An Elvis Guitar From Woolworth's. Continued

If the music of Bill Haley was so influential, how did it affect some of the budding musicians of the late 50s? Tommy Burton, who was possibly the most outstanding local musician of the past 40 years, stated:

"My original band was very much modelled on the formation of Bill Haley and the Comets. I thought that if Bill Haley could be so successful, surely a local band which played a similar style to Bill Haley would also be successful. When I was demobbed from the RAF, I was ready. The first band was usually called the Ravemen although we also used the name of the Beatniks. It was according to where we were playing."

"The original line-up included my cousin Colin playing a twin-necked steel guitar just like Bill Williamson played in the Comets. That guitar was not only played by Colin, it was also made by him. He was a first-class craftsman."

Tommy Burton's Combo. One of the first local musicians to attempt to bring the music of Bill Haley and other rockers to local audiences. Boy was he good! (Tommy Burton)

"Horace Johnson was on bass guitar in the original group. He had also been an original member of the skiffle group I had. Horace was another great musician as well as being a really good guitar teacher. Pete Grayston was the sax player and Dennis Harvey was on drums. Pete had played with the Ronnie Hancocks Band with whom Susan Maughan, of Bobby's Girl fame, sang. The intention was to try and capture the sound of Bill Haley as much as possible. I think we succeeded pretty well or at least better than most."

"The original line-up's repertoire was very much influenced by the music of Bill Haley. We included many of his numbers because that was exactly what the kids wanted from us. I realised very shortly after starting that if I was going to make any money at all then I had to cater for the kids who were paying at the door."

"I have never understood the unwillingness of people to readily accept the importance of Bill Haley to music at that time. He was tremendously influential to us and most of the other Rock 'n' Roll bands which were emerging then. He may have been a country singer really but to me he was the inventor of 'white' Rock 'n' Roll, not Elvis."

"Before Bill Haley there had been something of a pretty similar nature with the music of Louis Jordan and some of the other Rhythm and Blues groups, but to most of the kids of the time it was Haley who was the first and foremost. Even today when we play at some of the Rock 'n' Roll revival nights, it's still the music of Bill Haley which is most popular, especially with the fellers who come along in their drape jackets and drain pipes. The women still wear their hooped skirts and ankle socks."

Another one of the early members of the Tommy Burton Combo was Trevor Worrall who was to become the bass player after Horace Johnson. He recalls:

"I used to go to Horace Johnson's house in Sedgley for lessons. He was a really good teacher. One Saturday I was walking down Genge Avenue where Horace lived and I could hear the Bill Haley number See You Later Alligator. The nearer I got to Horace's house, the more I realised that the sound was actually coming from his house. It was great."

"When I actually got into the house I could not believe my eyes because all of the original members of the Combo, Tommy, Horace, Dennis, Colin and Pete were there and I had arrived at a practice session."

"That experience confirmed me in what I wanted to do. I went to Brierley Hill Town Hall on the next Saturday to hear Tommy playing. I remember travelling all the way over on buses and being frightened to death because the Town Hall was a rough place in those days but listening to the Rock 'n' Roll music was worth it. It was not too long after that that I was to fill in for Horace with the Combo whenever he couldn't make it because of his shifts at Stewart & Lloyds. That was one hell of a learning experience for a young feller. I actually officially joined the Combo in about 1960."

"We still do the odd Rock 'n' Roll session, especially at Shepwell Green and the people who come include many of those who were the youngsters who danced to Tommy in the late 50s and early 60s. They still want to hear the Bill Haley stuff."

The music of Bill Haley and the other early Rock 'n' Roll artists like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochrane, Fats Domino, Larry Williams and others became the major part of the repertoire of groups like Tommy Burton and the Ravemen/Beatniks/Combo etc. As Tommy himself says:

"We used to take the records of the time and attempt to emulate them as near as possible. We were able to do many Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Little Richard numbers because we possessed a sax section, just like those chaps."

Youth Club Bop. Many teenagers got their first opportunity to bop to those early 78's at the local youth club.

"It was always a case of listening to those records over and over again and trying to get all the words sorted out and the varying arrangements. In many cases we would add bits ourselves and give them a certain originality."

