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Mick Hucknall: How The Simply Red Frontman Grasped The Stars
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In Depth

Mick Hucknall: How The Simply Red Frontman Grasped The Stars

From Manchester lad to soul-pop sensation, Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall’s rise to fame is a true rags-to-riches story.

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As the frontman for Simply Red, Mick Hucknall has enjoyed an impressively consistent career as an R&B/soul artist in his own right. With a voice like honey and flashes of funk-tinged grit, Hucknall straddles genres as wide as jazz, funk, soul and even reggae, and has worked hard to transcend his beginnings as an impoverished Manchester youth, establishing himself as one of the greatest blue-eyed soul singers of all time.

It’s well known that Hucknall had a troubled upbringing pained by family separation. Less obvious, however, is that he started out as a punk-inspired frontman who longed to convey his love of 70s soul to the world. When he found his true voice as Simply Red’s silky-voiced paramour in the 80s, Hucknall reinvigorated British music and proved it was possible for a white artist to marry the suave and sophisticated roots of Black R&B with the sleek sensibilities of mainstream pop. Here’s how he harnessed soul-inspired sophistry to defy all odds on his path to the stars…

Listen to the best of Simply Red here.

Sad Old Red: A Difficult Childhood

Born on 8 June 1960 in Manchester, Mick Hucknall grew up in the working-class suburb of Denton as the son of a barber, Reg, and hairdresser, Maureen. After his mother walked out and abandoned the family when he was just a toddler, the young Hucknall was left in his father’s care. Scraping by in a single-parent household, Mick was a bright and charismatic flame-haired boy, though the lack of maternal influence would eventually add fuel to his creative fire.

Emerging from this family trauma, Hucknall’s interest in music began at a young age as he latched onto The Beatles and sang I Want To Hold Your Hand at a family wedding at the age of six. Showing all the signs of a soprano voice, singing was already giving Mick an outlet to channel his emotional pain. “I was obviously born into it,” Hucknall would later say. “I was guided into singing. It was extraordinary, but there you go.”

By the age of 11, as a pupil at Audenshaw Grammar School, Mick took further knocks from kids who picked on him for his appearance. “I became very inward-looking,” Hucknall recalled. “I felt ugly, I had no self-confidence, I was an easy target to be bullied. And red hair as well, my God! It multiplies it by ten.” Perhaps as a result, his own behaviour at school started to slip, and it wasn’t long before Mick found himself relegated to the bottom of his class.

By his early teens, Hucknall had gained a reputation as a troublemaker. Remembered by his schoolmates for getting into fights, a teenage Mick would bum cigarettes and blow smoke into the slate-grey skies of Manchester with a gang of juvenile waifs and strays. In a world of bingo halls and sticky-floored working-men’s clubs, it might have seemed as if there was no future to look forward to. Luckily for Mick, he wasn’t alone in thinking that…

Voice In The Dark: Mick Hucknall’s Punk Origins

The punk rock revolution turned Mick Hucknall’s world on its head courtesy of a now-legendary Sex Pistols gig at Manchester Free Trade Hall on 20 July 1976. As a 16-year-old art-college student, Hucknall was the perfect age for punk’s rebellious call to arms. “The person I was relating to was John Lydon,” he said. “The whole thing was screaming at older authority, screaming at my experiences at school.”

Mick’s musical interests had been bubbling away long before punk burst onto the scene. He’d mostly enjoyed Trojan reggae, Northern soul and a wide array of Motown and Stax records, but he he’d also been into Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. Punk, however, was altogether more galvanising, and greatly inspired Mick with its do-it-yourself doctrine.

Joining forces with friend and guitarist Neil Moss, Hucknall fully embraced punk’s amateurish credo. In time, the boys formed a scrappy indie guitar band, The Frantic Elevators, and took inspiration from Bolton-based punks Buzzcocks by independently releasing their debut single, Voice In The Dark, in 1979. The band even went on to support post-punk pioneers and John Peel favourites The Fall. In fact, Peel himself was so fond of the Elevators, he regularly played their single Searching For The Only One upon its release in 1981.

