Chapter 14 : Billie Davis & the Quality

Before a week had gone by I had received an offer of a new gig. West London group The Birds had decided to call it a day, despite being on the edge of success for several years. Rhythm guitarist Tony Munroe had decided to re-invent himself as lead singer with a new band. This band, he explained, were going to take the business by storm, and he wanted me to be in it! He also had the support of a management team who ran several local venues, including one of my favourites, the Starlight Ballroom at Sudbury, near Wembley. The group were to be called, he told me solemnly, pausing for effect… The Gods!! What a great name, I said, whilst thinking that this outfit would have to be a bit special to operate with that title!

 

The very next day found me setting up my gear at the Starlight and being introduced to the other band members. On guitar was a quiet young guy from Hatfield named Mick Taylor, on keyboards was a very amiable bloke called Ken Hensley, and a drummer whose name has vanished into the mists of time. After the usual preamble we attempted to run through a few standard tunes but, in spite of the obvious enthusiasm, nothing seemed to come together. Tony blamed the drummer for our failure to gel, and so, later in the week, Roger Truth was summoned to the Starlight to add a bit of magic. However, even his considerable talent didn’t make things improve. After a try with another drummer, I felt that we were flogging a dead horse and so I told Tony that this wasn’t for me. We parted as friends, and he soon drafted in another bassist named Greg Lake. Apparently the Gods did eventually get it together, and worked with various personnel for several years. Occasionally I bumped into Ken Hensley, who soon formed a new outfit with Cliff Bennett, but it was a couple of years before I saw Mick Taylor again.

 

Following this debacle, I began to lose interest in the music business again. I had pinned all my hopes on the Pirates and now felt without a direction to follow. The business was rapidly changing, not for the better I thought, with pop acts like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Monkees dominating, although several of my old acquaintances from Jim Marshall’s shop were doing well, such as the Who, and Johnny Mitchell, who had left Georgie Fame to work with an interesting new trio called the Jimi Hendrix Experience. My old pal Rod Freeman had re-named his group the Freemen, and was still resident at the Tottenham Royal Ballroom. He had relocated to Tottenham, and so we no longer saw much of each other.

 

Billie Davis
Billie Davis

While I languished at home, pondering the future, I received a phone call from out of the blue. “Nick?”, enquired the voice on the phone, “Carlo Little here!”. Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Here was one of my all-time musical heroes calling me! Carlo explained that he needed a bassist for a trio that he was assembling to back singer Billie Davis, who’d had a top ten chart hit two years before. Now, normally I would have run barefoot over broken glass to work with Carlo, but his call had come at the wrong time for me, and I declined his offer. I was now really feeling the impact of the loss of Johnny Kidd and the demise of the Pirates, and there didn’t seem much point in taking any job unless I felt enthusiasm for it. Several days later Carlo telephoned again, hoping that I had changed my mind. Once again, I turned him down. Finally I received a third, rather desperate sounding call, informing me that Billie and her group were due to open in cabaret the very next week, followed by a pleading request to “just help out” until a permanent member could be found. Carlo was putting me on the spot, and he knew it. Grudgingly I agreed to help out on a temporary basis, arranging to meet at his Wembley home the following day. Arriving at Carlo’s, I set up my bass amp next to his drum kit in the front room where, together with a South African pianist named Neville, Billie Davis and her wonderfully named manager, Johnny Toogood, we proceeded to get to grips with the forthcoming act.

 

The morning of Sunday, 28th May 1967 saw Carlo, myself, Billie and Neville heading north for Bradford, where we were to appear for a week, first playing the tiny Paradise Club, followed by a later show at the larger Lyceum Club. Travelling with our equipment in Carlo’s Ford Thames van, we chatted and got to know one another during the trip. Carlo Little did most of the talking, keeping us entertained with stories of life on the road with acts such as Neil Christian’s Crusaders, the Cyril Davies All Stars and Screaming Lord Sutch & The Savages. Billie proved to be a good raconteur too, so Neville and I sat back enjoying all the great stories!

 

On our arrival at Bradford we checked into our rather grisly digs, had a quick wash and a hurried meal of fish and chips before departing for our debut gig at the Paradise Club. We kicked off the show with a shaky rendition of a jazz instrumental standard, followed by Billie, who performed a varied collection of songs, including her monster hit “Tell Him”, originally a hit in the USA for the Exciters. She proved to be a capable performer, her good looks being complemented by a tight fitting cat-suit and a pleasing voice. Billie’s career had been in the doldrums lately, and she was keen to show the audience how good she was. At the height of her success she had enjoyed a romance with ex-Shadows bassist Jet Harris, and they had been relentlessly hounded by the press. As Jet himself put it recently, “we were the Posh and Becks of the day!”. Following a serious car crash that badly injured them both, Jet received some press stories which were damaging to his career, which nosedived spectacularly. Today such coverage would probably enhance a career in rock, but at that time it was the kiss of death! Billie, however, came through unscathed, and the Bradford audience showed their appreciation. Almost before the last notes died away, Carlo was shepherding us into the van, almost flinging the gear in the back before driving at break-neck speed to the Lyceum, about 20 minutes away.

