‘Jackie Wilson said, ‘You ain’t gotta dance Eddie!’

Eddie Holman
Eddie Holman

A soul singer dubbed ‘the world’s greatest falsetto’ visits the UK this weekend for a headline show at Preston’s Got Soul. MALCOLM WYATT caught up with Eddie Holman at home in Pennsylvania before his flight.

Eddie Holman was up at 5am the day I called him, and two hours later the 68-year-old Baptist minister and soul legend was definitely on a roll.

That was Philadelphia time, five hours behind the UK, the man credited with the world’s greatest falsetto bounding down the stairs then stepping carefully over his sleeping cat while readying himself for my questions.

The following day he was bound for the UK, with four dates lined up, the first for Preston’s Got Soul at 53 Degrees tomorrow (December 5).

By the time we were done, half an hour later, he’d set the record straight on several tales that left me in no doubt that Eddie is no one-hit wonder, as anyone who loves ‘60s and ‘70s soul should know.

My Guinness British Hit Singles suggests otherwise, this US vocalist spending 13 weeks in the charts with 1974 top-five hit Hey There Lonely Girl. But there’s a lot more to his story than that defining disc.

It’s 45 years since Eddie released Hey There Lonely Girl, but it’s had a life of its own since, as this genial grandfather of nine concurs.

“Oh yeah! We recorded it in September 1969, releasing it in the US on my third wedding anniversary on October 29. And Sheila and I are now 48 years married!”

Oddly enough, the UK release followed on their eighth anniversary, by which time Eddie was already a name on our homegrown soul scene.

“There was so much great music happening, but one thing about the British market – they’re faithful if they like your songs and your music, even stuff you recorded that wasn’t a hit!”

Eddie laughs, but is genuinely appreciative of his support this side of the Atlantic, not least the love of Northern Soul’s in-crowd.

“The UK market didn’t forget about those songs. They know a lot more about what you’ve done than you know yourself sometimes!”

Eddie was singing by the time he was two, his mum introducing him not only to public performance, but also to guitar and piano at a very early age.

“I had a wonderful mother. She was a beautician and a beautiful woman. I’m a handsome man, and a handsome man has a beautiful mother!

“She made the sacrifices that gave me singing lessons, dancing lessons, piano lessons, guitar lessons…

“She got me on at the Apollo when I was 10, when I won the Amateur Hour, winning first prize. Now I’m a living legend at that theatre, all because my mother believed in me. Yes sir!”

That’s the Apollo Theater, in the Harlem neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York City, perhaps best known for James Brown’s seminal recordings there in 1962, and revered in classic ‘60s soul circles as well as the world of swing and gospel.

From the 1930s onwards, the venue’s amateur night led to breakthroughs for the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Sammy Davis Jr., The Supremes, Wilson Pickett, Jimi Hendrix, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Dionne Warwick, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, The Isley Brothers, and many more.

But it was Jackie Wilson who proved the biggest influence on young Eddie.

“My mother had a great ear for music and a beautiful voice. She had a wonderful career herself, but was the one who took me to see all these people.

“The first time she took me to the Apollo, I was eight and Little Richard was headlining, with The Flamingos also on the bill.

“I knew right then and there I had to have that, and that was for me. She introduced me to Jackie Wilson, Nat King Cole, all these wonderful artists.

“I’ve seen everybody, and let me tell you something, the greatest artist and entertainer I’ve seen that influenced me was Jackie Wilson.

“This man loved me. We toured from New Haven, Connecticut, down to Tampa, Florida, and he told the promoter, ‘I want Eddie Holman to share my dressing room’.

“He took me under his wing and told me a lot of wonderful things that only someone with the talent and experience he had could share.

“Not to mould myself into a Jackie Wilson clone but develop what I had and what God gave to me.

“Jackie said, ‘You ain’t gotta dance, Eddie, and don’t have to be running around the stage. All you have to do is stand in front of the microphone and sing.

“I do that to this day, and get a standing ovation. He was right. That was some great advice, man!”

Eddie’s talents blossomed and appearances followed on NBC’s The Children’s Hour and at venues like Carnegie Hall while at Harlem’s
Victoria School of Music.

He went on to open for LaVern Baker, Dinah Washington, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Ruth Brown, and more, while remaining in touch with Jackie Wilson.

Today, despite his advancing years and his ministry back home, he remains a regular on the road on both sides of the Atlantic, and Friday’s Preston’s Got Soul visit is followed by a night in County Durham, a show at Wigan The Cube, and a private gig.

So how long has he been aware of a love of his songs on the Northern Soul scene?

“Many years! Going back to the ‘80s, I’ve always been fortunate to have done a combination of work in the UK.

“As well as my rock’n’roll and pop engagements I’ve been fortunate enough to have some wonderful followers on that Northern Soul scene.

“It’s an advantage when your music crosses all genres. That’s when you get to work! And I do them all - rhythm’n’blues, soul, Northern Soul, pop, the legends …”

Songs like I Surrender and Eddie’s My Name never seem to be out of fashion with 60s soul lovers.

