Huey Morgan’s musical mind is like a Santa’s grotto full of sonic swag: over 100 years of musical appreciation, from America’s Tin Pan Alley onwards, from swing to punk to afro-funk, the kind of widescreen knowledge which has made him one of Britain’s best-loved Radio DJs (on both BBC 6 Music and the mighty Radio 2). In 2012, as the ground breaking and multi-million selling Fun Lovin’ Criminals take a temporary breather, Huey brings us his debut solo album, a glorious distillation of what we might call Huey’s Favourite Vibes.
“I wanted to take all the music I love and put it into one record,” he explains. “Can you do a straight-up funk song mixed with country-western, mixed with rock ‘n’ roll, mixed with a ballad and a Bob Dylan-esque song? Yeah, you can. It’s called Huey and the New Yorkers, Say It To My Face.”
Welcome through the grotto doors to what Huey calls “New York Blues”. For the last year, he’s musically toiled in an actual grotto, his self-appointed “Man Cave”, the garage of his home in North London now permanently transformed into his personal musical den, lovingly bestrewn with guitars, a battered keyboard, a lap-top, a digital “studio” box, speakers, amps, a wall-sized black and white aerial print of New York’s Flat Iron intersection where Huey used to live, a black and white print of young Sinatra at his most outrageously handsome, the vinyl sleeve of The Clash’s debut album, a huge clock permanently set to Brooklyn Time, whiskey bottles, ash-trays, a miniature lava lamp and a replica machine gun spray-painted gold from an art instillation of “mob art” which Huey once made for a pal back in the States. “Kinda hard to get it through customs, though,” he twinkles. Say It To My Face has the same sardonic spirit, story-driven songs spinning around vivid characters – whether sinners, chancers, renegade heroes or soldiers back from pointless wars. It began with the story of a fictional soldier, Tommy Pace, the central character in a novel Huey’s writing about a returning Vietnam vet who meets Jimi Hendrix (with musical and dramatic results). Last year, after Huey’s wife Rebecca gifted him a new guitar, “a 1920’s re-issue Martin, beautiful”, he was inspired to write songs as “Tommy” might have written them. “And then I started writing songs that didn’t fit that.” Say It To My Face was born, so-called because “I say what I think, it can get me into trouble!” Limited to his guitar, Huey needed instrumental help, turning to his life-long musician buddies he’d played with for years in an occasional band of booze-brothers called the Tangiers Blues Band: Chris Scianni (guitar), King (bass), “just King, the most dapper dude ever”, while Frank Benbini (Fun Lovin’ Criminals) chipped in with drums. Pete Levin, from Grammy winning Blind Boys of Alabama (keyboards), Naim Cortazzi (ukulele) – also a member of the group New Yorkers along with Frank Benbini, plus harmonica from Grammy-award winning lensman Danny Clinch (taker of the famed Tupac Shakur ‘Thug Life’ shot, now the man behind Huey’s new art-work). “I partly made this record for the love of my friends,” he enthuses. “I don’t get to see them a lot. Most of the time I have to be in London for the BBC Radio, and I love doing that, but I wanna hang out with these guys. My gang. So the easiest way to do it is have these guys be the band.” It’s a little-known gang augmented by legendary class: steel-pedal from BJ Cole, production from Morgan, along with Grammy-award-winning Criminals collaborator Tim Latham. It’s an extended family affair, released on the independent Naim Edge Records after a meeting of musical minds between Huey and Naim boss Simon Drake. In March 2012, Huey performed a few new songs at a stripped-down, solo acoustic show at The Slaughtered Lamb in East London, with Simon in attendance. “We met and he said, ‘well, d’you wanna put this thing out?’” remembers Huey. “Simon is really smart and really creative. I’ve been on a major record label, had top ten albums and toured with U2, I’ve been in a big machine trying to be a creative artist and it takes its toll. And that’s why I wanted to make this record with Naim.” He was already a Naim fan, his musical grotto already twinkling with the Naim artists he regularly played on his radio shows: Essex soul thrillers The Milk (now signed to Sony), Bristol’s country/soul troupe Phantom Limb and instrumental jazz-piano stunners the Neil Cowey Trio (Cowley now globally-renowned as pianist on Adele’s 21). “Naim was a label I felt supported artists I respected and thought it would be a great home for me”. The stars were aligning. “Everything,” nods Huey, “started falling into place.”
