Nick's Story of a Rock n' Roller - in his own words
There have been many attempts to write about various phases of Nick's life and music. This is Nick's own opportunity to set the record straight.
As hand-written by Nick Simper, and typed in by the Webmaster:
It was a cold Monday morning when I picked up Roger Pinah, and together we drove to the underground station where we caught the train to Oxford Circus, in the heart of London town. A short walk took us to the office of the Malcolm Rose agency, which managed Buddy Britten’s career. Buddy had been highly touted for several years as Britain’s answer to Buddy Holly, and very good he was too! His chiselled good looks and tall, slim physique were identical to Holly’s, and the addition of a pair of (clear glass) horn-rimmed spectacles completed the image perfectly. He did a pretty good imitation of the voice as well, and had Holly’s guitar style off perfect. Speculation was rife in the business that he was to play the part of Buddy Holly in a film of his life, but nothing happened. Maybe the well-spoken Harrow accent of Britten was too far removed from Holly’s Texan drawl!
Buddy, whose real name I later discovered was Geoffrey Glover-Wright, welcomed me to the office, where he presented me with a stack of his single record releases, which I was instructed to learn for my debut gig at the weekend. These included several songs, which really deserved to be hits, but had not quite made it. One of the best was a great version of the James Ray U.S. hit “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody”. According to legend, Buddy sent a demo copy to a well-known agency in the North, hoping to secure work in that area. Apparently he heard nothing, but it was not long before one of the agency’s acts, Freddy & The Dreamers, rocketed to number one in the charts with the same song, which had left a bitter taste in Buddy’s mouth! Of course, whether his version did inspire Freddie Garrity to record the tune, no one will ever know!
Impressed by Buddy’s easygoing manner, and armed with the pile of records I headed for home, trying to take in the fact that I was now a pro musician! Today it is considered normal for people to leave school or college to pursue a musical career. Back in 1964, being a pro set you apart from the crowd, often leading to you being regarded with suspicion as some kind of freak or oddball! With unemployment being almost non-existent, anyone who did not get up in the morning and go to work was certainly not regarded as normal! I took me some time to acclimatise to the lifestyle of late nights and even later mornings, and some neighbours could not be persuaded that I was not a layabout on the dole!
Following the meeting I got down to some serious practise before having a rehearsal with Buddy and Roger prior to the first gig. Buddy and his wife Janet lived in an apartment in an old country house in Hertfordshire. Called ‘Wormleybury’ near the village of Wormley, it was a splendid old pile which had several areas converted to apartments, some of which were rented by workers in the music industry.
Saturday night arrived, and together with Buddy, Roger and Tony Richards on piano, I made my professional debut at the Whitehall, East Grinstead in Sussex. After forty-plus years, my memory of that first gig is extremely hazy, but I can remember that we went down very well and, as our set finished, I could not resist waving through the rapidly closing curtains to a trio of enthusiastic girls at the front of the stage. “Never ever do that again!” snarled Buddy. Suitably admonished, I didn’t have the nerve to enquire why not!
Apart from that small blip in stage protocol, Buddy was very happy with my performance, and I felt ten feet tall as Roger and myself walked from the hall to my old green Bedford Dormobile van for the journey back to London.
Life had now become a hectic round of rehearsals and one-nighters. Tony Richards dropped out as he had a demanding daytime job, and so Buddy gave the task of finding his replacement to Roger, who scoured the music press adverts for likely candidates. Our first port of call was Putney, where we found a really talented pianist called Ray Soper. Ray was really up for it, and proved an asset to the group.
Together, Roger, Ray and I criss-crossed the country in the freezing Dormobile (which had no heater!), whilst Buddy, often with Janet, travelled in style in his large white Mk III Ford Zephyr saloon car, an ideal vehicle for an image-conscious rock singer in 1964. The Dormobile by contrast was rusty with a slipping clutch, and occasionally Ray and Roger would have to disembark and walk a little, to enable me to nurse it up the steeper hills.
As a member of the Regents I was now lucky enough to have become part of an elite collection of bands who all toured the same country-wide circuit of venues, and were generally regarded as good musicians who could pull a crowd and deliver the goods. The biggest and best of this collection of acts was without doubt Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, fronted by arguably the greatest rock singer England has ever produced. They were closely followed in the popularity stakes by Screaming Lord Sutch and The Savages. Other great acts who all followed the same circuit included Nero and The Gladiators, Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers, Joe Brown and The Bruvvers, and Neil Christian and The Crusaders, with a young Jimmy Page on lead guitar.
Before long I found myself playing at my own favourite dance hall and local venue, Southall Community Centre, where I had witnessed so many of my heroes strutting their stuff. Bursting with pride as we rocked through our set, I could see many old school friends and acquaintances in the capacity crowd. Buddy liked to vary the set by including the odd folk ballad, and as we lurched through a shaky rendition of “Jailer Bring Me Water”, a bunch of hairy biker types near the front began to hurl abuse. To my amazement Buddy signalled us to stop playing, then, stepping up to the microphone he uttered the following words – “You fellows have big mouths”. As a hush fell over the crowd, the hecklers moved menacingly forward, as if about to murder us! A second later, Buddy followed up with the punch line, “Why don’t you use them to sing?” As the crowd roared their approval, the troublemakers tried to back away, but two of them found themselves propelled onto the stage by their mates. Looking extremely nervous and embarrassed, the two allowed Buddy to shepherd them towards a spare microphone on a stand, instructing them to sing along with the chorus. On the count of four we resumed the song, with the chastened bikers, by now red-faced, mumbling along as instructed. Suddenly, one of their pals appeared at the front of the stage and without warning flung the entire contents of a 2-gallon fire bucket all over them! For a second, the two stood motionless, soaked from head to foot and festooned with old soggy cigarette butts, before hurling themselves off the stage in hot pursuit of the perpetrator, who wisely had swiftly legged it for the exit and the safety of the night! Buddy decided not to continue with “Jailer Bring Me Water”, and after a few more rocking songs we left the stage to thunderous applause, with most of the audience convinced that Buddy had deliberately set up the hecklers for a soaking.
As 1964 came to a close, we finished the year with a riotous Christmas Eve show at the Dancing Slipper Ballroom, West Bridgeford, near Nottingham. The support band joined us on stage for a Christmas finale, and I shared the microphone with a then unknown Noddy Holder, as we roared through the great Ray Charles hit “What’d I Say”. A splendid ending to a great year!
As 1965 dawned, so the cracks began to appear. I was not getting on so well with Buddy as before, probably because I tended to question his rules and decisions, and it was patently obvious that I was not popular with the entourage with which he surrounded himself. To be fair, I was young, brash and pretty cocky, but when you became a Regent, you were expected to obey without question. I suspect that Buddy was also having management problems, as gigs were not as plentiful as before, meaning a loss of income! Roger and Ray immediately solved this problem by joining a local R&B outfit called ‘Cyrano and The Bergeracs’, who had a pretty full worksheet. With just myself left with Buddy, I began to find myself picking up different drummers for gigs, who were called in to deputise. Where possible I would suggest my old Delta 5 drummer, Paul Tait, so that the rhythm section at least had some rapport.
One of Paul’s first gigs was at Exeter University, where we were the support act for the Who, a West London group who were at last making waves after several name changes. Following our soundcheck, singer Roger Daltrey was heard to remark that I had Rupert’s bass guitar. “Yes” said bassist John Entwhistle, “and he plays it like Rupert as well”. Naturally this was an enormous boost to my ego, although deep down I knew that my ability could never come close to that of Rupert! After the gig we had a long chat with Keith Moon, who it transpired had passed an audition for the Regents, but received an offer from the Who just two days after accepting the job with Buddy.
As my career began to falter, I took other jobs to boost my income, including some gigs with a South African group who also recruited me for a photo shoot advertising shirts, and a one-off gig near Earls Court with a scratch band which featured a bloke on keyboards called John Paul Jones, and a guy singing called Dave Jones, later to take the name of the famous American knife-fighter Jim Bowie! Another memorable event was deputising for a week with local West Drayton group ‘The Birds’, whose bassist had gone down with tonsillitis. Featuring future Rolling Stone Ron Wood on guitar, the Birds were an exciting R&B group who always seemed on the verge of success, but sadly didn’t quite make it. A great bunch of guys though; they really knew how to rock!
