Graeme Airth is a professional saxophonist and former member of the band Curiosity Killed the Cat. He has been regularly busking on Marylebone High Street for about three years
Interview: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Portraits: Orlando Gili
I was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, but my family moved to Leeds when I was six years old, after my dad got a job down there. My earliest musical memories were of my brother and me going to a youth club every Friday night. He is four years older and was into fifties rock ’n’ roll, so that’s the music I was exposed to at a young age.
I always wanted an electric guitar, but dad wouldn’t buy me one. My grandmother was a professional saxophone player and she donated an old silver alto saxophone to me. My brother had all these rock ’n’ roll records by artists such as Little Richard, Fats Domino and the Coasters, many of which had saxophone on them, so I’d put the records on and try to play along. I learnt to play by ear.
I joined a band at art college and soon progressed onto tenor saxophone. In 1983, aged 22, I moved down to London to pursue a career in music. It was always my burning ambition. I just loved being on stage and the whole performance side of it, the lifestyle, everything.
When I first moved here, I got a job as a roadie at Hammersmith Odeon, loading all the gear, and would get into all the shows. I’d be at the side of the stage watching guys like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, just taking it all in.
Curiosity Killed the Cat
Busking was always something I could fall back on, knowing that if I didn’t have any normal work I could go out, play the saxophone and make some money. People seem to love the instrument and I’ve worked really hard on developing a great sound, which is the result of spending thousands of hours listening to the masters.
I first met Ben Volpelierre-Pierrot, the singer in the band Curiosity Killed the Cat, in 1985, when we were both extras in a Marilyn video. Ben and I got talking and a few weeks later, he and two of his bandmates came to find me busking on Oxford Street and asked if I fancied coming along to one of their rehearsals.
One of our earliest gigs was at Crazy Larry’s in Chelsea, which thanks to our manager was full of record company people. Curiosity got a record deal with Phonogram in 1986, but it was just the four main guys who were signed, with the remaining three of us being paid as session musicians.
Recording the album, Keep Your Distance, was exciting, working with several producers including Stewart Levine and Sly and Robbie. The album got to number one. The first single to do really well was Down to Earth, but they used a different sax player on that, the guy from Average White Band, who was a friend of Stewart Levine. That knocked me a bit, because I’d been with the band from the early days, so it was a bit awkward for a time.
Top of the Pops
But that whole period was brilliant. We did Top of the Pops, Pebble Mill at One and other TV shows. We also got to perform on the big circular stage at the Albert Hall, which was fantastic, along with many of the major London venues including the Town & Country Club and Brixton Academy.
The band rehearsed at Nomis Studios, near Holland Park, with famous artists of the day often practising in the other rooms. Bros were there, which meant an army of girls would be waiting outside the studios.
I’ve been busking on Marylebone High Street for the past three years, usually once a week, sometimes twice if the weather’s good. I have around 300 tunes to choose from and try to appeal to as broad a group of people as possible. I play the 1930s and forties jazz standards that everyone knows and just anything with a strong melody and some good harmony. It has to be interesting because I have to improvise over the chord sequence coming through my backing track.
One song might earn a load of money one day, but then you play it next time and nothing. I wish I knew the secret. Sometimes, all of a sudden, everybody feels the vibe. And if I receive nice comments and smiles from people then it makes me play better, which in turn results in a bit more cash.
A real community
The feedback from the locals is one of the main reasons I keep coming back to Marylebone High Street. My latest fan, Elizabeth, is a little old lady in a wheelchair. Whenever she sees me, she will come out with her carer and park up next to me. And there’s a lovely old guy, Michael, an ex-professional woodwind player, who will always stop to chat and throw me a few quid if he’s passing.
I’m doing what I love doing and it’s also nice to be outdoors. As a busker I meet so many interesting people, from all walks of life. It feels like there’s a real community in Marylebone, which is something that’s been lost in many other parts of London.
Sometimes I can be hired for a private function simply by being here. I do, on average, probably six weddings a year. I’m on the books with a couple of agencies, but most of my work comes from people seeing me busking. I did my first same-sex wedding reception a few weeks ago at Asia House on New Cavendish Street. It went down really well and the couple were very pleased.
I love football and still play seven-a-side every Friday in Battersea. I try to keep fit and I watch my diet. I have an 11-year-old daughter. I’m separated from her mum, but I see her as often as I can, three times a week.
Years of hard work
I have had a number of normal jobs over the years. I worked for a digital media company for five years up until 2009, but was then made redundant. That’s when I decided to do a degree in music performance at the London Centre of Contemporary Music.
The degree gave me a lot of confidence to know that I was finally doing it right, because in jazz there’s so much that you need to know. It was three years of hard work and so I was delighted when I received a BA with honours, a 2:1.
I remember something that a really good friend of mine, Martin Winning, once said to me. We were in Curiosity Killed the Cat together in the early days, and he’s since gone on to play with the likes of Van Morrison. Martin said: “Do you know what your secret is, Graeme? It’s your sound.” I tell that to anyone who’s thinking of taking up the saxophone: you must have a great sound, work on it, and listen to the great saxophone players. And that’s what I’ve done.