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'I feared cancer had stolen my voice'

    Going solo: Pepi Lemer has a new album out after many years as a backing singer
    Going solo: Pepi Lemer has a new album out after many years as a backing singer

    She's sung with Madonna, taught Graham Norton to sing and introduced the Spice Girls to Jewish cuisine.

    But in her long career in show business, jazz singer and vocal coach Pepi Lemer has never had a solo career. It was her ultimate dream after decades of backing and coaching other singers.

    The 72 year old grandmother started recording her first album three years ago, but halfway through she was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus.

    She feared she might never sing again.

    "I'd been on many people's albums, made my own with the band but never anything under my own name and I wanted to realise that dream.

    Victoria Beckham didn’t want my cast off clothes

    "But when I was making the album I felt something obstructing me when I swallowed."

    With her family around her, Pepi heard the bad news from her doctor. "I could not hear or understand what was going on. All I heard was the 'cancer' word, which for me equated death."

    She underwent immediate treatment in bid to save her life and career.

    "The word 'gruelling' did no justice to my experience.

    "I lived in a relentless round of chemo and radiotherapy."

    The love and support of her family, and listening to her 'first love' , jazz got her through. And after

    10 months of treatment and three more to recover, she said, "I'm finally singing again."

    Pepi grew up in Hackney, East London, and was encouraged into her career by her first generation Russian-Jewish mother.

    "My father came to the UK from Austria long before the war, he was lucky and my mother was already here. I was singing as young as nine.

    "We weren't a religious family, my father was a communist, but we had Shabbat dinner every Friday.

    "I've always been searching for my religion but I don't know why but I've never connected with a rabbi who has been able to bring it to life. Being Jewish to me is more cultural."

    As a backing singer she appeared on the same bill as The Rolling Stones and Cliff Richard. Later on she she enjoyed a successful career as the first vocal coach for the Spice Girls.

    Her role went way beyond training their voices. Pepi's instincts as a Jewish mum made her want to look after the girls at the start of their career, inviting them to her home in Hampstead.

    "I had a little Morris Minor car and would take them to lunch every so often.

    "Mel B was very embarrassed to be seen driving in my old banger so she would slide down.

    "One day I gave them a traditional lunch of smoked salmon bagels. They were perplexed that the salmon was not cooked."

    She said: "At the start, the girls had no money for clothes, so I used to bring my cast offs for them. Victoria showed little interest, but I don't blame her - she had taste even then."

    And when it came to teaching the band to sing together in harmony, she said it was a learning curve for "them, as well as for me."

    "They came from disparate backgrounds, had different personalities and were different vocally. Most of them had not left home, so were missing their families and they had to learn to curb any egos and find a way of living and working together. They were practising learning as a group, not as individuals, so I had to fit in to their needs."

    For four months, twice a week she went to their shared house, and worked with them individually, and as a group.

    She said: "My time was spent very intensely with them. As you can imagine, they were learning to sing as a group - so there were quite a few tears.

    "My impression of them was, and always has been, of a hard-working, ambitious and highly-motivated group, which held them in good stead.

    "I was part of their first team and we all feel so proud of what they have achieved."

    Unleashing the Spice Girl sound to the world was not Pepi's only gift to music.

    She once prepared Graham Norton to sing a duet with Dolly Parton and Jennifer Saunders for a comedy sketch.

    "Graham did at one point sound like he was yodelling which made us all crack up in the studio. Jennifer was a joy to teach, very understated and always wanting to learn."

    Today the grandmother is "thrilled" to be releasing her album Back2Front. She is performing in her first solo show, on June 27, at the iconic PizzaExpress Jazz Club in London's Soho.

    She said: "I honestly thought that I might never sing again. When I recovered It became even more important for me to finish my album because I had been given a second chance at life.

    "Finishing the CD became my motivation to recover, and complete my dream of making this album against all the odds."

    What do her family think of her returning to the stage on her own after all these years?

    "They are thrilled that I'm doing it but they are even more thrilled that I'm alive."

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