 

I was to learn very swiftly that Carlo had a fear of being late for a show, probably because he never wanted to give managers or promoters the slightest excuse to knock the money! We skidded to a halt outside the Lyceum, a much larger night spot and with Carlo cracking the whip we set up our gear in double quick time. Performing the same show to a capacity crowd, Billie went down a storm, and so our debut was considered a great success. There wasn’t too much to do in Bradford, apart from the occasional visit to the ice-rink where I picked up plenty of bruises, so a lot of the time was spent in the digs being musically educated by Carlo, who had brought along his reel-to-reel tape recorder with endless tapes of some of the greatest music I had ever heard. Stuff by everyone from Leadbelly to Link Wray, from Bobby Bland to Marvin Gaye. These were the sort of songs that you never heard on the radio, and Carlo would point out every nuance that made the tracks great, analysing each and every instrument in his enthusiasm.

 

Following our week in Bradford, we moved to Swansea’s Townsman Club. Our opening night had to be cancelled owing to Billie missing her flight from London following a TV appearance. The manager took this extremely hard, almost blaming the band personally for her non-appearance. His attitude was so obnoxious that I almost came to blows with him before being restrained by the Carlo. Luckily, as we were about to depart, giving the time-honoured two finger salute, the manager’s brother, who was much more reasonable, instructed us to ignore the row and turn up for tomorrow’s show, with his personal guarantee that all would be OK. As promised, the rest of the week went like clockwork, and we were paid in full, with no stoppages for the missing show.

 

On June 11th we opened for another week at the Club Royale in Preston. By now I was beginning to enjoy the work, with a different town every week, good company and generous wages. Carlo and I were beginning to work together well and also to forge a genuine friendship. He presented a stern, rather forbidding exterior which often gave people the wrong impression, but the person underneath proved to be a warm and friendly character with a great sense of humour!

 

After the first few weeks I began to appreciate my luck in providing a rhythm section with the man dubbed by Keith Richards “the greatest rock drummer in the world!”. Halfway through the week we spent a day in nearby Blackpool, happily trawling the sideshows and taking a trip up the famous tower. I felt a moment of sadness as we passed the now closed down nightclub, once famous as Johnny Kidd’s Club. Above the fading facade, a life size painted likeness of my old boss in pirate costume looked jauntily down, just as I remembered him, a stark reminder of recent events!

 

By this stage, as Carlo and I developed our partnership, it became painfully obvious that Neville wasn’t fitting in. He was a lovely bloke and he played very well, but was obviously more suited to playing lounge music. Whilst Carlo and I wore the standard dress of sixties rock musicians, Neville was more comfortable in a tuxedo. We wanted Jerry Lee Lewis, but got Liberace instead! A council of war with Billie led to the decision to replace Neville with a guitarist, and so it was left to Carlo and me to find the right person.

 

Billie hired a room above a North London pub during a break between gigs, but didn’t appear herself, whilst Carlo and I auditioned several hopeful guitarists, lured by a hastily placed advertisement in the Melody Maker, promising regular work with a ‘name singer’. Remembering how impressed I was with Freddy Mack’s guitarist, Ged Peck, I had invited him up for a blow, where he proceeded to annihilate the opposition with his tremendous turn of speed. Carlo was not too impressed, he had seen it all before with Ritchie Blackmore, and he valued notes before speed, quite rightly, but at the end of the evening he grudgingly agreed, with the words “I suppose it’ll be your mate!”.

 

Now things were looking up; With Ged on board we could rock a bit more, Carlo never mentioned my ‘temporary’ status again, and all negative thoughts disappeared. Billie was signed to a new management and agency which had recently been set up by Spencer Davis following the split of his original chart topping group, and the work was rolling in!

