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Leicester Special Collections

Popular Music

Advert for the Leicester Academy of Dance

An advert for a dance and stage school on the High Street, 1951

Before Rock 'n' Roll

Before the Second World War many people danced to the sound of bands playing popular dance numbers. This continued after the war and often blended into the local jazz scene.

Dancing was very popular and might be at the Palais on Humberstone Gate, De Montfort Hall, in the Working Men’s Clubs or wherever there was a good dance floor e.g. the fire station on Lancaster Rd or the Oriental Café by the market (which closed in 1955 and became Woolworths). Dance halls were good places to meet people and there were plenty of dance schools and instructors to make sure would-be Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers knew the difference between a foxtrot and a waltz.

Recorded for this project, Brian Harvey talks about playing in dance bands after finishing his National Service in 1950 and mentions some of the people he knew and played with - Lew Branston and his orchestra, the Johnny Lester Band at the Lancaster Hall, Frank Watson at the Bell Hotel, Jimmy Hearth at the Grand Hotel.[1] As tastes changed it became increasingly difficult to keep these large groups going and many musicians ended up playing in smaller jazz groups.

Brian Harvey talks about dance bands in Leicester.

The Lew Branston Orchestra

The Lew Branston Orchestra.

At the start of the 1950s, before the birth of Rock 'n' roll, the influence of the United States of America could be seen in Johnny Denis and his Rangers, who dressed in cowboy/cowgirl outfits.[2]

Acts could make a good living playing in Germany and singer/dancer Margaret Tedds set sail for Germany to entertain the troops. Another example of this is the Blackburn cousins, Bryan and Allan. Allan was the son of Harry Blackburn, who ran the Coventry Arms on Halford Street a.k.a. the Brass House. In the early ‘50s they played together in Germany when a planned fortnight’s trip turned into a three year tour. Eventually, Bryan became a writer of West End revues, as well as writing for The Two Ronnies and Bob Hope.

Links to Bryan Blackburn's obituary in The Stage (the date of birth should be 1928) - https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/obituaries/2004/bryan-blackburn/ - and his entry on the IMDB - http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0972379/

Clive Allen was the pianist at the Manchester Working Men’s Club (WMC) in 1951 and, along with his musical partner Bobby Joy was about to hit the big time through local BBC TV. In 1954 he worked with the famous comic Max Miller. One of his songs, ‘My Little Budgie’ was recorded by Bruce Forsyth (released as the B-side to ‘I’m a Good Boy’ in 1960). By the end of the decade Clive and Bobby were successfully playing at the Windmill theatre in London and doing cabaret in the West End.

In 1952, Jimmy Cleeve, who played the harmonica and guitar ‘at the same time’, and 15 year old Patricia Bosworth were both set to play on a new radio ‘discovery programme’ hosted by Carroll Levis, who had been running similar radio shows before the war. The televison version of this started on ITV in 1957 and was the first of the ‘Opportunity Knocks’ or ‘X factor’ type shows.

In 1952 the legendary Maurice Coleman made the first of many appearances in the local press. He was playing banjo at a college revue but mainly played guitar and banjo in various jazz bands throughout the 1950s (and was still playing at The Attik and elsewhere many years later). One of the major names in the local jazz scene was the Monk family and the press followed the adventures of trumpet player Sonny Monk throughout the 1950s as he travelled to Canada and the USA. In 1954 Sonny was in Vancouver while brother Owen Monk was starting a new jazz club ‘Blues & Booze’ at the Royal Standard pub, featuring Maurice Coleman among others. The group soon splintered and by 1958 both Sonny and Owen were playing with Benny Snyder’s group in the USA. The brothers went on to run 'The Hungry I' pancake house in what is now the Good Earth Restaurant on Free Lane.

Also in the early 1950s, the Lenners were six sisters born in Aylestone to the singer Florence Wright and comedian Arthur Lenner. This talented family were often in the local press and Anne Lenner made many recordings. All but one of the sisters went into show business and Shirley Lenner sang with Joe Loss and his Orchestra at one point, as did another Leicester singer Larry Gretton.

