Saturday, February 24, 2007

Soul Britannia & The Blue Beat: The Impact of Ska In The Early 1960s

Prince Buster The story of the impact and influence of r&b on British society has as much to do with musical and social trends stemming from the Caribbean and Jamaica in particular, as it does the United States. I thought I would investigate some more and write a post about some of the key influences of the early 1960s. Sorry it's taken a couple of weeks to put into order!

During the years 1960 to 1964, an audience for Jamaican ska existed in Britain, thanks to the communities of Jamaican emigrés in the major conurbations. They were particularly interested in hearing this new sound, which both reminded them of home, but also heralded a new confident Jamaica on the road to independence. The music had a distinctive sound, culture and image that, for the younger generation, they could project onto their everyday, British urban environment; and it set them apart from the calypso and mento music associated with their parents. In London for example, as well as local blues dances and shebeens and their soundsystems, DJs and promoters were opening venues such as the Roaring Twenties, the Ram Jam, The Flamingo, El Partido in Lewisham, Brixton Town Hall, and Stoke Newington Town Hall which helped to promote ska. Records were imported into Britain by companies such as Blue Beat Records, and the jazz label Esquire, as well as its subsidiary Starlite. Above all other ska artists, it was probably Prince Buster who was most admired. However, while ska was popular within the Caribbean communities, in the wider society and the pop charts, it was at this time fairly invisible. City club Djs were probably carrying ska 45s with them to play in clubs in provincial towns all over the UK, intriguing the curious who would eventually emerge as faces in the mod scene, but these audiences were more familiar with rock and roll, and at that time more curious about discovering more about old bluesmen and the artists they read about in the American r&b charts. It would not be Prince Buster, but one young yet confident girl who would push ska into the popular British consciousness.

The decision by Jimmy James and The Vagabonds to leave Kingston and move to London in 1964 was likely prompted by the example set by Millicent Small, AKA Millie, who had left Jamaica the previous year with Chris Blackwell, a local producer and owner of a label called Island Records. The story of Millie is a significant one in terms of the introduction of Jamaican musical styles into popular British consciousness, and played a major part in the subsequent development of a distinctive Jamaican music industry. It is also a salutory tale, which highlights some of the significant barriers to the creation of a distinctive British r&b tradition in the 1960s.

MillieMillicent Small was born in Clarendon on the 8th October 1947 (which is incidentally the same day my father was born!), although it may have been 1946 (Millie celebrated her 60th last year.) Her father was a sugar plantation worker, and she was born the youngest into a large family of seven brothers and five sisters. Millie's singing career began in 1960 with a win in the nationally popular Vere Johns Opportunity Hour talent contest at the Palladium Theatre in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Millie remembers the prize for the contest being about 10 shillings:

"When I won the prize money, it seemed like a fortune. I felt I was the richest girl in the world. The following year, when I made my first record (I was 13 then), the disc crashed into the Jamaican Hit Parade and gave me the most wonderful feeling of confidence. You see, when I was 9 years old, I had told my family I was going to be a film star or a singer, and you know what, they laughed!"
Clement 'Sir Coxsone' Dodd 1932-2004
Success brought the twelve-and-a-half year-old Millie to the newly established Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One label at Brentford Road in Kingston, where she first recorded with Roy Panton as part of the duo Roy & Millie, debuting with We'll Meet. By 1962, Millie was a local hit, and regularly performed with Roy Panton and other popular local singers such as Owen Gray, Jackie Edwards and Shenley Duffas. However, the success of Millie and other Jamaican artists influenced by r&b and Jamaican dance rhythms was limited by certain factors. In the early 1960s, Jamaican radio and music sales were dominated by mainstream fare from England and the USA, such as Mario Lanza and Billy Vaughn, and the local recording industry was small and lacking in funds for wider promotion into other markets outside the island. There was an assumption that calypso was more commercial for export, thanks to the shortlived calypso fad in the late 50s in the US.

