Susie Vanner could hold the record for the longest gap between a debut single and her first album coming out.
In 1968, under the name Sue Lynne, she released a 7in on RCA, called ‘Reach For The Moon’, and went on to record a handful of rare singles that became Northern Soul club floor-fillers. One of them, ‘You’ / ‘Don’t Pity Me’ is currently worth £750 on record collectors website Discogs.
This year, more than 50 years after her music career began, the singer turned actress Vanner – she appeared alongside Roger Moore in the 1977 James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me – has gone back to her roots and finally put out her debut album, In These Shoes.
It’s a covers collection of pop songs and standards given a jazz makeover, and it came about after a chance meeting at a charity dinner with Grammy Award-winning producer Kipper Eldridge, who has worked with Sting and Gary Numan.
With Eldridge at the controls and featuring musicians including renowned English jazz trumpeter Guy Barker and the BBC Concert Orchestra, it’s a record that’s both classy and fun.
There’s a nod to her Bond girl past with a version of Carly Simon’s ‘Nobody Does It Better’ from The Spy Who Loved Me soundtrack, a groovy ‘60s lounge take on Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, an emotional reading of the ‘50s torch song ‘Cry Me A River’, a bold and brassy big band reworking of Gloria Jones’s ‘Tainted Love’, a moving ‘Make You Feel My Love’ – written by Bob Dylan, but made famous by Adele – Latin-flavoured covers of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘In These Shoes’ and The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’, and Noel Harrison’s ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ done in a late-night, soul bossa nova style.
To find out the story behind the project and their musical partnership, I spoke to Vanner and Eldridge – she was at home in London, and he was in his studio on the Indonesian island of Bali, where he’s temporarily relocated.
SH [To Susie]: How did you first get into the music business?
SV: I was singing when I was 19 – I recorded some Northern Soul tracks. I answered an ad in a local paper to work with Chris Andrews [songwriter for Sandie Shaw]. He lived in Hornchurch, and I was born in Romford. I trotted along to see him, and I sang ‘My Guy.’ He asked me what I was doing tomorrow, and I said “nothing”, so he said, “I’m going to RCA Records, and I’d like to sign you up.”
And since then you’ve become a Northern Soul icon, whose singles change hands for a lot of money. Some have sold for £1,000 each.
SV: Absolutely – I’m shocked. At the time, I wasn’t that mad about the songs. Chris Andrews wrote them – he was looking for someone to take over from Sandie Shaw, as she’d had her day. He was still writing songs that were similar to the ones he’d written for her, so I was a bit worried that they were out of vogue. Little did I know that they’d come straight back into vogue 30 or 40 years later and would be selling for £1,000 a time.
Funnily enough, I came across a box of all my singles at home the other day, as I’m moving house. I should let my manager know.
How does it feel to have your debut album come out more than 50 years after you became a singer?
SV: I’ve come full circle. It’s like a dream come true. I’ve always loved music – in my childhood my mum used to put me into talent shows, and I won them – and I always thought I’d go back to it, but I got into acting and couldn’t fit it in, so here I am now.
[To Kipper]: Let’s talk about how you and Susie first met, at a charity dinner…
KE: I was sat next to Susie and her husband at the time – her and I immediately hit it off.
She told me about everything she’d done and said she’d like to get back to doing some singing.
I had donated an auction prize for someone to come and sing at my studio for a day – I suggested that she bid for it. It was a bit of a cheeky thing to do, but she won the bid! I won’t be crass and tell you how much she bid, but I was worried how I would live up to it – it was more than Peter Gabriel gets for a day’s work in the studio!
Susie and I didn’t speak for about a year and a half. I thought it was a shame that she hadn’t claimed the prize, but life carried on. Then I got a phone call from her asking if the prize was still available. I said it was – it wasn’t a voucher that she had to redeem before the end of October!
I’ve worked with a lot of big stars, but I was quite nervous because I felt like I had to provide an amazing day for Susie and I didn’t really know her.
She turned up with a friend, and we had really good fun. I took them to an amazing pub in the countryside, and we had a great lunch that lasted a bit too long, to be honest. We recorded two songs and Susie was absolutely amazing. She did ‘Cry Me A River’ in one, and a half takes, which has become one of the standout tracks on the record.
SV: We also did ‘Like A Star’, by Corinne Bailey Rae. Being back in the studio was like a dream come true – I was working with one of the best producers in the entire universe, and suddenly my life was filled with music. It just felt so right – it was like it was fate. We initially recorded in Kipper’s studio, which is in a barn in Haslemere [Surrey] – it was amazing.
KE: After we had our initial day, Susie said that she wanted to do more recording – at that stage, I didn’t think we’d make a record. Susie really enjoyed it, and I got a lot out of it – I like having free rein to make music, rather than doing it for a reason, or for a particular demographic.