Link to Anne Lenner on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Lenner

Derek Seaton remembers the Monk brothers early days in Wigston.

Jazz Hots Up Leicester!

An article from 1961 about the impact of trad jazz on Leicester

Violent Jazz

Peter Wells also featured in a court case reported in October 1955 in which he was accused of failing to pay ‘entertainments duty’ on money taken at the ‘Dixieland’ jazz sessions at the Royal Standard pub. Wells was fined £25 and orders to pay costs totalling £11 18s 6d. When the police visited the club it was made clear that, although the club wasn’t allowed to charge a 2s entrance fee, each person could make a voluntary contribution of 2s that would help pay for expenses. This didn’t satisfy the authorities. Trying to avoid paying duty on money made by venues and musicians was common and anecdotal evidence suggests it was one reason why bands went through so many name changes!

Police Supt. Woolley visited the Royal Standard and reported in court that, in a room designed for 50 people, there were 137 present – mostly teenagers. The music ‘was of a violent jazz nature’ he said. Mr Berry, representing Peter Wells, said that there was a world of difference between the traditional jazz played at the club and modern ‘bebop’. Presumably bebop was seen as being more ‘wild’ by the public.

Another point of view is offered by a Leicester Evening Mail article from March 1955, which might point to why the authorities became interested in the jazz club at the Royal Standard. Visiting the club on a Wednesday night with a couple of young women who had never been before, the article reports that the atmosphere was ‘smoky and musically tense’. It added, ‘the music was boisterous, the mood of the audience exuberant and the smoke a trifle painful to the eyes’, but the girls were won over: ‘It’s wonderful. The music really gets a hold of you.’ For the record, the band that night was Owen Monk – piano; Doug Richardson – drums (worked at Imperial Typewriters); Maurice Coleman – guitar/banjo (a tailor); Trevor Jones – trumpet (a teacher); Pete Wells – trombone (a mechanic); Brian Woolley – clarinet (works in father’s hosiery factory).

The city’s jazz scene continued to thrive with a second club opening at the end of 1957. The Leicester Jazz Society moved from the Rail & Road Transport WMC to the Variety Artistes Club on Cank Street, while the new club could be visited at the Bedford Hotel where local favourites Brian Woolley and his jazzmen played.

The Dallas Boys

No look at Leicester's popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s would be complete without The Dallas Boys. Now seen as one of the first 'Boy Bands', they were four lads from the East Park Road area of Leicester who went to Moat Boys' School - Joe Smith, Stan Jones, Bob Wragg, and Leon Fisk - plus London-born Nicky Clarke. Having appeared on the Carroll Levis show they won a talent contest at a holiday camp and went on to win the national final of the competition. They made their TV breakthrough in 1956, released their first record in 1957, and were well-known faces nationally for years afterwards.

Link: The Dallas Boys on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dallas_Boys

The Famous Betty Smith

From 1955 onwards Betty Smith, from Sileby, is featured extensively in the local press. Billed as ‘Britain’s top girl musician’, she was the sax player with the Freddie Randall band and her long and successful career saw her become one of the country’s best jazz tenor sax players.

Link to Betty Smith’s obituary in The Guardian - https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/mar/09/betty-smith-obituary
Link to Ted Easton's Jazz band with Betty Smith playing Sweet Georgia Brown - https://youtu.be/y-MTNyymlrI

Rock ‘n’ roll

One of the first mentions of Rock ‘n’ roll in the local newspaper scrapbooks at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland, is in a Leicester Chronicle article from September 1956 that is written in response to ‘rowdyism’ at showings of the film ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (1956). 1955 had been the year of the song 'Rock Around the Clock', which also featured in the film 'The Blackboard Jungle', and Elvis Presley had charted early in 1956 with 'Heartbreak Hotel' and 'Blue Suede Shoes', so Rock ‘n’ roll was fairly well established in the media by the time of the article.

