In Search of Freedom

Johnny Amobi survived a terrible childhood to become a West End star

Brought up by an alcoholic single mum in Camden, expelled from school and witness in an attempted murder trial at the Old Bailey   when barely into his teens, it wasn’t much of a childhood. At 15 Johnny Amobi joined classes at the WAC performing arts college up the road from where he lived. But he was kicked out of that too.

Four years later he returned. This time he stayed and at the age of 23, through a mixture of talent, luck and personality, his powerful singing voice was filling the Victoria Theatre in the 1980s hit show Starlight Express in the first of several lead roles in West End musicals.

It is a heart-warming rags-to-riches tale that would also see Amobi travel the world as a singer.  Now living in the proverbial house on the hill in Highgate, he has come back to where it all began, hosting WAC’s gala show last month, which included performances from students he teaches there twice a week.

“I wouldn’t be where I was if it weren’t for WAC,” Amobi states expansively. “When I first went there as a youngster I needed to be engaged, I needed to be respected and that’s what happened for the first time in my life. WAC was the root, my pathway to the beginning of my journey and it is a place I love to be associated with.”

The son of a Scottish mother and Nigerian father, Amobi grew up in the Camden Town of the 1960s and ‘70s when it was more Walter Sickert than Amy Winehouse, its crumbling terraces seemingly light years away from gentrification.

His father had returned home after completing university studies when he was an infant and the two did not meet until Amobi was 10. “He came to England on a brief business trip but was more interested in my mum than me,” he recalls ruefully. He would not see him for another 20 years.

Times were hard but not that bad. His mother Pauline Mani was a resourceful woman who ran the Fairfield Community Centre in Arlington Rd and helped organise the annual festival in Albert Street, where they lived.  A larger than life figure, she caught the eye of many people including her neighbour, the writer Beryl Bainbridge, who based the character Freda in the novel The Bottle Factory Outing on her.

But Pauline suffered from many demons, chief of which was drink, which would eventually kill her at the age of 62. “My childhood was shit,” says Amobi calmly. “My mother was a very angry woman and we had an uneasy relationship to say the least.”

Amobi reacted with his own anger and after being expelled from two primary schools, Primrose Hill and Netley, he was sent to a boarding school for “maladjusted children”. For his secondary education he returned to Camden, where he had to negotiate his way through the local hard nuts, both on the streets and at his new school, the former Sir William Collins in Somers Town.

Now living in Camden Street, he one day witnessed someone getting his throat cut at a friend’s house. ”I was 13 and had to give evidence at the Old Bailey. There were no protective screens or video evidence in those days. But the guy got off the attempted murder charge and for a long time I was terrified that he’d come and get me.”

His passion for music lightened the load. Camden Town was the heartland of punk and rising homegrown soul artists like Jazzie B, while the best clubs on the music scene like Crackers, the Electric Ballroom and The 100 Club were all within walking distance.

“That was the great thing about Camden – there was so much going on and you were able to meet all these different people. For me it represented freedom.”

His love of dancing saw him enroll in dance classes at WAC. “But I kept mucking about and they said I was wasting their time – they were right. They told me to come back when I was more serious, which is what I did.”

Now much more settled and drawing on his own experiences to study social work, thoughts of a career in show business were far from his mind. But he was encouraged to develop his talents and this led to him being awarded the Dame Anna Neagle scholarship by impresario Cameron Mackintosh to study musical theatre at the London Studio Centre in York Way, King’s Cross.

He emerged three years later with a finely tuned tenor voice and   straightaway landed the role of Poppa in Starlight Express. From there he joined the original cast of Miss Saigon. Five Guys Named Mo, Notre Dame de Paris, Dancing in the Streets andJoseph And The Technicolor Dreamcoat are among his other West End credits. He has also worked extensively in Africa, Australia and India, led his own band and recorded with the likes of Olivia Newton John.

Now mainly working as a solo singer and songwriter, he spends two days a week at WAC’s base in Hampstead Town Hall, Belsize Park, putting musical theatre diploma students through their paces. “I feel inspired when I watch my WAC students on stage,” he declares happily.  They give so much passion, energy and total commitment to the craft. I hope the self-esteem they gain from this transfers into the rest of their lives, just like it has done mine.”

Published: 2 February, 2012

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