WARNING: To fully immerse yourself in this blog will require 8 hours minimum of your time. Hopefully it will be worth it… An EPIC blog, yes, but worth the telling, I’ll hope you’ll agree and based on YEARS of research, and interviews with those that were there (on and off stage) in the Fifties (I wasn’t).
From roughly 7 or 8 years ago to about 5 years ago, I became a moderately successful music journalist. From about 1998 to 2008 I was music editor and contributor for several publications in Gloucestershire, Bristol and Birmingham, reviewing, previewing and interviewing loads of people, both up and coming artists touring the area and also veteran musicians whose careers sometimes went back as far as the 1950s. Following that spate of working from morn to night in newspaper offices, I accepted voluntary redundancy and attempted to use the pay-off to establish myself as a freelance journalist, writing from home and going to and fro to London to work sub-editor shifts on magazines such as Q, and newspapers such as the Guardian and Independent. I did a fair bit of travel writing for the Sunday Mirror, and had a number of blogs published in the Guardian, plus did live reviews for the Independent.
I have to say though the most enjoyable jobs for me were having carte blanche to write lengthy articles for Record Collector magazine, on one of my two favourite music-history niches (the other being punk rock), the coming of rock’n’roll, R&B, skiffle etc to 1950s and early 1960s Britain. I was tired of hearing that there was little going on in Britain until the Beatles hit in 1962/63, and that the only footnotes were Lonnie Donegan, Bill Haley and Elvis. Granted, these were important events, but they seem to have obliterated the wider picture of the music scene in Britain at that time, from which the Beatles, Rolling Stones et al sprang from in the early 1960s.
I wasn’t born until the 1970s, but my earliest memory is my dad playing me the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and not long after him giving me his old Dansette record-player and his old 45s, which included not only Elvis, the Beatles and Stones, but also Tony Crombie & His Rockets’ single Teach You To Rock/ Short’nin’ Bread Rock. The latter was fronted by a jazz/bebop drummer who fused his experience with rock’n’roll in 1956. Crombie was one of the original players on the nascent British rock’n’roll scene which only really got going in 1957.
In 2009, I was commissioned by Faber to write a long piece on how Britain found its mojo, or invented rock – I wanted to make the point that the Who’s My Generation, Kinks’ You Really Got Me and Cream’s I Feel Free were primers for the electrifying development of British rhythm ‘n’ blues into fully fledged rock in 1964/5, and detail how we got there. Unfortunately I procrastinated then rushed the piece to meet the deadline, and the piece got dropped.
The following blog is a bid to put the article in a better order, with the essential tunes added in mixes.
Recently I discovered the joys of Mixcloud, and found myself going back to that period of fascinating and mostly unearthed history of Britain before the Beatles… I have chosen the period from 1949 to 1956 for this blog. When I get the chance, I’ll do another from 1957 to 1962 (or maybe 1964).
If anyone who knows anything about Fifties Britain, or was there… I would love it if you saw fit to contribute in the comments below.
The post-war era saw the birth of the teenager. Before the Second World War, those going through adolescence were known purely as “youths” – there was no interim period between being a child and adult. Children would leave school (if their families could afford schooling or get it through charity) at 14 or younger and go to work.
Teenagers were a new thing, and so were some of their haunts, such as coffee bars, a new form of cafe that flourished in Soho from about 1953, cellars and upstairs rooms of accommodating pubs and nightclubs.
The outsider midwives of British post-war culture (as will be explained later) included two Iranian brothers, an Australian wrestler, a Serbo-Croat wartime allied spy turned record-company owner, several gay impressarios, and musicians and entertainers who emigrated from Trinidad, alongside a small coterie of English public school-educated outcasts, plus modernist avant-gardists, communists, and plenty of opportunists with their eye on the latest fad.
So jazz (trad, mainstream and bebop), skiffle and rock’n’roll were products of multiculturalism, just as they were in America. It often makes me laugh (in an exasperated way) when I witness the tide of recent British nationalism, predominantly made up of what I call OAFs (Old Age Fascists), rage against multiculturalism and hark back to some mythical white-only golden age in Britain, when the entire bedrock of their post-war culture is founded on multiculturalism. They can’t even claim Morris Dancing [pictured, above] as their own, as it is widely believed to have been invented by late-medieval Muslims (Moorish or Moresque), and spread from Andalucia to Britain by Henry VIII’s time. British culture without multiculturalism – and expressly its African roots – would comprise mainly of Purcell, Elgar, Noel Coward, Music Hall and the orchestral ‘pops’ of Vera Lynn and co, and traditional folksong, all staples up to the Second World War, but all except folk faded from view following the war.
Rock ‘n’ roll and jazz were largely forged by the mingling of African and British-origin folk cultures – African rhythms and call-and-response brought to America by black slaves, and English, Scots and Irish folk songs brought to America by white indentured servants. They may sometimes fly the racist-tinged Confederate flag, but country, hillbilly and rockabilly music were indebted to Afro-American cultures.
Although the dawn of “black Britain” is often pegged to the Empire Windrush sailing from the Caribbean to Tilbury Dock in Essex in 1948, there has been a black presence in Britain since at least Roman times. Africans took part in royal pageants and were hired as court musicians in Henry VII’s time, Elizabeth I tried to wipe out the “Moors”, and of course Britain played a major part in the slave trade from the 17th century onwards. Queen Victoria received a succession of all-black ensembles for royal command performances from the 1840s, many from Britain’s west African and Caribbean colonies. At the turn of the 20th century, ragtime and “cakewalking” became a craze. While the Original Dixieland Jass Band introduced dismissive critics to a clunky, white form of jazz in 1919, in the same year Sidney Bechet [pictured, above] brought creole New Orleans jazz to London with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. He managed to spread hot jazz around Britain until 1922, when he was forcibly deported back to the States.
Jazz and its derivative swing filled the ‘hot’ seat during 1920s and 1930s Britain. During the 1930s, a Soho nightclub called Jig’s was the favoured hangout of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller when they toured Britain and Europe. Here they could smoke weed and mingle with the small but entrenched Afro-London musical community who played both jazz and hi-life music. Soho had long established itself as a bohemian enclave: Rimbaud and Verlaine both took refuge there to escape Napoleon’s wrath following the crushing of the Paris Commune.
Many big bands and orchestras, and consequently swing, which relied on them, struggled to continue during the war, and it was the necessity of playing in smaller groups that partly led to the hothouse conditions which begat the two contrasting styles of bebop (or modern jazz) and trad jazz. Both styles had reached Britain by the middle of the war, along with loads of white and black American GIs, and both styles were adopted by British musicians.
The origins of jazz and blues went back to the 19th century, but only became recognised as distinct genres from the late 1920s in America and during the 1940s in Britain – prior to WW2 blues was incorporated within a jazz setting rather than the downhome country-blues (acoustic) and Chicago blues (electric) styles.
Oxford professor and blues authority Paul Oliver recalls discovering the blues in his 1984 book Blues Off The Record. Oliver had just turned 15 in 1942 when his friend Stan took him to spy on black American soldiers as they swung their mattocks, constructing a military base in Suffolk:
The two men were singing, swooping, undulating, unintelligible words, and the back of my neck tingled. ‘They’re singing a blues,’ Stan hissed at me. It was the strangest, most compelling singing I’d ever heard . . .
I wanted to know from Stan how he knew what they were singing, and what it was. Stan, it turned out, had a collection of records which he kept in an orange box [a large wooden crate used by greengrocers in those days]. They were blues records, he explained, and when we got back from the camp he played them to me over and over again.
Trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber recalled to me when I interviewed him for Record Collector:
During World War Two the little shellac they did get in for making 78s went to the most popular things which was Vera Lynn singing anything and Run Rabbit Run – the hit record of 1942. Indeed, if you wanted to buy a new 78, you were expected to bring a recyclable old 78 into a record
shop and get sixpence off for it, which they melted down to make more 78s with. So they had these boxes of old records waiting to be recycled and sometimes they’d produce the odd jazz record or two, which I’d then buy for a shilling…
“Extraordinarily, the major labels such as Parlophone and HMV actually published catalogues of their jazz releases with all the personnels and dates on them. There were three issues, and I’ve still got copies of them. We’re talking the Hot Five on Parlophone, Jelly Roll Morton on HMV, Benny Goodman on HMV, and Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong – all the great names. I bought a record [from a still-existing shop in Cambridge called Miller’s Music Centre] every week, so after about two years at school , I had 57 records.
