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'I lost my home, the venues, everything… I lived on a boat on a canal. It was great'

'King of Music' Vince Power tells Barry Egan about his friendships with Van Morrison and Mo Mowlam, childhood tragedies, his conflict over accepting a CBE from the queen, his fall from grace and his subsequent comeback

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Vince Power at Camden Lock in London where he recently bought the Dingwalls venue. Photo: Jonathan Goldberg

Vince Power at Camden Lock in London where he recently bought the Dingwalls venue. Photo: Jonathan Goldberg

Jonathan Goldberg

Vince Power with children Nell, Evie and Nial

Vince Power with children Nell, Evie and Nial

 Vince with Shane McGowan

Vince with Shane McGowan

Vince with his beloved friend John Reynolds.

Vince with his beloved friend John Reynolds.

Ray Charles

Ray Charles

Vince Power at Camden Lock in London where he recently bought the Dingwalls venue. Photo: Jonathan Goldberg

In the summer of 1972, Jack Power was dying of cancer in hospital in Waterford. His son Vince would drive over in his furniture van from London to see him. When he was leaving, without fail, Vince would say to his father: "I'll come back next week, dad". Jack's reply would always be the same: "I won't be around next week, son".

"Eventually he was right," Vince says. Jack died on July 17, 1972.

Vince recalls that before his father died, "he was on morphine, and was in terrible pain. The memory of him never leaves my mind."

As a boy, Vince can remember his father, a forester, making a coffin out of little orange boxes outside the family home and putting the body of a baby into it. He then cycled off to Newtown Church, a mile and a half up the road, with the tiny coffin on the back of the bike. "My mother had 11 of us," Vince says of his mother Brigid, who died on February 17, 1986. "Four didn't survive." One of those was Vince's twin sister, who died soon after she was born on April 29, 1947.

"She was never named because she was too young. She wasn't buried in a proper grave because she hadn't been baptised. That was one of the things about the Catholic Church. She wasn't entitled to have a proper funeral."

Vince eventually found out where she was buried. He also discovered that his mother had other twins who died when they were days old. "My mother kept these things secret."

A big family, the Powers lived in a small, two bedroom cottage in Kilmacthomas, Co Waterford. "We didn't have much, but we were happy," says Vince, who was born at home in the front room and delivered by Pinky Walsh, the local midwife, who delivered all the Powers. With so many mouths to feed, Jack Power "worked every day," says Vince. "He never went to school. He couldn't read or write. His mother died in birth. So his father gave him away to the farmer next door to look after him. They never sent him to school."

In 1963, Vince rejected a scholarship in artificial bull insemination at Galway University and took the ferry to England instead. His aunt Kitty met him off the train in Paddington in London. He was 15 years old.

"I just needed to get out of Ireland. I was probably disappointed when I came into London initially. You know, the idea of what London was like - bright lights and the streets paved with gold? Coming into Paddington, the train seemed to be for ever shunting in, and all I could see was blocks of flats in Harlesden with clotheslines. I thought: 'Well, this is not very exciting'."

Aunt Kitty took him to Hemel Hempstead outside London. She bought him a suit in Burton's for £5. He had to pay her back a pound a week when he got a job in Woolworth's as a trainee floor walker. After about six months, Vince moved to London and lived on Tavistock Road in Harlesden in a back room of the house of a West Indian woman, "who treated me like her son".

At 17, Vince got himself an old van and started buying and selling furniture, before he opened a furniture shop on the Harrow Road and made some good money. "I got my break when I found a painting in Kenton. It was an old Dutch Master. I think I paid eight quid for it. I sold it in Sotheby's for £7,500. That would have been 1966, 1967."

With the proceeds, Vince bought another furniture shop and the freehold of a premises in Cricklewood Lane for £5,500. It had a flat upstairs which Vince let out to two sisters from Kerry. By that stage, young Vince was married to Theresa Fitzgerald, a young Cork beauty whom he met at an Irish club in Harlesden in 1967. They had three children, Maurice, Sharon and Gail. Vince and Theresa divorced in the late 1970s. Vince had two children, Brigid and Patrick, with Patsy Ryce; and three children, Nell, Niall and Evie, with Alison Charles.

"I had my first baby at the age of 19, and my eighth baby at the age of 50," says Vince, who has three great-grandchildren. In the late Sixties, Vince's furniture business grew. He opened more shops across London. With the money, he'd travel to Nashville to buy country records and have a good time. It was in a "spit-and-sawdust place" one night in Nashville, with a band playing and the crowd loving it, that into Vince's entrepreneurial mind came the thought: 'I want to do a place like this in London'.