Signed by The Editor, the article pulls no punches: "Rock ‘n’ roll… is a complete swindle. Its only devotees are teenagers who… are willing to worship the mediocre. What a pitifully shoddy craze! Rock ‘n’ roll is quite clearly a menace because it gives our teenagers an excuse for making trouble. It is because American commercial interests have dictated the craze to them… let us send Rock ‘n’ roll back to where it came from!"

Skiffle

In 1957, however, skiffle was possibly more popular then Rock ‘n’ roll. Loughborough lad Bob Cort was making a name for himself, and recorded the theme song for the Six Five Special TV show as well as writing a book, ‘Making the Most of Skiffle’. When his first record was released, Cort and his group made their concert debut in London in January 1957, along with the Ken Colyer Skiffle Group and the Vipers, at a National Jazz Federation (NJF) skiffle session. The Cort group also topped the Skiffle and Blues concert presented by the NJF at the De Montfort Hall in November 1957. Unfortunately this coincided with Count Basie playing in Coventry, which may have explained the small audience. Others on the bill were Dickie Bishop and his Sidekicks, the Johnny Parker Band and a local group, the Betty Smith Skiffle Group. From the early 1960s Cort played guitar and sang songs for various radio shows including Listen With Mother.[3]

Link to Bob Cort singing the Six Five Special – https://youtu.be/qp-8A0y-Pyw 

From Granby Road Youth Centre, the Black Cats formed in 1957 and won the Leicester Diocesan Youth Fellowship skiffle competition organised by Leicester's youth chaplain at St George's Hall. They then took part in Carroll Levis's television auditions in August 1957 and did well enough to progress to the area finals. They also took part in a local final of the World Skiffle Championship, along with other local groups like the Dynamics, the Foresters, the Johnny Denver Group and the Skiffabillies. The Black Cats won this (at the Palais), beating the Dynamics, and were offered a contract by the BBC to do a series on Six-Five Special but turned it down as it would have meant some of them giving up their current jobs in order to turn professional, which would have made them liable for national service.[4]

Michael Dewe identifies these other skiffle bands in Leicester in 1957. Does anyone know anything about them? Barry Lane's, Belgrave, Cobras, Dynamics, Brian Parke's, Skiffrock Boys.[5]

Nancy Whiskey

The wonderfully named Ms Whiskey (born Nancy Wilson) is famous as the woman who recorded the song ‘Freight Train’ with the Chas McDevitt group in 1957. She was Glaswegian, lived in Melton Mowbray in the latter part of her life, but travelled the world and recorded extensively. In late April 1957, the McDevitt Skiffle Group took part in what was announced as "London's First Big Skiffle Session" at the Royal Festival Hall. Nancy Whiskey stated at the time that folk music was her first love, but skiffle was a chance to make some money.[6]

Link to Nancy Whiskey on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Whiskey.
Link to Freight Train performed on the Ed Sullivan Show - https://youtu.be/3N4srNjyRK0

Leicester’s only Rock 'n' Roll group

In 1957 the Craig Rock & Roll Group was hailed as ‘the only out-and-out group in Leicester’. This may be up for debate but the group was notable for having a woman, Betty Hurd, playing an accordion – a very Rock ‘n’ roll instrument. The leader of the group, Raymond Craig, said of Rock ‘n’ roll, "It’s come to stay. It’s the beat and the melody that get folk. It should last five years."

In 1959, 19 year old Rock ‘n’ roll singer Johnnie Lee, having learnt guitar while recovering from accidentally shooting himself in the foot, recorded his first record, ‘Echo’. The flip side was titled ‘It’s-a-me, It’s-a-me, It’s-a-me, my love’ (honestly).

Link to Johnnie Lee’s Discography - http://www.45cat.com/artist/johnnie-lee

What happened next?

