Earlier this month (November 7th & 8th), Sydney Devine graced the stage at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow for the fortieth consecutive year, creating an entertainment record all of his own. Dressed in an immaculately tailored ruby red suit with white braiding, red shirt, white boots and a red rhinestone belt, Sydney sang to a packed auditorium of devoted fans. As has been my custom for many a year, I was sitting in the front section of the stalls for the first show, unusually a Friday night, rather than the Thursday evening I was expecting. Possibly this is a little nod toward the fact that the star of the show turns 75 on January the 11th next year! Anyway, as always everyone had a thoroughly good evening being entertained by a singer sometimes affectionately known as Steak ‘n’ Kidney.
Sydney Devine (his own name although it does have an exotic showbiz ring to it) has been treading the boards since he was in short trousers. Long before his voice broke and before he left school, Sydney had been “discovered” so to speak. Born in Mayfield Cottage in Bellside Cleland to a large family, his mother “Old Nellie” taught him to whistle. Around the age of ten or eleven Sydney’s ability to mimic bird calls was written about in a local newspaper, and the story was picked up by a national. From that he was invited to the BBC Radio Scotland studio in Glasgow, to perform alongside Ronnie Ronald on the song If I Were a Blackbird (Sydney was the blackbird). Another invite to sing at the BBC studio came about a year later when Syd was around twelve, who by then was already on the touring talent show circuit Go As You Please. The head of BBC Radio Scotland Kathleen Garscadden “Auntie Kathleen”, having given Sydney his first break then invited him to represent Scotland, in a four home nations TV show called All Your Own. As a result, a 13 year old Cleland boy headed to London (with his Mum as chaperone) to perform “live” on the fledgling medium of TV. This broadcast was seen by the legendary Scottish performer Robert Wilson, who then paid the Devine household a personal visit and offered to be a voice coach to Sydney and to find him a song to record onto vinyl. Shortly after this visit Sydney Devine had cut his first record with Betty Fitchett’s Wedding /Lunan Bay. He appeared on vinyl again (as a blackbird) accompanying Robert Wilson in Cottage by the Lea. Although Sydney cannot remember receiving any money for his recordings, he did well on the touring talent circuit although much of his earnings went on stage costumes and travel. The novelty payment of two packs of chewing gum (sweet rationing still in place) came from working in Stopher’s Dundee shows and then Sydney joined Annie Muir’s Concert Party in Carluke. So most weekends Sydney was performing the length and breadth of Lanarkshire (a large urban sprawl in Central Scotland) that included doing several Old Folks’ Treats shows. All this was going on whilst Sydney was still a schoolboy, so the seeds had been sown for an entertainment career long before the school gates closed. A job in a tailors shop beckoned, when news came that he had won the role of Micah Dow in Wild Grows the Heather, staged in the West End of London. Fifteen year old Sydney Devine was on his way earning £28 a week in 1955! The show lasted about twenty weeks and the juvenile role music had to be re-written, after Sydney’s voice broke mid-song during a performance about six weeks through the run. When the role ended Sydney and his chaperone Mum returned home to Cleland, where the teenager had to let nature take its course and allow his voice to settle.
This was the era of the embryonic sound of rock n’ roll and Syd was not immune to its lure, so he took up the guitar, let his voice settle and created a skiffle band. He then entered a competition to find “Scotland’s Tommy Steele” and came second to the more raucous sounding Alex Harvey. After the competition tour was completed (like the X-Factor road show I guess but more low key), Sydney joined the very Scottish Robert Wilson’s White Heather Group in 1959 and toured with them for the next decade. His appearance as “The Tartan Rocker” singing Elvis songs must have gone down particularly well on the American Army bases in Germany. Apparently one night the REAL Elvis was in the audience listening. Undoubtedly Elvis Presley has had a bit of an influence on Sydney over the years, as anyone attending his concerts can testify. He is heralded onto the stage to the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra and has worn the “white-spangled rhinestone jumpsuit” on occasion too.
With the untimely death of Robert Wilson in 1964 Sydney suddenly found himself a solo artist in every sense, even though the White Heather Group continued. He didn’t have the security anymore and during his time with Robert Wilson he hadn’t appeared on any TV or radio shows, having seemingly been blacklisted. A decision to tour the working men’s’ clubs was quickly put on hold, when a serious car accident put Sydney out of action. Oddly as a result of this experience, his indomitable wife Shirley found herself making a great success of running a bed & breakfast establishment. This gave the income security the Devine family needed to allow a healed Sydney to ply his trade south of the border. The working men’s clubs are a tough audience but Sydney managed to survive. I think a lot of fans who travel from England and Wales for the Pavilion concerts, remember his work ethic and talent from those days. A tour with Andy Stewart around the end of 1969/the start of 1970 found Sydney in South Africa. Offered the chance to do an album there he laid down over twenty songs. The resulting album eventually found its way to a Glasgow Woolworths store, where a young Miss Devine (no relation) got the album played. From there on in, it was the slow burn to career success.
