Dana Gillespie’s 2021 memoir, Weren’t Born A Man (Hawksmoor Publishing), lifted the lid on one of entertainment’s wildest, most adventurous and creative lives. Dana was born in 1949. Mid-childhood, she moved from the country to central London just as a full-scale blues revival was under way. By 16, she was recording singles for Pye. In 1968, she was signed by Decca, leading to two LPs, the second of which, Box Of Surprises, was written entirely by her. At the turn of the decade, Dana was in the original London cast of two prominent musicals – Catch My Soul and Jesus Christ Superstar. Simultaneously, she was part of a team of session singers (Elton John, David Byron, Madeline Bell) who recorded soundalike versions of pop hits for Avenue Records. She and childhood friend, David Bowie, were both managed by Tony Defries and his MainMan company.
In 1973, Dana’s third album, Weren’t Born A man, recorded at Trident Studios and produced by Bowie, Mick Ronson, Robin Cable and Dana, came out on RCA. The follow-up, Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle, appeared in 1974 and Dana undertook a US tour in support of it. While Dana was working on demos for her third RCA album, MainMan imploded. Unable to record while still in contract, Dana returned to the UK and sought gigs and acting jobs, appearing in The People That Time Forgot (1977), The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1978), Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing (1980) and Mai Zetterling’s Scrubbers (1982). Among the people with whom she acted were Doug McClure, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Denholm Elliott Joan Greenwood, Terry-Thomas, Kenneth Williams, Roy Kinnear, Penelope Keith, Prunella Scales, Art Garfunkel, Harvey Keitel and Kathy Burke.
In 1982, Dana resumed her recording career with Blue Job (Ace Records), a collection of early 20th century bawdy blues numbers. She kept one foot in the pop camp with the 1984 album, Solid Romance (Bellaphon), which spawned international hit, ‘Move Your Body Close To Me’, before committing to the blues full-time. She founded and ran the Mustique Blues Festival with Basil Charles OBE, for two decades. In 1997, she joined the UK leg of Bob Dylan’s tour as ‘special guest’. There are now two strands to Dana’s recording career which run in parallel; her singer/songwriter blues albums for Ace Records and (in Europe) Wolf Records, and her albums of bhajans (devotional songs). Dana tours worldwide, including India, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Britain and beyond, frequently performing with the London Blues Band. She regularly appears in the UK capital at the 606 Club, Chelsea, and The Temple of Art and Music, Elephant & Castle. Her Decca recordings have been anthologised as London Social Degree (RPM, 2019) and her RCA recordings as What Memories We Make (Cherry Red, 2019). Dana’s most recent albums are Under My Bed (Ace, 2019) and Deep Pockets (Ace, 2021).
THE EARLY YEARS
Where do you even start with the task of trying to shoehorn Dana Gillespie’s life and experience into a few meagre paragraphs? She is, after all, a singer, songwriter, actress, broadcaster and consummate raconteuse who’s lived multiple lives. Although today she’s known as the UK’s long-reigning Queen of the Blues, Dana has been 108 other things, too. After a happy, unconventional childhood, first in the Home Counties and then in central London, she completed her education with a short spell at the noted Arts Ed stage school. Although she’d had a taste of sporting success as the British Junior Water-Skiing Champion, it was increasingly clear that one calling compelled her beyond all others; music. It was pouring into her teenage life in a number of ways; drumming lessons, guitar, singing, after-school jobs in record shops and, thanks to an ability to make herself look like a grownup, attending gigs at The Marquee in Soho and The Cromwellian Club in South Kensington. It was at the former that she met David Bowie (then Jones) in 1964. The friendship they formed was characterised by the mutual encouragement of each other’s incipient songwriting talents. Their paths would converge several times over the ten years that followed.
As Dana’s tastes developed, one musical form permanently and profoundly endeared itself to her; the blues. Something about its combination of guts, honesty and libidinous poetry had a transformative effect on her. But, armed with just a twelve-string guitar, Dana knew that her entry into the business of recorded music would be more swiftly effected via another genre that had also enjoyed a full-scale revival in the 1960s; folk. In 1965, signed to Pye Records, Dana issued a series of singles with A-sides by external writers backed by self-composed B-sides. This trio of flip-sides represents the first recorded flourishing of her songwriting talent – ‘You’re A Heartbreak Man’, ‘It’s No Use Saying If’ and ‘Adam Can You Beat That’. The accomplishment of composing and recording her own songs at 16 years old placed her in an exclusive group. She and her 60s contemporary, Twinkle, were the first female artists in the UK to write and record their songs while still teenagers. The only other prominent female teens who’d pulled off the feat were in America – Carole King in 1958, Janis Ian in 1965 and Laura Nyro in 1966.
