The Early Years
Canvey Island, Essex, was an unlikely birthplace for Britain's finest R&B band. Its bleak industrial skyline set against the cold waters of the Thames estuary, keeps it from inclusion in most holiday brochures, but in the 1960's it was home to teenage friends Lee Collinson, Chris White and John Sparkes.
The trio shared a strong interest in music, and with like minded friends, formed a skiffle band which would doggedly play outside pubs and clubs in the Canvey area until they were invited in to play a couple of numbers.
The band's name would change almost as quickly as their line-up, but the day that White and Collinson went to see Howlin' Wolf at a gig at the King’s Head in Romford was to have a profound effect on them both.
Soon after, Collinson started learning to play harmonica.
Time passed, and whilst Collinson and Sparkes continued to play together in an outfit called The Wild Bunch( aka The Pigboy Charlie Band when Charlie was along playing piano and including Kevin Morris on drums), White went to Drama School and, having changed his name to Chris Fenwick, began to enjoy a number of acting parts in films and notable TV programmes of the day.
The Pigboy Charlie Band continued to suffer line-up instability over the months and following a chance meeting with an old acquaintance, John "Wilko" Wilkinson, the pair invited him to join the band.
Wilko agreed, but all parties decided that a name change was well overdue, and after a number of suggestions, the name "Dr Feelgood" was agreed upon, after a well-loved Johnny Kidd and the Pirates version of a blues standard.
Whilst the band began to attract a degree of local interest, it was their old friend Chris "Whitey" Fenwick who was to provide the band with their first foreign engagement.
Fenwick had made the acquaintance of a Dutch promoter whilst at a wedding in Holland, and, already practised in the art of role-playing, had passed himself off as a "well known English DJ" who just happened to know a great little band who were "ready to go".
Unfortunately the band were not quite "ready to go" as their drummer at the time was on home leave from the Army, and was unprepared to suffer the consequences of going AWOL to join them.
Wilko suggested an old friend, John Martin, might be interested.
John Martin (nicknamed "The Big Figure" for his striking profile) was a professional "old school" drummer from a musical family. He had already cut his teeth playing with numerous bands in the Essex area, but had slid into an unsatisfying role playing drums with a number of "covers" pop groups, in addition to a permanent position with local band, Finnean's Rainbow.
Martin agreed to help out, and with a cheap, but dangerously un-roadworthy, second hand van, Chris Fenwick, and Dr. Feelgood sailed for Holland.
The run of five gigs proved to be the turning point for the band, and whilst on route back to Canvey Island, all agreed that, almost by accident, they had the makings of something, which should be pursued at all costs.
Collinson changed his name to Lee Brilleaux, and with Chris "Whitey" Fenwick at the managerial helm, things were about to change... and fast.
All Through The City
After their second trip to Holland, Southend resident, Heinz Burt, the former bassist with 60’s outfit The Tornados, contacted the band.
Heinz had long since reverted to a day job selling advertising space in the local paper, but continued to supplement his income by occasional appearances on the revival circuit.
He suggested that the band became his backing group for a few gigs, and, with the chance to play still all too rare for the band's liking, they agreed.
The union was short lived, but culminated in a memorable appearance alongside Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and MC5 at the Wembley Rock'n'Roll Festival in 1972.
As the band returned to work the local circuit throughout the following year, a change was occurring within the capital's live music scene.
Almost in defiance of the popularity of increasingly larger venues, the "Pub Rock" scene was starting to gather momentum, hosted by a number of increasingly crowded London pubs.
The band quickly developed a reputation as a no-nonsense, "in yer face" act, who's gritty "anti-fashion" appearance and stage antics caught the attention of the music press.
In an article in the NME, journalist, Charles Shaar Murray, famously likened their act to "Hiroshima in a pint mug"
By 1974, the band's reputation secured them a contract with United Artists, and following tours with Brinsley Schwarz and Hawkwind, the band's first album "Down by the Jetty" was released in January the following year.
Throughout early 1975, the band toured with Kokomo and Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers on the Naughty Rhythms Tour, before returning to the studio later in the year to record their second album, “Malpractice” released in October.
A year later, the timely release of "Stupidity" the band's first live album, saw it rocket to the number one spot after only a week in the album charts.
