Now then! Now then! Ex-coalminer, professional wrestler, original Top of The Pops frontman and the first superstar DJ, Jimmy Savile is a self-made force of nature. Starting as a tough post-war entrepreneur (His autobiography talks of taking control of Manchester “below the legal line”), it was Savile more than anyone who moved British nightlife from the dance band to the DJ.
You were effectively working in a nightclub in your teens?
I was born in 1926, right. In 1939 war broke out. And that has a tremendous effect on everybody’s life because the basic principle of a human being is whether they’re gonna be alive or dead in the morning. Now with the war on you can’t guarantee that, especially living in a city like Leeds where we had air raids and all that. And that has an amazing effect on people. It causes them to do things they wouldn’t normally do. Or not do things that they should do. Now one of the features was that entertainment was in short supply, because entertainers were in short supply. But from a government point of view they wanted entertainment to keep the workers happy.
Keep the morale up.
And in those days dancing was in dance halls and dancing was to bands. And I’d always thought, even at that age, a record, to me, was quite a fascinating thing. I didn’t have any records. I didn’t even have a record player – because when you’re skint you don’t have anything like that – but I used to go round to the lads’ houses that had a record player and some records, oh, and he had this amazing music coming out of those speakers. Except they weren’t speakers in those days cos there was no electric, it was wind-up. No electric motors even.
What kind of music was it?
Well there were the big bands of the time, which were the bands of Ambrose, Joe Loss, Jack Hilton...
The radio bands.
Well the radio bands played also played in dance halls and hotels, and there were a lot of bands in them days that didn’t have a residency, so they gigged all over the place. And all this music was there on the disc. And it never occurred to me that one could dance to a record. Cos it never occurred to anybody. Now, it’s a startling admission that people didn’t think you could dance to records, but then nobody even conceived it.
No one danced at home?
You’d play a record at home if you had a record player, but you couldn’t be dancing around the carpet cos you’d get a bollocking for dancing round the carpet; knacked the carpet up, and things like that. So you could tap your foot, that was about it. But then I heard that this pal of mine had invented this thing: here was this record player but he’d contrived to make a pick-up so the sound came out of this radio. I rushed round to his house but by then I was walking on two sticks cos I’d been blown up underground in the pits. So I shuffled round to his house and it was an amazing thing.
How quickly after did you put on your event?
If nothing else in life, at least I’ve had the ability to recognise an opportunity. I borrowed it there and then. Oh. This is it. A dance! We’ll have a dance. And I wrote the tickets out ‘Grand record dance’ one shilling’.
What year is this?
This would be about 1943, 44. And I’d be just 18, at the time. And it was a great night.
Where exactly was it?
The Bellevue branch of the Loyal Order of Shepherds. Up here in Leeds. I think it’s offices now. Or flats. Cos it was a big house. It was the headquarters of this...
...working men’s club?
No, a friendly society. Not a working men’s club. They had a room upstairs that they didn’t use particularly and my street was literally round the corner from there. And it’s wartime, so everybody co-operated with everybody for everything. And they gave me the room for ten bob, fifty pence. Which I didn’t have of course. And I never actually got round to paying them.
What was it like?
Even then, as I played the records, and I stood there. I felt this amazing er, power’s the wrong word, control’s the wrong word. ‘Effect’ could be nearer. There was this amazing effect: what I was doing was causing 12 people to do something. And I thought, I can make them dance quick. Or slow. Or stop. Or start. And all this was very heady stuff: that one person was doing something to all these people. And that’s really the thing that triggered me off and sustained me for the rest of me days.
So that was the moment you realised entertainment was what your life was going to be about?
No. No. I didn’t think I was entertaining. What I was doing was, I was creating an atmosphere. An entertainer sings, dances, tells jokes, juggles. I don’t do any of that. I was creating, an, atmosphere. And when I got to the big dance halls and I’ve got 3,000 people in front of me and I’m on the stage with just the twin decks. And the records playing. My thrill is looking at them, and they’re all doing what they’re doing because I’ve just put this thing on. It’s a hell of a thing.
How many people at the very first thing you did?
Just 12 people. But you still got that feeling.
Oh yes. Cos there were 12 people, Six couples, and they were all dancing around to what I was doing. And they weren’t even my records.
They were your mate’s?
