An Elvis Guitar From Woolworth's. Continued

"The YMCA on Penn Road was one place you could go in those days and hear local skiffle groups play. It was quite a competitive thing with each of the groups trying to come up with a new American folk song or something which no-one had heard before."

"Lonnie Donegan had a style of his own that's certainly true. I used to buy all of his records. I've still got original versions of things like Cumberland Gap, Puttin' On The Style. Battle Of New Orleans etc. Most of the local skiffle groups would make attempts at such numbers. I remember the Black Diamonds doing Rock Island Line. It was somewhere like the Milk Bar in Market Street where I think I first heard them. It's the Flaming Turk now."

"Skiffle was the intellectual's rock 'n' roll, or at least that's what we used to think at the time. If you liked skiffle it meant that you also liked jazz, blues and folk. You were some kind of beatnik. The Milano Coffee Bar in Darlington Street was the main place to go if you fancied yourself as a beatnik."

"There was one skiffle group around at the time called the Gamblers. They came from the Central Boys' Club. If I remember right they used to wear a big G on their jerseys or their shirts. It was a bit like the American high school style."

"The thing I liked most about skiffle music was the way you felt that you could have a go yourself. It was quite possible to make one of those tea chest basses or play a washboard, as long as you had a thimble to wear on your fingers."

"I remember spending some time during one of the school holidays making a skiffle tea chest bass. All you needed to do was take a piece of strong string, put a hole in the lid of the tea chest and tie the string through the hole with a knot on the end and run it tightly over the broom which formed the handle of the bass. It gave you one string which you could strum away to your heart's content. It only gave you one note but that was one more than you had before. We thought it was great, especially as one of my mates also got hold of an old drum."

"I lived on Warstones Estate and in the 50s there were loads of kids of my age around and one holiday we began a skiffle group. I must have been about 12 or so. Anyway by the end of the holidays we had a set of instruments made from every spare biscuit tin, tea chest, washboard, comb etc. we must have made the most ungodly racket. Still, it was real fun."

"Barrington's, the tea merchants, had a big place in Wulfruna Street and one of our neighbours on Underhill Estate worked there. I remember going around to his house and asking very coyly for a tea chest. I was about 12 at the time. He brought one back and brought it around to our house while I was out. My mom thought he'd made a mistake and sent him away. Anyway, I got that tea chest and made a bass with it, not a very good one however."

While 1956 was important for many British teenagers in terms of them first considering making their own popular music via skiffle groups, it was globally important because it also saw the emergence of Elvis Presley as the 'spokesperson' of his age. As Marlon Brando and James Dean were the celluloid anti-heroes symbolising an age, so Elvis Aaron Presley was the symbol on record. There is little doubt that Bill Haley and other rockers, Lonnie Donegan and other skifflers, were very influential but their influence pales into virtual insignificance when compared to the effects which Elvis had on a whole generation.

During that first year of recording, Elvis had six records in the British charts, selling something in the region of ten million records world-wide and starring in his first feature film, Love Me Tender. For many young Wulfrunians, like virtually the whole teenage population of the Western World, the arrival of Elvis confirmed their love of Rock 'n' Roll and provided them, both male and female, with a performer who was a member of their own generation and therefore someone with whom they could readily identify:

"Elvis was what most of us had been waiting for. He was young, good looking and performed in a manner which we all loved and which most of the older generation loathed."

"Elvis' records were not necessarily that much better than those of other rock singers but he was just the sort of image that we all wanted. He was not middle aged like Bill Haley, he was young and full of life."

"No-one who was a teenager in the late 50 s could escape from Elvis. I do not honestly believe that any British teenager was not influenced in some way by him. His hair style, his clothes, his walk, his look, his voice, we all had something with which we associated."

"I remember the first time I heard Heartbreak Hotel. It was the echo effect, it was so haunting. It stopped me in my tracks. From that moment on I was hooked on Elvis. I still am."

"I first heard Elvis on AFN. My father used to play the station because he liked the jazz music which it played. He called me into the front room and told me to listen to the voice on the wireless. I bet I was one of the only teenagers to be introduced to the voice of Elvis by a parent."

"We used to listen to every Presley record that came out and try to learn every word and every inflection in the voice. We would then sit around and try to sneer with our upper lip, just like Elvis."

"I would spend ages in front of the dressing table mirror trying to look like Elvis. I would comb my hair over and over again just to get it to fall over my forehead like Elvis."