For the time being, at least, Dr Feelgood could do no wrong. Sadly though, oblivious to all but the band, dark clouds were massing on the horizon....
“Wilko... Over and Out”
The relentless UK touring schedule, an unhappy American tour, and the constant demand for Wilko to produce more songs had lead to a deep rift between him, and the rest of the band.
Feelings worsened, and following a disagreement to use the, ironically named, Lew Lewis track "Lucky Seven" on the bands fourth album, “Sneaking Suspicion” Wilko took the decision to leave the band.
The virtually unknown, John "Gypie" Mayo, was recruited as a replacement, and throughout 1977's hectic tour schedule, quickly established himself as a worthy replacement, gaining critical acclaim from both the rock media and an anxious fan base.
The departure of band's only songwriter, however, would mean that, for their next album, "Be Seeing You" the help of a few old friends would be required.
With Nick Lowe producing, and lyrical inspiration from Larry Wallis (ex-Pink Fairies) the album was released in September that year.
"Private Practice" followed a year later, and from it, the single "Milk and Alcohol" was to prove the bands biggest selling single. Written by Nick Lowe and Gypie Mayo, it tells the tale of the near disastrous events of the band's "real life" encounter with the LAPD on route back to their hotel after a John Lee Hooker gig.
Another live album "As it Happens" was released in June 1979, and a further studio album "Let It Roll" followed in September.
The following year, the band turned, once again, to Nick Lowe to produce the album "A Case of The Shakes" which featured the song writing talents of Lowe, Larry Wallis and former Brinsley Schwartz keyboard player, Bob Andrews.
The album was something of a return to core values for the Feelgoods, and was duly noted by the music press, describing it as "Their best album for years".
The band set about continuing their gruelling tour schedule across the globe, but the lengthy periods away from his young family began to take their toll on Gypie Mayo.
On stage, he had proven himself to be a worthy replacement for Wilko, and off stage, had shown a flair for fast-living excess that matched any of his bandmates.
Eventually, however, Gypie Mayo decided that it was time to concentrate his attentions towards his family and, once again, the band set about the difficult task of recruiting a new guitarist.
Standing at the Cross Roads Again
Following lengthy auditions, a successor was found in the form of former Count Bishops axeman, Johnny "Guitar" Crippen.
The band had been particularly impressed by a young guitarist from Wembley, but had decided instead to offer the position to Crippen, given his greater experience on the road.
Along with the other disappointed hopefuls that caught the train home that day, and unaware that he had been the band's second choice, a young Gordon Russell cursed his luck... but it wasn't to prove the last time he would hear from Dr. Feelgood.
The touring continued, and, for a while, the Feelgoods were back in business.
A new studio album "Fast Women, Slow Horses" followed, but behind the scenes, both Sparko and The Big Figure had decided that, after eleven intense years with the band, the time had come to return to their families to pursue a calmer existence.
Since the earliest days, manager, Chris Fenwick had successfully steered the Feelgood ship through the notoriously treacherous waters of the music industry. He'd had to learn fast, but his instincts had always got them through. Now, for the first time ever, he was forced to consider whether, this time, Dr. Feelgood had finally run their course.
With only the battle-scarred, and frustrated Lee Brilleaux remaining from the original band's line-up, Fenwick, too, needed time to think.
The band came off the road, and before leaving to spend six weeks in India, Fenwick told his old friend that if the band were to carry on, they needed a new line-up.
One of Brilleaux's first calls was to the young Gordon Russell, who had narrowly missed getting the job two years earlier.
Russell had gone on to serve his apprenticeship with a number of bands, and was now getting regular work with Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band. Nevertheless, this was an opportunity he wasn't going to ignore, and quickly agreed to come back to Canvey Island to rehearse.
Another recruit proved to be former school friend, Phil Mitchell, who Brilleaux had watched hone his skills as a bassist playing with Micky Jupp, Lew Lewis, The Red River Soul Band, and Love Affair.
After a few well-received gigs with The Big Figure and Buzz Barwell deputising on drums, the search for a permanent new drummer was on.
It was to be Mitchell that suggested that another old school friend, Kevin Morris, might be just what the band needed.
