Will Birch

Will Birch, writer and lyricist, drummer and songwriter with the Kursaal Flyers and
The Records, author of No Sleep Till Canvey Island - The Great Pub Rock Revolution
and Ian Dury - The Definitive Biography

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An Officer and a Gentleman

Will Birch remembers Lee Brilleaux


As the media trumpet the genius of Kurt Cobain, who shot himself in the head 10 years ago, let us not forget another rock’n’roll hero who died that same week, gentleman Lee Brilleaux.

When news of Cobain’s messy demise reached the UK, news editors were tasked with shuffling the obituaries, with Cobain ‘enjoying’ the edge.  But although Cobain’s music owed little to the barroom R&B of Dr Feelgood, the Nirvana phenomenon was arguably a knock-on effect of the Sex Pistols, whose own licence to thrill was enabled by the Feelgoods.  So, in a sense: no Brilleaux, no Cobain.

For over 20 years Lee fronted a succession of Feelgood line-ups, dispensing white-hot R&B from stages large and small.  He gave it the max every night and like all great performers, the tougher the job, the harder he worked.  In the group’s early days, Lee stunned tiny pub audiences with wild antics and a back-to-basics musical approach, incongruous with the hyperbole of progressive rock, then in its heyday.  When the Feelgoods made their London debut in 1973, it was frankly touch and go, but the group quickly adapted to the demands of the circuit, building a huge following and smashing attendance records in pubs and clubs.

Lee and guitarist Wilko Johnson had no problem making the transition to larger stages; they simply exaggerated the moves they had honed in the pubs.  Wilko recalled, “We got four gigs supporting Hawkwind.  We were completely unknown and in Manchester they threw pennies at us.  I remember Lee calmly picked up one of the pennies.  Then he bit it, and with a mean look, tossed it aside, as if it were a dud.  The place erupted.  It was a turning point.”

It was the combination of Lee’s cool nonchalance, Wilko’s maniacal careering back and forth and the fastest, most relentless music on the scene that made the Feelgoods a top concert attraction.  And when the group enjoyed something of a revival in the late eighties, Lee looked like a giant from the furthest corner of the cavernous Town & Country Club as he took the stage in a powder blue suit, belting out ‘King For A Day’.

Space considerations do not permit a re-telling of the Feelgood legend.  Those Uncut readers who saw the group at their mid-Seventies peak know what all the fuss was about whilst younger readers will soon be able to check out the Feelgoods’ Going Back Home concert from 1975 on DVD. 

Lee’s widow, Shirley, who first met Lee in the mid-seventies, recalls, “He was very methodical and lived his life by the rules.  In his mind, it was OK if an old dear jumped the queue, but God help anyone else.  He was incredibly moral and his integrity was impeccable.  One day our daughter, Kelly, came home from school with a £10 note she had ‘found’.  Lee marched her down to the school and made her tell the headmistress how she’d come by the money.  I’d like to think it made a lasting impression on Kelly.” 

“He was very loyal,” says Larry Wallis.  “If anyone started to bad-mouth someone to him, Lee would say, ‘You’re talking to the wrong man.’  Today, if I find myself with a moral dilemma, I always ask myself, ‘What would Brilleaux do?’ ”

“Lee was also very intense,” continues Shirley, “and not the easiest person to live with.  The fact that we were together for 18 years is largely attributable to the fact that he was away so much, because he expended a lot of that aggression on tour.”

In 1991, Lee sat for local artist Anthony Farrell and over the next two-and-a-half years attended some 30 sittings, resulting in two paintings, the second of which was completed during the final months of Lee’s life.  Deemed too harrowing for public display, it shows Lee in the final ravages of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, weak from chemotherapy and near to death.  “After I finished the first picture he told me he wasn’t well,” says Anthony, “but he agreed to a second one.  It evolved as the drama unfolded.  It was appallingly difficult, seeing someone deteriorate in front of my eyes.  I could have chickened out at any point but Lee was as tough as nails.  He knew the game was up, but he put a brave face on things.”

In the summer of 1993, Lee came out of hospital and took his family on holiday to Disneyworld, a very un-Brilleaux like destination it would seem, but there is evidence of Lee enjoying Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, holding onto his silver-topped cane.  Of course the trip to Florida was for his children, Kelly and Nick, of whose progress he would have been extremely proud.  Nick, now 16, has a promising future as a film-maker, evidenced by his hilarious website at brilleauxfilms.com

Lee’s final public appearance, in February 1994, was at the Dr Feelgood Music Bar on Canvey Island.  Extremely frail, but with a glint in his eye and immaculately attired, he perched on a stool centre stage and heroically performed a mix of Feelgood classics like ‘Down At The Doctors’ and newer material from his final recording, The Feelgood Factor.

Then, on 7 April 1994, he died, a victim of cancer at the age of 41.  At Lee’s funeral, his best friend and business manager, Chris Fenwick, gave a moving eulogy before Lee’s coffin was despatched to the sound of Junior Walker’s ‘Roadrunner’, a Brilleaux favourite.  An enduring memory from that day was the sight of Dr Feelgood’s three surviving original members - Wilko, Sparko and the Big Figure - huddled together in the graveyard, mourning the loss of their former singer.  Wilko, in particular, was in a highly emotional state.  He had not seen much of Lee during the 17 years that separated his own dramatic exit from the group and Lee’s death.