DANA AT DECCA
Dana’s growing stature – the singles, live work and appearances on ITV’s Ready, Steady, Go – brought her to the attention of Decca Records where she arrived in 1968, joining David Bowie who’d landed at Decca subsidiary, Deram, the previous year. Dana’s tenure with the company was remarkably fruitful. First came the pop/folk album Foolish Seasons (1968) which, for reasons still unclear, didn’t get beyond test-pressing stage in Britain, but came out on the London imprint in America. Its striking cover photograph was shot by Gered Mankowitz, with whom Dana would enjoy a long creative partnership. Foolish Seasons was primarily written by others, with just a sprinkling of Dana originals. The following year’s Box Of Surprises (this time, Decca reversed its baffling strategy, issuing the album in the UK but not in the States) was a portent; all the songs were written by Dana and the album bore traces of her beloved blues, thanks in part to the backing by Savoy Brown. Today, both albums are highly collectable, selling for three-figure sums. At the time of their release they were insufficiently promoted, with just one single creeping out, ‘You Just Gotta Know My Mind’, a bracingly energetic Donovan original composed especially for Dana and produced by Jimmy Page.
At turn of the decade, Dana joined the cast of Catch My Soul, the rock-musical adaptation of Othello written by its star, Jack Good, and staged at The Roundhouse in London. Among her fellow cast-members were PJ Proby, Marsha Hunt and PP Arnold. But with her recording career in stasis, It was time for a changing of the guard in terms of management. Bowie had just met a potential new manager, Tony Defries. Soon, he and Dana would become part of the Gem music management company where Defries worked with Laurence Myers. Defries quickly secured RCA contracts for his two leading stars. While Bowie got to work on his first RCA LP (Hunky Dory), Dana had other commitments to honour – she was now appearing in the West End, Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice blockbuster, Jesus Christ Superstar. Not only was her performance as Mary Magdalene captured on the original London cast soundtrack album (MCA, 1972), she’s still, to this day, widely regarded as the best, most convincing Mary, despite stiff competition from Yvonne Elliman and a host of other star performers. Dana would return to the stage in a variety of productions from the 1980s onwards.
MAINMAN, BOWIE, RCA & TONY DEFRIES
By the time Dana’s first RCA album, Weren’t Born A Man (1973), came out, Defries had launched his own management company, MainMan, which would go down in history for its fearless, radical approach to promotion and its innate, ahead-of-the-times understanding of branding. Weren’t Born A Man, 80 per cent Dana’s writing, was produced by David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Robin Cable and Dana. Made between 1971 and 1973, it included ‘Andy Warhol’, written by Bowie for Dana. But the real revelation of the album, apart from the bold, erotic, ruby-hued cover, was the strength of Dana’s world-class writing and magisterial singing. It remains a near-perfect example of the thrilling rock/pop/folk/glam hybrid that was being popularised by Dana’s peers at the time, including Bowie and Lou Reed. Musicians on the album included Ray Cooper (percussionist from the Elton John Band), Rick Wakeman, Bobby Keyes and arrangers Del Newman and Robert Kirby. The following year’s Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle, which turned up the lubricious blues influence a few notches, was another landmark achievement. Second Fiddle was produced by Dana, working with John Porter, who’d overseen Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things the year before. An uproarious account of the album’s wild, bacchanalian sessions was written by engineer Phill Brown in his acclaimed memoir, Are We Still Rolling? (Tape Op, 2010). By now, Dana was living in one of MainMan’s apartments in New York. In the States, she promoted her RCA releases with a high-profile national tour, during which Earl Slick and Michael Kamen joined her band when they weren’t committed to dates with Bowie.
Had MainMan continued to prosper, Dana might well have had an international breakthrough. Everything was pointing in that direction. But, while work was under way on her third RCA album, MainMan collapsed in a tangle of debts, recriminations and lawsuits. Worse still, until the legalities were unpicked, Dana was stuck in contract and unable to record for anyone else.
Reeling from the blow dealt to her recording career, Dana returned to London, seeking gigs and acting jobs. At the outset of her career, she’d appeared in The Lost Continent (1968) and Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974). She resumed film work with The People That Time Forgot (1977), The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1978), Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing (1980) and Mai Zetterling’s Scrubbers (1982). Among the people with whom she acted were Doug McClure, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Denholm Elliott Joan Greenwood, Terry-Thomas, Kenneth Williams, Roy Kinnear, Penelope Keith, Prunella Scales, Art Garfunkel, Harvey Keitel and Kathy Burke.
INTO THE BLUES
Had MainMan not fallen, it’s possible that the next stage of Dana’s career might not have transpired, and yet it proved to be a vital reboot, enabling her to find most durable musical identity. In the early 1980s, finally free to record, Dana pitched the idea of an album of early 20th-century bawdy blues songs with the punning title of Blue Job. Ace Records eagerly gave their consent, leading not only to a superb album that has remained a key part of Dana’s catalogue but also to a long relationship, forty years and counting, with the label. The self-produced Blue Job reintroduced Dana to the album-buying public as one of the UK’s most convincing and credible blues stars and even better was to come when she began making blues albums of her own writing. 1984’s Below The Belt reunited Dana with her Decca producer, Mike Vernon, and included some of her original blues songs.