"My first wife was an absolute Elvis fanatic. We went to see Love Me Tender at the Odeon or maybe it was the Gaumont and I remember her crying her eyes out because he died at the end of the film."

"Every Elvis single I would try and buy on the day of release if possible. I even had each one ordered at the Voltic in the Queen's Arcade so that I was certain of getting it as soon as possible."

"There could not have been many people dafter than me. I probably bought about thirty records, including all of the first HMV releases by Elvis, before we actually had a record player at home."

"My father smashed two Elvis records. He smashed Hound Dog and he smashed Blue Suede Shoes. It s a pity because they might have been worth a bob or two nowadays. I started buying other Elvis records secretly and keeping them around my mate Dave's because his parents were a bit more tolerant."

"Elvis was one of those performers, possibly the first, who used to split the population down the middle. You were either madly in favour or madly against. I was a member of the first group but my sister was a member of the second."

"I can remember sitting on our front garden wall late at night and chanting Elvis while another group of kids across the road were chanting for Tommy Steele. That was probably in early 1957 I suppose. We lived on Underhill Estate and one of the neighbours came out and chased us off down the street because we were keeping him awake. My dad was not amused when he got to know about it the next day."

"Of all the artists ever, and that includes the Beatles, I don't think anyone has had more influence on a generation than Elvis. We started to dress like him, to walk like him and look like him. He was the first to really have merchandise attached to his name and have thousands of kids buying anything if it was labelled 'Elvis '."

"My first guitar was an Elvis guitar from Woolworth's. I don't know how much it cost and it wasn't very good but it was the name on the side of it which I wanted. 1 would stand in front of the mirror and pretend to be him. I may not have a guitar anymore but I still stand in front of a mirror and try to be him when I play one of his records."

Elvis Guitar. It would take more than an Elvis guitar from Woollies to make a star out of most anybody!

"I know that a fair number of his later films were useless but those early films like Jailhouse Rock were excellent. I can remember queuing outside the Queen's Picture House to see Jailhouse Rock one Saturday afternoon. There were hundreds there."

"I continued to go and see many of his later films just to get a sight of Elvis. We all knew he would never come to this country, let alone the Midlands. He was definitely the King of his generation."

"Most of the local groups in the late 50s and the early 60s would do at least one Elvis number. It became almost mandatory to do so. The kids expected it from the group, in the same way as later they would expect a Beatles number."

Virtually everyone of the former group members who provided material for this book mentioned something about Elvis and his influence on them as performers and as members of that particular younger generation. Here are just a few of those quotes (they are not ascribed to individuals):

"He was the main musical influence on me because it was his style, especially in delivering a slow number, which I copied. I used to try and stand like him as well when I was singing a love song. I used to use Billy Fury as another model."

"To hear a white feller sing a song with the soul sound of a black artist was amazing. If you compared his rendition of a song like Tutti Frutti with that of Pat Boone, it was like listening to different generations of singers. Hound Dog was more like Little Richard than a white artist. It encouraged us to try a whole different range of material."

"I always considered Elvis much more of a C&W or Rockabilly artist than a rocker but his greatest effect on me was to make me realise that it was possible to sing almost anything and make it acceptable to young people if the presentation was right."

"Elvis often sold a number by his movements. He almost moved every word as well as singing it. Young singers watching him realised that there was always more to a song and its performance than merely standing there and singing the right tune and words. You had to give every number your all."

"Elvis was not the only rock 'n' roll singer I tried to copy but he was the one who probably had the most effect on me. The others who were particularly influential on me were Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane, both of whom I was privileged to see on their fateful tour in 1960. It was in Bristol. I think Gene Vincent played the Gaumont on his own the month after the accident which killed Eddie Cochrane."

"Elvis released so many interesting songs in those first couple of years. Some of them became fairly permanent parts of our repertoire, including You're Right, I'm Left, She's Gone and Blue Moon Of Kentucky."

"In the same way as you would listen to every Beatles record very closely in the mid 60s, so you listened to every word and mode of expression by Elvis and tried to sound a little like him. The only trouble was the kids expected a near perfect presentation which was not always possible."

"Whenever I went to listen to some of the early groups in the area, there was invariably an Elvis sound-alike at the front. Very few of them could be considered as look-alikes."

