HE’S famously known for being the first voice to be heard on Radio One when the new national radio station began broadcasting in 1967.
Prior to that Tony Blackburn was helping to revolutionise the musical tastes of the nation via the pirate radio stations Radio Caroline and Radio London broadcasting live from ships out in the North Sea. These floating studios were outside UK territorial waters and could therefore operate without a licence.
Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of his first broadcast on Radio Caroline and he remains as committed to bringing good music to folk as he has ever been.
He is currently hosting Sounds of the 60s live featuring a live band and singers performing 100 of the best songs from the decade with concerts next month in Blackburn, Warrington and Manchester as part of a 40-date national tour.
“It’s great fun, I love it,” said Tony. “It’s aimed at an older audience which I like. Everything is done for kids nowadays and radio and TV think that the children are watching but they’re not, they’re on Spotify or YouTube or wherever.”
The live show is a spin off from the weekly radio programme Tony presents on Radio 2.
“We have a fabulous seven-piece band and a couple of great singers,” he said. “During the course of an evening we play 100 60s’ hits in medleys. I come out and talk about the 60s and the pirate ships and waffle on about Radio One and things like that. And we have fun with the audience. I love doing the shows.”
Anyone who has followed Tony’s career will not be surprised when he admits “I ad lib a lot. I have a rough idea of what I’m going to say. I start off when I was at college in Bournemouth and talk about the early days when I was a singer.
“I used to be a singer and guitarist with a dance band then I go on to the pirate ships but I have been known to drift off a bit and normally the band steers me back. We’ve been doing the show so long now we know each other so well and they don’t panic too much when I might start to digress.”
The shows are very much a labour of love for Tony and you can tell that the music from the Sixties remains something very special to him.
“The Sixties were special,” he said. “The songs have lasted so well. Look at Motown which we have a section for and I love. That music sounds so up to date still.
“It’s basically down to the melody. The melodies they wrote then were so memorable – and so short, they were the perfect two-and-a-half minute pop songs. It’s amazing how they have lasted.
“I’d always rather play the music of the Sixties. I do a thing on Radio Two called the Golden Hour and play moderately new records. But with a few exceptions, I don’t think any of them will be particularly memorable. I think the artists are great in the way they perform them but they are sometimes a bit overproduced and you can’t hear the words apart from anything else.
“I’d never say to my children ‘oh they don’t write songs like they use to’ but secretly I do believe that.”
It is hard to fully appreciate the role Tony has had in shaping what we now know as pop music.
He was one of the pioneers in introducing soul music and the sounds from America to those early radio audiences.
“I did the first soul show on Big L Radio London out in the North Sea on a Sunday morning,” he said. “They had said ‘you like that music so go ahead and play it’. I don’t know how many were listening at that time of morning but when I moved to open up Radio One, I had a terrific choice of music on the breakfast show and I made sure that all this music came in with me.
“The BBC weren’t playing it - I don’t know why because it was so great - but I made sure we got a lot of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and that sort of music in.”
His efforts at spreading the word were appreciated by the artists themselves.
“Stevie Wonder actually turned up at a gig I was doing out of the blue. He was in London and we were doing a live show to Radio London. Someone came up to me and said Stevie Wonder’s here and wants to come out. Then there he was and he said ‘thank you for playing our music’.”
Many radio stations now operate using predetermined playlists which is why you often hear the same records time and again.
“I’m not mad about playlists,” said Tony. “I do a show for a number of local radio stations and pick all the music. I’ll not play anything I don’t like. That’s very unusual but I wouldn’t do the programme if I couldn’t do that.”
That attitude harks back to his pirate radio days when along with fellow mavericks such as John Peel, Kenny Everett and Johnnie Walker, the DJs were given free reign.
“We knew we were altering the way music was being broadcast in this country,” he said. “We were doing away with the monopoly of the BBC and I’m very proud of that.”
Pirate radio’s influences came from across the Atlantic and Tony took them with him to the fledgling Radio One.
“What we created out in the North Sea was personality radio,” said Tony. “That’s what it was all about and that’s what Radio One became all about - now it’s the same on Radio Two.
“For me if I’m listening to a radio station I want to be entertained by somebody. Someone who is either knowledgeable or someone who makes me laugh. That was what we created. That’s why I like working at the BBC because they leave you alone to get on with it. They want you to have a personality.”
Amazingly Tony will be celebrating his 80th birthday this weekend but his love of music remains as strong as ever.
“What I’m doing now, if it stays like this for ever I’ll be very happy,” he said. “If you have got your health then you can do it. I don’t want to retire. If you have found a job that you love doing, why retire? After all, you have got to have something to get up for in the morning and keep the brain going.”
Tony Blackburn's Sounds of the 60s, King George's Hall, Blackburn, Wednesday, February 8; Parr Hall, Warrington, Thursday, February 9 and Manchester Opera House, Tuesday, February 28.