Yes. And they’d all paid a shilling to come in. And somebody said it’s a pity there’s not many people here. And I said ‘there’s plenty’ because at the time I was only getting 16 shillings a week sick money, so for 12 bob to come in on one night, oh man, wow. And there’s seven nights in a week. Oh wow. The only problem was, that nobody agreed with me. Because nobody would turn up to the bloody record dances. Because first of all, the sound left a lot to be desired.
Could you describe the room?
It was like this room [approx 10’x15’] but a bit longer.
Not very big at all. How loud was it?
It was like a small transistor radio. That was the sound.
But it was enough for people to get their groove on. And your mum finished the proceedings on the piano.
She tried to. But it didn’t work. Because her music wasn’t our music. And she said the burning smell off the top of the piano made her feel ill. Cos the wires had burnt the top of the piano.
And can you remember the records you played that night?
They were all band records. Orchestra bands. What we can do is get a taxi and go down there and you can have a look at it. Now that is el scoopo, because nobody knows that that building housed that thing.
The first disco
You’re the only one who knows and you’re the only one that’ll see it. Even Leeds people. It happened in Leeds and newspapers, television, they’ve never got round to actually saying well which one was it? So we’ll grab a cab.
The follow up party was in Otley?
That’s right. In Otley there was a cafe, which was a shop downstairs. And, being inventive, my deal was to suggest that if he gave me the room for nothing I would bring lots of people in and they would buy his tea and cakes and all that. And it sort of worked and it sort of didn’t work. Because, again, not many people turned up. And the price of a taxi back to Leeds was one pound five shillings, 25 bob. We hadn’t taken 25 bob, and the bus fare was ninepence. So there was myself, my dad, who was the cashier, and my brother-in-law, who was the ticket collector and minder. So this poor lady in the cafe had laid out a load of cups and saucers and cakes and things like that. And only about 20 people turned up, 20, 25 people. And when it came to the interval, cos we had intervals in those days, all the punters buggered off to the fish shop, eschewing the lady’s tea and cakes. Ah, they’ve all gone. So. The last bus was 9.30. We had the interval at nine and the dance was supposed to go on till 11. So when they’d gone I packed up my gear and ran to the bus station and caught the bus for ninepence. And when they came back from their fish and chips it was all locked up.
Did you do a few of them?
I did a few, because what happened was, another pal made, he had an electric gramophone turntable and this had a two-and-a-half-inch speaker, so the sound would come out of the speaker. To me, the beauty of that was you could carry it all on one handle. As against having a radio, a record player, a wind-up gramophone, and all that. This: terrific. And so, as long as I set this high enough, so the speaker was level with people’s heads. This little two and a half inch speaker. You could put the record like that, turn it up.
What was your mate’s name?
And the first guy?
Don’t know. I’ve forgotten his name now. But anyway, what happened was, a girl come and said it’s my 21st next week. I can’t afford a band. How much? Two pounds ten.
So word had got around?
No. They were all in there, and she thought what a good idea to have music to my birthday party, but they couldn’t afford a band. And there was no such thing as a disc jockey because it was unthinkable. And she quite liked the idea of having this jig around to this guy playing records, which in itself was like an amazing gimmick etc etc. And so it went on from there.
You spent some time in France.
The French thing was to do with cycling. Nothing to do with disc jockeying.
It’s interesting there was that kind of thing happening in Marseilles and Paris
No. Never saw anything like that. And I doubt if... When I was in France in 1945,I was there within a month of the war finishing. And there were no dances, baby. And there were no discos, and there were no records, and there were no record players. There was bugger all. It was just a bombsite. That’s all there was to it. So it wasn’t going on in France at all.
The only places that ever played records were in cinemas. In between the films. Then they put records on. Now they put adverts on.
Was that your inspiration?
No. I didn’t have an outside inspiration. It was recognising an opportunity. And I thought, this is a great band on this record. To dance to this great band would cost a lot of money in London. I’ve got this here. They can dance to this London band right here. And it was as simple as that. But it didn’t take off for ten years. Would you believe it? Ten years, people, but the equipment wasn’t right. See.
Were you collecting records?
You were never a record collector.
I’ve never had a record in my life. People would buy somebody a record for their birthday or Christmas or something like, that. People used to play records in their houses. I used to borrow. I only had about ten records. That’s all I needed. And I’d borrow them from anybody.
