British singer Kiki Dee remained a music industry secret in the 1960s despite releasing numerous high-quality singles and even joining America’s Motown label at the end of the decade. Sadly, she had to wait until the mid-1970s before finding fame.
She was born Pauline Matthews in the Yorkshire town of Bradford, in northern England, on 6 March 1947.
She made her first public appearance at the age of ten and then went on to stage school. When she left, she ended up taking a job in Boots, the high street chemist, and in her sister’s hairdressing salon.
But after singing with a local band, she was eventually offered a contract with the Fontana label in 1963, aged 16, and was given the stage name Kiki Dee. Dusty Springfield’s manager, Vic Billings, became her manager too, which explains the links the two singers would have over the coming years.
Her early releases were covers of US material. Her first single, Early night, was issued in late spring 1963 and was followed in the autumn by Don’t put your heart in his hands, a composition by singer-songwriters Jackie De Shannon and Sharon Sheeley.
In February 1964, she made her first appearance on TV pop show Ready steady go!, performing her latest single, Miracles, but even this couldn’t propel the young singer into the charts. Her version of Nancy Wilson’s (You don’t know) How glad I am similarly failed upon its release that summer, though it became a hit when she re-recorded and released it 11 years later. (The B-side was the highly regarded Baby I don’t care.)
In 1965, serious efforts were made to boost Kiki’s profile. In January she appeared at the San Remo song festival, alongside artists such as Dusty Springfield, Iva Zanicchi, Petula Clark and Gigliola Cinquetti. She performed Aspetta domani, which had been written by Italian singer Fred Bongusto, who also sang the same song (each entry was performed by two artists at that time, one Italian and one international singer). The song made the final, though it didn’t win (it finished fourth).
Nevertheless, the song gained a release in Italy, and Senza te, a version of Baby I don’t care, was included on the B-side. It was one of two Italian singles she recorded – the other, issued later the same year, was a version of her (You don’t know) How glad I am, retitled Come ti amo, with Favole (originally, Miracles) on the flip.
Her San Remo entry was also translated into German and Spanish.
In the summer of 1965, she provided backing vocals for Dusty Springfield on Some of your lovin’ (her first of numerous sessions for the star), released another single, a version of Aretha Franklin’s Runnin’ out of fools, and appeared in her first film, playing a Danish singer in the crime caper Dateline diamonds, alongside The Chantelles, Kenneth Cope and Patsy Rowland.
But still the hits didn’t come. Kiki has since put her lack of success down to a failure by the record label to promote her sufficiently. Others suggest that her problem lay more in the material she was singing. Her output consisted mostly of covers of US soul songs – yet the originals were readily available. For the Mod crowd, a cover by a white British singer was destined to cut little ice.
In February 1966, she released one of her best singles to date, Why don’t I run away from you, which had been written by Lulu’s American producer Bert Berns. It was issued in direct competition with a version by fellow unknown Britgirl Antoinette. The battle did neither singer any favours and both versions disappeared without trace, though Kiki did release a version in French, as Je vais partir loin de toi, and in German.
Just a month later, Fontana issued the Kiki in clover EP to coincide with the release of the film Doctor in clover. The EP featured the title track from the film, plus three other songs, including I dig you baby (which later gained a US release) and the excellent With a kiss. The latter was also translated into German and released as an A-side in Germany.
Further singles followed in 1967 and 1968, including I’m going out (the same way I came in), I, Excuse me and (the now easy listening classic) Can’t take my eyes off you, none of which troubled chart compilers.
Perhaps her best known release of the period was the single Now the flowers cry – but it is the
B-side, On a magic carpet ride, which found favour, becoming a regular request at northern soul all-night dances.
An album was issued in late 1968, bringing together most of her recordings from the previous couple of years plus a few new tracks. It was also released in the US, together with a single, the huge ballad Patterns, which had been a B-side in the UK.
When she was offered a contract with Motown in 1969, it was no surprise that she jumped at the opportunity to record for the prestigious American label. The day will come between Sunday and Monday was issued as her first US single, in 1970, and an album, Great expectations, followed.
Sadly, the LP title proved prophetic for Kiki: if she’d hoped Motown would make her a household name, she was mistaken. However, the connections she made at the label helped her land a new contract with Elton John’s fledgling Rocket label in 1973.
On Rocket, she went on to score hits with Amoureuse, a cover of a song by French singer Véronique Sanson, I got the music in me, and later a UK chart-topping duet with Elton John, the classic Don’t go breaking my heart.
She continued to record throughout the 1970s and moved into acting in the 1980s, garnering a nomination for an Olivier Award in 1989 for her performance in the West End stage musical Blood brothers.
With thanks to the Kiki Dee Information Bureau for additional information.
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