Working Man’s Soul
You can almost smell the crushed velvet. While Led Zeppelin were doing unspeakable things with sharks and glam rock was ubiquitous, thousands of musicians plied their trade in humbler surrounds. Performing in holiday camps and supper clubs, the cabaret band is as evocatively seventies as crimplene, Mike & Bernie Winters, the three-day week and the colour brown. Bill Brewster looks back at the heyday and impact of the cabaret band and its occasional forays into funky soul.
The 1970s and early 1980s was the zenith of British cabaret, a time when the Musicians’ Union’s ranks grew to an unparalleled 41,000 members (powerful enough to ensure all musical performers enjoyed a live backing on TV). While the lucky ones – Brotherhood of Man, Middle of the Road, Guys And Dolls – might have briefly escaped the chicken-in-a-basket circuit of dinner-dancing clubs and miner’s welfares, the rest eked out a living playing the hits of the day to the clunk click of Babycham and Watney’s Red Barrel.
Remarkably, many of them even made recordings, usually to sell at local gigs, a mini cash cow that financed a neat line in dickie bows. Fast forward 30 years and many of those long-lost records find their way into the sweaty palms of vinyl collectors Chris Malins, Ed Griffiths and Si Watson whose charity shop and boot sale ephemera has been turned into a fabulous treasure trove of an album: Working Man’s Soul.
The trio’s enthusiasm for vinyl detritus is apparently boundless. “As well as collecting versions of 2001 on Top of the Pops and Hot Hits albums I started looking for the same kinds of tracks on privately pressed albums,” explains Malins. “You buy them hoping they’ll be good and very often they’re bloody awful but, personally, I’m more turned on by a weird version of Light My Fire than a rare funk workout that no-one’s ever heard before. It was the Alan Randall album which was really the catalyst for this project. A while ago, nothing to do at work, I did a bit of Googling and started searching for some old duffers.”
Sadly some, like Alan Randall, the George Formby impersonator and vibes player, have passed away, but many more are still around. Peter Coe, now 76, who provides two cuts with his excellent big band, confesses his lack of surprise at the interest. “I’ve always liked the record and I always thought it was rather good. But it had been gathering dust.” Coe was a member of Georgie Fame & The Blue Fames during their mid-’60s heyday and also played tenor saxophone on Got To Get You Into My Life by a certain mop top foursome. Brian Sharp on the other hand, whose deranged readings of Light My Fire and Aquarius mark him out as a lugubrious Midlands version of Dick Hyman, was amazed to receive the call. “As far as I’m concerned the tracks he chose were very old and I’ve done better things since.”
Also featured on Working Man’s Soul is veteran cabaret performer Carol Lee Scott (known to readers of a certain age as Grotbags from the Pink Windmill and Emu’s World TV shows); Sounds Bob Rogers, featuring the eponymous guitarist and Ron Seabrook on bass (both now featuring in Frank Skinner’s Skinnerettes); and the student Northern Jazz Orchestra, whose efforts, according to musical director Rod Mason, “were only recorded as a memento for the band. God knows where they got it from, but there can’t have been many made. In fact, I’ve not even heard it for ages. All my records are in my mother-in-law’s attic.” Mason is now a music teacher in Huddersfield and plays with jazz rockers Back Door.
Thatcher, punk, the rise of the mobile DJ and changing trends eventually snuffed out cabaret, as the public tired of yet another version of Come On Over To My Place performed by a middle aged man wearing a velvet suit and worrying smile. Cabaret performers, like time, march on, however. “Now I’ve mastered the art of multitracking,” says Sharp, now 69-years-old, proudly. “Those old records were live performances, but now I work on 16-track digital using a Roland E300. I can do it when I want to. If it comes up to twenty five past seven, I just save it. Then I can watch Coronation Street and carry on after it’s finished.” The digital age, it seems, catches up with everybody (though no one gets between a man and Betty’s hot pot).
© Bill Brewster
Originally published in Mojo, 2006
PETER COE, a member of Georgie Fame & The Blue Fames and tenor saxophonist on the Beatles' 'Got To Get You Into My Life', contributes two tracks to Working Man's Soul. It took a while for the compilers to get hold of him, not least because there's a drummer in nearby Fakenham with the same name.
I started playing when I was 17. I’m 76 this year. It was on drums in 1947 in a little village called Wilbraham near Cambridge. It made me decide never to play the drums again. But I made my mind up to be a musician and I took up the clarinet and went to lessons and when I was 18 or 19 I was taken by a band called Chic Aplin & His Band, and we did gigs around town. I was at art school at the time.
Were art schools as fertile musically as they are today?
It’s the same side of the brain they tell me. If you know Charlie Watts, the drummer from the Stones, we were flying over to Sweden doing a gig with them, I was with Georgie Fame at the time, and we were chatting and he had exactly the same history as me.
Where were you getting your inspiration?
