I remember this surreal moment perfectly. My brother, Martin, who is sitting at the piano, had just asked Stevie Wonder if they could play Burt Bacharach’s song Alfie together. I am on the right, grinning like an idiot, worried we’d scare him off. We wanted him to play a 20-second harmonica solo on the song Nightingales on our fourth album, From Langley Park to Memphis (which went to number ﬁve in the album chart in March 1988). Stevie had been a hero of mine since I was little. I remember being blown away listening to his album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, and knowing that he couldn’t see.
Our manager, Keith Armstrong (standing next to Stevie in the photo), knew Stevie’s manager and asked him to play him the song. Stevie either liked it or took pity on us: he said he’d be in London in September and he might have time to record it. When the time came we went to a recording studio in west London, next door to one he’d hired, at 9.30am. His band were sleeping in the corridor. They had been told to be there the morning after a gig, but Stevie hadn’t turned up. Stevie ﬁnally arrived at 3pm. He listened to the song and had a go at it, then left the room and sat with a cassette player on his lap learning my song. He recorded it four times very quickly – twice in a low octave and twice in a high octave – and we layered them all on the track. After we ﬁnished recording he said, ‘Is that how you imagined it?’ I said that it was, and so much more.
I formed the Sprouts in 1976 with Martin, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti, and we released eight albums in 17 years, but we recorded many more, some of which I’ve started releasing. That whole time I spent years agonising in my head about what to do with the next six months: if I played gigs with the band then maybe we’d make our fortune but maybe I’d get so exhausted I wouldn’t be able to write new songs It was an endless dilemma.
I’m still chipping away at it, writing, recording and releasing records, but I can’t work with a live band any more because four years ago my right ear stopped working properly. Bass lines really hurt me and I started to hear random loud noises in the middle of the night. I was diagnosed with tinnitus It was hell for seven months but eventually the noises got quieter. Now to compose my songs I arrange them on a computer. It’s laborious because I’m recreating each sound of a band all by myself, but there’s a certain satisfaction when you pull it off. I tell myself that if I crash-landed on a desert island and found a studio I’d be delighted and I would make the most of it. I also have a retinal detachment in both eyes, which could have left me blind but I have had three operations and devices put into my eyes so I can see I wasn’t as scared about losing my sight as I was about my hearing But I’m optimistic. I’d rather just make music than dwell on it.