Feb 28 2011 By Siba Matti
Veteran comic Lenny Henry visits the Beck Theatre this Saturday (5) as part of his new music-inspired tour, Cradle to Rave. He told SIBA MATTI about his first love, learning to play the piano and life after divorce.
IT'S A sun-drenched but chilly Wednesday afternoon in Reading and Lenny Henry is busy getting ready for a show later that evening, all about his first love.
But the comedy stalwart, famed for making people fall out of their seats with laughter, isn't about to go all mushy, à la Mills and Boon.
In fact, his latest offering, Cradle to Rave, a 67-date tour which comes to the Beck Theatre on Saturday, March 5, is all about his undying passion for music.
"Music has always been my first love," Lenny says in his instantly-recognisable Brummie accent, having spared 10 minutes to have a chat with me.
"When I was a child, my ambitions were to be a fireman, a boxer like Mohammed Ali, or a rock star, just like Elvis Presley.
"The first thing I ever did on stage was impersonating Elvis, not telling jokes, which went down really well.
"Music has always had a major influence in my life – I grew up listening to artists like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Marley and Earth, Wind and Fire, on old blue spot radio which was so big, I think our house must have been built around it!
"I have always thought being a rock star is so much sexier than being a comedian, but telling jokes paid the rent."
Despite developing an early interest in music, Lenny, 52, began learning his first musical instrument – the piano – at the ripe old age of 40.
"I started on exactly the same day as my daughter, Billie, but I am crap by comparison – she can play Ray Charles, while I am only on grade three," he admits with a bashful smile.
"When you are a kid, your brain works faster but mastering a musical instrument is harder for an adult, as you instantly want to play perfectly."
Having just started to learn the saxophone myself, at 29-years-old, I tell him I can empathise with his frustrations.
He urges me to keep going: "The difference between adults and a lot of children is we play because we want to, not because we are told to.
"Music is the best medication – it's the thing that gets me out of bed, makes me smile, and sets you free – but its hard to share that feeling unless you actually play an instrument."
So what can audiences at the Beck Theatre expect from Cradle to Rave?
"It will be a musical journey through my life, from the womb to the tomb," Lenny explains.
"I only realised how massive a consumer of music I am when I noticed I have about 30 days worth on my iTunes, including really random stuff like Wombling Merry Christmas and Ernie The Fastest Milkman in the West!
"The first half will be about my childhood memories and how music has evolved – for example, I remember Trojan record covers always seemed to have a beautiful woman with an afro and something barely covering their breasts.
"You would never actually see the band on the cover, and that was the way records were sold.
"In the second half, I will play a bit of piano, which I am looking forward to, although I do realise I'm taking a risk!
"I will also discuss the compromises I have had to make musically.
"Music changes when you get married – Dawn (French, his now ex-wife) had her taste and I had mine – so we had to find common ground, such as Sade, Adele and Duffy."
Despite separating last year after 25 years of marriage, Lenny insists the pair remain 'very good friends'.
"We were together for a long time and Dawn will always be part of my life, not least because of our daughter, Billie," he reveals.
"Yes, it's sad we're not together now, but there's absolutely no acrimony between us."
Lenny has enjoyed an incredibly diverse career, including a number of serious roles, such as playing the lead in Shakespeare's Othello in February 2009.
But he has no plans to permanently turn his back on his bread and butter – comedy.
"I have been a comedian for 36 years and although sometimes I like to go outside my comfort zone, stand-up brings me so much pleasure, it's hard to imagine turning my back on it for good."
Tickets for Lenny Henry's Cradle to Rave show at the Beck Theatre on March 5 cost £24.50 and the show starts at 7.30pm. For more information and to book, call 020 8561 8371 or visit www.becktheatre.org.uk