"All music is folk music. I ain't never heard no horse sing a song." - Louis Armstrong
Eric began writing folk songs about the North East of England in the early 1970s. He didn't use the f-word to describe them, but it's the best identifier to most of us for his celebrations of the natural beauty of the region, its quirky traditions and characters and historical events. Sometimes the songs don't mention actual places but sound distinctly better in the Geordie dialect (it's interesting that the older the recordings are, the more pronounced the dialect, in line with the general dilution of regional accents...) Eric wasn't in fact a Geordie as that requires strict proximity of birth to Newcastle upon Tyne, but from Sunderland - not a mix-up you'd want to make in a football context, but as the local media was all based in Newcastle then Eric knew which side his stotty cake was buttered and would write about Tyneside as well as Wearside, Northumberland and Durham.
How Eric's local songs took off is slightly shrouded in mystery but in 1974 or 1975 'Take Me Up The Tyne', 'There's More To Life Than Women And Beer' and 'Everything Changes' appeared on this charity LP 'North By North East' put together by Newcastle Evening Chronicle. There was also a night of songs and on stage interview with local BBC television newscaster George House at the University Theatre (Northern Stage) in 1975 indicating the songs must have been getting around by then. It's believed John Hawkins and Evette Davis were the first singers.
By 1976 (and probably earlier) Eric was musical director of the annual Geordierama show at Newcastle City Hall: 'Sweet Waters Of Tyne', 'You'll Have To Settle Down', 'No One Else For Me' and 'Playing Hard To Get' featuring on the 'New Improved Geordierama' LP issued that year. Geordierama was a variety show of North East culture which had evolved out of a BBC Radio Newcastle programme and was usually hosted by George House and his BBC Look North colleague, the local legend that is Mike Neville. This featured spoof news stories, Geordie dialect guides written by Scott Dobson and musical acts including the Killingworth Sword Dancers, Shiremoor Marras, Tommy Waugh (fiddle) and Richard Butler (Northumbrian pipes), spoon-player Bert Draycott, clog-dancer Doris Hawkes and comedians including Bobby Pattinson. Eric was on piano and Ralph Hawkes, Marian Aitchison and Michael Hunt sang his and traditional local songs. Eric and this trio would repeat these roles in 'What Fettle!' which was a late night Tyne Tees Television programme in the late seventies for which he was musical director. The show was hosted by Ed Wilson and James Bolam (of When The Boat Comes In and The Likely Lads fame). They also appeared in the Newcastle and Sunderland episodes of a networked programme unambiguously called Sounds of Britain around the same time.
Most of Eric's most enduring songs date from the seventies. The LP 'Left To Write' (late 1979 or 1980) with its iconic sleeve kept a local caricaturist busy for a while although the whippet must be wondering why it only got to have a normal sized head. Songs of the 1970s:The Ballad of Geordie Washington
Bird Fly High
But It's Mine
Father's On The Beer Again
The First Footin' Song
The Golden Voice Of Bobby
I Cann't Help Havin' A Sort Of Feelin'
I Waited On The North Dock
It's Party Time Again
Jenny Was There
Lookin' For A Girl
North Of The Tyne
Nothing's Quite The Same
Ower Young To Be Married Yet
Playing Hard To Get
Sweet Waters Of Tyne
Take Me Up The Tyne
There'll Be No-one Else For Me
There's More To Life Than Women And Beer
Tyneside's Where I Come From
Welcome To Geordieland
When I Was A Lad
With Me Pit Claes On
You'll Have To Settle Down (also known as 'Mary Ann')
You'll Never Find A Woman Like Me
You Are For Me
You Little Waster
'When I Was A Lad', 'You Little Waster' and 'The Golden Voice Of Bobby' were written specially for the iconic and 'Pitmatic' stand up comedian and indeed he and Eric struck up something of a friendship. Bobby hadn't let fame go to his head and lived in a modest cottage in Whitley Bay with a handwritten sign in the front window: "Bobby Thompson, The Little Waster, lives here". Eric had taken him a cassette of something. "I wad purrit on, Eric," said Bobby, "but me radiogram's brerk". The songs appeared on 'Bobby Thompson's Laugh In' LP, now reissued on CD and 'When I Was A Lad' was a single in 1979.
Meanwhile 'Welcome To Geordieland' was commissioned by Tyne Tees to commemorate Jimmy Carter's visit to his ancestral home in Washington, Tyne & Wear in 1976. The President did apparently say "howay the lads" for the press but it's suspected "ordering bottles of broon" may be apocryphal. 'It's Party Time Again' was recorded by shock-jock James Whale who then hosted Metro Radio's Night Owls phone-in (yes, there was a time before Alan Robson). This is thought lost, as probably are Tyne Tees pantomimes Eric wrote songs for around the late 1970s featuring sensible newsreaders such as Bill Steel, Lyn Spencer and Neville Wanless putting on silly costumes for Christmas. One of these was a Victorian-themed melodrama called 'The Greatest Eidelberger Of Them All'. Eric was also involved in the revivalist Northern Music Hall Association which met at Balmbra's in Newcastle and later Joe Ging's Northern Music Hall Museum at Sunderland Empire Theatre. At these nights the audience and performers dressed in Victorian outfits, probably influenced by the contemporary television programme The Good Old Days.
