Born c. 1962 in Birmingham, England. Played with bands including the Akrylyx and the Bones until c. 1984; member of the Fine Young Cannibals, c. 1984--. Appeared in films, including Tin Men, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and Scandal. Addresses: Manager-- AGM Management, 1312 N. LaBrea Ave., Hollywood, CA 90028.
Roland Gift, lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals, one of the most popular new groups of the late 1980s, has been compared by critics to such great vocalists as Sam Cooke, Al Green, Otis Redding, Nat King Cole, and even Frank Sinatra. "Gift draws portraits of heartache and longing," explained John Leland in Vogue, "as he slides from falsetto to a deep mournful moan." Reviewer Nicholas Jennings concurred in Maclean's , declaring that "the highlight of the Cannibals' sound...[is] Gift's plaintive voice." Also serving as the band's lyricist, Gift has contributed in large measure to the success of the Cannibals' first two albums, Fine Young Cannibals and The Raw and the Cooked.
Born in Birmingham, England, to a white mother and a black father, Gift grew up in the English seaside town of Hull. According to Marlaine Glicksman in Film Comment, Gift found the fishing port dull and "backward." He told her, "When I was really little, all I ever wanted was to be a cosmopolitan person." Perhaps accordingly, Gift's youthful ambition was to be an actor, and he constantly performed in school and community plays. He was also attracted to music, however, and recalled for Glicksman that "mostly the singers I used to listen to were soul singers--American black soul singers. When I see somebody has created something, it really excites me, I feel I can go out and do anything." Gift found Otis Redding particularly inspiring, but as he grew older, he became interested in the punk scene, admiring groups such as the Clash. At the age of sixteen he dyed his hair and gave up acting to join a punk band.
Gift's career as a musician before joining the Fine Young Cannibals included stints with the Akrylyx and the Bones; it was while with the former group that he opened for the popular ska group English Beat, whose members Andy Cox and David Steele would later seek him out as a vocalist for the Cannibals. For Akrylyx Gift played the saxophone, but he confided to Steve Dougherty of People that he was "so bad that people asked me to sing." According to Rob Tannenbaum of Rolling Stone, "at the end of the Akrylyx's set, Gift would sing a song." But Gift admitted to Tannenbaum: "It was just...awful, just shouting." Despite his punk influences, Gift still prefers the soul sound of the 1960s, before "guitars got really heavy and dominant, and singing went out the window," as he put it to Tannenbaum.
By 1983, the English Beat had broken up. Cox and Steele wanted to form a new group, but recognized that they needed a lead singer, preferably one with attractive looks as well as a good voice. According to Tannenbaum, the pair listened to over four hundred demo tapes in the course of their search. Once, they thought they had found the perfect candidate, but he turned out to be "fifty-five, bald, and fat," in Tannenbaum's words. Finally, Cox and Steele remembered a band that had often opened for their concerts, and in particular remembered the saxophone player.
When Gift joined Cox and Steele, they chose their band's name from a 1960 film that none of them had ever seen, All the Fine Young Cannibals. They released their first album in 1985, entitled Fine Young Cannibals. Gift and the other Cannibals scored a dance hit in England with the album's "Johnny Come Home," and what Glicksman heralded as "a revved-up rendition of Elvis Presley's 'Suspicious Minds'" also did well in the band's homeland. Fine Young Cannibals brought its authors' musical talents to the attention of filmmakers, too. Jonathan Demme recruited the Cannibals to do a remake of the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love," which Jimmy Guterman in a Rolling Stone review labeled an "instant classic," for use in his Something Wild. Director Barry Levinson was so impressed with the band and Gift's singing that he not only asked them to record songs for the film Tin Men, but included in it footage of the Cannibals portraying a 1960s group. Later, the cuts from Tin Men and "Ever Fallen in Love" helped make up Gift and the Cannibals' second release, The Raw and the Cooked. This album, whose unusual name comes from a book of the same title by Claude Levi-Strauss, also spawned the band's first number one single--"She Drives Me Crazy." "Good Thing," from Tin Men, was a follow-up hit.
Though Gift turned away from acting in his adolescence, he has since had an opportunity to express himself through the medium of his first career choice. Not only has his work with the Fine Young Cannibals become tied to the screen, but he has had respectable acting roles in motion pictures. After seeing Gift perform with the Cannibals on a British television music show, director Stephen Frears cast him as Danny in the 1987 cult film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Film offers began to pour in after that, and he won a major part in the British film Scandal. But Gift is picky about the roles he accepts: as Tannenbaum put it, "he's seen musicians destroy credibility in two fields with one bad part." Gift also finds there are not many non-stereotypical parts for black actors. "Obviously I don't like the stereotyping," he complained to Tannenbaum. He commented to Glicksman: "People...expect me to be black, to do the black thing. [It's] racist, really, expecting someone to behave a certain way....I think it shouldn't be an issue, and I'd like it not to be an issue. I am black, but don't forget I'm half white." Gift plans to do further film work, plus take part in a Hull production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
Gift is also working on the Fine Young Cannibals' third album. Whether he concerns himself with music or acting, Gift summed up his attitude for Glickman: "I love performing because it's something that you never need to stop doing. You're always learning. If you're a craftsman and you can create, then it's always going to be different and always changing. It's more than wanting to be famous. It's more than wanting to be a star. It's about wanting to be involved in some kind of creation. That's what it's about."
by Elizabeth Thomas
Roland Gift's Career
- Albums with the Fine Young Cannibals
- Fine Young Cannibals (includes "Johnny Come Home" and "Suspicious Minds"), I.R.S., 1985.
- The Raw and the Cooked (includes "She Drives Me Crazy," "Good Thing," "Ever Fallen in Love," "Tell Me What," and "As Hard As It Is"), I.R.S., 1989.
- Film Comment, March/April, 1989.
- Maclean's, March 6, 1989.
- People, May 1, 1989.
- Rolling Stone, March 9, 1989, April 20, 1989.
- Vogue, April, 1989.