British soul pioneer and jazz-funk legend, Tony O’Malley on working with Bob Dylan, getting busted in Australia and surviving the music industry
By Sean Gallen
In the dimly lit backstage room of Camden Town’s famous Jazz Café sits Tony O’Malley. Surrounded by propped-up instruments and sheet music, musicians wander in and out of the cramped dressing room, touching up make-up and practicing their vocals. The atmosphere is what you’d expect 20 minutes or so before a band is due to go on stage. At the age of 70, Tony has no desire to slow down or stop his long and illustrious musical career.
He is playing with his band Kokomo tonight, who despite a hiatus and changes to their line-up are still gigging regularly. “The band started in 1973,” Tony explains. “At that time no one was playing funky music, certainly not in England anyway.”
Once on stage, the chemistry between the band is electric. Made up of three singers, drums, sax, bass, guitar and percussion, Kokomo unites behind Tony’s raspy vocals and funky piano playing. “One of my assets is I always know how to get a groove going. Technically speaking I couldn’t get into most bands because I just haven’t got
the chops, but getting a groove and taking a band to a higher level, I know how to do that.”
Brought up in North London, Tony formed his first band aged twelve and continued to play music throughout his adolescence. In 1969, he was asked to play piano for a group called Arrival, and it was there that he met Frank Collins, Dyan Birch and Paddie McHugh, all three of whom would end up helping him form Kokomo.
“As soon as I heard them I thought ‘shit these singers are fantastic, so soulful’ you just didn’t hear that kind of singing,” he says.
Arrival had a couple of hit records in 1970 but management wanted to make the band lighter, more Abba-esque. Tony wanted to go for a more gutsy American sound. Kokomo was born.
The band burst quickly onto London’s music scene. Their debut album Kokomo 1 was released in 1975, the same year Bob Dylan, or Bobby as Tony likes to call him, recruited the band to help record his album Desire. “It was a great experience, he was very nice,” Tony says. Their session together ended when the producer came into the room and said, “Bobby’s voice has gone now” and that was that.
Touring America with old friends The Average White Band put Kokomo in front of huge crowds; but they remained more popular on home soil. American crowds liked the slickness of The Average Whites - Kokomo were a bit more rough around the edges.
The band announced an indefinite hiatus in 1977, which led Tony to join the rock band 10cc. Laughing, Tony explains that it was a series of events which meant he only stayed in the group a year. “It was going great, but then in Australia I got busted,” he says.
Arrested for the possession of grass and hash oil whilst in Adelaide, Tony was sentenced to 53 days in prison or a AUS$500 fine. “I said to the judge, ‘I’ll take the money, milud!’ So, I was able to board the plane to Perth and continue the tour,” he says.
As much as Tony loved the guys in 10cc, after playing with such great musicians in Kokomo, he found it hard adjusting.
“I’d been to heaven with Kokomo so to come out of it, I was never really that happy. I’ve always wanted to do my thing so to be a support player wasn’t very satisfying for me,” Tony explains. “Plus, 10cc needed to keep their image and didn’t want jazzers and druggers associated with the band, so that was the end of that.”
They stayed friends. Tony recalls the time he went to see 10cc at Wembley. “I was pleased because the guy they got in to replace me, Duncan Mackay, was doing all my licks. It was a back handed compliment,” he laughs.
Hustling around London and across Europe throughout the 1980s, Tony built up quite the fan following. Becoming a monthly regular at Chelsea’s 606 club, he began his solo career.
Nowadays Tony spends most of his time working with “his guys” as he calls them. Sonny, Ally and Richy - three young musicians who have become his bandmates and who he describes as the future generation.
“They’re teaching me how to have a great attitude. It’s so fresh and I think I’ve got some really great songs on the go,” he says.
Always sticking to his guns, Tony has made 12 albums and is continually writing new music and hustling for gigs. He says finding the money to finance everything will always be the biggest struggle of being a musician. It frustrates him that most musicians today can’t afford to be creative.
He has strong opinions on the current state of music too. When asked, he quotes Elton John: “I’m so thankful that my fans didn’t have to listen to my early albums on a fucking phone. I grew famous with real talent. If you scan the Billboard Top 100 now, you’ll find it hard to find much to float your boat.” Tony reads the quote laughing: “I’m with Elton on that. That’s where it’s at for me too.”
What’s so obvious about watching Tony play is the way he interacts with the other musicians on stage, creating such a vibrant energy. Kokomo is formed of musicians at all stages of their careers. Some fresh out of college and others in their golden years. He insists that it’s just like football, all down to the players.
Tony has always had a laid-back attitude to life and his philosophy remains the same. “I think you’ve just got to get on being true to yourself and get down with your big bad self,” he says. “When you get older you just think fuck it, I’m just going to do my thing and be happy in my own space.”