In early 1986, record producer Steve Rowland was introduced to a bubbly East Londoner with a great voice, an infectious personality and big dreams of becoming a 'pop star'. After a difficult time personally, Mel was taking control of her life and embarking upon a quest to make her dreams a reality, and Steve played a integral role in both Mel and her sister Kim's imminent success. Here Steve recalls the timeline from his first meeting with Mel to negotiating a deal for the girls with Supreme Records, and he shares his memories of two "wonderful girls" who he would have done anything for.
Hi Steve, thank you so much for agreeing to chat with us.
It's my pleasure.
To start off, could you tell us how you met Mel?
I had asked the music manager Alan Whitehead to meet me in a club in London called The Volbone, where I used to run a show on Monday nights. The Volbone was a pretty famous venue back then and was seen as the ‘in club', kinda like CBGB's or The Palladium in New York. The Volbone had a stage, so I would have six or seven acts come in and perform for different agents and managers to see if they were interested in taking them on. Alan had wanted to discuss another act with me that night, and he had brought Mel along as she was singing lead in his act The Glamour Girl Roadshow, at the time. Mel was a wonderful, wonderful girl – an absolutely sensational girl.
What led to you recording the initial demos with Mel?
Well, that night at The Volbone, the three of us were sitting at a table talking about what we were all doing, and I could tell that Mel would make a great pop star - with her looks and personality - so I said to her, ‘Hey Mel, have you ever thought of becoming a pop singer?’ Mel told me that that was what she really wanted to do, and I remember asking her, ‘Really? Is that your ambition and your dream?’ Mel said, ‘Oh yeah. I sing all the time at home. I dunno how good I am but I think I can sing pretty well.' I turned to Alan and said, 'Let’s put her in the studio and see what she sings like.' Mel was all for it so Alan bought a couple of those tracks you put into a karaoke machine and then sing along to, and we went to my friend's recording studio in Southend, and put her voice down.
Did Mel require any vocal preparation or training before you started to record those very first demos, and how long were you working with her before they were offered out to record companies?
No she did not! Mel had a great voice and a great aptitude for singing, believe me. We didn’t have any record deals at that point but my friend had actually written a song called Where Is Love that he thought would be a good track that we could take to a record company. So I put Mel's voice on it and we went down to Supreme Records to play it to Nick East. That is the difference between then and now. Music deals were done a lot differently in those days. There was no downloading, there was no doing anything on the computer, there was no digital studio work or anything. You used to have to find somebody, and take them in the studio to make a demo, and then you would present that demo to the record company. That was how it worked. It doesn’t work like that now.
Why Supreme Records?
I was doing business with Supreme Records at that time and Nick East, who was the Managing Director, was always asking me if I knew of anybody new, or any unsigned dance groups, so the first place that me and Alan went was to Supreme. I remember saying, ‘Nick, I am not gonna give you any hype and I am not gonna give you any kind of sales pitch. I’m just gonna show you Mel's picture and play you this cassette' (Laughs). Anyway, Nick listened and, halfway through it, he was jumping up and down saying, 'this is great'!
Until very recently, we fans had little experience of Mel’s solo vocal performances. Having recorded her in the studio, how would you rate Mel's vocal ability?
Oh, Mel was a sensational singer. She had a great voice; a really great voice! It was so very soulful, and you can’t learn that. That has to be natural, and Mel was a natural. She was as natural as someone like Beyonce. Had Mel lived, she would have been a huge star, believe me, because she had the looks, she had the personality and she certainly had the vocal ability.
Yet Nick chose not to sign Mel as a solo artist. Why do you think that was?
Well, Nick loved the tape and Mel's picture; he absolutely loved them, but he really wanted to find a double act. Supreme had Princess under contract at that time and they had had a hit record with Say I'm Your Number One, but Nick said that she was acting up and they were having problems with her management. Nick really wanted Mel but it made no sense to sign another solo female act when he already had Princess, so he asked if I could come up with someone else to form a duo with her. As I said, Mel had been singing with the Glamour Girl Roadshow dance troop that Alan Whitehead was playing in the clubs, all over the country, and she was doing certain numbers in the show with a little blonde girl. Alan Whitehead suggested adding her and he showed Nick her picture, but she was only about 5'2" and Mel was about 5'6", and so the two of them didn’t really look like an act. Nick was adamant that he wanted to sign Mel but he didn’t think the blonde girl looked right - and to be honest, the blonde girl couldn’t sing as well as Mel anyway. Mel was a natural! That's when Nick asked if there was anybody else. About two days later, I got a hold of Mel, and I explained what they had said at the record company, and I asked her if, by any chance, she knew anyone who looked like her and could sing. I kinda made a joke out of it and asked her if there were any more at home like her, and she said, ‘Well yeah, as a matter of fact I do - my sister - and she is better than me. She is a brilliant singer and she is gorgeous. She's better looking than me!’ Better?? I almost fell over (laughs). I was absolutely blown over! So that’s how it all happened. Looking back, I guess, if I hadn't met Alan that night, and he hadn't brought Mel along, then there wouldn't have been any ‘Mel & Kim’. There may have been Mel and Kim separately at some other time, but it certainly wouldn’t have been ‘Mel AND Kim.'
With Kim now involved, did you have to record a new set of tracks for the girls' demo?