"My mother used to listen to many of those early 78s and try and get the words sorted out for me. She was wonderful. I remember one night when I came back from a gig and she was waiting to tell me that she had been listening to Roll Over Beethoven by Chuck Berry but could not sort out about the 'rolling arthritis' or 'the rhythm review' or who the Jockey was. Those 78s must have really suffered by being taken on and off the turntable and getting scratched to ribbons."

"We introduced a system in those early days where we would learn three new pieces each week and drop three numbers from our existing repertoire. That way we kept fresh."

"In the late 50s there were a few other Rock 'n' Roll outfits around the area, notably Dixie Dean's Combo. He's no longer with us unfortunately but he was a good performer and could really rock."

Some of the performers who were to come to local prominence in the 60s also recall the influence of Bill Haley on them and their generation, one example is Roy' Dripper' Kent who was the lead singer with two of the town's most successful 60s groups, Finders Keepers and Light Fantastic.

"I was at the Grammar School in Dudley when Rock 'n' Roll first really came to prominence. Friends and I would regularly go around to each other's houses and mime along to Bill Haley or one of the other early rockers."

"Bill Haley was always a hero of mine, after all it was his records which really got me started. One of the greatest moments of my life was to actually meet him and the Comets while we were performing in Wuppertal in Germany. They were performing at the same club as us and they actually used our gear. They were also performing at another club about 100 miles away but they came back in the early hours and watched our set."

Dan Robinson, better known as Danny Cannon, the lead singer with the Ramrods and later with Herbie's People and Just William, is another of the local artists who acknowledges the importance of those early Rock 'n' Rollers.

"The original Ramrods came out of Etheridge School because we all went to the school together. We left in 1958 and the idea of forming a group was spontaneous because we wanted to match the music which was so important to each of us. I became the singer and we all started to listen to the Rock 'n' Roll records of the time and copying the sound. We all had our personal favourites, like Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Bill Haley, but the greatest influence for all of us was definitely Buddy Holly and the Crickets."

Danny Cannon & the Ramrods. A young set of aspiring rockers pictured in the garden of one of their homes in Bilston. (Pete Walton)
"That sound was so important to us and most of our generation because it seemed to capture all our feelings. Of all those early rockers it was definitely Buddy Holly who really captured our imagination.

He was not a handsome feller but it was that distinctive sound he made on the guitar and his voice. Songs like That'll Be The Day and Peggy Sue were my personal favourites."

Another member of those original Ramrods was lead guitarist Len Beddow, who remembers:

"When we first got started we were all influenced by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. While we bought his records and tried to sound like him we had very little idea what he actually looked like. I remember seeing him performing on Sunday Night At The London Palladium and not realising it was actually him."

"That performance on the Palladium showed just how powerful an electric guitar could be. We all wanted sunburst Fenders after that. The records of Buddy and the Crickets also showed how relatively easy rock music could be. He also wrote his own stuff."

"We were all Rock 'n' Rollers at heart and loved nothing more than playing the music, not only Buddy Holly numbers but anything by Bill Haley, Eddie Cochrane, Little Richard etc."

"Our sound in the early days was very Rock 'n' Roll inspired with the emphasis on the bass. The original bass player was named Pete Hughes and he played bass on two strings of his Rosetti six string guitar. It became the basis of the original Ramrods' sound and it went down really well with the kids who were mad keen on Rock 'n' Roll."

One of the most popular of the early groups in Wolverhampton was Steve Brett and the Mavericks. Steve Davies (Steve Brett) was the leader of the group and he recalls the immediate impact which the sound of Bill Haley had on him:

"When I was about 15 I remember listening to the B side of one of Bill Haley s early records. It was the guitar sound, not the saxophone, which blew me away and decided me that I must get myself a guitar and learn to play like that."

"While I was to become more of a C&W artist later, initially it was Rock 'n' Roll which got me interested in performing. I suppose that's probably the same for most of the artists who emerged in the late 50s and early 60s."

While many of the young aspiring musicians around Wolverhampton were deeply affected by the music of Bill Haley and other rock 'n' roll artists, there was always the problem of obtaining the instruments required to form a group which could sound anything like them. There was also the need to have the musical ability to play those instruments. It was such factors which led to the dramatic success of skiffle in this country during 1956.