By now, feeling a bit in limbo, I decided to place an advertisement for my services in the Melody Maker, at that time the top music publication. The only concrete offer I had was from a Manchester based outfit called The Boomerangs. It turned out that Roger Pinah knew them personally, having spent some time living in Manchester, where his mother had a café. Apparently they were a first-rate and popular group, previously fronted by an Australian singer - hence the name Boomerangs! It was decided that I would travel north for an audition, and if all went well I would move into the home of the drummer until I had found my own place. With a date swiftly arranged, Roger decided that he would come with me for the ride north and look up a few old acquaintances. This sounded alarm bells for Cyrano (real name Dave Langston), who was worried that Roger would not return to London once he was re-united with his old pals! To solve this nagging worry, Cyrano volunteered to drive the pair of us to Manchester, thus being able to keep an eye on his newfound star drummer.
Armed with my trusty Fender bass, I pitched up at Cyrano’s place in Greenford where Roger was already waiting. We departed at the crack of dawn in the Bergeracs' bandwagon, with bassist Keith Dyett coming along for the ride also. Arriving in Manchester, I met the Boomerangs at their basement rehearsal rooms, where after a few jovial preliminaries we got down to running through a few tunes that we all knew. The band seemed to be genuinely impressed with my efforts, with the exception of the drummer, Bernie Burns, who thought I was crap, and did not care if I heard him say so! For a while there was a bit of a standoff, but the lead guitarist, who went by the wonderful name of Cecil, told Bernie in no uncertain terms that the others wanted me in, so in I was! I felt rather uncomfortable to say the least, as I was going to be living temporarily with Bernie and his wife, but he was gracious enough to accept the majority verdict and, shaking my hand, welcomed me to the group.
It was arranged that I would move to Manchester the following weekend, and I departed, secure in the knowledge that I had landed a job with good financial prospects. The downside of the trip was that I had contracted a dose of food poisoning from a dodgy café on the way up, with the result that I was suddenly stricken with a bout of sickness and vomited directly into Cyrano’s stage boots!
As we neared London, whilst I began to recover from my recent affliction, Cyrano suddenly turned to me with a proposition. “You don’t want to live in Manchester”, he said, “Why don’t you join the Bergeracs?” I reminded him that he already had a bass player in Keith Dyett. However it appeared that Cyrano, who played lead guitar as well as singing, wanted me to take over the guitar role, leaving him free to project himself as vocalist only. Well, it had been some time since I had played guitar, but Cyrano was very persuasive, and before we reached home Keith and Roger were woken up to be told the news. I was now lead guitarist with Cyrano and The Bergeracs.
The following Monday saw me in Keith Dyett’s house, where the Bergeracs rehearsed in the front room. I had explained the situation in a telephone call to Bernie Burns who (probably relieved) wished me well. Now I put Manchester out of my head and got on with the job in hand, which was to learn the guitar parts to about forty songs before the end of the week, when the gigs resumed. Not having a guitar did not present a problem, as I had the use of Cyrano’s equipment. Also, my old school chum Tony Tacon had seen his group The Javelins fold up recently, and so I was offered the use of his Fender Stratocaster, which I gratefully accepted.
Playing with The Bergeracs proved to be an exhilarating experience. Roger and Ray rocked with as much conviction as they had with The Regents; Keith Dyett provided a driving bass, whilst Cyrano proved to be a good singer and mover, now that he didn’t have the restriction of a guitar around his neck! Although rusty on guitar, I began to gain confidence and enjoy my new role, playing the Bergeracs’ lively brand of rock and R&B.
Three or four weeks went by, with each gig being more successful than the last, and the band’s future was looking quite rosy. Suddenly from out of the blue, guitarist Mick Keane, currently enjoying success with the Ivy League, turned up to watch our performance at the Seagull in Southall, a well-known music pub. It appeared that ace drummer Clem Cattini was leaving, and Mick had got wind of Roger Pinah’s reputation. By the end of the evening Mick had offered the job to Roger, now for various reasons known as Solly, who of course accepted. Naturally the Bergeracs were not too pleased, for drummers of Solly’s ability were rare indeed! However, before he even got to rehearse with the Ivy League, our old boss Buddy Britten re-appeared with an offer that neither of us could resist.
During our time on the road with the Regents, Buddy Britten would occasionally speak of his 1963 summer season spent in Jersey in the Channel Islands. Apparently his act had caused much excitement on the island and he had become something of a celebrity, attracting large crowds. At the end of his last show before returning to the mainland, the over-enthusiastic audience had demanded, and got, several encores before the management cut off the band's electricity supply, resulting in ugly scenes bordering on a riot! This resulted in a ban on the Regents returning to Jersey. 1964, needless to say, was a dire year for music on the island, and apparently a poor time financially for the establishment at which he had appeared, so the offer of a return season for the summer of '65 was welcomed by all parties!
The thought of returning to the place where my musical career had been conceived was a happy one, for 1960 had started a love for Jersey which still exists to this day, so I had no hesitation in accepting Buddy's offer of a return to the Regents. Solly, however, had just landed a great gig with the Ivy League, one of England's biggest acts, so I was amazed when he turned it down to join me in signing the contracts which Buddy swiftly drew up for us. Naturally, the Bergeracs were not too pleased at this development as the group was doing quite well. They wished us well however, and carried on with local boy Charlie Chapman on drums and the great Mick King (late of Cliff Bennett's Rebel Rousers) on guitar. Sadly they disbanded before the end of 1965 with Cyrano joining Gary Farr and the T-Bones, who featured a talented organist called Keith Emerson. Keith Dyett went to work for Jim Marshall, building amps and speaker cabinets whilst Ray Soper continued to gig with various outfits around his hometown of Putney.
By now I realised that my trusty old Bedford Dormobile, which had carted both the Delta 5 and the Regents up and down the country, was looking rather the worse for wear, so I began to look around for a suitable replacement. My old school pal from the Javelins, Tony Tacon, told me about their Morris J2 van which was up for sale following the collapse of the group. This proved to be in excellent condition, and so was purchased as the next Regents' bandwagon for the very reasonable sum of 50 pounds.
Early April 1965 saw Solly an myself heading out of London towards the docks at Weymouth, where we caught the ferry to Jersey. After arriving at the capital, St. Helier, we made our way to number 14 Raleigh Avenue, where we were welcomed by Mr and Mrs Coker, formerly of Acton, West London, who showed us to the top flat in their comfortable old house which would be our home for the next six months, at the very affordable rent of 6 pounds a week!
With Buddy and his wife Janet not due to arrive for several days, we had instructions to find and introduce ourselves to Buddy's friend Jimmy Wilson who was a talented singer and guitarist. We soon tracked Jimmy down to his residency at the Goblet Bar, situated in the basement of the Jersey Opera House. A likeable fellow from Belfast, with a sunny personality, he showed us around the island and introduced us to several characters in St. Helier, including one who startled us by appearing, as if by magic, from behind a revolving bookcase and another who offered to supply any bottle of spirits for the small sum of ten shillings (50 pence)! The most entertaining of all was a well to do businessman who loved to play poker and who, when we ran out of money, insisted that we replenish our stake from two plastic washing up bowls, brimming full of cash!
Whilst the island is still a lovely place to go to, visitors will find it very different from the Jersey of 1965. Today the island revolves around the financial industry and there is little live entertainment to be had, but back then Jersey was more famous for its night life. Along the five miles of the west coast alone, there were six or seven night spots. The venue that we were to play at was called the Surf Room, a dance hall cum night club situated on the edge of the beach in the centre of St. Ouens Bay (pronounced 'wons'), built onto the Watersplash, Jersey's number one nightspot, where audiences flocked nightly for a meal and a floorshow. Water fountains, cascading over stepped terraces gave the club a somewhat exotic look, which was marred one night when a joker emptied a packet of soap powder into the water, giving the whole area the appearance of a giant meringue!
On the Thursday following our arrival we met Buddy at the Surf Room to rehearse. Decked out Hawaiian style with palm trees and garlands, the room had a good stage and lighting, with lively acoustics. As we ran through a few songs to check out the sound, a familiar looking figure wandered around for several minutes, nodding to us, then waving goodbye as he left. It was Dickie Valentine, a huge singing idol of the 1950's and 60's, who was appearing a couple of miles up the road. Further along the coast another club played host to singer Danny Williams who was riding high on the back of his huge hit "Moon River".
