Tommy Vance 
1943 - 2005

Born Richard Anthony Crispian Francis Prew Hope-Weston in Eynsham, Oxfordshire, England on 11th July 1943, and educated at St Marys Convent Abingdon, Tommy’s first taste of broadcasting was on BBC Schools TV at the age of 10. On leaving school he worked as a trainee hotel manager, before going for adventure and joining the Merchant Navy. While working aboard ship, he heard American radio and decided that was the job he wanted. After working on a number of stations, some without pay, he finally got his own show, broadcasting as Rick West.  

The name Tommy Vance came up, on KOL Seattle when a fellow deejay, billed under that name, failed to turn up. He then moved to KHJ Los Angeles, returning to the UK, ahead of US military Vietnam draft papers. 
Back in Britain, he joined Radio Caroline South in January 1966, taking a break to work for Radio Luxembourg, before going back to Caroline. In Summer 1967, he moved to Radio London for the last few weeks before the close-down. He presented the final Radio London Fab Forty Show. 

Since then Tommy has worked for BBC Radio 1, Capital Radio, Monte Carlo International, BBC GLR, as well as playing the part of a disc-jockey in the 1975 Slade film Flame. He also tried his hand at singing, releasing a number of records, including a cover of the Stones Off the Hook  (Columbia DB 8062. 1966), and Silhouettes, better known by Herman's Hermits, as Shades

 Tommy also worked on British Forces radio for many years with a rock show. He joined Virgin Radio in April 1993. He later hosted a television version of his Rock Show on satellite channel VH1. Most recently, he could be heard on Virgin's digital classic rock station, and in December last year he was the featured deejay at a concert at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. 

Tommy Vance died in hospital, three days after suffering a stroke in the early hours of 6th March 2005.

 Tommy Vance
Interview

Shortly after Tommy Vance joined London's Virgin Radio, Chris Edwards visited Tommy at his home, and asked how he  started out in radio?
I started out in radio as a listener and spent all my youth listening to the radio, joined the Merchant Navy. I was born in this country but ran away to sea aged 16 and went to New York city and was based there for two years. I heard Alan Freed on WINS in New York city and subsequently every DJ up and down the East coast on WSM and all the 50kW clear-channel radio stations on medium wave in my cabin on the Fort Avalon which was a 4,500-ton cargo vessel that used to ply between New York city and St. John's, Newfoundland all the time, stopping at Halifax, Nova Scotia and Saint John, Brunswick, St. John, Newfoundland and Corner Brook, Newfoundland and back to New York. So I heard all this stuff happening on the radio and thoroughly enjoyed it and at that stage of the game, I decided to attempt to get in to it which did not happen until I was about 21. I came back here when I was 18 then I went back to North America and lived there and worked at a radio station for no money at all from midnight to 6 a.m. helping a guy called Jim Thom, who went on to become a Professor of Communications at Columbia University, New York, and I used to put together all his material while he was doing his PhD whilst he was on the air! I used to do all his programming for him answer the phones, etc. and eventually I got a job on a very small radio station in Washington State.

I think you were known as Rick West at one time?

I was known as Rick West on KPR and on the other radio station, because I worked on two at virtually the same time doing different shifts 30 miles apart, I was known as Richard Hopeweston, which is my real name, because it was kind of, you know, English.

Where did Tommy Vance come in?
I was driving from where I was living in Washington State every weekend to Vancouver, Canada, to see my girlfriend and that meant that I had to go through Seattle. Every time that I went through every weekend I took new demo tapes that I'd made during the week and dropped them off at all the radio stations and then continued up to Vancouver and then on Sunday night I came back down to Washington state and I did that until eventually a radio station, KOL, had an opening and they phoned me up and asked would I like the job. I said fine and they asked would I mind if I called myself Tommy Vance to which I said for this money call me what you like! The reason was they had a guy called Tommy Vance, who still exists in America and why shouldn't he because he's the original and I'm not, and they had the jingles made for Tommy Vance. So rather than have to go in the studio and re-cut the choruses I adopted that name instead. It's not unheard of in the States to change your name market by market. I worked at that radio station at that time with Don January and Rhett Hamilton-Walker III! I don't think they were the real names of the people involved!

How did you come to leave the States?
I was drafted into the American Army. I was working at KHJ in Los Angeles and I had registered for the draft, which is a legal requirement in the States, in Washington State in the Tri-Cities area, Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, a small part of the work. Eventually I got this major radio station in LA and my number came up, like a lottery, and so the Army came knocking on the door, let's go to Vietnam and I ultimately declined and I came back to the UK because I still had a UK passport, which I still have to this day. I could have been Robin Williams but without the talent! That's what I was going to be, I was going into Special Services and do radio?

