Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Coventry's Rock n Roll Cafes

Pete Clemons winds down with an 'Expresso' and the Summertime Blues (Eddie Cochran style) for his latest article for the Coventry Telegraph. This time around, he takes us on a tour of the Rock n Roll Coffee bars and cafes in 1950's Coventry - but don't tread on his Blue Suede Shoes!!

Two sugars and a gig please!
Pete Clemons 

THE coffee bar boom began in Britain during the early 1950s with the arrival of the first espresso machine in Soho, London.

Essentially cafes, they were Italian or American themed and full of amusements like pin ball machines.

Eventually coffee bars became an alternative to the teenage youth club and were ideal for use as meeting places for the like minded youngsters who would hang out in them.

In greater London alone over 500 of them sprang up during the early Fifties and throughout the rest of the decade. And they did not just stay in London as coffee bars continued to spread throughout the UK.

They were mainly independent which gave them that individual and unique touch. They were furnished with the cheapest Formica or plastic products available, they were rough and ready and yet, for more than twenty years, coffee bars were full of life, music, humour and were incredibly popular places.

They touched all the major towns and cities the length and breadth of the country seemed to have them. And Coventry, with its apparent abundance of coffee bars, was no different.

Despite a negative attitude towards them, by the elders at the time, coffee bars and cafes became significant places and played an important role in the birth of, firstly skiffle, then rock 'n' roll and also the mod/rocker culture within the UK.

In fact the arrival of rock 'n' roll in the UK led to a lot of coffee bars becoming exclusive to and revolving around that genre of music. Some began to set aside an area for a juke box in order to play the new hit singles. There may even have been an area for dancing and maybe even one of the many bands that were now springing up influenced by this exciting form of music would get up and perform live in one.

In Coventry during the late 1950s and early 1960s there was quite a variety of cafes and coffee bars along and around Gosford Street. A good few of them were sympathetic and supportive of this up and coming music scene. Some that spring to mind were The Domino, The El Cabana, The Rendezvous, Gigi's, La Tropicale and The Sorrento.

Other significant coffee bars about at that time, and in other parts of the city, that also catered for music included The Beaker on Beake Avenue, The Portofino Expresso on Primrose Hill Street, The Godiva in Jordan Well, The Corner Cafe and The Dreadnought both on Radford Road.

And then there was The Bridge Cafe on the railway bridge where Lockhurst Lane and Holbrook Lane meet. It has been mentioned that it was in this venue that one of Coventry's earliest bands, The Zodiacs, were formed in 1959 by singer Maurice Redhead and drummer Nigel Lomas. A cafe with a similar name still exists on the bridge today.

The pair had met there in 1958 at a rock 'n' roll club held at the Bridge Cafe called The Drumbeat Club. The club itself was situated to the rear and downstairs under the bridge and it was an incredibly music friendly place as it attracted musicians and singers.

Another important coffee bar venue was The Milano on Radford Road. I have it on good authority that Eddie Cochran visited the venue after the concert he and Gene Vincent had given at The Gaumont on the January 28, 1960.

The Milano had a very lively music scene with regular live appearances by bands like Ronnie Wilde and the Wildcats, Clive Lea and the Phantoms, The Zodiacs, The Vampires and The High Cards.

It used to advertise regularly as 'the cafe bar with a difference'. The place even had a house group named after it, The Milano Rockers.

But where this cafe would really excel was when, for example, a name artist was visiting the city. The Milano would get them to appear at The Milano during that afternoon prior to the main gig that they had been in the city to play. This happened when Georgie Fame, for example, was due to play an evening show at The Rialto and when Johnny Gentle played at The Banba Club and I understand that this happened on several other occasions.

Don Fardon remembers well, a cafe, which used to be up on Ball Hill. It was called Margaret's and was across the road from St Margaret's Church. In fact the building now known as the Churchill Hotel, the Old Ball Hotel and Margaret's Cafe were all owned by a Greg Rogan. This one stayed open late and was frequented by a lot of groups used to frequent Margaret's.

I mention the word cafe as opposed to a coffee bar. The best way I can describe the difference was that a cafe sold full meals as well as tea, coffee and sandwiches where as a coffee bar was more of a specific business where you could only buy coffee along with maybe cakes, pastries etc.

Another reason for mentioning those distinguishing features was because, as Mod culture took hold of the country in the early 1960s, it made a great deal of difference with the Mods tending to prefer the coffee bar while Rockers generally preferring to hang out in cafes, in particular transport cafes.

The landmark roadside transport cafe known as 'Bob's caf', out on the A45 at Stretton-on-Dunsmore, was a particular favourite with the bikers. Always open until the early hours it attracted bikers from far and wide. Abandoned for almost twenty years, it served up a great atmosphere as well as a tremendous breakfast. Now flattened and currently with a new building project in progress I bet it holds a lot of memories for some.

A few years ago the Coventry Transport Museum reproduced London's iconic biker's cafe, 'The Ace Cafe', for a summer exhibition it was running. It also defined what cafe's meant to teenagers of 50 years ago.

And even today the cafe culture still exists. Maybe not so many of them but they are still there. The indoor market has several and the 2-Tone centre on Ball Hill is even one that combines music and good food.

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