
I grew up listening to The Beatles, Rolling Stones; all the pop bands of the 60. I wanted to be a Beatle; I wanted to be Paul McCartney! I also remember being a teenager and hearing Tamla Motown for the first time. Bands like The Four Tops, The Supremes, The Temptations, and so many other great bands and singers from that period of time. I loved them all. I even got to sing My Girl with The Temptations in the 80s.
Can you tell us about your journey into music, before the discovery and record labels?
I learnt to play the guitar at school in the 60s and became a part of a school band, playing at lots of school clubs. When I was 16, I left school and joined a local band doing lots of gigs in the Essex area, where I was introduced to Jazz. This was the time I really realised I had a voice, and not just a guitar player. So, my vocal career began. Being dyslexic I found school really difficult, making music and singing, to be honest, my salvation.
As a teenager I would travel into London from Essex once a week for singing lessons at the Maurice Burnham School of Singing. I will be forever be grateful to my vocal teacher, Freddie, but it was one of the best things I ever did for myself.
In 1970 (I was 17), I started my first professional job. I did an audition arranged by the Maurice Burnham School of Singing. The gig was in Stoke-on-Trent with a band called The Jimmy Goff Arrangement. The venue was The Crystal Ball Room in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, a chain of venues owned by the mighty Mecca company. It was a big shock to the system as I worked five nights a week. I lived in a bedsit, had no idea how to cook, but life would never be the same again.
Was there any point in which you thought about giving it up?
I never thought about giving up.
Along with a lot of hard-work, things changed when you worked with Paul Curtis. How did you meet him?
I sang in many bands in the 70s in many different parts of the country. In 1973 I was singing with a band called The Mike Holly Sound at another Mecca venue, and The Cats Whiskers in Streatham, London. I loved this gig as I made some wonderful friends who I am still friends with to this day. But after a couple of years I knew it was time to move on and try something different.
So, I answered an ad in The Melody Maker, and joined a band called Union Express who were looking for a female vocalist. I had to do an audition with the band, which was the first time I met singer/songwriter Paul Curtis. He liked my voice and so I joined Union Express – a band that were on the road – another shock to the system. With that came a lot of traveling in a Ford Transit Van, dodgy B&Bs, working men’s clubs, and not knowing what you would be earning on a weekly basis. A heady mix.
This period of my career would not last for long. I remember becoming very ill after staying in a very damp, out-of-season holiday camp in Cleethorpes. I had to leave the band. After recovering from that little episode, I took driving lessons, as I never wanted to travel in a band van again. I needed my independence.
I met Paul Curtis again in 1975 when I was singing with the fantastic Andy Ross Band at the Lyceum in London. Saturday night at the Lyceum was billed as The Best Disco in Town, and a gig that I really loved. Paul often used to come along and say hello, and was writing and recording a lot around this time. He had always liked my voice and wanted me to record some demos with him. Once I heard my voice recorded I knew my life and career were going to take on a new direction; I wanted to be a recording artist.
I will always be grateful to Paul. We recorded so many demos together, and he taught me so much about the recording process, backing vocals etc.
How did the opportunity to sign yourself to Decca come about?
Paul Curtis was a big part of my life at this point in time, and we managed to secure a record deal with Decca Records. Paul was a networker and would always be out and about with record companies, A&R guys, and record pluggers of the day. Frank Rodgers (brother of Irish singer Clodagh Rodgers) was the head of A&R at Decca, and was responsible for signing me to the label. I recorded three tracks with Paul Curtis (who also produced and wrote two of the tracks) and Pip Williams did all the arrangements. The songs we chose were Our Day Will Come, a classic cover version [of Ruby and the Romantics], plus two original songs written by Paul; Gotcha Where I Want You, Babe, and a fantastic ballad, I Couldn’t Live Without You For A Day, which was eventually entered into A Song for Europe.
You mention one of your first singles, Our Day Will Come. That must have been a great experience to hear your voice on a physical record.
Our Day Will Come received radio play, and I do remember hearing it for the first time on Radio 1, when David Hamilton played it on his show. It was a very special moment.
How did you find out you were going to be participating on A Song for Europe?
We entered Couldn’t Live Without You into A Song for Europe in 1976. This competition was such a grand affair back in those days. It was filmed live from the Royal Albert Hall with a full orchestra (not a backing track in site) and I was terrified. I had rehearsed every day from the moment I knew our song had been accepted into the final eight songs. There is some great footage of this on YouTube, which brings back so many memories of my parents in the audience. I think they may have been more nervous than me on the night.
