From Robert Plant to Van Morrison, former agent and author Paul Charles shares his celebrity memories of life on the road with
Robert Plant loves to iron his own t-shirt just before going on stage, Van Morrison made one couple’s wedding day by arriving unannounced to sing their favourite song, and the late, great Rory Gallagher could inspire his band to create 20 minutes of musical magic unrehearsed.
Paul Charles knows of the habits and quirks of music’s greats, because he’s worked with many of them. As co-founder of music agency Asgard, the Irishman has gone on the road with some of the world’s biggest stars.
His entrepreneurial spirit was honed as a teenager in his native Magherafelt, Co Derry, where he would handle phone bookings via his ‘office’ — the telephone kiosk near the family home.
“I had a bunch of mates that I hung out with when I was a teenager, then five of them put a wee group together,” he remembers. “Because I couldn’t play any music or I didn’t sing, in order to continue to hang out with them socially I needed to do something.”
Landing his pals their first support gig (through a neighbour who played in a showband), Paul was appointed manager, and would manage gig bookings via the phone kiosk nearby — securing rock gigs as long as his mother was satisfied he’d finished his tea.
“It was a good distance from the house. In those days people would ring up, somebody would be walking past the phone box, pick up, and wander down to my house, knock on the window and say, ‘Mrs Charles can Paul go to the phone? There’s a call for him’,” he says, laughing at the memory.
By this point, the 15-year-old was developing what would become a lifelong passion for music. He still remembers hearing the Beatles on the radio for the first time. “On that day music became the big, massive driving force in my life.”
In the decades since, he has worked with many of music’s greats, building a contacts book to die for, representing Jackson Brown, Christy Moore, Van Morrison, and John Lee Hooker.
While on the road with many of these bands, Charles often eschewed the nightlife for his other great passion — books.
“I’m not the last person out of the bar. I love going to the concerts and I love going to cities. Instead of being too tired in the morning I will go to bed as early as I need to, and I will get up in the morning at the crack of dawn to go for a walk and investigate a city. And on tour buses or on planes I’ll be writing away, working on notes.”
In tandem with his career as a promoter, Charles has become a successful novelist. For many years a passionate reader and collector, particularly of British detective fiction, it was only a matter of time before he himself put pen to paper.
His latest novel, A Day in the Life of Louis Bloom, is his 24th novel and the second in the McCusker series. Set in the North, it centres on crimes being investigated by a detective forced by circumstances to come out of retirement. This time, his focus is on a bizarre disappearance. Louis Bloom, a lecturer in Queen’s University, nips out to put out the bins before settling down to watch TV with his wife. He doesn’t return.
“I always write the books not knowing who committed the crime,” he says. “I don’t want to know, because my theory is I’m not a good enough writer to be able to do that, to hide it, disguise the tension. I write as a reader, and I put myself in the shoes of a detective. I go to the story each day the way the detective goes to the investigation.
“You get a chance to go through and examine all these different lives and lifestyles. Essentially because it’s in real time as it’s happening, you’re able to keep a little more tension in there.”
He was inspired to pursue his dream of writing in the 1990s by one of his favourite novelists, Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse.
“I remember I used to read Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle and I kind of liked the classic detective stories, something whereby the method of the murder is a character in the story in a way. I enjoy writing the interaction between characters.”
While travelling as a promoter, Charles would use his natural skills of observation in airports and hotels, imagining the conversations of strangers through their gestures and body language.
He’s often asked if one success comes at the expense of another or if he’s considered leaving the music industry to write full time. “I find actually they’re both great for each other. I write most mornings from 6am to 9.30 and then I go to the office. I’ve found that for me that’s the productive window.”
In his years working in the music business, Charles has witnessed his share of class acts. One of his favourite stories involves Van Morrison and two astonished newlyweds. “I worked with Van for eight years and he was great. I found him to be a very funny man and he’s very professional. He cares so much about his music and his presentation of his music.
“We would get requests for him into the office to do different things. One came through from this couple. They were getting married and their favourite piece of music was ‘Sweet Thing’ from Astral Weeks, could they use it in their wedding? You don’t really have to ask for permission for that but because they’d been polite enough I sent a letter to Van. Van said, ‘Tell them that’s totally fine’ and I forgot all about it.
“About three months later I was sitting in the office and I got a phone call from the guy. He said, ‘That was just brilliant, that was just great. Van came down to the wedding and sang the song for us at the wedding’. That shows who this man is. But again, very private, no need to make a song and dance about it.”
Among Charles’ other favourites to work with have been Christy Moore. “Again such a generous, graceful man, very, very soulful. Sells out everywhere in all the shows we’ve done.”
He worked with Tanita Tikaram at the very height of her breakthrough success and she would be a regular visitor to his London home, to the delight of neighbours who were huge fans.
He toured with the great Ry Cooder. While Cooder loved being on stage and making music, he hated life on the road, says Charles, and would only feel content eating his wife’s meals, which she would send to him. “It was potentially going to be a major problem. Luckily enough the next day his wife’s parcel arrived on the door and he was saved.”
Over the course of programming the Acoustic Stage at Glastonbury for the last 25 years, Charles has seen showstopping moments, including witnessing a then-unknown Hozier enrapture the crowd.
Robert Plant, he learned, likes to iron his own t-shirt while having a chat just before going on stage for a major gig.
But one of Charles’ most spine-tingling moments was witnessing Rory Gallagher perform live. “He was a musician. He was a man who lived to make music. When he walked on stage he was transformed.
“I remember one night they played this really long American boogie kind of song. It was just brilliant, hypnotic, and afterwards I said to the bass player and drummer, who I knew really well, ‘What was that song I’ve never heard it before?’ They said, ‘We haven’t either, that was the first time we ever did it’. It lasted for something like maybe 20 minutes. That’s what his life was, was making music.
“It’s the same with Christy — he lives to perform these songs. To make a connection. There’s a connection between the artist and the audience that you don’t get anywhere else.”
- A Day in the Life of Louis Bloom is out now