“I Surrender is the theme song for a new movie filmed in England, coming out in the very new future, called The Brother. There’s also a documentary including that song.

“But for a lot of these songs remembered on that scene, I was just a teenager. I have grandchildren older than the age I was when I recorded those songs!”

Then there was late ‘70s dance success, This Will Be A Night To Remember.

“I tell the Northern Soulers that song helped send my oldest son to his music college. I wasn’t eligible for grants and so on because of my income, so had to work to pay for his tuition and put money in his bank account.

“It was similar with my other kids. The record company took wonderful care of me and I was in demand here too, coming over to do concerts and shows up and down the UK, from the Midlands to Scotland, Manchester, all over.

“I never took it for granted. When I had a date, I’d go out there and take care of business, giving the people what they wanted. It’ll be the same this time. ”

Has that distinctive high voice taken some looking after over the years? And what’s his secret? It can’t just be tight undies, surely.

“Not just tight undies - although that helps! You really have to take good care of yourself, and this is my 56th year in show-business as a professional performer.

“You can’t be around this long and be the best at what you do if you’re not taking care of yourself. You have to take pride in what you do.

“People pay to see you perform, so you give them your very best. I don’t even have a wrinkle and don’t even look 45 – even if Hey There Lonely Girl has been around 45 years!

“I don’t say that to boast, but encourage everyone to know they can do the same if they take care of themselves - no matter what they do for a living.

“My voice is more powerful now than when I was a teenager. The reason I’m the King of Falsetto is that can’t nobody sing the way I sing.

“Only the strong survive. Other artists just stand and watch me and can’t believe it.”

I can’t see Eddie going through the motions on an off-night. Is it all or nothing with him?

“You just hit it there! That’s one of my favourite Frank Sinatra songs. I’m that kind of guy – it’s all or nothing at all!

“If you come to see me, you’re going to see a great performance! I know where it’s at! I’m going to come on and please my audience. And they’re gonna be amazed.”

And how important was he in creating what we now see as that ‘70s Philly sound?

“No ifs and buts about it. I put the sweet soul sounds of Philadelphia on the map. There’s never been a singer greater than me!

“My first hit record I wrote and co-produced, This Can’t Be True, was one of the most beautiful ballads of all time, and inspired anybody and everybody that could even think of falsetto.”

Eddie tells me about his days with the stars of that era, including tales about good friends like McFadden & Whitehead and The O’Jays’ front-man Eddie LeVert.

While relocating from New York City to Philadelphia as a teenager, Eddie’s early years were spent in Norfolk, Virginia.

“My father passed away when I was three, and my older sister moved to Brooklyn when she was 21, so my mother decided to move to New York too.

“And you never know how God has a plan for you! That opened up a career and all those doors for me, and I’ve been blessed all my life.

“I also had a wonderful step-father, and through him we moved to Philadelphia. I’ve been here ever since. It’s where I met Sheila, and where my sons and grandchildren were born.”

Sheila co-wrote several of his songs too, but before all that Eddie was at teacher-training college when he recorded This Can’t Be True, the first of his stateside hits.

“I was prepared to teach school, but didn’t have the patience to teach kids. I was a kid myself! I knew it was pivotal moment when I wrote that song though.

“Even back then I was taking my career in my own hands. I’ve never really had to depend on someone else for something I can do for myself.”

As it was, it was someone else’s song that made his name, re-inventing Ruby and the Romantics’ 1963 hit Hey There Lonely Boy.

“I was in high school when that was a hit, and remember dancing to it. When it was recommended to me by Peter de Angelis, I said, ‘I don’t wanna do this!’

“But he said, ‘Don’t take the final decision, take it home to Sheila, talk it over and see what she thinks’.

“When I told her about it, she said, ‘You know you like that song! If you sing that song as Hey There Lonely Girl, it’ll take care of us for the rest of our lives!’ And she was totally right.”

Between shows, Eddie is also committed to his Baptist church duties, working closely with community leaders for the last 30 years, determined to inspire neighbourhood spirit and family values, and improve social conditions.

“It keeps you grounded. I’m proud of my accomplishments, of my wife, my sons, my grandchildren, my career. But most of all, I’m proud of my relationship with God.

“I thank God for blessing me, favouring me, having mercy on me and taking care of my wife, my family and friends.

“Of all the things I’ve ever accomplished I have to give all the honour and glory to God, for allowing me to do all the things I do.”

Is there a time down the road where Eddie might put down the mic?

“As long as I can sing, I don’t ever foresee not singing. I don’t look 68, and the older I get the more jobs I get, the bigger my career gets.

“Eubie Blake, one of the greatest entertainment legends of all time, was rediscovered aged 90, and couldn’t be touched.

“I don’t even have to be rediscovered - I ain’t gone no place! I see myself performing on a grand scale at 95 years old.

“If the Lord blesses me with longevity and I’m still in the land of the living, I’d love to be singing my butt off then!”

•Eddie Holman’s Preston’s Got Soul show, including five DJ sets, is at 53 Degrees this Friday, December 5 (8pm - 2am, 18s and over), with tickets £15 in advance (£20 on the door) or via www.53degrees.net the venue or £20 on the door.