Barber [pictured] also managed to get his Jewish neighbours in Golders Green, London to ask their relatives in Harlem, New York, to send American Bluebird blues 78s by Tampa Red and Lonnie Johnson which were then unavailable in Britain (but a few would be during the early 50s, see later).
As an experienced machine-gun fitter, George Webb was exempt from the call-up when war broke out. From 1940, the pianist and son of a music hall entertainer formed a band to entertain his fellow workers at an armaments factory in Dartford, Kent. They chose to emulate the early jazz masters from listening to their records, in particular King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band of 1922 to 1924. George Webb’s Dixielanders became an item in 1941 and acquired a residency in the downstairs bar of the Red Barn pub in Barnehurst, Kent.
According to his Daily Telegraph obituary “their music sounded alien, even barbaric, to ears brought up on crooners and English dance bands”.
The Telegraph quotes Webb’s recollection of the band’s first gig at the Red Barn:
By the time we had finished the first number we were playing to about ten people, the other 50 having fled to the saloon bar upstairs.
Webb [pictured, above with his Dixielanders] once left the stage to punch a heckler before returning to his keyboard, but within six years of plugging away, Webb had begat a scene, which spread beyond the Red Barn to a network around Britain, and was featured in the Melody Maker (founded in 1926, until the late 1950s its focus was purely jazz and dance bands). Newly demobbed Old Etonian Humphrey Lyttelton managed to get a job as the band’s trumpeter, and in 1948, Webb’s Dixielanders split and Webb joined Lyttelton’s new band.
Barber, then a mathematics student in London, was flunking his studies and spending his time hanging out with jazzers at Doug Dobell’s record store on Charing Cross Road and attending every one of Webb’s gigs, and then the Hymphrey Lyttelton Band [pictured, right], who from 1948 had a weekly residency at the Leicester Square Jazz Club.
Barber took up the trombone after studying the Lyttelton Band’s Harry Brown. He recalled:
One night, Harry tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘want to buy a trombone?’ I’d never thought of it, but the only thing I could think of to say was ‘how much is it?’ He said six-pound 10. Well, I had 10 quid in my pocket, meant to fund my studies which I wasn’t doing… so I couldn’t see any reason for not buying it.
When I first tried it, it sounded awful, just like a bray, but
nevertheless I had a record of George Webb’s Dixielanders where Harry Brown played that trombone and it sounded alright to me. I thought it can’t be bad, so I bought it, and started teaching myself.
Due to massive losses of workers during the war, Clement Attlee’s Labour government actively encouraged immigration from all corners of the British Empire and Commonwealth. The British Nationality Act 1948 gave British citizenship to all people living in Commonwealth countries, and full rights of entry and settlements. On July 22, 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived from Kingston, Jamaica with more than 400 passengers who’d all paid less than £50 in answer to an advert in a Jamaican newspaper in order to seek . These included Trinidadian calypso musicians Lord Kitchener [pictured, above], Lord Beginner, Lord Woodbine and Mona Baptiste. The arrivals were taken to the Clapham South deep shelter in London, and instructed to sign on at the Coldharbour Lane Employment Exchange in Brixton. Kitchener was captured on deck by a Pathe newsreel film crew as the ship docked singing a newly penned calypso titled London Is The Place For Me, which declared “I am glad to know my mother country… the English people are so magnificent… they take you here, they take you there, they make you feel like a millionaire”. It would take him two years to start recording, and fledge a new British music scene which both complemented and merged with both modern and trad jazz scenes, and skiffle.
Calypso might be described as the missing link between the African griot, or storyteller, and hip-hop. Its origins go back in Trinidad to the 19th century and its bacchanalian carnival. It spread to the US in the 1930s, some calypsonians fusing the style with country-blues.
Calypso first hit Britain in 1937 with Lord Caresser’s Edward VIII, actually recorded in the US. The song, with its refrain “it was love, love alone, that caused King Edward to leave his throne”, dealt with the abdication scandal so touchingly. The calypsonians’ enunciation and lyrical content were typically polite, moral and doffed a cap to royalty and the ruling class. But there was often an element of social comment, some biting. Historian John Cowley defines calypsos as “part compromise and part defiance”.
The Windrush immigrants were the first in a wave of 250,000 Caribbean peoples to Britain during the next decade and a half. As well as regular racial abuse, they faced a blatant colour bar from landlords, bus, rail and other employers which lasted until the late sixties. On leaving the Clapham shelter, often they were obliged to live in compacted slum conditions courtesy of opportunist landlords such as Notting Hill’s Peter Rachman, who also exploited his tenants, elevating some of them to become his “enforcers”.
It would take a couple of years for the fledgling jazz scenes to make it on to record – initially 78RPM shellac, but also on the all-new format, 45RPM vinyl, and the dawn of the jukebox… another essential component of the teenager and rock’n’roll.
The first three-year-long segment mix incorporates ‘hot’ 78s that were released by British record labels, featuring swing, western boogie-woogie, jump-blues, American folk, big band boogie-woogie, samba, rhumba, calypso, bebop and New Orleans-style jazz. All genres were forged in the US, except samba, from Brazil, and rhumba, from Cuba. The first post-Windrush calypso recordings were by Lord Beginner and Lord Kitchener, made in London with aspiring (mostly white) jazz musicians.
With the exception of the calypso players, Humphrey Lyttelton who recorded from 1949, and Ken Colyer, who recorded with the Christie Brothers Stompers (from Blackpool, who’d been in Lyttelton’s original band) in 1951, all the hot stuff came over from the States, and this included much source material for trad jazz – 1920s New Orleans and Memphis jazz and blues – plus Leadbelly songs that would in a few years be turned into British skiffle.
Barber formed his own band in 1949 as an amateur outfit, at about the same time Colyer joined the Crane River Jazz Band. Barber told me:
It was a group of friends and we started out trying to emulate what we heard on records and what was probably the finest New Orleans jazz ever played, which was the King Oliver Band of 1923 with young Louis Armstrong on his first public appearance playing cornet and all the best players were there. It was rather hard to pierce the gloom of the acoustic recording, but you could do it if you tried hard! You had to play it over and over again to do that… which we did.
Perhaps in reaction to early factions within the New Orleans revival
movement, as to whether to follow Bunk Johnson and King Oliver styles
(Barber loved both), Barber’s band didn’t just play King Oliver and New
The band had two trumpets, clarinet and trombone, piano and banjo and some drums, quite a lot actually. We also had a guitar-player in the band called Alexis Korner. So we always did a blues section within our set. Alexis had a semi-acoustic Hofner, which was a peach of a guitar
to look at, but he didn’t have an amplifier. So I’m not surprised I couldn’t work out what he sounded like – I couldn’t hear him! I remember when Eric Clapton did a series of blues nights at the Royal Albert Hall 10 or 15 years ago, he did most of the same songs we used to do then – Big Maceo and Tampa Red.
After about a year and a half, Alexis decided he wanted to go and try playing the blues. It wasn’t as if the band was getting anywhere – because there was nowhere to get. There were no influential people, and none of the jazz writers took us seriously either – because we weren’t American, we weren’t from New Orleans. So we didn’t get any
encouragement at all. But we carried on with the band and shrunk it down to one trumpet, so it was like the Armstrong Hot Five outfit, and that was the way it carried on. And even then we were getting nowhere!
The star baritone Paul Robeson [pictured] had spent a lot of time in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s. Robeson was on a tour hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt (the former president’s widow) during late 1949 when he discovered that due to his political activism and support for communism (alongside Pete Seeger and the Weavers), he’d been included in McCarthy’s “Un-American” blacklist, which aimed to wipe out the “red menace” from America. He was embraced by Scottish folksinger Ewan MacColl (real name Jimmy Miller), a long-time communist activist in his native Salford and London, and Robeson’s recordings were released by one of – if not the first – British independent record labels, the Workers’ Music Association’s Topic (which from 1939 to 1958 released a mixture of Soviet orchestral and choral music, and leftwing folk from MacColl and others).
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the music industry was dominated by His Master’s Voice, Columbia, Decca, Capitol and Parlophone, with London making up a Big Six in 1949.
