ABBA tribute Mamma Mania to raise funds for Rosemere Cancer Foundation

Leah Haywood

Leah Haywood - Credit: Archant

Lancashire musicians to to the stage on Saturday February 22nd for charity event

Mama Mania

Mama Mania - Credit: Archant

This year sees the 40th anniversary of the release of ABBA’s second album, “Waterloo”. Their music still dominates playlists at parties, weddings and other special occasions everywhere and their songs are timeless.

For Lancashire based singer, Leah Haywood, Abba’s music influenced the direction of her career even though it was never her intention to. Leah is one half of “Mamma Mania!” the Abba tribute act dedicated to the music of Abba and the vocals of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Alongside fellow performer, Jill Schoonjans, the pair have performed at functions across the North of England and received excellent plaudits along the way. I met up with Leah to discuss the band and to also talk about a charity event they are headlining in February which is close to her heart.

Leah’s family are musicians and used to perform on the club circuit on a semi-professional basis. They were influenced by Irish folk music and even though it was only meant to be for the social aspect, they found themselves in high demand. Leah recalls how she and her sister would go to bed with the sounds of rehearsals going on downstairs. “There were Guitars, Bodhran, Mandolin, Whistles and lots of fabulous harmonies. We thought that was what happened at everyone’s houses at the weekend!” With the increased popularity of her parents music, Leah often found herself going along to festivals and concerts and it was the atmosphere of these occasions which developed into a prospective career.

One of the first hurdles she needed to overcome was her shyness. As like most young girls, Leah got herself involved in all sorts of clubs doing Drama, Athletics, Music and attended Brownies, but it was always music that she had the greatest passion for. Leah began learning the keyboard, but soon realised that she wanted to be the face at the front of the band and began singing with her sister accompanying on guitar. She started studying singing and also took up acting lessons, “Just in case Coronation Street were looking for a new actress!”

It was during a family holiday when she discovered her full potential. Leah would often sit in front of the band at the holiday park’s entertainment nights and study their every moves. She eventually signed up for the park talent competition and performed a rendition of “Promise Me” by Beverly Craven backed by the band and made sure she put all her emphasis into the breathing as well as the singing to encapsulate the whole performance. She won the competition and was invited back to the finals in which she came joint first. It was after the competition that one of the band members asked her the ultimate question… “Have you ever thought about being a singer?” Leah studied acting and performing through college and her musical break finally came when she was awarded a position as a singer and entertainer for a holiday company. The dream had begun and it started at the English Riviera…Torquay!

Singers who wanted to make it back in those days didn’t have the options of modern talent contests nowadays like “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The X Factor” they had to start from the bottom and work their way up. Leah did just that when she auditioned for the Pontins Holiday Club. She worked with musical directors, choreographers and visiting cabaret acts for 2 years working from 8am until 2am six days a week with only one week off a year in January when the park was closed, so she feels she has earned her right to call herself a singer.

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Leah had met someone whilst at Pontins and at the time she didn’t realise what an influence he would play on her life and how important he would be to her. They both left Pontins together and Leah started working with a band doing tours up and down the country before deciding to move back to Torquay with her boyfriend, Mark. She began performing with a band with whom they had met at Pontins and worked with them for 2 years before they announced they would be moving to Spain. It was such a great opportunity and both Leah and Mark also went along to start a new chapter in their lives. At the time tribute acts were huge in Spain and it was as if their future was slowly writing itself in front of them.

The idea to perform the works of Abba came about accidentally. The group that Leah had performed with had a musical show on most evenings and they recruited more friends that had moved over from the UK. Before too long the songs of Abba were playing a huge part in their act. “It just became bigger and bigger. We soon had over an hour of material. I honestly don’t think any of us realised we were such big Abba fans!” They decided they could actually do something with this, so had a meeting and decided that would invest money and time into doing it properly.

Den, who played Benny in the band was a Musical Director and had his own recording studio. Patti, who was the singer Leah performed with, was a trained choreographer and with Leah they began studying the dance moves, costumes and harmonies of the vocals. Patti would be transformed into Frida, Leah became Agnetha and “Abba Elite” was born.

“Abba Elite” had their own show in Spain and the popularity was soaring. Comedy duo “Cannon and Ball” were flown out for a weekend’s event in which the band supported. The timing of the band couldn’t have worked better as “Mamma Mia” had just been released at the cinema and it was at the forefront of everyone’s attention. The band were touring all over Spain and performing at specially arranged launch nights with Spanish press and celebrities, but in 2009 an important decision had to be made.