As Saturday night approached, there was a definite buzz in the air! The island was covered in posters advertising the gig, and we were hoping for a busy opening night. By eight o'clock on Saturday the Surf Room was absolutely packed, and the three of us sat nervously smoking in the dressing room. I tuned my bass, and then Buddy's Fender Stratocaster as I always used to do. Buddy looked immaculate in a dark blue suit, whilst Solly and I wore matching outfits in Burgundy red. As the crowd grew restless, one wag set up a chant. "Who do we want?" he shouted. "Buddy!!" roared the crowd. "Who's the greatest?" he cried. "Buddy!!" came the answer. "Who's a prat?" bellowed someone else. "Buddy!!" they roared once more. By now we were even more nervous. "You two go out first" ordered Buddy, peering out through a crack in the door. Unfortunately, the dressing room was opposite the stage, which meant running through the audience to get there. As fast as we could, Solly and I tore across the room, forcing our way through and climbing onto the stage. The roar from the crowd was deafening, even more so when Buddy arrived close behind us! With no preamble we launched into a driving set of rock 'n' roll, ending with three or four encores, before collapsing exhausted in the dressing room.
Everything that Buddy had told us about 1963 was repeating itself for this latest line-up of Regents, and so we embarked on an exciting six months which, for Solly and myself, proved to be our first taste, albeit small, of "fame". Wherever we went on the island, people would wave and seemed to know our names, so we soon made many friends. On Sunday afternoons all the musicians would gather at a club called The Sands at the north end of St. Ouens Bay for a jam session, where rock and pop musicians would play with jazz players, folk players and lounge musicians, all united in the common cause of making music and entertainment. We also made friends with many seasonal workers, often from Scotland and Ireland, as well as a strong contingent from Spain and Italy. Early in the season the island was rocked by tragedy when an airliner carrying continental workers crashed into a potato field in fog, with only one survivor. A sobering time!
During the day, Solly and I would explore the charming capital, St. Helier, or roam the many lanes and beaches. Sometimes we would just hang out with friends, or rehearse new songs whenever Buddy felt like adding to our already huge repertoire. Occasionally one of the Watersplash musicians would cadge a lift from me to visit a sunny meadow where he was attempting to grow his own marijuana. Armed with fertilizer and a watering can, he would visit the spot often. This practice ended abruptly when he found that the meadow was now occupied by a horse that had promptly scoffed his plant, leaving no trace!
I guess that life was pretty idyllic at this time. One of the best aspects of Channel Island life was the low cost of living. There were no taxes (apart from a fixed rate of income tax) and items such as alcohol and cigarettes cost very little. Petrol was only half a crown (12½p) a gallon in old money, and it was very difficult to spend more than £15 a week, no matter how extravagant we were. After our gig was finished we often found ourselves invited to parties, particularly by the large surfing contingent who practiced their sport at St. Ouens, happens to be one of the best places for surf. In 1965 the Rothmans cigarette company were sponsors of the World Surfing Championship and we became friends with the many U.S. and Australian contestants who frequented the Surf Room at night. Like most young people on the island, they were drawn to the parties held in the Second World War underground bunkers which were dotted around the coast. These had been built by the occupying German forces throughout the war years, and some had been decorated out by enthusiastic party lovers, many being hidden in cliff-top locations which were difficult to access. The Jersey authorities had declared these activities illegal, so guards had to be posted on party nights to keep a look out for police raids. The knowledge that we would be deported if caught gave these parties an added air of excitement!!
As the summer went on, the opening frenzy had settled down, but every week was different, with our audience changing nightly, although our hardcore supporters were always there! There never seemed to be a dull moment. Sometimes customers would get over-excited and be removed by the bouncers. One night the head of security, a huge guy named Jim, tried to eject one of our regulars, a Glasgow lad who had over-imbibed! When Buddy remonstrated from the stage, a slanging match ensued which led to Jim and Buddy squaring up to one another outside. Obviously the slender Buddy was no match for the Hulk-like Jim, but Buddy courageously stood up to him on behalf of our pal, even though Jim was threatening Buddy with instant oblivion!" Luckily it occurred to Jim that the whole audience sided with Buddy and would have flung him from the sea wall if he had thrown a punch! Our pal was allowed back in, whilst Jim, defeated by People power, skulked off to the bar!
Early in the season an old acquaintance and fellow musician Roddy Freeman came over for a visit. Roddy had been a big influence on my career, having graduated from skiffle to become a recording artist at the legendary Joe Meek stable before joining the Flintstones with Terry Marshall and Rupert Ross amongst others. Rod admitted that he had regarded me as a young nerd, always hanging around the band, but when he realised that the Flintstones represented an important part of my musical education, his attitude changed and during his week in Jersey, we hung out together. Several times we visited Jimmy Wilson at the Goblet bar, who invited Rod to get up and do his stuff. He was happy to oblige and knock out the audience with his masterful knowledge of music. Accompanying himself on Jimmy's guitar, he would effortlessly run through an amazing catalogue of sings, ranging form Bill Haley to Johnny Mathis, from Ray Charles to Nat King Cole, his jazzy vocals drawing loud applause from the crowd. By the time I drove Roddy to the airport at the end of his holiday we had forged a great rapport, and he was to become one of my closest friends.
Halfway through the season we took time out to fly back to the mainland to record four songs in the Pye studios at Marble Arch, London, for the next Regents' record releases. Buddy insisted that Solly and I paid our own air fares as, he reminded us, we were "on royalties". No statement ever arrived from Pye, however, so I wrote requesting one the following year, but never received a reply!! Back in England we were met at Jim Marshall's shop by our good friend Paul Tait who had a light van with which to ferry equipment to the studio. I had previously telephoned Jim requesting the loan of amplifiers, and true to form he refused all offers of payment for his services.
Reunited with pianist Tony Richards and Buddy's brother Nigel on tambourine, we swiftly recorded the four songs for Pye records with producer John Schroeder in charge. John, famous for writing and producing a string of hits for Helen Shapiro, was a laidback producer who soon put us at ease. For me and Solly this was our baptism into the world of making records, although I had previously made a demo with Some Other Guys. In one afternoon session we completed two 'A' sides and two 'B' sides, a feat which was not unusual at the time, but probably impossible today. As we beavered away at Marble Arch I could not have imagined that I would be back in the same studio in less than three years time with a new group named Deep Purple!
Shortly after our return to Jersey we were notified of the imminent release of our single, a cover of the U.S. hit by the Sir Douglas Quintet called "She's About A Mover". Unfortunately, Pye had been a bit too slow, and the original version was released on the very same day, thus eclipsing our version completely! To make matters worse another cover of the song was simultaneously released by one of England's greatest rock singers, James Royal. Now, as James Royal (better known as Jimmy) was a good friend of both Solly and myself, we found ourselves accused by Buddy of tipping off Jimmy about the song. Of course his accusation was totally unfounded and it was just a surprising coincidence. Anyway the result was that both cover versions were completely buried by the original! To be honest I did not think that our version was as good as Sir Douglas', but backed with an excellent original written by Buddy, called "Since You've Gone", it wasn't a bad record and I was quite proud of my first release!
Shortly after, Pye released our follow-up, a cover of a song originally recorded by Mel Tormé, entitled "Right Now". Backed with the old folk standard "Jailer Bring Me Water", Right Now was a slightly jazzy up-tempo tune which got great reviews and proved popular with audiences, but failed to make the charts.
1965 was one of the best years for music, with many different types of song charting, including such diverse acts as Sonny and Cher, Righteous Brothers, Unit 4+2, Yardbirds and the Ivy League. Occasionally Buddy would include some of the more unusual hits in our act as crowd pleasers, such as "The Clapping Song" by Shirley Ellis, "Everybody" by Tommy Roe, and "King Of The Road" by Roger Miller. We also included the Everly Brothers' "Price Of Love" in our show, which I was particularly proud of. In spite of my limited vocal ability, Buddy wanted me to sing harmony wherever possible, and it was working rather well, although a bad case of tonsillitis in late August was a taste of trouble to come!
