THAT FINE SINGER Carol Laula tells the story of going into the Alamo, a famous clothes store in Nashville, and seeing poster portraits of two country music icons in pride of place on the wall behind the till. On the right, born in Tupelo, Mississippi, the up-and-coming Elvis Presley; on the left, born in Bell-side, Cleland, Lanarkshire, a true giant of country-and-Western . . .
If the juxtaposition of the King and Sydney Devine seems improbable, they came closer in life (and death) than you might think. Elvis once came to see Sydney playing at a military base in Germany, and what’s more, playing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Sadly, his reactions went unrecorded. When Sydney went to America to make The Nashville Album – his best record, but a rare commercial flop – he was working with guys, the best in the business, who’d also done sessions for Pres-ley. And there was a further, spooky encounter when, a year to the night after his death, Elvis’s ghost got into Sydney’s locked apartment room, moved around some pictures (of himself) and threw a red dressing gown on the floor.
The flat actually belonged to Lamar Fike, a twenty-eight stone member of the original ‘Memphis Mafia’, and a sufferer from catastrophic bowel problems thanks to weight-loss medication. It’s fair to say that Sydney has known some characters in his long career, and that he doesn’t spare the detail. We get the lowdown on how he lost his virginity to a married woman twice his age while on tour with the appropriately named Wild Grows the Heather. Not to change the subject, there’s his time with Alex Harvey, back in the Transit van days when Alex was merely sensational, rather than Sensational. We learn how thanks to his mother Sydney narrowly avoided becoming the sex slave of Ralph Reader, famously predatory organiser of the Gang Show. We’re told about how he nearly became the Jeff Buckley of Scotland when Jimmy Shand jr tried to drown him. We hear about the body cavity search at Glasgow Airport – Sydney Devine? drugs? nah! – and how the phones were tapped for a time afterwards. And should you ever meet Syd in an appropriate social context, don’t forget to ask him about the big German lass and the bottle of Old Spice. It’s funny enough on the page, but I imagine he tells it even better.
There’s a whiff of the tape recorder about Simply Devine, but Matt Bendoris has done a fine job pulling together a free-associating tale into manageable shape. The Lanarkshire background is an unexpected idyll, but then Sydney won fame very early when he graduated from playing Old Folk’s Treats tothe tube when Auntie Kathleen of the BBC invited him to appear on All Your Own, alongside Steve Race and guy who made toy soldiers out of zinc toothpaste tubes.
When Elvis saw him in Germany, Sydney was graduating from kilted whistler, doing things like ‘A Gor-don For Me’, to rock’n’roller. The rhinestone years were still ahead but Cleland whin is harder than Tupelo dirt and there was to be no tragic purple-faced, dead-on-the-lavvy denouement, though knowing Syd if he had popped clogs while having a jobby, he’d definitely come back to tell you about it.
To be fair, chapters like ‘My Heart Attack’ and ‘My Cancer Scare’ suggest he’s run it close a couple of times. There’s a slightly generic air to some of the others: ‘How I Helped To Make Lena Zavaroni A Star’, ‘The Truth About My Marriage’ (unflinching), ‘Negative Stories’ (why is the Scottish press so down on me?), and ‘Meeting Her
Majesty’, but alongside these you have to put ‘The Ghost of Elvis’ and ‘Getting Drunk With Jacksons’ (the Jackson 4 this was, since Michael passed on the Black Label).
It makes for a fantastic story, but also a salutary reminder that show business used to be equal parts of craft and graft (in both senses) with just a sprinkle of glamour on top.
The cover picture has a smiling Sydney with his guitar. Those outsize fingers with the outsize rings are bunched, maybe ready to play the chord (I could tell you which one, but you could probably guess it) or maybe to banjo the photographer if he takes the hit and miss. They’re not made like Sydney Devine any more, more’s the pity. The songs may be corny, but ‘Tiny Bubbles’ isn’t any cornier than the stuff Elvis used to do for Gladys. The press may despise him, but Devine is one of those artists who’s hated by everyone except the public. If he’d been raised in Tennessee and gone onstage in faded dungarees rather than a kilt, we’d be all over him like a rash. At least in Nashville they know a musician when they hear one.
SIMPLY DEVINE; BY SYDNEY DEVINE
with Matt Bendoris
Black & White, £14.99
240pp, ISBN: 184502057