Roy & Millie - We'll Meet (Island EP 705) 1962

Owen Gray
Chris Blackwell in Island's heydays in the 1970s

Emil Shalit founded the Melodisc record company in the 1940's. To market the new ska sound he formed the label Blue Beat in 1960. Blue Beat was the largest company importing records from Jamaica into Britain, where Jamaican emigrés were buying more records from them and other import labels such as Esquire and Starlite than were being sold locally. It occured to Chris Blackwell, a small producer and owner of the small label Island Records, that in order to expand the music industry of the island, it was necessary to gain a wider audience for some artists in Britain. Owen Gray released the first LP of Jamaican (rather than Trinidad-style calypso) music in Britain, Owen Gray Sings, on Starlite in 1961, and decided to move to London in 1962 to make a career there. Noting the trend, Blackwell also moved Island's headquarters to London in 1962. Within a few years Blackwell had produced or licensed several hundred singles for Island and its various subsidiary labels in Jamaica and Britain, that alongside Blue Beat's efforts, firmly established a distribution system for ska in most major British cities and towns. However, none of Island's records had broken through into the British Music Week pop chart. Blackwell was still convinced that ska could become a dance and musical sensation in Britain and Europe. Looking around for a distinctive artist unique enough to make a cross-over hit, Blackwell thought of Millie Small, and convinced Sir Coxsone Dodd to let him manage her.

It occured to Millie herself that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. Millie made the arrangements for her passport and ticket to England personally. Arriving on a foggy day in London in July 1963, Millie and Blackwell turned to Fontana Records. Jack Baverstock, A&R Director of Fontana Records, was impressed immediately by Millie. He offered her an exclusive recording contract, licenced from Island Records, and arranged for the first recording session at Olympic Studios on Carlton Street, which became the single Don't You Know, which has a sweet orchestral arrangement conducted by Lord Rockingham's Harry Robinson, and strayed from the Jamaican rhythms Millie had been recording.

The first single did not break into the charts, but the second, My Girl Lollipop rose to Number Two in the UK within three weeks, and when released in the USA on the Fontana's US affiliate, Smash Records, it repeated the feat, selling over half-a-million records within five weeks of its release. Chris Blackwell has his own ideas about why it was this track that broke through as a cross-over hit:

"On that record, the reverb came from a sort of cupboard in the back of the studio that we used as a live chamber. It was a mono record, and we fed the sound in, adding a bit more of the reverb on Millie's voice. The record worked well for radio, but partly because it was a minute and 51 seconds. That was important for people at radio who were putting playlists together. Also, Millie's voice was irresistible-for a certain length of time, anyway. So a short record worked well for her."
Ernest Ranglin Jimmy Powell & The Five Dimensions, with Rod, in 1964
The recording of My Girl Lollipop was an arrangement by Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who had played on Island's first record by Owen Gray and The Caribs. It also included contributions from a number of the beat group called The Five Dimensions. Jimmy Powell and Pete Hogman played harmonica on the first takes of the song, but later Chris Blackwell decided that a new part needed to be recorded, and brought in lead singer Rod Stewart to have a go. Both Millie and Chris affirm that this is the take that was used.

It's My Party: Quincy Jones, Millie Small, and Lesley GoreMy Girl Lollipop heralded a whirlwind rise to fame for Millie, that saw her race from touring the UK to a manic reception for her in New York, hosted by DJ Murray The K; then back home to a hero's welcome in Jamaica, and an invitation to meet the Prime Minster Sir Alexander Montie; and back out to the USA for a proclaimed Millie Small Day at the New York World's Fair on August 12th 1964; only to return to the UK to record two TV specials with The Beatles:

"The diminutive 16-year-old with the big smile and ever-shining eyes spread new music excitement across Britannia and went up the British Hit Parade..'There hasn't been a voice like it since Shirley Temple,' headlined the Daily Express..."
- Teenville Magazine Issue #2, 1964