Never one for painting herself into a corner, Dana simultaneously tried other things, including modish, synth-based pop music. Her second album of 1984, Solid Romance, issued on Bellaphon and Ariola, spawned a huge European smash with Move Your Body Close To Me, not only written but also produced by Dana. As if to make up for the post-MainMan hiatus, Dana recorded prolifically, with work for Ace, Bellaphon, GiG Records, Wolf Records and more.
DANA DOES DYLAN
In the 1990s, Dana consolidated her European success with a series of blues albums for German and Austrian labels – Where Blue Begins (1991), Blue One (1994), Have I Got Blues For You (1997) and, in collaboration with Joachim Palden, Boogie Woogie Nights (1991) and Big Boy (1992). In 1997, no less a figure than Bob Dylan, with whom Dana had been friendly in the 60s, personally intervened to engage her as the special guest for the UK leg of his 1997 Never Ending Tour. Dana appeared at Bournemouth International Centre, Cardiff Arena, and Wembley Arena. At Wembley, she was joined by Queen’s Roger Taylor on drums.
DANA MISCELLANY - WORKING WITH ELTON; RADIO SHOW; MUSTIQUE BLUES FESTIVAL
An indefatigable hunger for experience and experimentation has added scores of additional feathers to Dana’s cap. In the late 60s and early 70s, she was an in-demand session singer. While her backing-vocal appearance on Bowie’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is well-known, she was also part of an elite team of session stars, including Elton John, David Byron (lead singer in Uriah Heep) and Madeline Bell, who lent their uncredited voices to the kitsch, soundalike, pop albums issued by Avenue Recordings. Dana’s considerable broadcasting experience includes a world-music radio show, Globetrotting With Gillespie, created for Blue Danube Radio, the Austria-based, international station. The show, syndicated worldwide, ran for over ten years. Dana founded the Mustique Blues Festival, and for two decades ran it with Basil Charles, OBE, in support of his charity which provided scholarships for the children of St Vincent’s. Not only did Dana organise acts including Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Ian Siegel and Joe Louis Walker, she produced a fund-raising, Mustique Blues Festival live album for each year she was in charge.
Since becoming a follower of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, Dana has recorded spiritual albums of bhajans (devotional songs) and performed extensively in India. These albums were initially issued using the pseudonym, Third Man, before Dana switched back to using her own name. 1999’s Mirrors Of Love album was accompanied by a hardback book of inspirational wisdom compiled by Dana and illustrated by the late Jorg Huber, with whom Dana collaborated for 35 years.
Dana’s alliance with the London Blues Band has taken her all over the world, while in London she’s a regular fixture at the 606 club in Chelsea. Her post-millennial albums have been among the strongest of her career – Experienced (2000), Staying Power (2003), I Rest My Case (2010), Cat’s Meow (2014) and capture Dana singing the blues with the kind of conviction and authenticity that can only be acquired with experience. While Dana still writes alone, she has also formed a creative alliance with London Blues Band guitarist, Jake Zaitz, with whom she’s composed the bulk of her new material.
In Dana’s sixth decade of music-making, it seems that the respect and recognition so long her due is finally coming her way. The last two years have seen a positive critical reappraisal of her work throughout the entertainment press. In 2019, her RCA albums were issued as a deluxe anthology, What Memories We Make (Cherry Red Records), including singles, alternative versions of songs and previously unheard demos for a prospective third MainMan album. Around the same time, RPM Records compiled her Decca work on a collection called London Social Degree. Plans for more archival anthologies are under way. 2019 ended with the release of one of Dana’s finest albums of original material, Under My Bed (Ace Records), but promotion was cut short owing to the covid pandemic. Dana’s memoir, Weren’t Born A Man (Hawksmoor Publishing) arrived in 2021, leading to rapturous coverage in The Times, The Spectator and The Daily Mail.
Since then, Dana has never been busier. She has joined forces with The Temple Of Art And Music in London’s Elephant & Castle. Part of the sprawling, street-food emporium, Mercato Metropolitano, the TAM is a new venture in ethical music management and Dana will perform there on a regular basis. It also serves as the principal filming location of Globetrotting With Gillespie, which has just been relaunched as a YouTube show, featuring Dana and some of her favourite figures from the arts, including Marc Almond, Julian Clary, Pandit Dinesh, Big Joe Louis, and Dino Baptiste. Dana’s 72nd album, Deep Pockets (Ace Records, 2021), is further evidence that, far from diminishing her gifts, age is only enhancing them. The album, recorded during lockdown in a makeshift studio at the edge of Lake Maggiore, features some of Dana’s most searing and perspicacious songwriting, plus blistering performances from her band, made up of members of the London Blues Band and some of Europe’s preeminent session musicians.