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Billy Mitchell to perform fund-raiser for historic Newcastle church

Billy Mitchell and son Tom are to perform at Newcastle's historic Unitarian Church in aid of the historic Grade II-listed building

Singer Billy Mitchell who is performing a concert for the Unitarian Church in Newcastle
Singer Billy Mitchell who is performing a concert for the Unitarian Church in Newcastle

Last time I interviewed Billy Mitchell it was at Newcastle’s Unitarian Church ahead of a gig he was to perform there to benefit Age Concern, then near neighbours of the building. That was in 2008.

Five years on, here we are again, facing each other across biscuits and coffee ahead of another gig, this time in aid of the church itself.

There ought to be a sense of deja vu but Billy sends a broadside through that misty-eyed nonsense.

“The concert I did here was the last one I did before I got cancer,” he tells me bluntly.

“I’d been having a few vocal problems. The voice had been changing and I could feel it changing. There was something definitely wrong so eventually I got an appointment with a throat specialist.

“They found a malignant tumour on one of my vocal chords.

“Which,” he adds with characteristic black humour, “wasn’t the best place for me.”

 

Of course, there’s no good place for a malignant tumour to raise its ugly head. But Billy has been a professional musician all his working life. Along with the guitar-plucking fingers, the voice has been his meal ticket.

Could the singing and the strain on the vocal chords have been part of the problem?

“It was because I used to smoke,” says Billy, straight as a die. “They gave me two options – laser surgery or radiology.”

He chose the former. After diagnosis in June 2008, the operation took place the following September.

“They said there were no guarantees as to how it would turn out. ‘You’ll be a guinea pig’, they said, ‘because we’ve never done this operation on a professional singer before’.

“The team at the Freeman Hospital was absolutely magnificent. The surgeon who performed the operation was called Vin Paleri. The first concert I did after the operation, about a year later, he brought the whole team along.

“They were pleased they got me through it.”

That gig was at Playhouse Whitley Bay, shortly after its extensive refurbishment. Billy’s son Tom, also a musician, warmed up the audience on the night and the pair will be on stage again on September 20 for the concert at the Unitarian Church.

Billy Mitchell has been part of the North East music scene for a long time, arguably since he was a callow teenager with a guitar and was assailed by a guy – “obviously drunk” – outside a pub in North Tyneside one day. Billy had recalled that encounter – and the fateful question: “Do you have a group?”– at our previous interview.

“I said yes and he said, ‘Right, can you come back tonight for the leek club do? It’ll be £2 – 10 bob each’. So we went and did it. It was appalling. We were only 14 or 15 and we sat in the corner and played and they politely clapped. After about 30 minutes they gave us two quid to *** off.”

A more grown up Billy went off to perform with Lindisfarne and Jack the Lad and, since 2006, with his own Billy Mitchell Band.

But there’s no point pretending things are quite the same as they were pre-op.

“The timbre of the voice has changed quite a lot,” says Billy.

“I had to learn to sing in a different way. I feel great, actually, but I did have to change the key of nearly all the songs I did. It went up about a tone and a half.

“But I always knew I’d do something, even if I ended up singing like Tom Waits.”

For a year or two, he reflects, he had to concentrate very hard on his singing in the knowledge that what came out of his mouth was not what he, or anyone else, was used to hearing.

“Some of the songs just didn’t work any more,” he says candidly.

“But they’re in the process at the Freeman of setting up a website to raise awareness of head and neck cancer. I did a little exercise for them, recording the same song at various stages of my recovery.”

The concert with Tom should make for a good night. “It’ll be a mixture of all sorts, a potted history of my musical life - stuff I like and stuff that I’ve written, and songs by writers I like. Tom will play the stuff he does, some of which I play on, and then I’ll do the stuff I do, some of which he’ll play on.”

The beneficiary will be this very distinctive, Grade II-listed building which is, itself, to be a star this weekend during Heritage Open Days.

It’s an extraordinary place with an equally extraordinary story and here with Billy to tell me about it are Maurice Large, chairman of the church committee, and Ian Clark, who is halls manager.

Maurice, a retired district judge, has practically grown up with the church, joining the Sunday School with his brother not long after it opened in 1939.

During the war, he says, his father was in the auxiliary fire brigade. When the Germans bombed the nearby Manors goods yard, causing the streets to run with butter and a crack to appear in the back wall of the church, he was one of the men who fought the blaze.

Unitarianism, he explains, can trace its origins back to the Act of Uniformity of 1662 when 2,000 clergymen refused to conform to the Book of Common Prayer and were ejected from the Church of England.

In the North East, it seems, the flame of nonconformism burned brightly.

The Rev William Durant and Dr Richard Gilpin led dissenting congregations which eventually came together on Newcastle Quayside.

The Art Deco Church of the Divine Unity, at Ellison Place, replaced earlier churches on New Bridge Street - on the site of the new City Library - and, before that, Hanover Square.

Maurice says the new church, beautiful but austere, was built with the Durant Hall alongside it to provide a revenue stream and a place for the community to let off steam. The badminton courts marked out on the wooden floor have been there since the beginning and are still in use, with Maurice a regular player.

Many notable North East citizens have been Unitarians. Maurice says his mother was a Methodist and his father a Christian Scientist. On their marriage they compromised and became Unitarians because Maurice’s grandfather, a crime reporter on The Journal, knew Rev Herbert Barnes.

Barnes, minister of the Unitarian community in Newcastle from 1919-51, wrote a regular Saturday column in the Evening Chronicle under the pen-name Unitas.

Unitarianism in Newcastle is not what it was. Maurice, Ian and treasurer David Venus, who joins us, say only about 10 or a dozen people regularly attend the single Sunday service, seeking to be “stimulated, challenged and inspired”. There is not other Unitarian church nearer than Stockton in the south and Edinburgh in the north.

“Unitarians are people who don’t like to be told what to believe,” says Maurice stoutly.

They don’t believe in the Holy Trinity, preferring to see God as a single entity. Here you will see no ornate crosses or stained glass and a wall that you might think cries out for a melodramatic painting of a Biblical scene remains blank.

But there is a sense of peace, enhanced by the gentle light filtering in through windows which, while not stained, are subtly coloured pink or green. The panes, says Ian, are very pricey to replace.

To keep this expensive historic building going and to enhance its role in the community, the committee has welcomed musicians, theatre groups and choirs to rehearse and perform.

Billy, Maurice and Ian all rave about the vocal powers of Ruby Turner which have shivered these timbers. Likewise Roger Daltry, Jimmy Nail, Mark Knopfler and a host of others have taken advantage of the building ahead of various gigs in the city.

As Billy points out, the location of the church - squeezed and all but hidden between John Dobson Street and the Central Motorway, legacy of a brutalist post-war era - means a star can rehearse or perform unseen and unhindered a mere stone’s throw from the City Hall.

In the coming days they hope the church, meeting place of worshippers who don’t like being pushed around, badminton players and the arts community, will not be unseen. Billy’s concert is at 7.30pm on September 20. For tickets call 0191 2322348 or 07918 881708.

The church will be open during Heritage Open Days from tomorrow until Sunday.

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