Neither of them lived on Canvey any longer, in fact when the Feelgoods became successful they both left for the mainland, Lee to a smart house in Leigh-on-Sea, that he named ‘The Proceeds’, and Wilko to an equally imposing residence a mile or two away in Westcliff.

“I don’t think Lee ever spoke to Wilko,” says Shirley, “but he spoke a lot about him.”  Their paths never crossed, until the fateful day in 1991 when a Japanese promoter thought it might be a terrific wheeze to put them on the same bill.

I recall the night Chris broke the news to Lee over a curry.  “We’ve been offered some dates in Japan,” Chris announced warily.  “Great!” said Lee, slurping a lager, “good money?”  “Yeah, the money’s OK,” replied Chris, “but there might be a snag – we’re opening for Wilko.”

All eyes turned to Brilleaux, half expecting him to choke on his madras, but of course Lee responded calmly, taking the opportunity to have a good-humoured dig at the guitarist.  “I see,” said Lee, “and might we be travelling on the same plane?”  “I’m afraid so,” replied Chris.  “Well then, I’ll upgrade to first class so that when Wilko gets on the plane, I’ll be sitting up front, getting stuck into the champagne.  And halfway through the flight, I could turn around and raise a glass to Wilko.”  Lee then paused thoughtfully, remembering Wilko’s teetotalism, and added, “Oh, sorry Wilko, you don’t, do you?” 

Brilleaux’s local pub was The Grand, after which he named the independent record label that handled the Feelgoods reissues.  “It was his second home,” says Shirley, “in fact sometimes, when he returned home from a tour, he would go there first.”  The Grand was a five-minute walk from The Proceeds and over a period of about 10 years, in between tours, it was where Lee could be found most evenings around six, enjoying ‘an early one’.  He would sit at the bar, peering over half-moon specs, toying with the Telegraph crossword, whilst awaiting the arrival of his small coterie of drinking buddies, to whom he gave amusing names, such as ‘Dennis The Dog’, ‘Ron the Kite‘ and ‘Colin the Socialist’.

Lee tolerated The Grand, even when it was a poorly managed house, but he really lost his temper the night the pub ran out of ice, giving him an opportunity to exercise his cool style.  They still talk about the night Lee sidled up to the bar and ordered a gin and tonic, only to be told, “Sorry, there’s no ice.”  Lee calmly went to the payphone and ordered a taxi.  Twenty minutes later he returned from the supermarket, slapped a large bag on the bar, and roared, “There’s your fucking ice, now give me a gin and tonic!”

Lee’s drinking was legendary and it is impossible to overlook this aspect of his character.  Once or twice, I found myself on the road with the latter day Feelgoods, manning the ‘merch stall’ for Chris.  At the Douglas Lido, five minutes before curtain up, I watched in disbelief as he prepared his on-stage refreshment.  He lined up three pint glasses, each filled with ice, into which he decanted an entire bottle of Gordon’s gin.  The industrial strength cocktails were then diluted with an inch or two of tonic - no more - and ceremoniously placed on the drum riser.  They lasted Lee until midway through the set, by which time a gaggle of bikers had gathered in front of the stage, and were menacingly shaking up cans of lager.  During ‘Rock Me Baby’, I think, the cans were cracked open and Lee was sprayed with beer.  Ever the showman, his reaction was to simply smile, roll back his head and bask in the foaming shower, holding out his arms and gesturing for more.

“When he was working he was very careful not to cross the line with his drinking, although he did often make it across that line,” says his wife.  “He was more apt to overdo it when he was at home.  He loved going to restaurants, food and wine, books and music - that was how he wanted to live out his life.  But he was also a wonderful father and husband.  When I was training to become a nurse, he would be home, doing the shopping, cooking, picking up the kids, he did an awful lot.  I keep finding old cookbooks with Lee’s notations and little recipes he invented.  He used to write out the menu and post it on the door.”

Adds Larry Wallis: “When I talk about Lee, food features a lot.  He was a trencherman.  Not that he ate a lot; he just ate well.  Pickles and chutneys were a big one with Lee - he didn’t buy ‘em, he made ‘em.  At Christmas, there was always the appropriate time to take a stroll down to the pub and stop off at various shops to give Lee time to order the pork pies, the haunch of venison and the right casks of beer that had to be brought into the house so many days before the event.  Brilleaux was the master at entertaining, he was the quintessential Englishman.”

“When they were on tour, he would always have his Michelin Guide or a book on objects of historic interest.  He would know the chateau to visit and the three-star Michelin restaurant that was nearby.  And he always knew the little village off the beaten track where you could find a local ale he hadn’t tried yet.  If you mentioned, for example, Henry VIII, Lee would be able to tell you some completely obscur, but incredibly amusing fact about him.”

