Mint Audio 2021
Best years of one of Blighty’s best, if often forgotten, singers anthologized, contextualized and prepared for guilty-pleasure scrutiny.
England may have had its fair crop of crooners, yet none of them made any splash beyond the United Kingdom, and most of them got lost amidst the gusts of rock era – except Peter Skellern who came into prominence exactly during this period, because he was so much more than a simple singer. Classically trained pianist and songwriter, Skellern’s 1972 debut brought forth a single “You’re A Lady” which hit on both sides of the Pond, with a little less successful “Hold On To Love” following three years later, only further attempts at bestselling proved futile, and Peter, rapidly developing creatively, wasn’t keen on providing what producers wanted from him. That’s why the artist wrapped up his Decca stint, covered on 2019’s “The Complete Decca Recordings” set and moved on to the point where the brilliant “The Complete Island & Mercury Recordings” starts, comprising on three discs six albums and handful of contemporary cuts, many released on CD for the first time.
1975’s “Hard Times” turned out to be Skellern’s sole platter for Chris Blackwell’s label and, undoubtedly, his sole exclusively pop-oriented record, featuring, alongside Peter’s playful piano, crunchy group of seasoned masters. Of course, it’s difficult not to focus on George Harrison’s six-string presence on the idealistic, if half-comical, “Make Love, Not War” that segues into “A Capella” whose mini-oratorio harmonies are sublime, yet the hilarious vocal lines of “I Guess You Wish You’d Gone Home” or the vaudevillian polyphony of the album’s title track – to be sung by Ringo on “Bad Boy” – is equally irresistible, the singer’s many voices . over 80 parts spliced together, as honeyed as the purr of THE PIRATES’ Mick Green’s guitar. Still, the prevailing jovial mood of the melodic confectionery Skellern laces with Moog on “Baby What A Fool I’ve Been” and Hammond on the wordless “Snake Bite” is broken by the heartfelt balladry of “Goodbye, America Keep You Well” which will unravel its orchestral grace to complement Peter’s soaring delivery, and of “Let’s Sleep Late” which is utterly romantic.
Sharing the producer’s chair with Geoffrey Haslam for “Kissing In The Cactus” that saw the light of day in 1977, Peter displayed a freshly polished sound on the punchy likes of “Soft Falls The Rain” which caress the ear – or shuffle towards dancefloor, as does the adventurous “The Gun That Won The West” – as though to contrast the lyrical flow of the record’s stark titular number. Yet while Skellern’s silky pipes are set against his keyboards on “A Shadow Of A Dream” as if to emphasize these pieces’ MOR drift, the nuanced impressionism “Tonight In El Greco’s” – where vocals make a surprise entrance near the end – find Billy Livsey’s electric ivories laced with acoustic filigree courtesy of pre-SKY Kevin Peek.
With a tighter ensemble and brass arrangements embossed on most of the songs of 1978’s “Skellern” contained Peter’s last chart entry, a choir-supported “Love Is The Sweetest Thing” – a Tin Pan Alley staple whose minor achievement gave the Englishman on idea for a few subsequent albums – but his own serenades, such as the lush, hushed “You And I” which sets the intimately nostalgic tone for the entire record, were on par with this perennial and the translucent, vibes-embellished “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful” from Fats Waller’s repertoire. Skellern is back to his merry mode in instrumental boogie “Big “G” where the entire band seem inspired and in the camp “‘T’s All ‘Cos O’ You” and “When I Got You” where Peek will also briefly shine, yet the answer to the platter’s uplifting finale “Where Do We Go From Here” would be: to raid the Great American Songbook.
And that’s why the next year Skellern stalled his writing in favor of “Astaire”: a collection of standards the great Fred, who would praise Peter’s readings, used to perform. Irving Berlin’s evergreens like “Puttin’ On The Ritz” with original words and “Cheek To Cheek” suited Peter’s manner especially fine, so the chanteur eventually unleashed his inner crooner and rendered the strings-drenched pastiche of “Isn’t This A Lovely Day” as perfect as all the timeless pieces must fare. He comes across very cool on the Gershwins’ classics too, the multi-voiced “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” flipping between charm and passion, while “The Continental (You Kiss While You Dance)” and “Top Hat, White Tie And Tails” highlights his talents as orchestrator.
Just as elegant are Peter’s contributions for the “East Of Elephant Rock” film, the piano-driven movie theme first of all, added as bonuses here, but 1980’s “Still Magic” take the design further. There are four Skellern-penned numbers among familiar material, the synthesizers-smeared “Too Much, I’m In Love” edging into the new decade, “Over Her” surfing on a tender twang from MANFRED MANN‘S EARTH BAND’s Steve Waller, and the album’s entrancing title composition stresses the suppleness of the singer’s vocals. Yet Hoagy Carmichael’s “Memphis In June” and “Skylark” are wondrously patinated, whereas “Raining In My Heart” and “Deep Purple” have a velveteen touch to them.
Yet if Peter’s previous records were jazz-tinged, “A String Of Pearls” emerged in 1982 as a full-on jazz opus, with big band musicians replacing rockers – from the infectious “Busy Line” in which Skellern’s pipes explore lower register and his piano goes for jump blues, to “Deep Henderson” which marries brass to keys, to Benny Carter’s “Symphony In Riffs” – except for Cat Stevens’ sidekick Alun Davies. There’s also a sort of concept implemented, linking the soothing “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” to the blistering “Stormy Weather” and “I’ll String Along With You” to the platter’s pun-loaded title, and this time Peter inserted but one self-written song, “Tell Me That That Ain’t Wrong” that’s simultaneously elegiac and jolly, into the set as well as another Gershwins cut, “They All Laughed” that puts all his skills – as singer, as player, as arranger – under the spotlight.
After this release, Skellern stepped down from a solo path and first joined forces with Julian Lloyd Webber and Mary Hopkin in OASIS, the trio’s only album awarded a silver disc, before delving into musical comedy with Richard Stilgoe, and then composing sacred choral music. Peter died in 2017, yet his legacy lives on, the current set and its predecessor issued thanks to crowdfunding, and all profits from “The Complete Island & Mercury Recordings” will finance the creation of further archival documents of the same highest quality – because Peter Skellern’s creations more than deserve such a loving treatment.