Morris had been a professional drummer since leaving school. Like Mitchell, he had worked the circuit drumming for American artists including Sam and Dave, Edwin Starr, Rufus Thomas with The Red River Soul Band. They had later joined forces again when a drummer vacancy had appeared in Love Affair.
He had even been recruited by chart topping French rockers, Trust, who had been keen to employ a good "English" drummer to give them a more international sound.
Whilst enjoying considerable success in France, Morris was ready to come home to join Dr Feelgood.
It's fair to say that the band's period of change had robbed them of much of the momentum they had enjoyed a few years earlier, but now enjoying a new spirit of determination, the band embarked on a gruelling tour schedule to announce that the band were, very much, back in business.
The album "Doctor's Orders" followed in October 1984 and, the following year, "Mad Man Blues" also hit the record shops.
Going Some Place Else
In 1986, Dr Feelgood signed with Stiff records. Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson had formed the label in 1976, with the help of a loan from Lee Brilleaux. The pair's unconventional approach to the recording industry had brought them success with a number of acts including The Damned, Elvis Costello, and Madness, but much like the Feelgoods, they were now facing leaner times.
Riviera had moved on, leaving Robinson at the helm and anxious to repeat earlier successes.
The results were the release of the LP's "Brilleaux" (1986) and "Classic" (1987) which had the band dressed in sharp suits and sporting Teddy Boy quiffs.
The musical content of both albums ranged from ballads, to covers versions of songs from artists as diverse as John Hiatt and The Undertones, but as all were later to agree, "It just wasn't how Dr. Feelgood sounded"
The band's concerns at the level of "over-production" were to be short-lived, however, as the, once proud, Stiff Records eventually, and somewhat inevitably, went into liquidation.
The union did however provide the band with a hit record, a version of “See you later Alligator” which achieved Gold status in Sweden and was a hit in many other countries.
Both, Chris Fenwick and Lee Brilleaux had elected to allow Stiff the opportunity to enhance the band's recording fortunes, but remained disappointed by what appeared to be an ever-widening contrast between how the band were being asked to sound in the studio, to how the band sounded live.
It was therefore decided that from here on in, Dr Feelgood's future would be better handled by themselves, come what may.
Accordingly, they formed the band's own record label, “Grand Records” named in tribute to the Grand Hotel in Leigh on Sea, Lee’s local pub at the time.
Oddly enough, Stiff's attempts to re-model the band on a recording basis, had done nothing to harm the band's live appeal (principally, due to their refusal to dress and perform in any other way than they had always done!) and they continued to undertake a gruelling tour schedule across the globe.
Fatefully, however, it was homeward bound following a lengthy New Zealand tour that guitarist, Gordon Russell, was to learn of the tragic death of his infant child.
Distraught by the news, and finding a need a take stock of his life after six years of constant touring, Gordon Russell reluctantly decided to leave the band.
The search for a replacement did not prove to be a lengthy affair, as over the past few years on the road, the band had encountered a guitarist that they had always thought might fit the bill, if the "Curse of the Lost Guitarist" should strike again.
Steve Walwyn had been a professional musician since leaving his school band "Hands Off" and forming Midlands based band, Chevy. He had later joined the Leicester based band, The DT's, and had fast earned himself a reputation as a fine guitarist.
The legendary Steve Marriott (Small Faces, Humble Pie, and one of Walwyn's idols!) came to see the band and, sufficiently impressed by what he had seen, suggested that they join forces, and become "Steve Marriott and the DT's"
They enjoyed considerable success and shared the stage with Dr Feelgood from time to time.
Whilst life with Steve Marriott had been something of a roller coaster ride, Walwyn was aware that it was coming to an end. Marriott's unstable, and often difficult nature, coupled with his decision to re-unite with Peter Frampton for an ill-fated Humble Pie tour of the States, had left Walwyn looking for his next adventure.
The Feelgoods eventually tracked him down as he was doing a sound check, and as the DT's fell silent to allow him to take the phone call, he found himself having to stifle his obvious enthusiasm when Lee Brilleaux asked him if he would be interested in auditioning.
With his band mates looking on, Walwyn managed a casual "Yeah, OK" before ending the call, and attempting to play the rest of the gig without a broad smile across his face.
Walwyn fitted in with surprising ease, and after a couple of warm up gigs, found himself thrown in at the deep end playing to a packed audience at London's Town & Country Club, with Del Amitri as support.
