The Singing Postman - Rock 'n' Roll Suicide?
by Martin Knight
On the Richter Scale of Rock ‘n’ Roll casualties, Allan Smethurst barely registers. In fact his name, Allan Smethurst, barely registers at all but as the Singing Postman he found national fame for slightly longer than Andy Warhol’s allotted fifteen minutes and at the same time became a local hero to celebrity starved Norfolk from where he originally hailed.
Owing more in looks, personality and musical style to George Formby than George Harrison, The Singing Postman was rocketed in to the pop music stratosphere when Norwich record shops reported that songs of his, sung in a distinct and now disappearing Norfolk dialect, such as ‘Hev Yew Gotta Loight Boy?’ and ‘Oi Can’t Get a Nice Loaf of Bread’, were outselling the Beatles’ ‘Ticket to Ride’. Bemused and not a little frightened, Allan found himself courted by the suits from London, appearing on Top of the Pops alongside those other hicks from the sticks - the Rolling Stones - and having his most famous composition ‘Loight Boy’ covered by Rolf Harris. But fame and adulation did not sit easy with this simple man and not long after a ratings busting appearance on TV’s Des O’ Connor Show the dream began to unravel.
Allan Smethurst was born in Lincolnshire in 1927 but moved to Sheringham, a pretty little seaside town on the North Norfolk coast as a young boy. He is to this day well remembered by the town’s older residents. Allan’s parents were poor and his father disappeared from his life quite early on - possibly the first of a number of misfortunes to befall the shy young lad. On a school memory Internet site one pupil claims his nickname at the time was Smelly. What is without doubt is that Allan smashed his face in when he joined in the local kids’ game of jumping on the back of passing horse and carts and promptly fell off. The injuries were substantial to his mouth and face and Allan suffered permanent damage to his palate that left him with a speech defect which although not necessarily detectable in his songs was very noticeable in his everyday conversation. This episode may well have inspired one of his more poignant compositions ‘Moind Your ‘Ead Boy’.
Allan’s mother took up with a new man and moved with her teenage son to Cleethorpes back in his birth county. Allan was devastated to leave his friends, Sheringham and Norfolk, the county he loved and whose individuality and quirkiness he would affectionately celebrate time and time again in his songs. He experimented with a number of jobs eventually settling on a job as a postman; a living that allowed him the freedom to develop his musical and songwriting skills. Songs, which arguably all shared the same basic tune and structure, but with delightful lyrics and titles such as ‘I Miss My Miss from Diss’ and ‘Fertilising Lisa’. In 1959 he submitted a self-made tape recording to radio in Norfolk which was picked up by local celebrity Ralph Tuck who featured Allan on his Wednesday Morning show and dubbed him The Singing Postman.
Fame did not follow immediately but over the next five years his regular appearances on radio built his reputation in Norfolk and record shops became accustomed to requests for recordings by the Singing Postman but of course there were none. Perhaps with an eye on the meteoric rise of Mr. Brian Epstein up in Liverpool, Mr Tuck sniffed an opportunity – became Allan Smethurst’s manager and recorded him. EP’s (extended plays) were all the rage, The Beatles’ Twist and Shout, for example, selling so many it made the British Singles Charts despite its higher price. The Singing Postman released First Delivery and the first pressing of 100 copies sold out in days. Parlophone, the record label that boasted the Beatles but also had a history of recording novelty acts, took over the distribution and the EP went on to sell over 10,000 copies countrywide.
Rolf Harris, then a young bearded Australian singer/entertainer/artist ambitious and over here with a sharp eye for a novelty song followed his ground scratching ‘Jake the Peg’ with Allan’s ‘Hev Yew Got a Loight Boy’, and in theory at least began generating some serious royalties for the musical postie. However none of The Singing Postman’s songs appear in the chart history books sung by himself or Rolf. It was almost as if The Singing Postman didn’t really happen. But he did. Back in 1965 there were only two television channels to choose from. Half of the country would be watching BBC1 and the rest would be a tad more adventurous and tune into ITV. A peak time appearance on The Rolf Harris Show was enough to make Hev Yew Gotta Loight Boy a national catchphrase in playgrounds and pubs across Britain for a few weeks.
Meanwhile the impresarios wanted Alan for the pop music package tours that were raking in thousands as singers and bands relentlessly crisscrossed the country playing cinemas and halls to adoring teenagers. Allan did some dates but found live performing traumatic and he was even more mortified when screaming girls outside one venue mobbed him. The GPO (General Post Office graciously granted Allan permission to perform in his uniform even though he had resigned his £12 a week job. Even with the comfort of his familiar tunic and hat Allan bore appearances on stage like a man having a heart bypass without anaesthetic; he took to standing and looking straight down at the floor as he strummed his guitar or facing the audience but with his eyes tightly shut. He began to drink during the afternoons before a performance to summon up the courage to get up on stage. Soon he had a reputation for being a drunk and from local beer Alan soon graduated to spirits – whiskey becoming the drug of his choice. Somewhere in London Bob Dylan was turning the Beatles on to pot, in Sussex various members of the Rolling Stones were experimenting with hallucegenics and Mars Bars but in Grimsby the Singing Postman was pissed out of his head in the public bar of The Leaking Boot on Jack Daniels.
The Singing Postman soon disappeared back into the obscurity that had spawned him except now he had a rock’n’roll a legacy – a raging drink habit. Occasionally he made the local papers but this time for some alcohol fuelled misdemeanour or other. Once there was a very lively row with his mother, stepfather and a frying pan, which ended up in the magistrates’ court. He spoke little of his fame or his music preferring to engage fellow drinkers about whether they believed in extra-terrestrials. In 1980 he moved voluntarily into the Salvation Army hostel in Grimsby, Brighowgate House, where he wound his life down slowly.
In 1994 Hev yew gotta loight boy? was used in an Ovaltine advert and interest in The Singing Postman was briefly reignited. A collection of CDs was issued. The renewed interest in his career or the prospect of royalty cheques were not going to sway Allan again though. He was not about to step back into the limelight. Calls to the hostel from the media were met with a polite but firm rebuttal.
Shortly before he died in December 2000 at the age of 73 a visitor arrived at the hostel. The other residents were shocked but pleasantly surprised to see the ever cheerful and still familiar face from their TV screens. His black curly hair and beard were now grey but Allan Smethurst broke out into a rare broad toothy grin as Rolf Harris called out ‘Hev You Gotta Loight, Boy?”