Colin Vearncombe, otherwise known as Black, was born in Liverpool on 26 May 1962, in the week that Elvis Presley’s Good Luck Charm was at number one. Like many nascent rock musicians, it was a viewing of Elvis’s movie Jailhouse Rock that fired his youthful imagination and spurred him on to miming in front of the mirror with a cricket bat for a guitar.
Black’s first (and poorly attended) gig was on New Year’s Day 1981. The debut single Human Features was issued on local label Rox records and quickly sold out of its initial pressing of 1000 copies. 1981 also saw Colin introduced to local rock’n’roll demi-godhead Pete Wylie and his manager, Pete Fulwell. The fruit of this meeting was the second Black single, More Than The Sun, released on The Wonderful World Of… label. By now, Colin had befriended David Dix from The Last Chant, who became his new musical partner. They attracted the interest of WEA Records (through Wylie and Fulwell’s Eternal label), but the liaison proved frustrating. The only releases were the single Hey Presto and a re-recording of More Than The Sun which led to the record company dropping the act during the promotion period for the single.
After a year or two of musical and personal darkness and finding himself homeless (but not friendless), Black wrote & released the single Wonderful Life on the independent Ugly Man label. It only got to number 72 in the charts but the phone started ringing and resulted in a two-album deal with Chris Briggs at A&M.
In June 1987, Black achieved his first UK top ten hit with the single Sweetest Smile, to be followed up by a slightly reworked version of Wonderful Life, also entering the top ten. Wonderful Life applied the domino theory to the singles charts of Europe and beyond, each country falling for its subtle melancholic charms.
All was not simple though.
Once you’ve had a hit, it’s hard to write another song without having that in the back of your mind. For a long time, I would find myself hearing ‘I like it, but it’s not Wonderful Life’. It was surprising how little of the pop star life was as I had imagined it. I was frustrated by how few of the people in the music world I respected. Maybe I just didn’t go to the right clubs. I’ve never been a great schmoozer or networker and the idea of setting out to meet a certain type of people is anathema to me. The highlight was meeting Roddy Frame, and he looked as pissed off as I was. It was two years of disappointment – I didn’t have any wild sex, I’m not a druggie, so I was just digging a hole for myself.CV
Wonderful Life, the debut album, eventually sold well over 1.5 million copies and was followed by the sardonically entitled Comedy. Comedy was critically acclaimed but failed to repeat Wonderful Life’s commercial success. Colin says:
The problem is that when you have a hit, people’s expectations build up. Commercial expectations are a particular kind of matrix of possibility and impossibility. You need to be clear of what you’re doing and why and be ready to defend your corner. A&M thought they had something as strong as the first album in Comedy, but when the first single from the album wasn’t a hit, they panicked.CV
Relations with the label became increasingly strained and after the third album also failed to repeat the success of the debut, Black and A&M parted company. The fourth Black album, Are We Having Fun Yet?, was released on Colin’s own Nero Schwarz label in 1993 and licensed in 19 countries. Once again, it was a critical success and although it sold well in Europe it was virtually ignored in the UK. Colin explains:
There were some good songs on there and although some lacked focus it was enough to take me to the next step. It got a really good review in Q but it didn’t do well enough to stop me falling below the radar in the UK.CV
There then followed a long hiatus, in which Colin took time out to think long and hard about what exactly it was that he wanted to do with his musical career. Colin’s passion for song-writing was eventually rejuvenated in 1998 by a weekend workshop in Devon hosted by Squeeze’s Chris Difford. The result was album number five, The Accused in 1999, his first release under his own name.
I’d spent six years without releasing a record or working on one. I was depressed without realising I was. I had started recording some solo demos and then realised I was half way through a record. I had finally stopped thinking about Wonderful Life and so I released it as Colin Vearncombe rather than Black.CV
This kick-started a period of intense creativity. Late 1999 saw the release of album six: Abbey Road Live – a collection of acoustic performances recorded live at the famous studio. The album marked the beginning of a new way for Colin to tour and perform his music.
I didn’t have the budget to do a band tour, and I realised the thing I was most scared of was doing solo shows. Once I started, I was surprised at what could be done. I found a way to perform solo by asking myself how Neil Young might do it and going from there. It’s good to keep myself on the edge of fear!CV
2000 brought album seven, Water on Snow, followed closely in 2001 by Live At The Bassline recorded in Johannesburg with South African musicians.
Early in 2002, Colin set himself a goal to write thirty songs in three months and to record them in as simple a way as possible: one take, no overdubs, bare songs, solo performances. It quickly became clear that spending another three years re-working and re-recording the songs with a band was a non-starter so throwing caution to the wind all thirty songs were released in 2002 on one double CD, Smoke Up Close. The debate among the loyal fan base was intense but love it or hate it, here was an example of a real songwriter getting down to the bare bones of what making music is all about.