No. All the other demo tracks we did stayed as Mel solo, but we took both girls down to the studio in Southend and Mel re-sang my friend's song with Kim. I remember going back to Supreme Records and playing the re-recorded tape of Where Is Love for Nick East. He was overjoyed, and said he wanted to sign them!' I had already shown Nick Mel's picture, but he hadn't seen Kim, and I remember saying, 'But you haven’t seen the other sister!' Nick didn't care. He was desperate to sign them! So that’s how they became ‘Mel & Kim’. It was originally just Mel on the demos, but the act became ‘Mel & Kim' after that demo of Where Is Love was re-recorded. When I played Nick that demo, he loved the sound of the way the two girls sang, and they were signed within a few weeks.
Did you plan to continue producing for the girls after they were signed?
No. After they were signed to Supreme, Nick asked me if I minded if he turned the project over to Pete Waterman. I had a lot of work on at that time, and Pete Waterman had already had a string of dance hits. He was the star producer at that time, so if anybody was gonna make hit records with those girls, it was gonna be him. I retained a percentage of the first three years of the records' sales, so I was happy. It was great.
Were you surprised with the Chicago-House style of music that the Mel & Kim's singles used, and what did you think of their single releases?
Oh, I thought that the singles that came up were fantastic – absolutely fantastic! When Pete Waterman took over, that’s the kind of music that he was doing so I wasn't surprised with the sound at all. I was thrilled. You see, I had already made up my mind that Mel & Kim were both real disco dance queens and I believed that was where they belonged. I always looked upon Mel as a Donna Summer type, you know? She was as good as Donna Summer, and so that is where I always thought it should go. But Mel really wanted to do more RnB, and so she wanted to make sure that she could get a couple of tracks out where she was singing the kind of stuff that she wanted to sing. That said, they had three big hits with Pete, with that dance direction... and then Mel got sick, of course.
So, Mel was keen to record more RnB tracks?
Yes, but you have to understand something. When an act is as successful with a specific type of music, as Mel & Kim were successful - even although Mel wanted to sing RnB and soul - they did the right thing to keep the act successful. They were getting great sales and an amazing reaction all over Europe, and all over the UK, so I think they did the right thing. With the dance/pop stuff, people often assume that it is not credible. With Mel & Kim, all the kids loved it and everybody bought it, but the ones that are really cool - the hip kids - considered it to be non-credible, so there was always that problem. When you do pop stuff and it's successful, you don’t always get the respect of the ‘real music' people, you know what I’m saying? You have to be cool, and you have to be hip, and being ‘pop' and selling loads of records isn't always seen as a credible thing to the people that feel that they are above it.
Music of every genre is there to be enjoyed, and should be inclusive. Yet it does often appear to come with a perceived exclusivity.
Well, we had that problem when it came to getting the Mel & Kim records played here in America. They were played in England and in Europe and so on, but in America, they weren’t playing dance music on the RnB stations at that time and we really came up against it. They just wouldn’t budge! The reason they gave was that the girls were 'mixed race'. They felt that were 'too white' and 'too pop'. They were not 'black enough' for the RnB stations.
That’s the story we got. Whether it’s true or whether it isn’t, I don’t know. I mean, that’s the music business. That’s the way people are, so what can you say?
After Mel & Kim’s success took off, did you stay in contact with them?
No, no, I left it completely to Pete Waterman out of respect to him. I knew Pete and I didn't wanna interfere or call up and say anything. I saw them (Mel & Kim) a couple of times, and I said to them that how great they were doing and how happy I was for them, but I didn’t push it! That’s probably my biggest problem, because I do believe that I could have been much more successful in life had I pushed myself in that kind of direction more, but I always, kind of, stayed in the background, you know? Even when I was singing with Family Dogg, I still didn’t push it. Maybe that was my mistake, I don’t know, but that’s why I probably didn’t try to keep in touch. I just let it go.
Were you aware that Mel had already been ill and, if so, were you concerned when the press stories began to circulate about her suffering a back injury?
Yes, I was concerned. Alan Whitehead had told me that Mel had cancer before, so I was aware of it, but she looked fine and everything was great. I think that the back injury was linked to her illness. I mean, she probably had a back injury because she was weak from the cancer. In those days, they didn’t treat cancer as well as they do now, so she still had the cancer in her system and it was just a certainty that it was gonna return, and tragically it did. It was terrible what happened when Mel got sick and they published those pictures in The News Of The World. It was just so sad. She was such a beautiful, talented girl. It was awful! To the press, they were both beautiful, beautiful girls with a huge number of fans, and they loved the paparazzi taking photographs, because those photographs appeared everywhere. So I guess, in a way, they encouraged the press. I mean, if they were alternative kind of singers then they wouldn’t have got that kind of press coverage, but it was right in the middle of the dance craze at the time and that was what everybody wanted. Mel & Kim were the act! They were the most popular girls in the UK and Europe for a short time there, but then the cancer came back.
Many years have passed now, yet Mel & Kim’s popularity remains strong, and people still remember them with great fondness...
Thank goodness, that’s so wonderful!
Well, much of this can be attributed to your initial work in getting the girls signed. When you hear a Mel & Kim track, or remember the girls, what are your lasting thoughts?
Well, I didn't know Kim as well as I knew Mel, though Kim was great! Hmmmmmm, I loved both girls, but I especially loved Mel. I thought she was wonderful and anything that I could do to help push her along, I would have done. You see, they were both so young when they became successful, you know? They ran around, they went to all the parties, they went to all the clubs, they drove around in a limo, you know, all of that. And I am so glad that, before Mel died, she had the tremendous success she did, because they were huge... absolutely huge! I couldn't have been happier. They were wonderful girls and excellent singers. Especially Mel!
Steve - thank you so much!