Lee Brilleaux – the forgotten man of Dr Feelgood?
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Dr. Feelgood frontman Lee Brilleaux. As Wilko Johnson rides high in the charts, a new book promises to tell the singer’s tale.
Words: Steve Carr
Dr Feelgood were led not by one frontmen but by two. Holding centre stage was Lee Brilleaux, in his legendary dirty white suit. He had it all. Rock star looks, great voice. And on his left? Wilko Johnson, all bug-eyed stares and machine gun guitar chops. They were one of rock’s most charismatic duos – up there with Page and Plant, Daltrey and Townsend, Scott and Young. But with the long-overdue boost in Wilko Johnson’s public profile, it might be easy to overlook Lee Brilleaux’s contribution to Dr Feelgood.
Wilko Johnson’s biographer Zoe Howe is determined that won’t happen. Fresh from the success of Wilko Johnson: Looking Back At Me, a book that was an instant classic, Howe is using Unbound – a crowd-funding model – to launch a new book that will tell Lee Brilleaux’s story. After reaching a quarter of the target in just 48 hours, all Dr Feelgood fans now have a chance to secure a special first edition of the book – with their name in the back.
What was special about Lee Brilleaux – is he the forgotten man of Dr Feelgood?
Zoe: “That’s what I felt, although Wilko is always extremely full of praise for Lee and is always saying it was all about Lee on stage, and “I was always his guitarist” – he was always very gracious about that.
“Everyone you speak to about Lee, the first thing they say is he was such a gentleman. Almost without fail everybody says that. You’ve got this stage persona which was quite sexualised sometimes – totally alpha male, thrusting like billy-o – but he was a total gent.
“When the Feelgoods played a gig they would want to go to the pub beforehand, but they didn’t want to go to the nearest pub to the venue because they would just get mobbed. So Lee Brilleaux would go two blocks along and go to that pub and have a quiet drink. On one occasion in the Midlands he wandered a bit too far and he realised he was miles away. Time was ticking and he had to get back to the venue. So he saw a bus coming…but the bus was just full of Feelgood fans going to the show. He was such a sweetie that he got on and paid for all their fares…
“There’s also this really sweet story that Jools Holland told in the early days of Squeeze. Squeeze supported the Feelgoods in Southend-on-Sea and they were really nervous in the presence of their heroes when they came offstage. They’d just played a set and had been watching from the wings all drenched in sweat. After the show Lee Brilleaux came in the dressing room and said, ‘I don’t want to be an old mum, but if you don’t put a cardigan on you’re going to get a cold, ‘cos you’re all wet…’. Squeeze thought that was insane! Lee Brilleaux! This wolfish man onstage, just being really sweet.”
So how does this “English gent” match up to the “wolfish” male?
Zoe: “It’s all a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character isn’t it? They all drank a lot apart from Wilko – the drinking culture in the Feelgoods is one of the first things people think about. But I always think that if you are drinking that much and you are still a nice guy then you’re alright. The Jekyll and Hyde was more on-stage versus off-stage.”
So do you want people to contact you about Lee Brilleaux if they have a story to tell?
Zoe: “Yes absolutely. If they’ve got stories or pictures or anything they want to share then please get in touch via my website – the way I’ve got it in my mind is to make it a kind of celebratory compendium where you’ve got lots of different bits – I think that really worked with Wilko…”
Have you been able to tap Wilko Johnson for his memories?
Zoe: “Well actually he is the only person I have interviewed so far. He knew I wanted to do it and he’s been fantastic, so helpful and he basically let me do a smaller version of what we did for the Wilko book which was go through all his old files and shoe boxes and pick out whatever I wanted to use, which was really lovely. When I was first talking about the book he got the diagnosis, and he said, ‘Well, you better interview me quick!’. I dunno, there’s a lot of gallows humour…”
He said something similar to Roger Daltrey, didn’t he?
Zoe: “‘You can’t procrastinate – you’ve gotta do it!’ And I was being sensitive, wondering was this alright, and it’s Lee, and they didn’t always get on and stuff, but y’know, as Wilko is often saying, those things don’t matter anymore – you’ve got to rise above it. When you’ve got a diagnosis like that it makes you look at things completely differently. He’s been brilliant. He’s dealing with it a lot better than the rest of us are, you know? I have to say. I remember going round there once and I was just flummoxed by it and he said “Well what do you think it’s like for me?!” I said “But you’re dealing with it amazingly! You’re not the one… left behind…”
You can buy an advance copy of Roadrunner: The Story of Lee Brilleaux by Zoe Howe via Unbound. All supporters get their name printed in every edition of the book. All pledges include immediate access to exclusive content.