When you came back to England, how did you get involved with Caroline?
I got off the plane to the bus because I didn't have any money because they'd frozen my bank accounts in the States and I went straight to Radio Caroline. I knocked on the door, gave them my tape and I told them that I was a DJ, could I have a job? They said that they liked the tape, you can have a job but because it was Christmas there were no tenders going out to the boat for five days. So I went and stayed in a hotel in Baker Street for five days. It was a lousy Christmas because I'd left my fabulous Chevrolet at Los Angeles International airport and I'd left my wife there. After Christmas I went down to the boat and started broadcasting.

Were you aware of Caroline in the States before that?
Yes, I used to read the papers where I picked up some English news. I knew about the history of the pirates although I hadn't been back to this country for some time.

What was you first impression of going to Caroline?
It was like going back into the Merchant Navy in many ways. It was a combination of the two things that I'd done in my life that had any sense of adventure. One was running away to sea and the other was broadcasting. It was kind of small. It was a lot different to the radio station I'd worked at in Los Angeles which was No. 1 and a massive success. I didn't get to do the TV shows. I didn't have as much money but it was fun.

I think very shortly after you joined Caroline, the ship ran aground at Frinton and they had to change ship?
I wasn't on the ship when it ran aground, I was on my week off so when I went back to broadcast, it was on this Cheetah thing and it was also supposed to be wired up as a TV boat as well as a radio station. We didn't have any running water and stuff like that but it was cool. Eventually the Mi Amigo came back into operation so I didn't have any of the glamour of being swept ashore. Blackburn had all that.

What was the difference between the two ships?
The Mi Amigo was actually a comfortable little vessel. The cabin space was cool, the food was good, the cooks were Dutch so we had a lot of ristofen, which is Indonesian food and there were a lot of chilli peppers, etc. I remember that I just used to get a piece of steak and put it on top of the ship's oven, which was like an Aga cooker, with a little oil and cook it. I was fine. The Cheetah II was a little bit more sparse but the Mi Amigo was great to live there, it was no problem. I suppose it was like a three-star hotel but with twenty-four hours a day room service except you went out and served yourself.

Why did you move to Luxembourg after Caroline?
I went there because my wife was going to join me in Luxembourg. She couldn't quite fathom coming to live with me on a boat in the middle of the North Sea! So I got this job there, then ultimately she decided that she didn't want to come to Europe at all, so that was the end of that marriage. I stayed with Luxembourg, but Ronan used to phone me up every once in a while and offer me more money and I'd say no. I actually liked Luxembourg because it was again another adventure, it was another country but Ronan eventually offered me fifty or sixty quid a week, which was a lot of money in those days. So I went off to Mammon, the money became a big issue so I went back to Caroline.

How did you get on with Ronan? Was he a guiding influence with you at the time?
I wouldn't say he was a guiding influence but he's a hippy, but he's a very interesting hippy! I never had a bad word with Ronan in my life, never had a bad word with Phil Solomon’s for that matter, who became a bit of an influence in Caroline because he injected some cash into it. In fact, I used to do all the Major Minor commercials. Baby Come Back, which was a big hit for Pato Banton, I remember doing the commercials for The Equals because they were on Major Minor or President, at that time and Phil used to pay me 20 quid a commercial, which again was a lot of money in those days but if he overpaid me used to say "and dere's and extra foiver for you, lad” because Phil was an Irishman too. I never had any problems. I had a good time on Caroline.

I think it was also on Caroline you were giving some pacifist anti-Vietnam views on the air. How did that go down with listeners and management?
I don't recall that at all, I have no recollection of doing that whatsoever. It might have been just bad feeling on my behalf because I had a great career going for me. They were writing television sit-coms and don't forget I was in Hollywood, a big machine behind it all and I was doing very, very well. It might have been sour grapes because I'd lost a big chance in my life or thought I had.

What do you remember most about Caroline?
The week off! When we went and did the gigs all over the bloody place. Chislehurst Caves are the most famous I can remember; the gigs at the Marquee and various other places, and the women … lots of women, which suited my temperament.

From Caroline you went to London. Why did you go there?
The government were about to bring in the Marine Offences Act and all that, bureaucratic crap. There was a rumour that Radio London would attempt to open a radio station on the mainland of France, similar to Radio Luxembourg and the stations that had broadcast into the UK before the war like Radio Normandie. The rumour was that London had some sort of connection or plan to do that, which didn't materialise, and I went to Radio London to be part of that plan. It didn't happen. That's the only reason. No other reason at all.

Was the money better there at all?
I don't recall. I think it was about the same. I never remember being broke during that period, I always had money. I never had a permanent place to live. I used to live with women or we all used to live in a hotel in Sussex Gardens in London. I can't remember the name of it but it was an endless belt of females that's all I really remember! I don't remember any of their names and I'm sure they don't remember mine!