On December 7, 1982 at 7pm, he opened the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden. It was originally opened as a country music venue. The first night he knew the venue was starting to take off was in the middle of 1983 when there were queues down the road to see Moving Hearts. From then on, the venue featured, among many others, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney (twice), the Pogues (too many times to count), Christy Moore (likewise), and one of Vince's favourite acts, Roy Orbison, as well as his childhood hero, Johnny Cash.

Vince went on to become one of the biggest concert promoters in the UK and Europe, buying 27 venues including the Forum, Astoria and the Jazz Cafe, plus music bars (and restaurants). He created an empire of sorts, with the Observer calling him the King of Music. He operated festivals such as Reading, Leeds, the Fleadh (in London, New York, Boston and Chicago, with acts like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van), the Phoenix (he booked David Bowie and Young on the same bill once) and, for a time, Glastonbury.

He sold the public company in 2003. "I was getting a bit detached and distanced from what I was doing. It was instinctive."

Instinctive or not, his company that started from an idea to copy a country music pub in Nashville sold for a whopping £39 million to Clear Channel, now known as Live Nation. "After I paid everyone and all the other shareholders, I would have got half of that - £19, 20m," says Vince.

Then came a series of events that resulted in Vince losing everything: he bought a Spanish festival, Benicàssim, then there was "a recession in Spain"; he got into housing at the wrong time; and then there was the global recession in 2008. In July 2011, Vince got Prince for his first and only UK festival appearance, at Hop Farm. "I lost a fortune on Prince," he says. The year before, his Vince Power Music Group had gone into administration. The Financial Times asked Vince what did going into administration teach him. "It was embarrassing as I'd been in business for 40 years," he answered. "It taught me that banks are not your friend and can pull the rug from under you without any emotion. They could have stayed with me."

"I lost my home, to the banks," he says now. "The banks don't have feelings. When you sign certain papers, you don't really have a defence. I lost the venues. Everything, really. I lived on a boat cruising up and down the canal near Paddington. It was one of the happiest times of my life. I had no doorbell. I had no letterbox. I had no address. I played my music on the boat. It was great. People say 'it's nice to have you back' but I have always had one or two venues. I don't have the big expensive holidays any more. It doesn't matter. I am as happy now as I was then, probably happier. I've got my health. I've got eight kids. They're all great."

Vince is back in Kilburn, in a flat, where he started 58 years ago.

"Kilburn is not Irish any more. They say there are 72 different cultures in Kilburn now. There is a great choice of food. It is a community that works. It is very different from the Sixties when I was there, when it was 80 per cent Irish and 20 per cent Jamaican and African. They used to all mix together in the pubs," he says.

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Vince Power with children Nell, Evie and Nial

Vince Power with children Nell, Evie and Nial

Vince Power with children Nell, Evie and Nial

 

In 2008, Vince was living in rather more palatial accommodation than a flat in Kilburn. He had possibly the biggest penthouse in London. It was so big that his youngest children Evie and Nell used to play football on its rooftop in Paddington. In the summer of 2008, he sold it for £3.6m to a young Greek multi-millionaire in his Pigalle supper club in Piccadilly. There is an entertaining, and true, story that Vince had agreed £3.3m but the buyer suggested: "Why don't we do it on the toss of a coin?" Vince agreed. The bet was: "Heads, the Greek multi-millionaire buys the home for £3m - £300,000 below the agreed price; or tails, he buys it for £3.6m - £300,000 above the asking price."

Luckily, Vince said tails. When it landed on tails, Vince ordered two magnums of vintage Dom Pérignon.

In 1993, though, Vince had been weeping into his champagne when he lost a fortune after he put Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, Ray Charles, the Pogues and Christy Moore on at the Fleadh Mor festival in his home county, Waterford.

"I lost a million on that festival," he says. Vince says his judgement was "distorted by emotion" - because he wanted to bring a festival home.

,In the last few years Vince clawed his way back and recently bought the Dingwalls venue on Camden Lock and the three bars that come with it, one of which is an outdoor rooftop bar from where he spoke to me last Friday in the sunshine. (Vince also owns, among other venues, Nell's in Kensington, the Fiddler in Kilburn and Ladbroke Grove's Subterania.)

