LS: Did you always want to sing?
CLS: Yes. I always wanted to sing since I was a child. My mother was very musical. She ran a cafe where people would go to dance. My stepfather was a farmer. Both of my parents were very supportive of my career.
LS: How did you start your career?
CLS: I had a friend called Adrian who was an organist. We both moved to London to try to break into the music business. I had this little Triumph Herald so my mother bought a pig truck to put on the back and repainted it white so we could put our gear into it to carry around! We stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in Barnet to begin with. I found a job singing with a local pub band. Adrian was having trouble finding work so he went home. I was going to go back too but he encouraged me to stay on, so I did. It was hard work. I worked in the record department at Rumbelows in the day and then sang at night. I played piano too.
LS: You had a great career break at Pontins early on.
CLS: Yes. I'd been working as an entertainer at Pontins - I wasn't even a Bluecoat at that stage. They put me on a three pound retainer, which was unheard of at the time! They wanted me to do their summer seasons. I told them that I really wanted to get into cabaret, so they suggested that I do the working mens' clubs circuit up in the north of England which is what I did. After you've done that you can cope with anything! I did 19 years for Sir Fred Pontin all in all. I worked at all of his camps here in the UK and abroad - Portugal, Spain, Turkey. Sir Fred was a very dear friend of ours.
LS: The tracks from this single were originally scheduled to be released as a single in 1974, weren't they?
CLS: That's right. After doing a night of London shows, I went to Denmark Street and recorded a demo of the single. It was going to be released on President under the name 'Cuddles'. I don't know why it never came out! I knew Eddie and David Kassner [of President] very well - it was me who persuaded David to release Brook Benton's Christmas LP on President.
LS: You were a big Brook Benton fan, of course.
CLS: That's right. His phrasing and breathing were impeccable. I was a big fan of his from day one. With working all the time, I kept missing his concerts and was desperate to see him sing live. One day we arranged to see him at the American Forces gig at Ruislip. I was working with Frank Carson that night. Frank kindly let me go on first so I could get away in time to see the Brook Benton gig. Anyway, I got to the American base at around 9.30, had dinner, and waited for Brook to come on. Unknown to us, his first set had been cancelled, so he'd been in the bar since 6pm. Having had a few drinks by 10pm he couldn't perform the late set so I ended up being asked to do the gig instead!
LS: Did you get to meet him?
CLS: Yes. He was a lovely man. We spent about a week with Brook and his wife about 6 months later. He did a concert near Hatfield. The promoter heard that I was in the audience and introduced us. I was taken backstage and Brook apologised for what had happened at the American Forces concert. We remained friends for many years and he taught me many useful singing techniques.
LS: Did you have any other idols?
CLS. There were two singers that I really admired. They were Brook Benton and Charlie Rich. We used to travel about 700 miles a week doing the various Pontins gigs and would try to see Charlie and Brook if they were in the country. Sometimes my husband would have to drive through the night while I slept in the car.
LS: You worked with some great musicians over the years.
CLS: I've been very privileged to have worked with some of the best musicians on the circuit. I worked with Roy Budd for a while. He was a very quiet man and a brilliant pianist. Many of the musicians I worked with in the 1970s have now gone on to become very successful on the West End show circuit. I was very strict about the musicians I worked with. Most of my musicians came through personal recommendations.
LS: You must have worked with a few characters - musicians can be an odd bunch!
CLS: I remember a concert I gave at Kempton Park [horse racecourse]. It was a racing dinner and dance. I usually used the house band, and if there wasn't a house band I'd book part of the Mecca band, or use some of Jack Hawkins' band. On this occasion I couldn't get my usual pianist so I got a verbal recommendation for a great pianist. We picked him up from the tube and took him to the gig. He was amazing! A fantastic player. I later found out that he'd been offered twenty other gigs after that one performance! After the gig, as normal, I paid him and watched him go straight to the bar. We ended up driving around London at 4.30 in the morning trying to find out where he lived, since he was so drunk he couldn't remember his address! Eventually we found his house to be greeted by his wife, who explained that he was supposed to be on the wagon. After that we always kept his pay and gave it straight to his wife instead!
LS: You were famous for your fantastic outfits too.
CLS: I used to love dressing up! I'd spent a fortune on clothes. I always wanted to put on a great show. I worked a week at Caesar's Palace in Luton once with Charles Aznavour, who had just had a number one hit with 'She'. I earned £350 that week and spent £420 on the dress... he turned up in jeans and a check shirt!
LS: You've also worked with some of the biggest names in show business.
CLS: I've been very lucky. I've worked for Max Wall, Arthur Askey, Morecambe & Wise, Tommy Cooper... some lovely people.
LS: What were Morecambe & Wise like to work with?
CLS: It was fantastic to work with them. They were delightful. Off-stage, Eric was the quiet one and used to spend quite a lot of time in his dressing room. Ernie was the talkative, playful one backstage. They used to stand at the side of the stage watching me perform and they'd make jokes about me. They'd leave their microphones switched on so that the audience could hear what they were saying!
LS: What sort of venues did you play at?
CLS: Once I was established on the cabaret circuit, I would regularly perform three concerts a night, often at different venues. If I was in London I might start the night with a gig at The Blue Angel between about 9 and 11 o'clock. After that we'd drive over to Bob Guccione's Penthouse club and I'd perform there until 3 in the morning. You'd see all the big celebrities down there. One night the Rat Pack turned up. Frank Sinatra was turned away because the doorman didn't recognise him! My husband used to sit near the toilets. The Penthouse Pets would leave their drinks with him while they went to the loo!