They did not operate a total stranglehold, though, and by 1949, Serbo-Croat Jewish immigrant Emil Shalit managed to establish his own indie label, Melodisc. Here’s where the majority of calypso recordings emanated from, but also some of the primers for the soon-to-emerge British skiffle and blues scenes.
The country-blues singer and activist Josh White was another who was prevented from earning his living in the US between 1950 and 1956 by McCarthyism and the blacklist. He made influential visits to Britain in 1950 and 1951, even appearing on children’s TV, and released half-a-dozen discs through London and Melodisc records.
Big Bill Broonzy had turned electric, but reverted to country blues to please British audiences who were still agog to his older tunes, one of them released as Chicago Bill by Melodisc (for licensing reasons?). He also went down a storm in British tours in 1951 and 1952. Here’s a great documentary:
The choice instrument of the country bluesman was the guitar – whether acoustic or electric – and that was still something of a novelty in Britain in 1950. Up to then, only 6,000 guitars had been imported into Britain, many of them poorly-made repros from Eastern Europe. Compare this to 1957, the height of skiffle, when 250,000 in that year alone were shipped in.
Author Alex Balmforth writes of this under-recorded period of British cultural history:
The nascent BBC was flexing its muscles and the Yanks had demonstrated through the cinema and the recording industry that there really was an alternative to the starchy, restrained British attitudes to popular music and culture… now the public demanded a piece of the action. And as always… youth was revolting!
Traditional Jazz emerged blinking into British consciousness and was subsequently to become the music of the disaffected.
Earlier, in a pioneering move Big Bill Broonzy had been brought to France for a European tour and in September 1951 was booked to appear at the Kingsway Hall. Big Bill’s appearance was to prove a Damascene moment in the history of British popular music. His success led in January 1952 to a further performance at the Cambridge theatre… this time with the Crane River Jazz Band. This was truly music that the Great British Public could relate to, a black man singing songs of oppression in a passionate, unadorned manner… a fresh approach, lyrics that did not drip with sugar, lyrics that asked questions of authority, seditious and challenging.
While a select group of British appreciators became tuned to the Delta, New Orleans and Chicago blues, British-Trinidadian Lord Beginner [pictured, right] was celebrating the West Indies test match victory over England, and Kitchener the coming of the 1951 Festival of Britain, which would feature the Trinidad All-Steel and Percussion Orchestra, and also cement the trad and modern jazz scenes.
The question which has to be asked is how had this style managed to cross the River Thames? It could hardly have come direct from Savile Row. The general explanation is that it reached South London via Soho. It was a new post-war development that young manual labourers from South London, especially those who had seen military service, went far more readily than before for their evening’s entertainment to “the other side”, that is, the West end, the square mile of large cinemas and little clubs, jazz haunts and jukebox cafes, which around Soho abut on theatre land and fashionable restaurants.
Our dress is our answer to a dull world
This concert, attended by Princess Margaret, cemented the trad jazz scene in Britain, along with impromptu free sessions played in the cafe and many kiosks that surrounded the hall.
In July 1952, a concert at the hall by bluesman Lonnie Johnson gave banjoist Tony Donegan his stage name. The announcer blundered and announced Donegan, who was playing support, as Lonnie Donegan. By then Donegan had hooked up with Barber for once-a-week sessions at a Leicester Square cafe. Of course, this was the year of the coronation. Barber tried to get in on the act. Barber told me:
On the Monday night, there were a million people on the pavements around Marble Arch, waiting for the next morning’s Coronation parade. We did a New Orleans street parade round the whole thing, and no one took a blind bit of notice! There’s actually a photograph of it. You’d have thought we’d have got on a newsreel!
The following year (1953), Donegan was ensconced in Barber’s newly professional band, along with Monty Sunshine, and Ken Colyer.
Colyer had just been on a New Orleans adventure – he’d joined the merchant navy, jumped ship in Alabama, travelled to New Orleans and sat in on sessions with the legendary Bunk Johnson. He was all set to go on tour with Johnson’s band when he was caught by police and deported. While there, he’d happened upon the term skiffle, a tradition dating back to the 1930s which involved impoverished musicians throwing “rent parties” (to raise money to pay their rent) and playing whatever they could get their hands on, including jugs and washboards.
Given Colyer’s experience, Barber agreed Colyer should be bandleader. Barber concedes Colyer’s involvement transformed the band, until Colyer left in 1954 due to musical differences. By then, Barber and Colyer’s band had begun incorporating skiffle sets as interval fillers, and had released an album on Decca, From New Orleans to London.
In 1953, Ewan MacColl [pictured, left] established the Ballads and Blues Club in High Holborn in London. He often appeared on the same bill as Colyer and Barber, and skiffle and much more besides also permeated his open-mike session. Alan Lomax, who’d made many “field recordings” of blues singers and Leadbelly across America, spent a decade in Britain and Ireland collecting folk songs from 1950 as well as the English folk revivalist Bert Lloyd and Calypsonians such as Fitzroy Coleman. MacColl, inspired by Lomax, strongly believed in keeping folk traditions alive, and his repertoire was mainly Scottish folk songs, plus some of his own written in accordance with the tradition, such as Dirty Old Town. MacColl is viewed by some as a ruthless purist who raged against skiffle and Americanisation, despite marrying an American folk singer with connections to Leadbelly, Peggy Seeger.
In a bid to clear the matter up, Peggy Seeger – who arrived in London in 1956 – explains:
The [Ballads and Blues Folk] club [later known as the Singers’ Club] met at the Princess Louise in High Holborn at that time  and there was an impressive list of residents: Alan Lomax, Ralph Rinzler, Isla Cameron, Fitzroy Coleman, Seamus Ennis, Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, et al. Bert was singing English, Australian, N. American and Scottish songs; Ewan was singing ‘Sixteen Tons’ and ‘Sam Bass’ alongside ‘Eppie Morrie’ and ‘The Banks of the Nile’; I regularly sang French, German and Dutch songs alongside ‘Barbara Allan’ and ‘Cumberland Gap’. Fitz and Seamus stuck, respectively, to their Jamaican and Irish material. Alan only sang songs that he and his father had collected in the USA. There were many floor singers who came and went – the Weavers turned up from New York and sang in three or four different languages; a west London couple came regularly and sang in Yiddish, a language which they did not speak; two French students would sing Spanish Civil War songs; and so on. It was a free-for-all and I will admit that it was a lot of fun. More about that at another time.
It was that Cockney lad singing Leadbelly who started the rock rolling downhill… Yes, it was that poor fellow whose rendition of ‘Rock Island Line’ reduced me to hysterical laughter one night. I was literally doubled over in my seat, gasping. I had to be taken out of the room. Most unprofessional, but I couldn’t help it. I am North American. Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, et al, used to come to our house in Washington. I knew what the song should sound like and the manner of delivery and the insertion of Cockney vowels into a southern USA black prisoners’ song just sounded funny.
I was reprimanded by several members of the audience at the end of the evening. When I explained my reasons, one of the French students pointed out that the insertion of my American vowels into French songs was also quite laughable. I then mentioned that Ewan’s rendition of ‘Sam Bass’ verged on parody. My children have since pointed out that my Scots accent (on a number of Seeger-MacColl records) is not exactly impeccable. But I am straying… the Cockney singer then confessed that he loved Leadbelly’s songs but was losing his confidence in singing them. He was getting bored. I declared that I preferred singing songs from the Anglo-American traditions and only sang the French/German/Spanish songs for ‘variety’. The discussion heated up and was a main topic of conversation for several weeks following. We laid the matter in front of all the residents and interviewed the folks who paid at the door on the subject. The decision to lay down guidelines for what you could sing on stage was not made by Ewan MacColl – it was made by the residents and members of the B&B Club (later known as the Singers Club). If it became hewn in stone – well, that’s the way things go.
This policy was meant for OUR club, not for other clubs. The policy was simple: If you were singing from the stage, you sang in a language that you could speak and understand. It didn’t matter what you sang in the shower, at parties, while you were ironing or making love. But on stage in The Ballads and Blues Folk Club, you were a representative of a culture – you were interpreting a song that had been created within certain social and artistic parameters. Incidentally, along with this policy came the request from our newly-formed Audience Committee that we not sing the same traditional song more than once every three months… they were getting tired of hearing the same songs week after week. This forced us residents to learn new songs at an unholy rate. But it brought out lots of new songs and ballads and really got us thinking about how we sang what we were learning.
