Many people may not know the name Herbie Armstrong, but they probably recognise his face.
Many people may not know the name Herbie Armstrong, but they probably recognise his face. He still gets stopped by people, even when he’s just nipped out to get a birthday card from Gunwharf Quays.
The 66-year-old will never forget the moment he walked on stage in front of a 3,000-strong audience, with Louis Walsh, Michael McIntyre and Amanda Holden watching as he auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent earlier this year.
Halfway through performing a song he had written, the pub landlord from Rowlands Castle was asked to stop and pick something else everyone would know. Suddenly his mind went blank and he panicked.
Just over six months later, and Herbie has released his first-ever solo album, Real Real Gone.
The Belfast-born performer was knocked out at the semi-final stage of this year’s TV talent contest. But the wheels were already in motion for Herbie to record.
He explains: ‘I got a call from a guy in the South of France called Steve Tennant, who had worked with The Police and saw me on the show. He thought he could do something for me so he flew over, we had a meeting and he said ‘‘right let’s see if we can get a record deal’’.
‘He became my manager and we recorded the album. I never dreamed I’d get an album – it’s so hard to get a record deal unless you win something like The X Factor.’
But the reason Herbie went on Britain’s Got Talent in the first place was purely because his musician friends kept nagging him to get his songs heard.
After touring professionally with various bands in the ’70s and ’80s, he couldn’t really see success happening again.
Herbie adds: ‘I knew that anybody with talent was welcome, and when I first went in for it people were like ‘‘what are you doing?’’ I’d written a song, Still In My Heart, and a friend was on and on at me saying it needed to be heard.
‘I thought he was crazy, and I thought my kids would be really embarrassed. All my musician friends thought I was mad, but I did it anyway.’
It may have been one of the scariest moments of his life, but Herbie really believes that if Amanda Holden hadn’t stopped him singing, then nothing would have been the same.
‘It was so amazing being stood on that stage,’ he explains, ‘and when Amanda stopped me I wanted it to swallow me up.
‘I almost unplugged my guitar and walked away, but then Michael McIntyre said he liked the song, then Louis Walsh looked over and the audience started to boo. I thought maybe I should stay.
‘Some people think it was a set-up but no way. I’d never met them before, it took me completely by surprise.
‘I think it was because Amanda stopped me that everyone remembers that moment. That was perhaps the best thing she could have done for me. People still mention it.’
With some people claiming talent contests are fixed or full of people with no talent, Herbie thinks completely the opposite.
He says: ‘They really look after you, and it’s great. You get to see all these hotels, big venues where you all meet and talk. All the others were lovely, it was exciting. A lot of people run it down but they look after you and encourage you so much. I mean, I got a record deal out of it.
‘Simon Cowell in the semi-finals said he wouldn’t have picked my song, because I sang Mandy, but I didn’t want to sing just anything. All in all it was a good night though.
‘People still recognise me, which I find amazing.’
Herbie’s album, Real Real Gone, has been something he’s waited a long time for, and the title track was even written and produced by an old friend, Van Morrison.
After getting his first guitar at just 11, Herbie became involved in the music scene in Belfast.
Herbie explains: ‘I kept going from there with different bands. Van Morrison and me, we knew each other in Belfast. He was a saxophone player and I got a job in a big dance orchestra and they were looking for a singer.
‘Van said to me “Tell them I can sing”, even though I’d never heard him sing, so I said “I’ve got a friend who’s a good singer” and Van went for it and got his first singing job. He’s a great singer!’
Herbie believes his album is quite like the music he listened to when he was younger, as he was influenced by American music that was coming across the Atlantic on radio.
It has backing vocals from musicians he’s fond of, including Peter Van Hooke, Patrick O’Hearn and Rod Argent.
On October 31 Herbie launched his album at the Garage, Highbury Corner in London. But for the past 12 years, before everything kicked off with Britain’s Got Talent, he’s been running The Fountain Inn.
Even though he’s performing and singing more than ever, he’s just as passionate about his business.
He says: ‘We have open mic nights where people get up and sing. Before that I used to have a restaurant in London, but my wife and came to West Wittering a lot. We decided to move to the country and bought the pub.
‘It’s been lovely to live here. When people get up and sing, and they’re really good, I just say go for it. If you’ve got a talent, then why not?’
· Real Real Gone, is available online for £7.99.