You might have come across this dapper English gent as a regular on MTV2 recently, playing gentle Bossa Nova versions of rock anthems like Nirvana’s ‘Smells. Like Teen Spirit’. ‘It’s quite gentle, isn’t it?’ says Earl, reducing the song’s refrain to a gentle acoustic guitar vamp. ‘Maybe if he’d played it like this he wouldn’t have shot himself.’
You might also have seen him playing at any number of Folk, Jazz or Comedy venues over the last 30 years. You might even have seen him play at the Edinburgh Fringe for a record-breaking 18-year run. He’s a poet, singer, guitarist, pianist, comedian, philosophy graduate, and an obsessive collector of some 10,000 records (including several thousand 78 rpm discs). And, as he likes to remind us, he’s ‘a bit of a sex symbol’. ‘I was once told that I was the only male comedian on the circuit who performed to women directly,’ says Earl, ‘rather than talking to men about women.’
Born in London in 1947, Earl Okin’s life story reads like a Forrest Gump-style journey through popular culture, with Earl constantly near the fringes of key cultural events. In 1959, at the age of 12, Earl appeared on a BBC TV talent show called ‘All Your Own’ playing guitar and singing his own songs. He wrote for The Beatles publisher Dick James, penning songs for Cilla Black and Georgie Fame. He recorded a single for EMI at Abbey Road studios in 1967 and for CBS in 1969. He was beaten to a record contract by another young songwriter in the same management stable called Reg Dwight, aka Elton John.
Throughout the 1970s Earl played Folk clubs as well as supporting the likes of Van Morrison on tour. After being spotted at the Cambridge Folk Festival, he was asked to support Paul McCartney and Wings on a UK arena tour in 1979. It was enough to convince Earl to give up his day job as deputy head of a primary school in Notting Hill.
The ’70s Folk circuit, which featured the likes of Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott, served as a kind of precursor to alternative comedy. Okin again found himself appearing at the birth of this movement when he appeared at the early Comic Strip nights at the Raymond Revue Bar, alongside Alexei Sayle, French and Saunders and Rik Mayall. Soon he’d established himself on the burgeoning comedy scene, playing annually at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for an unbroken 18-year run which got him into the Guinness Book Of Records – and has led him to lead a campaign against the increasing corporate stranglehold of the Fringe.
‘Musical Genius And Sex Symbol’ is a live set recorded at the Kings Head Comedy Club in Crouch End. As well as Okin’s deliciously dry and ironic original songs, it includes three versions of recent pop songs done in a swing or Bossa style, including ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ by Wheatus and ‘Song2’ by Blur. The versions started as part of a TV pilot for a ‘Juke Box Jury’- style pop review show, where Earl would perform the ‘original’ version of a pop song, in the style of a Jazz, Blues or Bossa Nova standard, usually featuring his trademark vocalised trumpet solos. (His favourite is what he describes as the ‘Nat King Cole’ version of ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay.)
Earl’s musical and comedic heroes include Duke Ellington, Tom Lehrer, Charlie Chaplin, Benny Carter, Caruso, Mozart and Puccini. But what ‘Musical Genius And Sex Symbol’ showcases is Earl’s obvious love and knowledge of the Bossa Nova – what Earl describes as ‘those wonderful crunchy chords, the major sevenths and demented seventeenths’. Earl first visited Brazil in 1975 and has met and performed with many of the country’s music legends, including Elis Regina, Gal Costa, Joao Gilberto and Caetano Veloso. He’s appeared some of Brazilian TV’s most high-profile chat shows and played some of Rio’s most important Bossa Bova venues.
‘I’m definitely a musician who does comedy,’ says Okin. ‘Whereas, say, Bill Bailey is a comedian who does music. I learned when I played folk venues in the 1970s that people would just glaze over when faced with song, song, song. But, if you could make people laugh between the songs, it was like a bit of cheese with the wine.’