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A Star is Born
By Chas Newkey-Burden
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2009 Chas Newkey-Burden
All rights reserved.
Alexandra Imelda Cecelia Ewan Burke was born in London on 25 August 1988. 'The Only Way Is Up', Yazz and The Plastic Population's catchy hit, was topping the British charts, and it was a fitting song to welcome the future pop superstar into the world, as the determined, upbeat message contained in the lyrics is one that Alexandra has cleaved to throughout her life. At times she, too, has been broken down, at her lowest turn, but she held on and believed that the only way was up. Her positivity was rewarded – she found brighter days.
The number-one album that week is significant and appropriate too: as compact discs began to outsell vinyl in record stores, Kylie Minogue topped the charts with Kylie: The Album. Two decades on, as Alexandra made her bid to become as big a recording artist as Kylie, the Australian superstar's sister Danni was among those who helped her on her way. As for the man who would truly mastermind her rise to prominence, in 1988 Simon Cowell was busy in the recording studio working alongside Pete Waterman, producing hit songs and beginning his majestic journey to the very heights of the music industry. Meanwhile, in the Heaton neighbourhood of Newcastle, five-year-old Cheryl Tweedy was sitting in her tiny bedroom, already dreaming of becoming a performer.
Born under the star sign of Virgo, Alexandra has certainly gone on to display some of the traits associated with that sign. She has buckets of the perfectionism and meticulousness that astrologers say are strong in Virgos, as well as strong Virgo traits of intelligence and wit. But she also noticeably bucks the Virgo trend in several ways. For instance, all who watched her emotional journey on The X Factor could hardly call her reserved and undemonstrative. Few would have wanted her to be either: her ardent, outgoing manner was part of her charm as she grew throughout the show and responded with visceral passion and joy at the triumphant conclusion.
Later in her life, weight became an issue for Alexandra when an X Factor judge reportedly told her to slim down, although Alexandra insists she only lost weight because she wanted to, not because anyone told her to. All the same, she made a success of it, so much so that the Mirror newspaper even used her as an example to other Virgos in their 'Star Sign Diet' feature. 'You're practical and, like fellow Virgo Alexandra Burke, you think things through before making any major decisions. The most health-conscious of all the star signs, improved fitness is likely to be your main motivation for trying to lose weight. Internet dieting is likely to appeal to the more introverted side of your personality.'
Alexandra is a proud Londoner, always describing herself as 'a London girl', and she is a quarter Indian, a quarter Irish, a quarter Jamaican and a quarter English. The district of North London she grew up in reflects this cosmopolitan mix. From the trendy cafes of Upper Street, where middle-class thirty-somethings sit discussing the arts pages of the Guardian newspaper and sipping Fair Trade lattes, to the rougher streets of Finsbury Park, it is in many ways a microcosm of the capital city itself. Alexandra grew up on the Caledonian Road, a one-and-half-mile-long road that is known to locals as 'the Cally', which has its own contrasts: the south half of the road is rough and ready, including in its length Pentonville Prison, Ethiopian restaurants and council estates, while the north half is more comfortable. Among those to have been born or raised in Islington are former X Factor winner Leona Lewis, pop star Lily Allen and actress Kate Winslet. There are plenty of music venues in Islington and crowds flock to the Scala, Union Chapel and Islington Academy to catch live gigs from a host of artists. Smaller pub venues such as the Hope and Anchor have also developed a cult following among discerning fans of live music.
It was an ideal home environment for Alexandra and her music-loving mother Melissa Bell, a singer of some repute, who found fame in the late 1980s with the sensational music group Soul II Soul. Coincidentally, Bell's route to fame would also begin with a talent contest, albeit a much more low-key affair than the one that catapulted her daughter to stardom 20 years later. She was working as a customer services adviser at the Marble Arch branch of Marks & Spencer, who ran an annual staff karaoke competition. Bell entered the competition and was the runaway winner. Indeed, so powerful and soulful was her performance that her colleagues, seemingly blown away by her previously hidden talents, encouraged her to make a bid for a musical career. Just a week after the karaoke triumph, she handed in her notice. She was on her way to the top, and her next turning on that journey was the highly regarded 291 Talent Show at the famous Hackney Empire in East London, where Bell was about to rock the house.
On hearing that one of the scheduled contestants had dropped out, Bell jumped on to the stage and gave a roof-raising performance of the Gladys Knight classic 'Memories'. It was an astonishing rendition, which earned her a five-minute standing ovation from the appreciative crowd. But, more importantly, after her performance on stage, a representative of Anditone Records approached her and offered her a record deal.
