Hitmaker who became kung fu queen is not so rock ’n’ roll

By Paul Lester, August 8, 2013

Lynsey de Paul was the Adele of her day — a small, mousey blonde, Jewish version of Adele. For several years in the 1970s, she was everywhere, with that facial beauty spot and that inimitable breathy voice cooing songs that she wrote, performed on piano and produced. Not for nothing was she heralded at the time as the British Carole King — and, subsequently, as the precursor to Kate Bush.

In 1972, she was on Top of the Pops with her candy-cute top five hit Sugar Me. Her poignant 1973 ballad Won’t Somebody Dance With Me? — written about feeling rejected as a plain-looking teen at a synagogue social — won a prestigious Ivor Novello award, the first time a female had received such an accolade.

In 1974, she penned the perky theme tune to the sitcom No Honestly and in 1977 was runner-up in the Eurovision Song Contest with the misleadingly titled Rock Bottom. Now an anthology of her music has been released on Cherry Red, a label specialising in reassessing the work of cult musicians.

De Paul achieved even greater ubiquity via her affairs with Ringo Starr, George Best and James Coburn, to whom she was briefly married. It was a long way from Canons Drive, Edgware, for the girl born Lynsey Monckton Rubin in 1950.

“When you’re young you expect wonderful things to happen — you think you can own the world,” she recalls. “It was so fast I didn’t quite know what was happening.”

Her childhood was not full of wonderful things. She grew up in a house with an older brother, a violent property developer father and a mother who allowed her husband’s behaviour to continue unchecked. De Paul’s grandfather had been similarly abusive.

“Instead of breaking the cycle, he continued it,” she reflects. “When I hear people have had a happy childhood, I think: ‘How is that possible?’” Her father was “quite Victorian in his discipline”, meaning that “pop music was taboo” and listening to anything but Tchaikovsky and Beethoven strictly verboten. Indeed, she was encouraged to pursue a more formal classical musical training. By contrast, the synagogue the family belonged to was Liberal although, by the age of 15 — and despite having a kiddush every Friday at home — she had stopped attending.

“I’ve always strongly acknowledged my Jewish roots,” she says. “I just didn’t want to go to synagogue because I felt much of it was lip service and I wanted something with more integrity.”

De Paul’s miserable upbringing had one advantage. “It made me hide away and develop my drawing and piano-playing skills.”

As she left her teens, she also left Edgware behind to study at Hornsey Art College. While there, she found work as a commercial artist, designing record sleeves and posters. Soon, she had enough money to put down a deposit on a flat above an Indian restaurant in Belsize Park. Within a year, she was offered an £80,000 deal to sign as a recording artist with MAM, the management company and record label for Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones and Gilbert O’Sullivan. All she needed was a new name.

“I was told to change mine because they felt it wasn’t commercial enough and that it was too Jewish. It was actually Jews who said this. Remember, this was the year of the Munich Olympics tragedy [1972] and there was a lot of antisemitism about. They said if I didn’t change it, I’d be shot on stage!”

So Lynsey Rubin became Lynsey de Paul (Paul, ironically, being her father’s middle name) and before long she was creating hit after hit.

I'm not a born performer — I wanted to write for others

- Lynsey de Paul

She wrote for other groups — the Fortunes’ Storm In A Teacup reached number seven. And for other solo artists, such as number two smash Dancin’ (On A Saturday Night) for Barry Blue — formerly Barry Green — a “nice Jewish boy” with whom she co-wrote the song. She also had hits on her own. Trouble was, she loathed the limelight.

“I’m not a born performer,” she confides. “I’m friends with Suzi Quatro and she suggested we go out on tour as Leather and Lace — no prizes for guessing which is which. But it’s not something I ever wanted to do. I just wanted to write for other people.” She might have recoiled from celebrity, but she became one, hanging out with Spike Milligan (who rechristened the diminutive musician “Looney de Small”, much to her delight), as well as with Elton John and Marc Bolan, even if she avoided some of the pitfalls of fame.

“I’m not a wild person,” she says. “I’ve never taken drugs. I remember being in a restaurant in LA where the whole table was taking coke, and I just said ‘no, thanks’ and passed it on. I don’t even drink coffee. I’m horribly clean.”

She is reluctant to discuss her 1970s liaisons — including her marriage to Coburn — although she does allude to her relationships with Starr and comedian/actor Dudley Moore. “I was dating Ringo and ended up jamming between midnight and 3am with him, George Harrison and a bass player. I was on the piano,” she recalls.

“For a girl new to the industry, it was somewhat astonishing as I had bought the Beatles’ records when in school.”

Apart from that, she stays shtum on the subject of relationships, explaining that she’d rather not rake over old personal ground.

She is more open about her career setbacks. By the late-’70s, litigation with her then manager — the notorious Don Arden, father of Sharon Osbourne, who the singer recalls as “a complete crook” — restricted her performances.

After a quiet decade, she became a household name again in the ’90s when, despite her tiny frame, she released a self-defence video for women. “Every time I opened the papers there was another woman murdered, missing or raped,” she says. “I was so outraged, I thought somebody should do something about it. So I trained for a year in jiu jitsu. I got a Royal Society TV award and letters from women saying what a difference I had made.”

Her martial arts prowess would have been useful had she come face to face with the man who sent her a death threat and the stalker she had for a while. It certainly came in handy when she had an intruder in her house. “I came haring down the stairs like a little Yorkshire terrier shouting all sorts of politically incorrect phrases,” she remembers. “He reached behind him and I thought: ‘Oh, God, he’s getting a knife.’ But he actually opened the door and ran off!”

De Paul is today a director of the Performing Rights Society, which collects royalties for musicians. She has also been raising money for independent movies — one about Elvis Presley, another about Israeli military pilots.

Patron of the arts and kung fu queen. Talk about unexpected career moves. “People do branch out,” she asserts. Although It might be part of her past, she is delighted that her music has found a new audience. “I’ve had some fantastic reviews,” she says, quite taken aback. Then she remembers why she left the music business behind.

“Sitting down at a piano and performing repetitively is not something I wanted to do. I hate to be pigeon-holed,” she decides. “I like renaissance people with a broad brush of talents and initiatives.”

Last updated: 3:14pm, August 8 2013