Unlike most punk-inspired frontmen, however, Hucknall’s singing ability was always a cut above the rest. Honing his soulful vocal tones in dingy pubs while still on the dole, Mick Hucknall’s ambitions were growing. His musical appetites were expanding, too, owing to his discovery of jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. With a run of failed singles behind him – including an early version of the future Simply Red classic Holding Back The Years, released in 1982 – the singer soon realised The Frantic Elevators were not the best vessel for long-term success.

After meeting his eventual manager, Elliot Rashman, Hucknall called time on the band. As the curtain closed on his punk adventure, however, he felt its DIY ethic had imbued him with self-belief. “I’ve got an attitude, definitely, and I’m glad I have,” he asserted. “It’s helped me survive. I’m not getting kicked around by anybody and I know what I am, and I know what I’m doing.”

Open Up The Red Box: The Birth Of Simply Red

Believing in the sheer potential of Mick Hucknall’s golden voice, Rashman assembled a group of session musicians to back him, though it took some time to settle on a fixed line-up. By the mid-80s, pop music had become smoother and more slickly produced – a sound Hucknall was keen to embrace, but also to embellish with punk attitude and his love of 70s soul and R&B. Looking to establish himself as the UK’s foremost blue-eyed soul singer, Hucknall sagely predicted: “There are three things I want to do. I want to support James Brown. I want to perform at Old Trafford cricket ground. And I want to have a No.1 in America.”

With keyboardist Fritz McIntyre, drummer Chris Joyce, bassist Tony Bowers, guitarist Sylvan Richardson and trumpeter Tim Kellett, Hucknall initially pounced upon his nickname, “Red”, to christen the group Red And The Dancing Dead before changing it to Just Red and then, finally, Simply Red. The band’s debut single, Money’s Too Tight (To Mention), saw the light of day in March 1985 and found Hucknall retooling The Valentine Brothers’ 1982 R&B cut as a potent attack on mass unemployment that strongly resonated with 80s Britain.

Appearing as a scruffy street urchin in the music video, with his curly red hair under a flat cap, Mick Hucknall made an immediate splash as a pop star, melding left-leaning lyrics with soul-boy posturing. Within two months of Money’s Too Tight (To Mention) becoming a UK Top 20 hit, the first of Hucknall’s predictions came true – the band were invited to support James Brown at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in May 1985. Having graced the same stage as the “Godfather Of Soul”, an emboldened Simply Red released their debut album, Picture Book, that October, showcasing Hucknall’s fresh new spin on soul music.

With a sound rooted in bedsitland, the album’s biggest highlight was a re-recording of The Frantic Elevators’ single Holding Back The Years, a song Hucknall had originally written back in 1977 at the age of 17. A heartfelt ballad reflecting on the absence of his mother, it took some time for the single to find success; after being reissued in 1986, however, it shot up the charts, peaking at No.2 in the UK and reaching No.1 in the US, fulfilling yet another of Hucknall’s prophecies. Today, it remains an undisputed sophisti-pop classic among the best Simply Red songs.

With Simply Red winning plaudits on both sides of the pond, Mick Hucknall gave Neil Moss a co-writer’s credit on the song, ensuring his former Frantic Elevators bandmate received a fair share of the royalties as a gesture “to remember the great times we had”. As far as Mick was concerned, Simply Red’s near-overnight success was everything he had hoped for. Picture Book had gone platinum in the US and UK, leaving little doubt that Hucknall had hit the big time. “Here I am doing it,” he proudly declared. “Doing the one thing that I was brought into this planet to do. It’s as simple as that.”

Let Me Have It All: Flirtations With Fame

The opportunities that arose from topping the US charts allowed most of Mick Hucknall’s wildest dreams to become reality. When he met his hero Miles Davis, the jazz icon approached him and said, “I know you. Simply Red… right? Hey man, I love that album… keep at it.” Mick had every intention of doing so. For Picture Book’s follow-up, Men And Women, Hucknall found himself collaborating with Lamont Dozier, one third of Motown’s iconic Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting and production team, for the songs Infidelity and Suffer, and even penned a song for Diana Ross (Shine).

Hucknall also had the last laugh over the kids who’d picked on him at school. Now regarded as a sex symbol, he wooed women left, right and centre on tour, channelling his amorous appetites into his new music. A simmering, red-blooded exploration of sex and relationships, The Right Thing was picked as the lead single from Men And Woman, with Hucknall’s female fans taking its funk-pop ode to bedroom antics to No.11 in the UK.

