‘There was one gig we did in Scotland where the girls were screaming so loud that I couldn’t hear us – and we were not a quiet band,” said Steve Priest in 2017, recalling a typical gig with the Sweet in their 1970s pomp. He might have added that a good few of the screams were directed at him personally.
Priest, who has died aged 72, was not just the group’s bassist; he was the member who most enthusiastically explored the presentational possibilities of glam rock, creating a persona that would have served as well in a Christmas panto as it did on Top of the Pops.
He made free with makeup, wore floor-length capes and hot pants and effected lash-fluttering camp; Sweet songs were written to include Priest’s vocal interludes, delivered in a maddened falsetto. Chided by David Bowie himself for over-egging things, Priest was amused by his failure to get the point: “It isn’t supposed to be subtle. I’m supposed to look like an old tart.”
Priest took to his role as the band peacock with great relish. “Everyone thought I was gay anyway, so I went, ‘OK, you think I’m gay, I’m going to act gay,’” he said in 2000, but it was often the case that his musicianship was overlooked. A rock bass player at heart, he and the Sweet’s drummer Mick Tucker were a compact, unshowy rhythm section who foreshadowed punk’s minimalism; his playing, said the Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson, was “without parallel”.
That cut little ice with the Sweet’s many disparagers, who saw only a quartet of men in makeup, with a bassist who took it that little bit further. More audaciously still, they sold 50m records looking that way. Decades after he wore a “gay Nazi” get-up on a 1973 edition of Top of the Pops, Priest was still asked if he had been serious. “It’s amazing how everyone still talks about the Nazi uniform. I mean, a gay Hitler. Hello?” It bears noting that the black and red jacket of his 1994 memoir, Are You Ready, Steve? – the title was the first line of the magnificently unhinged single Ballroom Blitz - uses a typeface similar to Third Reich typography.
Though he came to rue the image, he viewed the Sweet’s success as the reward for the years of slog that preceded it. Born in Hayes, Middlesex, he grew up encouraged to pursue music by his father, who had played in a Hawaiian band in the 30s.
After a spell singing in a choir, he became a fan of the Shadows bass player Jet Harris. Accordingly, he made his own bass guitar and spent the early 60s playing in local bands. In 1968, he was invited to join a group led by the singer Brian Connolly and Tucker. Changing their name from Wainwright’s Gentlemen to Sweetshop, then the Sweet – by this point, the guitarist Andy Scott had arrived – they served what Priest described as a hard apprenticeship.
Inspired by Deep Purple and the Who, the Sweet were then a nondescript rock band, touring the clubs and releasing a series of singles. Simply making a living at it was fine with Priest, who had become a father during that time.
Had it not been for his friend the record producer Phil Wainman introducing the Sweet to the fledgling songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, it is probable that the band would have ended up as no more than a pop footnote. They proved an ideal testing ground for Chinn and Chapman, with the lightweight 1971 single Funny Funny becoming the first of the duo’s 11 Top 40 hits for the Sweet. Together with the band’s self-written songs, the Sweet had 16 UK hits. (They included Block Buster, Little Willy and Hell Raiser, by anyone’s measure among the best singles of their era.)
As “Chinnichap” moved on from lukewarm popsmithery to raw, magisterial pop-rock, the Sweet, and especially Priest, took note of glam rock’s increasing hold on the charts. It was the visual aspect that most captivated him and he quickly saw the point of dressing to outrage, especially during their many Top of the Pops appearances. “You had to outdo everyone else. So you saw what so-and-so was wearing, and then you were going to do Top of the Pops next week and had to come up with something else. Otherwise, you’d just fall into the ‘I have no idea who that was [category]’.”
When Connolly left, after the band’s last big hit, Love Is Like Oxygen, in 1978, Priest took over lead vocals until 1982, when the group disbanded. He had moved to New York during that period and married Maureen O’Connor, a publicity executive at the Sweet’s American label, Capitol. Attempts at a solo career, and as a member of a US band called the Allies, were unsuccessful, as was a tilt at reforming the Sweet. He had more success as a property dealer in Los Angeles, where he moved with his family.
Like many other former groups with much-loved back catalogues and a fractious ex-membership, three versions of the Sweet began to tour, headed by Connolly, Scott and Priest. The bassist’s group, spurred by observing that Eric Clapton was still on the road (“He is a lot older than I am and [I was] wondering why I’m not up there”), did not form until 2008. Connolly had died in 1997, but Scott had the rights to the Sweet name in the UK and Australia, and Priest secured them only for North America. In other places, he was compelled to call his edition, comprised mainly of American rock players, Steve Priest’s Sweet.
Though he and Scott spent years refusing to speak to each other, when Priest’s death was announced, Scott wrote, “I am in bits right now.”
Priest’s first marriage, to Pat, ended in divorce. He is survived by Maureen, three daughters and three grandchildren.
• Stephen Norman Priest, musician, born 23 February 1948; died 4 June 2020