Skiffle was a British phenomenon, epitomised in the music of Lonnie Donegan. He was a member of Chris Barber's Jazz Band and was responsible for the voice on some of the tracks on an album by the band called New Orleans Joys. One of the tracks was called Rock Island Line and it was released as a single. It entered the charts in January 1956 and started the skiffle craze in this country. By the middle of 1957 there was thought to be something in the region of 40,000 skiffle groups in Britain. Adam Faith who was to become one of this country's most successful performers of the early 60's stated:

"Skiffle hit Britain with all the fury of Asian flu. Everyone went down with it. Anyone who could afford to buy a guitar and learn three chords was in business as a skiffler. It grew in nice dark cellars and shot up like mushrooms."

Lonnie Donegan may have been the most famous skiffle performer but there were many others like Chas McDevitt, Nancy Whiskey, Wally Whyton of the Vipers and Johnny Duncan. All of them had their moments 'in the sun' with hits like Freight Train and Last Train To San Fernando. The music became linked to the growing number of coffee bars which also appeared all over the centres of British towns and cities because it was often within those coffee bars that the skiffle groups played. Coffee bars became the centres of teenage culture and encouraged popular music via the juke boxes which were installed in most of the bars. The opportunities for live music were restricted by the limited space which was generally available. Whenever a skiffle group played therefore, it was 'closely' involved with the listening public.

The most famous of the coffee bars opened in London and included the 2I's, Cat's Whiskers, Heaven & Hell and the Freight Train. The 2I's became synonymous with the 'discovery' of recording artists, notably Tommy Steele, Terry Dene and Tony Sheridan. It was also used by BBC's Six-Five Special as one of its locations.

Skiffle groups sprung up all over the country because the kids did not have to learn difficult instruments like the trombone or the clarinet, anyone could be a skiffler. The basic requirements for most of the new groups were washboards, tea chest basses, kazoos, combs and paper and a guitar. In 1958 it was estimated that something in the region of 25,000 guitars would be imported into Britain to satisfy the skiffle craze. Every part of the country was effected by the craze and many of the most influential rock musicians of the 60s began as members of local skiffle groups. Each of the four Beatles performed in skiffle groups, as did Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch, Van Morrison, Chris Farlowe, Keith Richards, Johnny Kidd and most everybody else. The story of skiffle also had its chapter set in and around Wolverhampton.

Clive Mountford who was to become the drummer for both the Tremors and Zuider Zee, began his musical career as a member of a skiffle group:

"The Tremors were originally based on an Albrighton skiffle group called the Red Rebels. The members of that first group were me, Mick Blythe, Mick Mercer, Lawrence Smith and Martin Lowden. We had the requisite tea chest bass and sang most of the recognised skiffle numbers."

"We actually won a skiffle contest and we almost caused a riot. All the other groups had done the usual skiffle repertoire as determined by Lonnie Donegan or the Vipers but we did Dizzy Miss Lizzie, the Larry Williams number. It brought the house down, especially as most of the audience was unaware of the number. The group which came second put in a protest because the number was not skiffle, it was rock 'n' roll."

"Strangely enough one competition which the Tremors won was down at St. Pancras Town Hall. It was the BMG (Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar) Magazine competition. While it was a rock 'n' roll contest, it was judged by the top skiffle performers, Chas McDevitt and Shirley Douglas."

Les Parker also recounts how skiffle was influential in his early days in the popular music business:

"My first involvement in any group began while I was at the Central Boys Club which used to meet on Penn Road. The buildings are now a Sikh Gurdwara. Anyway, it was there that I came across my first guitar. although at the time it had no strings. I had to get strings from Jim Billau at the Band Box on Snow Hill."

"It was around about the time that Lonnie Donegan was in the charts with Don't You Rock Me Daddio. I bought the record and spent a lot of time learning to play it. I used to play the record over and over again on an old wind-up gramophone, trying to learn the chords."

"Mac Thomas who had a band which played at a lot of local dances came down to the club and taught me and Roger Clark and Mac's son to play a few easy tunes just to get used to chord changes."