Much of Eric's own output shows direct descent from the vaudevillian tradition - simple, memorable melodies, traditional western harmonies and plentiful wit and inneundo. Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas (of which Eric was a huge fan) were also influences, see the Gilbertian patter of 'The Rain Started Falling' and Sir Arthur's ubiquitous use of first inversion chords, preferably on a dominant 7th. The counterpoint of the Barbershop Quartet also turned up occasionally. It seems Eric saw the period from about the 1870s to the 1920s as something of a musical golden age and the experiments in the interim such as jazz and blues and their derivatives as something to be swept under the carpet.
Tyne Tees had by now put its programming budget into rock show The Tube and songs about leeks were never going to fit easily into Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence's pillow talk. However the Lord Mayor of Newcastle decided that Eric's songs were just what he needed to entertain an implausibly frequent stream of banqueting visitors to the region, and so the awkwardly named Sounds of Tyne & Wear was born, a kind of chamber trio with Joe Ging and Marian Aitchison also featuring Ging's funny monologues ("Nostalgia is something which happened a very long time ago. And at the time it was bloody awful"). Eric, despite being the first to admit he couldn't really sing, would occasionally do a comic number, particularly the divludian 'Rain Started Falling'. There was occasionally friction as the mayor would attempt to editorialise Eric's satirical numbers such as 'Sweet Waters Of Tyne' which includes the lines:
"There wes salmon once swam up the river for spawning
Now the forst to arrive always comes o'er queer
Floats back semi-conscious to warn all the others
Arriving in thoosands just off South Shields pier"...
Meanwhile Alan Price, of sixties rocksters The Animals, made the self-explanatory solo album 'Geordie Roots and Branches' in 1982 which included 'There's More To Life Than Women And Beer'. A year later was the musical 'Katie Mulholland' which is covered far too extensively here. In 1985 Eric moved to the rural Northumberland he had been writing about in his serious 1970s songs though ironically started more funny and political songs instead. Whippet-keeping and racing are still popular in the north, Social Security was another term for "the dole" at the time. Songs of the 1980s:The Doomsday Song
The Highland Chorus
I Got A Bun In The Oven
I've Got A Little Whippet
The Multiplication Song
The Rain Started Falling
The Social Security Waltz
They Don't Write Songs Like These
You'll Be Laughing
A Tyneside male harmony choir Spectrum run by the effervescent pianist Bob Jeffreys were now including Eric's songs in their repertoire, recording an album 'Spectrum Sing Boswell' and adopting 'You'll Be Laughing' as their signature tune. Bass Mick McCabe (also of Three In A Bar and Felling Male Voice Choir) usually took the vocal lead and some of these recordings appear on 2005's 'Archive'. Eric rarely performed himself after Sounds of Tyne & Wear came to an end with the death of Joe Ging in 1995. 'This Place Is On My Mind', performed at Durham Cathedral's 900th anniversary in 1993, harked back to Eric's more serious 1970s songs and 'The Great Longbenton Leek' ranks with the earlier comedy songs. Eric now lived almost within sight of Hadrian's Wall so this got a song as would the nearby Metrocentre later. One of Eric's favourite conversational gambits had always been global warming which he finally wrote a song about. Songs of the 1990s:
Come The Global Warming
The Gateshead Angel Of The North
The Ghost Of St Mary's
The Good Old Bad Old Days
Got To Get Away
The Great Longbenton Leek
I Will Marry A Boy From The Northland
I've Got A Daft Pigeon
This Place Is On My Mind
The Saga Of Hadrian's Wall
A Thousand Years From Now
Where Are We Going From Here?
Eric was busy writing again around the turn of the century thanks to international opera singer Graeme Danby. In between seasons with the Royal Opera and English National Opera Graeme would return to his native Ponteland, just outside Newcastle, and include Eric's songs in various summer open air concerts in the grounds of Northumbrian stately homes. Graeme and Eric became friends and the bass baritone would frequently phone up with unlikely topics for new comedy songs ("write a song about a tomato, Eric") which must have contrasted somewhat with what he had to sing during his day job. Graeme and his wife, Scottish soprano Valerie Reid have recorded two CDs of Eric's songs, and are the most recent commercial recordings available. Songs of the 2000s:Blinkin' Eye Millennium Bridge
The Frustrated Fishwife
A Geordie Love Song
The Girl From Outer Space
The Girl On The Cheviot Hills
Maybe This Is Love
My Girl From The North Land
My Gorgeous WWW Girl
What's Life All About?
Graeme and Valerie sang two of the songs Eric wrote for them at his funeral on 9 December 2009 at St Peter's Church, Humshaugh, Northumberland. Eric's songs continue to be performed in the folk clubs of North East England.
Lyrics to 'Sweet Waters Of Tyne' © Mawson & Wareham (Music) Ltd 1976
Rather apt Louis Armstrong quote from Stuart Maconie's excellent 'The People's Songs', Ebury Press 2013