Over three decades in music, British soul singer Omar has seen as many lows as he has career-defining highs. He made his name with the 1990s breakthrough single “There’s Nothing Like This,” which blew up in London’s underground acid jazz scene before being picked up by Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label. Although he never matched its commercial success, he went on to release a series of mature albums that secured his place as a soul heavyweight, collaborating with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Erykah Badu, and earning an MBE for services to music in 2012.
But he has also suffered the sort of bad luck that would end lesser careers. His last album Sing (If You Want It) took five years to come out in the UK, after the label went bankrupt the week of its scheduled release; it was eventually released in 2011 on Tru Thoughts. His 2006 single “It’s So” suffered a similar fate, despite being a hit in the garage clubs. But perhaps Omar’s biggest misfortune was to be a soul singer from Kent. It’s hard not to think that if he had been born in the US, he would be a global star by now.
The Man is Omar’s first album in seven years, and it’s a rich, soulful collection featuring guests including Caron Wheeler of Soul 2 Soul, Germany’s Hidden Jazz Quartett and Pino Palladino. To celebrate its release, Bill Brewster asked Canterbury’s most famous soul export to reveal 10 things you probably didn’t know about him.
1. He’s met Prince Charles.
I was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to music last year, and I had to go to Buckingham Palace to receive my medal. It was supposed to be awarded by the Queen but she was sick so Prince Charles did the honors. I’ve met him several times and we always have a laugh. The first time was in South Africa. You know that famous picture of Nelson Mandela, The Spice Girls and Prince Charles? I’m actually there, too. They cropped me out to fit that bunch in. He asked me to drop off a copy of my album to the Palace, which I did last week, so I hope he’s enjoying it.
2. Stevie Wonder has said, “I’d like to be Omar when I grow up.”
I first met Stevie back in 1988. My old manager Keith was Stevie’s UK representative so I had an inroad there and he gave Stevie a copy of my second album. We kept in touch and I ended up doing a TV show in France with him, where we sang together. Afterwards the interviewer asked him about me and, as a joke, he said, “When I grow up I want to be Omar.” He’d said he wanted to write me something but we didn’t actually get into the studio together until 2000. He called me and said, “I’m in town, let’s hang out.” So for the next two weeks we went to restaurants, clubs and hotels together and eventually the studio, where he put down this groove that became “Feeling You”, which was released on Sing (If You Want To) .
3. His dad, Byron Lye-Fook, jammed with Jimi Hendrix and played with the Rolling Stones.
My dad was a session player in the ’60s and ’70s and he played for artists like Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths. He’s told me stories of playing with the Rolling Stones, Doris Troy and Bob Marley and jamming with Jimi Hendrix. He set up two labels on his own: Jah Lion, which released my brother’s band Burning Bush, and Kongo Dance, which released my debut single. He’s one of these guys who just gets on with it. He had a Volkswagen van and he just loaded it up with white labels and sold releases to record shops that way.
4. He was once a classical tuba player.
I started out playing brass instruments and percussion. My next-door neighbor had a beat-up old cornet that I used to take to school. From there I went to the baritone euphonium, tuba, piano, guitar, then drums. I became principal percussionist of the Kent County Youth Orchestra and ended up in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I fucking hated it. Sitting and listening to brass for two hours, waiting for your triangle to come in at bar 128. I left after one term.
5. He released his first single when he was 16.
It was called “Mr. Postman.” It was the first release on my dad’s label and I hated it after two weeks. Absolutely hated it. It was around the time of Five Star and I had to go and do PAs with them. I remember having go on after them, so the venues would be emptying out as I was playing. It wasn’t a good experience.
6. He’s recorded a Stranglers song.
I recorded “Golden Brown” because it was one of the first singles I ever bought with my own money. I love the rhythm of it — it’s in 7/8 time — the sentiment and the chords. Funnily enough I met Hugh Cornwell, who wrote it, and he said it was the best version anyone had done so I was as pleased as punch about that.
7. He’s collaborated with more people than the Vichy regime.
In 1997, I spent some time in L.A. doing an album and a lot of things happened. I played with [legendary jazz drummer] Harvey Mason, and wrote a song for my favorite singer, Syreeta Wright. When I was working with the producer David Frank, he said, “[Grammy-nominated composer] Jeff Lorber is a friend of mine.” So when he came round to David’s house we were jamming in the studio. Then we went round to Jeff’s house and while we were there the brass section from Tower Of Power were in the studio. And this was same time I was working with Lamont Dozier. I’ve been very blessed.
8. Eryka Badu has cited him as an influence.
Erykah came to London and asked if she could meet me. I decided to do a version of “Be Thankful for What You Got” and I said, “Listen, I’ve got this track I think you’d be great on.” She came and she blessed me with that. But then the label was giving me problems over it, so we got another version done by Angie Stone. Then the label changed their mind and I had two fantastic versions of it!
9. His Fela Kuti-influenced 2004 song “It’s So” was an unlikely UK garage hit.
That tune was a complete accident. It started off in one direction, influenced by Fela Kuti, then I went to Notting Hill Carnival and was inspired to put a bit of a soca feel to it in the beats. Once the tune was finished, I knew it was going be a great tune to dance to, but I had no idea it would end up where it did. So when I heard it was big in the funky house clubs, getting rewinds four or five times a night, I couldn’t believe it. I just make music for people to vibe off.
10. He’s big in Indonesia.
I went to Indonesia in 2007, I’d never been there before. It took us a day and a half to get there and we were only there for five hours. There were about 2,000 people at the gig; I started playing “There’s Nothing Like This” and the place went crazy, with everyone singing the words. Wow, man. It really hit me when I got to the airport and I saw my face on the side of a taxi. That’s the beauty of the internet, your fans can find you.