Shirley Temple? Here were intimations of the potential pitfalls for a Jamaican artist recording for a London record label with a broad range of popular artists. What were they to do to capitalise on Millie's recent success? There were no shortage of potential tour dates, both in the UK and worldwide, that saw her performing non-stop for over 2 and a half years, and regularly up until her 'homecoming' concerts in Kingston at Easter 1971. Chris Blackwell was able to earn enough money to finance his ambitions for Island Records. However, any future expansion of the label, and promotion of other homegrown Jamaican talent, would take time, and all lay in the future. What Fontana did not have right now in 1964-65, and Chris Blackwell was unable to provide, was a roster of similar acts upon which to build. Collaborations with The Spencer Davis Group aside, Millie and Blackwell were in a difficult position. Lollipop was immensely successful, and to the present day has sold over 7 million copies worldwide. But in the London music business of 1964, it was a curio and novelty, an interesting dance record, and Fontana gambled rightly that this was the best way to market it to a wide audience. Millie's records would look like, if not sound like, any other Fontana female singing star's. Jack Baverstock had made his name at Oriole/Embassy Records in the 50s and later at Fontana with his ability to tap into the latest pop craze, quickly turning out 'chinese copies' of upcoming hit songs with the help of John Gregory's orchestra, and selling them at discount prices through Woolworths stores. A new single with a similar vibe, Sweet William, was released in July 1964, aimed at making another similar hit to capitalise on Millie's publicity, which reached No. 30 in the UK. Sadly, this was not the start of a heralded ska revolution. Fontana and other British labels were not looking for another new sound just yet. Fontana was itself in a strong position signing up the new 'beat' groups of young British r&b, and had the example of The Beatles to follow as a ready-made business model. Even Chris Blackwell, for all his enthusiasm for ska, had also been using his time in England to make connections to the 'mod' scene, eyeing up talent in the pubs and clubs of Birmingham...

Millie Small - My Girl Lollipop (Fontana TF449) 1964

Despite all these inhibitors to a blue beat and ska explosion in early and mid 1960s Britain, the impact of Millie and other ska artists had not been insignificant. Jamaican r&b had been given a worldwide exposure from London to Birmingham, from Lagos to New York, where Prince Buster and others had joined Millie at the World's Fair. The infrastructure of the Jamaican record industry had been given a massive boost, enough to secure its future development for itself. Significant creative artists in the British r&b scene had worked with Millie and come into greater contact with Jamaican musical trends, and a similar process would start to occur in Memphis and Chicago as the sounds that Jamaican musicians had taken from there and adapted now made their way back. Ska was immensely popular and entrenched in the social scenes of the Black British communities of many towns and cities. Thanks to Blue Beat, Starlite, Island, Studio One and later Trojan, a thriving production and distribution system was bringing Jamaican music to UK markets, and so the new product of ska artists was readily availble in mid 60s Britain. Record outlets such as Musicland in Deptford and Joe's Records in Brixton, and the committed music salesmen and promoters behind them such as Joe Mansano, were responsible for getting the product to this market. Prince Buster was able to record and distribute a phenomenal 600 different singles from 1962 to 1970, and found a viable market. He appeared on the popular TV show Ready Steady Go in 1964, having just broken all records with a sell-out concert at Brixton Town Hall. His song Al Capone broke into the Top 20 in the UK in 1966, and gave a distinctive twist to the 'gangster' trend sweeping through the pop chart that year courtesy of Georgie Fame. This entailed a significant level of sales, proving the ska beat had made its impression on the mod culture. By that year, Prince Buster was able to make a tour of Britain that included venues such as The Guildhall in Southampton, the Atlanta Ballroom in Woking, the Tabernacle in Stockport, the Shoreline Club in Bognor Regis, and the Starlite in Crawley - all venues somewhat outside of the early major settlement areas of Caribbean immigrants - as well as venues such as the Marquee, the Brummel Club in Bromley, and the Beachcomber in Nottingham. As Jamaican music continued into its period of innovation from ska to rock-steady and into reggae in the late 60s, they would be transmitted to a growing British audience, where in the 1970s, they would contribute to the development of home-grown and sometimes multiracial musical movements.

