"I gotta get the hell outta here," said Mick Hucknall, lead singer of the English band Simply Red. He had the desperate look of a caged animal. Being cooped up in a hotel room for hours doing interviews had unnerved him.
"A lunch break would be heaven," he said.
But in the downtown hotel at midday, all that was open was a pizza parlor. Hucknall was so happy to be out of that hotel room that he didn't even complain about the pizza, which tasted like cardboard smeared with cheese.
Two female fans spotted him and worked up the courage to ask for autographs, which he graciously signed. "I wonder how they recognized me," he said, smiling. He knew why. With that trademark wild red hair, Hucknall is hard to miss. It looked like a bomb had exploded on one side of his head.
"I'm still surprised when people come up to me like I'm a big star," Hucknall said. "I'm not Robert Redford or Mick Jagger or anybody like that."
Maybe not, but Hucknall, who sings R&B; style, is the leader of one of the most heralded new bands in pop music.
Simply Red's first album, "Picture Book" on Elektra Records, has sold more than 900,000 copies, boosted by two hit singles, "Money's Too Tight (to Mention)" and "Holding Back the Years." The new album, "Men and Women," has just been released and its first single, "The Right Thing," is rising fast on the pop charts.
Hucknall, 26, is an aggressive, animated talker. He has a temper, too, which he flashed at the mention of certain subjects--like white soul singers, for instance.
"I don't sound black and I don't strive to sound black," he said, rather testily. Whether it's his goal or not, he does sound black.
"It has to do with the music I've been listening to since I was 7. I'm from an area (Manchester, England) that's heavily influenced by R&B.; I don't profess to be black and I'm not trying to be black. I was so into this music when I was growing up that it's only natural I'd sing in that style when I started singing."
He told a story, complete with mocking New York accent, about a woman who works for Elektra. "I heard that the first time she heard me sing she said, 'Is she American? She's the best thing I've heard since Aretha (Franklin).' I don't care if they think I'm a black woman or if they think I'm Chinese. It doesn't matter."
What does matter to him, however, is certain critical commentary about his white-soul style. "We get stupid criticism from silly, white, middle-class journalists in England," he said. "These idiots give me a hard time, like I was stealing something from black people or exploiting black people. I'm not exploiting anybody--there are three black people in this band, for God's sake. I wish these imbecile critics would leave this issue be."
While working on a degree at a Manchester fine arts college, Hucknall began his music career in a band called the Frantic Elevators. Playing a bizarre hybrid of punk and R&B;, the band made some singles that were largely ignored. But Hucknall was fine-tuning his R&B; style, honing the rough edges without tampering with that reservoir of raw soul.
Frantic Elevators sank in 1981. For the next three years he struggled in Manchester while assembling another band that emerged in late 1984 as Simply Red. The main lineup includes Chris Joyce (drums), Tim Kellet (brass, keyboards), Fritz McIntyre (keyboards), Tony Bowers (bass) and Sylvan Richardson (guitar). Singer Janet Sewell and sax player Ian Kirkham are auxiliary members.
Simply Red's sound is rooted in '60s soul, which they update and slicken a bit. But it's Hucknall's vocals, rather than the material--which he co-writes--that makes this band truly distinctive. His vocals are ragged and shrieky and, while he's stumbling around in higher registers, often somewhat irritating. But most of the time they're searingly effective--particularly on ballads. Such gut-wrenching vocals can't come that easily.
"Sometimes when I've finished singing I think I've twisted my insides out," he said. "I put everything into my singing. The sound rips out of me. I'm drained, I have nothing left. There's no other way for me to sing--anything less and I'm cheating, playing games. Then it's not really singing. It's . . . I don't even know what it is, but it's not really singing."
Hucknall has a bad reputation. The word around the industry is that he's rude, obnoxious and an incorrigible womanizer. There is some truth, he admitted, to these charges.
Chasing women used to be one of his favorite activities, he said, but not anymore: "I've grown out of that. That's what that song 'Infidelity' on the new album is about. I would wake up in the morning next to some woman I didn't know, and think, 'What am I doing here?' You feel rotten. What's the point? So I don't go around molesting any woman I can get my hands on. And they don't go around molesting me either--I don't let them. I don't even try dating girls anymore--I'm always leaving town the next day. It's unfulfilling. I had my fill of it.
"Musicians like me aren't very stable anyway. They're a bad risk for women. I advise any girl not to get serious about a musician. They're too scattered and flighty. They make the worst husbands."
How about the other charge?
"I can be rude and obnoxious," he said. "I don't see why just because I've suddenly become this public figure I've got to be Mr. Nice Guy. I don't take any crap off people--I never have. If that's perceived as arrogant and obnoxious, that's tough. And if I'm in a bad mood I'm going to let somebody know about it, I don't care where I am. That's the way I get it out of my system, just like anybody else.
"I don't want to be perceived as Mr. Nice Guy. That's not who I am. I want to be perceived as normal. I'd rather be true to my character than pretend to be something I'm not."
Hucknall suddenly stared at the piece of pizza he'd almost finished. He pricked it with his fork, turned up his nose, then laid down the fork. "I've had enough," he said. "Let's get the hell out of here."