This music documentary has a familiar format and was broadcast on BBC4 in the channel’s Friday night music schedule back in August 2020. It’s still available on iPlayer in the UK. Producer, writer and director Simon Sheridan’s work is usually much more likely to turn up on channels with lesser reputations. His other claim to fame is a number of books and films celebrating two major figures of British ‘soft porn’, George Harrison Marks and Mary Millington. There are some positive things to say about these two characters and the bizarre world of UK porn history and its part in British cinema, but it’s still a step away from what I think is an important film about the first, and most successful, all-Black British vocal group, The Real Thing and, very importantly, their emergence from Toxteth in Liverpool 8.

The Chants (poster from the website of Malcolm Wyatt)

I certainly remember the tune that propelled The Real Thing to No. 1 in the pop charts in 1976, ‘You To Me Are Everything’. What I didn’t know or perhaps had forgotten was the earlier history of the Amoo Brothers in Liverpool. I feel that I should have known this history and I’m now grateful to have learned so much from this 59 min documentary. The documentary offers the usual collection of talking heads, photographs and news clippings and archive film. What is more unusual is the quality and the importance of the ‘witness statements’ and the analysis, most notably the Black music journalist Kevin Le Gendre and others including the singers Kim Wilde and Billy Ocean as well as other significant Black fans and industry figures. The two major points are that the origins of the The Real Thing are to be found in Toxteth, Liverpool 8, the home of the oldest Black community in the UK in one of the UK’s major slave-trading cities of the 18th century. It says something when a Black singing group was able to get the support of the Beatles early in their Cavern days and were also supported by the legendary Liverpool MP Bessie Braddock – only then to discover how difficult it was to get a hit record, even with this kind of support. This early group was known as The Chants who emerged in 1962 as a five piece a capella group singing doo-wop material from the US. Amongst the five was Eddie Amoo who also wrote material. The group were popular in Liverpool and were also booked in other UK cities and in Ireland. They recorded songs with several major record labels but just couldn’t find a hit.

Real thing Can’t Get by Without You at Rewind Festival, Scone Palace, Perth, 22 & 23rd July, 2017 Picture: Martin Bone 23/07/2017

A few years after the Chants were formed, Eddie’s younger brother Chris started up the group that eventually became The Real Thing with Dave Smith, Kenny Davis and Ray Lake in 1970. The group sang light/sweet soul versions of American originals and released several records without getting a hit single. Their breakthrough came as second billing to David Essex on tour and when The Chants broke up, Eddie Amoo joined The Real Thing. In 1976 in the midst of the hottest, driest summer for years they released ‘You To Me Are Everything’ (written for the band by Ken Gold, Michael Denne)and finally they made it – big, all the way to No.1 in the UK. In the US, it made the lower reaches of the chart but suffered from competition from several cover versions. In 1977, after several more hit singles they attempted what many other groups have tried, a different kind of record, one which meant more to them than simply a commercial entertainment. They released the LP ‘Four from Eight’, a title watered down by their record label which referred to four Black lads from Toxteth. The LP included the track ‘Children of the Ghetto’ and like the American soul artists they admired, they wanted to make ‘statements’, but it was difficult and the album failed to sell. However, ‘Children of the Ghetto’ was recorded by other artists and a version by Philip Bailey appears on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Clockers (US 1995). The Real Thing’s commercial songs were re-mixed in the 1980s and charted all over again. Eventually the four piece became a duo of Chris Amoo and Dave Smith who continue to this day, touring and still raising a storm. Eddie Amoo is interviewed in the film but he died in 2018. The film does explore something of the lives of all the personnel in the both The Chants and The Real Thing. I found it both entertaining and informative as a documentary and I was pleased to see it as an accessible way into an important story about Black cultural life in Liverpool and its presentation for a wider audience. Do check it out.