There followed a touring period while Colin experimented with different musician line-ups and instrumentations, sometimes performing with a full band and sometimes paring everything down to a solo level, alone with a guitar (and occasional harmonica) on a stage, up close to his audience.
For his next studio album, Between Two Churches (2004), Colin worked with musician and producer Calum MacColl and a mix of of South African and British musicians. Unlike the solo work that had preceded it, it was a coming of age album, reflecting the journey of a performer and songwriter who had travelled a long way over a career that already spanned almost twenty five years, only to return to his roots to start again.
I’d come a long way both professionally and personally but I didn’t really know what I’d created until we put the final track order together. This story emerged and it was probably what I was subconsciously trying to tell all along. That was when it became obvious that it should be a Black record.CV
2007 saw the release of a compilation of songs spanning more than twenty years that had been originally released both under Colin’s real name and his professional one.
We called it BLACK:CV as no pun is too obvious for its use in our organisation.CV
An extensive full band tour of the UK on a double-bill with The Christians facilitated the recording of the tour live album Road To Nowhere. Always interested in communicating as directly as possible with his fans, Colin had been experimenting for a number of years with free downloads and direct to fan releases. In 2009 he wound up with more than two albums worth of new songs and a question mark over how to release them. The response was ‘give to get’ – give away one album in digital form, The Given, in exchange for an email address and then sell a second one, Water On Stone, exclusively to members of the Blacklist (puns, obvious, see above).
In 2011 the compilation album, Any Colour You Like, featured 16 tracks chosen by the fans. It was after releasing this as a download only that Colin decided to take a side-step from song-writing and recording, in order to concentrate on painting and writing poetry.
His first book of poetry, I Am Not The Same Person, was published in 2012, illustrated with his own paintings, many of which had featured in an exhibition of his work in his adopted new home in Ireland. Now living on the far South West coast of County Cork, Colin immersed himself in the vibrant local artistic community of film-makers, musicians, poets, artists and writers.
I wasn’t missing London or the music business at all. The business had changed so much that I wasn’t sure if I either needed or wanted a place in it anymore.CV
However, once a musician always a musician and a re-connection with his long-time musical sparring partner Calum MacColl led Colin to consider touring again. In the autumn of 2012, the two put a new live show together and set out with some trepidation to see if audiences were still interested. Interest there certainly was and over the next two & a half years, Colin toured the UK & Europe three times. With a renewed enthusiasm for touring came inspiration for writing & recording. Colin released two new EP’s and began an intense period of co-writing with MacColl.
A strong belief in doing things for and with his fans, the people who had supported him since the first days of his career, (witness his constant conversations on social media) Colin wanted to involve them in the new album. April 2014 saw the launch of a Pledge Music album campaign through which his supporters have been given backstage access with videos from the road and studio, interviews with the musicians, acoustic versions of new songs, resulting in a developing closeness between fans and artist. The fans have loved the Pledge process (“this is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with”, “It’s been a fantastic experience being part of this journey with you, Colin”).
The project raised 240% of it’s original target and the album Blind Faith (aptly named after the faith Colin placed with his fans) was released on 13th April 2015. During the writing and recording process for the album, Colin also found the time to complete his second book of poetry, Walk the dotted line, published in October of 2014, in which he continued to develop the themes and art he had introduced in his first book.
Blind Faith was widely acclaimed and received a 4-star review in The Guardian. The tour to promote the album was recorded and a selection of the songs were released on CD as Black Live 2015, featuring Colin and Calum performing many of the songs from Blind Faith, alongside material spanning nearly thirty years of eclectic and highly developed songwriting. After such extensive live work with Calum, Colin had discovered a level of confidence in his stagecraft that had eluded him for many years. This confidence, coupled with the increased media profile that Blind Faith had attained meant that 2016 was shaping up to be a very active year for Colin. Festival appearances had been booked, TV appearances in Europe were scheduled and several writing trips had already been planned.
It was not to be.
Around 9:00 AM on the 10th January, close to Cork Airport where Colin was to catch a flight to Edinburgh for his first writing trip of the year, Colin’s car hit a patch of black ice, span into the path of an oncoming car and left the road. The first attenders at the scene described him as being peacefully asleep. He was rushed to Cork University Hospital’s Intensive Treatment Unit where he received the best possible care while he was kept in a coma and a full diagnosis of his condition could be ascertained. Tens of thousands of fans around the world discovered the news through main-stream and social media and sent messages of love and support, letting him and the family know how important he was to them and what an impact his music had made on their lives. Colin never regained consciousness and died on the 26th January with his family and close friends by his side. Those who could, were singing to him. The last song they sang was You’ll Never Walk Alone.
A private funeral was held in West Cork on the 3rd February where Colin’s coffin was carried through the main street of Schull, between two churches. A memorial service was held in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral on the 19th February, attended by over 800 people who, once again, sang that famous Liverpool anthem.
Colin’s legacy lives on in his music, his art and poetry, and in his family.