On telephone auditions, academic indecision and astrological premonitions
It’s always a good sign when there’s a celestial plan for your interview. “About four days ago, I dreamt I was about to meet this Virgo person! Well you’re the second Virgo person I’ve met today and we’ve hit it off!” If Bono says you’ve covered one of his best known tracks better than anyone it indicates you’ve got serious talent, but I hadn’t reckoned on Pauline Henry having second sight as well. We were speaking on a Friday evening and already I’d sensed from her text messages ahead of the meeting a definite sense of respect and of wanting to do the right thing. As we get started the reason for this, and her instinct for Virgos, soon becomes clear.
“My dad was a Virgo, he was so clever. He was so smart and so well spoken, he was a proper English gent. My dad is probably the most fascinating human being I will ever meet.” Even allowing for family ties, when as a singer you’ve had top ten hits, a track you made over thirty years ago is still being remixed and you hold multiple degrees that’s quite accolade. “In Jamaica they would say he ran t’ings. When we came from Jamaica the first thing he gave us four kids, all four of us, he gave gold fountain pens. That’s how my dad rolled.” She was ten when she arrived in the UK from Jamaica as the sixties turned to the seventies. Not yet having had huge exposure to music from other parts of the world, it was in this period her musical affinities were formed. “This was of course the Motown era, which I still think to this day is the best. Not just Motown, just that era for vintage music. Aretha, Stevie, Marvin, do I have to choose?” Familiar influences perhaps for a soul singer but the journey from stargazing teenager to the Top 40 was anything but.
Without a particularly musical family context or stage school to provide a pathway, fate decided to lend a hand. As the seventies turned to the eighties, she found herself working in a hair salon, though with some particularly discerning clients. “I ended up attracting all the artists, like for example Boy George’s boyfriend Marilyn, and Leee John of Imagination, I was doing their hair.” Her clientele encouraged her singing, and then serendipity struck again when she happened to meet a man in the music business whilst holidaying in Tenerife. “We just used to meet up on the beach and talk about music. By the time I came back to England I thought ‘I just want to do this thing.’ And then I started to get lessons and started to train.” Her peculiar path to a music career continued, as on a trip to America she happened on a Colombian opera singer who gave her lessons. And then came a call that would change her life. “One day, whilst I’m out doing sessions, learning my craft I get a call from a lady I’ve never met, who says ‘I know a band looking for a singer and I put your name forward.’ How did she know me? I’ve never met her, I don’t know her, but it turns out to be The Chimes.” Having auditioned singers who hadn’t made the cut in person in Scotland, the band decided to reduce their expense bill this time by first having her sing down the telephone. A canter through Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody down the receiver was enough to convince the group to take the plunge and finally fly her up. The rest, of course, was history.
She would prove the missing piece The Chimes had been seeking. Their debut singles 1-2-3 and Heaven quickly became dance music staples and in the case of Heaven attracted remix attention for the next thirty years. Once again, though, lady luck combined with Henry’s talent and drive to propel them into the Top 10. She had previously been particularly enamoured with the gospel flavour of U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and naturally enough had been experimenting with applying a similar treatment to the main verses. “Our first TV gig was in Scotland and they asked us to do the single as well as a cover. Mike Peden [Chimes band member] turns to me and says ‘Pauline, what’s that song you were singing again?’” And just like that it became The Chimes’ next single, reaching number six in the UK charts. She laughs, “I’m writing my book, I’ve decided to call it Tales of the Unexpected!” But the surprises didn’t end there, as the song’s originator would publicly give his stamp of approval, stating that at last “someone’s come along to sing it properly.” Whilst she was flattered it wasn’t until relatively recently she understood why. “For years I never understood what he meant by that! Only about five years ago something popped up on YouTube about how Bono wanted a gospel feel to it, hence why they went to New York and the Harlem Gospel Choir. And then it was like tada! Eureka moment.”
Pop music careers, however, tend to be ephemeral and by 1996, she found herself without a label. With a positivity I was growing to admire the more we spoke, she saw this moment as an opportunity. “I thought ‘great!’ Because music’s like a conveyor belt, you don’t have time to think about family life. So as soon as I got out of that I had my daughter and settled into the normality of family life.” She actually found that motherhood changed her perspective on music too. “I just wanted more stability. You’ve been in the limelight and I was ready to just be normal.” Her appetite for music did return, but practicality intervened and with Venus in her early years and finding herself a single mother, her priority was stability. She settled into a happy life as a stay-at-home mum and became as enthusiastic as a part-time student as a degree in Law and a Masters in Intellectual Property Law suggests. I made the mistake, however, of assuming it ended there. “How very dare you miss out my chef’s degree! I did the chef degree with the law degree because I couldn’t decide what I was most passionate about.” Having a successful recording career and then gaining a law degree afterwards would be impressive, but at this point I was struggling to get beyond a rather feeble ‘Wow!’ The affinity with the legal world is clearly in the genes as Venus is now a law student herself at Cambridge University which is in itself a testament to her mother’s commitment to her parenting. It didn’t end there either, for Pauline also achieved qualifications in Spanish and Italian at the same time.
And so to today, where fortune appears to have settled her into two parallel streams that cross with the intellectual property aspect of her Diamond in Venus label, and the successful licensing of Heaven to soulful house music’s A-list producers. As an entrepreneur at heart she also continues to look for ways to help and encourage others both in the legal and music trades. She continues to perform, with an appearance scheduled at International Soul Divas tour in Australia for September 2020. At the time we spoke the Coronavirus outbreak was just starting to throw international travel into chaos (“No flights to Jamaica! I mean hello!”), but as one might expect there’s plenty to occupy her in the meantime. She’s been nominated for an award (“It’s called a Wintrade Award, and it’s very prestigious!”) and has designs on a reggae adaptation of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For if the licensing practicalities can be overcome.
And knowing Pauline Henry who would bet against her?
Martin Gale, March 2020