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He became an international vocalist with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, but now Canterbury-based jazz and soul man Noel McCalla is pursuing his first loves.
While Noel McCalla sang to crowds of 50,000 people as part of prog rock-influenced Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, it was with jazz that his heart really lay.
The renowned vocalist, who now lives in Canterbury, had discovered an early passion for jazz while working with pioneering British jazz funk band Morrissey–Mullen. All looked set for a career in that genre until the young dad was tempted by a stable pay packet into taking a detour of nearly 20 years with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.
By that point, the band had already experienced big success with Blinded by the Light, among other hits, and was reforming for a tour.
“Morrissey-Mullen had really been instrumental to my working on the jazz scene – through their musicianship they taught me how to sing, really,” remembers Noel, 57, of the period working with late saxophonist Dick Morrissey and guitarist Jim Mullen.
“Jazz is about improvisation, it comes down to your sheer nerve, and they taught me tenacity and bravery. We worked together for five years, resulting in the 1985 album This Must Be The Place.
“Then I met Manfred when I was about 30. I was singing at the Blue Note in Hoxton Square and he came along to see me on a recommendation. He asked me to work with him on an album called Plains Music, which I did, and afterwards he asked, ‘Do you think you can sing Blinded by the Light? Give it a go.’
“It was a regular income and I had a young family coming along, so I thought I would sing with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band for one or two years,” says Noel.
In fact the next 18 years saw him touring music festivals and huge arenas around Europe as lead vocalist with the band.
“It was work that supported four children, and so I thank Manfred greatly for it.”
But the yearning for jazz, funk and soul was still beating. Meanwhile, Noel and his wife, Heidi, came down from London to attend a friend’s graduation celebrations in Folkestone.
“It was the night of the Folkestone earthquake in 2007 and we were staying in a hotel on the seafront,” laughs Noel as he remembers the chaos that ensured, with guests wandering out in their nightclothes.
“Heidi and I took a walk to The Leas and, despite everything going on, decided we liked it and so moved to Folkestone first, and then later to Canterbury.
Work-wise it was possible because Kent is so accessible to London on the train.”
Over the past few years Noel has relished re-immersing himself in the jazz, funk and soul scenes, including joining forces with Jim Mullen again for performances at London venues like the Half Moon in Putney. He also formed the Noel McCalla Acoustic Trio, in which he sings with accompanying musicians including Martin Elliott from Whitstable on double bass, who has played with Shirley Bassey and Petula Clark, and Frank Dawkins on guitar, who played with the Three Degrees and the Supremes.
The acoustic trio now has a large following, appearing at some of the country’s most respected venues including Chelsea’s 606 Club.
But the rewards of homegrown gigs at Kent venues which he now knows and loves are just as great, says Noel of his three shows coming up in Whitstable, Canterbury and Deal.
“There’s an honesty and authenticity about performing in a more intimate venue that I had missed.
“I feel humbled that I’m still managing to attract people’s interest after 43 years in the business,” he adds.
“I describe our set as a classic songbook of soul, jazz and originals. It includes songs by people like Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, all delivered with passion.”
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