Why our Jonny changed goals to become a stage star

If you’d have placed a bet on what a young Jonathan Wilkes would do when he grew up, you would have got short odds on him becoming a professional footballer.

Little Jonny, pictured here as a mascot for his beloved Port Vale, lived, ate and breathed football when he was a youngster.

It was football which dominated young Jonny’s life from an early age and very nearly resulted in him earning a living from it.

Speaking earlier this week before the launch of The Regent Theatre’s Christmas panto Cinderella, Jonny recalls a very happy, very busy childhood.

Young Wilkesy grew up in Baddeley Green, attending Hillside Primary School, and lived above his dad’s travel agent’s.

Born in 1978, he is an archetypal child of Eighties.

He said: “I do love the Eighties and the fact that there’s such a fondness for Eighties nostalgia. For example, I’m a massive fan of Eighties movies. I love films like the Karate Kid, the Rocky films and The Goonies or Weird Science. In fact, anytime an Eighties movie comes on telly I’ll try to watch it and try to get my lad Mickey to watch it.

“Growing up, though, I was always playing football. Some of my earliest memories are of playing in the ladsandads leagues and for the Miltonians – we had a very good side and we beat everyone.

“Because my dad owned a travel business and was one of the first to offer airport transfers, very often there would be drivers round our house and I’d pester them to go in goal for me in the back garden.”

Jonny’s obsession with football and God-given left peg led him to being put on Everton’s books from the age of 14 but, ironically, that was when he fell out of love with the game.

He said: “The travelling was hard for me and my parents and I never really felt accepted there. I was offered terms at Crewe, Wrexham and Chester but by then my experience at Everton had put me off and I remember feigning an injury to avoid carrying on.”

Jonny didn’t give up on football altogether, however – and turned out for a very good Stone Dominoes side in the mid-Nineties which swept all before them.

However, aged 15 he realised that football wouldn’t give him a career.

Jonny said: “I panicked, if I’m honest. I realised that I hadn’t worked that hard at school and didn’t know what the future held. I went to Sixth Form College in Fenton and studied for a BTEC in leisure and tourism before getting a job at a travel agent’s in Hanley. But I always thought I was destined to do more.”

Jonny explained: “I’d watched Rob (Robbie Williams) performing from a very young age and though to myself ‘Wow. I’d love to do that’.

“So I made my stage debut at the Queen’s Theatre at the age of six. I’ve got very hazy memories of it. It wasn’t actually until the age of 13 when I had my tonsils removed that I found I could sing a bit. So I started to sing at karaoke bars and the like. Then my mum spotted something on GMTV about an upcoming talent competition and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Jonny’s referring to the prestigious Cameron Mackintosh Young Entertainer of the Year Award which he won in 1996 at the age of 17 by wowing the judges with his version of Tom Jones’s ‘Kiss’.
He then became the youngest entertainer to headline a show in Blackpool.

It was so popular it ran for three years.

Jonny said: “I’ve been lucky at times but I’ve also worked extremely hard for the success I’ve had.

“I’m never more comfortable than when I’m on stage and The Regent Theatre really is my second home which is why I’m so excited about returning for panto. Last Christmas just wasn’t the same because I was away from Stoke-on-Trent.

“This year’s going to be a cracker!”

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The night Lemmy and Ozzy rocked Vale Park

Last weekend around 12,000 people packed in to Hanley Park for 2012 Live – a summer pop concert which brought the some of the biggest names in British music to the Potteries.

I have to admit I hadn’t heard of most of the acts because I’m a crusty old rocker who was weaned on hair metal and pays no attention to the contemporary music scene.

My first concert was on August 19, 1989, at the Milton Keynes Bowl.

I was 17 and it was my first taste of live rock music – courtesy of the mighty Bon Jovi.

But eight years earlier there was a gig right here in the Potteries that teenage me would have given my right arm to be at.

It was a concert that very nearly didn’t take place at all because of objections by local residents who sought an injunction to prevent it happening.

Originally, families in the Louise Street area of Burslem threatened to withhold payment of their rates to the council in the gig went ahead.

Indeed, the concert only happened because at the eleventh hour the event’s promoters paid for a bus trip to Blackpool for the disgruntled folk of Burslem who didn’t much fancy having their Saturday ruined by some of the loudest bands on the planet.

Heavy Metal Holocaust took place at Vale Park on August 1, 1981 – a blisteringly hot summer’s day in Burslem.

More than 20,000 rock fans paid £7.50 for tickets in advance or £8.50 on the day to see their heroes in action.

It was a time when heavy metal bands such as Iron Maiden regularly featured in the charts – making the genre fashionable. Well, almost.

Black Sabbath had originally been scheduled to top the bill alongside Motörhead but had been forced to pull out just weeks before the gig.

Thankfully, former Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne – accompanied by ex-Quiet Riot guitarist, the legendary Randy Rhoads – stepped into the breach.

Ozzy was introduced to the sweltering crowd by Motörhead bassist and vocalist Lemmy Kilmister for whom the concert was something of a home-coming as he had been born in the Mother Town on Christmas Eve 1945.

Also on the bill were Triumph, Riot, and Vardis but it was the joint headliners who took most of the plaudits – although some felt it was the set by Frank Marino, of Canadian hard rock outfit Mahogany Rush, which stole the show.

Many attendees recall the incredible noise levels generated by the headliners and what was reputed to have been the largest PA system which had ever been used in Britain.

As Motörhead finished their set, six sky-divers parachuted on to the pitch to close the show in spectacular style.

The 10-hour concert, which cost £250,000 to stage, has since attained something of a cult status among rock fans – partly because of the line-up (this included a rare appearance by guitar god Rhoads before his tragic death the following year) and partly because, astonishingly, it was a ‘dry’ gig – i.e. no alcohol was sold inside Vale Park on the day.

This presumably explains the presence of a Samaritans ‘quiet tent’ on site which didn’t see many referrals as their counsellors couldn’t make themselves heard.

The gig was a roaring success and police praised the crowd for their exemplary behaviour.

Port Vale made £25,000 from the event which left chairman Don Ratcliffe eager to stage more as it had allowed the cash-strapped fourth division club to buy two new players – Ernie Moss and Ray Deakin.

Unfortunately, rock bands haven’t appeared at Vale Park since – although I’m half tempted to suggest the idea to new owner Keith Ryder the next time I see him.

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