This barroom ballad by a little-known industry veteran almost made it to the very top back at Christmas in 2001
Back in December 2001, it took the two-headed monster of Robbie Williams & Nicole Kidman, armed with Somethin’ Stupid, to keep a little-known industry veteran called Gordon Haskell from claiming that year’s Christmas No 1 with his jazz-inflected piano ballad How Wonderful You Are. The most requested song on Radio 2 at the time of its release, the single’s success was proof that the best songs will always find a way to be heard.
Despite seemingly arriving from nowhere, Haskell had been honing his craft since the 1960s, playing with bands such as Fleur De Lys and King Crimson as well as pursuing a solo career. By 2001, his years of performing and writing had clearly paid off, not only with his smash single but also its equally sultry parent album Harry’s Bar – another No 2, this time in the album charts. Haskell’s final album, The Cat Who’s Got The Cream, was released in January 2020 before he sadly passed away in October of the same year.
Back in late 2019, we were lucky enough to chat with Gordon about his life in music and new songs. He also made time to tell us all about a most gentle number that seriously shook up the music industry…
“So I went home and I slept on it and I wrote it the following day. I started playing it at gigs and it was an instant success, so I knew I’d done something. That came in a batch of 10 songs, the last one of the batch I think. I was already in the flow, in the habit of writing every day and I was gigging, so I was in a very good place and I recorded it and then fate came along again and the distributor went bust. My first hit, the factory went on strike, the biggest hit, the distributor went bust. I could have packed it in there but, because I was actually angry, I did something about it and we pressed up 500 copies.
“I went back to [English radio presenter] Johnnie Walker as he’d played my old band the Fleur De Lys in 1967 and was a big fan. We’d had the occasional game of snooker in London, he used to shoot his mouth off and would get fired from time to time, so we were both rebellious people. We got along swell and he met my girlfriend when I handed him the record in a club in London, he played that record the following day because he wanted to chat up my girlfriend and he married her. So I got a hit record and he got a wife, we were all happy with that!
“The public went mad and they bought it without any press and it was No 2. It would have made No 1 had we not been pulled off of Top Of The Pops, which opened up my curiosity into how this business works. They didn’t want some old codger messing things up so they came down heavy on me.
“The song tapped into people’s need to hear something they could identify with, rather than being told what to buy. At the time gangster rap was the fashion, rap records and dance records, I flew in the face of fashion. There are billions of people in the world and we’re run by a tiny amount of people that think they know it all and occasionally the public prove them wrong, and that was one of those occasions.
“It’s very strange what happened with How Wonderful You Are, it happened the day after 9/11, that’s when it was first played and it’s been in kind of tandem with that event ever since.
“It was a great thing to achieve but, within three weeks, I’d never felt such a wave of hatred in all my life, ever. Not before then and not since. They hated me. The newspapers would say, ‘Don’t worry, he won’t be around for long.’ What were they worried about?
“It’s a song that I’m proud of and I still love it. It’s a great moment, something you can say, ‘Well I upset the bastards,’ you know. It’s one for the little people and it was the little people who bought it, it wasn’t the fashion crowd. London wouldn’t play it. What were they afraid of? It’s a classic jazzy song that Ray Charles would have done and they didn’t get it, or they did get it and they didn’t want that sort of thing around.
“It’s still one of the greatest songs in the set, it’s a great song to sing and I never get tired of it. I change the occasional note and I’ve even done a new version, as a samba, as I would have expected some covers by now.
“I think subconsciously I want to replicate it but I haven’t been able to. There’s a kind of invisible thread joining most of my writing together and it’s philosophical for sure. Bob Dylan is known for his political songs, I think I’m known, to a smaller degree of course, for the philosophy behind the songs, I’m looking for wisdom and I voice it and some of it is pretty sound.”