Beverley performing this summer
Not every star can say their fans included David Bowie, Prince and Vladimir Putin, but then not every star is Beverley Knight. “I knew Prince a little,” she tells me with typical restraint. “He was kind enough to champion me. I opened for him at the O2 in 2007 and did the after-show, And I sang at his Oscars party in LA the following year.
“David called me ‘little Aretha’ and came to see me unannounced at the Jazz Café in Camden. When I looked out and saw him I thought, ‘No, it can’t be…!’
“I thought I was the luckiest woman in the world that these great icons had time for me.”
Wolverhampton-born Beverley, dubbed the Queen of British soul, turned 50 this year and has been turning heads since the 90s with her incredible gospel-powered vocals. Her most surprising audience was geo-political – when she was invited to sing for world leaders, including Putin, at the 2006 G8 summit in St Petersburg.
“The Russian Minister for Culture took a shine to me. I had to sit next to him watching Swan Lake,” she recalls. “Then I was obliged to attend a dinner on Putin’s yacht, alone – I had to take my passport and my management weren’t allowed on. I sat on a table with all these oligarchs constantly trying to give me vodka.
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Beverley with fan David Bowie back in 2000
“The Scorpions were there too, so I wasn’t the only musical artist. Eventually I was asked by security to follow them into another room where I found myself with Blair, Chirac, Gerhard Schröder and Putin. It was terrifying, and fascinating.
“Putin seemed nervous of me because I looked into his eyes. He hopped from foot to foot. He seemed sinister, like Darth Vader.”
Knight’s own feet remain firmly grounded. Her late father Edward Smith, a Jamaican immigrant, was a builder who started his own business before she was born.
“My family came to Britain when my sister was tiny. We were broke, but he was very driven – I get my drive from him, I’m exactly like my father. My mum Delores was the life and soul of the party. She was an ophthalmic nurse at Wolverhampton Eye Infirmary.”
The Smiths were a Pentecostal family and young Beverley’s earliest fans were at church. At home, the only music she ever heard was the gospel and faith-fuelled country of Hank Williams and Jim Reeves.
“Sam Cooke mesmerised me but I didn’t know him as a soul artist, I actually knew him as a gospel singer. He did
an album called The Two Sides Of Sam Cooke and at home they only played the gospel side, not the secular side.”
At 14 she started writing songs and a few years later began to gig in her own right – “just for the love of it” – as well as singing in church. She was spotted performing at the Wolverhampton club Paloma for a pirate radio station’s fifth anniversary.
“It was all luck that I was there and got offered a deal. I was going to university that year – I was very bookish and still am – and I said, ‘If you think I’m good, you’ll hang on until after my third year of university’.”
She signed to a small label and released her debut album, The B-Funk, before graduating in 1995.
She said: “My plan was always to finish my degree and get my thesis done, but the white label of my first single went crazy in the clubs, and I found myself trying to write songs and write a dissertation at the same time” – on
Cults, Sects & Churches of 20th Century Britain.
A bona fide national treasure, smart, vivacious Beverley has chalked up Top Ten hits – like Shoulda Woulda Coulda and Come As You Are – and gold and platinum albums.
Delicious highs include being awarded the MBE in 2006 for services to music and charity, and singing the national anthem for Lennox Lewis at his world title comeback fight in Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas in 2001. She has also sustained a long parallel career in musical theatre, winning three Olivier Awards. The lows came with the acrid stench of racism.
Beverley with her husband James O’Keefe
Name-calling at school paled into insignificance compared to her experiences in Cheltenham as a University Of Gloucester student.
First was the bigoted landlady who pretended she wasn’t the landlady as soon as she saw Beverley’s face – but worse was to come.
“I was spat at once,” she tells me softly. “I left the campus and was walking along with my books. A car slowed down with a bunch of lads in it. I thought they wanted directions but when I went over, they shouted, ‘You effing black slag’, and spat at me and sped off laughing.
“I stood there in absolute shock, then I ran after the car, until I came to my senses. I was upset and then angry, but that hasn’t happened to me in a long time.”
Nowadays strangers are always friendly, if occasionally confused. “I’ve had someone say ‘I’m such a fan’ and ask me to pose for a picture and then ask me to sign a picture that is not me. Sometimes it’s Mica Paris, sometimes Alexandra Burke. Even when I tell them it’s not me, they say, ‘Are you sure?’
“Absolutely I’m sure!” she adds, laughing. “I’ve had people send me underwear and ask me to sign it. It gets lost! I can’t be signing anybody’s underwear. The next thing you know I’ve been named in court.”
Teetotal Beverley, a staunch Wolves fan, found the love of her life when she was shooting a TV ad in 2007 and bumped into lighting gaffer James O’Keefe.
“A man came down a ladder and said hi. He was gorgeous and seemed a nice guy. I got his number and I texted him – I’d never done that in my life before!”
Now her husband and a wellness coach, Londoner James was plunged into the madness of fame within months, as Knight was hounded by paparazzi while opening for Prince at the O2. When she had her hysterectomy in 2017, he was her rock. In 2013, Beverley moved into her parallel West End career, with acclaimed lead roles in The Bodyguard, Memphis and Cats.
This year she starred in radical R&B-infused musical Sylvia, playing Emmeline Pankhurst – mother of suffragette Sylvia.
Bev is celebrating the big 5-0 with a new studio album that spans the “kaleidoscope” of her soul influences, from 80s-inspired pop-funk to big ballads and northern soul. She brought in top-rated writers to work with, including Diane Warren, Ollie Green and Seb Coe (not the runner).
“They’re astonishingly great songs. I am so grateful,” she says. Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, featuring the London Community Gospel Choir, reflects her enduring optimism. “I find negativism annoying and upsetting – let people live!”
Beverley Knight’s new album
How does this self-defined workaholic relax?
“I’m relaxing right now, talking to you in the park where I walk the dog,” Bev says, although she’s also technically working. “I read books and watch documentaries, I listen to Sade. Russell Kane and Peter Kay make me laugh… and Richard Pryor. Eddie Murphy is the king of everything!”
She’s come a long way from being the studious girl at school in her “Deirdre Barlow glasses”. Bev made feature film Cinderella during lockdown and judged on ITV’s Starstruck earlier this year. Film and TV acting roles are in the pipeline, and a Vegas residency is a possibility; but first there’s the UK tour.
“It’s going to be joyous,” she says. “I’m not hiding being 50, I’m embracing it. It’s a privilege that I’ve got to this stage of my career.
“I’m here, I’m grateful for it and grateful the public still want to see me. So be prepared to dance! A lot of the songs you’ll know, some you’ll only just have heard, but you’ll love them!”