Prince Buster & The All Stars - Al Capone (Blue Beat 324) 1964

Millie at the National Arena in Kingston Easter 1971As for Millie Small, now settled in England, she continued to ride the fame of her hit singles and continued touring and making records which sold to a smaller but appreciative audience, and began to tackle a number of issues concerning black and white relations in Britain head on. One fly in the ointment was, as often in the music industry, Chris Blackwell had not been entirely upfront about his business dealings, and Millie was lucky to see anything but her expenses paid and a share out of the tour profits. He and Island profited from the royalties associated with her biggest hit. Recently, aged 60, Millie revived her recording career with producer Arly Cha of Yardie Style Records. They have recorded a new album 'Millie Is Back', which came out last October.

Information for this post compiled from:
Teenville Magazine Issue #2 from late 1964, as hosted by The article 'Chris Blackwell: FROM LP TO DVD, STILL LIVING THE ISLAND LIFE' by Dan Daley for MIX magazine.
Articles on ska in Britain at .
'Millie not so 'small' anymore' published on October 15, 2006 by The Jamaican Gleaner newspaper to celebrate her 60th birthday.
I found a lot of fascinating facts and images of flyers for various clubs at the Ska2Soul website, a site that specialises in telling the story of the British ska experience from the mid 60s onward.
For an introduction to ska itself, try this short history of the origins of ska also from Wikipedia.
Millie's greatest hits album, Time Will Tell, is available at itunes. It contains both the tracks featured today.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Darling, You Send Me, Honest You Do

Some say that To Love Is Our Soul Purpose. It's February 14th, and so I thought I should help everyone to get into the spirit of things. Who better to help than Aretha Franklin, singing one of Sam Cooke's simplest yet most sublime love songs, his first secular hit, You Send Me. It's just a single verse and then an endless repetition of how they make you feel...

Aretha Franklin - You Send Me (Atlantic 584186B) 1968
P.S. For all you free spirits, a warning - this song does mention the phrase 'marry me'. On the single, guys, you would have of course just sat through the tirade of Think on the a-side, with a finger-wagging Aretha telling you exactly what's what. Weakened, you then hear this, apologise for everything you did and for the things you didn't (and a few things you didn't know you did or didn't do), make up, and succumb.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Soul Britannia: This Is Jimmy James & The Vagabonds!

The first musical post for this series is not a surprise. Welcome to the High Priest of Soul and the New Religion! This is Jimmy James And The Vagabonds...

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Bear in mind that the band formed in Jamaica and that both singers Jimmy James and Count Prince Miller were born in the USA, for they were probably one of the two most important soul groups working in Britain in the mid 1960s. Their work and careers led to Britain and influenced the British music scene and offered new experiences to many people there.

The original Vagabonds formed in Harbour View and played around Kingston, Jamaica. They were at the time the most popular live band in Jamaica behind Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. The band by the early 1960s comprised Count Prince Miller as the second vocalist, guitarists Wallace Wilson, bassist Coleson Chen, keyboardist Carl Noel, saxophonists Milton James and Fred Fredericks, and drummer Rupert Balgobin. Their changing personnel at different times included Jackie Mittoo on organ, Cedric IM Brookes on tenor sax, Calypso Joe, Honest Jon, and Lynn Taitt. Thier live reputation well-established, and with a number of Jamaican hit singles, the Vagabonds were seeking a new lead vocalist to help the band break international markets. Young local Kingstonian Ezeke filled the role for a few months before Count Prince Miller offered the role to Michael James AKA Jimmy James, an American-born singer who's self-penned songs "Bewildered & Blue" and "Come To Me Softly" had been No.1 hits in Jamaica in 1959 and 1960 for Tip Top Records. The new band plus Jimmy recorded Presenting the Fabulous Vagabonds for Island Records in 1964.

