Getting back to ‘normal’ after being away from home for five weeks is tough enough, let alone having to get your head around the death of someone who so positively changed your life. I make no apology for this reading like a chapter from an autobiography I may or may not write one day but trying to be succinct about what Terry Wogan meant to me, proved impossible.
I first met Terry in August 1988 when I was 20 years old as I was fortunate enough to appear on his live ‘Wogan’ TV chat show. Boy, was I excited about meeting him! Are you kidding… the guy from Blankety Blank??? And he didn’t disappoint. Warm, funny and interested.
Fifteen years went by before we bumped into each other again and to cut a long story short, I was invited to provide the entertainment at both of his two son’s weddings, the first of which was at Terry’s beautiful house in southern France. Being welcomed as a guest by the family as well as performing for them and their friends was a massive privilege.
The next thing I know, in August 2003, he’s playing my cover of Delbert McClinton’s ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’ on his ‘Wake Up To Wogan’ Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2. At the end of the record he uttered these life/career-changing words:
“Now, Elio Pace and his band, they’re kind of unsung. They travel the country, in front of thousands of people, they play brilliantly but, you know, they don’t often get played on the radio. So we’re rectifying that”.
He then went on to play that same record EVERY SINGLE WEEK for the next SIX MONTHS.
This was the first time anyone had ever played one of my recordings on national radio. The track was never meant for general release but instead part of an album made purely for promoting me and my band to get bigger and better corporate work. Terry and his then producer, the late Paul Walters, would’ve had to get special permission to play a record on air with such frequency and one that wasn’t readily available to the public and by an unknown, unsigned artist… on the most listened to radio show in the UK. I didn’t even have a website when he played it for the first time. I got one done, pretty sharpishly. Needless to say, the phone rang many more times each day than it had done previously and I got busier. Terry had opened a massive door for me.
I thought THAT was an incredible feeling but what followed with my Christmas single, ‘What A Day’, my own song, in 2006 was beyond my wildest dreams. By this time, due to the sad death of Paul Walters, Terry had a new producer called Alan Boyd who had been sent a copy of my new song and who said he loved it on the first listen. Alan played it to Terry who also loved it. And so, in December 2006, a few days before its release, Terry became the very first person to play ‘What A Day’ on national radio anywhere in the world and went on to feature it heavily in the run-up to that Christmas. He also used it as the opening record of his Christmas morning show that year… and again in 2007 and 2008. This obviously opened the floodgates (even wider) and it eventually led to the track being playlisted for rotation on Radio 2 throughout December 2009. It was that month that Terry did his last ever breakfast show and guess what? Yep… ‘What A Day’ was in that programme too. All my Christmases had literally come at once! And to Alan’s insistence, the songs main theme later became the theme tune for ‘Weekend Wogan’.
When my (proper) debut album was released in March 2009, Alan Boyd kindly put it in front of Terry’s nose and again Terry became the first to champion the lead single, ‘Addicted To The Phone’. He played it for weeks and every time continued to say the loveliest of things about my music and my band. He even sent his best wishes to me over the airwaves at becoming a dad when Marcella was born in the July of that year.
As well as Terry, for all I’ve retold and more, I have an awful lot to thank Alan Boyd for and I’ve made sure he knows it.
So you can appreciate my utter euphoria at being asked by Terry to be his Musical Director and ‘featured artist’ on his then new, upcoming BBC Sunday morning show, ‘Weekend Wogan’ in 2010. For 36 live shows that year, I got to share a 10-minute morning chat with him sitting in his dressing room whilst having some shine-reducing powder applied to my hairless head and then go out and share the stage with this broadcasting legend as we performed together, side by side on national radio and television. Before we would go on at 11am, myself and the boys and girls in my band would be standing ready, suited and booted backstage and Terry would always join us at that moment, a few minutes before going live. Without fail, he would compliment us on the work we were doing on his show, he would make us laugh, he would relax us, he would find interest in what everybody in my band was doing with their lives. It is safe to say that we all absolutely loved him. The footage of us on the show testifies to that.
And his generosity and humility towards me on that stage was incredible. The way he constantly and endlessly made sure that the listener knew how much he was loving doing the show and how much he appreciated what we were bringing to it was flattering beyond description. He had absolutely nothing to gain from that. He did it all for us.
Terry taught me a great life-lesson once. Approaching a big private event I was booked for, where my job was to not only entertain the crowd but to back up some huge musical stars and for which he had learned I was a little anxious about, he sent a message to me saying “Remember, they’re only people”. Those four words literally changed my life and my whole approach to everything I’ve ever done since.
And so, fast forward to October 2015 when out of the blue, I heard that he had given me and my Billy Joel Songbook show a nice plug on the radio. This was quickly followed up by an email saying how Terry would love to have me on his show in December to talk about my tour. I knew he was a big Billy Joel fan and to say that I was excited about talking to him about my show is an understatement. My disappointment was palpable when I heard that Terry was not well enough to present the show on December 20th. Taking nothing away from the brilliant Richard Madeley who I was truly looking forward to chatting to on air (and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this) I had been so thrilled about seeing Terry again after five years of not doing so. It wasn’t to be.
I thank my lucky stars that I was someone that Sir Terry Wogan liked a lot. So much so that he himself went to the bosses at BBC Radio 2 to let them know it was me he wanted for ‘Weekend Wogan’. I feel unbelievably privileged to have met and worked with him so many times over the years and to have been part of both his professional AND private life and I will forever treasure the memories I have of him. It is a badge of honour that I will carry with me for the rest of my days to be associated, in some small way, with such a kind, brilliant and immensely-loved man who also just happens to be the greatest, smartest and classiest broadcaster this country has ever known.
And due to his overtly, humble nature, I know he would never have let me say any of this to his face, he would have cut-me off at the first sentence as he had done quite a few times in the past when I had tried to thank him for what he had done for me. And I had planned to try again, this past December when he would have been sitting opposite me for that live chat on air. As I say, it wasn’t to be.
So, I never got the chance to properly tell him what he meant to me but I hope he knew and saw just how much he changed the course of my career. Though being the modest and truly altruistic gentleman he was, I bet he never once stopped to dwell on it.
Well, I have. Many times. And for what it’s worth, I’ll say it now…
Thank you Terry. Thank you so very very much for really, REALLY hearing my music and then doing something amazing about it… over and over and over again. Thank you. Thank you for being my friend.