Let the music play…

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Known to millions for a successful 20-year stint on Coronation Street, Kevin Kennedy played one of the show’s greatest-ever characters. Away from the small screen, there is also a serious musical side to the likeable Mancunian – one that has seen him achieve significant success, as Tony Yorke discovers.

He may not look like the stereotypical rock and roll star, but Kevin Kennedy has a pedigree that rivals the very best.

Few people know it, but the man who played the character of Curly Watts in Coronation Street for more than 20 years has a gold record-selling album to his name, was signed up by pop mogul, Simon Cowell – and Johnny Marr of The Smiths credits him with having a significant influence on his career.

I kid you not!

Millions who grew up watching the Street, glued to the settee as shy Curly pursued the dazzling Raquel, know very little about the ‘other side’ of the 59-year-old’s life. Of course, most of us have heard of his love affair with Manchester City football club and the problems he faced in later life, battling against a chronic alcohol addiction. But most of us scratch our heads if we are required to say more.

‘Hardly anyone knows I am as much a musician as I am an actor,’ says Kevin, with the impish grin on his face, the one his adoring fans fell in love with when he first hit the small screen in 1983.

‘In fact, if the truth be known, music is my first love, and it always will be.’

Talking to Kevin in his home-based studio on the south coast, on a morning when he is in the mood for reminiscing, helps us piece together the highs and lows of his successful acting career and his on-going love affair with the music world. And to learn of his relationship with Cowell and Marr, to name but two of the people he has collaborated with, is a real eye-opener.

‘It was the end of the 90s and although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was coming to the end of my run in the Street when I sent a demo tape to some record companies,’ recalls Kevin. ‘I have always written stuff, and people have always told me it was decent material, so I chanced my arm and sent it down to London to see if anyone would bite. But I didn’t send it as Kevin Kennedy. I thought I would have no chance if I said who I really was, so I used a pseudonym, so nobody would know it was me – Curly Watts – who was having a dabble in the cool world of rock. Incredibly, I got a positive response and was asked to go down to London to meet some blokes who wanted to find out more about my material and talk things through with me.’

Kevin describes the moment he got the invite to talk to BMG, the record company that employed Cowell, as one of the best experiences of his working life.

‘The look on Simon’s face when he first saw me was priceless,’ he recalls. ‘He had no idea he was meeting this fella who was one of the main characters in a major TV soap. He just thought he was going to be talking things through with another aspiring musician, which I was, in reality. The meeting went well, and Simon liked my music enough to sign me up. The end result was I got an album that went on to become a gold disc, and everyone was happy.’

Pull of the studio

Present Kennedy was released in 2000. Two years later, Kevin’s single – Bulldog Nation – featured on BBC1’s Top of the Pops, and he also appeared as Canadian rocker, Bryan Adams, in ITV’s hit show Stars in their Eyes.

The doors to an alternative career seemed to be swinging wide open, only for his problems with booze to derail his life and nearly kill him.

We revealed that traumatic part of Kevin’s life in the January/February 2021 edition of Sorted, retelling the moment when he realised his life had to change – the day he collapsed on a cold and unforgiving kerb near to his former home in the north west.

‘That is now firmly in the past,’ he says confidently, with his loving and supportive wife, Clare, by his side. ‘I cannot undo what I have done. But, moving forward, I can make sure I learn from the past. And I continue to do so. Booze and a chaotic life are all part of the rock and roll lifestyle, or they are for some. I got sucked into it and it all went to my head. Nowadays, I still love the pull of the studio and the appreciation of a live audience. But I know my limits. I still have fun, but my excesses are controlled.’

As the laughter continues to flow at chez Kennedy, and more nuggets emerge about the other side of Kevin’s working life, it becomes apparent his family is an important cog in the whole dynamic.

‘Family is everything to me,’ he admits. ‘My wife, my children, they all define who and what I am today. But so, too, do people from the past, and I have a lot to thank my Gran, and my aunts and uncles for. They stirred my musical blood.’

Kevin grew up in a part of Manchester called Wythenshawe, a place he describes ‘as rough as a bear’s arse.’ As a youngster, he recalls playing his beloved football as often as he could, and visiting family members, particularly his Gran. His guitar worship started when he was a teenager, and he has his Gran to thank for his awakening.

He recalls: ‘When I was a kid, I would go to my Gran’s house, with other members of my family, and be confronted with huge piles of sheet music. We’d all have a chat and then the singing would break out. But I couldn’t read music, so I would just listen. My Gran could play a mean Blues harmonica. My sister played the French Horn, while my uncles were in a marching and concert brass band. And I also had a couple of cousins who played in a couple of bands, so music was in our blood.