The show was being filmed for television, but despite the pressure on the "new boy" the gig was a resounding success, and the soundtrack later released as the album "Live in London"
The relentless periods spent away from home were about to take their next victim.
Bassist, Phil Mitchell, had struggled for some time to balance the demands of life on the road, with trying to raise a young family. He also knew that, with the band's re-emergence as one of the best live acts in the country, the demands would only become greater.
Reluctantly, Mitchell decided to bid farewell to the Feelgoods.... although, it was later to prove something of an "au revoir"
Well-respected local session player, Dave Bronze, was quickly recruited to stand in for the ongoing gigs, and finish the tracks on the band's forthcoming studio album.
"Primo" was released in June 1991, and, as described by Walwyn at the time, was "A real Rock n' Roll album" which firmly destroyed any remaining anomalies between the band's live, and studio sound.
Whilst it was only ever Bronze's intention to "help the band out for a few gigs" the Feelgoods were back in the ascendancy, and in the absence of a good time to move on, the normally transient Bronze found himself to be a member of the band for the following four years without ever having actually joined!
A time would come for Dave Bronze to look for another band. It would be under circumstances that no one could have foreseen, and he wouldn't be alone.
Going Back Home
As the band pushed on, talk of a new album to follow "Primo" quickly became a reality, and the band decided to record what was to become "The Feelgood Factor" in Monnow Valley Studios in Wales.
The usual "Let's crack on" Feelgood work ethic resulted in twelve excellent tracks, but as the band sat listening in approval to the fruits of their labour, Lee Brilleaux knew it was time to share the tragic news that was to have consequences for everyone.
The band had noticed that, in recent months, Brilleaux's health had seemed "off par" and had joked with him that if there were a cold to catch, he'd catch it!
It had made no difference to Brilleaux's performance either on stage, or in the studio, and the band had given it no further thought. Unbeknown to them, however, Brilleaux had undergone hospital tests and, when no further doubt remained, had been diagnosed with Non Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer that attacks and spreads through the lymphatic system.
Brilleaux broke the news, adding that his condition was considered so serious that he would have to go back into hospital immediately to start a course of chemotherapy.
The band remained in a state of shock, and with Brilleaux now in hospital, Chris Fenwick took Dr Feelgood off the road, and booked no further engagements.
Fenwick had occasionally eased up on the band's commitments to accommodate the unexpected, but for the first time in their history, the band had come to a complete halt whilst his best friend was in hospital undergoing punishing chemotherapy in a fight for his life.
The remaining Dr Feelgood members sought work with other bands. Steve Walwyn with The Big Town Playboys and Eddie and the Hotrods, Dave Bronze with The Hamsters, and Kevin Morris with Sid Griffin and the Coal Porters and occasionally Mick Taylor (Ex Rolling Stones)
Fenwick, himself, discovered an unlikely opportunity to bide his time whilst waiting for his friend to recover. An old run-down pub, previously called "The Oyster Fleet" remained on land recently acquired by his elder brother, and property developer, Brian White.
White's plan was to level the area and build a prestigious new hotel, but was awaiting the relevant planning permission.
Fenwick floated the idea that, whilst he waited, it would be possible to renovate the premises, and open it as a venue for live music.
With a somewhat characteristic response his brother replied, "Do what you like with it, but when I say, Get out.... Get out!"
The Dr. Feelgood Music Bar opened September 1993, and was an immediate success with both bands and music fans from the area and beyond. Past and present Dr Feelgood members were regularly in attendance, and when not undergoing treatment at hospital, Lee Brilleaux was occasionally seen looking on approvingly from the bar.
It was at one such an occasion that Lee Brilleaux mentioned that he felt the band should do a gig at the venue. Fenwick remained apprehensive, his friend had thinned noticeably, and the extent of his illness was clear to everybody. Brilleaux persisted, and eventually, Fenwick reluctantly agreed that a "one-off" Dr. Feelgood show was a possibility.
Demand for the subsequently advertised show eventually resulted in a two-night event, and it was to prove Lee Brilleaux and Dr. Feelgood's last performance together.
Although frail, Brilleaux took the stage and attacked his role with customary zeal.
