Tessa Niles…The Legend

by Sheldon Rocha Leal

In my career, I have had the opportunity to work with and meet some very inspiring people in the music industry. From each one of these people I have learnt something different every time. It all started with my first brush with greatness RJ Benjamin, a dear friend, early collaborator and musical genius. From there I have worked with some of South Africa’s greatest talent: Lira, DJ Cleo, Proverb, Tamara Dei, Danny K, Zwai Bala, Devereaux van Der Hooven, Adriana Scholtz, Christine Ludwig. I have been very lucky.

At Tessa’s book launch in 2015

One of these experiences was meeting one of my childhood heroes, Tessa Niles and having the honour of spending countless days and weeks picking her amazing brain. Tessa taught me to simplify things and she gave me perspective at a time when I didn’t have so much of it.

So who is this Tessa Niles person? The truth is, unless you’re really paying attention, you wouldn’t really know who she is, but she is the embodiment of my music career philosophy: she is someone who has attained immense success in the music industry, but hasn’t craved the limelight in ways that many other artists do, which doesn’t make her any less of an artist or a creative or a success.

I always try tell my students that the music industry is vast and embodies many and varied career options, in which one can attain immense success. The music industry caters to the charismatic superstar and the shy worker who will assist in the creation of the superstar mystique. It’s a wide continuum, that caters to many different people with different skills and varying aptitudes. All the people in the continuum can be as successful as the star and some are even more financially successful, people like managers and agents, who make the bulk of the income generated by stars.

Tessa Niles’ biography

Tessa Niles is one of the most successful backing vocalists in the world and she has worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, people like: Tina Turner, Robbie Williams, Eric Clapton, Kylie Minogue, Take That, Tom Jones, Natalie Imbruglia, Seal, David Bowie, Joe Cocker, Sir Cliff Richard…(Her list of collaborations are so long, that it could fill a whole other article).

Tessa Niles was born in Essex in 1961, moved to London in her late teens and worked her way up through the ranks to become one of the most sort after backing vocalists in music history.

So how did some dude in South Africa get to know about this amazing backing vocalist from England and how did they meet?

Two very interesting questions, if I do say so myself…:)

Tessa doing what she does best

Well the truth is I’m a self-confessed music nerd. Not only do I still listen to albums, in their entirety, I will then do my research, analyzing each song and writing down all the musicians, producers and engineers that appear on the songs to which I listen. This is a practice that has been going on for years, but started when I was a teenager. Back then one name kept on popping up, whenever I did my breakdowns: Tessa Niles and she happened to appear on some of my favorite songs, like: Simply The Best (Tina Tuner), Come Undone (Duran Duran), Rock DJ (Robbie Williams), Kids (Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams) and Tears in Heaven (Eric Clapton), to mention just a few of the many hits. So as a young kid, the Tessa Niles name was very familiar to me.

Tessa meeting my students in 2014, she read excerpts of her unreleased biography

Fast forward to 18 September 2013…I was busy judging a singing competition and the person who was assisting me asked me if I knew who the mother of the girl, to whom I had just given a big award was…she told me she was a highly celebrated musician. I was very sceptical…A highly celebrated musician in South Africa…hmmmm…who’s a female…hmmmm…and was sitting in the same room as me in a little suburb in Sandton…hmmmm…I was stumped. My assistant told me, I probably wouldn’t even know who she was anyway. My curiosity was aroused…I said, Try Me…she said: Tessa Niles…Tessa WHAT!!!! (I said)…my assistant then said: “you see I knew you wouldn’t know who she was”. I was like…of course I know who that is, but it’s impossible, Tessa Niles is British, what would she be doing in a remote little suburb in South Africa. But alas it was the great Tessa Niles. I asked to be introduced. I felt like a teenage school girl. I must say, not much impresses or excites me nowadays, but meeting one of my heroes was definitely a big thing for me. I found her on Facebook and to my surprise, she accepted my request. I couldn’t believe it. The legend accepted MY REQUEST.

The day Tessa and I met, 18 September 2013

We met at a time in which I was busy writing my Masters dissertation and she was trying to complete her biography. It was a very synergistic time and I felt that she really motivated me in my writing experience. I even landed up interviewing her for my Masters.

When people say that when one finally meets their heroes, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be, well with Tessa it was everything and more. She was even better. So wise, knowledgeable, beautiful, giving and a good person.

Tessa with my assistant Shaungah Ambros

In my short encounters with Tessa I learnt a lot and reflected on even more. She was a great mirror. She really placed the industry in perspective for me and helped me cement my philosophy that one does not need to be a big megastar to be successful in this industry. Some people just don’t want to be stars, and they cool with that (I am one of those people), yet it doesn’t detract from their success and achievements. She also restored my faith in humanity. I was experiencing some negative behavior from some of my acquaintances and she helped me realize that not everyone is bad and not everyone is self-absorbed and insular, that there are people who care for other people and that all people come into your life for a purpose. In the time I got to know Tessa, she invited me over to her house for tea on various occasions and even invited me to her birthday party and book launch. She really made me feel special. The highlight was when she asked me to accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award at the Backing Vocalists and Session Musicians awards ceremony (which she still needs to collect:)).

Tessa and I after I interviewed her for my Masters dissertation

Sometimes people come into your life to teach you something and then move on to greener pastures in England to bring up her daughters. Tessa will always be a star to me and I appreciate what I learnt from her.

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