"It was once I'd learnt a few tunes that I decided to try and get a skiffle group together. We called the original group the Gamblers. It had me and Alan Wilkes on guitars. We both used acoustic cello type guitars which we bought from the Band Box. We had Pat Evans on washboard and Pete Spooner on tea chest bass."

"We quite fancied ourselves especially when we played at the Boys Club dances on the Saturday night. We used to get a spot in the interval. The kids used to bop along to numbers like Wabash Cannonball, Worried Man Blues, Rock Island Line and Pick A Bale Of Cotton."

" We graduated to play at a few other gigs, including the George in Wulfruna Street where the regulars passed the hat round for us. We were still pretty raw and one of the group would have to hold a microphone near the instruments for us to be heard but at least we were getting gigs and getting a bit of money for our efforts."

Gamblers. One of the better of the local skiffle groups. They received an invitation from Frankie Vaughan to appear on his TV show. In the centre is Les Parker with Pete Spooner and Roger Clark to his left. All three were to continue to work with some of the area's best beat groups. (Les Parker)
"The Gamblers were regarded as the Central Club's own group so we got the opportunity to audition for a TV show with the patron of the Boys' Clubs. Frankie Vaughan. We had to go down to London for the audition. In the group at that time was Roger Clark who would join the Black Diamonds and the original Californians later on. We did pretty well in the audition doing a number called All The Monkeys Ain't In The Zoo but at the final audition I decided to do Endless Sleep and we missed out on doing an individual spot on TV. Roger Clark has never forgiven me for that."

"What I do particularly remember about going down to London for the audition was having to carry the tea chest bass on the Underground. We carried it as if it was a sedan chair. It had all the other instruments inside the tea chest bass. Soon after the auditions we bought better instruments and started to move away from skiffle."

Jake Elcock who played bass guitar with Finders Keepers and the Montanas can remember playing a tea chest bass:

"The first group I ever played with was a skiffle group. I played a large tea chest bass with that group. We entered a competition at a garden party or a fete or something like that and I think we won."

"There were loads of skiffle groups about at the time when I first started playing. I was still at school in Dudley and wanted to play in a proper rock group, rather than a skiffle group. I managed to get my wish a little while later."

Trevor Worrall recalls his first venture into popular music with three Wednesfield school friends:

"There was me, Mervyn Jeavons, Alan Martin and Trevor Pearson. We used to go round the social clubs in the area. One example was the Weldless Tube club in Bolton Road. We played about ten numbers in all. We had a tea chest bass, a washboard which Trevor played and I had a Spanish round hole guitar which I thought was the business."

"Trevor used to sing a few Pat Boone type things which the girls liked and as Trevor's sister could read music and play the piano we must have seemed quite professional."

"We used to buy all the Lonnie Donegan or Vipers stuff so I suppose you would have to call us a typical skiffle group of the time. It was not quite up to the standards of some of the other local skiffle groups but it was good enough for us. You know, I don't think we actually called ourselves anything at the time."

While none of the local skiffle groups achieved any national acclaim, in fact very few skiffle groups anywhere achieved much in the way of real commercial success, they did have their hard core of local support:

Black Diamonds. A picture of the original Black Diamonds as a skiffle group with Bryn Lansky. Derek Coppen. Peter Emerson. Malcolm Bradford and Keith Lansky. It was to be a very different line-up when they began to play beat music. (Les Parker)
"I was very keen on jazz in the mid 50s and skiffle seemed the better alternative to the jazz enthusiast, rather than rock 'n' roll. As a result I used to listen to skiffle records and the local skiffle groups which were around at the time. I remember hearing the Black Diamonds when they were a skiffle group. Derek Coppen was the leader of the group then."

"Derek Coppen became a bit of a local music personality. He was the original leader of the Black Diamonds. That was when it was a very good skiffle group. He did not stay with them when they started to play rock and beat music."

"Skiffle was such an enjoyable form of music because you all felt you could be involved and play one or other of the instruments."

"Most of the Youth Clubs around at that time had their own skiffle group. I went to Finchfield Youth Club and we had the original Black Diamonds. The group was made up of lads from the Grammar School if I remember rightly. They were pretty good."

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