Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1082

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Feature

Imagination Ft. Leee John: Still Capturing Our Imagination

Imagination  Ft. Leee John @bluesandsoul.com
Imagination  Ft. Leee John @bluesandsoul.com

Having scored chart hits in no less than 28 countries in addition to earning four Platinum discs, nine Gold discs and more than a dozen Silver discs around the world between 1981 and 1983, UK soul/dance/pop trio Imagination are without question one of the biggest-selling British black recording acts of all time.

Groundbreaking success which is this month being celebrated with the release through Cristal Records of Imagination Featuring Leee John’s new LP “Retropia”. Whose musical moods find new compositions like the infectious “Do It Right”, breezy “Secrets” and heartfelt “Brighter Day” sitting alongside four covers - Eddie Kendricks’ “Tell Her Love Has Felt The Need”; AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell”; Stevie Wonder’s “Visions”; and Junior Murvin’s “Police And Thieves”, while guests include Incognito leader/founder Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, France-based disco trio The Gibson Brothers, and Level 42 keyboardist Mike Lindup.

Originally formed in London in 1981 and comprising North London singer/songwriter/dancer Leee John, Northampton-raised guitarist/bassist/singer/writer Ashley Ingram and Jamaica-born dancer/drummer Errol Kennedy, Imagination would indeed kick off their career in style with two UK-Gold-Certified albums - 1981’s “Body Talk” and 1982’s “In The Heat Of The Night” - which between them spawned a consecutive seven Top 40 singles, peaking with the Top Five smashes “Body Talk” (1981), “Just An Illusion” (1982) and “Music And Lights” (1982).

Indeed, with their instantly recognisable musical blend of bass-and-keyboard-driven Brit-soul production (courtesy of Steve Jolley and Tony Swain) and Leee’s flawless falsetto vocals combined with their equally distinctive exotic visual style, Imagination would go on to score significant international success - most notably across mainland Europe plus the US dance and R&B charts - throughout the early/mid-Eighties. Following which, with their British popularity waning from 1984 on, the uniquely-flamboyant trio’s chart presence would nevertheless continue abroad, with the latter half of the decade finding them recording Stateside with “name” R&B producers of the day like Nick Martinelli and Preston Glass in addition to collaborating with such underground dance music icons as David Morales, who in 1988 provided the threesome with a prestigious US Dance Number One via his remix of “Instinctual”.

Nevertheless, following Errol’s departure from the group in 1987, 1992 would find remaining Imagination members Leee and Ashley deciding to call it a day. Since which time Leee has continued to keep the group’s legacy of hits alive by regularly touring both domestically and internationally under the “Imagination Featuring Leee John” banner while also earning credibility as a solo artist, collaborator, songwriter, producer and, more recently, a filmmaker.

…Which in turn conveniently brings us back to today. As Imagination’s ever-personable frontman Leee reacquaints himself with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis over dinner at Marylebone’s bustling Original Lahore Restaurant to discuss this month’s release of the aforementioned “Retropia”. Which, dubbed “Imagination’s penultimate album” and with Leee himself producing/arranging/writing/co-writing all the songs (except for the four cover versions), was primarily recorded in London alongside long-time associate producer/engineer Dee Vaz and mixed by Francois Gaucher at Alhambra Studios in Rochefort, France.

Titling the new album “Retropia”

“Well, this album actually came about after the label I’d done my (2005-released) solo jazz album “Feel My Soul” with said they wanted me to do a new Imagination record. And so because “Utopia” was a track I’d been playing a lot on my jazz shows I was initially going to title it after that. But then when I thought of maybe changing it to “Retropia” I decided to call up a guy called Lincoln Elias who at one point had been an A&R at Sony. You know he’d signed The Chimes, Des’ree, Terence Trent D’Arby, The Pasadenas... And straightaway he was like “”Retropia” sounds great, because it’s got a ‘retro’ feel while the ‘…opia’ part indicates that it’s taking you into a different zone, to another place’… So yeah, that’s how “Retropia” became the title… Basically, because it’s something that signifies taking you back while at the same time bringing you forward, all within this wonderful environment that you can immediately become a part of. Because to me one of the best things about this album is that people can embrace it instantly. You know, you don’t have to think twice, you just hear it and straightaway get into it.”

How Leee coming to terms with the death of his sister and three close friends within the space of a year impacted on the making of “Retropia”

“Well, the whole experience did emotionally take a lot out of me. Because while I was in the midst of making the album I lost my sister, then I lost my best mate, then I lost his wife, and then I lost a good DJ friend called Vernon Lee... So it very much became a test of how to convey all these emotions that were going on in my head. But then in the midst of this emotional whirlpool one day I basically just thought to myself ‘These people are angels on my shoulder. They loved to party, they loved to have a good time, so let’s have some fun with this and let’s go back to what we were all about!’. Which is how, for example, the lyrics to the track “Do It Right Now” came about - you know, ‘Whatever made us all happy, let’s do it right now!’! And in that way, I can genuinely say that there is a bit of all the people I lost in all the tracks. Which is why, though “Retropia” does emanate out of a sensitive, emotional experience, overall it’s also an uplifting record.”

The song “Brighter Day”, which Leee wrote the day his sister passed away

“With me having written it actually on the day my sister passed as a kind of letter to her to say ‘we’re gonna make a brighter day’, what I found was that I couldn’t bring myself to even look at it for months and months and months… You know, it was on my computer and Dee Vaz who’s like my musical partner was like ‘What’s happening with that track? what are you doing with it - I thought it was supposed to be on the album’… So in the end what happened was, though we’d originally written it as an uptempo to get away from all the problems, I was like ‘No, deal with the demons - let’s identify with what’s really inside of me and bring that through’. So I basically slowed it all down and made it a kind of anthem to praise the universal energy of life and the fact that we’re still here and able to contribute. Because what I realised is that, through my sorrow and my strengths, I could probably help other people who are going through the same thing in terms of how they deal with it. Because though with losing four people in one year I’d been tested and tested and tested and at first I was like ‘I can’t go on with the process of making this album’, ultimately I was able to continue - and so hopefully that can become a kind of beacon to others in a similar position to keep pushing forward.”

You can read more from our interview with Leee John in the current issue of Blues & Soul Magazine - click the link below to order straight from our shop or read on for high street retailer details.

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Words PETE LEWIS

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