Were you listening to the radio a lot?
Yes because at the time, because I couldn’t walk very well, with my back thing, from getting blown up. I managed to acquire a transistor radio, and by getting a long piece of wire and sticking it in the back and putting the wire through the window and trailing through the window, it was the world’s best aerial. I could get all manner of things: American Forces Network. Because in those days during the war AFN was the big thing. There was music there that we never heard of.
Did you try and track any of that down?
No. I heard it. It never occurred to me that I could ever have any. In wartime you were just used to not having anything. So acquisition was just not part of your lexicon. I used to lie for hours listening to this wonderful music, not fastening the two together until I realised that this music, plus room, plus record player, plus some tickets, plus people, could be a way of life. And it was. That was it.
When did you think of getting a second turntable?
This was a great learning curve. I realised I wasn’t as clever as I thought. I was about 20, and because I used to put these dance things on I was regarded as a sort of an impresario, and I sort of staggered on, made eight quid here and lost six quid, and then made nine quid there, and lost five quid. So after about two or three years – I thought to myself, hang about. If I’m that clever how come I’ve got no money? Must be something wrong somewhere. And then I alerted to myself that maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and I wasn’t as clever as I thought I was. Now that’s quite a profound thing for somebody that age to own up to. So what did I do? I knew that dance halls was my way of life and so by a fluke, in the local Mecca dance hall, the assistant manager had left. So I marched down to the manager and said ‘I’m your new assistant.’
What was the name of the club?
Locarno. The Mecca. The correct title was Mecca Locarno. And I was only an assistant for about seven months, because the governors thought, this guy’s got something. Then, when I was about to be the man, the boss. I could do what I wanted. And once again, the record thing raised its head. And now I’ve got a ballroom and I’ve got electricians, who could do things. And the company was Westrex, and they looked after the microphones, so I said to them have you got any record players, and they said yeah, we put them in cinemas. So I said Oh, I want one here, so they said OK.
Did they have double ones in the cinemas?
No, just singles. So I came in the afternoon they were fitting it up, and they were actually up in the light box. Fitting it in the light box. I went what’s that then? Well this is where we... No, no, no, no, no it goes on the stage. On the stage? Yes. And, wait a minute, have you got two? And they said yeah, why? I said I want them next to each other. They said you don’t need two Jim cos these are foolproof, they don’t break down. No, no, I says. When this record’s playing I want to get this one ready to play. Bloody hell, he says, are they in that much of a hurry? I said, yes my people are.
Nobody ever dreamed of putting two turntables. So I got two turntables together like that. Yet again. Grand record dance. One shilling. Bring your own records. Cos I didn’t have any records you see. Now the week before we’d had 24 people in. But about ten to eight we had 600 people turn up. It was like locusts. It was like you couldn’t have even dreamed that it could happen. The bloody place was heaving. I was ankle deep in records, on the stage. Of all the bands. Didn’t know what the bloody hell they were. If anything worked I played it three times, that’s for sure. But the thing that bugged me was there was 600 people in and they’d all got in for, initially it was free. Initially. And then I got this magic marker, and I put on a 10-inch LP it’s called the hucklebuck, which is a jazz tune. A terrific medium tempo. Marvellous. And I put that on, rushed off the stage, went to the poster at the front that said ‘ADMISSION FREE’ and wrote under ‘UNTIL 8PM’. And wrote ‘ONE SHILLING’. And another 700 people came and paid a shilling. There was 1300 people in there. It was the most awesome baptism ever. And from that day on I was the governor. Never looked back. I finished up running 52 dance halls and employing 400 disc jockeys. They made me a director of the company and I left my DJing thing and looked after the whole shebang, the whole of Mecca Ltd.
What was their formula before you arrived?
Dances. All bands. Two bands. Non-stop, no interval. Two bands and it was six nights a week, didn’t used to work on Sundays. But by this time Radio Luxembourg had reared its head and it was overlapping and I was now doing all this for Mecca Ltd and I was on Radio Luxembourg as well. And of course that really made it right that my policy was 100% right. I knew it was right. Now everybody knew it was right. Now it was nationally right. And globally right and I finished up winning the New Musical Express award for top DJ for 11 consecutive years.
Interviewed by Frank Broughton in Leeds, 20.5.04