It was a platform upon which to launch a career in Britain, so the band moved to London in 1965. Along came Coleson's brother Phillip Chen, eager to prove to the others his worth as a back-up guitarist. If there was room on the stage at the pub venues the Vagabonds began to play, Chen got the chance to play! The Vagabonds were invited to play at the Marquee Club in March 1965, and although not exactly the 'opening act' for The Who according to the Marquee's records (The Who were playing several times that week, but not on the same night), The Vagabonds both impressed the club who booked them regularly through March and then again in June, and clearly impressed Who manager Pete Meaden, who became also their manager. In fact, both bands became firm friends, Pete Townsend once personally replacing their equipment after it was stolen (and he was never well-known for caring for his own gear...). The Vagabonds were renowned as one of the hottest live acts in the U.K., an act described in the liner notes for The New Religion based on a concert they gave in Portsmouth. In fact, many soul afficionados profess to prefer the live act to the recordings of the band. There was a fantastic contrast between James' strong, soulful vocals, and the charm and audience teasing indulged in by Crown Prince Miller. It was definitely one of the first soul acts that many British fans, now calling themselves mods, would have had the chance to see if they lived outside of the major metropolises and ports with black British communities.

What happened to the recording career of the Vagabonds is in sharp contrast to their live career, and is hard to explain. For their records never sold in the numbers their popularity should have assured. Their first single was Shoo-Be-Doo You're Mine on Columbia in 1965. They signed to Piccadilly, a Pye subsidiary label in 1966, but failed to take off. Were there problems with marketing a new soul act at Piccadilly? Did they have something they didn't have the expertise to sell? Some say that strange choices were made for the a-sides of their four singles in 1966, but each showcases lively material that better portrayed their live sound that was such a hit with the audience, backed with some powerful slower numbers in a deep soul vien, such as a reworking of James's composition Come To Me Softly as the b-side on February's Hi Diddly Dee Dum Dum, a Dells cover. Yet, whether it was Jimmy's energetic and enthusiastic renditions of classic songs by US artists, or new numbers such as the exciting I Feel Alright in January 1966, the record-buying public failed to catch on. This Heart of Mine and Ain't Love Good, Ain't Love Proud also failed to break through in Britain.

Something that was perhaps different about the career of the Vagabonds was the committment by Piccadilly and Pye Records to produce albums featuring a soul group. One assumes that they were following much the same marketing strategy as they would adopt for any other young 'beat' group that might come through their door, and in this sense the Vagabonds had a kind of opportunity that was rare across the Atlantic. The New Religion was released in December 1966, but again, it failed to produce an album following or any hit singles. Piccadilly was shut down and The Vagabonds material now came out on Pye Records itself. In 1967 they released London Swings: Live at the Marquee Club, a live LP featuring Jimmy James & the Vagabonds and the Alan Bown Set. Their third Pye LP, Open Up Your Soul was released in 1968, while Pye started to reissue Jimmy James LP with a mixture of tracks on their label Marble Arch to try to use the material and get some sales from it.

All of the two years of work finally gave The Vagabonds their first Top Forty hit in Britain with their cover of Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine, which reached No. 36, and was in teh chart for two months. Perhaps this was a sign that the bands tireless regime of touring across Britain had begun to pay off with popular recognition. Over in the USA, appreciation of an alternate take of the Vagabonds rendition of Come To Me Softly (shorter and featuring heavier romantic strings) used as an a-side on an Atco 45, was also growing with a lot of play on AM radio. The Vagabonds continued, recording the LP Better By Far in 1970. But by the end of the decade, soul music as a force on the pop chart was waning in the face of psychedelic rock and home-grown bands. How many more opportunities would there be for the band to break into the mainstream of British pop when the teenage market seemed to be moving on to new sounds? Pye dropped the Vagabonds after the last album.