As the season continued, Solly and I were unaware of the cracks appearing in Buddy's marriage. Buddy and his wife were renting a cottage in the countryside which was the venue for many riotous parties. One Saturday night after the show, Buddy made it plain that he was in no mood to party, in spite of many people having been invited back to his house, and without a word he went straight to bed. His wife Janet, however, had decided that the party would go ahead, leading to clash of wills when Buddy emerged from his bed to try and sabotage the record player! This seemed to be the final straw and before long Janet had departed for the mainland. The effect on Buddy was quite dramatic! He seemed to enjoy being a bachelor once more, taking on he persona of a rock star cum playboy. I moved into his home for several weeks to keep him company whilst he hatched new plans. There was no doubt that the music scene was changing, with the emphasis being on groups rather than solo artists, so Buddy summoned us to a meeting in a top restaurant to outline hi new ideas. After the Jersey trip was over, the name Buddy Britten and the Regents would be no more, he solemnly informed us. He was to become Simon Raven (also the name of a best selling author) and the band members would also have new identities. Solly was to be called Roger Truth (the name he uses to this day), Tony Richards would be christened Richard Honour, and I was to be known as Kid Freedom! Truth, Freedom, Honour! Collectively we would be known as the Simon Raven Cult. The suits were to be dispensed with, dress would be pop art style and the music would be louder and more aggressive. Buddy had put his ideas to us with his usual persuasive charm, and Sollly and I were impressed to say the least!
As the season in Jersey ended, we both knew that this had been one of the happiest and most memorable periods in our short careers. We also knew that six months of playing together nightly had melded us into a useful rhythm section, ready to take on the world! Buoyed up with Buddy's new ideas, we were a happy pair as we left Jersey to return to England again....
Back on the mainland, we began to get ourselves into mode as the Simon Raven Cult, whilst awaiting the return of "Simon", who had stayed in Jersey for an extra month to tie up a few loose ends. Finally he arrived back, staying at his parents' home in Kenton near Harrow. We had been calling him by his real name, Geoff, for some time, so there was no confusion with the change of name. The air of anticipation was heightened when we were presented with a new song by music publishers Shapiro Bernstein, titled "I Wonder If She Remembers Me". This proved to be a commercial sounding rocker with a strong hook, a great first record from the "new" group, we thought. Once again we assembled at Pye Studios with John Schroeder at the helm. This time the result was a much heavier record, with Geoff creating a great fuzz sound from his Stratocaster, achieved by making cuts in a speaker cone which he had turned towards the ceiling with his silver identity bracelet placed inside it!
Buoyed up by the new recording, although a 'B' side had not yet been decided, Solly and I eagerly awaited the launch of the new project. Sadly, it never happened. Geoff, obviously clutching at financial straws, had landed us with a residency! Now, having a residency in Jersey was fine, but being stuck in the middle of London's Soho was no joke. We found ourselves performing nightly from 8 until midnight at the Van Gogh Bar, a seedy watering hole attached to the Latin Quarter in Rupert Street, a nightspot frequented by gangsters and starlets amongst other odd characters. The bar was run by a tough guy called Ted, who kept a large wooden mallet under the counter in case of "trouble"!
At the far end, next to the toilets (of course!), was a small rostrum, which the three of us could just about squeeze onto. Night after night we would entertain a boisterous collection of mobsters, prostitutes, tourists and drunks. Occasionally on match days we would be flooded with football supporters. At these times, you kept your head down and prayed to get out alive!
Even in those days it was difficult to park a vehicle in Soho, so for a while I began parking out of town and using the underground train. Geoff decided to do the same, and the very second that we finished the last song, the pair of us would grab our guitars and run like hell for Piccadilly station, often risking life and limb down the escalators in order to catch the last train. One night a huge puddle of vomit had been deposited at the bottom of the stairs, which I just managed to avoid. Geoff wasn't so lucky however, and I'll never forget the look on his face as his Cuban-heeled boots skidded across the platform in a passable imitation of an Olympic ice-skater!! As time went by, Geoff and Solly seemed to become comfortable at the Van Gogh Bar, having settled into the routine and regular money, whilst I still hankered after the excitement of life on the road. Feeling confident that I could find myself a new gig I decided that it was time to move on. I was swiftly replaced by an excellent player called Brad, who played on the 'B' side of the new single, a pretty good cover of the old Marty Wilde hit, "Sea of Love". Any regrets I felt were swiftly dispelled when I received a copy of the record, which bore one single name on the label, that of Simon Raven! The Cult had vanished before it even began! I always felt that Geoff threw away a good opportunity, and sadly the record sank without trace. It was played recently on an alternative rock radio show, and still sounded pretty good.
Geoff continued to play at the Van Gogh for a few years, and I dropped in from time to time for a beer and a blow! I played with him once more, deputising fro his regular bassist on July 8th 1967, just before he relocated back to Jersey, where he still performs to this day, although the name has been changed slightly to Simon Raverne. The name of Buddy Britten and The Regents, however has now been lost in the mists of time, but I will always be grateful for the start that he gave me and proud to have been a member of a pioneering rock trio.
Whilst scanning the "Musicians Wanted" ads in the Melody maker, I noticed a small advertisement for a bass player with a rock n' roll trio. Just up my street, I thought. It turned out that the guys looking for a bassist were two of the most experienced players in the business. On drums was none other than Rory Blackwell, a pioneer of British rock n' roll, famous for being in the Guinness record book, having set a world record marathon on drums at the famous 2 I's coffee bar in Soho. His partner, also called Rory, was ace guitarist and vocalist Rory Wilde who, like Blackwell, had been inspiring budding musicians since the 1950's, when rock first began in Britain. Overawed by their pedigree, to say the least, I began to gig with the Rories around East London, sometimes at a large grizzly old pub in Dagenham, where the crowd was composed mainly of people who you would not like to meet down a dark alley!
In spite of their menacing looks, however, most of them turned out to be friendly, and after a couple of shows I began to relax. My musical confidence took a sideways knock though when it became apparent that I was a bit out of my depth with these hardened old pros and totally unfamiliar with their endless repertoire! Struggling in the deep end to get to grips with the bottomless pit of songs thrown at me, I know that I was gigging on borrowed time. It was not long before Rory B. and Rory W. found an older, more experienced bassist, and I was relieved to call it a day. Playing with these two veterans was good experience, though, and we parted as friends. Several years later I discovered that Rory Blackwell became a holiday camp entertainments manager, and Rory Wilde opened a bar in Spain. I last saw him on the Songs Of Praise TV programme, leading a mass gospel sing along on a Spanish beach. A far cry from rock n' roll!
After several weeks without a gig, I began to feel that the big adventure was now over, and so it was time to look for a proper job! Throughout the sixties there was never any shortage of work, so it was not long before I found myself a position as a stock control clerk at a company called Rymans in Perivale, Middlesex. Rymans specialised in office equipment supplies, so I spent my day checking orders for everything from office furniture to paper clips. Hardly creative, but it paid the rent! Sitting next to me was another office newcomer, also from Hayes, named Des Keane. Des and I really clicked. He had a devilish sense of humour, and we spent more time playing gags on other staff members than doing any actual work.
One day I fell into conversation with a guy in the warehouse who somehow knew about my musical past. He explained that he had a pal who was a successful record producer called (if I remember correctly) Mikki Dallon. Apparently his latest success was a top ten chart hit for Neil Christian, called "That's Nice", and Neil was currently recruiting for his group, The Crusaders, to go on the road and capitalise on his hit. Armed with Neil's telephone number, I wasted no time in getting touch. He explained that he already had his original drummer, Jimmy Evans, in the frame, together with Ritchie Blackmore on lead guitar. Yes, he said, I would fit the bill nicely, and promised to call me as soon as rehearsals were arranged. Was I excited? I felt like a dog with two tails! However, after several weeks with no call, I realised that I wouldn't be leaving Rymans yet, after all. In fact, the job was already taken by journeyman bassist Tony Dangerfield, already tried and tested!
Not long after this short-lived bit of excitement I was contacted by Dave 'Cyrano' Langston of the Bergeracs, who was attempting to start a new group. For several weeks we held evening rehearsals with myself on bass, Cyrano back on lead guitar, Charley Chapman on drums, and a singer named Gabby. Whilst it wasn't bad, we never really sparkled and so we soon mutually decided to call it a day.