As a wee girl from Cleland in the early seventies, I was delighted and amazed to discover Sydney Devine came from my home village. And I knew his mammy “Old Nellie” the woman with the fur coat I’d see at the bus stop going to bingo. The big revelation came one day whilst standing at the bus stop outside Bessie Allen’s grocery store. I was about 4 years old and had just learned all the words to all the songs from an album called “Cryin Time”. “Old Nellie” was chuffed when I gave her a wee compilation rendition of Old Shep, Cryin Time, Two Little Orphans and Come Home Rolling Stone. Then my mammy dropped the bombshell of who “Old Nellie” really was, and I felt like I’d met the Queen Mum. From that day on I never passed Syd’s mother without saying hello, asking how she & the bingo was and of course how Sydney/Shirley and the family were. When “Old Nellie” passed away I wrote to Sydney (c/o the Pavilion) for the first time to express my sympathy to him. I mentioned I was going to be sitting in the stalls Row C 1 & 2 at his next show and hoped to get a photo. At that concert it seemed he made a particular effort to come to my side of the stage and I got some lovely snaps, as well as a wee thank-you from the stage for the lovely letter. I was thrilled at this unexpected acknowledgement. Over the years (since earning my own income) I have attended Sydney’s shows faithfully, with the exception of a period of about 4-5 years when illness just would not allow it. One year I decided to write to Syd again saying how sad I was to be missing his show because I was poorly, and I wondered if he had done any videos I could buy from a catalogue. A catalogue duly arrived in the post with a wee note (in his writing) scrawled on it wishing me well, and hoping there was something I could get to cheer me up until my next concert. I still have the videos I bought and treasure them. My greatest joy was when Sydney granted me an interview in 2006 for my hospital radio show. Little did either of us know at that time, Sydney would require life saving emergency surgery the following year whilst in Spain. I think the operation happened in the October and he still appeared on stage at the Pavilion in the November. He was completely wiped out by the performance, yet still seen all the fans who stayed behind after the show. I distinctly remember being with two ladies (whom I’d previously met at shows) at the end of the queue. I had given them a CD copy of my interview and he signed the cover for them. We were all so concerned about Sydney we waited to see him into the car taking him home. In conversation as we waited, he had mentioned that his wife Shirley had refused to attend the show “to watch him die on stage”, and that she would be relieved to see him walk through the door. An absolute trooper who didn’t want to let his fans down!!!
And so to today and the Sydney Devine 40th Anniversary Show which had the usual format in the first half, band, comedian & singer. Starting the show was Sydney’s band Legend followed by comedian Eddie Devine (no relation) and singer June McCreadie. Extra fizz was added by singer/violinist Simone Welsh, who gave a scintillating rendition of the Scottish folk tune “Crabbit Shona” something I’d never heard before. Then in the second half came Sydney who can make every eye-brow raise, hip wiggle and pose speak volumes. The must-haves were there Maggie, Tiny Bubbles and The Answer to Everything along with many more as he didn’t stop singing until ten to eleven, having come on stage at ten past nine. As a sweat soaked de-jacketed Sydney Devine draped with the Scottish flag ended the show with Scotland Forever, I was overwhelmed by a powerful sense of belonging and that these were “my people”. There is a distinctive look about Syd’s audience who are the salt of the earth, the sort of folk whose faces tell the story of the realities of a working-class life that hasn’t always been kind. During shows the fans are quite literally one body and one voice accompanying Sydney. I make no apology if that sounds religious or spiritual because I guess for “Devineites” it is that kind of experience.
Sydney Devine is a curious phenomenon in Scotland who seems to conjure up feelings of either love or loathing in equal measure, there never seems to be a half way opinion on the Scots entertainer with the three octave range (a bit like Celine Dion). I am proud to call myself a lifelong fan of Sydney Devine, for without him I would not possess the sheer breadth of musical knowledge that I have. His music has given me much joy and I’ve looked forward to every one of his 24 concerts I’ve attended. So in closing I’d just like to say “thank you for the music Sydney, you are absolutely Devine, from Angela with love xxx”.