LS: Grotbags has been a big part of your career. How did Grotbags come about?
CLS: I was working a summer season with Rod Hull in Cleethorpes. Rod was a brilliant writer and had been commissioned to write a childrens' TV show. Rod asked me if I'd like to be in it. I had this idea for a fat fairy character who kept casting spells that always went wrong. Rod really liked the idea of a witch so I said that she had to be a silly witch rather than a sinister witch. He agreed, and asked me for a name for the character. The MD of Ladbrokes was a great friend of ours and always used to call me 'Miss Grot' so I suggested that to Rod. He went away and came back the next day with 'Grotbags'. Rod's wife Cher used to help us pick silly costumes. Over the first 2 series Grotbags' costumes got sillier - I wore moon boots for the first two series, then stripy tights and black and green fingernails!
LS: Grotbags wasn't always green though, was she?
CLS: No! She was orange to begin with! We did some screen tests using the orange makeup and it didn't work on camera, so I suggested that we try green makeup instead. I blacked out a tooth, put some black lipstick on, and we tried it out. It looked fantastic on camera, so that's what we used!
LS: Rod Hull is cited as a big influence by many modern comics. What was he like?
CLS: Rod was a lovely man. He was very clever and very diverse too: people don't realise that he was a fantastic writer and a superb dancer as well. For a bit of fun he used to dress up as a dancer sometimes - he learned the routines perfectly so it was very hard tell the dancers and Rod apart! He was a great practical joker too: he used to leave me alone most of the time because I used to give as good as I got. One time he turned up at one of my concerts dressed as a cleaner and did the vacuuming all the way through my set! To get him back I swapped places with his pianist for Rod's opening number. He used to sing this Vera Lynn song to begin his act, which stopped with a big cymbal crash, and then he'd go into the comedy part of the act. Well, when the cymbal crash happened, I carried on playing and then got the audience (all pensioners of course) to sing a wartime medley! Every time Rod thought we'd stopped, I'd get them to start another song!
LS: Tell us about the 'In Time' album.
CLS: 'In Time' was named after a Lena Martell song. She hadn't recorded it at that time, so I asked Lena if I could record it and she said yes. I always sang songs that had lyrics that I loved and could relate to - the lyrics had to mean something to me or I couldn't sing it. I loved ballads and I loved rock'n'roll too.
LS: How did you find the songs to begin with?
CLS: My band and me used to do session work up in Denmark Street. A friend of ours worked for an agency up there, and one day when we were up there and had finished recording, we dropped by his office to see him and ended up helping the agency move offices. We got to meet several songwriters that way - people like the Black brothers [legendary songwriter Don Black and his agent brother Michael]. Anyway, we met a guy there who had written a couple of songs that I was offered by Maurice Clark at EMI [Publishing]. I listened to them, liked them, and started to use them in my cabaret act. Some of the other songs on my LPs were originally written for other artists - 'Your place is here with me' was written for Gladys Knight & The Pips but they didn't record it.
LS: Why did you record 'In Time'?
CLS: I wanted to record an album that we could sell at concerts. People were always asking me if I had a record that they could take home after the concerts. I mentioned this to the owner of the club I was playing at the time. He loved the idea and said that'd he'd back the album. That weekend I was playing in Herefordshire with Wout Steenhuis. I loved his music and we got chatting. I mentioned that I wanted to record an album and he said that I could use his studio down in Broadstairs, so that was that! We set the dates then and there, and agreed to use my usual musicians and Wout's studio. Wout's son Paul helped engineer the session.
LS: Who else did you use on the session?
CLS: We used my usual band plus part of the horn section from the Jack Hawkins band. They were all great players.
LS: Didn't the session line-up change at the last minute?
CLS: That's right. We'd set the date for the session and all of the musicians were on their way to the studio. At about 7am I got a call from the pianist, who was musical director for the session. He couldn't make it! So it looked as if we'd be making the record without a pianist. When we got to the studio we met the engineer, Peter Male. As well as being a great engineer it turned out that Pete was a fantastic pianist. He stepped in at the last minute, read the charts, and did the session for us. He'd never seen the music before the session! Every track on the album was recorded in one take without rehearsal. We played many of the songs that appeared on the record three or four times a night as part of my cabaret set so we know the tunes inside out.
LS: So it must have been a quick session!
CLS: It was great fun! We recorded most of the tracks, then went down to the beach and had fish and chips for lunch. We took a chair and one of my dresses down to the beach. The album's cover photograph was taken on the beach - we put the chair out in the water and took the picture while I was sitting in the sea! After we'd been to the beach we went back to the studio and recorded the final two tracks. We must have arrived at the studio at about 9am, started recording at about 11.30am, and had finished the LP by 5 o'clock in the evening.
LS: Were the songs from that album popular at your concerts?
CLS: Very much so! I remember once doing a big concert at Bern's Barn in Stockholm. It was a big club with a capacity of about 3,500 people. I used to sing 'Little bit of love' as a big production number. The house dancers loved the track so much that they choreographed a routine right there and just came on and danced with me for the fun of it!
LS: You were on Ant & Dec's Saturday Show [on British TV] recently. How did that come about?
CLS: Dec's a big Grotbags fan. It was lovely to work with Ant & Dec again: we worked together when they were first starting out and they're a lot of fun.