Returning to the stage to play Faye Treadwell, formidable manager of the Drifters, the singer and actor explains how she faced down sexism and racism to forge her own career path in Britain

Beverley Knight strides out of rehearsals for her new musical and breaks out a smile, a few bars of song and a box of biscuits. “That’s a bit more like it – come on!” It’s the end of a long day’s practice for The Drifters Girl and Knight doesn’t seem the least fatigued – she is cheery, focused and unerringly upfront. What does she think of the government’s initial pandemic response? “A deer in the headlights.” Luvvie-bashers? “They need the arts more than they think.” Another winter lockdown? “Hell no! We’re on stage!” And diversity in theatre? “It’s not just needing a few more black people up in this building. We need all kinds of everyone.”

Knight became famous as a singer, but has been involved in the theatre, on and off, since she was five. This musical gives her her latest lead role as Faye Treadwell, formidable manager of the Drifters, the honeyed R&B vocal group behind the 50s and 60s classics There Goes My Baby, Saturday Night at the Movies and Under the Boardwalk. “She was ex-tra-ord-in-ar-y,” she declares, slapping out the syllables on the table with joy and awe. The Drifters’ music has been with Knight, 48, since her dad crooned Save the Last Dance for Me around their Wolverhampton home. It’s easy to be sentimental about their lush ballads of last dances, first kisses and magic moments, but those harmonies give the songs a smoothness that belies their fractious backstage dramas. Treadwell took over managing the band from her husband, George, when he died in 1967, and transformed their fortunes. “She was a firefighter,” reckons Knight. “A couple of the Drifters, Faye had to kick to the kerb – they’d endure anything but being told what to do by a woman.” After more than 25 years in the music business, Knight can relate. “My own career has been about maintaining control of the art at all costs. A lot of it has been men trying to tell me what to look like, what to sound like.”

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