MIST swirls about the stage and a rousing skirl of the pipes commands the audience’s attention. Out of the mist steps a man in his late thirties. Unruly black hair. The sort of teeth that make Americans faint. Hooped top, tailcoat, vaguely piratical-looking.

The man gives a mischievous smile and says: “I would like to introduce you to my band: the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.” The spotlight picks out Hugh McKenna on keyboards, from which a hypnotic electronic pulse starts throbbing.

A shaker shushes rhythmically then drummer Ted McKenna offers a rolling-thunder introduction to a head-bludgeoning chord from one of Scotland’s greatest ever guitarists: Zal Cleminson. Dressed in full clown outfit.

Bassist Chris Glen bungs in a backbone, as the strange man at the mic, Alex Harvey, holds his arms out in front of him and implores menacingly: “Let me put my hands on you.” The opening words of Faith Healer (later, better live version).

I speak from memory. Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Seventies. Witness to a true entertainer who melded hard rock with vaudeville.

Harvey biographer John Neil Munro describes him as “undoubtedly Scotland’s greatest rock ’n’ roll star”. Band biographer Martin Kielty speaks of “a magical period, 1972 until 1977, when the best frontman in the world performed with the best band in the world”.

Aged 40 by the time of their first chart hit in 1975, he is said to have served the longest apprenticeship in rock history.

In the beginning, as he intoned when introducing gangland classic Vambo Rools, Harvey was born on February 5, 1935, in Govan Road, Glasgow, though his family moved soon afterwards to Thistle Street in the Gorbals, where they shared a communal toilet with 100 people.

After attending Camden Street Primary School and Strathbungo Senior Secondary, he worked in various non-executive positions.

Man from Auntie

Alex was adept at inventing fake backgrounds for the music press, notably telling one publication that his biggest influence had been his “Aunt Betsy”, a blues guitarist who lost two fingers after being tortured by the Nazis.

So, he may or may not have been a carpenter, waiter, fruit porter, clerk, labourer, tombstone carver, and crewman on a puffer.

The last named is almost certainly true. His claim to have been a lion tamer is probably false. One thing he never became was a soldier.

As he told one interviewer about National Service (bear in mind he was sloshed): “I wasnae gonnae fight for the f*****g English. I’d been brought up in a single end in a tenement … And these people come along and say, ‘Fight for your country’? In this place where I lived there were rats crawling through the walls … I couldn’t have cared less if the f*****g Germans had come and taken the Gorbals. They were welcome to it.”

Not, as Munro points out, that he was anti-English. He married an English lass and lived happily in East Finchley for 20 years. As for war, his father – a well-read man with left-wing views – and his father before him had been conscientious objectors.

Alex had no objection to getting on stage and, in 1954, began performing in skiffle groups. In 1957, he won a Sunday Mail competition to become “Scotland’s answer to Tommy Steele”.

Sensational Alex Harvey Band (SAHB) drummer Ted McKenna claimed you could hear “hear the sarcasm” in the performance.

Harvey built a formidable reputation gigging round the dance halls of Glasgow, and with his group the Kansas City Counts, featuring Sydney Devine – yep, that one – and guitarist Joe Moretti, toured the country.

Beatles about

IN May 1960, at Alloa town hall, Alex Harvey and his Big Beat Band opened for Johnny Gentle and His Group. Johnny’s group was made up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Tommy Moore.

Your correspondent encountered Johnny when reporting from a Beatles Convention in Liverpool 20-odd years ago: nicer chap you couldn’t hope to meet.

In 1967, Alex became a member of the pit band in the London stage production of rock musical Hair, about follicles, hippies and the Age of Aquarius, ken? That band recorded live album Hair Rave Up, which contained some Harvey originals. SAHB bassist Chris Glen said Alex’s time with the musical taught him much about stage performance.

Alex kept his Hair on for five years until, in 1972, came the momentous merging with the aforementioned Cleminson, Glen, and the McKenna cousins, late of famously loud Glaswegian rockers Tear Gas, to form SAHB.

SAHB became the biggest-grossing mid-70s live act in the UK, releasing in their five years together eight successful albums and two hit singles, The Boston Tea Party and Delilah, a somewhat spoofy version of the Tom Jones hit (recently controversial for arguably glorifying violence against women).

They supported The Who and Jethro Tull, topped the bill at the Reading Festival, and inspired many acclaimed performers, such as Nick Cave, Robert Smith of The Cure, and Richard O’Brien, creator of the Rocky Horror Show.

Their shows at Glasgow’s Apollo, where his dad had worked as night watchman, are regarded among the most memorable ever staged there.

Bassist Chris Glen recalled how, after the second of three “bersek” soldout nights, he asked if the fans had caused any damage.

“The manager said, ‘Aye, the first two rows.’ I said, ‘Damaged?’ And he said, ‘No – disappeared’.” They’d ripped out the cast-iron seats, bolted to the floor, as souvenirs.

Life in disharmony

BANDS, like empires, rise and fall, and Alex parted ways with SAHB in 1977. Though rejoining once or twice in succeeding years, AH was no longer the beating heart of SAHB.

He had a solo band for a while, but ill health and alcoholism plagued him, as did earlier tragedies, notably the death of his brother Les, electrocuted in a freak accident while performing with Stone The Crows in 1972.

On February 4, 1982, while waiting for a ferry from Zeebrugge after performances in Belgium, Alex Harvey died from a heart attack, one day before his 47th birthday.

As a performer, he’d come a long way from singing My Cup Runneth Over at church in the Gorbals.