Brian Howe obituary

<span>Photograph: Chloe Friedman/AP</span>
Photograph: Chloe Friedman/AP

The vocalist and songwriter Brian Howe, who has died of a heart attack aged 66, became best known for his work with the British hard rock group Bad Company, which he joined in 1986 as the replacement for the departed singer Paul Rodgers, formerly vocalist with Free. Howe had been thrust into the rock’n’roll limelight a couple of years previously when he put in a stint as lead vocalist with the US guitarist Ted Nugent’s band, touring the US with them and appearing on the album Penetrator.

He made four studio albums with Bad Company. After a slow start with Fame and Fortune (1986), their fortunes improved steadily with Dangerous Age (1988), then reached a peak with Holy Water (1990), a million-selling album in the US which produced the major hits If You Needed Somebody and Walk Through Fire. Though Rodgers, one of the great rock vocalists, was a difficult act to follow, Howe’s powerful voice and commanding stage presence enabled him to stamp his authority on the group.

As the music industry analyst Bob Lefsetz wrote: “Brian Howe emoted. It had that special sauce, the je ne sais quoi, you know, the sound that penetrates your gut and hooks you, that you want to turn up as you bounce around the house with that guitar shaking the walls, this is the power of rock and roll.”

Howe was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, to Sheila (nee Kaye) and Laurence, a welder and a semi-professional singer who performed pop hits in local clubs at night. Brian’s first public performance was singing the Perry Como hit Catch a Falling Star at a talent show when he was three.

As a teenager, he sang with a glam-rock band, Mighty Glad, and later joined the local bands Flyin’ High and Shy. Moving to London, he joined the hard rockers White Spirit in 1981, though they split up the same year. Howe’s sole recorded legacy with White Spirit was the track Watch Out, which appeared on a reissue of their eponymous 1980 album in 2005. Over the years, he was involved in several attempts to take over Portsmouth FC, though none of them came to fruition

Howe had been regularly sending tapes of his own work to Atlantic Records. After countless rejections, this paid off in 1983 when the Atlantic A&R executive Richard Steinberg and record producer Ashley Howe (no relation) played one of Howe’s tapes – he had recorded it in a DJ booth at a local Portsmouth radio station – and thought he could make a suitable vocalist for Ted Nugent’s band. Howe was flown to New York and auditioned successfully for Nugent, though not before he had made a detour to Bud Prager’s office.

Prager co-managed Bad Company but also managed the hugely successful group Foreigner, whose co-founder Mick Jones was a fellow Portsmouth native and a friend of Howe’s. Howe’s bid to become Foreigner’s vocalist came to nothing, but the audition for Nugent led to him singing lead vocals on what would become the Penetrator album before setting out on tour with him. The Nugent band sustained a hectic schedule of six shows a week with some additional matinees thrown in, for which Howe had rashly offered to accept a wage of £300 a week.

But Howe wanted to write as well as sing, and jumped at the chance to join Mick Ralphs and Simon Kirke from Bad Company, who planned to form a new band after the departure of Rodgers. They wanted to give the band a different name, but were pressured by Atlantic and their management into keeping Bad Company because of its prior commercial success, the band’s previous six albums having reached the US Top 30. Their first attempt, Fame and Fortune, was co-produced by Jones and Foreigner’s producer Keith Olsen, and moved away from the previous hard rock sound while adding additional keyboards and saxophone. It failed to make the US Top 100.

They fared better with Dangerous Age. The band now included the multi-instrumentalist, producer and songwriter Terry Thomas, who put the emphasis back on guitars and gave the band a hard-rock strut for which Howe’s hoarse, dynamic vocals were the perfect match. Howe and Thomas were also becoming the band’s dominant songwriters. The album reached the US Top 60.

Their big breakthrough was Holy Water (1990), which reached No 35 on the Billboard album chart. As well as the chart hits If You Needed Somebody and Walk Through Fire, several other tracks received heavy radio play. However, tension was mounting between Howe and the other members. The guitarist Mick Ralphs commented later that “it was like a producer [Terry Thomas] working with a singer, and they basically commandeered the songwriting, and the producer decided how he was going to make the record sound.”

Problems were exacerbated when they made their last album together, Here Comes Trouble (1992). This saw a dramatic drop in sales from its predecessor, despite the Top 40 hit How About That. Howe’s last recordings with the band were on the What You Hear Is What You Get live album, recorded on their 1992 US tour. “We finished the Here Comes Trouble tour in Orlando,” Howe said in 2001. “I looked about the stage and said, ‘This is the last time I’m ever gonna have to work with you jerks.’” He left the band in 1994.

From his home in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, he embarked on a solo career, releasing his first album, Tangled in Blue, in 1997. The follow-up, Touch, appeared in 2003, and in 2010 he released Circus Bar. In 2017 he released the single Hot Tin Roof on his own label, Howe’s Business. He had been touring with his own band this year until the Covid-19 pandemic prompted the shutdown of concert venues.

In September 2017 he suffered a near-fatal heart attack while driving his car, after which he had two stents fitted. On 30 April he broke several ribs in a motorcycle accident, but discharged himself from hospital.

Reflecting on his career last year, he said: “Basically, it was a lovely ride. It’s fantastic to be accepted as a guy who can write songs that people actually like… It’s a very strange, surreal life. But it’s incredible… I’ve loved my life.”

He was married twice, to Debbie and Carla, but was divorced from both. He is survived by his son, Michael, and daughters, Victoria and Ella, his grandchildren Kira, Alexandria and Aurora, and a sister, Sandie.

• Brian Anthony Howe, singer and songwriter, born 22 July 1953; died 6 May 2020