From playing with Prince to meeting the Queen, Beverley Knight wouldn’t change a thing
With that voice and talent, Beverley, 46, should be a total diva. Instead, there is no one more delightful in the business. After years flying the flag for British pop and soul, she took that glorious voice to the stage, winning acclaim with lead roles in The Bodyguard and Cats. Right now, she has a new UK tour celebrating the songbook of Stevie Wonder and an album marking 25 years in the business, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall with a full orchestra. “It was heaven,” Beverley says with a sigh. “I get goosebumps thinking about it.”
We meet at her PR’s office on London’s Regent Street. She dashes in late, big hair flying, because she took the Tube and there were delays.
Does she causes a stir on public transport? “People are very British. Just loud enough so you can hear them, they go, ‘Isn’t that so and so?’ It makes me laugh.”
Many things make Beverley laugh. She’s a born entertainer. As soon as she could walk, her parents had her “doing party tricks and singing when friends were over, as well as my Margaret Thatcher impression!”
I can’t persuade her to repeat that one, but she does a hilarious version of her proud mother Dolores “blarting” (Black Country for sobbing) when she was appointed MBE in 2006 for services to music and charity.
“I couldn’t take it in. I wasn’t sure I deserved it but people pointed out it isn’t just about me. It’s for my parents. It’s their story too. A child of immigrants being welcomed into the fabric of British society. It’s the only time I ever saw my dad with a tear in his eye. Then I understood what it meant.
“We got to Buckingham Palace and saw the Queen. My first thought was, ‘Bless, isn’t she tiny?’ and I was in stupid platform heels, but her eyes are so blue and her handshake is the firmest ever. She really means it.”
Beverley with proud parents Edward and Dolores at Buckingham Palace
Beverley Knight back in 1999 with David Bowie and Skin
Beverley was raised in a loving but strict Pentecostal home by Jamaican-born Dolores and Edward Smith. Only gospel and the likes of Sam Cooke were allowed, but Beverley always loved a broad church of music, from soul and funk to rock and pop.
It became a problem when trying to establish her identity as an artist. “Every young black artist, even Whitney Houston and Prince, is accused of selling out if they veer from the stereotypical black sound. I was like, ‘I’m a musician. Nobody in a minority likes to be stereotyped, so why are we doing it to ourselves?’ I’ve never let my skin colour or gender limit me. Music is good or not. That’s it.”
When I suggest she really should have been a bigger star, she smiles. “Firstly I have to own the fact that I don’t know if I was ready. Back then, being British, looking like I do, with dark skin and my accent and my love of all types of music, they didn’t know what to do with me. I wasn’t exotic, or light-skinned. I just looked black.
“I thought the record company would go. ‘We need to make her a huge star.’ But with all those factors it just didn’t happen.
“Maybe if I’d blown up back then I wouldn’t have lasted? Every step of my career has been a joy, so I accept it all.”
Perfectly mismatched .. Beverley and husband James
Growing up in Wolverhampton doubtless contributed to Beverley’s staunch refusal to be stereotyped.
“We were used to seeing colours. We have one of the biggest Sikh communities. A lot of people like my dad came over for the heavy industries. Yes, the National Front headquarters was up the road in Walsall but the thing that separated people was money, not race and creed. We all mucked in together. London seems much more tribal. Different areas for different communities.”
She goes on: “I feel most British when I step out of Britain. Why can’t people queue? Or make a cup of tea? Where are the manners? But in Britain, I feel like a Wolverhamptoner.”
Speaking of which, she is happiest down in the stands chanting with the fans at a Wanderers football match.
Husband James, however, prefers the directors’ box. Together a decade, they are perfectly, gorgeous mismatched. She’s messy, he’s “fastidiously tidy”. He has no interest in showbusiness. “He just cares about what kind of human I am. He always describes me as being kind. That feels special to me.”
Beverley Knight at the Olivier Awards
They met when James was an electrician at a TV shoot. “I was so sure I’d end up with a big, strapping Idris Elba type, instead I married a lean, white man of Irish descent,” she laughs. “I saw him up a ladder, beautiful face, beautiful smile. We talked and I just knew… but I didn’t dare get his details.
“Two months later, my team saw him at another video shoot and remembered I’d been ‘fan-girling’ over him. They got his number. We had our first date and I was freaking out. I could feel something happening straight away. Within a week I phoned my mum and said, ‘I think this is the one, you and Dad need to meet him’.”
Time for another wonderful impression of Dolores exploding with excitement.
One of Beverley’s biggest professional joys was supporting her idol Prince for 21 nights at the London O2 in 2007. “I completely went mad after we met, but out of sight, of course. He was chatty and huggy, nothing like his image. After my first set, he grabbed me and went, ‘I want you to do all my afterparties’. Then he flew me to LA. It was insanity.
Beverley Knight with Prince Charles in 2018
BEVERLEY KNIGHT NEW ALBUM
“He wouldn’t tell me what for, even after I arrived. The next day he just said, ‘I’ll send a limo for you later, wear a nice dress!’ I clicked it was Oscars weekend. The limo took me to Elton John’s bash and finally Prince came up and said, ‘We’re off to a real party now’, which I thought was hilarious. We went to his house and he had me sing with him and Stevie Wonder! It was nuts.”
Of course, she’s too humble to mention the standing ovation she received from the packed A-list crowd. Not surprising when modesty, kindness and respect were what Dolores and Edward taught her… even as they faced prejudice and exclusion building a new life over here.
Fifty years later, their daughter is a mainstream British star. Does she think much has changed?
“I think I’m British, but does everyone see me that way? With everything going on right now I would question that. But I still believe that while it is human to resist change, change is inevitable. We just have to get over ourselves. Whenever things are on a cusp of leaping forward, there is a big drag to pull them back.
“I’d like people to be kinder, drop entrenched positions. Try and see we are all human beings.”
BK25: BEVERLEY KNIGHT WITH THE LEO GREEN ORCHESTRA AT THE ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL” IS OUT ON NOVEMBER 8
Beverley Knight The Songs of Stevie Wonder Tour from October 1-14. For all live dates and tickets, visit: https://www.beverleyknight.com