HERBIE Armstrong is still struggling to get his head round his sudden fame.
The South Yorkshire music scene stalwart has been left dazed after this week becoming one of the most tweeted about people in the world, appearing in a variety of newspapers, and – that most faithful of popularity barometers – guesting on This Morning.
A strange situation for a 66-year-old who now runs a small coaching inn to find himself in.
For sure, his time managing Sheffield’s legendary Slug and Fiddle and Boardwalk venues, as well as earlier days running a variety of London clubs, had seen him mix – and play – with music legends like Van Morrison, Screaming Lord Sutch and Eric Clapton. He even appeared on Top Of The Pops briefly in the 1980s.
But he had never truly been in the limelight himself. He and his guitar had always been, what he calls, “the back room boys”.
Then on Saturday everything changed.
After being encouraged by his Sheffield-based manager Mike Murphy, the Belfast-born pensioner appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, and in just a few moments wowed the celebrity judges, Amanda Holden, Michael Mcintyre and Louis Walsh, and the nation as a whole.
It was barely a three-minute slot on the popular show but Herbie’s rendition of Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately has seen him suddenly declared one of the finest natural talents in the country.
He will now go through to a live TV knockout.
“It’s been incredible,” he says down the phone from an ITV-paid London hotel. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine what has happened could happen.
“It was unbelievable to get three yes’s from the judges.
“What made it better is that Van Morrison is a good friend.
“We grew up in Belfast around the same time and would meet at the same music hang-outs, then when he started to get famous he asked me to be one of his backing guitarists. I toured the world with him between about 1976 and 1981 and it was a great time.
“He introduced me to so many people like Eric Clapton and Johnny Depp, and now his song has helped me on this show – I owe him a lot.”
Not that Herbie should take any credit from himself.
Viewers saw him hold his nerve after Holden asked the guitarist to stop his first song – the self-penned Still In My Heart – and do something people would know instead.
“When she did that my first thought was that I was being asked to leave and I was ready to unplug my guitar and walk off safe in the knowledge I’d given it my best,” says Herbie
Instead, he effortlessly launched into the Van Morrison number while the crowd at London’s Apollo theatre went wild.
“When I heard them cheering I felt like a teenager,” he says.
“As I walked off stage Ant and Dec were cheering with my wife Elizabeth and I was on top of the world. It was a crazy few moments.”
And it’s been getting crazier ever since.
But then, as Herbie says, he’s used to a bit of craziness.
Anyone who ran the Slug and Fiddle – the legendary Ecclesall Road venue – and then the Boardwalk, the perhaps even more legendary Snig Hill music spot, has to be.
He moved to the city from London in 1989 after previously playing with the bands Yellow Dog and Fox – with whom he had earlier made a fleeting appearance on Top Of The Pops.
A friend had asked him to manage the newly opened Slug and Fiddle and, relishing the challenge, he moved north with his family – Elizabeth and their four children – to live firstly on Ecclesall Road, then Endcliffe Vale Road.
“It was a really happy time,” he says. “At the Slug, we were putting on so much great music and people were coming from all around to see bands like Boy On A Dolphin or The Sharp Cuts. We’d have Jarvis Cocker coming by to hang out and all sorts of other music-loving characters.”
He left in 1993 to take on the newly opened Boardwalk – set in the famous ‘Mucky Duck’ building where The Clash played their first-ever gig and Joe Cocker celebrated With A Little Help From My Friends going to number one in the UK Charts.
“It was a real challenge to take that place and try and make it great again,” he says. “But I hope I don’t sound too big-headed to say I think we did it.
“After we left you had bands like Arctic Monkeys coming through there, and I wonder if the foundations we laid helped with that.”
He stayed at The Boardwalk four years, deciding in the late 1990s to leave the pressures, excesses and tight budgets of the music industry behind for a more quiet life in Hampshire, where he now runs The Fountain Inn in the village of Rowland’s Castle.
But in that time he has never stopped playing, never stopped recording, never stopped wanting people to hear his own music
And, so, Mike Murphy, his manager and friend, suggested having a crack at Britain’s Got Talent.
“I just thought people needed to hear this incredible talent and that was a way of doing it,” says Mike.
“I wasn’t so sure,” says Herbie. “But Mike kept pushing so I thought why not?”
Why not indeed?
For now, Herbie Armstrong, Sheffield music scene stalwart, friend of the stars, all round nice guy, is experiencing the 15 minutes (and maybe longer) of fame, those Sheffield friends have always said he deserved.
On stage antics with Screaming Lord Sutch
FANS of the God-like Screaming Lord Sutch, a rock and roll superstar long before he founded the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, never knew what to expect when he took to the stage.
And neither, it seems, did his backing musicians.
Herbie Armstrong knows – because he was one.
At one London gig, Sutch set part of the stage furniture on fire in a (supposedly) managed routine.
The only problem?
When it came to spreading the required petrol he spilt it everywhere but where it should be.
But Sutch didn’t let a small thing like that stop him throwing the match down.
“Entire parts of the stage went up and we were having to dodge this raging fire,” laughs Herbie. “But we played on. I still think about it to this day. It was a great gig. He was a big character.”
The TV controversy
PEOPLE take Britain’s Got Talent really quite seriously, it seems.
An army of reality TV curmudgeons have started a campaign demanding Herbie be dropped from the show. Their reason? He’s already had a career in music.
One twitter poster, presumably with a little too much time on his hands, blasted: “This show should be for beginners setting out on their careers. Not for successful musicians who’ve had their chance.”
But Herbie holds no truck with such views.
“I was always the back room boy before,” he says. “Besides it’s called Britain’s Got Talent, not Newcomers Have Talent.
“People are entitled to their opinion but the producers know my background and I think they made the right decision having me on the show.”