Before long, she had recorded her first single 'Reconsider', and the swinging R&B tune spent almost two months at the number-one spot of the BBC Urban Charts and four weeks at number one of the Kiss FM Sweet Rhythms chart. It was also a regular sound for months on the Choice FM station. All that radio play soon led to radio exposure of a different kind for Bell, who was invited to co-host a BBC Radio One show with Bruno Brookes, where she chatted and sang to the delight of listeners.
The next important call she got was from Soul II Soul front-man Jazzie B, and her place in the band's story beckoned. Whereas soul singers were the predominant influence on Bell, it was a reggae icon that had motivated Jazzie B. 'My dream was to be a DJ and play records at dances in our community. That's the only future I imagined in music because there weren't any black pop stars from Britain. But then Bob Marley came along and it was amazing. He was one of us and he showed that we could be part of the larger pop world, that we could move beyond our own community – if you worked hard. He kicked down the barriers for most of the black artists who are emerging today.' With such different influences in the Soul II Soul mix, the sound was eclectic and electric.
Having emerged into the musical mainstream in the late-1980s, Soul II Soul won two Grammy awards and had a number of memorable hits including 'Keep On Movin" and 'Back To Life'. Their look was a huge part of their appeal too: the 'funki dred' tag originating from their dreadlocked front-man Jazzie B. Soul II Soul had ever-changing line-ups and came to be considered as more than just a band. With their 'happy face, thumping bass for a loving race' slogan, they became almost a movement in their own right as their fame became global.
In fact, the relevance of the movement, not just to the music industry but also to the British cultural and political landscape, was immense. Journalist Dotun Adebayo wrote about it in The Voice newspaper in 1989, and unwittingly upset Jazzie B in the process. 'I said that Jazzie has a spirit that Margaret Thatcher would be proud of – and he got angry,' he recalls with a smile. 'Jazzie thought I was saying he was a Thatcherite, so he pinned the article on the wall and threw darts at it. But I wasn't talking about politics. I was talking about how he lifted himself up, changing the stereotype of the black musician in Britain and building a whole scene around his music and fashion.'
Political misunderstandings aside, this gives some indication of how significant a band Soul II Soul was.
And for many years Bell was a key part of the band, drawing high praise for her vocals. The Times' David Sinclair, in his review of the 1995 album Volume V Believe, wrote of 'sterling performances from several other female guest vocalists, notably Melissa Bell on a thoughtful ballad called "Be a Man"'.
Since her days with Soul II Soul, Bell has toured the world, singing alongside such musical royalty as George Michael, Liza Minnelli, Queen, The Who, Elton John and Stevie Wonder.
So it is hardly surprising that such musical talent rubbed off on the young Alexandra, whose love of music and ability for singing emerged early on. There was always music playing in the household and Bell is clear who the biggest musical influence on her daughter was. 'I was!' she declares proudly.
Alex agrees, citing her mother alongside the other musicians who influenced her as a child, both in the introductions she offered and in her own right. 'Mum introduced me to some of the greatest singers – Gladys Knight, Al Green, Whitney, Mariah, Aretha – and whenever she was on tour I'd always be listening to them – and her.'
At the age of five, Alexandra used to stroll around the Islington housing-association maisonette where they lived, singing soul classics, and so it seems her neighbours were the first people to – indirectly – attend an Alexandra Burke concert. Bell recalls her daughter's early musicianship vividly. 'Alex has been singing since she was five. She grew up listening to me, copying me and following my advice – I just hope she goes further than I did.'
But, of course, Bell's primary influence on Alexandra was as a parent, rather than a musical mentor, and it was quite a struggle for her to raise not just Alexandra, but also her other three children: Sheneice, who is two years older than Alexandra; David Jr, who is one year older; and Aaron who is four years her junior. That task became even more difficult when she split from her husband David, who she had married at the age of 20, when Alexandra was just 6 years old.
As a child, Alexandra would often ask her mother where Daddy was and Melissa would have to make up excuses, even though David lived just five miles away in central London. It was a tough time for the whole family. 'We were left to struggle, my mum, me, my two brothers and my sister, Sheneice,' remembers Alexandra. 'She and I shared a bed for years, which wasn't very comfortable. But singing kept me going.' These were testing times for Alexandra, as she was forced to try to reconcile loyalty to her mother with the fact that she missed her father. 'He was in and out of our lives,' she says. 'I hardly saw him growing up. He would call up one day then we wouldn't hear from him for months. Even when he was away we loved him dearly. Understandably, Mum wants nothing to do with him.'