‘At this early stage, I loved the songs we all sang – ones that told a story, particularly old Irish rebel songs like The Merry Ploughboy. They were great times, even though the guitar strings felt like blunted razor blades on my fingers.

‘It was at my Gran’s that I took up playing the guitar, one that belonged to my Auntie Annie. I had been encouraged to play a few years earlier, but it was only when I was at school that I started to improve. A teacher took a shine to me and showed me how to play Greensleeves. But I wanted more, so I used to go to music shops, look at music books and learn the chords to songs. I would then go home and play them. And the more I practiced, the better I got.’

Sporting nerdy spectacles

While he was at school, he hooked up with another guitar-playing aficionado – the then 14-year-old Johnny Marr.

In his autobiography Set the boy free, Marr vividly recalls the time he spent jamming with the future Curly Watts, who was to become bassist in The Paris Valentinos – a grouping that was the first incarnation of The Smiths.

‘Lanky and sporting nerdy spectacles, he didn’t quite fit the image of the rock star,’ recalls Marr, who is cited by many pundits as one of the leading figures of the thriving British music scene in the 1990s. ‘But it didn’t bother him one bit as he was a natural showman who gallivanted around the neighbourhood, entertaining everyone with songs and jokes he’d memorised from television and things he had come up with himself.

‘Kevin and I went through some songs from a Beatles book and I saw that he was good, so I started looking for a place for us to practice, while coming up with some songs that we could all play.’

Continuing the story, Kevin adds: ‘I sat on his bed ready to play some tunes with him (Marr), while he plugged in his Strat and he started playing. I was amazed. I didn’t think anyone of our age could play like that.

‘Even then, I just knew that this guy was going to be something special and that I was privileged to be the first person ever to play with Johnny like that… I thought that this guy was something else, and not only that, a thoroughly nice bloke.

‘That jam session changed things, even more so when Johnny suggested we form a band. So we did. We only really played one gig, which was a Jubilee street party, and we’d only practised about three songs: we played Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Petty, Rory Gallagher’s Shadowplay, and a very slow version of Don’t Believe A Word by Thin Lizzy.

‘We finished that gig and then got drunk because we could sneak some cider, and that was really the point of the day for us. We didn’t play much more after that.’

The Paris Valentinos soon fizzled out and, in 1982, Kevin finished his drama studies at Manchester Polytechnic. A year later he would take on the role of Curly Watts and write himself into the annals of soap opera history.

Speaking of the break-up of their band, Marr added: ‘Kev didn’t mind not joining as he was getting into acting and would eventually join the cast of Coronation Street.’

As we talk about events of almost 40 years ago, a big smile flashes across Kevin’s face. When asked what he is thinking, he replies: ‘I am a lucky bloke, that’s all. I have met some incredible people while on this journey – and I am hoping there will be more as I continue down this road.’

Pigeon-holed

In recent years, Kevin has spent a lot of his time in the theatre. He has played leading roles in West End family favourites like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and he has also graced the boards in ear-busting, anthem-chanting spectaculars like We Will Rock You, the tribute to Queen.

‘I love the buzz of playing music to a crowd, and I really don’t care whether it’s my own music, or the music of others I am performing. It all amounts to the same thing,’ he says. ‘Being a part of the Street for so long was a wonderful experience. It means a lot to me. But there’s nothing like picking up a guitar and playing a few chords. It takes you to a better place.

‘I am not as well known for my music as I am my acting, and that’s all right. I have been pigeon-holed for years, and it comes as quite a shock for people to discover I can play an instrument and have performed on stages all over the world. 

‘For me, though, you can’t beat the freedom music gives me to express myself. Nothing beats playing great music to an enthusiastic audience, using their mood to influence your own. And it is fantastic when they applaud. It is a sound I never get tired of hearing.’

Covid 19 has given Kevin plenty of time to think about the future, and to weigh up a number of opportunities, one of which is a film. And it has also enabled him to get behind the Kennedy Street CIC venture he has formed with wife, Clare. The organisation is committed to helping people recover from addiction.

‘I am a lucky bloke,’ he says for the umpteenth time, as the sun cascades through his studio window. ‘I get paid for what I love doing, and it enables me to back ventures like the one Clare and I are involved with. It gives me meaning and purpose. And that’s all I ask for.’

 

By Tony Yorke

sorted

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