He’s about as down-to-earth as people who’ve sold 30m albums get, and speaking to him, it’s impossible to understand how he was mistaken for an American artist when he first launched his career in 1978.
“‘Elton Joel’, that was the idea the record label had for me,” he says, describing the piano-playing, singer-songwriter Elton John/Billy Joel mix he was touted as, which gave record-buyers the wrong impression for three or four years.
“‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’ is still the only song I’ve ever not played guitar on, but it just so happened to be my first single, and it just so happened to be a massive hit. It was in the US Top 10 for seven weeks.”
By 1983, he says enough music journalists had written about him to spread the word that he wasn’t in fact an American balladeer.
“I was late to the guitar,” he says. “I didn’t pick up the instrument ’til I was 21. Think about how much the likes of Mark Knopfler or Eric Clapton had done before I even started. There had been beat groups in the area, lots of them, but they’d gone when I started playing. I was on the dole, didn’t know any musicians... I definitely missed the boat, I think.”
He didn’t waste much time once he had his ears pricked by the guitar, particularly the slide guitar he’s become synonymous with. He went on to perform in various bands, including one in which he replaced David Coverdale who later formed Whitesnake, and also played on a Hank Marvin solo album.
His debut album Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? (a reference to the stage name his record label wanted him to adopt) was released in 1978. Ironically, ‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’ was nominated for a Grammy that year, and lost out to Billy Joel’s ‘Just The Way You Are’.
He didn’t find such success again for a few years, but by the time his eighth album On The Beach, spawning a hit single of the same name, was released, he was a star. When The Road To Hell was released in 1989, he cemented himself as a favourite among a predominantly male audience of a certain age.
In certain quarters, Rea makes deeply uncool music which dads listen to while driving. But dads who buy CDs to play in the car can keep artists going for an entire career. And Rea really doesn’t sound like he could care less whether he’s cool or not. “We’re playing all the old hits on this coming tour,” he says. “But most are new versions of the old songs. We tend to tweak and mess about with them. We’ve just got a new version of ‘On The Beach’ sorted, which is half reggae.
Rea, now 63, says the more recent forays into swampy blues have attracted a younger crowd and injected new life into his career which isn’t the only reason Rea should feel lucky. There’s also his health.
In 2001, he was diagnosed with cancer and had his pancreas removed. It was during this period of recuperation he took up painting, and promised himself he’d return to his blues-playing roots. It has meant his lifestyle has changed, however, with a fat-free diet now essential, along with a rigorous workout regime.
“Once they’ve taken your pancreas away, the rest of your life is dealing with not having a pancreas, which is pretty awful sometimes, but I’m still here,” he says.
When he’s not on tour, writing or painting, his other main passion is cars, particularly, given his Italian heritage, Ferrari. He hopes to have a Ferrari 156 restored later this year, which has been a 22-year labour of love tracking down all the parts.
For now, however, he’s just content to be on tour, and hopes to see the crowds on their feet dancing.
“We have big arguments with promoters over this, because when we play gigs in Europe we have half standing, and they are the best gigs because the people who like a dance can get up.
“ We’re not young anymore, and neither are a lot of the audience, but it doesn’t mean we’re geriatric.
“I read an article about 60 being the new 30 the other week and I think it’s very true. Our generation has not done what previous generations did, and just got old and sat in a corner.
“I’m not ready to sit in an armchair and fall asleep just yet.”
- Chris Rea plays the Olympia in Dublin on Saturday