The recording session was amazing and I will never forget the feeling I felt when working with a full string section. Pips string arrangements were so powerful, and I was completely overwhelmed by the finished product.
Brotherhood of Man eventually won the competition with Save Your Kisses For Me. The event at The Royal Albert Hall was a great experience for me, and hey, at least I lost out to the song that won Eurovision.
A week after the event I was contacted by Victor Billing, who had managed Dusty Springfield and Kiki Dee, two singers who I greatly admire. Victor became a very important part of my life for several years, and I will always be grateful to him for helping me with my performance, and giving me the confidence to be a better solo performer.
Was your first album, The Sound of Bacharach and David, set to be a debut, or was it only to be sent to radio stations for promotional use?
The Sounds of Bacharach & David was never an album on release, it was a session that Paul and I did for The BBC as library music. It was recorded before the Decca period and used for late night radio shows.
I am a huge fan of Bacharach & David, but was disappointed with this album as I had to sing it very straight and could not put my own personal stamp on it. It was picked up by some of my fans many years later. It is something that some fans wanted to have. Cherry Pop did put it out, but I always felt a little uncomfortable with it, as for me, it is cold and clinical; it has no soul.
Despite having a fantastic voice for soul, you made the decision to jump to dance. What encouraged that decision?
I still love soul songs and do incorporate a couple of 80s soul songs in my show. In the early 80s I had a publishing deal with Charles Aznavour. I was living in London, writing songs by day with my old piano, and singing with different bands by night. My recording career had come to a grinding halt, and Decca was fading fast, never to be revived.
I had a call out of the blue in 1983 from a guy called Ian Anthony Stephens, who tracked me down as he had heard my voice on a track called Our Day Will Come, which unbeknown to me was big on the Northern Soul scene during the 70s. He sent me the track Searchin’ ( I Gotta Find A Man). I just knew this song was special. The production was very different and so fresh. I had to sing it.
What was it like at the change of the decade, with fresh sounds – the new synth sounds?
I didn’t really get into the new sounds of synths until 1983. I was still living in the world of singing in bands and had started recording demos of my own songs, learning about productions on a little 8-track studio in Chiswick (Fast Buck Studios). Happy memories!
Searchin' (I Gotta Find A Man) was a massive hit in the 80s within the gay scene. What was it like seeing people dancing and moving to your music?
Searchin’… became a massive gay anthem throughout the 80s, not only in the UK, but also the USA, and all over Europe. It was a huge dance track in the States, staying at number 1 on the Billboard Dance Chart for five weeks. 1984 saw it reach number 6 in the UK chart. People loved (and still love) dancing to Searchin’! It was one of the first, if not THE first ‘Gay’ record to cross over into the mainstream chart and hit the Top 10.
I was a busy girl, with PAs all over the world throughout 1983 & 1984!
Continued chart success came to you, with They Say It's Gonna Rain reaching number one in South Africa.
They Say It’s Gonna Rain was a massive number 1 hit in South Africa, as well as a big hit in Sweden, and a radio favourite in the USA, particularly in Florida. I remember hearing it on the radio many times whilst walking down Ocean Drive, Miami. It was always such a thrill. I toured the USA every year from 1983 to 1991, and have great memories of those times.
What inspired the single, and the decision to include South African sounds, at a politically and culturally tense period? Just look at the comments made against Paul Simon with Graceland.
Ian Anthony Stephens first played They Say It’s Gonna Rain to me, and it always stuck in my mind.
I always felt the construction was wrong. It was written by Delius and Sanders who recorded and released a version with the African (Zulu) chants. I played around with the song and came up with a new construction.
Sadly, when I had the number 1 hit, I didn’t get to visit the country as did not feel comfortable performing to an entirely white audience in an apartheid county. The times were culturally tense, but I never had any kind of backlash. In fact, the song is loved in Africa. It is a sad love song, and people love sad songs.
Despite the success, the nineties led to a change in sound and you left behind the label, and producers Stock, Aitken, and Waterman. What led to this decision?
The 90s did indeed lead to a new dance sound, and the track I always remember hearing was Ride on Time by Black Box. That song heralded for me an entirely new sound, and was the track that made me realise that times were changing.
There were lots of changes going on at PWL too. No one really knew what direction we were going in. My last SAW/PWL release was in 1991, named Better Off Without You, which is a great song, and had it been released in the 80s, who knows…
I left in 1991 with a heavy heart, but no bad feelings, and it was very sad. A new decade, and time to leave.
