Mari Wilson: The Neasden Queen of Soul

She had a UK Top 10 hit, spent the 80s touring the world with her 12-piece band The Wilsations and later took the lead in Dusty the Musical. Mari Wilson is currently on tour but took time out to talk to The Early Hour…

(This interview was originally published in October 2015).

Mari Wilson, 60, is a songwriter, performer, mother-of-one and married last year for the first time. Here she talks family, fame, the music industry and shedding negative people from your life… 

What was your upbringing like?
Very working class. My parents were Scottish – dad came to London aged 17 looking for work. His sister was already here, in Neasden, northwest London, and he got work for London Transport, in a power station.

Mum always wanted to be an actress or singer but being from that generation, and working class, didn’t see how it could happen. She had three children – I have an older sister and brother – and there was always lots of singing, as dad was musical too.

We spent our days playing outside. On Sundays we used to eat so much – huge breakfast, roast dinner, tea with sandwiches. But we were outside all day, running around, burning off so much energy – all typical 50s-60s behaviour.

My brother and I used to sing a lot together, harmonise Beatles and Beegees songs, the Hollies. I went to a grammar school because I passed my 11-plus, which was good at the time, but I didn’t really want to be there.

My head teacher used to say: your problem is you just want to be a pop singer, on Top of the Pops. And I’d say: I will be on Top of the Pops one day, you’ll see. And I was.

I loved Lana Turner from the old Hollywood films. She wore a gold lamé housecoat. I used to think: that will be me

At what stage did you decide to become a performer?
I was about five years old. I was encouraged to sing by my parents, as they knew I had a nice voice. But nobody knew back then how you’d get into it. Kids of 12 now know they’ll go to this acting school, do that – and they’re on their way.

My brother was in bands and had a few record deals; he’s still performing now. He was in a band called The Dodgers; they had quite a lot of attention. He’s written songs for Cliff Richard. So I was watching what he was doing.

How did you kick start your career?
Because I wasn’t brought up middle class, and because I was a girl, when I saw the career advisors, they’d say: you should be a nurse or a secretary. They never said: what do you think about a career in music?

But when you want to do a particular thing, you find yourself moving in these circles, so you hang out with people in bands and who are writing songs. I soon started doing backing vocals for people here and there.

I did some work in Elephant Studios, Wapping. Graham, the guy who owned it, phoned me. It must have been in the evening, as there were no mobiles back then, and I was working in an office at the time.

He said some guys had written a song. No one could make it work so far. It was by Tot Taylor. I sang it, and they loved it so Tot and I started making music and it just snowballed. Paul Baltitude was around then; he became my drummer.

Tot was also an artist – a performer – and he sent a record to CBS, which doesn’t exist any more. It was all his stuff but with my vocals on the end. And they really liked me so we got a single deal. Then we were on the Annie Nightingale show.

Tot phoned the Evening News one day and said David Bowie had been seen buying a record by Mari Wilson. They printed the story and then everyone was saying: “David Bowie bought your record!” He was always doing stuff like that.

For the next four years, I toured the world with a 12-piece band; The Wilsations. We had a laugh. It was fun. I was getting a lot of attention for the way I looked – my clothes, my hair. It was all anti-glamour punk and then there was me – dressing up.

My records got played and it wasn’t just because of the way I looked – they were good songs. But then Tod ran out of steam – he was under too much pressure – and the second album never saw the light of day.

When did you adopt the beehive hairdo?
I shared a bedroom with my sister, who’s eight years older than me, and all the way through the 60s she was trying these different styles: bouffants, beehives, false eyelashes.

I also loved Lana Turner from the old Hollywood films. She wore a gold lamé housecoat. I used to think: that will be me. And I have been known to do that – swan around in fancy negligee – but mostly in warmer countries.

You don’t really find me in a pair of leggings, or in jeans. I buy them then I put them on and go ‘no, I’m not just a jeans girl’. I feel very underdressed.

I didn’t do much singing because I really wanted to be a mum. I didn’t want to be someone who had a baby then handed it over to someone else and went back to work

Who did you idolise, growing up?
Judy Garland – she’d break your heart with just a couple of lines. Dusty Springfield. The Supremes. Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye – all the Motown people.

But also: Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor – the hippie Laurel Canyon LA stuff. When I think of who I tried to sing like – I think it was John Lennon; I loved his phrasing and delivery.

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You had a top ten hit with Just What I Always Wanted, and then what happened?
The record company wanted me to get away from Tot – but I felt loyal. Roger Ames, from EMI, said: I think you should go solo, not with Tot Taylor, just sign with London Records. That might have been really top stuff – but looking back, I was too nervous.

Tot made loads more money than I did – he wrote the songs and didn’t have to tour; I had to pay the band. I wasn’t very well looked after. Roger Ames was right – I should have done the Dusty thing, left everyone behind and become a solo artist.

But I’d also just fallen in love with someone who I was with for 18 years. I walked away from everyone – from Tot, record management. I was in litigation with the record company for two years; I couldn’t do any recording.

It was a relief, though, a release of the pressure that you’re always under: you’ve got to have another hit. It’s kind of boring after a while. I just wanted to sing in front of people and for them to like it.

That’s why I ended up doing jazz. Because I was told that I could still play live. With jazz, you aren’t touring to sell a record. That’s when I really learnt how to sing. I supported Stan Getz at the Royal Festival Hall; I was headlining Ronnie Scott’s.

At what stage did you decide you might like a family?
It was all very late; I was putting it off and putting it off – because of my career really, which is stupid because there are loads of musicians who have loads of children. I was 42 when I had Lily. I’d been panicking, thinking it was too late, but I came off the pill and got pregnant immediately. I wish I’d had more children.

How did you then juggle a career in the music industry with raising a child?
I didn’t do much singing because I really wanted to be a mum. I didn’t want to be someone who had a baby then handed it over to someone else and went back to work.

I did the odd gig here and there, taking the breast pump with me. But I didn’t like being away from her. Then in 2000 I got the lead in Dusty The Musical. That was difficult. Lily was three and I had to go off – sometimes I could commute but not always.

Her father and I broke up when she was four. The Dusty tour was the nail in the coffin. I loved it but my personal life was in a shambles. I lost a lot of weight; it was difficult. My daughter has Asperger’s so it was a challenge.

Then in 2005 I made the first album since 1992. I’d been playing live all that time. I put it out on my own label. Since then I’ve been busier with recording than for the previous 13 years.

When people say you can’t have everything, I say: why not? Some people do – if some people do; everyone can

You turned 60 last year, how does it feel?
I got married last August. He proposed after knowing me three days then 13 years (and three days) later we were engaged but not married so he arranged a surprise wedding in LA – he got all my friends and family to fly out and said “we’re getting married in 10 days”.

Being 60 – well, I keep fit, look after my diabetes, look after myself. You get more confident and kind of don’t give a shit what people think so much. So that’s quite a nice feeling. You tend to do what you want.

Also, I’m much more direct with people; I don’t pussyfoot around. I don’t mean I’m aggressive, I just find it much easier to say no. When you’re young, you put up with negative people. As you get older, you think: that person drains me so I won’t have them in my life anymore.

Will your daughter follow in your performing footsteps?
She’s about to begin a three-year songwriting course – she plays piano, sings. It’s all to do with her profile – kids with Asperger’s tend to have an obsession: hers is music.

Any advice on being a performer and having a family?
When people say you can’t have everything, I say: why not? Some people do – if some people do; everyone can. It’s all about your attitude: glass half full or half empty.