MacColl’s club opened as the London cultural scene was undergoing a transformation. Sandwich and snack bars had been in existence in 1933, and milk bars since 1935. In 1945, espresso was transformed by a new Gaggia machine and cappuccino was invented the following year. In 1953, the first coffee bar opened in Soho – the Moka in Frith Street. It was swiftly followed by The Arabica and Mocamba in Brompton Road, Bamboo in Old Brompton Road, the Coffee House, Haymarket. According to the website Classic Cafes:
The cafes attracted CND activists, jazzers, noveau existentialists, nascent rock n’ rollers, beatnik baby boomers, Piccadilly exquisites and a whole new post-war set of UK On The Roaders who, like Gelina in Mark McShane’s novel ‘The Passing of Evil’ [published in 1961], wilfully inhabit: ‘the seedy-garish world of back-street London… restless rootless… beautiful, amoral, modern siren(s) of doom in a jungle of dance halls, caffs and pubs’…
…The mix of cafes, a nascent TV and advertising industry and the skiffle cult effectively created a new world order with Britain dictating popular culture to the globe. The cafes were the creative enclaves where it was all forged.
For a country that had emerged from World War Two economically crippled and facing the complete collapse of long-held social and political certainties, the caffs became forcing houses for the cultural advance guard coursing through London at the time.
The classic cafes of the 1950s – and earlier – added an impassioned colour to Britain’s post war social, artistic and commercial scene. Most are now vanishing in a welter of redevelopment and refits.
But once, their of-the-moment design and mass youth appeal galvanised post war British cultural life and incubated a whole post war generation of writers, artists, musicians and sexual interlopers.
The loss of classic cafes should be particularly sadly felt: the fact that from 1963-1967 London effectively dictated youth culture to the rest of the world can be traced back directly to the activities in the cafes of the 1950s.
They were “the first sign that London was emerging from an ice age that had seen little change in its social habits since the end of the first world war. Once the ice began to crack, everything was suddenly up for grabs. Without them, the unleashing influence of the 1960s might never have been so seismic.
* * * * *
So when did rock’n’roll actually begin? Certainly the phrase was in parlance since the 19th century, used in sea shanties and spiritual songs. By the 1920s, with the recording of Trixie Smith’s My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll) it had a double meaning embracing religious ecstasy and engaging in sexual intercourse. Some say Illinois Jacquet nailed the rock ‘n’ rolling style while jamming with his screaming sax in a 1943 live recording of Jazz At the Philharmonic titled Blues Part 2, while boogie-woogie (which has roots traced back to 1870s America), jump-blues, swing and western swing/hillbilly, electric Chicago blues (dawning in 1950 with Muddy Waters’ Catfish Blues), jump-blues and rhythm ‘n’ blues in general can all be cited as the first rock’n’roll.
In 1951, Lowell Fulson [pictured, right] declared “My baby just wants to rock” on his storming I Love My Baby, and was heard – at least by a few – on 78RPM in Britain, as was Wynonie Harris’s storming New Orleans rocker Lovin’ Machine.
By 1953, Bill Haley had been recording for five years, initially with the Four Aces of Western Swing, then the Saddlemen, before launching Haley’s Comets (thereafter shortened to His Comets) with Crazy Man Crazy, with a style, sound and guitar solo very similar to Rock Around the Clock. This record was available in Britain, both by Haley and covered by big band leader Ralph Marterie.
Another precursor to the teenage mania of rock’n’roll was the advent of the “nabob of sob”, Johnnie Ray, who bridged the gap between crooner and rock ‘n’ roll idol. In 1953, he came to Britain to promote his hit single Cry. His viscerally emotional performances – he could seemingly cry at will – had quite an impact on audiences.
All the ingredients for rock ‘n’ roll were on the table, and had arguably been put together years before DJ and promoter Alan Freed officially used the term in 1954 to describe a musical phenomenon. Not that any British artists managed to lay any down in the studio – but yet if they went to the right shops, they could listen to it and buy it.
The closest thing at the time Britain had to rock’n’roll was Winifred Atwell, another Trinidad immigrant, who played boogie-woogie piano rags. Her ‘honky-tonk’ style bridged the gap from the ragtime side of music hall and her ear-pleasing instrumentals such as Five Finger Boogie and Britannia Rag racked up many a hit as the Fifties progressed. She’d arrived in London in 1946 to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and played rags at London clubs to fund her studies. For her first success, 1952’s Black and White Rag, studio technicians detuned a concert grand, but she was most famous for her ‘other piano’ – a beat-up upright bought from a junk shop in Battersea for 30 shillings. She combined dazzling costumes with knowing winks to the audience, played Roll Out The Barrel by royal command, and encompassed the multi-racial, rough-hewn and austere nature of a British culture indebted to American culture and sagging under the weight of it, but still struggling to carve out its own using the tried-and-tested variety formula.
The calypso scene’s ranks were swelled by Sterling Betancourt, with his novelty Ping Pong Samba, who’d arrived for the Festival of Britain from Trinidad, and stayed. In 1953, the Mighty Terror came off a ship and immediately sought out musical company. In his own words:
I jump in a taxi and I say, Do you know of a gentleman called Lord Kitchener? I figure he popular and a taxi driver should know. He tell me he dead long time ago. Not that one (I said). This one is a calypsonian from the West Indies, Trinidad.
The bemused cab driver dropped The Mighty Terror [pictured, left] at a West Indian club where he made contact with guitarist Fitzroy Coleman, and immediately moved in with his family. It took him just days to get work as a musician (as well as his ‘day job’ as a firefighter).
Fellow Trinidadian Young Tiger exulted at being present during the coronation, while Lord Beginner took a swipe at all-too-prevalent racism with Mix-Up Matrimony, endorsing all and sundry to “incorporate and amalgamate” as “marriages are a-fixing, races are a-mixing”. His producer Denis Preston (the man behind much of the calypso recorded in London) would have approved, as his wife was Caribbean.
Preston [pictured, right] helmed and engineered many London jazz sessions, trad and modern, and also fostered the talent of both African and Caribbean musicians. With the patronage of the chaotically run indie label Melodisc
Melodisc also recorded the world’s first mento (Jamaican folk music that eventually evolved into reggae), and also developed hi-life with Ambrose Campbell, who’d moved from Lagos to Britain in time for the VE celebrations of 1945, where he and his West African Rhythm Brothers led an impromptu parade around Piccadilly.
The emerging modern jazz set – which became Ronnie Scott’s Club Eleven – would soak up the imported Nigerian sounds of Campbell and his band, and incorporate polyrhythms into their sets. Scott’s drummer Phil Seaman (who’d been playing bebop since 1949) eventually passed on the rhythmic codes to Ginger Baker, and with them Baker helped to invent rock with Cream in the mid-60s…
But a decade’s worth of tumultuous, exotic and vibrant musical and cultural activity would take place in Britain first, not that you’ll find much mention of it in orthodox rock history. As Alex Balmforth writes on the Whirligig website:
The musicians of the fifties seem unjustifiably to be condemned to dustbin of anonymity. And observe what a rich treasure chest we ignore.
The leviathans of the sixties, in the new millennium freshly knighted and honoured, freely admit to their influences, to the blues men, McKinley Morganfield, Sleepy John Estes, Big Bill Broonzy, to the folk influences, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and to the early rock and rollers… yet overlook the real pioneers, musicians like Ken Sykora, Ken Colyer, Cyril Davies, Bill Bramwell, the colourful Alexis Korner, Cye Laurie, Beryl Bryden, Chris Barber, Denny Wright, Ike Isaacs, Diz Disley … I could go on, musicians who discovered the blues men, who championed Lead Belly and the rest. And brought them to this country. Characters who shaped the decade and laid the foundations for that most over rated of decades, the sixties.
Perhaps it is simply because the sixties was the first media led decade, the first decade to understand and embrace the true cult of the celebrity, and then ruthlessly and angrily exploited it. The decade that cynically expunged all references to the pioneers in order to aggrandise their imperfect artists.
Recently I asked a question on the Whirligig website, ‘who remembers Bill Bramwell?’ The silence was palpable; this session man with a most complex personality, a guitarist who could ‘swing like a gate’ a man into psychoanalysis, an alcoholic, and a giant of the decade, a colossus now all but forgotten.