While it was only possible to see Elvis on film or in a rare TV performance, there were some opportunities to see some of the 'greats' of Rock 'n' Roll 'live' at the Gaumont cinema, as part of the increasing number of package shows which began to visit the town in the late 50s and early 60s. Some of the recollections of Wulfrunians include the following:

"The ultimate experience for me was to be at the Gaumont the night that Bill Haley and the Comets played there in 1957. I'd got all the records and there at last was the great man and his group in front of me. I was not disappointed."

"There was no real trouble the night that Bill Haley came to the town. A few kids got up and started to dance in the aisles but the majority just wanted to listen to the music from the man who we regarded as the godfather of rock. There has never been a better sound than Rudy Pompilli's sax and I do not believe there ever will be in popular music."

"I was at the Gaumont when Buddy Holly and the Crickets played there. It was in early 1958 and it was one concert which I really looked forward to since I had bought all of his early records, in fact That'll Be The Day was my very first record. I bought it from the Voltic for 6s 7d (33p). His performance was great."

"I sat upstairs in the circle for the Buddy Holly concert. I think the ticket cost something like five shillings (25p), maybe a little bit more. It was in February or March 1958 which could only have been a matter of weeks after he first made the charts."

"That performance by Buddy Holly at the Gaumont determined me and a couple of mates that we must start a group to recapture that sound. We did start a group but we never achieved anything like the Crickets. I even saw him in Birmingham as well."

"We were very lucky in Wolverhampton in those days because the Gaumont started to have quite a regular series of concerts which continued into the 60s. My first concert was the one that Buddy Holly and the Crickets played there in early 1958. He was very special, or at least that's what most of us felt at the time. His sound was so distinctive."

"I went to see Gene Vincent for the first time at the Gaumont. It was the tour on which Eddie Cochrane died. That was one of the biggest losses to rock music. Gene was an exceptional performer. His style of delivery was most distinctive. He almost made love to the microphone and used to look upwards all the time he sang."

"Gene Vincent was a very talented performer. He played at the Gaumont in May 1960, a month after Eddie Cochrane died. It was a very sad concert but Gene did his best. I think a young British singer named Lance Fortune was on the same bill. He had one hit I think. I must have seen Gene Vincent about half a dozen times after that. He played the Plaza in Old Hill, the Danilo in Cannock and the Civic Hall if I remember right."

"I saw Little Richard at the Gaumont but that was after the real Rock 'n' Roll period because he was on the same bill as the Rolling Stones, although the Everly Brothers were the top of the bill. Little Richard was only on for a short time but he was the main reason I went to that concert because he was always my favourite. Another great influence on the whole scene was on that bill as well, that was Bo Diddley."

"It was not just the Rock 'n' Roll concerts which used to draw the crowds, it was also the number of films which were made in those days which starred our heroes. I saw films like Rock Around The Clock, Don't Knock The Rock, Disc Jockey Jamboree and The Girl Can't Help It at cinemas like the Gaumont, the Odeon in Skinner Street, the Clifton in Bilston Street and the Dunstall which was down the Stafford Road. I remember quite a few fellers dancing in the aisles when Rock Around The Clock was shown. I think there was talk of banning the film by the Watch Committee because of the dancing and the apparent slashing of seats."

By the end of the decade and the dawn of the 60s the wildest days of Rock 'n' Roll were over. Elvis had returned from his service with Uncle Sam, apparently reformed and ready for the multi-millions awaiting him in Hollywood; Jerry Lee Lewis was in disgrace after his marriage to his 14 year-old cousin; Chuck Berry was in gaol; Little Richard had taken holy orders; both Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrane had died in accidents. To many of Britain's young people, including those in Wolverhampton and the surrounding areas, it seemed exactly as Don McLean sang in 1972 about the death of Buddy Holly, it truly was "the day the music died".

The young Wulfrunians and those from other neighbouring areas who had formed rock 'n' roll groups during the last years of the decade had to now make conscious career decisions about where they were going 'with their lives' or which musical direction to take. Some had seen the writing on the wall and were already changing their style and moving towards ballads or what would become known as 'middle of the road' music. Others were hanging up their new Fender Stratocasters or Gretsch electric guitars and getting out of the 'business' and settling down behind office desks, finishing apprenticeships at one or other of the mass of local industrial firms or taking trips down church aisles. Others decided to stick to their guns and continue with the group while still completing the apprenticeship or getting married etc. and still playing the music which most appealed to them, be it Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard or whoever. And of course, there was also Cliff and the Shadows!

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