So extensive was Lee’s knowledge of European hotels and restaurants, built up through years of hard touring, he even considered writing a book, jokingly referred to as ‘The Brilleaux Guide’.

In Europe, while other group members drove, he would travel by train or plane.  He usually wore a suit, to improve his chance of an upgrade.  “He was quite blunt about it,” says Shirley.  “He didn’t have the time or the patience for arduous journeys in the later years.”

Kevin Morris, Dr Feelgood’s drummer since 1983, agrees that Lee’s travelling arrangements were partly a desire to experience as much as possible of what ‘the road’ had to offer.  “Lee and I would often get up early and stop somewhere civilised for lunch, then relax before the evening’s show,” he recalls.  “Lee knew all the best places and what local delicacies might be on offer.  It made touring bearable.”

Lee was also a bit of a dandy and would always dress for the occasion, whether it be fronting the Feelgoods, or strolling out to a luncheon.  Larry Wallis pictures the scene: “Sunday night at the Hackney Empire, five minutes to show time, and Lee’s preparing to become the on-stage spiv.  The Slim-Jim strides are on, the box jacket is on its hanger ready for action, and the inch-wide necktie is nicely in place when Lee produces a fabulous pair of side-lace-up winkle-pickers about a yard long.  I enquire of their origin.  ‘They come from a little shop in Carnaby Street,’ says Lee, ‘that does an absolutely disgusting range of foot-furniture.’  I cracked up.  The last time I saw Lee, he was wearing the tweed cheese-cutter, a Barbour jacket, silk cravat and a lovely pair of Sherlock-style boots, topped off with the walking stick.  ‘Nice outfit Lee,’ I said.  Lee looked puzzled for a moment. ‘What outfit?’ he asked.”

Lee was a hero and a gentleman and enjoyed a huge amount of admiration and loyalty from fans and friends alike.  In his book, Down By The Jetty, Tony Moon wrote: “The image that Lee evoked as a frontman became, for us, a barometer against which anything and everything could be measured and tested.  For example, if we were watching something on the telly, our immediate retort would be, ‘Yes, but would Lee Brilleaux like it?’  For example, would Lee Brilleaux like gatefold double album sleeves?  Low-tar tipped cigarettes?  That style of shirt?  The answer always seemed to be a very positive and life-affirming, ‘NO HE FUCKIN’ WOULDN’T.’ ”

Nick Lowe, producer of two Dr Feelgood albums and co-writer of ‘Milk And Alcohol’, has the last word: “Even back in the seventies, I used to feel a bit thick around Lee.  He was so well-read and rounded.  The last time I saw him for lunch, we arranged to meet in the French House.  He looked like a mediaeval English professor at some red brick university, swathed in tweeds and finishing The Times crossword, which he put away very hurriedly when I arrived.  He was pretty focussed that day on things he wasn’t focussed on before.  He was always very elegant, but towards the end there was this great knowingness.  Lee was a really classy guy.  I think about him all the time.”
 

BRILLEAUX STYLE

Lee's consuming passions, from Howlin' Wolf to Soho boozers...

Howlin’ Wolf left Lee reeling when he performed live at the King’s Head, Romford in 1968.  He paid a tribute to his hero on the final Feelgood recording, Wolfman Calling

Auberon Waugh’s column in the Daily Telegraph was a must-read, as well as Dickens, Trollope and Patricia Highsmith.  The Crust On Its Uppers by Derek Raymond, Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess and the travel books of Eric Newby were also on his list.

“Squire Haggard’s Journal by Michael Green was Lee’s favourite book,” recalls Larry Wallis.  “I spent a Christmas at Lee’s house crying with laughter over it.  I referred to Lee as Squire Haggard - very English, fond of a decent brandy.”

Los Caracoles, Barcelona was one of Lee’s favourite restaurants.  Others include La Coupole, Paris, and Gay Hussar in London.  “The wild man of R&B always carried the Michelin Guide,” says Wallis.

Mr Eddie & Chris Kerr of Berwick Street was Lee’s tailor, supplying the stage suits that withstood a nightly pounding.

Gent’s Suede Chukka Boots by New & Lingwood of Jermyn Street - Lee was extremely excited when he discovered these little numbers.

‘She Does It Right’ was Lee’s favourite Feelgood track.  He acknowledged that Wilko’s songs were the essence of the early Feelgoods.

The Coach & Horses in Soho was one of Lee’s favourite pubs, not least of all because of its association with the writer Jeffrey Bernard.  And The Punch House in Monmouth was “always worth a detour.” 

Courage Directors heads the beer list.  “He enjoyed the Spanish brandy Cardinal Mendoza,” recalls friend Keith Smith.  “If you were dining at The Proceeds you knew you were in for a very late night when Lee announced it was time for the Cardinal.”

Toby Jugs - the Feelgoods themselves were immortalised in glazed clay for 1979’s Let It Roll.

With thanks to Shirley Brilleaux, Larry Wallis, Kevin Morris, Chris Fenwick and Keith Smith.

Will Birch © willbirch.com
First published in Uncut, 2004

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