These were also difficult times for Alexandra's mother, who was battling diabetes. Bell's own mother, Ivy, had died of diabetes-related complications in 1992 but, when she was diagnosed with diabetes herself, she says she buried her head in the sand. After the birth of Sheneice, Bell had first noticed something was wrong. 'I was tired all the time and constantly thirsty, which at first I put down to the pregnancy,' she says. After several months, though, she felt so unwell that she went to a GP for a test. 'I was devastated when the GP confirmed it was type-two diabetes,' Bell told the Daily Mail. 'I remember saying that I didn't want to die. He reassured me, saying my condition could be monitored and controlled.' All the same, she says, she did not heed the warnings that both the medical profession and her late mother had offered. 'Mum warned me about the dangers of diabetes but I didn't listen,' she says with a sigh. 'And just the thought I couldn't eat cakes and biscuits made me want them more. I could not stick to a diet that would have helped me manage my diabetes.' The combination of her mother's death and her own medical condition sent Bell into despair, which she tried to hide from her family. 'Every morning I would wake up, almost surprised to still be there. It was a very dark time. Like all my children, Alex was very supportive but she was still young. They weren't aware of how bad I was feeling.'
With her mother battling illness and often touring the world with Soul II Soul in order to earn enough money to keep the family afloat, Alexandra and her siblings were left in the care of their grandfather Ivan and a childminder named Pauline Harty, who Alexandra refers to as her 'second mother'. Her mother's travelling meant that she missed nearly all of Alexandra's performances, including school plays and performances. It was naturally upsetting for the youngster as she looked into an audience filled with expectant, proud parents, not to see either her mother or father there. A combination of focus and understanding saw her through. 'You know what? I've always had the drive to do it regardless. Don't get me wrong, it did upset me, but I knew she was always busy, always providing.' However, since making this conciliatory remark, Alexandra has been more direct about how hurt she has been by her mother's absence. 'Every birthday my mum would send me £50 in the post. She was away on tour a lot,' she remembers. 'She was making money for us and living her dream but all I wanted was for her to be around more. The one thing I hated was when she was away. I can say now, it's a shame that my mum never came to a school performance because she was always away. That's the one thing I really kicked her for. It was my granddad who was at them all. My granddad and my auntie Sonia were there for me all the time.' She has also admitted how upset she was that her mother did not attend the first week of the live finals of The X Factor in 2008.
Her mother's absence during her childhood is clearly still a difficult issue for Alexandra, who has given as many understanding, conciliatory statements about the subject as she has more critical ones. It is not surprising that the loving and loyal Alexandra should feel mixed up, and perhaps she will always feel conflicted on this matter. 'I owe my life to them, they're a very supportive family,' she says when asked about her close relatives. 'Every family has their ups and downs, and I thank God that we now are a secure family. We are a tight family and my mum is like my best mate, my sister as well, it's ridiculous.'
But, despite her mixed feelings about her mum's career, it provided an opportunity for Alexandra's first significant stage appearance. 'One day, when she was nine, I was doing a corporate gig in front of four hundred people and Alex got up out of the audience, walked up to the stage and said, "Mum, can I sing?"' remembers Melissa. 'She took the mic and sang "Coco Jumbo", a popular dance song, and the audience loved it. She had a kind of mesmerising star quality, even then.'
In fact, 'Coco Jumbo' is a rather masculine and mature song for a nine-year-old girl to sing. Performed by the three-piece German Europop act Mr President, it is a catchy reggae-fused tune that gave the band their biggest hit. With its lyrics about taking a 'pee pee' and 'treating girls smooth', it must have seemed an extraordinary performance from such a young child. However, the truly extraordinary aspect was the sheer quality of her vocal performance. As Bell gushes, 'That was the first time I thought, Wow, she could really make a go of this. After that, she took every opportunity to come to the recording studios and she did backing vocals on many of my tracks.'
The same year, Alexandra had another live-performance experience courtesy of her talented and loving mother. Bell had been called to perform in Bahrain, and had brought Alexandra with her. During one of the performances, she handed a microphone to her daughter and told her to sing to the audience. It was a defining moment for Alexandra. 'I knew I wanted to sing from the age of five, but that was the first time I got that kick,' she says. She sang the Randy Crawford number 'You Might Need Somebody' and absolutely mesmerised the audience. 'I love that song,' she says. Three years later she would sing it to a much larger audience.
Excerpted from Alexandra Burke by Chas Newkey-Burden. Copyright © 2009 Chas Newkey-Burden. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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