Additionally I mentioned Ken Sykora, influential host of ‘Guitar Club’ who was on a number of occasions voted the winner, ‘musician of the year’ by readers of the ‘Melody Maker’ Ken Sykora who is now a spectre, with not even an acknowledgement, not even a footnote. Contrast Sir Paul, Sir Elton, Sir Mick feted as iconoclasts, trailblazers.
Upon investigation Maurice Levy’s Oriole records, home to many British musicians, diary of the fifties, appears to have inadvertently or deliberately erased its masters. The BBC routinely wiped their masters; I understand that the Pye Nixa catalogue was discovered abandoned in a shed.
‘The fifties, really was, a good decade to bury’
It could be said that rock ‘n’ roll and skiffle were two long-burning fuses with significant bombs at the end of them, which both exploded more or less simultaneously in Britain. Donegan and Barber’s Band recorded a revved up version of Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line (from 1936) and Bill Haley and His Comets made Rock Around The Clock on opposite sides of the Atlantic in the first half of 1954. Both recordings were issued before the end of the year but failed to have much impact (Donegan’s started out as an album track on the Chris Barber band’s New Orleans Joys album), but then both became smashes the following year at the same time.
By now Barber and Ken Colyer had gone their separate ways. Barber blames Colyer’s brother Bill, who worked at a jazzers’ hangout, Colletts Books in Charing Cross Road, for his departure:
Bill Colyer started trying to take control of the band. We
all knew Bill and Ken were brothers, and we all said we don’t want Bill anywhere near the band, thank you very much. It took Bill six months to inveigle himself into the management of the band.
One night he turned to Monty Sunshine and myself at
the Blue Post, near the 100 Club, during the interval and said Ken was going to fire the rhythm section, ‘he’s got his own reasons’. We said ‘why the hell’s that? It’s a bloody good rhythm section’. There were various things he quoted, to none of which did Ken say ‘that’s right’ or ‘I agree’. He never did say it. But I said to Bill, your brother joined a co-operative band – it’s our band, not his, and there are
five of us and one of him, so we sacked him.
So then I didn’t know who was going to play the trumpet. I immediately went to the phone in the corner of the Blue Post and rang Pat [Halcox, Barber’s current trumpeter, then a student] and asked him if he’d join us. He said ‘yes, I can’t wait to get away from chemistry’.
As for the recording that sparked the skiffle boom… Not having quite enough jazz material to make up an album, Barber – much to the disgust of his bass-player Jim Bray, who stormed out of Decca’s studio in a huff – picked up the bass (he’d had a few lessons) and joined Lonnie and washboard player Beryl Bryden for two Leadbelly covers – Rock Island Line and John Henry – leaving the tape rolling while Decca producer Hugh Mendl and engineer Arthur Lilley popped out for a cup of tea. The album sold well immediately, and Barber acknowledges it was down to those two tracks by the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group – they’d been playing interval sets, and up until finalising the track-listing, was known informally as the Lonnie Donegan breakdown group.
It was just country blues – we didn’t call it skiffle then. All Lonnie and I were trying to do was Huddie Leadbetter. That’s all we were interested in. I played a bit of bass, I’d been learning it, and then Ken Colyer turned up with us on the guitar, and then Lonnie on the guitar, me on bass. Ken was more into the Memphis Jug Band kind of
thing, rather than Robert Johnson or Leadbelly. One of the first things I did with Lonnie in 1954 was a song by Leadbelly called Leaving Blues, which was one of his few older recordings from 1931. Lonnie sang it really well and I later played that record to Sonny Terry. Now Sonny’s blind and he heard it and said ‘that’s Lead’. I thought it can’t be that bad!
“The album was recorded in June 1954, and they put it out in December 1954, but they didn’t put out Rock Island Line as a single until a whole year later. Decca must have been the most stupid, old-fashioned label the world has ever known. We got £75 for making the album and no artists’ royalties [while composers’ royalties were split between Barber’s band, his publisher and Leadbelly’s widow].
Also in 1954, Big Bill Broonzy made his third visit to Britain, and backed by Barber’s band, also singing during Donegan’s skiffle set. Says Barber:
It was marvellous. It wasn’t a big deal generally, but it was a big deal for us because we were playing with Big Bill Broonzy. He was a god.
Broonzy would return at Barber’s behest in 1955 and 1957, and in 1958 Barber and others staged a benefit gig to raise money for Broonzy’s healthcare in the US, raising £1,000, shortly before the bluesman died from cancer.
Skiffle had certainly become a known currency by 1955, when Ken Colyer with guitarist Bob Watson and Dickie Bishop (reputedly the first person in Britain to own a bass guitar, as opposed to an upright bass) opened the London Skiffle Centre in an upstairs room at the Roundhouse pub in Wardour Street, where it swiftly spread to the surrounding coffee bars. The Breadbasket on Cleveland Street soon followed as a skiffle hot spot, and the Cat’s Whiskers on Kingley Street, while Monmouth Street had the Nucleus, a moot-point for folkies, radicals, intellectuals and transvestites, as well as Big Bill Broonzy. Just off Charing Cross Road was the after-hours dive, the Authors & Artists, populated by poker-players. The Gyre & Gimble, underneath the Villiers arches in John Adam Street had also got the skiffle bug.
The room upstairs from the Roundhouse was shared with the new London Blues & Barrelhouse club, also formed in 1955 by harmonica player Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner, where Korner could at last publicly indulge his passion for electric blues, and lay down roots for the 1960s British beat scene.
Scribes in the New Musical Express noted Rock Island Line’s runaway success must have had something to do with its title, but the London-based troubadour was quick to disassociate himself from rock ‘n’ roll, dismissing the genre as a “swindle”. “He says nothing makes him madder than to be bracketed with the rock ‘n’ roll boys,” according to the NME in September 1956. Donegan said of Rock Island Line: “I don’t think it’s a particularly good recording and even asked to have it withdrawn when I first heard it.”
While Elvis Presley was recording his first sessions for Sun Records in Memphis, which wouldn’t be heard in Britain or more widely in America until 1956, several singles by Fats Domino were released in Britain featuring all the hallmarks of rock’n’roll but none of the hype. Rick Coleman, author of Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll makes a good case for Domino’s New Orleans bounce to be recognised as the first rock ‘n’ roll, as his December 1949 recording The Fatman showed he hit the ground running.
But rock’n’roll as a genre only existed initially in the mind of a white Cleveland-based DJ. Alan Freed first coined the deliberately subversive phrase on his Moondog “blues and rhythm” radio show in 1954, and went to town with it in January 1955, thumping a telephone directory from a pulpit at his first Rock’n’Roll Jubilee Ball. The all-black line-up included Fats Domino, by then about to unleash Ain’t That A Shame. Elvis and Bill Haley weren’t even there.
It was Fats more than any artist, Rich Coleman argues, who broke down the barriers between black and white teenagers – quite literally, the segregation rope down the centre of dancefloors would be ripped down by the exuberance of the mingling dancers. Fats Domino gigs apparently provoked the most riots of any early rock’n’roller – despite the singer-pianist’s friendly, grinning countenance and apolitical songs.
The Deep River Boys
In 1954 America, doo-wop emerged as a precursor to both rock ‘n’ roll and soul, while the vocal harmony group the Deep River Boys moved from America to Britain, where they were perfectly placed to remake Bill Haley and His Comets’ somewhat (but not wholly) sanitised version of Big Joe Turner’s bawdy RnB hollerer Shake, Rattle and Roll (veteran British big band leader Jack Parnell also took his cue from Haley). Haley altered the lyrics to turn the song into a wife-in-the-kitchen totem of chauvinism, while omitting to take out the imaginatively rude line “I’m a one-eyed cat, peeping through a seafood store”. The Deep River Boys, who also covered Rock Around the Clock, approached the heat of the originals. Another British player in big band interpretations of r’n’b, r’n’r and skiffle songs from the off was Don Lang, who did a version of Bill Haley-alike Boyd Bennett’s Seventeen.
Tony Crombie, erstwhile bebop drummer for Ronnie Scott and also for Duke Ellington when he toured Britain in 1948, broke out into big band-style swing/rock’n’roll with his first single as bandleader in 1954: Stop It! (I Like It!)