Early in 1966 I received a letter from ex-Renegade Rich Bennett, who was now successfully forging a new life for himself in Toronto, Canada. I showed the letter to Des Keane, together with the photograph of Rich, standing beside a huge American car. Des was impressed, and it wasn't long before we were both discussing the idea of emigrating ourselves, with Canada being the obvious destination. Before we could get serious however, events took an astonishing turn for me, leading to a stroke of luck that I could never have believed possible!
This was a period when the whole musical scene was changing, not necessarily for the better in my opinion, as Merseybeat, spearheaded by the Beatles, was dominating the business. There is no doubt that they wrote great songs and made great records, but to me the sound had little appeal. Such was their fame though, that whenever I left the house, my mother insisted on cracking the same tiresome old gag, asking "If the Beatles call, shall I say that you're available?" to which I always replied, just before closing the door, "No! But I am if Johnny Kidd calls!"
Now Johnny Kidd, he was something else altogether! Ever since Cliff Barton had introduced me to Johnny's music, I had been his number one fan. Indeed, most of the musicians I associated with would have given their eye-teeth to be in his band, the Pirates! There is no doubt that Kidd was a seminal influence on many singers and musicians who graduated from this period, including some of the biggest names. As I will deal with later on in this story, history and the music business did not treat Kidd kindly, and if there were any justice he would still be a household name today, as he was all those years ago! For those unfamiliar with his reputation in those days, I can only say that to join the Pirates back then was an experience that would be matched today by a young heavy rock player joining one of today's stadium rock acts!
Now, I figured that my chances of playing with Kidd were slimmer than my chance of walking on the moon, so you can imagine my disbelief on arriving home one evening to be told that my ex-Regents and Bergeracs buddy, Ray Soper had telephoned to say that he was gigging with Johnny Kidd! Half disbelieving, and absolutely green with envy, I telephoned Ray immediately for the story. It transpired that he was gigging with a semi-professional group, one of whom was a window cleaner by trade. He also happened to clean Johnny Kidd's windows, and had struck up a conversation with him. It had been announced in the press recently that Kidd wanted to lose his tough-guy image and appeal to wider audiences, and to this end he had split with the Pirates, ditched his famous eye-patch trademark and buccaneer outfits in favour of smart suits in order to target cabaret venues.
Still having quite a few rock dates to fulfil, and without a band, the window cleaner's group were offered the chance to back him on these final appearances. Without beating about the bush, I asked Ray how good the group was. "Not very!" was the reply. My brain went straight into overdrive - "Why don't the old Regents become the new Pirates?" I suggested. Impressed by this stroke of genius, Ray agreed to meet me the following evening, when we would pay Kidd a visit. With Roger "Solly" Truth in tow, we drove to Johnny Kidd's home on the edge of a smart up-market estate in Harrow, Middlesex.
Feeling extremely nervous, and slightly amazed at the sheer cheek of it all, we strode up the path, past the cannon on the lawn, and rang the bell. The door was swiftly opened, and there stood the great man himself! Obviously he recognised Ray immediately, and peering at Solly and myself, realized that he vaguely knew our faces. "Hi fellas", said Kidd, "What can I do for you?" "John" I replied, trying to muster a bit of more bravado than I felt, "We are your new band!" Kidd stared at us in amazement. "OK." He replied, "Then I guess you'd better come on in." Rather sheepishly we followed him into the lounge and were introduced to his wife, Jean, who went off to the kitchen to make some tea.
Johnny listened patiently as we sold ourselves to him, eventually convincing him that we could deliver the goods. I was dispatched to the local pub to fetch a few beers, and on my return we toasted the new alliance. Soon the conversation turned to the subject of who could play guitar. We suggested approaching old mate Mick Keane of the Ivy League. Johnny seemed happy with that idea, and suggested a rehearsal as soon as possible. With this loose arrangement in place, we took our leave of Johnny Kidd at around midnight. As we shook his hand and said goodbye he uttered the words that I will never forget. "Thanks a lot fellas", he said, "You've saved my life!"
The next day was spent trying to locate ace guitarist Mick Keane. Since I first met him at Battersea Fun Fair with Rich Bennett, Mick had played on several hit records, becoming a highly regarded player, particularly on the session scene. I was still buzzing after the meeting with Johnny Kidd and felt like someone who had won the football pools! By the end of the day, after countless telephone calls, it seemed that no one knew where Mick was, or even what he was up to. After some discussion with the other we realized that we would have to think again. I recall Solly and I both coming up with the same name, a guy we had known for several years who, like us, rated Johnny Kidd and the Pirates above all other acts, and who, like us, knew all his songs inside out! Mick Stewart was a professional player who had gigged with several different outfits, none of which had risen to great heights, but nevertheless he was recognized as a reliable solid picker who also looked good and could sing reasonably well.
Occasionally I would bump into Mick in Jim Marshall’s shop and I remember that we sometimes fantasized about being in Kidd’s band, just as today’s young players might fantasize about joining Led Zeppelin or AC/DC. When I telephoned Mick to offer him the job I could sense the excitement in his voice, but he insisted on keeping cool, saying that he would think about it and call me back. I countered this charade by telling him to be quick because we had to find someone fast! Of course he was pretty swift in calling back and the Pirates line-up was complete!
I called Kidd immediately with the news and we planned a rehearsal for the following morning, arranging to meet in the café at the end of Johnny’s road. As we ate breakfast together in the café, a blue Commer van pulled up outside. “You are about to meet”, said Kidd seriously, “the world’s greatest road manager!” Through the door came a wiry, confident, tough looking character, and I was introduced to the man who was to become one of my greatest friends. “Meet Johnny Irving, or Irvo, for short” said Kidd, and we all shook hands. Swiftly finishing our food, we loaded our gear into the bandwagon, all piled in, and with Irvo at the wheel, set off for the local church hall where we would show Kidd what we were capable of.
Nervously setting up and tuning up, we all knew that in spite of what had been said, if we failed to impress Kidd, then the deal would be off! One thing in our favour though was our knowledge of Kidd’s repertoire, having bought all the records, played them live where possible, and witnessed John’s act many times. He and Irvo could not have been more charming, and soon put us at ease. Once we had routined a few songs, our confidence grew and before long it was obvious that we all really clicked! Not surprising really, as Solly, Ray and myself had worked together so successfully as Regents and Bergeracs! I had a printed running order of the act, to which Kidd added a couple of comments, reminding us where to kick our legs out together, and not to forget the vocal “Oh Yeahs” in Dr. Feelgood.
After about six exhausting hours we called it a day, and once again climbed aboard the Pirates’ bandwagon. In those days the Commer van was the favourite vehicle of bands across the country. Kidd had modified his by fitting one of the first car record players next to the radio. It played 4 rpm singles with the centres removed (juke box style), which slid into a slot in the same way a cassette tape or CD is played today. The pickup weighed as much as a house brick, in order to stop the needle jumping on bumpy roads. Of course the record would be destroyed after about fifty plays, but that was all there was in those days, and if you had one you were the envy of the neighbourhood! Near the sliding side door was a steel tube, welded to the floor, over which several hundred records were stacked, every one a rock classic! As we pulled away to the strains of Johnny Otis singing “Castin’ My Spell”, I looked nervously at Kidd, and asked him if we had passed the audition. “You’ve passed with flying colours!” was his answer. “I know that we don’t have Mick Green…” I began, about to praise the assets that we did have, when he interrupted, “Don’t ever worry about my past musicians”, he said, “you guys are the business!”
Back at Johnny’s house, we toasted one another with cups of tea. There was no doubt that our performance had made the right impression, and our fantasy was now reality – we were the Pirates!
Still giddy with euphoria, I worked my last week at Ryman’s, bid the office staff a last farewell and got down to the serious business of being a pro once more. May 14th soon rolled around and the new line-up of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates headed out for their debut gig at a large ballroom in Bromley, Kent. Johnny was worried, having recently announced in the national press that he was changing his image. He had even generously allowed is previous Pirates to keep the name, in order that they could carry on working. However, according to Johnny Irving, Kidd was so rejuvenated by our arrival that he knew the image he had built up so successfully just had to be retained now.