But despite the trials and tribulations of the 60s, that would not be the last we heard of them...

Jimmy James & The Vagabonds - Ain't Love Good, Ain't Love Proud (Piccadilly VN35349 (Oct 1966)

Information from The British Beat Boom website, research carried out by Jason Ankeny for the All Music Guide, internet sources, and gleaned from my memories of old mod chats over pints and chocolate hob-nobs. Copies of Jimmy James & the Vagabonds LPs are everywhere in charity shops in the UK if you look, so look and you won't regret it.

Soul Britannia: Windrush

Britons had come into contact with Black America directly during World War Two, socialising with G.I.s, and getting to hear some of the sounds of blues and jazz that black american soldiers listened to. This influence would continue in small pockets of rural Britain, in East Anglia for example, around the American Airforce bases of the Cold War (as it would also to an even larger extent in Germany).

Meanwhile, in the 1950s, the mainstream American recording industry was heavily promoting 'rock and roll' to the young people of Britain. It was promoted to a younger generation living in an austere economic environment, and couldn’t help but become a nationwide 'teenage' phenomenon, especially backed with the teen orientateed films of the period. 'Teddy Boy' fashion was distinctive and colourful for the time. Coffee bars provided a new form of social outlet for young people. Young Britons could not emulate the car cruising culture of their American counterparts. But they were able to interact and listen to music at the local dance hall.

But while the curious British youngster began to explore the less familiar names of rock and roll, and wonder about the blues, it would have remained a fringe curiousity and access to the recordings of black r&b artists would have been far harder to obtain, where it not for another factor in 1950s Britian. The remainder of the British public would have continued to soak up and enjoy the Elvises and Eddie Cochrans supplied by the record industry. British awareness of the history of rhythm and blues, and all related musics, would have been pegged to the pace of social change in the United States. Ironically, the awareness of black musical traditions in America would be championed by some very passionate groups of Brits in the mid 60s.

The vital bridge between American soul music and its assimilation into British cultural life is the Caribbean. Windrush led to the development of communities in numerous cities and ports where a demand for both American soul and its Caribbean variant ska existed in high enough amounts to make importation a viable business. Sound system parties became a new feature of night life in Caribbean communities such as Notting Hill in London and Toxteth in Liverpool.

What kind of nightlife culture for example was being established by the Caribbean community in Notting Hill in the late 50s? In the main, it was built on the sounds of Trinidad and Togabo, St Kitts and the surrounding islands, while being influenced by the sounds of Jamaican ska popular in the communities of Brixton and Tottenham. Sound systems were run by popular figures such as Duke Vin, Count Suckle, Baron Baker and King Dick, who conducted events, called ‘blues’ or ‘shebeens’, in basements, and even in peoples front living rooms, once all of the furniture had been moved out into the back room to make space!

“...In fifty-eight you had a lot of shebeens, you call it that, a social situation, there was nothing because of the no-coloured policy, no blacks, no coloureds in homes, entertainments, there was nothing really for black people so you had to create your own social environment. "

Such creativity in the creation of local entertainment for a new community was done in the face of the unpleasant reality that an unofficial colour ban made going to many pubs and clubs an unwelcoming and dangerous experience. Amongst the few pubs in Notting Hill where black people could make a presence were The Colville (known affectionately as ‘The Pisshouse’) and The Apollo on All Saints Road. Meanwhile, the local hall or private room was frequently off-limits to hire due to prejudice of the owner, or due to refusal of the local police to allow parties without the relevant entertainment licence - which they were unlikely to give.

