Billingham folk performers, the five brother band The Wilson Family are about to make an unforgettable voyage as part of Sting’s New York tribute to the Swan Hunter shipyard of his boyhood, in Newcastle
STING admits it’s a crazy idea for a story, but The Last Ship, his musical about the Tyneside shipyards continues to set a course for a berth on Broadway next year… and is currently crewed by some of the North-East top performers.
The five-brother a capella folk band of the Billingham-born The Wilson Family are joining Northumbrian pipes wizard Kathryn Tickell and Jimmy Nail on the plan to New York where they’ll be performing ten charity concerts from September 25 at the Public Theater (Anspacher Theater).
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The day before, sees the launch of the musical’s album – Sting’s first in ten years – which The Wilson Family helped to record at the Wallsend star’s home in Avebury, Wiltshire, earlier this year. North-East band The UnThanks and AC/DC front man Brian Johnson are among those featured on the album.
Chris Wilson, the second eldest of the brothers, says that The Wilson Family came to the attention of 61- year-old Sting (who was born Gordon Sumner) thanks to Kathryn Tickell’s promotion of appearances by them at the Royal Albert Hall and The Sage Gateshead.
“We were getting five-star comments about the performances. It was nice to get that. We are considered to be in the top area of our performing ‘tree’ which is acapella singing.
“There’s not been many folk bands with five brothers in the North-East or anywhere else. It helps if you can sing as well,” says Chris, who sings alongside older brother Tom, and siblings Steve, Ken and Mike, who are all in their 50s. The brothers have an older sister, Pat, who was part of the family act for many years, and a younger sister, Jackie.
“So, you can tell my parents were good Catholics,” jokes Chris, The Elliotts of Birtley (led by 84-year-old Doreen Elliott) also took part in the sell-out Sage concert with the Unthanks and The Doonan Family Band “Kathryn told us she’d got a bizarre thing for you.
She said Sting has heard you and said that there’s a project he’s doing and he thinks you fit the bill for providing a strong and loud North-Eastern chorus to support his work on The Last Ship,” adds Chris.
There is debate on whether a bunch of 1980s Geordie workers, who occupy a shipyard on Tyneside, can follow the story of a young dancer from Easington (Billy Elliot) and coal-mining artists from Ashington (Pitman Painters), which have both done well on Broadway.
Chris is confident that the iconic image of a giant ship dwarfing the back-to-backs homes of Wallsend, where Sting and Jimmy Nail grew up, will appeal to audiences.
The band went to meet Sting and recorded some of the show’s songs at the pop giant’s Avebury recording studio in April.
“As we were leaving he said, ‘Don’t be strangers lads, I’ve got a few more songs that will be in the show and he came up to Newcastle. Then, he had the idea of having a residency in New York which is primarily to promote the show, but it’s also raising money for charity.
“He asked if we were free in October and when he told me about the concerts I said, ‘I’m sure we can fit you in’. From there on in it’s been trying to arrange things from September 16 when we start rehearsals in the UK and travel to New York on September 21,” says Chris.
The brothers appear on nine of the show’s songs and Chris says of the recording process: “Jimmy Nail came up to sing with us and I didn’t realise until then what a good singer he is. He’s got an incredible range, but the best thing of all is when you are standing and recording for 12 hours, and putting a lot of effort in, Jimmy is brilliant at keeping everyone in good spirits.”
Perhaps the biggest learning curve for the Wilsons was working with top producer Rob Mathes, who has masterminded albums for Sting, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed and Carly Simon. “Rob is unbelievable because he’s such a smashing bloke, but gets the best out of you. We do natural harmonies but he was getting all of to do high notes, alto and bass.
Well our Tom’s never done a high harmony in his life.
Sting likened the process of getting the Wilsons to sing in unison as like creating a 20-piece singing act rather than a five-piece.
“Before all this I quite liked Sting and his Police stuff. But his writing for this is quite incredible. His knowledge of the structure of the songs and the sound shows that his words and tunes are quite special.
When I was singing the songs I could see how they would work within the show,” he says.
Chris bursts out laughing when I ask if Broadway is now beckoning for The Wilson Family. “I think they saw our acting skills during the recordings and they were too impressed with that. I don’t think we’ll be donning boiler suits on the plane,” he says.
Mind you, Chris admits he thought that an appearance at the Royal Albert Hall proms was the pinnacle of success of that kind.
Now, it’s just a matter of architect Tom, Banardos theraputic service manager Chris, IT consultant Steve, Police electronics area manager Ken and steel company sales manager Mike all arranging their diaries to belt out Sting songs on Broadway.
“I now live in Sadberge, Steve now lives in Linthorpe, but the rest have all migrated up to Wolviston.
Jackie is only one now living in Billingham. I think the band has kept us together because most big families end up falling out. We can’t do that because the five of us have been singing together for 35 years,” Chris says.
- The Last Ship is due to open on Broadway in autumn next year and contains biographical elements from Sting’s life in Wallsend.
- The Last Ship album is available on CD, vinyl, twodisc deluxe and super deluxe package. Featured musicians include North-East melodeon player Julian Sutton and violinist Peter Tickell. sting.com
- The idea for The Last Ship actually came from a group of Polish workers who occupied a shipyard in protest against closure.