Ray and Roger watched Mick and me nervously tuning up in the dressing room, whilst Kidd, fully resplendent in his stage outfit, languished in front of his portable TV set. Several other groups were on the bill and as people moved around the large dressing room I could sense the aura of respect which Kidd commanded. When the time came for us to take the stage I felt more nervous than ever before. Somehow I managed to croak my way through my first Regents’ single, “She’s About A Mover”, before Mick Stewart launched into the Ike & Tina Turner classic, “Something You’ve Got”. Then it was time for me to introduce Johnny Kidd, the crowd almost drowning out the intro to “I’ll Never Get Over You”, Kidd’s last top 5 hit. Exuding his usual air of menace, Kidd gave an amazing demonstration of stage craft, honed by ten years experience, as he effortlessly worked his way through the set. The new Pirates’ nervousness was compounded by the fact that our stage clothes were a bit below par, having hastily gathered a rag-bag of vaguely piratical outfits, which had to pass muster until we were able to get better stuff. Nevertheless, our debut gig went down a storm, and Kidd was more than pleased!
During the following week we were taken to Anello & Davide, the famous theatrical costumiers in London's Drury Lane, where Kidd allowed us to pick out whatever we needed. We wandered around vast rows of costumes, like kids let loose in a sweet shop, picking out the items needed to turn us into real 18th Century pirates. The main item needed was a good pair of boots, Mick, Ray and Solly picking soft suede, whilst I chose black leather thigh boots. Mick and Ray opted to wear the blue and white striped matelot shirts, Solly going for velvet shirts with balloon sleeves. Johnny had given me one of his own stage shirts and pointed out how easily they could be made, so I swiftly recruited my mother to run up one on her sewing machine. By removing the sleeves from a regular white shirt and replacing them with huge balloon sleeves made from an old bedsheet, Mum created the ultimate pirate shirt, finished off with lace at the cuffs and collar. Johnny had given us large-buckled wide belts which he insisted were to be worn low, in order as he put it, to "lower our waists". Half the contents of a can of spray starch made sure that my enormous sleeves stayed enormous. It was quite amazing how my kit transformed me from a nine-stone weakling into a menacing hulk!
Following more rehearsals, our confidence had grown one hundred per cent, when, on May 20th we headed off for our second gig, at the Royal Albion Ballroom, Walton-on-the-Naze, in Essex. Kidd was delayed that night, so Irvo and the boys set off in the van, whilst I picked up Johnny in my Austin Mini-van. During our high-speed dash to get there in time, Johnny coolly opened a bottle of beer with the window open. The contents immediately exploded from the bottle, giving the pair of us a 70 mph soaking!
On arriving at the packed hall we soon got changed and prepared for the show. Johnny taught us how to apply stage makeup, known as “slap”. He was very aware of stage craft and imagery, making full use of the stage lights. He was probably one of the first rock artists to realize the importance of lighting, and almost definitely the first in England to use ultra-violet light, having purchased one from Sweden several years before. Today everyone is familiar with UV, but in 1966 it was rarely if ever seen, leading to many people thinking that we wore ghostly “luminous” clothes!
Johnny’s stage appearance was completed by the addition of an amazing wig, known as the “Syrup” (of fig), for which he had paid over £100, an enormous sum back then. Whilst he still had plenty of his own hair, Johnny had the benefit of being able to leave the dressing room minus wig, and walk through the crowd completely unrecognized. It was during the Royal Albion gig that disaster almost struck! The stage had a canopy of tree branches above it, probably left over from a previous production, and when Kidd made his customary leap into the air during “Shakin’ All Over”, his wig snagged on a branch and lifted several inches above his head. Luckily Irvo always used a flashing strobe light at this point and so only a few people at the front noticed anything amiss, but those that did wondered if their eyes were playing tricks! The show ended without further mishaps and, elated by the audience response to only our second gig, we headed for home.
During the following week I was introduced to our publicist, Keith Goodwin, who handled the press for a stable of established acts. I was given the job of liaising with KayGee, as the firm was known, with Keith or his assistant telephoning me each week to discuss gigs and any reportable happenings. If there was little news, then something would be created to keep our name in the music press. To celebrate the boost to his career, Roger Truth purchased a new Ludwig drum kit. Solly had always been one of the loudest drummers in the business whilst playing a Premier kit, but the increase in sound level with the new kit led us all to turn up the volume. Mick Stewart boosted his Fender twin amp with an extra Bassman cabinet, and with my Marshall 50 watt 4x12 the sound was much louder than any previous Pirates, giving Kidd a much heavier backing.
On May 27th we headed out for Wales at the crack of dawn. Back in 1966 only a few miles of the M4 motorway had been built, so it took all day to drive to Abergavenny. There, we were given a warm welcome, for Johnny was extremely popular in Wales, just as he was in Scotland. In fact, I do not remember a negative response, for without doubt he was one of rock’s most loved characters! The Abergavenny gig was a yearly bash, sponsored by the local hunt, which took place in a huge hilltop barn. A large lady introduced us as we took to the stage and proceeded to give us a couple of loud blasts with a hunting horn, the crowd roaring approval.
The next few months saw us continuing to develop the show, gaining in confidence and basking in the positive feeling which we knew had lifted Johnny’s career from the doldrums. He had experienced many highs and lows over the years, with more misses than hits on the recording front, but there was no doubt that with the new band he was on the rise again! The advantage of his unique stage act, plus the fact that he had written and recorded arguably Britain’s best rock anthem meant that he never needed to rely on hit records to be in demand. By now we had lost our nervousness at being the new boys, and were becoming accustomed to being a band that took no prisoners. I think we were all reasonably competent musicians by then, with Solly an exception, rapidly being recognized as one of the best rock drummers in the country. Coupled with our youth and sheer exuberance, this made us a force to be reckoned with!
It was after one particularly good gig that I overheard Kidd talking to a long-time fan. “Great sound, John” he said to Kidd. “Thanks”, Johnny replied, “That’s because these guys are the best Pirates I’ve ever had!” I can remember the effect those words had on me. 1966 had been a good year so far – things couldn’t get much better than this!
The rest of the summer of ’66 saw us going from strength to strength as the Pirates travelled the country from one end to the other. I particularly remember waiting at Newbury station, drinking tea, waiting for the Plaza Ballroom to open up. On the juke box cam a record which knocked me sideways. It was called “I Fought The Law” by the Bobby Fuller Four, who had captured the Crickets feel perfectly, and added a little magic of their own. Whenever I hear that record I think of the gig at Newbury, and it still has the ability to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck!
We often seemed to be at the seaside too, very fitting for Pirates, taking in towns such as Folkestone, Bournemouth, Seaton and Grimsby. The gig at Bournemouth was promoted by a West London promoter called Pete Southall, who accompanied us to the venue. Pete was slightly worried that the advertising of the show was a bit lacking, so we toured the area in the van with posters all over it, playing songs from our rock ‘n’ roll record collection, windows wide open. We discovered that by taking a lead from the van’s record player to my bass cabinet, we could boost the volume considerably, so it was possible to create a hell of a noise and thus attract plenty of attention! Remember that this was a time when most cars did not even have radios, let alone the mega sound systems which we are so familiar with today! Anyway, it seemed to work and the show was well attended!
Whilst driving across country to yet another far-of gig, Irvo thought that he could hear a rumble from the back axle of the van. Pulling into a country garage, Irvo persuaded an obliging mechanic to take a look, the van being raised up on a hydraulic lift. We had all evacuated the vehicle except Solly, who was fast asleep in the front. Disaster almost struck when he suddenly woke up and attempted to climb out, thinking that we were all in a café. The sight of him clinging onto the door 8 feet above the ground will always stay with me!
As we travelled around, the sense of camaraderie grew. Irvo and Kidd regaled us with stories which today could fill a rock ‘n’ roll history book. He had seen it all and done it all, beginning with skiffle and graduating to his own brand of hard rock and R ‘n’ B, forming probably England’s first power trio as his backing, and becoming one of the most original performers of the era, admired (and copied) by many of the top stars of the day.
Kidd had met and worked with most of the big U.S. rock stars, and we hung on every word as he told stories of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Cochran. Irvo, too, had just as many stories, having accompanied Kidd throughout his career, apart from a period when he had chauffeured visiting U.S. stars such as the Shirelles, Big Dee Irwin and Brenda Lee.