Singer Marie Bryant, who emigrated from Trinidad to America before reaching Britain in 1953, combined rhythm ‘n’ blues with calypso for her version of Sixty Minute Man, while London calypsonian Ivan Brown made the suggestive Gimme A Beat on Your Ding Dong. The Mighty Terror sang a homesick song called No Carnival in Britain (the Notting Hill Carnival didn’t begin until after 1959).
By the time Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock (recorded April 1954) made its first of numerous British chart entries, Danny Cedrone, the man who provided Clock’s sprawling guitar solo (and the one on 1953’s Crazy, Man, Crazy) that made the song really rock had died in a fall, and the singer was the wrong side of 30. Initially, like Haley’s 1954 British single Shake Rattle & Roll, it made little impact. That changed in September 1955 when the press carried lurid reports of a cinema riot at Elephant & Castle. Those charged with trashing the cinema and jiving in the aisles were teddy boys. The film was Blackboard Jungle, an American moral commentary set in an out-of-control school. When Rock Around The Clock played during the closing credits, cinema staff attempted to stop Teddy Boys and Girls from jiving in the aisles. The teenagers’ response was to riot and slash the cinema seats with their flick knives.
Not that appreciation of Bill Haley was confined to working-class teenagers: the BBC’s Light Programme gave it scant coverage, leaving Radio Luxembourg and the Armed Forces Network to blaze its trail, but the royal family was keen to join in with this latest craze. Princess Margaret and her chums were reported to have ordereda copy of “Clock” and were up all night doing what the song suggested.
For the next two years since the Trocadero picture-house disturbance, “we’re gonna rock around the clock” or cruder variations – blues singer and writer Ian Whitcomb recalled hearing a gang of teds substitute rock for “fuck” as they rampaged through the London underground – became the clarion call for exhibitionist teenagers.
By now Teddy Boy dress and culture had spread throughout Britain, with London Irish teenagers adopting the look. In turn, the style crossed the Irish Sea.
At least one year before the Trocadero incident at the Blackboard Jungle showing, Teddy Boys had a rep for rioting. The Daily Mail reported on April 12, 1954 that:
Cinemas, dance halls and other places of entertainment in South east London are closing their doors to youths in ‘Edwardian’ suits because of gang hooliganism. The ban, which week by week is becoming more generally applied, is believed by the police to be one of the main reasons for the extension of the area in which fights with knuckle dusters, coshes, and similar weapons between bands of teenagers can now be anticipated. In cinemas, seats have been slashed with razors and had dozens of meat skewers stuck into them.
In the Notting Hill riots of 1958, teds were portrayed as the footsoldiers of fascist Oswald Mosley – particularly by Colin MacInnes in his fictionalised Absolute Beginners – and not for the first time. There were anti-black riots reported in Camden in 1954, while on April 21, 1955, PC ‘Nick of Notting Hill’ Nixon reported an incident where he and Jamaican boxer Lloyd Barnett had joined forces to avert a mini-race riot outside a dancehall on Lancaster Road between “a teddy boy faction and hot-headed coloured men”, believed to have been sparked by an item on the news that day: 21 English boys found murdered by the Mau Mau in Kenya. In his Teddy Boy Calypso, Lord Kitchener recommended the cat-o-nine-tails be brought back to deal with the hoodlums. Like many gangs, Teddy Boys were intensely territorial, fighting among themselves when stepping into each others’ “manors”. Could this have been the main impetus for their violence against Caribbean people within their neighbourhoods, rather than just out-and-out racism? Whatever the case, it’s fairly certain fascist provocateurs moved among them. As well as that, it became convenient and sensational for the media to automatically blame Teddy Boys for every violent crime, particularly those perpetuated against immigrants.
Soon, on almost every street corner, on the Underground and in every cellar that would allow it, thanks to Donegan’s big hit Rock Island Line, by the beginning of 1956, teenagers were thrashing around on newly bought cheap guitars.
Unlike trad or modern jazz, or rock’n’roll or calypso, skiffle was something just about anyone could get the hang of, with guitars costing almost nothing, a bass made from a tea chest and bootlace and washboard (then a household staple). By skiffle’s peak in 1957 one estimate reckoned there were 30,000 to 50,000 skiffle groups formed in Britain, despite only a handful getting beyond the street-corner and scout hut phase.
Skiffle was not confined to men. The trickle of skiffle singles released in 1956 included Hylda Sims singing with the City Ramblers an American union song, Round and Round the Picket Line, and another American railroad song, 900 Miles (released on the Communist label Topic), plus Donegan and Barber’s washboard-player Beryl Bryden leading her own Back-Room Skiffle group for Casey Jones and Kansas City Blues.
Meanwhile, Ottilie Patterson, from Northern Ireland, sang like a ‘red hot blues mama’ with Chris Barber’s band.
Intriguing too is that as skiffle was taking off in Britain, across the Atlantic Chuck Berry’s first single to be released in the UK in May was the skiffle-shuffle sound of No Money Down and Downbound Train, while Kitty White’s Jesse James, released in the UK in December 1954, had that rough skiffle edge. Satirist Stan Freberg also released a parody of Rock Island Line in 1956 with his ‘Sniffle Group’, and in another example of “coals to Newcastle”, Bobby Darin also appeared to have taken Donegan, rather than Leadbelly, for his 1956 version of the song. Donegan and other skifflers would be feted in New York for their pidgin interpretations of American folk songs which most of white America had perhaps not previously heard, just as the Rolling Stones would in 1964 plug Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to millions of unknowing Ed Sullivan TV show viewers.
Skiffle was by no means confined to London in 1956 – Ray Bush and his Avon Cities group sprang from Bristol to release two singles and an EP that year on the indie label Tempo.
But perhaps the hottest spot for skiffle, and the place where Cliff Richard and many others got their starts, was the 2i’s Coffee Bar in Old Compton Street, Soho. A blue plaque now marks the spot where hundreds packed into a 25 by 12ft cellar that only comfortably held 40 people and drummers had to perch on the side of the foot-high stage (the cellar is now unrecognisable as such – it is the toilets for the Boardwalk bar).
The 2i’s opened without fanfare in early 1956 – the cafe got its name from two brothers surnamed Irani (believed to be Iranian), and was leased by an Australian wrestler called Dr Death (real name Paul Lincoln). Its cubist-style decor and murals downstairs were painted by composer and impressario Lionel Bart, who became famous for his Oliver! musical. Initially it was in competition with the Heaven & HELL coffee shop next door – the blackened basement (the hell part) boasted a resident skiffle band called The Ghouls.
By the time the 2i’s came into being a youth revolution, fuelled by caffeine, cigarettes, the occasional reefer and benezdrine bomb (bought over the counter from chemists), was in full swing. The 2i’s looked drab in comparison to the exotic South Pacific themes in coffee bars such as the Kon-Tiki, while Le Macabre in Meard Street boasted fake skulls for ashtrays and coffins for tables.
Bassist Brian Gregg, who became a 2i’s regular, both onstage with his skiffle combo Les Hobeaux and later on still with Vince Taylor’s Playboys and Johnny Kidd’s Pirates, recalled to me first venturing into the place before the cellar was rocking:
I was working at HMV in Oxford Street, along with [later rock ‘n’ roll idol] Terry Dene. My job was to distribute records to other shops in London. At that time, HMV was the biggest record shop in the world and we used to say if we haven’t got it, it hasn’t been recorded. One day I was looking for somewhere to have lunch but every place in Soho looked really posh, and I wasn’t well off. Then I came across this place with formica and stainless steel, it looked like a milk bar and the food was cheap. I remember this really nice Australian man in there, Paul Lincoln, who struck up a conversation. The place did look a bit dated. The modern coffee bars were much more spectacular looking, the formica look at the 2i’s was a bit passe.
It was only after July 14, at the second annual Soho Fair, that the 2i’s suddenly surged in popularity. By the time the year was out – for reasons that will be explained in a bit, it could paint Home of the Stars on its sign.
Washboard player John Pilgrim had recently left the City Ramblers for The Vipers. He told me:
We were playing on a lorry outside the 2i’s, and it started pissing down with rain. [Vipers singer and later children’s TV presenter] Wally Whyton came in for coffee and Paul Lincoln said ‘we’ve got a cellar you can play in’. We used to part a hat round, and that was how we started.
