Pop group Five Star unexpectedly returned to the headlines over the last few weeks after a boy who swore at them on children’s TV in 1989 apologised for his outburst, only for the apology to be revealed as a hoax.
Coincidentally, the story cropped up as the band marked the 35th anniversary of their formation, which happened in a three-bed townhouse in Romford, Essex.
It’s a story of rags-to-riches-to-rags (depending on how much you trust the tabloids) that ends with the band back on their feet.
We spoke to Doris Pearson who, along with her siblings Denise, Lorraine, Delroy and Steadman, sold more than 15 million records in the 1980s.
They even became the first black group to win a Brit Award, in recognition of the four-times platinum album Silk and Steel.
But looking back, Doris says she only signed up for one reason: to meet Michael Jackson.
“I thought, I’ll either be an air hostess so I can get to travel to America, or I’ll be in the group. Either way I’ll definitely get to meet him,” she laughs.
The band were cast in the mould of the Jackson Five: a ten-legged singing-and-dancing sensation, with matching sequinned jumpsuits and a knack for pop harmonies.
Like their transatlantic counterparts, their career was masterminded by their father – Buster Pearson, a former session musician who had played with Otis Redding, Jimmy Cliff and Wilson Pickett.
Having seen the darker side of the industry, Buster initially resisted their entreaties to form a group “because we were all still in school”, Doris recalls. But the brothers and sisters rehearsed in secret until they felt confident enough to put on a showcase in the living room.
“It wasn’t serious until we really showed that we could handle a song, and not just mime,” says Doris.
Youngest sister Denise became the frontwoman (“she was always singing from when she was tiny, so it was natural”) while Doris took on the choreography and elder brother Steadman designed their ostentatious costumes. Legend has it that their shoulder pads grew so big, Five Star had to walk sideways down corridors.
Their first single, Problematic, was a weirdly upbeat song about struggling to find work in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain that won the band a slot on the BBC magazine show Pebble Mill At One. According to Buster Pearson, RCA Records called to offer Five Star a contract before they had even finished their performance.
But he kept the band independent, signing them to his own label, Tent Records, and licensing the recordings to RCA. It was a shrewd move.
“RCA wanted to pigeonhole us as an R&B group and my dad would not accept that,” Doris says. “Our music wasn’t defined by skin colour and he was very adamant that they understood that.”
Although their first few singles failed to make an impact, things turned around when Nick Martinelli of soul group Loose Ends took over production duties. All Fall Down became Five Star’s first top 20 hit in June 1985, just two days after Denise’s 17th birthday. In the video, she still had braces on her teeth.
Five Star’s debut album, Luxury of Life, eventually spawned seven singles. Unusually, the biggest one came last: System Addict, a cautionary tale about technological overload, peaked at number three, earning the group a silver disc.
To Doris, however, success wasn’t measured in chart positions or awards. “My perspective was just that I wanted my school friends to know. That was the huge deal to us,” she says.
School was put on hold as the band set off for a promotional tour of the US. There, Disney offered Five Star their own TV show – but Buster declined, prioritising the follow-up to Luxury of Life.
They hit the studio with a completely fresh batch of producers, with one exception: System Addict songwriter Bill Livesy, who had submitted a catchy ballad called Rain Or Shine.
“We had quite an ordeal recording that,” Doris recalls. “The vocal, especially the lead vocal, wasn’t happening. We tried a lot of things – moving around, taking the microphone out into the hallway – but I think it was just technique, she [Denise] was lacking at the time.
“It was tricky, but we got it done in the end. And they do say some of the trickiest ones are the ones that become a hit.”
Sure enough, Rain Or Shine became the band’s biggest-selling single, only held off number one by Madonna’s True Blue. The album, Silk and Steel, produced another five hit singles, and won Five Star the Brit Award for best group.
Continued success allowed the family to move from Romford to a mansion in Sunningdale, Essex, where they installed a £2.5m recording studio, a fleet of expensive cars and a fan club operating out of the gatekeeper’s cottage.
Hits kept coming – Whenever You’re Ready, Strong As Steel, Rock My World – but the chart positions were slipping. By the time Eliot Fletcher phoned up Going Live to ask “Why are Five Star so crap?” they hadn’t been in the top 10 for two years.
“It was quite a shock,” says Doris. “We were just there, doing our work and all of a sudden things ground to a halt. You’d think, ‘For what reason? What’s changed?’
“We did our job and delivered. Whatever else was going on in the mix with record companies was just politics.”
Things didn’t improve. The band left their Sunningdale mansion amid tabloid reports that they’d gone bankrupt. Speaking on Terry Wogan’s chat show, they later denied losing all their money, explaining it was only the recording studio business that had gone under. After an underperforming greatest hits album, the band left RCA for Epic Records, and Doris took over as lead singer.
“That was down to the record company. It was a surprise for me. I was like, ‘Oh, OK! I’ll have a go!'”
But even the rejigged line-up didn’t help. Despite two decent singles, the funky drummer-sampling Treat Me Like A Lady and the flirtatious Hot Love (both written by Doris), the group’s fifth album failed to chart.
Their fortunes hit an all-time low when Stedman was fined for public indecency in 1991. Afterwards, the group relocated to the US and released a few more albums. But, ultimately, their recording career was over.
These days, Doris has a career as a songwriter, working with Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley among others. Denise has performed in the West End in Thriller Live, while Delroy is record producer in LA. They periodically reunite to play the nostalgia circuit and, although Doris isn’t part of Five Star’s current touring line-up, she doesn’t rule out a fully-fledged reunion.
“It’s always a consideration. When everything’s aligned, it’s going to go ‘boom’ and it’s going to happen.”
But most importantly – did she get to meet Michael Jackson?
“Yes! What a gorgeous man!” laughs the singer, who was flown to Sweden to watch Jackson’s Bad tour. Not that their meeting went well.
“I was so rubbish,” she cringes. “All I said was, ‘I thought you were taller!’
“When he left, all I could think was ‘Why did you say that?!”
Five Star’s greatest hits compilation Five Star Gold is out now.