I listened to a lot of jazz. I fell in love with jazz during the war years. When the Americans came over they brought their music, Glenn Miller and dance music stuff and I got interested in music in general and jazz in particular. During the war, the Americans brought with them V Discs. You couldn’t get them in this country or you certainly couldn’t buy them. They were unbreakable records. Jazz musicians gave their services free, it was all name stars, Count Basie and so on, and they gave their names free for these records to be pressed and sent over to Europe. I managed to get hold of some. When I went into the national service, there was a radio programme called Dancing In Bavaria, which was run by Americans but coming from Europe, and it was all jazz. When I came out I lived in London and I started playing round the clubs with a little quartet.
How did you get gigs?
Well, you didn’t have restrictions on musicians in those days, not like you do today. There were hundreds of pubs in London with a piano player or little groups and you could go and sit in. In those days, that was the training ground where you learnt your craft playing in front of people. And playing with good musicians and getting better. Now they’ve got this silly rule about three in a bar and you can’t make four. The other thing that existed in those days and that’s Archer Street. The agents paid out on Archer Street. You’d do the weekend’s gigs and the agent would meet you down at Archer Street and book you for another gig, depending on how it went, bands and solo musicians. I got my first pro gig down there, at Butlin’s way back in 1961. I did Skegness with a fourteen piece band. Jimmy Seaman was the name of the band leader and I still see him.
You played with Georgie Fame
For about four years. I had a phone call from a tenor who was playing with him at the time, a chap by the name of Mick Eve. His baritone player was ill, Johnny Marshall, and they needed a sax player that night in Bristol. They picked me up and I played with them for the first time. Thoroughly enjoyed myself. Only depped that one night. Couple of weeks later they rang me up and said would I do a week because this chap was still ill. And then, very sadly, for Mike, they sacked Mike and kept me in. It was because of him I got into the band and then one day Rik Gunnell came up to me at a gig in Aylesbury and said ‘Do you want the job? It’s yours if you want it.” He was changing the whole band. He changed the drummer, Red Reece, eventually he got rid of Tex [Makins] and formed a new band with Bill Eyden who died last year, and Glenn Hughes.
Not the Glenn Hughes who was in Deep Purple?
No. Glenn burnt himself to death, unfortunately. He fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand. He was certainly on some sort of prohibited substance. Very sad. It was in about 1966. Lovely player, very good. The band that made it, was Bill Eyden on drums, Glenn and myself on saxophones and Colin Green on guitar, brilliant musician, Georgie of course and the bass player was Cliff Barton. We played all the mod circuit, every big town in the UK and abroad. Mojo Club, Klooks Kleek (Hampstead). Flamingo all nighter.
What was it like to play the Flamingo?
We were residents there, played there every week. It was absolutely tremendous, it really was. It was electric. The audience was so enthusiastic you couldn’t help but enjoy yourself. I left in 1967 I think when the band packed in. The last gig was in Amsterdam. But we had a great reputation, the band was followed by hundreds and thousands of people, so you couldn’t get up there and mess about. And I was a lot older than the others. When I joined, Clive (Georgie Fame) was 20 years old, I was 34. I was knocking 40 when it finished.
And you're on the Beatles' Got To Get You Into My Life
Well Glenn should have done the Beatles gig. But he was got on this drug thing, very sad, quite silly of him really. On the day of the session, I got a call from the people to say for Christ’s sake get down there and take your baritone. Unfortunately, I’d loaned it to Don Weller, and so I took my tenor and instead of it being baritone and tenor, it was two tenors, but they didn’t seem to mind. The other sax player was Alan Branstone. Ian Hammer, the trumpet player on it died last week.
And the Peter Coe Big Band?
The Peter Coe Big Band came about by accident. I was working at the Leather Bottle in south London, I’d be booked in once a month with the Tony Lee Trio and the guvnor there Dave Pugh, asked me about a big band I was working with in Carshalton, he said can you book them in, got in touch with them but on the Monday the bandleader rang me up and said they couldn’t do it, so I had six days to put a band on, no music, rushed up the West end for some dog eared arrangements for big band and put it together. It was about a ten piece. It sounded pretty awful, but Dave Pugh said that’s it, you got it every Sunday, but I want a better band. Eventually it built up into a 16 piece band and won the championships of the BBC. Very good band. I suspect I made a few enemies because as a band leader you have to fire people you like very much. I had to sack that drummer John Turner we were talking about, not because he wasn’t good, but because he played too loud and it was either him or the brass team would walk it, so it was him. We still became friends and worked together later, but one other fellow who I won’t name just stood there and cried when I said I’m sorry but I’m gonna get somebody else.
We recorded two albums on our own label. We'd sell them at gigs. It was pointless trying to get distribution because you don’t make any money. We had several thousand copies made and I even picked one up at a boot fair in Spain! We put the label together for Tommy Whittle and Don Lane and when I got the band together I used it for myself. We did four or five albums all told and we made a single with a singer which you won’t have heard. Wouldn’t be your cup of tea. It was a retro arrangement, a 1925 type arrangement with a 1925 type singer. We thought it might take off. It didn’t.
