Shakin’ Stevens

Michael Barratt (born 4 March 1948), known professionally as Shakin’ Stevens, is a Welsh singer and songwriter. He was the UK’s biggest-selling singles artist of the 1980s. His recording and performing career began in the late 1960s, although it was not until 1980 that his commercial success began. His most successful songs were nostalgia hits, evoking the sound of 1950s rock and roll and pop.

In the UK alone, Stevens has charted 33 Top 40 hit singles including four chart-topping hits “This Ole House“, “Green Door“, “Oh Julie“, and “Merry Christmas Everyone“; his last Top 40 single was “Trouble” in 2005 apart from his Christmas song, which has re-entered the UK Top 75 chart each December since 2007.

Michael Barratt, who would later adopt the stage name “Shakin’ Stevens”, was the youngest of 11 children born to Jack and May Barratt. His father was a First World War veteran who by 1948 was working in the building trade, having previously worked as a coal miner. The oldest of his siblings were born in the mid-1920s, and by the time of his birth some of Michael Barratt’s oldest siblings had already married and started families of their own. Jack Barratt died in 1972 at the age of 75. May Barratt died in 1984 at the age of 79.

He grew up in Ely, Cardiff, and as a teenager, in the mid-1960s he formed his first amateur rock and roll band with school friends and became its vocalist and frontman. Originally named the Olympics, then the Cossacks, the short-lived band finally renamed as the Denims and performed gigs in the local Cardiff and South Wales area. In the late 1960s, Stevens was associated with the Young Communist League (YCL), the youth wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain through playing at YCL events. At the time the YCL was associated with several leading music industry figures, including Pete Townshend. However, Stevens has stated that the organiser of the gigs was a member of the organisation and that the band only performed because it was a job.

Stevens married his wife, Carole, on 7 October 1967, and they had three children together. They divorced in 2009 after 42 years of marriage. At the time of their marriage, his official occupation was a milkman, and they lived in a flat which formed part of an office block in inner-city Cardiff. The office block was demolished several years later. He is a lifelong supporter of his local football team Cardiff City.

Having worked as an upholsterer and milkman, Barratt performed on weekends in clubs and pubs. Having previously followed them as a fan and then as an occasional guest vocalist, Barratt joined the existing Penarth-based the Backbeats – originally formed in 1958 – as lead singer. He was spotted by South Wales impresario Paul “Legs” Barrett, who proposed repackaging the band as a 1950s-influenced rock ‘n’ roll outfit under a new name. Michael Barratt agreed to choose a stage name, and so borrowing from old school friend Steven Vanderwalker, he chose Shakin’ Stevens.

Fronting the newly named Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets, an early break for the band presented itself when they were given a support slot for the Rolling Stones in December 1969. Despite landing a recording contract with Parlophone Records the following year and releasing a Dave Edmunds-produced album, the optimistically and prematurely titled A Legend, the group found success hard to come by, at least in their native Great Britain, though they had several hit singles in other countries. The band toured GermanyBelgiumFrance and the Netherlands in between UK dates.

Because they only achieved minor sales, many of the Sunsets’ records with Stevens have become collectors’ items in the years following his commercial breakthrough; for example a copy of their single “Honey Don’t” released in Sweden on CBS Records in 1973 sold for over £340 in 2013. The Sunsets continue to perform, and still tour annually in the UK, Europe and Australia, fronted in recent years by Shaky’s nephew, Levi Barratt.

In 1977, after seven years of constant touring and recording, “Shaky”, as he was also being called by this time, had been spotted during a London Sunsets gig by Jack Goodwho personally invited him to attend a London audition for his planned new West End musical Elvis!. Three actors were to portray Elvis‘s life during the course of the show and Shaky landed one of the lead roles, playing Elvis in his prime, charting his army and film star years, with young actor Tim Whitnall covering the earlier formative years and veteran 1960s singer P.J. Proby taking over the part for Elvis’s ‘Las Vegas‘ years.

The rest of the Sunsets waited in South Wales, doing occasional performances with drummer Robert ‘Rockin Louis’ Llewellyn taking the frontman duties, but fully expecting Stevens to return to the band and recommence touring after the show’s planned short six-month run. However, the expectations were overtaken by subsequent events. The media-wise Jack Good made sure that both the audition process and the early months of the show were widely and regularly covered by the British daily press and TV shows.

During the Elvis! show’s highly successful and then twice-extended two-year run Shaky made regular TV appearances, firstly on Good’s revived British ITV show Oh Boy! and later on his follow-up 30-week-long series Let’s Rock that was syndicated in 32 countries, including the United States. This led almost inevitably to his first major chart success with a cleverly re-worked version of a Buck Owens song “Hot Dog”, which Owens would re-record using the arrangement created by pedal steel guitar player B.J. Cole.

In late 1979, Stevens signed what was to be his most successful management deal with Freya Miller, who immediately advised Stevens to sever his association with the Sunsets and continue developing a more lucrative solo career. Under Miller’s hand, in 1981, Stevens scored his first UK chart-topping number 1 with “This Ole House” and would follow up with 10 more songs reaching the top five, including three number 1 hits with “Green Door“, “Oh Julie” and “Merry Christmas Everyone“, while “You Drive Me Crazy” and “A Love Worth Waiting For” reached number 2 in 1981 and 1984 respectively. His 1984 hit “Teardrops”, which reached No. 5 in the UK, featured Hank Marvin on guitar, and since then, Stevens has often featured famous musicians such as Albert LeeRoger TaylorBonnie Tyler and more recently Tony Joe White on his recordings.

Chart successes also included his album Shaky reaching number 1 on the UK Albums Chart. In the mid-1980s, Stevens re-united with former producer Dave Edmunds to record an album Lipstick, Powder and Paint, and the Christmas smash “Merry Christmas Everyone”, which was a number 1 hit in 1985. Its original planned release was put back by a year to avoid clashing with the runaway success of Band Aid‘s charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?“, to which he did not contribute, having been out of the country touring at the time of recording. Despite Stevens’s chart domination over the previous few years, he was not invited to perform at Live Aid on 13 July 1985.

However, Stevens was one of the celebrities to appear in an advertising campaign for Heineken in the late-1980s. The slogan “refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach” was confirmed in the advert as he stops shakin’ after consuming the product.

In a Record Collector magazine feature, writer Kris Griffiths wrote: “This was Shaky at the very zenith of his powers and, perhaps, the breaking-point of marketing overload from which there is only decline. Such concentrated commercial success and ubiquity came with a price.” The hits continued but chart placings declined throughout the later 1980s and early 1990s. It was in the 1990s that Stevens took a lengthy break from recording and was stung by a court ruling that related to unpaid royalties from the Legendalbum, which had been re-released to some commercial success, requiring a substantial payout to former band members of the Sunsets. In 1999, Stevens returned to performing live and undertook tours all that year and the following year.

80s Studio albums

Take One! (1980)

Marie, Marie (1980)

This Ole House (1981)

Shaky (1981)

Give Me Your Heart Tonight (1982)

The Bop Won’t Stop (1983)

Lipstick, Powder and Paint (1985)

Let’s Boogie (1987)

A Whole Lotta Shaky (1988)

Comments are welcome on your 80s memories...