A couple of weeks later, after we’d been given a residency, I remember walking to the 2i’s from Cambridge Circus and we saw this huge queue of people waiting around the block. We wondered what they were waiting for, and it turned out to be us. It was purely word-of-mouth, there was no hype about us. They’d come to hear us and we never quite worked out at the time what was so good about us. Since then, I’ve talked to people such as Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick on the folk side, who both used to watch us in the 2i’s, and Chris Barber on the jazz side, and they’ve all said we had an incredible drive and swing. We were a new sound. If you hear those old records today, I’m surprised by how little it’s dated. It still works. We were the only skiffle band who drove down in that very hard way.
Until Elvis entered the public consciousness (from spring 1956), rock ‘n’ roll was a big band craze for the dance halls, an extension of swing. Bill Haley had become the leading figurehead for Teddy Boy uproar.
In autumn 1956, almost exactly a year after the Blackboard Jungle riots, Haley’scash-in film Rock Around The Clock, which actually sought to portray rock’n’rollers in a genial, harmless light, had more songs, and saw far more widespread cinema riots, with seats slashed by flick-knives and a moral panic ensuing. One report thundered:
Police have been called to [the Prince of Wales cinema in Harrow Road] to eject youths who ‘jive’ in the aisles, clapping and chanting to the music. After being ejected they continue dancing in the streets outside. The dialogue is inaudible for cries of ‘we want Bill’ or ‘rock, rock, rock’. Some youths in ‘Teddy boy’ clothing have let off fireworks in cinemas.
By 1956, at least three Haley-style rock ‘n’ roll bands had formed in London: Art Baxter & His Rock And Roll Sinners, Rory Blackwell & His Blackjacks and Tony Crombie & His Rockets. Baxter’s and Blackwell’s groups would release singles in 1957, to coincide with their own (quite dreadful) film Rock You Sinners, but Crombie stole a march on them with his bebop-rock ‘n’ roll crossover Teach You To Rock and Short’nin’ Bread in October 1956, and Let’s You and I Rock backed by his appropriation of the Irish folk song Cockles and Muscles for the hilarious novelty, Sham Rock. Musically, Crombie was a fairly convincing rock’n’roller, aside from his ‘swinging’ vocal, but by 1958 he and the Rockets reverted to bebop.
After a run of 11 hit singles in the UK, after spring 1957 Haley and His Comets would fail to score again, aside from reissues.
Haley told the NME in January 1957:
There has to be a Cadillac music and a Ford music. Tchaikovsky and Bach is Cadillac music, while we play more down-to-earth Ford music. It’s got a good solid beat that can’t be missed… definitely designed for teenage kids to dance to.
Haley was interviewed during his tour of Britain in January and February 1957. He was mobbed by 200 fans on arrival at Waterloo Station and went on to enrapture a teenage Paul McCartney, Pete Townsend and Graham Nash. Other recollections of Haley in the flesh are more dismissive – which kind of accords with his sudden descent in popularity afterwards. Ian Whitcomb wrote:
So it was that Bill Haley and his Merry Men, supported by wives, arrived by boat and took the train to London. Mobs cheered them to the heavens, causing soot to fall, and ancient music halls to lose heavy plaster. Hailed as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, so revered that his hotel bath water was sold as if it was a holy relic, Bill Haley finished his tour as a friendly sort of bloke but no god of the battle beat.
Few, too few, were a Southampton to see him off on the boat home. His chart reign was over. Snarling and pouting from across the ocean waited a band of real raucous rockers and already their discs were spinning blue murder in the land of Shakespeare. Haley’s fall from rock & roll was as sudden as his rise from the ranks of hillbilly yodelers.
“Glad it’s all over”, he wrote in his tour diary. “Just want to be tucked up at home. So tired.”
Bandleader and singer Ray Ellington [pictured, furthest left, with the Goon Show cast], the London-born son of a black music hall artiste, was responsible for the Goon Show’s music, and probably in response to stories about frustrated army chiefs trying to stamp out Teddy Boy dress and rock ‘n’ roll among National Servicemen, crossed rock with military music for Major Bloodnok’s Rock n Roll Call, followed a month later (October 1956) by his interpretation of The Cadets’ doo-wop/rock groundbreaker Stranded in the Jungle.
Two parallel cultures seemed to be in play: rock ‘n’ roll and big band music in the dance halls and cinemas, and skiffle and trad jazz in the cellars. While modern jazz might be widely seen as an elitist form confined to smoky nightclubs, the same players were often part of the dance hall bands, and/or calypso and Afro-jazz combos. Given Donegan’s dismissal of rock ‘n’ roll as a swindle, was it a case of never the twain should meet? Was skiffle and trad confined to middle-class university students and those with the luxury of enough leisure time to spend learning to play an instrument, while rock’n’roll and big band music the preserve of working-class youth’s consumption of their more restricted leisure time?
Perhaps to some extent there was a class and stylistic divide, but it didn’t stop Ken Colyer from embracing rock ‘n’ roll. From August 1956, he instigated a weekly rock ‘n’ roll club featuring Rory Blackwell’s Blackjacks and Tony Crombie’s Rockets, at Studio 51 in Great Newport Street, near Leicester Square.
While bebop musicians were happy to slum it and go where the money was (they might have also enjoyed playing it), this didn’t extend to the whole modern jazz community. Johnny Dankworth reportedly stormed out of a rock’n’roll concert, dismissing it as “trash”.
Just about anyone you’d speak to who was aged 10 or over at the time will remember the immediate, visceral impact on hearing Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel on the wireless or on its release in March 1956. By the end of the year, six singles of the “singing Marlon Brando” had hit the UK charts.
In Mick Farren and Edward Barker’s seminal 1975 book Watch Out Kids, it was noted:
Elvis had soul and this was revolution … He was condemned in the press, on the radio, and from pulpits … He became a symbol of anti-authority and anti-parents … until by the time he was drafted he had become a symbol of the ideal all-American boy.
But it was not until 1958 that Elvis the Pelvis was tamed. He blew a multitude of minds with his sexually charged vocal delivery. The lyric “I feel so lonely, I could die” captured the widespread feelings of alienation and nihilism that had enveloped working-class Britain, which perhaps didn’t accord with Tory prime minister Harold MacMillan’s 1957 assertion: “You’ve never had it so good”. The moment when today’s British pensioner first heard Elvis holler “well since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell” is still burnt into their brains, a jolt they never got over.
Bermondsey-raised Tommy Hicks had heard rock’n’roll first-hand and at the desired age while on shore-leave in the US with the merchant navy. How he was recreated as Tommy Steele – initially touted as Britain’s answer to Elvis – was quickly turned into a biopic, with some fictionalisation.
Tommy Steele’s sudden ascent to fame and fortune as the first homegrown British rock ‘n’ roll star with the less-than-wild Lionel Bart-penned Rock With The Caveman (he went more raucous on his early B-sides, such as Rebel Rock, Rock Around The Town and in particular Doomsday Rock, but was forever hampered by square session musicians and lacklustre production) was supposedly told in The Tommy Steele Story, rush-released in early 1957, and in newspaper articles of the day.
During his bouts of shore-leave, merchant seaman Tommy Hicks had been knocking about with Bart and Mike Pratt as The Cavemen, and also sitting in on skiffle jam sessions for some time in coffee bars, after one of his shipmates sold him a guitar and taught him a few chords. While in the States, he’d actually witnessed Elvis and others play live. He wanted to try out his Elvis act in the Gyre & Gimble, but the patrons there were strictly on the trad, folk and skiffle side. Michael Moorcock, the science-fiction author who once teamed up with Hawkwind for a concept album, then played washboard for The Greenhorns and occasionally The Vipers, claimed:
I was one of the people, including Charlie Watts, who shouted to Tom Hicks to go up to the 2i’s and go and get discovered one evening in the Gyre & Gimble – and Tom took his white Gretsch (or it might have been a Hofner) up to the i’s and became Tommy Steele.
In November 1956, while Steele’s debut single was riding high in the charts, the NME published an article titled ‘Six weeks to stardom: the amazing rise to fame of Britain’s rock ‘n’ roll sensation, Tommy Steele!’. It breathlessly reported:
Week one: Tommy has a few days at home from the sea. He wanders into an espresso bar in Soho’s Old Compton Street. The proprietor is a go-ahead publicity-conscious fellow, who encourages Tommy to get up and sing some rock ‘n’ roll for the customers. In a few moments, the expresso-drinkers are jiving round the tables [hard, as there were never any tables at the 2i’s] and asking for more. On the third night, enter Noel Whitcombe of the Daily Mirror and artists’ manager John Kennedy signs him up, and the next day invites Decca chief Hugh Mendl along… Before Mendl leaves, Tommy has a three-year contract in his pocket.