When you were on London you sometimes guested on John Peel's Perfumed Garden slot. How did that all come about?
I don't remember doing that, I genuinely don't, but all the time I was on Caroline I would listen to John Peel because he was the most adjacent thing to what was happening to underground radio in the States. I was working for Top 40 radio, very Top 40 Radio, but I used to listen to the underground stations so that's why I liked John's programme. When I joined Top 40 radio in America, it was like hyper-Top 40 and not too many people have ever done this style before. All my life I've done the next, then the next, then the next, etc. I've never settled into doing a routine programme. I've always been left of centre, right of centre, slightly esoteric, a bit off-the-wall. I've never been a straight DJ.

What were the other jocks doing when you went to Caroline? Were they doing similar to what you were doing or did you introduce them to anything different at all?
When I went to Caroline I was obviously very American, very Top 40 that was the difference. I was very tight, it was a very tight show because I'd come off this No. 1 station in LA. That's what I specialized in, very tight voice-overs.

Presumably that's why Ronan was offering you more money to come back and do something further?
I suppose so.

What were your funniest or scariest moments of that period?
None that I could use in this interview because they could be used in evidence against you, but they have to prove it! Just getting pissed, I suppose!! We used to get two Heineken's a day, in reality we could have as many as we liked. Where the Mi Amigo was anchored in the Sixties, there must be a mountain of Heineken cans in that area as we used to shove as much Heineken as we could into our system. I remember doing the Breakfast show and eating breakfast on the air because it was about eight seconds from the galley. So you'd go and get your egg, chips, beans, whatever and play records while you ate your breakfast. Johnnie and I had a little 8mm cinema projector and we had a few biological films and we used to show them upside down just for a laugh when we got bored. I remember Dave Lee Travis coming on with a Polaroid camera, which I hadn't seen before. He was heavily into photography he was always photographing everybody. He's quite a meticulous character and he must have the best library and footage of boring old farts like me, Blackburn and Walker, etc. When the old boat used to rock around a bit, you had to put half-a-crown on the tone-arm, keeping the needle on the record. I don't remember much, just have a memory of the ambience of the vessel.

What was the typical day or wasn't there a typical day?
The typical day revolved around your airshift, what time you had to be on the air. A typical day would also revolve around how much Heineken you'd have the night before! You'd watch TV quite a bit, just hanging out. You didn't have to travel to work so you didn't have all that commuter nonsense and then you would be ticking off the days when you could get off, when you knew you'd go back to the hotel in Sussex Gardens into the arms of countless women. I was married then, she wasn't here, she didn't arrive, so I had a marvellous time. The longest I was on the vessel was for about a month, but it didn't drive me nuts because I'd been in the Merchant marine. I could relax on ships, I didn't think "Oh Christ, I've got to go down to the Post Office' or go shopping, it was you're on a boat, you're self-contained.
 

Tommy Vance travelled to Cyprus, Malta, Gibralter
and Germany to present his BFBS show.

After London, you went to the BBC. How did that all compare with what you had been doing previously?
The BBC was entirely and utterly different. I'd never known anything like it in my life. It was unlike the stations I had worked for in the States, it was unlike Radio Luxembourg and it was certainly unlike the pirates! The BBC had a certain discipline that you had to adhere to and a system that you had to grasp, which was no bad thing. I had auditioned for the BBC but didn't get the job at the beginning of Radio One mainly because I was still very American and I became very American. I still do if I ever go back there, my voice will change. It's like I'm two different people and I have no control over it. It's not an overt thing at all. I was still very American in the eyes in 1967 at the beginning of Radio One, but they hired me two weeks later and I started doing Top Gear with John Peel, working with a producer called Bernie Andrews, who had been with the BBC a long time then and had now retired. There were certain disciplines, rehearsal periods where you had to write things, it was a very different deal. It was frightening. I was frightened to death because I'd never had any formal training as a journalist or anything really. I'd just ligged around and ended up being a DJ.

You also made a couple of records at that time?
The A-sides of the records were made in LA because I was a very big success in Los Angeles so it was a natural thing. United Artists were going to put them out in LA. In the end they came out here on EMI and the B-sides were recorded in five minutes in Bond Street, so it was all part of that big Hollywood thing and the A-sides were made with the same orchestra that used to do the Phil Spector records, Glen Campbell played guitar on them, they were done in Goldstar studios where Sonny and Cher recorded and they were properly done on a four-track recorder. These guys had played on countless bloody hits and it was all part of the Hollywood thing. I did actually go on to make about eight records under various names using various people. I was an unsuccessful Jonathan King.

