Colin Vearncombe was a Liverpool-born singer-songwriter for whom his biggest successes were also his most problematic works. Recorded under his regular pseudonym of Black, he had just two hit singles, both in 1987; Sweetest Smile and Wonderful Life were both UK top ten hits, with the latter a huge success across Europe. The accompanying album, also named Wonderful Life, reached number three in the UK and sold one and a half million copies, yet in later years Vearncombe came to resent the one-hit wonder label Wonderful Life had placed upon him
Asked to explain the impact of Wonderful Life in 1999 while plugging his comeback album The Accused on Dutch television, Vearncombe replied with bemused, self-deprecating humour. “The song makes me humble,” he said. “It’s so long ago it feels like a different life.” Did he feel like a one-hit wonder? “No, but I guess the world does. Usually a one-hit wonder was because that’s all they had to offer. For me that song was a kind of freak, I don’t write songs like that every day of the week. If I did I’d be a very rich man.”
His voice on record was sweetly soulful yet sadly reflective; despite the apparently positive sentiments of his hits, though, each was about the break-up of his first marriage.
The idea that he may have been right about the song is exacerbated by how prolific he remained as an artist throughout his life. Between Wonderful Life, his debut, and last year’s self-released Blind Faith record, Vearncombe released 11 original studio albums as Black or under his own name, two live records and various compilations and repackaged editions. Although significantly reduced from his late ’80s heyday, he retained a loyal and engaged audience, as evidenced by the fact his old label A&M chose to release a remastered edition of Wonderful Life as recently as 2013.
Born in Liverpool in 1962, Vearncombe’s earliest musical influence was Elvis Presley. In his official biography he chose to point out that his birth came in the week Presley was number one with Good Luck Charm, and that it was viewing the film Jailhouse Rock that “fired his youthful imagination and spurred him on to miming in front of the mirror with a cricket bat for a guitar”. Although he lived in Cork, Ireland for the last ten years of his life, his affinity with his home city never left him. The Facebook post which announced his death simply bore his birth and death dates, and the motto of his beloved Liverpool Football Club; “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
As Black, Vearncombe played his first live show on New Year’s Day 1981 and released the post-punk styled debut single Human Features on local label Rox later the same year. Introduced to well-known Liverpool musician Pete Wylie of The Mighty Wah! and his manager Pete Fulwell, Vearncombe released the more dramatic, piano-led More Than the Sun in 1982 and was introduced to the WEA label by Fulwell and Wylie. WEA released the singles Hey Presto and a re-recorded More Than the Sun in 1984, but then promptly dropped Black.
Undeterred, Vearncombe released Wonderful Life in 1986 on his independent Ugly Man label, and it reached number 72 in the charts. Contacted by Chris Briggs, A&R man at the A&M label – who readily admitted he couldn’t call scouting an artist who had been in the charts hard work, but whose passion for music enthused the singer – Vearncombe was signed to a two album deal.
For two years he was a fully-fledged pop star, and his two big UK chart successes were joined by Everything’s Coming Up Roses, a hit in Germany and Austria.
Yet for various reasons his career as a pop star floundered; amongst them his inability to write a follow-up to Wonderful Life with similar commercial appeal and his lack of faith in his record company to make what he perceived as the right choices in terms of marketing his music. His second album (Comedy, 1988) just broke the top 40 and his third (Black, 1991) fell just outside it. Despite some warm critical praise, neither bore any hit singles, and Vearncombe was dropped soon after. He self-released Are We Having Fun Yet? (again, critically-praised but commercially unsuccessful) in 1993 and then left music for six years, during which time he considered quitting for good.
In his last decade Vearncombe lived with his family on a nine-acre rural plot near Cork and developed an interest in writing poetry and creating watercolour paintings, many of which decorated the sleeve of his 2011 record Any Colour You Like. Since The Accused he had released records on average once every couple of years on his own Nero Schwarz label, the last (Blind Faith) funded by a Pledge Music crowdfunding campaign which inspired Vearncombe and left him feeling closer than ever to his core fanbase.
He also appeared to be more at ease with the musical legacy he had left and where it fitted with his life, playing Wonderful Life in Moscow’s Olympic Stadium in 2012 for a crowd of 25,000 and a televised audience of several million. “I’ve been making my living over the past few years from lower sales and I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time,” he said in a recent interview. “Does that makes me more or less successful than before?”
On 12 January 2016, Colin Vearncombe received serious head injuries when he was involved in an accident in Ireland while driving to catch a flight from Cork to Edinburgh. He never recovered, and died two weeks later in intensive care with his family “singing him on his way”, said a statement. He is survived by his sons Max, Marius and Milan, by his second wife Camilla, whom he had split from but still lived and remained on good terms with, and – for better or worse – one of the most recognisable hit singles of a generation.