Larry Parnes (left) and Lionel Bart
With an endorsement like that, it’s little wonder the 2i’s soared to fame. The Tommy Steele Story, which featured Lincoln’s right-hand man at the 2i’s, Tom Littlewood, in a cameo as a judo instructor, recreated the 2i’s on the studio set at Beaconsfield, except in the movie it was a spacious white place with tables, plenty of room to jive and for Steele to wander back and forth with his guitar, causing women to swoon and nearly faint from desire, while an invisible orchestra backed him. It even boasted a song called Two Eyes.
But, according to skiffle singer Chas McDevitt, though New Zealander journalist and publicist John Kennedy did first come upon Hicks in the 2i’s, and in turn introduced him to Larry Parnes – later on, gay impressario Parnes controlled practically every British rock and pop act, but Steele was his first protege and the first to be renamed:
He wasn’t properly discovered at the 2i’s, though they made out he was. He got his big break there but he’d been playing at all the other places. A guy called Geoff Wright had already signed a management deal with him, then Kennedy and Parnes came along and because Tommy had been under 16, or supposedly under 16 when he signed the contract, it was invalid. They got round it that way and took Tommy away from Geoff Wright, who’d laid all the foundations. Soon after Tommy came down the 2i’s, my washboard player took the first photographs of Tommy in the Stork Room, which was high society – Princess Margaret used to go there. They were published in the newspapers, and that shot him to stardom. But the fact he’d played at the 2i’s, the fact people were getting recording contracts, that’s why it all revolved around the 2i’s, and Paul Lincoln made the most of it.
Parlophone’s George Martin had already passed on Steele before Decca snapped him up. But a couple of weeks later Martin did sign The Vipers, Steele’s impromptu backing band at the 2i’s. But the Vipers had little truck with rock ‘n’ roll. John Pilgrim told me:
George Martin got us to record Great Balls Of Fire but it wasn’t what we usually played and we made an absolute pig’s ear of it. Don’t ever listen to that record by The Vipers, it’s terrible. Our main set used to be Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Bessie Smith and general English and Irish folk songs.
Wally Whyton was quoted by the NME in 1957:
I suppose I shall go down in history as a man who sacked Tommy Steele. I decided that our mix of calypso, rock music and skiffle had to be sorted out. I was mainly interested in folk music, so decided to concentrate on skiffle.
Tales abound in McDevitt’s book of The Vipers’ shenanigans. There was the time when, after being paid a pittance by Lincoln, that Whyton offered to wrestle him for double or nothing… and Whyton actually won. Once the band had to beat a hasty retreat the night after being involved in a brawl. They’d unwittingly upset the Curly King Gang. The erstwhile doorman, Big Roy, managed to wave the gangsters off when they turned up at the 2i’s with axes, baseball bats and a shotgun.
Once Tommy Steele had made it big, he was kept busy elsewhere, but The Vipers still returned to play the 2i’s when they were in the top 20. Pilgrim recalled:
We were doing the Prince of Wales Theatre, and they hadn’t thought of putting in a clause banning us from playing elsewhere in the area,” Pilgrim recalls. “So we came back to the 2i’s and did our regular show.
By the end of 1956, the 2i’s empire expanded, opening a second venue at 44 Gerrard Street, taking over from a folk and skiffle club run by John Hasted and later on used for rehearsals by Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and their backing musicians, many from the 2i’s. In the late-60s it became Happening 44, a decadent fusion of psychedelia and bondage gear, where Mick Farren’s Deviants plied their wares. Now it’s a Chinese supermarket. At the New 2i’s, there was enough room for Rory Blackwell’s Blackjacks and Tony Crombie’s Rockets to play, among others, but gangsters soon put an end to it – in the only really nasty moment in the 2i’s history, a brutal hatchet attack was launched in the face of one of Lincoln’s wrestler doormen, scarring him for life.
Alex Balmforth gives a wider account on what was happening outside the semi-conjoining worlds of skiffle ‘n’ rock in 1956:
Meanwhile Youth – as always – was in revolt. The Old Guard was in charge. And when the Tories allowed the USA to use Holy Loch as a nuclear base, it provided the catalyst for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. 1956 was also the year of the Suez crisis, when France, Britain and Israel conspired against Egypt – who had recently annexed and nationalised the Suez canal. In a thinly disguised intrigue, quite simply the British Prime Minister, the hitherto Teflon Anthony Eden lied… Subsequently his career was in ruins and he was forced to fall on his sword. As today, the war was deeply unpopular, it lead to many desertions and reservists’ failing to report for action or refusing to travel to the conflict.
When in 1956 Shelagh Dellaney submitted the play ’A Taste of Honey’ to Joan Littlewood the mould was about to be shattered, irrevocably. Tennis and cocktails or men losing their trousers theatre it was not. The play was about single teenage pregnancy, benign homosexuality – and in addition, it all ended distressingly ambiguously.
The Left hung around in coffee bars listened to ’skiffle’ and ’Dirty Jazz’ and fomented a profound hatred of the establishment. Ewan MacColl established the ’Singers’ Club’ and insisted that performers’ sang songs of their own industrial heritage… MacColl also began the quest to wrest the Folk Song movement from the censorious and establishment EFSDS (the English Folk Song and Dance Society) additionally, the Left Wing toffs devised ’Beyond the Fringe’.
Also this year, a maverick began breaking out of the straightjacket of white-coated British studio discipline. Joe Meek, between 1959 and 1967 the most eccentric and dynamic producer, almost the equivalent of the UK’s Phil Spector, but more extreme and unhinged, was just a lowly engineer when he helped Humphrey Lyttelton gain his sole top 10 hit, Bad Penny Blues. Humph later said if he had known that Meek had broken studio rules by warping out the piano and drums, he would have had the recording binned. As it was, he was too busy to hear the recording before it was released.
In addition to Elvis, British record-buyers had their first taste of wild black rock ‘n’ roll from Little Richard, Shirley & Lee, Big Joe Turner and Chuck Berry, as well as doo-wop from The Cadets and Clovers. Gene Vincent , Carl Perkins, the Johnny Burnett Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio and Johnny Carroll’s stripped-down rockabilly stylings (plus some of the Elvis tracks) were closer to skiffle.
Back in Blighty, Lord Kitchener also joined in the rock’n’roll fray but also the coinciding Cuban dance craze with Mambo Calypso. He was also eager to remind his listeners of an important date in March 1957, when Ghana was to gain its independence. The Mighty Terror, meanwhile, fantasised about rock ‘n’ rolling with British policewomen.
As for rock ‘n’ roll crossing the class divide, the foppish upper-class character comedy of Terry-Thomas satirised the issue in his Sweet Old Fashioned Boy. Don Lang attempted to Anglicise the phenomenon with Rock Around The Island.
No question about it, rock ‘n’ roll had arrived and permeated all levels of British society by the end of 1956. Skiffle for now would be as close as most got to it when trying to recreate it themselves, at least for a couple of years.
As Brian Gregg explained to me:
Rock ‘n’ roll was a futuristic thing. It was all about rocket ships and going to the moon, and there was a real buzz around after the austere time following the war. Also, back then, if anybody saw a guitar, adults would say ‘look, it’s one of those big banjos you get in Hawaiian films’. Guitars seemed really foreign – you were only used to seeing them in black-and-white films played by people in grass skirts.
So it’s not surprising that Britain’s guitarists were a bit green in the early days and the only people who had the chops to play rock ‘n’ roll were established jazz musicians, and few had the inclination. Skiffle was the DIY music, nee punk, of its day; anyone could do it with a guitar and commonplace kitchen items – a washboard, tea chest and boot lace for an improvised bass instrument – and everyone did do it.
Others had to be content with perfecting their quiffs in the mirror and wiggling their pelvises… it wasn’t until 1958 that anyone came along who really managed to be a convincing British rock ‘n’ roller. That person was… drum roll… Cliff Richard.
You’ll have to wait for part 2 to find out why and how…