You also became involved with Radio Monte-Carlo about that time?
Dave Cash was the one who stimulated that one. He went out with this guy called Maurice Gardett, who I last saw eight years ago in Hong Kong and we used to record programmes over here and send them on to Radio Monte-Carlo. The idea was to set up a system similar to Radio Luxembourg. Unfortunately the transmitters are that much further away and not as powerful so in the end it didn't work. It worked for a while and we had a lot of fun.

left: Tommy with Maurice Gardett and Dave Cash

Did you ever do any programmes live over there?
Yes we did, because MIDEM was in Cannes which was just up the road and we covered MIDEM one year, live from Cannes with the Radio Monte-Carlo outside broadcast truck. It didn't work because the place was too far away. Atlantic 252 is a pirate operation if you think about the same sort of deal based on foreign territory.

You went back to the BBC again and Capital Radio after that? How did Capital compare?
It was more like an American deal and it was that Cashman again. Cashman rang me up and said that they were starting this commercial station do you want to come and join us and I said that I would come down and have a chat. I think they'd hired Roger Scott (not the offshore one - OEM) then, Dave Cash, and then myself. David Symonds got on board and so on. I remember going into Capital at the very beginning and being shown where the studios were and I said that they were great and a good size for self-op and they said: "Self-op? What do you mean self-op? The engineer will be in there playing your records!' Cashman and I just cracked up because they were still living in the past. They were very nice people, but they were luvvies, a lot of acting about, Sir John Mills, Sir Richard Attenborough, etc. We went on-air in awry, very small area with a Pye TV outside broadcast sound mixer and a couple of cart machines. The studios weren't even finished! I stayed with them for two years and then got fired but then I've got a history of being at places for two years other than the BBC. I'm currently at Virgin, I'll do two years then I'm out of the door.

What did you do after you left Capital?
I've always worked for the BBC because I've worked for the World Service. I've always had various things to do there so, to this day, I have never actually left the BBC. I'm working for them tomorrow afternoon doing some voice-work. After I left Capital, I was doing British Forces Broadcasting Services, another thing I've been doing all my life. For ten years with them, I did a daily two-hour show and I did 9,500 interviews in 10 years, then I did 15 years of the Rock Show on Radio One, I did the Top 40 for two years, Top of the Pops. I've done it all really, none of it particularly well.


Tommy Vance interviews HRH Prince Charles for BFBS

Now you're with Virgin, how do you find that compares?
Virgin is a package and is doing absolutely nothing which is new in the radio market-place, whatsoever and I think they would be the first to admit it. We were there to achieve a radio revolution . . . whatever that is! And they panicked and brought in Australian consultants and now they have an American programme director and she's fabulous. These consultants really do know what they are doing but what you have is a complete clone of any major radio station in Los Angeles, New York, Johannesburg or Sydney. It's doing nothing other than running a system and it's not for me. It's not my kind of radio and I also work for VH1, which is a bit of a different thing for me as I've always shied away from TV except for Top of the Pops where you had 10 seconds to say something, smile a lot and wear a daft sweater and bugger off to the bar. Now I work for VH1, I'm heavily involved in putting the music together for the programme that I do because it's from 11.30 p.m. to 1.30 a.m., it can be a little avant garde, a little left or right of centre, which is really where I've been all my life, so I get in there and help choose the music, wear dark glasses on television and not a lot of light on the set. It's called The Nightfly, which is based on a 1982 album by Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) about an old DJ who bunnies all night. It's a complete circle really.


Finally, what's your most memorable experience of your radio career?
It would have to be going to Radio Caroline, moving from major potential and success in LA to five days later being in the middle of the bloody North Sea! The most gargantuan culture shock that anybody could ever experience! That has go to be the wildest experience because it leaves open for ever to conjecture what would have happened to me if I'd gone to Vietnam as a broadcaster, what would have happened to me if I had got through that and stayed at KHJ in Los Angeles which I couldn't do because the lawyers couldn't get me out of it. So I'll never know. It was a massive gear change or more correctly, it was the gearbox falling out of the drive shaft, it was weird, that has go to be the strangest experience ever. But still the most gratifying experience ever is going down and sitting in a BBC studio representing the BBC because nobody does it better and it will be, as far as I can visualise between now and the end of the century, the only place where you will get creative radio whereby they will take chances. Nobody else is taking chances. It's homogenized, statisticized and all worked out and nobody in commercial radio, or the commercial radio that I'm involved in, talks about music. None of them.

It's ironic that it's gone full circle again with the BBC?
Absolutely, the BBC talks about music, VH1 talks about music, commercial radio in this country - nobody talks about music. In my experience, they all talk about the mechanics and making the thing work. But not the most important thing - music.

Interview by Chris Edwards, transcribed by John Cronnolley
First published in OEM 101, May 1995  © OEM 1995 & 2005