“The Jamaican people created particularly the reggae, ska and bluebeat. And Fullerton, a chap called Fullerton, was a tailor and bought his first house in Talbot Road. He had a basement and we used to have blues dances and stuff. Everybody used to get down there and get down. You had people like Duke Vin who used to play with big speakers, all these things that we have now is part of our culture, discotheques were actually born out of Caribbean culture.You had a certain club that a lot of us never got into called the Montparnasse that was on Chepstow Road, the corner of Chepstow and Talbot, but round the corner was the Rio on Westbourne Park Road. Then you come further down, then Larry was in a place there with Johnnie at the corner of Ledbury Road and Westbourne Park and that was called Fiesta One. And right next door to it it had the Calypso. That what I call there, is no more than about 800 yards square. Then when you leave there you come to the corner of Colville Road and Elgin Crescent and some Barbadian guys have a club in the basement. Then Sheriff had his gym/club. It was a wild - when I say wild life you understand me - sometime you don't reach the West End. I used to hit the Grove like about four o'clock of the evening and leave there about quarter to five in the morning.”

Older local white people reacted to the arrival of British citizens from the Caribbean with fear and incomprehension, and continued to inculcate their children with these notions. Young white people living in close proximity to Caribbean neighbours should theoretically naturally progress from a love of Elvis and rock n’ roll to an appreciation of black Caribbean culture. Instead in the summer of 1958, many Teddy boys chose to go along with what their parents were telling them ought to be done about it. With the violent actions of older men as a role-model, the general attitudes of their parents, and the influence of workers for Oswald Mosley's Fascists, it was quite simple to channel some of the ‘rebellious’ attitude of rock n’ roll teddy boys and rockers into a monolithic identity to distinguish and set white youths apart. Yet some eyewitnesses attest that in fact, the 'Teddy boy' presence in the rioting was minimal, and in fact it was the wider, older community driving the hostility. Teddy boy interest in rioting and far-right meetings began to pale off, in contrast to their older brothers and parents.

The murder of Kelso Cochrane , and its unsatisfactory investigation, revealed how the Metropolitan Police themselves mirrored the attitudes of the wider population. When white people began to enter the streets, initiating the Notting Hill Riots of 1958, the police response was inadequate and focused on the wrong targets. Such insensitive policing continued to be a problem at gatherings even years afterwards:

“The police didn't take kindly to it. A lot of things made them annoyed. The music was too loud, they didn't like blacks period gathering in any kind of situation, and the selling of drinks which was outside [the law], because you couldn't get a licence, so you had to sell drinks, So you had to break the law. All this got under their wick. The shebeen didn't survive. The police, well they survived in a sense; the police used to regularly raid them, kick their boxes in, kick their speakers in, but sheer will, just natural perseverance. That aggravated the blacks no end and gave them the determination to persevere and the whole police hatred came out of that.

Anything which happens with the blacks and the police is inherent in the early stupidness of breaking their sound systems, costing them money, and indirectly disrupting their social pattern. It carried on after the riots, way into the sixties. The riots didn't do much for change. All the riots did was establish that you can't take liberties with black people, that's what it established, you've got to stand up and defend yourself. You're not going to back off.”

One more description now from an oral account of a night in 1963, which perhaps encapsulates many of the sensations and experiences of a blues dance into one account:

"Wherever you come from, you had a feel for the music. The people dem didn't too care where you come from. Dem people didn't have a prejudice like island thing, you know. For the youth dem, it was just oneness. Like when you finish work in a factory on a friday night, this is where you go, Blues dance. All de doors close and sounds just a drop in you head. Its like a refuge still. It remind you of home, the feel of it. From Blues sessions a culture develop. I remember one on Winston Road, played by a brother called Jucklin. One night in 1963 the door just kick down and policeman just step in and you hear funny sound, sound system switch off. Dem just bust up de dance! We couldn't understand it. De older people dem did know because it happen to them. A couple of brethren get fling on police van and get charge with obstructing police officers on de Monday morning"

Around the edges of this new entertainment came the most curious white teenagers interested in these unfamiliar songs. In different cities around Britain, certain individuals were investigating the music they heard, and interacting with black people. Yet for British white youths, it was all still quite different and confusing. Pete Townsend, of The Who, describes in one interview his confused image of ‘black’ culture at that time, where the reality of the black community he knew and the one in his head were somewhat blurred:

