Rapping And Raving

13 June 2012 | 5:45 am | Baz McAlister

British comedian Lenny Henry has crafted a new show addressing his lifelong flirtation with being a musician. He tells Baz McAlister all about Cradle To Rave.

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Never one to rest on his laurels, veteran comedian Lenny Henry is always seeking new ways to connect with audiences – and his latest show, Cradle To Rave, is all about his love of music. He delves into the musical moments that have defined his life in a show that's being called 'comedy cabaret' by some.

“I think the 'cabaret' element is because there's a piano onstage – but I've only been playing piano since I was forty, and I'm shit,” admits the now 53 year old. “Me sitting at a piano onstage is a false image because you're looking at a guy who wants to be a musician, but the gap between wanting to do something and actually being able to do it is huge. In the show, we are in that gap.”

Henry recently read a book that talked about the idea of it taking 10,000 hours to master anything – from golf or cricket to swimming or playing an instrument. As he and his crew toured Cradle To Rave around the UK, they did some sums. “If you were to have lessons for two hours a day, it would take you nine years to master the piano,” he says. “It's impossible, really. You'd have to start when you were too little to understand how long two hours is. I was a normal kid – I went outside and played with friends and so on. There's a slightly antisocial thing about musicians. They don't want to be with people, they want to be with an instrument.”

It could be argued that Henry's 10,000 hours spent hanging around with his friends prepared him perfectly for the role of comedian, and he agrees. Kicking off his acclaimed comedy career in the mid-'70s he found success on TV in the '80s with his own show, and that's when the sniff of a music career came knocking again. “I was told I had to be a comedian or a musician, I couldn't do both.

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“And I chose comedy because at the time, I'd been doing it for ten years and I was doing well, and it was paying for my mum's house. A lot of musicians would like to be funny, and a lot of comedians would like to be good musicians, but never the twain shall meet – except for Bill Bailey and Tim Minchin, because those guys are freaks of nature.”

Henry's done all right with music, for a comedian. He fronts a funk band (with Hugh Laurie on keys) called Poor White Trash, he's sung Sex Machine on The Jonathan Ross Show, he's sung with Bootsy Collins, Tom Jones and Kate Bush, and met Prince and Stevie Wonder – and of course he created the well-known comedy character of wild, sexy crooner Theophilus Wildebeest. “I could sing as Theo – but when you're singing in character it's very different to singing as your naked self,” Henry explains.

And recently this Renaissance man has been getting rave reviews for his theatre performances, including notably a fantastic run as the eponymous tragic hero of Shakespeare's Othello in England. Unsurprisingly, music features in that, too. “I would put in headphones backstage and listen to very loud hip hop to psych myself up for the scene where he has to kill Desdemona,” Henry laughs. “I'd play Ice Cube and Biggy Smalls – because it at least seemed like they had some idea of what it was like to pop a cap in someone's ass, or at the very least slap someone around.”