Chapter 17 : Jon Lord Receives A Telegram

And so the Flowerpot Men continued to tour, much as before, with the Sundial firmly put in their place as sidemen and no more. The follow-up single, called ‘Take A Walk In The Sky’, had failed dismally to chart, in spite of rave reviews in the music press and plenty of air-time. Just as ‘Let’s Go To San Francisco’ had surprised everyone with its massive success, so did ‘Walk In The Sky’ surprise everyone with by its massive failure! No-one seemed too perturbed however, particularly the members of the Sundial, who had no input into the record.


The work still continued to pour in and plenty of money was made, although weekly cabaret spots now began to replace the one-nighters. The famous Bailey circuit was one of the most popular, with clean well-lit large clubs which, for a reasonable ticket price, provided the punters with a variety show and a chicken-in-the-basket meal. The acts would play their first show on Sunday night to a capacity crowd, followed by Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday playing to an almost empty room! Thursday saw things pick up, followed by a full house on Friday and Saturday. Then it was off to another town to begin the cycle all over again.


The tedium of being in the same town for a whole week soon began to tell, and the Sundial got into the habit of staying up carousing until the break of dawn, then sleeping for the whole day, only surfacing in time for the evening meal in the digs before a mad dash to the club for the night’s performance!


Usually we would be following a juggler or ventriloquist, occasionally a hypnotist, all compered by the obligatory mundane comedian. During late 1967 we played one week at Wetherall’s Nightclub, an independent club in Sunderland. Having a quick look at the crowd I saw veteran rocker Wee Willie Harris sitting at a table with a stunning blonde girl. I had met Willie several times before, and mentioned this to Carlo Little, who asked to be introduced. After a quick chat I went backstage to tune up, leaving Carlo talking to the pair of them. Carlo was immediately smitten with the girl, named Iris, and he soon discovered that she was the daughter of Willie’s landlady, and was not linked to Willie romantically. This knowledge spurred Carlo on, and an exchange of telephone numbers led to the start of a real romance, for that night Carlo had met his future wife.


As 1967 came to a close, New Year’s Eve saw us playing at Tito’s Nightclub in Stockton. The surprise act to bring in the New Year were the Dagenham Girl Pipers, at that time a household name, comprising a team of nubile young ladies dressed in kilts, who really could play the bagpipes. As 1968 dawned, Carlo Little and I were slightly the worse for wear, following more than a few large drinks, and I found myself being challenged by Carlo to play the bagpipes myself. An obliging young piper showed me how to hold the bagpipes and gave me some brief instructions. I gave it my best shot, with all the puff I could muster and, following a huge fart brought on by the effort, collapsed in a heap with the bagpipes on top of me like a drunken octopus! I thought Carlos would explode from laughing! That was the one and only time I tried my hand at playing bagpipes!!


As our tour creaked across the north of England, it was obvious that Jon Lord was fitting in very well. I had hit it off with Jon right from the start and, although he didn’t give much away, I realised that he was involved in something new, although still sad at the demise of the Artwoods. He often seemed morose, hinting that he was having problems romantically, and he was obviously hard-up financially, gratefully accepting a couple of my old stage-shirts to supplement his meagre wardrobe.


In January I met up with my old mate Dave Sutch, who asked me if I had heard about Ritchie Blackmore’s new group (groups still hadn’t become ‘bands’ yet). I confessed that I had not, and immediately forgot about it. Carlo was still banging on about us teaming up with Ritchie, but Jon remained silent on the subject.


One evening we arrived at yet another northern cabaret club, where strangely a telegram was waiting for Jon Lord. He was quite happy to read it in my presence, although the words meant nothing to me. The main message was “If you want to carry on without Chris, get in touch”. All very mysterious, I thought, but I didn’t ask questions. Jon mumbled under his breath about a business offer, and nothing more was said. But, as I was soon to discover, his short telegram was the very beginning of the biggest project of his life.


During a very welcome spell of one-nighters we had a gig at the California Ballroom in Dunstable, always a favourite venue with a large stage, decent dressing room, and unusually well attended. I had arranged to pick up Carlo at his home so that we could travel together. When I got to Carlo’s house I was pleasantly surprised to find that he had visitors, none other than Ritchie Blackmore and his girlfriend Babs. I hadn’t seen them since we last met in Hamburg. He informed me that he was coming to Dunstable with us to ‘check out’ our keyboard player, with a view to joining him in his new venture. Together, the four of us drove to Dunstable, where the show went down very well in front of a capacity crowd. On the drive back, Ritchie expressed his satisfaction with Jon’s performance. I was soon to find out that Jon wasn’t the only one being checked out that night!


The first month of 1968 soon passed, and during February we embarked on a tour of Holland. As the tour bus approached our hotel, Jon quietly whispered in my ear that I should share a room with him, as he wanted to discuss something important with me. Intrigued, I agreed to his request. I usually roomed with Carlo, who was not best pleased to learn that he was now sharing with Ged Peck, who could always be relied upon to rub Carlo up the wrong way!


As soon as we got to our room, Jon closed the door furtively, looking around, as if for eavesdroppers! Then he got straight to the point. “Would you”, he said, “leave the Flowerpot Men and give up this money for a small wage, if it meant that we could make our own music?”. Without pausing I gave my reply, saying “You bet, include me in!”. Jon then explained that he had been offered a gig in a new group with ex-Searchers drummer Chris Curtis. Also included in the line-up was Ritchie Blackmore. The whole thing was to be financed by three business men who had formed themselves into a management company. Jon explained that he had at first declined the offer, due to the strange ideas put forward by Curtis, but that they had asked him to join without Curtis, hence the mysterious telegram of several weeks ago. Like all of us in the Sundial, I had had a bellyful of flower power, and its insipid falsetto vocals, and the thought of a new direction appealed to me immensely!! My enthusiasm was not dimmed by the knowledge that we would only draw £25 a week for a while. That would do fine for now…

Chapter 16   Chapter 18