Canvey Island in 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 that followed 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 practiced 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".
And, so it was then, that the band, joined by local drummer, John Martin (nicknamed "The Big Figure" for his striking profile) headed for Holland aboard a cheap, but dangerously un-roadworthy, second hand van.
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, Wilkinson to Wilko Johnson and with Chris "Whitey" Fenwick at the managerial helm, things were about to change... and fast.
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 quickly 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 soar to the No.1 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....
The relentless UK touring schedule, an unhappy American tour, and the constant demand for Wilko Johnson 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 fateful 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 the 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 grueling 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.
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 due to 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. Morris, who had enjoyed considerable success in France playing with chart topping French rockers, Trust, was nonetheless ready to come home and 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 grueling 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.
In 1986, Dr Feelgood signed with Stiff records. The label had been formed in 1976 by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson 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, Stiff was 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). 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, and how the band sounded live. When, eventually, and somewhat inevitably, the, once proud, Stiff Records went into liquidation, both decided that, from that point onwards, Dr Feelgood's future would be better handled by themselves and 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 grueling tour schedule across the globe. Fatefully however, it was whilst homeward bound from 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, 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 school and had played with Midlands bands, Chevy, and later, The DT’s (eventually becoming, Steve Marriott & The DT's). 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. 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) and temporarily replaced with well-respected local session player, Dave Bronze to stand in for the ongoing gigs and finish the remaining 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 concerns regarding 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! The 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.
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. Unbeknown to them, 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. Having broken the news to his bandmates, Brilleaux embarked on a grueling course of chemotherapy, whilst manager, Chris Fenwick took Dr Feelgood off the road, and booked no further engagements.
As both the treatment and the illness began to take their toll, Lee Brilleaux suggested that the band should do a gig at the Dr. Feelgood Music Bar on Canvey Island.
Although, initially reluctant due to the obvious deterioration in his friend’s condition, Fenwick eventually agreed that a "one-off" Dr. Feelgood show was a possibility, although the subsequent demand resulted in a two night event.
The events were recorded, and later released as the album "Down at the Doctors" which remains a great live album, memorable not only due to the high-octane performances of all present, but also the reaction of the audience. Although frail, Brilleaux took the stage and attacked his role with customary zeal and 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.
As the lengthy applause dies from the last number, "Heart of the City" the repeated shout of "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.
So it was then, that on the 7th April 1994, and at the age of only 41, Lee Brilleaux passed away quietly at home, attended by his family.
News of Lee’s 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"
As for the future, 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 who had initially dismissed the concept. Eventually, despite the strong opinions voiced worldwide from fans and promoters alike, he agreed to support Lee Brilleaux’s wish that the band should continue after his death.
Phil Mitchell was recruited back into the Feelgood fold, whilst Steve Walwyn and Kevin Morris were tasked with the seemingly impossible task of recruiting a replacement for Brilleaux.
After a number of suggestions, auditions and interviews, a charismatic blues front man, Pete Gage, seemed to fit the bill. In May 1995, Gage was announced as Dr. Feelgood’s new frontman 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.
Unfortunately, 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 so hard to re-establish, had not echoed his suggestions that the band should evolve and move in a new direction. Unable to find compromise between their respective views, Pete Gage and the band parted company in 1999, enabling the frontman to pursue other musical avenues, which were later to include joining forces with former Feelgood axeman, Gypie Mayo.
Gage's eventual departure had not been entirely unforeseen, and the remaining members had already been scouting for a possible 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, but it was a chance encounter with Geordie veterans, The Animals, and their charismatic singer, Robert Kane, at a Sicilian rock festival that was to eventually provide Dr Feelgood with the most enduring line-up in the band’s history.
Kane had joined The Animals in 1994, but in the five years that followed, he had tired of the role, and was looking for something different, a fact that was to prove a fortunate coincidence for the Feelgoods.
An enquiry was made and, following some promising rehearsals, everyone agreed that Robert Kane would be an excellent choice to front the band. It was during one such 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 "Dr. Feelgood" workout.
15 years and over 1,800 gigs following Kane’s arrival, and with a total of 80 years service between the current line-up, the journey continues for Britain’s most enduring, and best loved R&B band, who continue to enthrall audiences as far away as Japan with the kind of "no-nonsense" live energy that first endeared Dr. Feelgood to a generation of music fans over thirty five years ago.