Stephen Wagg notes that by the end of the 1950s the initial outrage at Rock ‘n’ roll had died down. In 1957 Tommy Steele – possibly Britain’s first Rock ‘n’ roll star – visited De Montfort Hall and was presented with a sweater, a ‘Rhythm Pullover’. His concerts might have featured hysterical fans but the press hysteria died down quickly. By 1960 the Leicester Mercury had a ‘teenage page’ and the first phase of teenage Rock ‘n’ roll culture was coming to an end.[7]

Looking back, perhaps things didn't change as quickly as one might imagine. In his book 'A Degree of Swing. Lessons in the facts of life; Leicester 1958-64', Colin Miller writes about his memories of being a student at Leicester University. In this excerpt from an online article for Live Music Exchange he writes:

"When I arrived at Leicester in 1959, musical entertainment at the university was exclusively classical music concerts, light orchestral music for ballroom dancing on a Saturday night and a Friday evening jazz club. There was no place at all for popular music, particularly rock ‘n’ roll. It was the music of the working class young and the university was considered by many to be the rightful domain of middle class intellectuals. I recollect that,

Before leaving home I loaned my record player to my mother and divided my pop music collection between her and my cousin Stephanie, under the misguided impression that rock ‘n’ roll music was considered to be non-U for university students. I bade a sad goodbye to my favourite record purchases of that year – Marty Wilde’s recording of ‘Endless Sleep’, Ricky Nelson’s ‘Poor Little Fool’, ‘When’ by The Kalin Twins, Jerry Keller’s ‘Here Comes Summer’ and many others. On the other hand, my jazz records had been carefully packed in my trunk and accompanied me on my journey to Leicester.

Johnny Angel & the Mystics

Johnny Angel & the Mystics, 1963.

"Most closet rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts with a performance background in skiffle joined the university’s folk club where the music was a curious combination of skiffle numbers, British folk songs, ballads, sea shanties and American folk, country and blues. Through the club, I met with Dave Cousins and Spencer Davis, two students who went on to follow successful careers in popular music. In 1961, along with four other similar minded students with a common musical background, we founded the university’s first rock ‘n’ roll band, Aztec & the Incas, not without some trepidation. The creation of a rock band at the university was met with enthusiasm by a few and a degree of resistance from the rest. I acknowledged that, at the time,

Many members of the university were quite disdainful of students, like me, who had little knowledge of classical music; to them, the Incas and our music were clearly ‘beyond the pale’. A preference for classical music was considered by some students to be an essential characteristic of the intellectual elite; those who preferred anything else were often branded as peasants. Despite such views, all forms of popular music were clearly gaining more followers, much to the chagrin of the traditionalists.

“It is my contention that it was the appearance of growing numbers of working class students in higher education as a consequence of the 1944 Education Act that not only expanded the musical landscape of universities but also laid the foundation for the British dominance in popular music during the 1960s. At the same time as the Incas were established at Leicester, similar rock ‘n’ roll bands were appearing in many universities and colleges of higher education, formed mostly by students from a working class background with a grounding in skiffle. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones fit into this classification. At the Leicester College of Art & Technology, Jimmy King formed the Farinas who, unlike the Incas, went on to have musical success under the stage name of Family."[8]

Indeed, the Farinas journey to success as Family is a fascinating story but is outside the scope of this project and will have to wait for another day!

[1] Brian Harvey recorded for the Post war History of Leicester. Uncatalogued.

[2] Unless noted otherwise the information on this page comes from the 'Scrapbooks of Leicestershire Popular Music' held by the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland.

[3] Dewe, M., ‘The Skiffle Craze. A popular music phenomenon’. Thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirement of the degree of PhD in the Department of Information and Library Studies, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1999, pp 179-181.

[4] Dewe, M., The Skiffle Craze, p 242.

[5] Dewe, M., The Skiffle Craze, p 219.

[6] Dewe, M., The Skiffle Craze, pp 149-151.

[7] Gonna Rock Around the Clock (Tower) Tonight: Leicester and the coming of ‘the Sixties’ by Stephen Wagg in ‘Leicester a Modern History’ edited by Richard Roger & Rebecca Madgin, Carnegie Publishing Ltd., 2016, Chapter 12, p.304.

[8] The full article can be read at the Live Music Exchange website: http://livemusicexchange.org/blog/unresolved-questions-in-the-history-of-live-music-1953-64-colin-miller/ (Accessed 24/05/2018)