“America was still a distant and evocative IDEA to us, full of mystique. Remember we were all war-babies. brought up on free chewing gum handed out by clean-cut grinning G.I.s.. When I drove [a Lincoln Continental] to the Marquee Club … Count [Prince Miller] said ,'The Lincoln is the Rolls Royce of the United States man. Heavy car!’ The British black population were all Caribbeans. Their clubs, their drugs, their music and dancing they freely shared - but they were too close to influence us very deeply. They had a self-contained life-style; they were good people, suspicious of young Whites who saw something special in simply being black.”

Yet, curious, they continued to approach and Djs like Count Suckle saw the opportunity to establish a more mainstream club to attract them. In 1961, after establishing a reputation as one of the capital’s leading DJs, he gained a residency at the west end’s Roaring Twenties Club, where his set, featuring a mixture of R&B, Ska and Jazz, attracted audiences from far and wide. Three years on, he moved on to the famous Cue Club in Paddington and played host to many of the biggest names in the British, Jamaican and American music industry, with the likes of The Supremes, Desmond Dekker, Joe Tex, Prince Buster, Junior Walker (to name but a few) all appearing at the venue. As the years drew on, the Count increasingly concentrated his efforts on running the club, which finally closed its doors in 1988.

Quotes taken from extracts of Notting Hill in the Sixties - Mike Phillips (Lawrence and Wishart, 1991) and Behind the Masquerade: The Story of Notting Hill Carnival – Kwesi Owusu and Jacob Ross (London: Arts Media Group, 1988). Pete Townsend quotes from interview in 1985. Information on the exact nature and locations of Notting Hill cultural life in the 50s found in Counter Culture Portobello Psychogeographical History by Tom Vague, and The Notting Hill Cornival by Caspar Melville.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Soul Britannia

Yesterday night was the first episode of a new documentary series on the BBC entitled Soul Britannia, charting some of the influences in the development of both soul music in Britain and an audience for soul music. It proved to be a fascinating programme, covering far more than the usual praisie that starts and ends with vague references to American sailors bringing over rare r&b 45s on merchant ships and selling them on to a small crowd of eager Liverpudlian teenagers, and Londoners Mick and Keith, bored of drab old post-war Blighty. Instead, the programme set out to chart the social phenomenae driving this new cultural influence, and the profound cultural impact it had on British society. It was also detailed enought to hint at some of the different introductions and responses to r&b in particular parts of Britain, which each had their own different levels of access to and interaction with American, Caribbean and Black British culture.

I thought I would do a few posts on a Soul Britannia theme, and it would also give me the opportunity to give a quick summary of some of the things they researched in the programme to give it some context. Hopefully, it will be interesting to those of you reading from America, who have ever wondered why there are so many soul fans still today in the UK.

For an American, it might well appear strange to see part of your culture adopted, seemingly naively, by a reserved island race. In fact, there have been a number of Americans who have voiced criticisms of both British soul fans and of British soul artists, over their understanding, sincerity and even the ethicality.

It is probably important to state that British interaction with soul took place in many places in different ways, involving people of all colours, some with and some without any direct contact to African-American culture. Secondly, it is a story of different peoples' encounters with, identification with, and attempts to emulate and then adapt a sound to reflect something about themselves. The third point that should be made here is that the introduction of r&b music into Britain initiated a profound and wide-reaching cultural readjustment, and promoted changes in the social and moral conventions of British society and our opinions on race, that could not have been created by any existing influence in Britain alone.

The BBC website is channelling the curious towards the Soul Source Forum, where as we speak, there is no doubt a very detailed debate, as next week, the story reaches the origins of the Northern Soul phenomenon - where I hear there is some disagreement about the emphasis placed on Wigan Casino ...