Listen to Working Man's Soul in our shop and download it at your leisure. 18 tracks of strangely marvellous music culled from smoky function rooms across the land. Not just a funky time capsule, it's a DJhistory digital exclusive, too. Serving suggestion: Two packs of salt and vinegar crisps and a pint of warm Tetley's, port and lemon for the lady. The comic's on in a bit.
BRIAN SHARP recorded several albums for Grosvenor after a local music store director paid for his first sessions. He's behind the spirited versions of Aquarius and Light My Fire on Working Man's Soul.
My first professional engagement was at 17 at the Dudley Hippodrome. That would be in the ’50s, I suppose. Then from there I went into my national service with the RAF three years there and then six years I was organist for Skegness council for holidaymakers on a Hammond organ. That was at the Embassy Ballroom. Those were all solo gigs. My backing stint came when I went back to Sutton Coldfield and that’s where I met Des O’Connor, Max Bygraves and the Beverley Sisters. Also as a soloist and also for dancing and that was at La Reserve. It was the very first theatre-restaurant in the country. They had all the Water Rats things there. I led a quartet. I did Skegness in the summer and this in the winter. Six years in total for the two of them. Then I axed the Skegness one and kept the other six years full time.
You used to travel around doing organ demos didn’t you?
I did tours of America, Canada, all over Europe, and then three years with three months in each year over in Japan. Touring each city and town in Japan on the Kawia Key 50 and that is described in the Guinness book of Records as the largest electronic organ ever built. It had eight keyboards, four in front of you, four to the right.
I call it my ‘Sunday job’ – where I play old Wurltizers and I do three or four performances on the Blackpool Tower each year. There are lots of organs in town halls and so on that are in very good condition, the old pipe organs. One of my highlights as keyboard player was on Pebble Mill at One through the ’80s. But also the more prestigious programme, which was on Saturday, Saturday Night At The Mill. Then I was part of the band backing Andy Williams, Three Degrees, Stylistics, Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison and so on. That was at the time when the Musicians’ Union insisted that everyone had to perform live with the house band. After that programme was axed they all came over with backing CDs.
Who have you most enjoyed playing with?
My most memorable TV broadcast was when the team of Dad’s Army were in there. All I was required to do was play A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square for John Le Mesurier. He said, ‘I say old chap, is this programme live?’
I said, ‘Yes, John it is.’
‘Good heavens. I’m an actor not a singer.’
‘We’ve written a part from your single record.’
‘Good heavens that took me three months to get together I can’t do it in a day. You play the programme out, not me.’
John vanished up to the 7th floor until it was his cue to come on and be interviewed.
Do you remember recording Light My Fire?
Vaguely. If I went upstairs I might even find an old LP of it somewhere, except I wouldn’t be able to play because I haven’t got an LP player.
CHRIS MALINS, compiler of Working Man's Soul (with Ed Griffiths and Si Watson), explains what drew him to the project
The Alan Randall album, which was really the catalyst for this project, I found in a charity shop near my parents’ house. It was one that I’d been tipped off about a few years previously, and I’d been looking for it since. I sent an email to Peter Pollard at georgeoformby.co.uk to see if he could put me on to Alan. Well, he’d recently died, he’d had motor neurone disease. Peter kindly replied and that was it. So I put it to the other guys: how about doing a full album of this? One of the first private press albums I became aware of was the Medium Wave Band with the version of 2001 on it. Moving into that realm of collecting is… you’re really dipping into the dark underbelly.
Once we were happy with the selection of tracks we came upon the problem of how on earth do we license them. Trying to trace people has taken up more time than any other aspect of the project. Phoning up pubs in the middle of Sheffield, going through telephone directories, and one lead going to another to get hold of everybody – apart from whoever owns the rights to the Keith Lloyd track. Out of 13 artists, we managed to track down 11 of them. It’s only the advent of the Google age that this is possible. People putting up local news articles. Maxwell Plumm has got his own website. We didn’t recognise it as being him because he’s a comedian now, though! There was a little website about East Anglian bands that had information about Plimsoll Sandwich.
Our label, Licorice Soul is very much a labour of love. It’s all part of the public service: giving up the information and not being secretive about it. As for other projects, we’ve got the Bare Knuckle soundtrack. We licensed it from the daughter of the composer and we were gonna do it last year but it got bootlegged. We might do a limited edition CD with extra tracks. And we’re planning to release a 45 of the Loot soundtrack. There a couple of things I’d like to do personally but I’m keeping my cards close to my chest. Because there’s three of us it’s a matter of convincing the other guys that the project is a winner. If it gets past the quality control of the three of us hopefully it will interest other people. Ltd edition of 500 with gatefold sleeve on vinyl.
Interviews by Bill Brewster, 2006
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