Jools Holland says lockdown isn’t about getting stuff done when people are dying
With rhythm and blues in his DNA, much of Jools Holland’s normal life is spent performing to crowds.
So like many of us, when Covid-19 struck, the die-hard music fan dreamt up other ways to fill his time.
‘I imagined I’d get things done, like colour coding my books and putting my record collection in order,’ he admits.
‘But somehow I didn’t get round to it. Then a friend rang yesterday, saying his brother had died from coronavirus.
‘It reminded me – people are dying here – lockdown is not about getting things done.’
Chatting from the comfort of his home in leafy Blackheath, South London, Jools’ books and records might remain unorganised, but he’s still managed to pull off a feat which six months ago would have seemed laughable – making a new series of his show Later… With Jools Holland while in isolation.
With his set up at the BBC out of bounds, Jools, 62, instead filmed it from his own Greenwich studio. The first two episodes – featuring star turns via Zoom from Christine And The Queens and Dizzee Rascal – have already proved popular.
Jools even got East End rapper Dizzee to discuss his unlikely hobby as a morris dancer. ‘He’s got all the sticks and really knows what he’s talking about,’ chuckles Jools. ‘Who knew?’
A fixture on TV and radio for over three decades, fans adore Jools’ boogie woogie piano playing, jovial personality and easy banter with other musicians.
Born Julian Miles Holland, he grew up in Deptford ‘a pretty ghastly and precocious’ youngster, by his own reckoning. It was Jools’ Uncle David playing that boogie woogie piano that ignited his lifelong music passion.
‘It was the best thing I’d ever heard, it made me want to jump up and down in joy and play it myself. I learned first the left hand, then the right, on my grandmother’s piano which had somehow survived the Blitz.
It was even wheeled out onto the road on VE Day and I always liked imagining passionate lovers celebrating the end of the war with the piano blaring. I’ve still got that piano today.’
While his parents’ marriage was rocky, Jools’ grandmother, aunts and uncles all helped raise him. ‘As a teenager I was quite rebellious. I bunked off school to listen to music.’
His breakthrough came with Squeeze – whose hits included Cool For Cats and Up The Junction – in the late 70s. ‘I was confident but completely stupid. I remember touring America in the early days and I’d packed a fur coat, having no idea I was going to one of the hottest places on Earth, and three pairs of socks. I was lucky to have success early, I’m still not sensible with money.’
He launched his TV career on C4’s irreverent music show The Tube in 1982. Then in 1992, Later… With Jools Holland was born and is still going strong. Plus every New Year there’s his Annual Hootenanny.
From Bowie to ZZ Top, over the decades Jools’ guests – who he frequently jams with – have been a Who’s Who of musical legends. It’s no wonder he’s occasionally been starstruck.
‘As a kid I had all Gladys Knight’s records, so when I played the piano next to her I did think, “Wow”. Same with Paul McCartney. It’s a bit like tightrope walking – keep going and don’t lift your eyes up!’
But bands who are his contemporaries don’t have the same effect. ‘I love Bono, and U2 are arguably one of the biggest, most famous groups on Earth.
But when we first started out we did tiny pub gigs with them, where just two men and a dog came to see. And then one man left, then the other, and even the dog sodded off. So I don’t get awestruck in the same way.’
Jools’ show is also famed for championing new artists, like the Arctic Monkeys and Amy Winehouse, who subsequently enjoyed great success.
‘We are not responsible for making careers,’ Jools modestly insists. ‘But it’s great if we’ve given anyone a platform. Someone like Amy Winehouse, you only get talents like that, people who are really spectacular, every 10 years.
‘I first met her at a party, she was young, and I realised she had something great. Some people have the voice but can never get beyond their bedroom because of their personality. She, however, had the outward personality – but this addictive side which turned out awfully for her in the end.’
Jools also lists jazz singer Gregory Porter as one of our generation’s greatest icons who, flatteringly, named his song Mr Holland after him.
Rock stars are infamous for bad behaviour, so has he ever had to send someone home for being too drunk or high on drugs on his show?
‘Uncle Jools isn’t here to make value judgements on people’s behaviour!’ he shrugs. ‘So as long as they can stand up and perform it’s OK. People were more outrageous and casual about drink and drugs when I was on The Tube. Now, they take things more seriously.’
Jools does admit that Kate Moss’s hell-raising former lover Pete Doherty, who fronted The Libertines and infamously used heroin, once came on his show and ‘caused a little excitement’.
‘I haven’t been an angel or a saint in my life, I love seeing friends for beer or wine, but the older you get, you realise what a dangerous thing addiction is. It’s not just creatives, the damage it does to people in all walks of life is awful.’
Jools has been with his wife Christabel for 30 years, married since 2005. Their three grown-up children, Rosie, Mabel and George, are all musical, but private.
‘I don’t think I’m a cool dad, but I’m friends with them as well as being their parent. I like hearing what music they’re listening to, and their friends.’
Christabel, ‘my current wife,’ jokes Jools, ‘is the love of my life.’ He wrote an instrumental named after her and she inspired other early songs too.
‘You have to be a little bit romantic to be an artist, to see something in the shadows or lights. But having a laugh together is the real secret, and not being clingy. You need space. When you leave the house you don’t want someone clinging onto your ankles as you go.
‘We went to a lovely garden recently and as we walked around I said, “This is so magical, I imagine it’s like heaven”. She drily responded, “I expect the conversation is better there”. She makes me laugh.’
Behind his extrovert image, there is a quieter side to Jools, which likes routine, playing with his extensive model railway set, and going to church.
‘I love hearing the choir and when on tour I visit cathedrals. Even if you’re not religious it’s a lovely atmosphere, but I pray for everybody’s wellbeing. I’m like a medieval person. I go to church in the morning, then in the evening I like a wild dance and festival.
‘If you love your work like I do then you’re very lucky. I’ve got the best job in the world, so every day is a holiday.’
How do you spend your Sunday?
Up with the lark or lazy lie-in?
I sometimes get up at 5.30am to hear the dawn chorus, it’s a real treat. I have a coffee and sit quietly.
Hungover or fresh as a daisy?
I do like a glass of red wine with my dinner and I like a beer with friends. But I don’t really get hungover.
Fry-up or fruit?
Even in the best hotels you can’t get simple buttered toast, forget it. I love plain eggs on toast, like you get in a transport cafe.
Sit-ups or sofa?
I cycle for exercise. On tour I ask for a bicycle in every European city, it’s the fastest way around. I’m not recognised, people think I’m a local with my swarthy continental looks.
Newspapers or Netflix?
I read the papers on my iPad but I’m not a box set man, I prefer a film or watching old episodes of The Sweeney, just to see everyone still smoking in pubs.
Do you cook your own roast?
My grandmother owned a greengrocer and her neighbour had a butcher. Her roasts were the best on Earth. It wasn’t until I started eating in the grandest restaurants in the world that I got even close to what she could produce. I am hopeless in the kitchen myself, I can’t cook anything. I don’t even try. You can’t be good at everything, can you?
– Later… with Jools Holland is on Fridays, 10pm on BBC Two, and his BBC Radio 2 series, Jools Holland, is on Saturdays at 8pm