Say It To My Face is a bold, beautiful, poignant, funny, profoundly authentic old-school rock ‘n’ roll blast, Huey’s baritone croon now giving Tom Waits a considerable run for his tobacco-flavoured money. “I can’t sing like Jeff Buckley,” cackles Huey. “I know my range, it’s one octave, down there.” It’s a New York Blues bonanza, “songs about the human condition”: from the grooved-out, hilarious ‘Stick It To The Man’ (like a New York Happy Mondays, indirectly inspired by 70s U.S baseball player Dock Ellis who took LSD on the pitch) to the woozy, country ‘n’ western opus ‘Fall Into Me’ (includes a line about a dead dog, “because my dog did die, Sugar, my best friend of 17 years!”) There’s the funkadelic squelch of ‘Dirty Bird’, the honky-tonk holler of ‘New York Bluez’ and the early-Rolling Stones serenade to ‘Shaniqua’ (shady goings-on between lovers). Wise words follow in the languorous stoner-blues of ‘The Ripple’ (a rumination on action, consequence and regret), the boisterous profanity of ‘The Way It Was Before’ (“about how things are never gonna be like they were before, in music, when there was money!”) and the country-hoe-down “sad sack song” ‘Christmas By The Side Of The Road’ (a soldier doesn’t make it home for Christmas). The closer is simply stunning, the multi-layered dreamscape of ‘The White Guard’. “This is our self indulgent Pink Floyd song,” decides Huey, an epic paean to sorrow and time’s arrow, named after Mikhail Bulgakov’s Russian Civil War novel, lyrics adapted from the opening page: “In the days of blood as in the days of peace, the years fly by.” Huey Morgan, 44, has made a grown up album about other grown-ups, for other grown ups. “The kids will find something in it,” Huey assures. “I know that because a lotta kids listen to my radio shows. But my music is for people my age. And I tried to stay away from everything that’s normal. Because normal is not me.”
Huey Morgan is a rock ‘n’ roll Renaissance Man, the half Puerto Rican / Irish ex-Marine who, since moving to London in the mid-2000s, has become a charismatic presence across the UK’s cultural spectrum. Since 2008, he’s been BBC Radio’s adopted “cousin from New York”, much loved for both his Sony-award-winning The Huey Show (Sundays, BBC 6 Music, 13.00-16.00) and Radio 2′s Huey After Midnight (Fridays, midnight – 3. am, taking over from Mark Lamaar in April 2011). A conversational powerhouse adept with a wry quip and an in-demand TV panellist (Never Mind The Buzzcocks, The Wright Stuff). He’s also an actor, appearing in Head Rush (2003), Soulboy (2010) and about to begin filming his first starring role in a major backed production. He has future plans, too, to turn “Tommy Pace” into both a stand-alone album and a Hollywood movie, his dream actor for Tommy currently Josh Brolin, one of his movie star friends. Huey is, you might say, rather well-connected, his friends numbering Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, The Clash’s Mick Jones, Bono and errant Stonesman Ronnie Wood.
Huey’s other current projects include writing a TV documentary on 100 years of New York music and opening up a London tattoo parlour with another friend, Ami James from Miami Ink. Just two more examples of Huey’s formidable drive.
“It’s just opportunity,” he shrugs. “If opportunities happen and you just let ‘em go..? Not me. Everybody’s got opportunities and if you say, ‘oh, that’s gonna be too much work’, I’ll jump on ‘em and see if it is. Don’t tell me I can’t do anything. I’ve always been like that. Jumping outta aeroplanes? ‘Oh that’s dangerous.’ ‘Yeah? Well, let’s see if I live’.”
A former Marine his forces affinity remains steadfast today. His personal song-writing proceeds from Say It To My Face he’s donating to the Wounded Warrior Project and Help The Heroes.
“I’m not looking to make money,” says Huey. “I got lucky early on ‘cos I was in the Fun Lovin’ Criminals and I got some loot, so I’m giving it to people who really need it. Being an ex-member of the armed forces and seeing these kids come back, obviously there’s the physical injuries but sometimes the worse injuries are the ones you don’t see. Shell-shock. PTSD. They need counselling. I plan to go to hospitals around the UK treating members of the armed forces and just grab my guitar and play a song for ‘em, ‘I kind of know what you’re going through, man, this is a song I wrote about this’. I know what it’s like to love somebody and then have them gone a split second later. These guys are doing it for brotherhood and this record is about connecting with people.”
It’s the kind of intimate connection he’s also bringing to the forthcoming tours, Huey And The New Yorkers wilfully seeking out old-school, jazz-sized venues.
“These songs have stories and I wanna explain these stories to people who can hear,” he laughs. “In big venues we’d probably get (hollers) Scooby Snacks! And I don’t wanna get on a tour bus with bags and wave to my wife and my baby. I’m a musician but I’m also a family man now. A husband, a father. Being my age, this is where I should be right now.”
Huey Morgan, force of nature, a man with a paid-for Scottish Lordship (possibly fake), is a long way, now, from the Ladies Man who twinkled his wise-guy way through his incorrigibly Fun Lovin’ 90s. He married Rebecca in 2007 and their first child was born on August 8th 2011, Huey’s 43rd birthday (the night of the London riots). “Life,” he advises, “is about family and the people you love.” Today, as a dad, when he watches Kung Fu Panda 2, he cries a “little” tear.
“We’ve had our five year wedding anniversary and it’s been the best five years of my life,” he smiles. “They say if you have a good partner at home and you feel loved, you feel like you can do anything, you’re unstoppable. I never thought I could put a solo record out. And it was my wife who said ‘do it’. What’s cool is everything is fitting into place. I wanted to make a record of what was inside me. I wasn’t gonna do a dub-step record, I’m not trying to keep up with the times. It was never gonna be, ‘I’m not from the Fun Lovin’ Criminals anymore, I’m not gonna put on a skinny tie and shorts and dance around like Bruno Mars’. I made a record that’s really good and my friends played on it. I guess I wanted to put the gang back together, have a party! But it’s also about giving back. I have everything I could possibly have imagined. Where I come from? I’m very happy. I have a family. I have a gang. I have a record I’m really proud of. And I have a Man Cave. I’m livin’ the dream.”