One of the first things you noticed when in the company of the two Johns was the fact that they spoke in their own language. Not only did they converse in complex Cockney rhyming slang, but they chose their own words to rhyme with the slang! Thus the word “draft” became a “George”, after actor George Raft, and then became a “Cheddar” after Cheddar Gorge. They also used any topical newsworthy name they fancied to rhyme, such as Charley Clore for door, and Steve Race for (suit) case. You knew when the venue was near when you heard Kidd say “open the Steve (Race) and pass the Irish (jig = wig). Every band member was a “thing”, i.e. “Drum Thing” or “Bass Thing”, and Irvo was always the “Road thing”! In the Pirates, you never “went” anywhere, you always “did a lively”! We soon picked up the strange lingo though, and it quickly became second nature.
Early in August, a chain of events led to a change in the group’s sound and profile. Johnny still had not appointed a regular agent to procure gigs for us, and work was still a little spasmodic. He had parted company with his previous agent, George Cooper, over financial matters, but was still accepting the odd booking from George. On one particular weekend he received a frantic call from Cooper, who was desperately trying to find a top act to cover for Georgie Fame who was unable to appear. Kidd immediately telephoned around and managed to assemble all of us except Ray, who could not be contacted. It was decided that if we tried any longer to find Ray, then we would be too late for the gig, which was in Weston Super Mare on the North Somerset coast, and so we set off minus our keyboard player. Solly had rushed into Jim Marshall’s shop in Hanwell to grab some drumsticks, telling them that he had to dash, “gigging at Weston Super Mare”! Of course as fate would have it, Ray had popped into Marshall’s later that day, to the amazement of the staff, who assumed that he was with us. Ray, naturally, was a little miffed, wondering what was going on!
As we sped towards Weston Super Mare, it was decided that a stop for tea was necessary, so we pulled into the next transport café and ordered tea and toast. No sooner had we sat down than we were approached by a tall good-looking character, immediately recognizable as hit recording star Eden Kane. After exchanging pleasantries, Eden informed us that he was on his way to Weston Super Mare to fill in for Georgie Fame! Slightly perturbed to say the least, we quickly finished our refreshments and decided that we had to beat Eden Kane to the gig in case we were victims of a double booking! Irvo thought that he knew a shortcut, but we ended up at Cheddar Gorge, hopelessly lost, and didn’t arrive until long after Eden got there. We didn’t have to worry, however. Both acts were billed outside the Winter Gardens, with our name being top of the bill!
After setting up and settling into our dressing room, Irvo went backstage to familiarize himself with the stage lights. He immediately fell foul of a dictatorial stage manager who objected to Irvo’s rather radical approach to lighting! Irvo informed the “jobsworth” in no uncertain terms that he was in charge during the Pirates’’ act. A stand-off ensued until the ballroom manager was summoned. He took one look at Irvo and gave him permission to use the lights as he saw fit, a so a nasty scene was avoided!
Eden Kane and his group, including his brother Peter Sarstedt on Bass (soon to have big hits in his own right) put on a great show, performing all his hit songs and going down a storm. We were naturally a little nervous, going on minus our keyboard player, but spurred on by adrenaline we pulled out all the stops, with Johnny blowing the audience away with his superb vocals.
Eden was the first to congratulate us. “Fabulous show, boys” he said, “No one could follow that!” Rather pleased with ourselves, we sat in the dressing room. It was not long before it was unanimously decided that we preferred sound of tonight’s show to what had gone before! Now, it has to be understood that this was no slur on Ray Soper! Ray was a great musician and a lovely man who had given us all hours of pleasure, but none of us could deny the fact the we just preferred the sound of a power trio!
Now came the dilemma of how to tell Ray, our stalwart pal who had made it possible for us to become Pirates! I soon found myself volunteering to tell him, as I felt that he deserved better than just a phone call. The next day found me nervously making my way to Putney, where dear old Ray was quite understanding although rather hurt. Naturally his parents were quite volatile, but this was to be expected. Sadly I said goodbye to Ray, hoping that he at least gave me credit for telling him face to face. Now we got on with the business of being just three Pirates, tailoring our sound the way Kidd had always preferred it – guitar, bass and drums!
The Weston gig and Ray’s departure led Mick, Solly and myself into pressuring Kidd to bury the hatchet with George Cooper, in order to secure more gigs for the band. Kid decided that this made sense, and made the pilgrimage to the Cooper Organisation HQ in London’s Soho Square. Kidd had always looked on Cooper as a father figure and it was with some relief that we witnessed the two of them emerging from the office, arms around one another, to announce that the parting was over! Now, we thought, the future was assured!
I had not seen much of my old pal Rod Freeman during the time with Kidd, so it was good to meet him again at our show at the Terry Downes’ Club in Harlesden, owned by the former champion boxer. Rod was now fronting his own band in a residency at Tottenham’s Royal Ballroom. His current outfit had originally formed from scratch in 1963, to help out bassist Ken Rankine whose group, the Art Wood Combo (led by Ron’s elder brother), had failed to show up. The gig was such a success that they decided to keep together, operating under the name Soul Messengers. Featuring Rod and Ken, together with Mitch Mitchell on drums and Terry Marshall on sax, soon to be replaced by Gary Bell, they took the name Next 5, hoping to emulate the success of the two previous resident groups at the Royal, the Dave Clark 5 and the Migil 5.
The Pirates, minus Ray, continued to play up and down the country, as George Cooper got busy securing us new bookings. More and more new bands were spring up, with the charts more diverse than ever. Some of the songs blasted out of the radio in our van made a huge impression, such as “Black Is Black” by Los Bravos, “Wild Thing” by The Troggs and particularly “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge. Johnny also took great interest in the soul acts from America such as Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and Ike & Tina Turner. Much of our spare time was spent at Johnny’s house, kicking ideas about for he next single, exploring some of the sounds on the Beatles’ more psychedelic recordings, and even trying some of John’s back catalogue in different formats. Sometimes we recorded these onto John’s portable reel-to-reel tape machine, but nothing really grabbed us. The sudden cancellation of a tour of Scotland depressed us all no end, particularly John, who confided to me that he was considering retiring from performing to pursue a career in management and agency. Naturally I tried to talk him out of such a move, and the subject was not mentioned again.
It was shortly after the Weston Super Mare gig that a song turned up that we all felt was worth recording. An unusual semi-ballad, it was called “Send For That Girl”, written by Barter, Rowland and Victor. On Thursday 18th August 1966 we arrived mid-afternoon at EMI’s famous Abbey Road studios, where Kidd had recorded many times. The session was supervised by Norman Smith who had worked for a number of years at EMI, particularly with the Beatles. We had rehearsed several times at EMI’s Manchester Square studios with Norman, so we felt quite at ease with him. “Send For That Girl” was put down in a couple of takes with Norman at the piano, then in true 60’s fashion we quickly knocked out the ‘B’ side, covering Sandford Clark’s “The Fool”. None of the band were particularly familiar with it, so our version was taught to us by Johnny, leading to a different take on the song! Feeling pleased with our performance, we left the new single in Norman’s capable hands. He would add strings and carry out the final mix. That was the last time I saw Norman Smith, until he appeared on Top Of The Pops performing his own hit recording under the name of Hurricane Smith in 1971!
Feeling quite elated after the first recording session with Kidd, we left Abbey Road on a high. Johnny Irving swiftly drove us back to Harrow where Kidd’s wife Jean had tea and sandwiches waiting for us. After a quick nosh and even quicker clean-up we hit the road once more, with Irvo electing to drive through the night to Dundee, where we were to appear at the Caird Hall. The show was a rip-roaring success, featuring several other bands such as chart toppers David & Jonathan and the highly touted St. Louis Union, who featured none other than Bernie Burns on drums. We reminisced about my audition with the Boomerangs not so long ago, and parted on good terms after the show.
At the end of August we were booked to play on the bandstand at the Birmingham Flower Show where we met ex-Searcher Tony Jackson and his band The Vibrations. Tony and his guitarist needed to get to London and, as their car had broken down, we all squeezed into the Commer van and they travelled back with us to Johnny’s house. Someone suggested holding a séance with a home-made Ouija board. All went ok until the lighting fuse blew, plunging us into darkness! Poor old Tony was gibbering with fright, convinced that it was no coincidence!
More one-nighters took us through into September, with morale high in anticipation of the release of the new single. It was then that George Cooper suggested that we have a go at cabaret! Initially we were all aghast, but George explained that this was the future, pointing out that many rock and pop acts were following the lead of Englebert Humperdinck and Tom Jones who were forging lucrative careers in the clubs. With two weeks to go before our debut in the northern town of Darlington, Johnny decided that we needed to tone down our show and include a couple of old-time standards to satisfy the older folk that would be sure to be there, so rehearsals were held to learn the new songs.
