Thursday 27 October 2016

Obituary: Colin Vearncombe

Singer known as Black had a doleful hit with Wonderful Life, in spite of the sarcasm lying behind the song title

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

Songwriter: The late Colin Vearncombe Photo: PA
Songwriter: The late Colin Vearncombe Photo: PA

Colin Vearncombe, who died, aged 53, in Cork last Tuesday after a car accident, was a singer-songwriter known professionally as Black, who had a hit in 1987 with the single Wonderful Life.

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Despite its sunny title, Wonderful Life was actually composed in response to a catalogue of disasters.

"By the end of 1985," Vearncombe recalled, "I had been in a couple of car crashes, my mother had had a serious illness, I had been dropped by a record company, my first marriage went belly-up and I was homeless. Then I sat down and wrote this song called Wonderful Life. I was being sarcastic."

The song reached No 8 in the British charts and its doleful strains become ubiquitous in television commercials.

Its oddly uplifting lyrics ("No need to run and hide/ It's a wonderful, wonderful life/ No need to laugh and cry/ It's a wonderful, wonderful life") combined with Black's melancholy croon created, as one critic observed, "luxuriantly melodic pop that sounds something like a male version of Sade".

Vearncombe, however, came to feel that the song's success had undermined his later career.

His personal style - he had a penchant for black polo necks and quiffs - heightened the general air of moodiness and introspection surrounding the song, something of a novelty in an era dominated by the relentlessly up-tempo pop of producers such as Stock Aitken Waterman.

Wonderful Life has been covered by singers including Kim Wilde and Tony Hadley and, despite its gloomy origins, proved immensely popular as an advertising theme tune, used to promote brands such as Cadbury and Standard Life. Last year a version by Katie Melua appeared in a campaign for Premier Inn hotels.

Vearncombe released 14 albums and several compilations, yet struggled with the widespread perception that he was a one-hit wonder.

"Once you've had a hit, it's hard to write another song without having that in the back of your mind," he observed. "For a long time, I would find myself hearing 'I like it, but it's not Wonderful Life.'"

Colin Vearncombe was born in Liverpool on May 26, 1962. A fan of Elvis Presley, he used to say that he was born in the week that Presley's Good Luck Charm was at No 1.

He adopted the stage name Black because he believed "Colin Vearncombe" made people "go dyslexic".

His recording career began in 1981 with the rock single Human Features. With the support of Pete Wylie, the singer with The Mighty Wah!, and his manager Pete Fulwell, a second single, More Than the Sun, emerged the following year. Vearncombe toured with the Thompson Twins, after which he was briefly signed to WEA Records.

Wonderful Life was initially released in 1986 by Ugly Man Records; it brought him to the attention of A&M Records, who re-released the single to great acclaim.

The subsequent album, also titled Wonderful Life, reached No 3 in the album charts, sold 1.5 million copies and provided another Top 10 hit in Sweetest Smile.

He released two further albums, Comedy (1988) and Black (1991), but neither made a great impact, after which he parted company with A&M.

He continued to release albums on his own label, Nero Schwartz Records, sometimes under his real name. Without the PR machine or the money to have a band on tour, however, he slowly slipped below the music industry radar.

Black was uncomfortable with fame from the start and had "never been a great schmoozer or networker".

Latterly he moved to Schull in Co Cork, immersing himself in the artistic community and writing poetry. He suffered swelling on his brain after sustaining a serious head injury in a crash on January 10 near Cork Airport. He had been in intensive care in Cork University Hospital since.

His first marriage, in his twenties, was dissolved. He married, secondly, Camilla Griehsel, a Swedish opera singer, who survives him with their three sons.

Camilla's relationship with Colin began one day when her publishing company asked her to join him to go to a film premiere. They had already met on a boat on the Thames when they were doing promotion work for their shared publishing company. The red-carpet date was supposed to be just for publicity, but they ended up becoming good friends.

The relationship was purely platonic for nine months and then, after just two months as lovers, Colin proposed to Camilla. She was only 23.

As she told Ciara Dwyer in an interview in this paper three years ago: "We were in my family home in Sweden and I was shocked when I saw him getting down on one knee and then producing a ring.

"I told him I wasn't sure and asked him to give me an hour. I went up to my friends and my mom, and we chatted about it. After that, I returned and told him, 'Yes'. Then we all went skinny-dipping."

What was so special about him? "He was romantic, kind and gentle and I'd never felt so loved by anyone," Camilla recalls. "There was great respect and he adored me."

Colin and Camilla came to live in Schull, west Cork in 2003, with their young sons, Max, Marius and Milan. Until then they had been in London, but they wanted to rear the children in a place where they could see the horizon and the sea and have nature around them.

The way of life in west Cork was just what they needed.

"What I like about it is that there are no airs and graces. Everyone is just a person," said Camilla.

Colin Vearncombe held art exhibitions in West Cork as well as writing and publishing poetry.

In a statement after his death, Camilla and his three sons paid tribute to the staff at the Intensive Treatment Unit of Cork University Hospital, saying: 'Colin received the best possible care from the expert and highly professional staff there and we are deeply grateful for everything they did.

"The funeral will be a private one, but we will be holding a memorial service for him in Liverpool in the near future as we know there are many, many people who will want to celebrate Colin's life and work. The date and time will be announced in due course, along with details of a charity to which any donations in memory of Colin can be made.

"No need to laugh or cry.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful life."

Sunday Independent

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