When Neil Grant watches a new film about Liberace – out Friday and tipped to be one of the best movies of the year – it will bring the memories flooding back.
The Blackpool entertainer and agent spent one memorable summer in the 70s touring with a man regarded as one of the most flamboyant and talented performers of all time.
For those too young to remember, Liberace was a musician so outrageous and larger-than-life he made Elton John look shy and retiring.
From the 1950s to 70s he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world, before excess both on and off stage caught up with him when he died of an AIDs related illness in 1987, aged 67.
Neil got to meet the man himself in 1977 when he was playing in a musical trio called New Faces.
“We were performing in America when Liberace’s manager invited us to his hotel room in Las Vegas because he wanted to hear us,” said Neil, of Lomond Avenue, Marton.
“He was impressed and said he’d like us to tour with Liberace the following year. But then a French singer got ill so we were asked to start pretty much straightaway.”
Neil toured America’s east coast for six weeks with Liberace and had, as you’d expect, quite a time.
“The first night we worked with him was a huge arena in Toledo. It was a sold-out, three-hour show. We did a 25-minute slot in the middle to give Liberace a break.
“We went down well, but the reaction to Liberace was incredible. They adored him. There were 3,000 people at the stage door afterwards to get an autograph, most of them wearing piano dresses. It was amazing to see.”
You’ve probably heard about the film out on Friday. Called Behind the Candelabra, it’s had plenty of publicity, mainly because Michael Douglas (as Liberace) and Matt Damon (as his ‘assistant’ Scott Thorson) get it on together.
Liberace had a long running relationship with Thorson though it was never publicly revealed – Liberace went to the grave denying his homosexuality.
“I got to know Liberace fairly well but I never met this man who was his lover,” added Neil, 67.
“All I know is Liberace was a great guy, a lovely man. He was good to his fans and he was so generous to everyone he knew, hiring a restaurant every week and treating everyone involved in his show
“I remember going to one city where he stayed each year, for one week, and always rented the same house from a woman.
“Each year he’d add an extra room, actually build an extension. The house was so big the year we stayed there he couldn’t extend it any more – so he turned the garage into a garden centre. The man was so flamboyant it was unbelievable.”
Neil, who did lots of television and stage work with the New Faces (you may remember them – they sang stuff like Danny Boy and Jesus Christ Superstar), left the band at the end of the 70s to go solo and now runs the Michael James Agency, finding entertainment for the hotels of Blackpool.
“It is good to be able to say I once toured with Liberace and it is a memory I’ll always have,” added Neil. “Watching the movie will bring back a lot of memories and the strangest thing of all is that it is set in 1977 – the summer we toured with him. Unfortunately we didn’t get to make an appearance!”