For many in the audience it must have seemed that his enthusiasm was an indication that things were on the mend. Sadly however, for the man who had always played every performance as if it were his last, it was time to do just that.
The evening was recorded, and the album "Down at the Doctors" released. It remains a great live album, memorable not only due to the high-octane performances of all present, but also the reaction of the audience. As the lengthy applause dies from the last number, "Heart of the City" the shout "Brilleaux...Brilleaux" swells, and soon becomes a unanimous chant, continuing for several minutes in what proved to a moving final salute to one of British R&B's best loved sons.
Brilleaux himself, remained at home with his family for the period that followed, and, as his health quickly deteriorated, he was nursed by SCENT (the Southend Community Extended Nursing Team) who allow terminally ill patients to spend their remaining time in the comfort of their homes and families.
So it was then, that on the 7th April 1994, and at the age of only 41, Lee Brilleaux passed away quietly attended by his family.
News of his death spread quickly, and by the weekend almost every newspaper in the UK had announced the loss. Laudatory Obituaries soon appeared in most of the broadsheets mourning the loss describing him as "A credit to the Essex man and the traditions of British R&B"
Everybody, it seemed, mourned his passing. In a scheduled board meeting in the plush offices at a leading hamburger chain, the Senior Chairman phoned ahead to cancel, stating that he was "too upset to attend" having learnt of Lee Brilleaux's death, leaving the young and ambitious executives scrambling to make a series of phone calls to the States in an attempt to determine what senior position within the company Mr. Brilleaux must have held to have brought about such a level of mourning!
For Chris Fenwick, the loss was especially hard. Brilleaux had been his best friend since his teenage years, and despite what they encountered on this incredible journey that had taken them from the Canvey Marshes, around the world, and then back again, they had faced it together.
Now, as he struggled to cope with his loss, settling Lee's business affairs, and the outstanding administration from Dr. Feelgood, he also knew that the ride was over.
Seventeen years earlier, Dr.Feelgood without Wilko Johnson had been a difficult enough concept, but the band without Lee Brilleaux was unthinkable, certainly to Chris Fenwick.
World Keeps Turning
In the months that followed however, it occurred to him that the rest of the World seemed less convinced. Promoters called to offer their condolences, but in the same breath asked if the band could be booked when they'd found a new singer?
Fenwick initially dismissed the concept, but as he became progressively irritated fending off, what appeared to be, small armies of newly formed Dr. Feelgood tribute bands eager to snap up the band's name and logo, the idea slowly took root.
Fenwick reached the conclusion that he hadn't worked for the past twenty years to just give it away, and besides, if fans still wanted to go to a "Dr.Feelgood gig" surely, they would prefer it to be the actual band?
Steve Walwyn and Kevin Morris were having the same kind of thoughts, and following conversations with Chris Fenwick, the seemingly impossible job to recruit a replacement for Brilleaux was left squarely in the hands of Morris.
Phil Mitchell was recruited back into the Feelgood fold, and after a number of suggestions, auditions and interviews, a charismatic blues front man, Pete Gage, seemed to fit the bill.
Gage had worked the semi-pro circuit for some years and had played in a number of bands including The Jet Harris Band (Ex-Shadows) His gravelled voice and onstage presence stirred memories of Lee Brilleaux, especially in Mitchell who stated that despite the numerous auditions that the band had held, "It was the first time it sounded like a band"
In May 1995, Gage was announced as the new singer and frontman of Dr. Feelgood, and as the tour offers started to roll in again, the band contemplated the prospect of a new album.
A year later, the appropriately named "On The Road Again" was released featuring tracks written by Steve Walwyn and Dave Bronze, as well as standards from Peter Green and Willie Dixon.
The four years that followed, saw Dr. Feelgood tour extensively throughout Europe, and despite the loss of their former singer, Peter Gage's confident and enthusiastic live performances started to win over even the most diehard Lee Brilleaux fans.
Not for the first time, and against all the odds, Dr. Feelgood were, once again, back in business.
Unfortunately, also not for the first time, more clouds were massing on the horizon...
Pete Gage was a talented keyboard player, who had spent many years writing his own material prior to coming to the band. Whilst his time with the band had effectively re-launched the Feelgoods, Gage had become less and less committed to playing the Feelgood song book, no matter how well it was received by the audience.