On arriving at the Flamingo Club on September 19th we were amazed to see the same age group queuing up at the entrance as we always saw in the ballrooms! A quick peep at the audience revealed that there were a few older folk present, but all obviously rock ‘n’ roll fans judging by their Teddy Boy clothes! Johnny decided to disperse with the revised act and stick to what we did best, and the crowd absolutely loved it! The boss of the club was so pleased that he presented us with a bottle of vodka which we took back to our comfortable guest house, before demolishing it. The resulting party antics led to a severe reprimand from the landlady who extracted an apology from Kidd, and a promise to behave in future. The following night was as good as the first, and once again back at the digs we slipped into party mode. That was the last straw for our landlady who promptly evicted us the next morning!
Johnny Kidd’s charm and second apology failed to change the landlady’s mind and we forced to seek new accommodation, finding clean but less comfortable lodgings at another guest house, called the Bluebird. The rest of the week passed without incident. Getting thrown out of our digs was a sobering experience, and we felt slightly ashamed. This was of course long before it became fashionable for bands to trash their accommodation! Also resident in the guest house were another hard-working band called Rob Storme & The Whispers, whose bassist, Lewis Collins, would later become an enormous star, acting alongside Martin Shaw in the popular TV show the Professionals. Lewis spent several hours chatting to Kidd, who was one of his idols. Unable to remember where he was at the time, Lewis recently telephoned me from his home in the U.S.A. I was pleased to be able to remind him where he was, and which band he was with, thus enabling him to get the details right for his forthcoming autobiography.
Sadly, Irvo was not with us for this trip. He had stayed behind to work on a new sideline, having acquired an interest in a scrap metal business situated opposite the famous Ace Café near Wembley. We had assured him that we could cope without him, as our equipment only had to be set up once, and his usual brand of histrionics with the stage lights were not deemed necessary within the confines of a nightclub. I also remember that week for witnessing Otis Redding and his band performing a great live show on television, and for hearing the song "Cherry Cherry" by Neil Diamond, a great new artist who would prove important to me in the not too distant future!
Our next gig was on October 1st at the Royal Air Force base in Waddington. A great time was had by all, the band being particularly well received by the capacity crowd which included a large contingent of young women who had been ferried by coach from the town. Irvo had performed his favourite trick of heating up a half-crown coin by holding it in pliers over a cigarette lighter and then placing it strategically on the floor. Solly had obliged by snatching it up. The scream of pain before it reached his pocket made us all laugh!
Another favourite gag was to fill Kidd's thigh boots with coke bottles, cigarette packets and general rubbish. He never pulled on his boots until he heard me announce his name, and the resulting delay in his appearance, followed by whispered oaths and threats never failed to amuse the rest of us.
Once the applause died away, we congratulated ourselves in the dressing room. That was a good gig, we all agreed, as Johnny sat shirtless, cooling down and dishing out praise to us all. What no-one could know however, was that Johnny had just played his last show!
Thursday, October 6th saw Johnny Kidd, Roger Truth and myself hit the road for that night's show at Oldham. John's wife, Jean, had decided to travel with us, as we would be staying with old friends of John who had at one time been involved in running his fan club. We had gigs for Thursday night and Saturday night, but Friday was a day off.
Mick Stewart had previously travelled north to stay with his new fiancée,who he had met during our successful week in cabaret, and so was not with us in the bandwagon. Johnny Irving, who usually never allowed Kidd to travel without him, had stayed behind, at Kidd's insistence, to devote some more time to his new business venture, and so it was Kidd and myself who shared the driving duties up to Oldham. We had departed behind schedule, and traffic was exceptionally heavy, a combination which made us a little late in arriving at the venue, a large ballroom in the town centre. “What's the best way to Oldham?” enquired Kidd of a passing pedestrian. “One in each hand” came the time-honoured reply.
No-one was particularly concerned at our late arrival, as we knew that the always punctual Mick Stewart would be there early, and in any case, we never went on before 9 o'clock.
Our contract stipulated a 7 o'clock arrival, and we were just over half an hour late, whilst Mick had been there since 5:30, so we were absolutely amazed to find the manager placing “cancelled” stickers across the advertising posters! Johnny immediately turned on his charm, attempting to placate the manager, but he was having none if it! In a manner reminiscent of a member of the Gestapo, he ranted and raged about the terms of the contract, and insisted that the show would not go on! Johnny kept calm in the face of such an obnoxious character, pointing out that the doors had only been open a few minutes, and the expected crowd had yet to arrive.
When it became obvious that the manager would not be placated, Johnny gave him an amazingly generous offer, which said everything about the character of Johnny Kidd. He explained that he would waive his fee for the show and play for free, apart from a small fee for the Pirates. Incredibly, the offer was turned down, and Johnny sadly admitted defeat and ordered our retreat from the premises. Why the manager acted as he did, we will never know. Our late arrival had not threatened the potential success of the evening in the slightest, but for reasons best known to himself, he found it necessary to demonstrate his authority and at the same time unwittingly trigger a chain of events which would end in disaster!
With the Oldham gig cancelled, Johnny put on his thinking cap and decided that tomorrow we would travel to the Imperial Ballroom at Nelson, where manager and old friend Bob Caine would surely be able to arrange an extra gig or two in Lancashire and avoid the trip turning into a financial loss!
Thursday night saw a disappointed Pirates bunk down with Johnny's friends. On Friday morning I drove Solly and Mick into Manchester, where we visited a few of Solly's old haunts. He decided to stay in town for the night with some friends, so Mick and I drove back to Leigh to get ready for our trip to Nelson.
Early that evening we set off for Nelson in two cars, Mick and myself being driven in one car, with Johnny a passenger in the following car. At the Nelson Imperial, a huge ballroom, we were introduced by John to the manager Bob Caine, who, taking us into his office, got onto the telephone to see if he could find us a gig or two. Bob had good potential results and promised to call Kidd the next day if he could finalise anything. We said goodbye to Bob, thanking him and reminding him that we would see him soon, as were booked to appear there in a couple of weeks time. As we left by the stage door, Johnny and I were in deep conversation about the merits of returning to Germany, where he had commanded a huge following for several years. As Mick Stewart settled himself in the front seat of the car in which we had travelled up, and I prepared to get in the back, John asked Mick if he would travel back in the other car, so that we could continue our discussion. Mick of course agreed, and so they swapped seats. As John thanked Mick and moved to the front passenger seat, a figure loomed from the shadows and approached the car. “You're Johnny Kidd!” he exclaimed. “Can I have your autograph?” Johnny chatted to the fan for several minutes, reminding him to bring his friends and say hello in two weeks time. As the fan walked happily off into the night, no-one could have imagined that Johnny Kidd had just signed his autograph for the very last time!
As we left the lights of Nelson behind us, Johnny, full of enthusiasm, chatted away about his German successes, and how confident he was of returning with the new Pirates. Shortly before our destination Johnny announced that a toilet stop was necessary, and so our driver, Wilf, pulled over by a convenient clump of bushes. As I conveyed the reason for our stop to Mick, in the following car, they decided to carry on ahead, shouting “see you there!” as they sped away. Meanwhile, Kidd, having swiftly relieved himself behind a bush, settled back into his seat once more, and we resumed our conversation. Almost home after an uneventful journey, what happened next remains a mystery. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, our car was out of control, heading for a chain-link fence on the opposite side of the road. Both Johnny and Wilf gasped in disbelief, for there was no explanation for our loss of control. Then a car was approaching at speed, unaware of our plight, the driver flashing his headlights to warn us. With a dreadful sound, both cars collided head on, demolishing them completely!
I still marvel at surviving the crash reasonably intact! Both drivers were badly injured and both front-seat passengers died instantly. Helen Read was only 17 years old, being driven home after attending a 21st birthday party.
I was dragged from the wreckage by firemen and taken to hospital. Convinced that I was dying, it was quite a relief to be discharged with several stitched wounds, a smashed left arm and a broken nose! The real damage though was far more then physical, and I sank into deep depression with the date of October 8th 1966 burned deep into my memory. Along with poor Helen Read, we had lost Johnny Kidd, arguably the best rock singer that this country ever produced!