Sunday, January 8, 2017

Pete Clemons on how rock'n'roll impacted Coventry

Pete Clemons on how rock'n'roll impacted Coventry

Telegraph contributor delves into the history of the musical genre in our city.

Chloe Edwards-Wood and Michael Fletcher in Roll Over Beethoven

September sees the launch of ‘Roll over Beethoven’ musical at the Belgrade. I was asked to talk at the musicals launch night about the impact rock'n'roll had made in Coventry.

It was an honour indeed to speak in front of the musicals cast, its creator Bob Eaton, and the production team, Coventry’s wonderful 6120’s rockabilly band, the Lord Mayor and many of the city’s leading lights.

I had put together a few notes, however, the lighting caught me out and I had trouble reading from them. As such I had to ad-lib. So I have set out my notes below in the form of an article.

There is no doubt that rock'n'roll had its beginnings in America. But its impact in the UK was profound.

So much so that BBC radio would not initially play rock'n'roll. Instead you had to go searching around stations like Radio Luxembourg to hear it.

Elvis Presley: His star was on the wane in the 60s. Until he put on the black leather for the 68 Comeback Special.

Artists such as Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran came to prominence during this period and had a tremendous influence on the music scene to come.

So much so that this influence inspired home grown acts such as Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donegan, Billy Fury and Cliff Richard and a whole host of others who produced their own versions of this new music.

It all began in the UK, I guess, with Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel released during Jan/Feb 1956 on the previously ‘respectable’ HMV record label.

As for Coventry, the earliest reference, that I can find, for rock n roll dates back to mid to late 1956. The cutting I found made advertised the film ‘Rock Around the Clock’ that was being shown at the Plaza cinema. And this film featured the music of Bill Haley and the Comets.

Around the same time a double bill of James Dean films were playing at The Empire. These events possibly gave rise to the birth of the ‘teenager’ as we know them today.

It is also worth noting that at the Coventry Theatre a yearly variety show, also known as the ‘Birthday Show’ tipped the hat toward rock n roll in October 1956. The opening number, which normally had a topical theme, involved a group of youngsters dancing to ‘rock around the clock’. Topping the bill on that particular birthday show was Jimmy Jewel and Tommy Cooper.

Next up was the film ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’. Originally released during 1956 this appeared in Coventry cinema’s during January 1957. Ironically the storyline for this film is around the banning of rock n roll.

January 1957 also saw the UK release of the follow up to ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’. And this was titled ‘Don’t Knock the Rock’. Again it featured the music of Bill Haley.

These films led to reported commotion in the cinemas up and down the country and the prediction was that the forthcoming visit to the UK by Bill Haley and the Comets would provoke even more rock n roll related trouble.

Bill Haley and the Comets were actually formed during the early 1950s and was initially a country band. They would develop their music into the rock n roll sound. The band toured the UK during February 1957. And that tour would take in Coventry. The 2 shows sold out. And judging by the thousands who were kept outside the Gaumont at the time of the concerts, the shows could have sold out many times over.

Michael Fletcher in Roll Over Beethoven

Although Haley’s time at the top was relatively short (his main chart success came between 1954 and 1956) his influence was far-reaching and thanks to a handful of classic singles he still remains a significant figure in the development of rock and roll.

Such was Bill Haley’s visit anticipated that a week before the concerts at the Gaumont a band called the Sid Phillips Orchestra had played at Coventry Theatre and trumpeter Kenny Ball, who was at that time a member of the band, broke into a rendition of Rock Around The Clock to frenzied applause from the audience. This kind of thing was, apparently, unheard of at concerts of this nature.

A year after the Bill Haley visit reports suggested that rock n roll was on the way out. However I did find a report in the Coventry Telegraph that very much disputed this claim.

Other artists such as Marty Wilde, The Platters, Cliff Richard and the Drifters and Wee Willie Harris visited the city. Or more precisely, The Gaumont, which seemed to be at the epicentre for rock n roll in the city.

1956 had also the year that coffee bars began to spring up in abundance. Initially, they had opened in London some years earlier, but this new phenomena was also spreading nationally to cities like Coventry.

Coffee Bars were mainly independent which gave them that individual and unique touch. They were furnished with the cheapest Formica or plastic products available.

And these coffee bars began to give the teenagers of that time, who had grown out of youth clubs, an outlet and a meeting place. They had exotic names like The Sorrento, El Cabarna and La Tropicale.

Some of these coffee bars like The Milano on Radford Road, The Domino on Gosford Street and The Drumbeat on Holbrook Lane were also doubling up as music venues playing a mix of recorded music on the juke box and live music in the coffee bar itself.

And it was at the Drumbeat Club on Lockhurst Lane railway bridge that one of the earliest rock n roll bands formed in Coventry. They were called The Zodiacs and they first came together during 1959. They were formed by drummer Nigel Lomas and singer Maurice Redhead. The pair had met at the Drumbeat in 1958.

The Drumbeat was a cellar club beneath the coffee bar, Nigel used to get up and sing there and have an occasional go on the drums. Also in the Zodiacs in those early days were Terry Wyatt and Graham Peace. Other people from that time and who were associated with the Zodiacs were singer Mick Van de Stay and guitarist Jim Smith.

1959 also saw the formation of another Coventry rock n roll group. Called The Vampires they were fronted by Vince Martin.

The early 1960s saw the growth in popularity of rock n roll continued and so had the local scene in Coventry. And by now the genre seemed to centre, in the main, around seven bands. These were The Vampires, The Zodiacs, Johnny Ransom and the Rebels, The Atlantics, The Buccaneers, Jason and the Canonites and Ray Kelly and the Freemen.

And by now even the Coventry Theatre was getting in on the act as as they put on the likes of Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard.

But it was The Gaumont that continued to be the hub for rock ‘n’ roll activity. The venue hosted tours by American artists Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Vince Eager in January and also took in package tours featuring Craig Douglas, Freddie Cannon, Johnny Preston, Joe Brown, Lord Rockinghams XI and Billy Fury.

The Milano coffee bar had effectively become the 2I’s club of the Midlands. By 1960 The Milano had own band the Milano Rockers, The Zodiacs and bands like The Wild Cats regularly played there. But the venue was attracting bigger names as Vince Taylor, Johnny Kidd and Danny Storm and the Strollers all appeared.

The Milano (situated on the site of what is now Zorbaz) also played host to a band called Prince Dave Khan and the Babes. And drummer Nigel Lomas clearly remembers this event. ‘I was playing there regularly with the Zodiacs, I also stood in with a group touring the county with the fair at Hearsal Common called Prince Dave Khan and the Babes, they wanted me to join them but I turned them down.

By 1963 and groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were having an influence. The style of music being played was now Beat and R n B as opposed to rock n roll.

Vince Martin embraced the new sounds and saw the opportunity to become a promoter and was a part of the team that fashioned a new expression unique to Coventry - Twang.

Very few cultural phenomena’s have created such a wind of change. And almost 60 years on it still creates an impact as its legacy is in some of those great riffs than influenced, and continues to influence, many guitarists and other musicians.

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