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The hypnotist: Geno Washington interviewed
Sunday, 25 May 2008
Altogether now: oh-wo-woh Geno-o! Yes, that man, the great US soul stomper, the Big G, is about to shake a tail feather in that most English of towns, Scarborough.

It’s not quite so incongruous as it seems. Geno Washington has had an on-off love affair with Blighty ever since he arrived here on 12 December 1961 as a rookie in the US air force.

In those days the music scene was ‘heavy duty Shadows,’ he recalls. But later he was to get a big surprise and learn a few things about his own culture from over here. He was in Ipswich, where US personnel were big supporters of the local clubs. ‘It was changing to the blues – old black music. It was so real,’ he says. And the local kids knew everything about those musicians like Fats Domino, Muddy Waters – their biography, even the B-sides to their records. Geno admits it was an education even for some from the States.

His own heroes included Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, types who knew how to rip it up. When he saw white kids doing black music and with girls throwing their knickers on the stage, Geno – until then a scholarship athlete – decided that was the job for him. ‘I thought well, I’m black enough. All I need to do is learn how to sing.’

His first effort with a band got off to a rocky start. The singing was brilliant, the crowd went wild. So they asked for a pay rise. But the manager took umbrage. ‘Fifteen guineas? You ain’t worth the twelve. You’re fired!’ He laughs in that unstoppable, infectious way like Muttley crossed with Eartha Kitt. When life is one big riot, you have to take it with a strong sense of humour.

Blagging his way to a gig with Shane Fenton (later Alvin Stardust) involved a little licence: a smiling Geno told him his sister was Dinah  Washington and his cousin Martha Reeves. Whatever, it got him onstage for his true vocation. Since then he’s played with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Jack Bruce to Georgie Fame to this year’s tour with Eddie Floyd.

Becoming the real deal with his Ram Jam Band brought all the classic music biz problems though. In the 1970s Geno walked away from music to return to the States for what he calls the spiritual way. Why? ‘Money changes people. I’m there trying to brush up my chops and study the game, and people are stealing and all that,’ he says. ‘All the responsibilities came on to me. Look at Amy Winehouse now. The thing is, suddenly all your demons – well, you can afford them.’

That laugh again. However hard things got, you can’t believe this man would stay away for long. In 1981 Dexy’s Midnight Runners brought out their smash tribute to the great man, and he was back.

Geno returned to England and started touring once more. In the 90s he reinvented himself again as a top hypnotist – Scarborough punters might recall his visit when he both did the hypnotism and laid on his supercharged music. ‘I got your body, mind and soul then. I loved it, man!’

All through it he’s had wife Frenchie by his side. They met at trendy London club the Bag o’ Nails, where Frenchie’s sister also met future husband Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. Now they live in London and all in all, Geno has spent most of his adult life in this country. I asked him what he likes about England. ‘I like the attitude of the UK,’ he says. ‘If you are a foreigner, people say just muck in like the rest of us, go with the flow. I admire that.’

Well, you know what he means. But Geno going with the flow? Nah, this man makes the river flow.

Janis Bright

Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band play the Stephen Joseph Theatre on 22 June. Box office 01723 370541

 
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