Mari Wilson – Queen of Neasden Soul

I’m going to show my age here, but I reckon when it comes to pop music, the 1980s is up there with the very best decades. For many people it all got a bit too electronic and plastic, but for me it was always interesting, and nothing seemed to stand still for too long.

Inevitably, not all the music or the acts who performed during that era have worn well but someone who most certainly has is the singer Mari Wilson, known at the time as The Queen of the Beehive as well as The Queen Of Neasden Soul. Mari emerged in the early part of the decade and soon found herself in the charts with the classic single Just What I Always Wanted. While her singing style and her appearance were heavily steeped in the 1960s, she still managed to sound and look fresh and her retro approach fitted the scene of the day like a glove.

Another of her most successful recordings was a cracking rendition of Cry Me A River, a song that’s been covered many times since but rarely up to Mari’s standards. During her 80s pomp, Mari was backed by The Wilsations and I recall with a great deal of fondness a show they did at the UEA in Norwich. It was like a 1960s soul revue, the sort of thing I’d seen on TV but never witnessed live. I remember the thrill of seeing the larger-than-life Ms. Wilson fronting a powerful big band which included backing singers Michelle Collins and Julia Fordham, both of whom would go on to enjoy their own time in the sun; Michelle in the BBC soap Eastenders, Julia as a successful singer in her own right. In fact, Julia was in our neck of the woods earlier this year as part of the Woman To Woman show with Judie Tzuke and Beverley Craven.

It didn’t come as too much of a surprise when by the turn of the decade Mari had moved into a jazzier direction and she later collaborated with two of her peers – Claire Martin and Barb Jungr – for a project called Girl Talk. That was something of a forerunner to the recent Woman To Woman show and for my money was every bit as good.

Mari has released a string of superb albums since her breakthrough in 1982, including a set of covers under the title Cover Stories. It was a timely reminder of just how comfortable Mari is interpreting other people’s material, no matter what style it might be. Her most recent album, Pop Deluxe, came out three years ago and last year she was a surprise guest at Soft Cell’s last ever show at the O2 Arena in London. Mari joined Marc Almond for a duet – proof, if needed, that she is still held in high esteem by those she was vying for chart positions with in the 1980s.

This year Mari Wilson has returned to the format that served her so well three and a half decades ago. She has assembled an eight-piece band called The New Wilsations and they’re about to play a handful of UK dates starting at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre on Sunday, October 27.

If you’ve been to concerts at the New Wolsey you will know just how well it lends itself to live music. Last autumn I promoted sell-out shows there by two other big names from the 80s – China Crisis and Shakatak – following on from a number of other concerts over the past decade by a wide range of acts including Kiki Dee, Nine Below Zero, Dr Feelgood, Mud Morganfield, Ben Waters, Mike Sanchez, James Hunter and Jo Harman.

At the time of writing, I have exciting plans of two more concerts in the Spring of next year but in the meantime, I hope you can join me for the marvellous Mari Wilson.