Elsewhere on the album, Hucknall’s take on jazz standards, in the shape of Cole Porter’s Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, and a reggae cover of Bunny Wailer’s Love Fire, demonstrated his eagerness to stretch across multiple genres. Simply Red’s subsequent world tour saw them play São Paulo’s Estádio Do Morumbi to a crowd of 80,000 fans in 1988 – an undoubted career highlight. Released the following year, the third Simply Red album, A New Flame, found the band scaling greater heights, selling two million copies and scoring the group their second US No.1 single with a cover of Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes’ 1972 Philly soul classic If You Don’t Know Me By Now.

By this point, Mick Hucknall had become a multi-millionaire and was easily one of the most commercially successful singers in the world. The times, however, were changing – particularly with electronic music becoming more popular in the UK, thanks to the rise of dance music and venues such as Manchester’s Haçienda. Sensing the shift, Hucknall started performing DJ sets at the city’s Ritz, immersing himself in the new sounds of house music and acid jazz. For Simply Red’s next album, he was also determined to reassert himself as a songwriter in his own right. “The idea about being a classic songwriter is something I am trying to attain,” he said. “I want to be that. I am trying to be that.”

Into Clearer Dimensions: The Stars Align

Inspired by his work with Soul II Soul and on Sinéad O’Connor’s chart-topping cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U, Mick Hucknall invited drummer Gota Yashiki to join Simply Red for their first album of the 90s, a decision that instantly transformed the band’s sound. Giving a contemporary clubland twist on the singer’s reverence for Black music, 1991’s Stars album was a gleeful grab-bag of jazz-pop, soul balladry, funky workouts and a dash of reggae. Its lead single, Something Got Me Started, flagged this new direction with a dance-pop groove that climbed to No.11 in the UK.

Hucknall’s voice was never finer than on Stars, and was equally matched by his flawless songcraft and the strides he’d made in lyrical maturity. Having observed how becoming a parent was changing his friends for the better, Hucknall wrote For Your Babies from a father’s perspective. Elsewhere, Freedom was written in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Mick’s leftist politics resurfaced in Wonderland, a veiled attack on Maggie Thatcher’s premiership (“The end of an era/Our future no clearer/My people no stronger/The blame I lay on her”).

Since Stars was recorded in Venice, Italy, it’s no surprise that it boasted a bold and cosmopolitan outlook, inspired in part by Hucknall’s support for the European Community. The album’s title track, meanwhile, was a meditation on the pitfalls of fame and how Hucknall yearned to find true love. Continuing the group’s run on the charts, it hit No.8 in the UK.

Stars sent Simply Red into the stratosphere and became the biggest-selling album of 1991 and 1992, making it the most successful record in the UK since Simon And Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. Shifting 3.4 million copies in Hucknall’s homeland alone, it also paved the way for Simply Red to win Best British Group at the BRIT Awards for two years running. Finally, to cap it off, in July 1992, Simply Red fulfilled the last of Mick’s predictions by headlining a sold-out show on home turf at Manchester’s Old Trafford cricket ground. From juvenile mischief-maker to a bona fide British soul legend, Mick Hucknall had achieved success beyond even his loftiest expectations.

Wonderland: Mick Hucknall’s Legacy

Simply Red’s monumental European success continued well into the 90s. Boasting the humongous, samba-flavoured No.1 hit Fairground, 1995’s Life cemented his place in the pantheon, while the image of Mick Hucknall and his ginger dreadlocks became as iconic as that of any other poster-ready pop and rock star before him.

In 1997, when Hucknall was gifted an Outstanding Contribution To Music award at the MOBOs, he used his acceptance speech to reflect with gratitude upon his career. “This is the first century in the history of civilisation that’s seen the marriage of Black culture from Africa and Western European culture,” Hucknall said. “That marriage has produced many children, and I’m one of them.”

Through his inimitable voice and his mastery of R&B-inspired pop hits, Mick Hucknall has arguably done more than any white singer to exemplify the enduring power of soul music and champion Black influences for new audiences. With Simply Red racking up over 50 million global album sales to date, Hucknall remains a British music icon who more than deserves his place as one of the greatest singers of his era.

Check out our 20 best Simply Red songs to hear Mick Hucknall at his finest.

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