 

Ged fitted in well and enabled us to beef up the act a bit! June 23rd saw us driving north to a one-off show at the Town Hall, Hawick, on the Scottish border. On arrival we were informed by the promoter that the support band had failed to show, so we were expected to play all night. Billie quickly told him that we were only contracted for 75 minutes. The promoter had no other support apart from a tiny Dansette record player on the stage, with only the Shadows’ first album being played repeatedly. Without our co-operation he would have to cancel the show. In retrospect of course, we should have carried the whole evening, but it was decided to cancel the show, for which he would pay us regardless. Before paying Billie in full, the promoter made a cancellation announcement to the early arrivals, who quickly dispersed, whilst Billie, Carlo, Ged and I prepared to remove our belongings from the dressing room. “It’s a shame”, said Carlo, as we opened the back door, “to come all this way and not get to play!”. “There they are!”, came a shout as we prepared to step outside, followed by a hail of missile, including stones, bottles and assorted garbage. Carlo swiftly slammed the door shut. “Get the police!”, he hollered, white with fear. After about ten minutes, which seemed like hours, a trembling band made their way through a booing crowd, held back by a cordon of local police. Quickly climbing into the van, echoes of Glasgow with the Pirates crossed my mind as we drove the short distance to our hotel. Still shaking with fright we looked for the bar, where we could steady our nerves, only to discover that we were booked into a temperance hotel. No drinks!!

 

It was decided that someone had to venture out to a liquor store for a bottle of whisky, so I suggested drawing straws. Carlo swiftly fashioned ‘straws’ from bits of paper, and of course I managed to draw the short one! Turning up my collar and praying that no-one would recognise me, I gingerly sauntered along Hawick High Street, soon finding a drinks store where, using my best Scottish accent, I managed to purchase a bottle of Johnny Walker and leg it back to the hotel unscathed. Our sense of terror soon abated after a large Scotch or two, and we went to bed happy!

 

The next night saw us play Falkirk without incident, before moving on for a week in Birmingham where we played the Monte Carlo Club. Now we were joined by a keyboard player, a friend of Carlo’s called P. J. Kelly. PJ proved to be a real hoot, always up for a laugh, and a nice player too! Billie began introducing new songs to here act, a favourite being ‘Bang, Bang’ by Cher. A distinctive guitar lick between verses often caused Ged a mental block, with quite hilarious results. Another was ‘It Takes Two’, the Gaye hit, where Billie required me to duet with her. I never felt comfortable with this, even more so after witnessing Billie sing it on TV with Steve Marriot, who showed how it should be done!

 

On July 8th, I stood in for one night with the Simon Raven trio (still Buddy Britten to me), with Roger ‘Solly’ Truth back on the drums. It was just like old times, and still a buzz to play with those guys!

 

Nick, Billie, Ged and Carlo

A few days later Billie Davis and the Quality (as we were known) crammed into Carlo’s Ford van, caught the ferry to Belgium and travelled across to Germany, where we were to play for five days at Frankfurt’s K.52 Club. The sun beat down relentlessly, with temperatures inside the van almost unbearable, so we were pretty drained on our arrival. We certainly weren’t thrilled to discover that we had to play six shows a night between the hours of 7 p.m. and 1 a.m.. This was the famous treadmill system employed in Germany which, of course, had been the making of many British groups. As the audience changed almost every hour, on-one minded that we just repeated the same set. There was just time in between shows to grab a beer and dry the sweat from our shirts with a hair dryer!

 

Halfway through our stint at the K.52 we travelled to a one-off show at Hamburg. Before we left, Carlo took me to one side and told me of his ambition to re-unite with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. the two had worked together with Screaming Lord Sutch and The Savages, and Neil Christian’s Crusaders, remaining friends and keeping in touch. Blackmore now lived in Hamburg, and Carlo had arranged to meet him, to present an idea for a new band based on myself, Carlo and Ritchie. After the gig we met Blackmore at his flat, from where we proceeded to the famous Star Club for a beer and a chat. Carlo swiftly outlined a plan where the two of us would give Billie reasonable notice to quit, and then return to Hamburg, where we would base ourselves, and rehearse an act. Carlo pointed out that all three of us had excellent pedigrees, and felt confident that we could attract plenty of well-paid work in Germany, just as other British bands were doing. He suggested that I handle vocals until a proper singer could be found, to which I agreed, although with more confidence than I felt!

 

Blackmore seemed keen on the plan. After all, he had languished in Hamburg for some time without regular employment, so this could only be a positive move. He suggested a keyboard player who was also resident in Hamburg, another ex-Savage who Carlo knew well. As the time swiftly approached for us to depart for Frankfurt, we all shook hands in agreement, Carlo promising to let Ritchie know as soon as we were able to return. Leaving the Star Club, full of optimism for a successful future, we headed onto the Autobahn….

 

Chapter 13     Chapter 15