Alex Harvey was born in 1935 in the Gorbals, Glasgow. He did a number of jobs after leaving school aged 15, before turning to music in 1954. He played trumpet with a number of different Dixieland and jazz bands around Glasgow including the Clyde River Jazz Band and the Kansas City Skiffle Group. In 1956 he entered and won a talent competition as “Scotland’s answer to Tommy Steele.” Alex preferred the songs of Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmie Rogers and turned his talents to singing them in a skiffle group. Once skiffle peaked he played pop covers with the Kansas City Counts. In 1959, Alex had formed the "Alex Harvey's Soul Band," (sometimes called, Alex Harvey's Big Soul Band) and was performing around Scotland sometimes backing Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and John Lee Hooker on their local tours. The band took the opportunity to work in Germany eventually taking residency at the famous Top Ten Club in Hamburg. A recording contract with Polydor Records and released a live album called Alex Harvey and His Soul Band, in 1963.
The recording took place in an empty theatre with the Liverpool band the Undertakers (although some authorities credit "Kingsize" Taylor & the Dominos) both playing and acting as the audience. The album is now highly sought after and considered to be one of the better live recordings of that era. A couple of singles came from the album, an excellent cover version of Willie Dixons’ “I just want to make love to you”, which is in my opinion, superior to the Rolling Stones version; and a brilliant cover of Muddy Waters' "Got My Mojo Workin'".
Alex left the band in 1965 and recorded an album with his younger brother Les, the album was called The Blues.
Back in Glasgow a year later the Harvey brothers teamed with local musicians (including Bill Patrick and singer Isobel Bond) to form the Blues Council but the group soon disbanded and Alex briefly joined Giant Moth a psychedelic band.
By 1967, he had found steadier work in the backup band for the London production of Hair. Three years later he released another solo effort, Roman Wall Blues, but it failed to make a commercial impact.
Just as Alex was rethinking his career he met Glasgow’s progressive rockers Tear Gas.
Together they metamorphosed into the Sensational Alex Harvey Band in 1972. (SAHB) line up was guitarist Zal Cleminson ('Pierrot' image of white-painted clown make-up), bassist Chris Glen, and the cousins Ted and Hugh McKenna, on drums and keyboards respectively and Alex on vocals. The band gave a good sound and all were accomplished musicians who would be happy on stage performing old pop songs, Broadway standards, folk music and heavy rock. Their live act was amazing with Alex’s performances a combination of musical and verbal flair coached in both humour and sincerity with songs which often contained messages and morals.
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band scored a couple of chart hits in the UK "Delilah", a re-make of the Tom Jones hit, and also with "The Boston Tea Party".
In 1974 the band released the Next album.
SAHB also made several concept albums including The Impossible Dream and Tomorrow Belongs To Me. Their live act also featured a tale of "Vambo", an urban superhero who was the subject of some of his more energetic numbers.
Alex's physical performances took its toll and with back problems the singer announced his retirement in 1977. He made a brief comeback in the '80s with the Electric Cowboys, but sadly died of a fatal heart attack in 1982. SAHB did reform after Alex’s death and played at rock concerts across Europe. After the break-up. Ted McKenna worked as a band member for several artists, including Rory Gallagher (1978–1981), and session musician with The Greg Lake Band (1980–81); the Michael Schenker Group (1981–84); Bugatti & Musker, (1982) among others. He formed his own band in the mid-80s before briefly touring with Ian Gillan in 1990, alongside fellow former SAHB member, Chris Glen. Two years later SAHB were reformed with Ted McKenna, Zal Cleminson, Hugh McKenna, and Stevie Doherty on vocals. The reformed SAHB made one album Live In Glasgow '93. Before disbanding in 1995. Ted became a lecturer in Applied Arts at North Glasgow College (1996–2011).
Between 2004 and 2009 they once again reformed the band with Max Maxwell on vocals. SAHB released the live album Zalvation. Zal Cleminson retired in 2008 and the band broke up soon after. Ted McKenna died in 2019.
Despite being consumate musicians, the reformed SAHB (in its various line-ups) would be in the absence of front man Alex, a pale shadow of its former self.
Worth a listen:
Alex Harvey Soul Band
I just want to make love to you (1964)
I got my mojo working (1965)
Sensational Alex Harvey Band
Faith Healer (1973)
Gang Bang (1974)
Cheek to Cheek (1975)
Action Strasse (1975)
Boston Tea Party (1976)