Vince has a long friendship with Van Morrison. He told The Evening Standard last week: "I think over the years, Van Morrison opened every place I've ever had. I bought a venue in Luton once called Caesar's Palace, which was a chicken-in-the-basket venue and cabaret. Van Morrison opened it, so I think if he'd open that, he would open any place. So I'm hoping he might open Dingwalls."

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 Vince with Shane McGowan

Vince with Shane McGowan

Vince with Shane McGowan

 

He tells me, "We're hopefully opening Dingwalls as a live music venue when we get some indication from the government. It really doesn't work financially what they are proposing - a venue that holds 600 people can have 200 people on chairs. That is a lack of understanding from the government.

"I'm a Labour man. I go back to Mo," he says, meaning Mo Mowlam. Vince knew the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland well. "She was a very good friend of the Fiddler," he says in reference to his original venue in North London. "She was a lovely, warm-hearted woman. She came to see Van once. She used to come to see a lot of stuff. I went to her funeral [in 2005]. I would have considered her a friend. I also went to Ian Dury's funeral [in 2000], and she was there."

Vince's voice cracks with emotion when he talks about another friend of his who is no longer with us.

"I am sad thinking about John. I loved John. I still love John," he says, referring to the legendary promoter John Reynolds, who died at the age of 52 in October 2018.

"He was a partner of mine in a venue called the South in Tramore. John was a forward thinker. He had a great head. He had a great eye. He could see things. He worked and worked and worked. He would have an idea and he would not let it go. It is still unbelievable that he is not around. John was a genius.

"He was well ahead with ideas. He was also a very nice guy. I wish he wasn't a genius and he was still around… not that being a genius is what killed John. There is not a week I don't think of him," says Vince.

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Vince with his beloved friend John Reynolds.

Vince with his beloved friend John Reynolds.

Vince with his beloved friend John Reynolds.

 

The quietly spoken man from Waterford was made a Commander of the British Empire in 2006 by the Queen for his years of service to the British music industry.

"I didn't get to go to Buckingham Palace and meet the Queen," laughs Vince. "I got it from Tessa Jowell at the House of Parliament." (Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said of Power that day: "He has done a huge amount to raise the profile of live music in the UK. Through his work with music festivals and venues, his contribution has been fundamental in shaping the landscape of music in Britain today.")

"I had a long discussion with my kids about whether I should take it. It doesn't happen that often to an Irish person. I was conflicted about taking it. I was active behind the campaigns for justice for the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. I took it in the end. It didn't do me any harm. It didn't good me any good. I have lived and worked in England all my life. I am an Irish citizen. We had a good day out at the House of Parliament with the kids."

"It entitles me to drive sheep across London Bridge and get married in St Paul's Cathedral."

Vince is single, "a freelancer". "So," he says, his Irish eyes not so much smiling as twinkling, "I haven't any plans to get married in St Paul's Cathedral yet."

 

Christy on my minc: Ray Charles at the races

Ray Charles

 

Saturday night, July 3, 1993 at the Fleadh Mor in Tramore Races, Waterford. Van Morrison was headlining, along with Christy Moore and Ray Charles & His Orchestra. (Van also played on the Sunday night, as did Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jerry Lee Lewis and Hothouse Flowers.)

Vince, who promoted the Fleadh Mor, recalls how musical deity Ray Charles went down a storm with the crowd, playing What I'd Say, I Can't Stop Loving You and Georgia On My Mind.

Vince was standing at the side of the stage with Christy Moore, enjoying Ray in full flow. Suddenly, Ray's tour manager appeared and abruptly told Vince that no one could stand at the side of the stage during his artist's performance.

Vince told the tour manager that he was putting on the show and the man next to him - Christy Moore, the voice of Back Home In Derry, Ordinary Man, and Go, Move, Shift - was one of the greatest artists in Ireland, and they would be staying put. Unimpressed, the tour manager said he would take Ray off the stage if Christy and Vince didn't go, move, shift. Vince told him to go ahead and take his artist off the stage if that's what he wanted to do.

The tour manager instructed the female backing singers from Charles's act to come off the stage. They stayed off for two songs until it was obvious that a.) Charles was furious that he was performing songs without his backing singers and b.) neither Vince nor Christy would be leaving the side of the stage.

In the end, Christy (possibly unaware of all the stage politics going on around him) remained where he was for the duration of Charles's surreally soulful set.

Sunday Independent