His colleagues, who were keen to retain the identity that they had fought hard to re-establish, had not echoed his suggestions that the band should evolve and move in a new direction.
Now, what had started as a mild difference of opinion, had gradually developed into an issue that was changing the relationship between Gage, and the rest of the band.
Much like Wilko Johnson years earlier, he increasingly found himself spending more and more spare time away from the others, and, as time passed, all parties were forced to accept that the distance between them, was now too wide to reconcile.
In 1999, Pete Gage and the band parted company, enabling the frontman to pursue other musical avenues, which were later to include joining forces with former Feelgood axeman, Gypie Mayo.
Instinct to Survive
Gage's departure had not been entirely unexpected, and the remaining members had already been scouting for a replacement in the event of his loss.
Over the years of playing festivals all over Europe, the band had often found themselves bumping into old friends playing in a number of touring British R&B acts. Whilst these often included bands like Climax Blues Band, The Yardbirds, Wishbone Ash, and Essex "stable mates" Eddie and the Hotrods, it was a chance encounter with Geordie veterans, The Animals, at a Sicilian rock festival that was to provide the band's most recent line up change.
Their front man, Robert Kane, had played in bands for thirty years.
In true "bluesman" style he had been dogged by considerable "bad luck n' trouble" throughout his early career. When opportunity had come knocking in the early Eighties with a record contract on Arista for his band "Well, Well, Well" they were almost immediately eclipsed by the arrival, and subsequent success of the, similarly named, "Wet, Wet, Wet"
Whilst history has recorded the outcome of that particular clash, Kane continued undaunted, with Sunderland based favourites, The Alligators.
Kane's biggest break had come in 1994 when he had taken to the stage as frontman with The Animals, but in the five years that had followed, he had tired of the role, and was looking for something different.
This was to prove a fortunate coincidence for the Feelgoods, as, that Evening, they watched Kane's high-octane stage act light up in the warm Sicilian sky.
An enquiry was made, and Kane agreed to rehearse with the band in the weeks that followed.
The rehearsals went well, and soon after, everyone agreed that Robert Kane would be an excellent choice to front the band.
It was only at a later rehearsal, that Kane questioned why Phil Mitchell kept pointing out the "harmonica breaks" as he didn't play harmonica. The answer came in somewhat typical “Feelgood” fashion from Kevin Morris who replied, "Well you'd better learn ... we've got gigs in a week!"
So, in the words of Kane himself... " I did"
A year later, the band released "Chess Masters" a critically well-received powerhouse of favourite Chess R&B classics being given an unmistakably Feelgood workout.
Somewhat surprisingly, Kane’s addition to the band has provided Dr Feelgood with the most enduring line-up in the band’s history.
Nine years after his arrival, over 1,200 gigs later, and with a total of 74 years service between them, the band continue to enthral audiences as far away as Japan with the kind of “no-nonsense” live energy that first endeared them to a generation of music fans over thirty years ago.
It’s been a lengthy journey for Britain’s most enduring, and best loved R&B band, and, whilst having faced many obstacles along the way, have also found the hearts of many thousands of fans who continue to support the band, year after year.
Nowhere more so than at the annual Lee Brilleaux memorial, a charity concert held at the Oysterfleet Hotel, which now stands in place of the Dr. Feelgood Music Bar.
The event, which is always a sell out, sees the gathering of the extended Dr. Feelgood family, where friends, fans, and both, current and former members of the band, come together to play, meet, and swap memories of Feelgood times past and present, as well as raise a glass (or two) to the memory of the founding frontman.
The Feelgood Factor
Reviewing the “2007 Rhythm Festival” featuring John Mayall, held at a former WW2 airbase in Bedfordshire (Glenn Millers ill fated flight to Paris departed from there) the Independent Newspaper wrote:
“Mayall has an OBE for services to music, but if a band could receive such an honour it would have to be Dr. Feelgood. Despite lacking a single original member, they are the incarnation of quintessentially British Rhythm and Blues, and play a stunning one-and-a-half hour set.
The setting of this festival commemorates the defence of this country. The defence of its musical traditions could not be in better hands than the Feelgoods.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a good feeling that there’s an awful lot of road left before this particular journey is through….Nic Clacy 2008