Remembering Les Payne
I recently felt proud to be an Islander, when I attended the funeral of Newport-born singer/songwriter Les Payne at the Amersham Crematorium.
It was a non-religious service taken by his son Crispin, and hundreds attended to celebrate his life, that had begun in Linden Road, Newport, back in 1943. The locals had never seen so many cars at the crematorium.
I will never forget the day. When the hearse arrived it had a job to even get through the crowds. Then came the first of many emotional moments. The crowd clapped and cheered for several moments, as they surrounded the coffin. Inside the crematorium all the seats were taken, and many were standing or sitting on the floor. You could feel there was such an outflow of love for Les, who had been such a popular singer in that area for many years.
Locally, Les first sang at the Hotel Ryde Castle, during the set breaks of the Island’s first rock ‘n’ roll star, Johnny Vincent. He attended both Barton and Priory Boys schools and sang in the latter’s famous choir. He bought his very first guitar in Pat Deacon’s cycle shop in Newport.
I first met Les back in the late 1970s, and we remained friends until his untimely death. He loved talking about the Island and the many characters he grew up with. He undertook numerous jobs, including being a driver’s mate for the millers Leigh Thomas, an attendant at the old Seaclose open air pool, and even cleaned trains at Ryde St John’s station.
He once told me: “I left the Island in 1963 and my last job was being the flag man when they made the Bowcombe road wider. It was bitterly cold and only about seven cars passed in an hour.”
Les Payne, such a gifted singer and songwriter, pursued just one dream. He wanted to be a famous pop star – and he should have been. Even later in life he never gave up and remained as ambitious as ever. Back in the ’90s he told me: “I still believe I’ll make it, but it might be because of someone else recording one of my songs. Then they will all come out of the closet.”
For a while, back in the late ’70s, it looked as if his band called Mainland might break big. Noel Edmonds made one of their singles his Radio 1 Record of the Week, and they toured with Leo Sayer. During his long career in music he performed over 6,000 gigs.
In 1991 he won a Harp Beat Rock Award. Previous winners included Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkel and Tom Jones. Les was the first unknown to win it.
For a few days the world’s media went crazy and he was on all the television news bulletins, and even made Channel 9 in Australia. He was interviewed by Tony Blackburn, Johnny Walker, Simon Bates and Chris Tarrant. If only he could have had a record deal at the time.
Diana Ross saw him on breakfast television and invited him to her private party. Did they dance cheek to cheek? Les told me they did – and I believed him.
During his life, a vinyl strike hampered his chances of what looked like a certain chart hit for one of his solo singles. He was so close to real fame on numerous occasions. Despite not obtaining his life’s dream, his unique music touched so many people. Thankfully, he has left a legacy of songs to live on.