Obituary: Dean Ford, singer lauded by Paul McCartney who led first Scottish group to a British No1

Dean Ford, singer, songwriter and guitarist. Born 5 September 1946, in Airdrie. Died of complications from Parkinson's disease 31 December 2018, in Los Angeles, aged 72.

Dean Ford
Dean Ford

Before the Bay City Rollers, before Simple Minds, before Franz Ferdinand, there was Marmalade, fronted by a “little guy with big ears” from Airdrie. And it was Marmalade who made history as the first Scottish group to have a UK No1.

Their singer was born ­Thomas McAleese, but found fame and fortune in the 1960s and 1970s as Dean Ford, helping steer Marmalade’s course from Glasgow’s Barrowlands to the top of the charts with a cover of the Beatles album track Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – Paul McCartney was a big fan of the group.

Other hits followed, including the haunting, melodic Reflections of My Life before Ford moved permanently to the United States, where he worked with Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson – not as a musician, but as the anonymous limousine driver sent to pick them up on occasion.

He had struggled with drink and his star had dimmed, but he never let on that he had been a pop star too. “You’re not supposed to do that when you’re driving,” he said. “They don’t want to hear it. If it gets back to the guy who owns the company, you’re gone.”

Thomas McAleese was born in 1946 in Airdrie and grew up there and in neighbouring Coatbridge. He sang in ­various local groups from his early teens onwards. He left school at 15 and was performing in Glasgow’s Barrowlands Ballroom with a group called The Monarchs in 1963 when he was seen by Junior Campbell and Pat Fairley from The Gaylords. They already had a significant following locally and invited him to join as lead singer.

Junior Campbell remembered him as “just this little guy with big ears and big hands, but from the moment he opened his mouth to sing Roy Orbison’s In Dreams, me, Pat, and the whole of Barrowland knew he was something special”.

Borrowing from Dean Martin and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Thomas McAleese became Dean Ford, and The Gaylords became Dean Ford and the Gaylords. They signed with Columbia, released several singles and enjoyed considerable success in Scotland, and, like the Beatles, honed their craft in German nightclubs.

But at that time the British pop music business was very much centred on London and in 1965 they relocated to there. They found it difficult even to get gigs at first. Their popularity built slowly on word of mouth, they developed a strong student following, changed their name to The Marmalade, and subsequently just Marmalade, and landed a record contract with CBS.

They were actually promoted with jars of marmalade, sent to radio stations, along with words of praise from Paul McCartney. Their third CBS single I See the Rain, written by Campbell and Ford (under his original name of McAleese), topped the charts in the Netherlands and was chosen in the Melody Maker paper by Jimi Hendrix, with whom they had toured, as the best single of the year, though it failed to chart in the UK.

They finally cracked the UK Top Ten in 1968 with Lovin’ Things and were No 1 at the start of the following year with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, a cover of a track from the Beatles’ White Album. Marmalade appeared on Top of the Pops in kilts and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da sold half a million copies in the UK.

But Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was little more than a very good novelty song, and they scored a more enduring hit later in the year with Reflections of My Life, written by Campbell and Ford. It marked a move from CBS to Decca, back to original compositions and to a more melodic sound, with thoughtful lyrics. It reached the US Top Ten and sold two million copies worldwide. Both it and the equally melodic follow-up Rainbow peaked at No 3 in the UK.

Campbell’s departure in 1971 began a period of extensive personnel changes and upheaval. Drummer Alan Whitehead was sacked and there was adverse publicity, with an exposé on groupies in the News of the World. The hits became fewer and Ford left in 1975.

There is a line in Reflections of My Life – “I’m changing everything, everything around me.” And in the late 1970s, following the commercial failure of a solo album, Ford moved to the US. “I wanted to start over,” he said. “I wanted a new life. The trouble was, I brought myself with me.”

His marriage broke up and he was drinking heavily. He recalled a woman who drank in one of his regular bars. Her life and her physical condition were a terrible mess. When she stopped coming, he imagined she was dead. Then she reappeared, having cleaned up her life, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, which Ford himself then joined.

He continued to receive royalties from Reflections of My Life and other compositions and began playing small clubs again. He recorded a slower, more mature ­version of Reflections of My Life, with violin accompaniment, and just a few months ago he released a new double CD, entitled This Scottish Heart, recorded largely in his home in California. He is survived by a daughter Tracey McAleese-Gorman who told the New York Times: “Music was his life, music inspired him, music was everything to him. He wasn’t just a lead singer; he loved playing the guitar, and he played it to my son, and at family gatherings, barbecues. He wouldn’t go anywhere without it.”

Brian Pendreigh