How did you approach making the album?
SV: Bit by bit, we found songs that I really loved, and it just all came together. We chose 14 tracks and they were all quite different – some of them were suggested by Kipper and some by me, as well as one of my friends and my son. I love jazz, and I love singing jazz – I grew up with it, as my mum was playing music all the time. She loved jazz and all those romantic singers, like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. When I’m relaxing, I like to listen to chilled jazz, like Diana Krall and Jamie Cullum, and soul, like Gregory Porter.
KE: I’m not a real jazz standards guy – I liked the idea of doing songs that morphed from more of a pop field and could be reinvented – like ‘Make You Feel My Love’. I also chose ‘Like A Star’, which has jazz connections but isn’t a jazz song – we could evolve it. I chose ‘Every Breath You Take’, which we did with a Latin feel.
The title track of the album, ‘In These Shoes’, was written by Kirsty MacColl and has a mambo flavour…
KE: I love that song – it was chosen by Susie’s singing teacher and pianist, who she practises with. She said the song was so her – it suited her personality.
SV: The title, ‘In These Shoes’, could also mean ‘in my life’ – my life has been quite amazing really. I’ve had two major health issues – I had a brain haemorrhage and cancer. I thought it was a great title for the album.
[To Susie]: It also has a glamorous connotation, which suits you very well…
SV: Yes – you’re right. I love fashion, and I also love shoes, so that’s the other connotation.
I really like the first single, ‘Walk On The Walk Side’, which has a groovy, ‘60s lounge feel.
SV: I’m glad you like that one – we’ve kind of twisted the sound. I love singing it. We’ve also done a dance remix of it, as well as of ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘In These Shoes.’
[To Susie]: ‘Tainted Love’ is a nod to your Northern Soul past, isn’t it?
SV: Exactly – and we thought the lyrics were appropriate.
You recorded the album at Mark Knopfler’s studio, British Grove, in Chiswick, West London, and with the BBC Concert Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. How did that come about?
KE: After we’d finished the demos, using samples, Susie said: “What should we do now?” I said that if she wanted to go into a studio and record with an orchestra, then I could make that happen. I’ve worked at British Grove a lot – it’s my favourite studio in the world. It’s like heroin for producers! They have lots of old, renovated Beatles gear there, as well as stuff from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and modern gear.
We did live band takes – we didn’t record to tape, but we used an analogue desk and Pro Tools.
We had a no-holds-barred budget for the record, so there was no excuse to not make a great sounding album – we were in the best studio, with the best musicians.
Sonically, I think it’s the best record that I’ve ever made. It’s exactly how I love records to sound – I had time, and I had no record label shouting at me saying that I had to do a single. I was making a record that really pleased Susie and me – she trusted me. We wanted to make a record that sounded absolutely spectacular.
Guy Barker plays trumpet on the album and did some of the arrangements…
KE: He’s a friend – I’ve worked with him for a long time. We both worked with Sting, and we’ve toured together. He’s a top arranger, so I immediately wanted to work with him – both on a personal and a musical level.
[To Kipper]: You also played on the record – keys and guitar…
KE: I’m a multi-instrumentalist – a sophisticated pop musician – but I’m not a deep jazz musician. There’s a guy called Ross Stanley, who is an incredible pianist and Hammond organ player – I wanted him to play on the record.
For the rhythm section, he suggested people to me. We had an amazing core band to cut the basic tracks at British Grove. Guy did the arrangements to the band playing – a lot of the arrangements are credited to me, Ross and Guy because sometimes Guy would use stuff that Ross or I had played as part of his arrangements. It was a great way to work.
[To Kipper]: You’ve worked with Gary Numan. How was it working with Susie? Is she a bigger diva than Gary?
KE: [Laughs]: I’m going to take the Fifth Amendment on that question! It was a lot of fun, but we also had a lot of tears – a lot of the songs were emotional choices. There was an element of psychotherapy – the healing power of music. I was genuinely moved. She has a very good ear – she could be critical of tracks, but in a very positive way.
We didn’t fall out like I might do with younger, more pretentious artists – it was a very pleasurable process. There’s talk of us doing some original songs together.
SV: I’ve started writing with some friends of Kipper’s who have been in the business for years and are quite famous.
[To Susie]: You’ve described this album as being a personal journey for you and a very emotional experience. Can you elaborate on that?
SV: It’s me getting my life back. I’d been a mum and a wife and concentrating on keeping everyone in my family happy, but suddenly I found myself again. I’d always had that dream to sing again, and there I was doing it. Hopefully, I can be an inspiration to many other people. Whatever your dream is, it’s never too late – you can pick it up any anytime. If you really want to do it, do it.
In These Shoes by Susie Vanner is out now on Dolce Vanner Records.
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