Next week Graham Russell will be performing in front of an 18,000-strong crowd at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. But for now he’s in Arnold, where he grew up, and to say he’s an international rock star and probably the most successful Nottinghamshire musician ever no one knows who he is.
Graham, a singer songwriter and guitarist, is one half of the group Air Supply, whose epic ballads All Out of Love and Making Love Out of Nothing At All soared up the charts in 1980s. Together with Aussie rocker Russell Hitchcock, he has enjoyed decades of success around the world, selling more than 60 million albums and performing nearly 5,400 gigs.
Air Supply ranks 36th on the Billboard Hot 100 list of all-time top duos and groups, ahead of superstars everyone knows, such as Queen, Aerosmith, U2, Blondie and Gun ‘n’ Roses.
Graham, 73, says: “In 1980 we released Lost in Love which became the fastest selling single of the year, then All Out of Love, which did the same. We were recently voted by Billboard as the 36th most successful band of all time. However, no one in the Midlands has really heard of us, it’s quite hilarious.”
The duo are still going strong in 2023 with nearly 50 upcoming concerts across the US, Canada, Philippines and Chile in the months ahead and into 2024. Graham, who lives in Utah, in the United States, has paid a flying visit to UK to visit his childhood home in Arnold for the first time in more than 60 years – the place where he first started writing.
Joined by his girlfriend Lori, we meet up at Costa Coffee in Arnold’s Front Street where he talks about growing in the modest semi, his stellar music career and the fact that he can come to the UK under the radar.
He says: “I’m very proud of coming from here. I’ve been back over the years but I’ve never been back to the house. I think I wanted some closure. It was very emotional. I was drifting back and seeing images of myself and my sisters playing in the backyard. We never had a car or a phone. We always went to Skegness for our vacation.”
It was a turbulent time after his mother died from cancer when he was just ten years old but the way he dealt with the anguish led to his eventual song writing career.
“I’ve always thought that sent me down that path. I didn’t know she was dying. When I woke up that morning my dad said ‘your mother’s gone’ – I didn’t know what that meant. I asked if she was coming back. I didn’t speak to anybody for three months. I went totally inward. The only thing that brought me out was writing things.
“I had a big paper pad on a string around my neck and would write things down. I would start to make it rhyme for fun. Then I borrowed a guitar from a friend of mine and started to play. I poured everything into that. I started to write songs without knowing.
“I’ve never been taught music by anybody. I just taught myself. Writing a song was my escape for everything. I just loved it so much. I’d write three or four songs a week.”
One of the most impactful events was as 14-year-old, seeing the Beatles at Nottingham’s Odeon Cinema at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. Graham says: “It just changed my life. I had already been writing songs and when I saw them, it was ‘oh my god’ everything fell into place for me and I became even more driven – I had a goal.”
He joined a band called the Nottingham Odd Fellows who performed covers in local pubs. Leaving Nottingham in 1968, he headed to Australia as a hopeful songwriter. In 1975, he was cast in Jesus Christ Superstar, along with Russell Hitchcock, who coincidentally had experienced the same frenzy at one of the Fab Four’s concerts at Festival Hall in Melbourne, Australia.
The two struck up an instant friendship and bonded over their mutual admiration of the Beatles. They went on to form Air Supply, opening for Rod Stewart on tour in America, selling-out concerts and performing more than 130 gigs every year around the world.
Now nearly 50 years later Air Supply they will be dedicating their Hollywood Bowl concert on September 3 to the Beatles, who performed there in 1964.
Graham says: “We are almost at 5,400 shows in our career and I don’t think a lot of bands have done that but that’s what we love to do. We are very fortunate because our fans are hardcore. Fortunately we sell out every show we do. We’ve made 25 albums so we’ve kind of done really well, we are doing ok.”
He looks every inch the rock star with blond hair, a healthy tan and an English Ghetto Rockers’ military jacket yet no one stops and stares or asks for a selfie. A group of young mums having a coffee at the next table weren’t born when he first hit the big time.
Graham puts it down to the fact that Air Supply have never played in Nottingham, or indeed toured the UK. He says: “This is the really weird thing because in our early career when we first broke in the US we concentrated so much on the US and then Japan and Asia and Latin America.
“We had some big hits here but we never came here to tour and I think that was a mistake. My ultimate goal would be to play at the Concert Hall in Nottingham. I would love to play here to show people what I’ve done.”
Fans span all ages, with the older generation bringing their children and their grandchildren to concerts. Graham says: “We have a lot of fans, I think its 22 million. Our fans are legion. Some of them have seen almost 1,000 shows.
“We do Q&A before and we say why do you keep coming to the shows? You know what we are going to do, you know all the songs a million times and they say ‘it’s not just about the songs, it’s the experience of being there. They say when you sing, when you play, you really mean it, it’s for real..
“And it is, we don’t just get up and go through the motions. We are very aware that what happened to us could have happened to thousands of bands and it really shouldn’t have happened to us. We didn’t have any experience but we were thrown to the lions very early and we’ve had so much luck on our side it’s uncanny.
“We formed the band in 1976 and that same month we played a New Year’s Eve show in Sydney on the Opera House steps for 90,000 people. There were other artists on the bill. A few weeks after that Rod Stewart was touring Australia and we had the number one single and album so we got the job of opening for him.
“After the first show in Adelaide, Rod came to our dressing room and said ‘I want you to open for me in North America next year.’ We were freaking out because he was standing there and we’d never seen a big star before.”
During his stay in Nottingham Graham has met up with one of his former secondary school teachers at Carlton le Willows (after a brief stint at Robert Mellors) and enjoyed a cruise down the River Trent with the “Zoomers” – a bunch of old school pals who meet up every Sunday online. After our interview, they’re off for a curry.
It turns out Graham has a fascinating family tree. On his mother’s side of the family, he recently discovered one of his ancestors was William Booth, who founded the Salvation Army.
And on the Russell side, he’s a lord. He explains: “My great great great grandfather was the right hand man for a lord. He had no children and he passed the title on. I was looking around at genealogy once and someone got hold of me and told me I was related to that Lord Russell from the 1770s. We went back and looked at it and I was.
“I did some research and I could claim it, so I did. It took a couple of years but I claimed it just because I thought it would be fun.”
Interview over, we’re about to part ways when a man comes over and asks if it’s Graham. It’s an old school friend, Bill Goodwin, who lives in Arnold. “You’re the third person to recognise me since I’ve been in England this time,” says Graham before the two start on a trip down memory lane.