After a difficult conversation, Leah and Mark decided to move back to the UK. They were living their dreams, but wanted to settle down and start a family. It was one of the hardest decisions Leah has ever had to make. She didn’t want the dream to end and so, with “Abba Elite’s” blessing she created a new act. Universal Music (Abba’s record label) issued a letter to all Abba Tribute bands a few years ago forbidding anyone to use the name “Abba” in their names, so following the success of “Mamma Mia” the musical, the name “Mamma Mania!” was born. As the recession had just hit the UK it wasn’t cost effective to start the band as a four piece, so she opted for a two piece to concentrate solely on the vocals of Frida and Agnetha. Mark and Leah were now married and he had become her sound man. Together they auditioned singers all over the country until they found their perfect girl.

Jill Schoonjans auditioned for the band back in 2010 in response to on an online talent directory advert for a Frida. She was ideal because she had a theatrical background and their voices complimented each other well in the audition. In addition to “Mamma Mania!” Jill currently tours in other theatre shows throughout the UK. She provides vocals for and manages Lee Memphis King’s “One Night of Elvis” show and also tours as June Carter in “The Johnny Cash Roadshow”.

In 2012 the band decided to take on another Frida so that they could make the show available for more dates. Jill was able to recommend a friend of hers and as soon as Leah met her she knew she wanted her to be part of the show. Lucy Ward is a Jazz singer (as was Frida) with her own Jazz Quartet “Lucy Ward Quartet.” She has worked as a backing singer for Rick Astley and performs regularly as a vocalist for Jonathan Wilkes. She teaches drama and singing for Footlights Theatre School and is always in demand as a singer and actress every year in Panto. She is currently treading the boards in The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme in “A Hundred and One Dalmatians.”

One of the biggest and most enjoyable experiences of Leah’s career was performing as “Abba Elite” in Dublin in 2008. They were especially asked to perform by Sony and it stands out in memory as a truly unforgettable performance. Today, bookings for “Mamma Mania!” are up and they have performed at events all across the country, but there is a headline event which holds special meaning to Leah and husband Mark.

The Rosemere Cancer Foundation is a local cancer charity raising funds for extra equipment and facilities for cancer patients in Lancashire and South Cumbria. Rosemere also funds vital local research helping to provide the very best care possible for patients today and in the future. The organiser of this event is a lady called Maxine. She is a Secretary at Chorley Hospital and a massive fund raiser for local charities. “There isn’t much that she hasn’t done for charity. She really is an amazing woman.”

On Saturday February 22nd, “Mamma Mania!” will be headlining this year’s fund raising event at Chorley Football Club. There they will be performing their four piece show, there will be a raffle (of which all proceeds will go to charity) and a Disco to finish off the night. There will also be a prize for the best Fancy dress costume (70’s or Abba theme.) Last year’s event was a sell out and they are hoping for a repeat performance this year. Tickets can be reserved by phoning Maxine 01257 245215 (day time), 01772 334512 (evening) or from Gerry on: 07845 067488 (any time). Tickets are just £7.00. For more information about the Rosemere Cancer Foundation, go to their website www.rosemere.org.uk

This year the Charity is one that is particularly close to Leah’s heart. Cancer is a disease that effects so many families. Her husband lost his own Dad and Granddad to the disease, her Auntie fought Breast Cancer just last year, but thankfully they caught it early and she is doing really well and just before last Christmas she was given the awful news that her Granddad had been diagnosed with Throat and Neck Cancer.

The Rosemere Cancer Foundation’s Valentines Appeal (which is the cause that they are raising money for) aim to raise £50,000 to fund vital facilities, equipment and research to help those who are being treated for Cancer across the region. In Central Lancashire they are wanting to provide the Royal Preston Hospital with a Ultra Sound Machine for the Rapid Access Neck Lump Clinic which would allow same day screening and diagnosis of potential tumors. Details of the Rosemere Valentine’s appeal can be found at: www.rosemere.org.uk/valentines/

“We are asking people not only to buy tickets for what we are sure will be a fun filled night, but we are also appealing to individuals and local businesses to donate raffle prizes. Perhaps you have an unwanted Christmas present that you could donate? Or maybe you are a business that can donate a prize that we could maybe auction off? If you would be kind enough to make a donation please contact Maxine on the numbers shown above. “

There are also details of this event on their website www.mammamaniaabbatribute.com and on their Facebook page www.facebook.com/mammamaniaabbatribute.