Born the fourth of five children, at Queen Charlotte's Hospital in Hammersmith, London to a British mother of Barbadian–Belgian descent and a Nigerian father, Siffre was brought up in Bayswater and Hampstead and educated at a Catholic independent day school, St Benedict's School, in Ealing, west London.
Jazz and blues records provided his musical education: Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus among many. Jimmy Reed and Wes Montgomery loomed large as guitar influences; Billie Holiday, Jimmy Reed and Mel Tormé as vocal influences.
While trying to become a full-time musician, Labi worked as a warehouseman in Bethnal Green, a filing clerk at Reuters in Fleet Street and as a minicab driver and delivery man. In the early 60s, in a Jimmy Smith style trio, with Bob Stuckey on Hammond Organ and Woody Martin on drums, Siffre, on guitar, played for nine months at Annie's Room, a jazz club fronted by the singer Annie Ross. He then toured as opening act and backing singer for Jackie Edwards, the Jamaican songwriter, soul and reggae star. Labi went on to form another three-piece group called Safari, playing London's Soho clubs. Then, though he did not play folk songs, his first solo gigs came in Amsterdam at the folk club Het Kloppertje, and at the then haven of psychedelic hippiedom Paradiso. Most of Siffre's thirty-year performing career has been as a solo artist.
Labi Siffre is a British poet, songwriter, musician, and singer most widely known as the writer and singer of "(Something Inside) So Strong", "It Must Be Love", and "I Got The", the sampled rhythm track which provides the basis for a number of well-known hip-hop tracks such as Eminem's breakthrough hit single, "My Name Is". Openly gay, Siffre met his partner, Peter Lloyd, in July 1964. They became legally recognised partners in December 2005. Lloyd died in 2013 after 49 years together.
In 1969, while working in Amsterdam, friends sent a tape of his songs to the DJ Dave Cash and music publishers Management Agency & Music Ltd. (MAM). Siffre soon signed a publishing and management contract with MAM. However, since the MAM Records label was not yet in operation Siffre's recordings were licensed to other labels. His first contract was with Festival Records. His recording debut in 1970 was released in the U.K. on the Pye International division of Pye Records. He had a "turntable hit" in 1970 with the single "Pretty Little Girl (Make My Day)/Too Late" which despite being heavily played on Radio Luxembourg never made it to the charts.
Six albums were released between 1970 and 1975, and four between 1988 and 1998. In the early 1970s, he had UK hits with "It Must Be Love" (No. 14, 1971) (later covered by and a No. 4 hit for Madness, for which Siffre himself appeared in the video); "Crying Laughing Loving Lying" (No. 11, 1972); and "Watch Me" (No. 29, 1972). Both "It Must Be Love" and "Crying Laughing Loving Lying" were released as singles in the U.S. by Bell Records but failed to chart.
During this period, Siffre toured Britain and Europe, both headlining and supporting the likes of Ike & Tina Turner, Daliah Lavi, the Hollies, Chicago, The Carpenters and The Supremes. He often appeared on television, including the series "In Concert" and "Sounding Out".
He moved to Los Angeles in 1977 and wrote with Tom Shapiro. Around this time Siffre decided to quit the music business as a performer and concentrate on writing. After nine months in California he moved back to the UK when, in 1978 two of his songs, "Solid Love" (performed by Siffre) and "We Got It Bad" (co-written and performed by Bob James) reached the UK finals of the BBC's A Song for Europe.
In December 1979, Siffre released 'One World Song' a duet with Jackie which received heavy rotation on Radio Luxembourg in the final week of that year into 1980. The lyrics of the song reflected a theme which has run throughout much of his songwriting; robust peace and harmony. Siffre had his first U.S. singles success as a songwriter when, in 1983, the cover version of "It Must Be Love" by Madness peaked in the Billboard Magazine chart at #33. Siffre appeared in the cover version's music video.
Siffre came out of self-imposed retirement from music in 1985 when he saw a television film from South Africa showing a white soldier shooting at black children. He wrote "(Something Inside) So Strong" (No. 4, 1987), an anti-apartheid anthem, a song of defiance in the face of oppression and bigotry, a song of personal inner strength and more. The song has remained enduringly popular and is an example of the political and sociological thread running through much of Siffre’s lyrics and poetry since the single "Thank Your Lucky Star" and the album "For the Children" (1973). It won the Ivor Novello Award for "Best Song Musically and Lyrically", and has been used in Amnesty International campaigns, a television advertisement and Alice Walker's film against female genital mutilation: Warrior Marks. His stance on civil and human rights has further enhanced his reputation.
In 1990, collaborating with the South African R&B, jazz-fusion singer-songwriter and guitarist Jonathan Butler, Siffre wrote the lyrics of five of the nine songs on Butler’s album "Heal Our Land".
Searching for expression beyond the "limitations of songwriting" he wrote his first poems in 1984. Three books of his poetry have been published: "Nigger" (1993), "Blood on the Page" (1995) and "Monument" (1997). More appear on his poetry blog "Labi Siffre - Into The Light". "In one of Labi’s poems "An Audience Request" he writes - 'show us the world / rub our faces in it / show us the hurt / and our place in it' – and that’s exactly what a poet should do" … Benjamin Zephaniah
"On first reading I found many of these poems to appear direct and simple, both in statement and in mode of address, but on looking closer I discovered that they were multi-layered, often challenging their own apparent stereotypes and preconceptions, much as Blake did in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It is his sense of being an outsider which enables Siffre to expose and yet understand hypocrisy and prejudice. His poetry is compassionate and often succinct and aphoristic" … PQR (Poetry Quarterly Review). His play, "DeathWrite", staged at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff (1997) was televised the same year by HTV.
Siffre released a new album, The Last Songs, on EMI in 2006.
He is listed as a prominent donor to the Atheist Bus Campaign, which is currently raising funds to place atheist adverts on London buses.
Beginning with "Let's Pretend" on the 1973 album For the Children and especially in his poetry, Siffre has been and remains, a determined advocate for secularism.
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
Amazon: Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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