Walsall-born pop producer Steve Jenkins has been low on profile, but big on influence. Mike Lockley chats to a family man happy to stay out of the spotlight.
A POP svengali who rose from humble beginnings to guiding Britney Spears’ global chart conquest is grateful for his Walsall roots.
Artists such as David Bowie, Bjork, Kylie, The Backstreet Boys and Simple Minds have all passed through his hit-making machine.
Yet Steve Jenkins, aged 58 and one of the most powerful figures in the music industry, is a rare slice of working class reality in an unreal world. He is a likeable family man without an edge in a pampered profession famed more for tantrums and tiaras.
“Walsall has kept me sane,” laughs the father-of-four, wife Susan by his side. “The people wouldn’t allow me to get big on myself.”
Now based in London, Steve is back in his beloved town to launch his autobiography, The Future Is In The History. It’s a three-year labour of love that chronicles the music producer’s rise from humble, jobbing DJ to head of the world’s biggest independent label, Jive Records.
While many of his pop peers are curmudgeonly, distant and downright rude when confronted by the press corps, Steve is an interviewer’s delight, spinning one priceless anecdote after another with the same effortless skill he used to spin records at Pelsall Community Centre 40 years ago.
Regrets? There’s been a few, even in a career crammed with 260 platinum, gold and silver discs.
The troubles that threatened to swamp Britney – whose 1998 single Baby One More Time, a No 1 in 68 countries, pushed Jive to the industry’s pinnacle – certainly hurt. The mauling she received from the media hurts more.
“My eight years with Britney were fantastic,” nods Steve. “She was fully committed to being a pop star. I knew her before anyone outside her own town knew those two words, Britney Spears.
“She auditioned and we knew we had something. They say a boxer has the eye of a tiger. Well, Britney had that. It’s rare, but you know it when you see it..”
He describes Britney’s blockbuster debut single as ‘the perfect record’. “The artist was perfect and the video was perfect. I had been at the record company 10 years and had it working the way I wanted it.
“I feel sadness for the abuse she’s received. From the age of 14 to 22, Britney worked 16 hours a day on records, tours and promotions.
"Your teenage years and mine were spent in our home towns. Britney’s teenage years were broadcast in every newspaper, in every corner of the world. She moved in a protective bubble but when she was 21, she took six months off. What’s a girl going to do? She’s going to have a good time!
“She was just growing up and having a good time. A lot of the stuff wasn’t fair.”
Britney is just one of the superstars who owe an awful lot to Steve, the Bloxwich-born son of a footwear department manager at Walsall Co-op. Dad Bill, drummer in a local band, introduced his son the delights of popular music.
The former Joseph Leckie School pupil recalls: “By 16, I’m addicted, completely addicted to records. I’m mesmerised by them. Even geography I learned from records. I knew Stax was Memphis, and Motown was Detroit.”
But it was a 1968 ticket to the Radio One Roadshow at The George Hotel, Walsall, that set Steve on the path to fortune. “Emperor Rosko was performing,” he recalls. “It was the first time I’d seen a national DJ perform to a packed hall. I was obsessed by it . Right there, I made the decision that I would be a DJ.
"It was four years of hard work to try to get money together to keep building my record collection and equipment. I worked a petrol pump four nights a week, at a Darlaston factory and in my dad’s shop.”
After an inauspicious disco debut at Pelsall in 1972 – “I was paid £6 and £2 extra for being good,” he grins – Steve rose to the giddy heights of resident DJ at some of Birmingham’s biggest clubs.
His work brought him into contact, and laid the foundations for a lasting friendship with 80s music mogul Pete Waterman who was then working Coventry’s nightspots. After a stint as a record company promotions man, Steve decided to go it alone.
Impulse Promotions was born. It was a company, thanks in part to Steve’s links with chart-topping machine Stock, Aitken and Waterman, that notched up no fewer than 61 number ones from 1983 to 1996.
“Impulse was the biggest company of its kind ever in the record industry,” says Steve proudly. “It made me industry-famous.”
Taking control of his own label, Jive, in 1989 was a natural progression. During his 15 years as MD, Steve unearthed such worldwide stars as Britney and US boy band sensation The Backstreet Boys.
Steve is only slightly wounded by accusations that he was the prime manufacturer of manufactured music that blighted charts 25 years ago.
“There have always been manufactured records,” he argues. “You can go back to the 1950s and see them. If you find a song and you couple that with an artist, then you couple that with a producer who’s had a lot of hit records, is that manufactured?”
So what about those regrets. Well, there’s the one that got way, for a start. “There was no doubt Take That wanted to sign with Jive,” shrugs Steve. “I had them in the palm of my hand, but it was political. The owner didn’t believe in the group and wouldn’t let me sign them.”
Then there are the bands who should have achieved much more.” There was Groove Armada (best known for single ‘Superstylin’),” he says. “I felt were my Steely Dan. They could have been huge on both sides of the Atlantic. But the boys saw things differently.
He doesn’t share the men in suits’ jaundiced view of today’s music scene, despite a catastrophic slump in record sales.
“The record industry has been in decline for 10 years because its distribution has changed,” he explains. “It is now via the internet and downloading.
"Accordingly, income has seriously been reduced, and that has put the record companies in defensive mode. But the great thing is the green shoots of the future – young musicians taking to Facebook and Youtube so they can put their songs on the internet and draw people to them. It’s like the little independent companies of the 1960s coming back again.”
Steve Jenkins, the local lad done good, will never be bland. If he ever dared to be, someone from Walsall would soon tell him.
* Steve’s book ‘The Future In The History’ will be launched at the New Art Gallery, Gallery Square at noon on Saturday, April 28.