You left the record label and began working with Ian Levine, and started writing and producing for others. What led you to explore new avenues?
I have known Ian Levine since 1983. He did the first remix of Searchin’… and during the early 90s I did a lot of session work with Ian. He knew I wrote and asked me if I would like to write some songs with him. It was a very creative period, writing and demoing by day, and working at weekends with my Hazell Dean Track Show (I have never stopped working!).
I enjoy working with other artists and love being involved in the production process. At that point in my career and personal life, I had the time to do it.
Could you recount some of those memories of working with other artists?
I started productions with other artists on my own label (Paul Tams/Hazell Dean) for Queen of Hearts, produced by myself and a friend/colleague, Pete Ware. Peter and I had been working on demos and masters since about 1983, and we had just finished the album The Winner Takes It All Album on Carlton Records in 1995.
We did a remake of the Pet Shop Boys’ It’s A Sin, with Miquel Brown (Sinitta’s mother). That was a great session. Miquel had also been big on the gay charts in the 80s, and her most known track was So Many Men, So Little Time. We also did a cover version of the Rose Royce track, Is It Love You're After, with Tina Charles. I really enjoyed this time, and the music released on Queen of Hearts.
My favourite project was with a band called Krave. We recorded four of my own songs, and they were fantastic on stage. I co-managed them. We did lots of under 18s discos and showcases with this band. I even took the tracks to Simon Cowell who worked with RCA records at the time (I have known Simon for many, many years), and it was a fantastic meeting. He wanted us to set up a showcase for him to see them perform live. All was going well until we called to say we were ready, but Simon was really busy as he had become involved with a show on ITV called The X Factor. He never did get to see Krave perform.
That was such a blow. With hindsight, we should have put them up for The X Factor, but at the time we were not really sure what the show was all about. Unsurprisingly, the band got restless after this and one member left. We eventually parted company, but I always felt sad that we couldn’t have taken it further. Damn The X Factor!
Some time passed in the early 2000s before you began re-releasing and creating mixes again. Did you just want a break from three decades of music?
Life had changed. In the late 90s, Peter Ware moved to Spain with his family, my daughter was born in 2004, and nothing would ever be quite the same again.
My live shows continued as always. This has been constant throughout my career, but for three years I did not enter a recording studio.
What encouraged you to begin working with Ian Levine again, and come back to the music scene as a whole?
Ian Levine just called out of the blue asking me if I fancied recording and writing a track with him and the late Clive Scott, who I had also worked with on other projects, along with Ray Hedges in the 90s. We wrote and recorded a track called Trade Him For a Newer Model.
In 2011 I recorded three Albums with Energise Records. I really enjoyed recording and co-producing these albums with Peter Ware.
It is fantastic to see you performing, and especially at many LGBT+ Pride events. Is there a particular reason you are drawn to these events?
I have never, ever stopped performing live!
I was singing and working with live bands long before I had hit records, and have continued to do so after hit records. I still perform at clubs, but not as much as I used to. I much prefer performing at huge festivals across the UK. I love it! I will be back on the festival circuit in 2021.
I have been singing at Gay Prides for 36 years all over the world. I have performed at an estimated 150+ events here in the UK, across Europe, America and even South Africa. I am a gay icon. I have been nominated for an ITV Diversity Award in two categories; Lifetime Achiever, and Positive Role Model. I believe in equality for all.
Looking back, are there any songs that stand out as having significant importance to you; the one that was hardest to write, the one that brings you the most joy...?
Well, obviously Searchin’ as the first song to put me in the charts; it has to be up there. It will always be special to me.
I cannot really remember what was my hardest song to write, but one of my favourite songs, a song that I am very proud of writing and one that is particularly poignant now, a song that is a call for unity and equality: Judgement Day.
Despite the global pandemic we find ourselves in, do you have any plans on the horizon you can talk about; can we expect any new material, are you producing anything?
I have a couple of live shows booked this year, but to be honest, who knows if I will be able to do them. We will have to wait and see what the government advice is nearer to the date.
That said, 2021 year is looking good. I have a Pride event and lots of festivals booked already. I do have a couple of projects recording wise but again nothing will be happening until 2021.
Whilst we are left waiting for the projects Hazell Dean has hinted at, you can still listen to all the hits and deep cuts of Hazell Dean on Spotify. Be sure to also keep up-to-date on the latest projects and confirmed events via her website and Facebook.