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Fathers & Sons: The Costellos
Fred Schruers, Rolling Stone, 11 November 1999
DECLAN MACMANUS took to the stage in 1977, an angry young man sporting Buddy Holly glasses and a strange name: Elvis Costello. But he wasn't the first MacManus to use Costello as his stage name – that was his dad, Ross, a jazz trumpeter and pop vocalist since the early Fifties.
"He had a ska/blue beat hit in Germany," says Elvis with pride, "and a minor hit on 'The Long and Winding Road', under the name Day Costello. That was the first time the Costello name – it's my great-grandmother's name – kind of like emerged from our family."
Music runs deep in the MacManus family – Elvis' grandfather learned trumpet in an English military band and played aboard luxury liners during the Titanic days. Elvis’ twenty-three-year-old son, Matt, has started a band in London. Ross, 72, was raised in Birkenhead, England, and went from playing bebop jazz trumpet to winning acclaim as a vocalist with the popular Joe Loss Orchestra. For anyone wondering how Elvis Costello progressed from angry young man to Burt Bacharach collaborator, the answer emerges as father and son conduct what's clearly a very fond and long-lived dialogue about music and life. Clearly, for this family, there's no separating the two.
Originally my dad was a bop player; the dance band that he [later] sang with was based on the Glenn Miller model, that swinging beat. They included the tunes from the hit parade in the set in the dance hall, and they did a radio broadcast every Friday – not just the ballads but the rocking stuff. I've got a recording of this orchestra playing Pink Floyd's 'See Emily Play'. Can you imagine? So we never had that generational divide. I had my dad literally coming home and learning the hit-parade tunes every week; there's a record called Ross MacManus Sings Frank Sinatra.
We had a radio program in which we did all the hits live. So I might be Jim Reeves, or I might be Roy Orbison, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Elvis was listening to all this. The famous story about him is that his very first words were, "Skin, Mommy." He wanted 'I've Got You Under My Skin', by Sinatra. That and Peggy Lee singing the 'Siamese Cat Song'. I think he was determined to succeed and knew he would succeed. He had perfect faith in himself. Dec used to go out and do shows when he was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. He developed bit by bit under his own steam.
The New Wave thing, there was a little bit of, "Don't back down" – my dad understood that. The most crazy things that happened in my career were because of the speed we worked at, the amount of drinking and craziness, and things spun out of control. But my dad, my parents, always knew who I was – that I wasn't going nuts. I remember that the woman that dad sang with for a number of years, Rose Brennan, told me my dad was always either flirting with the tallest, best-looking woman in the room or trying to pick a fight with the biggest guy in the room, depending on his mood. "He was a terror," she said. I think that's where I get some of it from. A lot of the instinctive things I have about being onstage come from watching my dad and the discipline of that band. I saw that it wasn't actually glamorous, that it was sort of a job. So by the time I was a teenager, I wasn't all that convinced I would do music for a living, as much as I loved it.
I often say to people, "My little boy was stolen by the fairies and they brought Elvis Costello in his place." Because when he comes here to my house, it's just the family, we just sit and we talk, and I'm in awe of what he does, how he remembers it all and how he presents it all. But when I go to the Albert Hall to see him, I'm also saying, "I mightn't have done that just there" – a little bit like the passenger whose feet are driving the car even though I haven't got the pedal on my side.Elvis:
I have a fairly powerful voice; his is much more melodious than mine and very much more powerful, and I have the memory of him singing and the door rattling in the frame. He never had the recording career that I thought he deserves. He's always been an amazing performer, always had bold choices of songs. By the time I got to my fifth album, by the early Eighties, I wasn't listening to pop music – I was listening to all jazz. You can hear the shape of songs starts to change. And that comes from this broad-mindedness that was fostered in my household from an early age. He gave me some very good advice. I can't tell you the number of times it pops into my head in crucial moments, like when you get a rough throat or you’re feeling low – and that is, "Never look up to a note, always look down."Ross:
He doesn't suffer fools gladly, but my experience is that he's a very loving person. My mom was stricken with Alzheimer's at the end and needed twenty-four-hour-a-day care. He saw to it that she got it. He wrote the song 'Veronica' for her; her first names were Molly Josephine Veronica. She used to say, "You can call me anything you like, but my name is Veronica," and he used that. He phones from Tokyo, and when he's been on an hour, I say, "Get off the phone; watch your bill." That's me being Dad, you see. But the last thing we always say is, "I love you." It's a private moment, but it's the truth.
© Fred Schruers, 1999