You'd See His Hand Come Up Over The Piano And Take A Drink

As much as the local groups are remembered by Wolverhampton's generation of the 60s, so are many of the venues which existed during that decade and which in so many cases have disappeared or been transformed in such a way that they are hardly recognisable from their former glories. Was it truly possible to go out every night of the week and see at least one good group performing at a venue within a relatively short distance of the town centre? If that was the case, just where were those places?

When the rock 'n' roll groups developed out of the skiffle groups, most of them had 'home bases' at their local youth clubs or their schools. Such bases also provided the groups with a very partisan following which would often become very evident when 'opposing' groups visited the clubs or when local group competitions were held. As Dan Robinson (Danny Cannon) proves with this example:

"When we entered the Big Beat Contest at the Gaumont, we had a crowd of Ramrod fans who travelled over from Bilston and gave us superb support in each round, especially the Final. They must have put the fear of God into Steve Brett and the Mavericks when they came on."

"Because we were all from Etheridge School we had the advantages of being friends and having schoolmates and their girlfriends as supporters. There was a lot to be said for being such a close-knit bunch."

Roger Bromley describes how the original Atoms developed from their local Youth Club:

"We originated from the Youth Club at Goldthorn. There was me, Graham (Dane), Colin Cribb, Keith Taberner and another feller named Dave who lived in Bristol Street in Pennfields. We had previously had a skiffle group called the Black Cats."

Graham Gomery who became Dane Tempest, agrees with Roger about the foundation of the group:

"We developed out of the Black Cats skiffle group. We began at the Goldthorn Youth Club which was held at the Goldthorn Primary School. We got a twenty minute spot the one evening and that was that. We were determined on staying together and forming a proper group. Our first number was Ready Teddy, the old Little Richard song. We probably used to repeat our set over and over but the local club members didn’t seem to mind. We were their group and they were our fans."

Other groups who developed out of school friendships include the Vendors, the Strangers and the Memphis Cut-Outs. One of the original members of the Cut-Outs was Pete Bickley and he reinforces the importance of the school as a foundation stone for many groups:

"I knew Noddy and Phil Burnell from T.P. Riley School in Walsall and they were playing in a group called the Rockin' Phantoms. When they lost their bass player, I joined them and Noddy began teaching me the chord sequences etc. In that way we developed into the Memphis Cut-Outs."

Memphis Cut-Outs. Seen here proudly standing amongst their school peers. A young Noddy Holder striking a legalistic pose while Pete Bickley seems intent on landing his guitar on Noddy's head! (Pete Bickley)
"Our early bookings were usually at places like the Dudley Fields Youth Club in Bloxwich. We used to go down really well with the kids at that club. We would do the school dances as well, although the Redcaps who were a much better group would also do those dances. Still, it was all part of the learning process."

Playing to one's schoolmates or fellow youth club members would soon start to pall and it was not long before the early groups began to look around for new and bigger venues.

It was hoped that such venues would help improve their playing abilities and create a greater degree of professionalism, as well as widening their listening public. Few groups in those early years believed that they would become stars or be 'discovered' by record company executives but they did hope that they would get more regular work, even residencies at some venues. In that way the groups would earn more money which could be 'ploughed' back into group funds for new instruments, speakers, amplifiers, better transportation or stage clothes etc.

At the same time as groups were seeking new venues, many of those venues' managers, owners and promoters, aware of the growing competition from rival establishments, were anxious to find new, live entertainment to satisfy their customers. The popularity of rock 'n' roll music meant that groups who could re-produce those sounds were likely to be in demand. Not surprisingly, one of the first local groups to be approached by a promoter and to play regularly at one venue was the Tommy Burton & Ravemen/Combo. They started performing at Brierley Hill Town Hall on Saturdays. As Tommy himself describes:

"I was approached by a guy named Tommy Farnell who told me that he was promoting the dances at the Town Hall in Brierley Hill and he wanted to know if I would be interested in performing there, as soon as I was demobbed from the RA F."

"Once I was out of the RAF I got the original set of lads together and we started to play at the Town Hall on Tuesdays and Thursdays and for the Saturday Night Record Hop, as it was called. That was early in 1958. The kids were intent on hearing Rock 'n' Roll, so we supplied them with what they wanted. It was not long after that we started to do alternate Saturdays at Kidderminster Baths."

Municipal dances were a very common feature of life in most towns at the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s, but it was less common for civic authorities to accept rock 'n' roll music as part of the regular Saturday evening diet. Tommy Burton was fortunate to have met a promoter with foresight. It was Tom Farnell who also promoted St. Paul's Hall in Merridale Street West (now the Church Of God), the first regular Wolverhampton venue which Tommy Burton started to play with the Combo.

"It was always a good night at St. Paul’s. There had been dances there for some years but we were probably the first group to play rock music there. We got a lot of regular customers who came most weeks. The Combo enjoyed it there because of the enthusiasm of those customers."

St. Paul's taught Tommy Burton that there was more money to be made from promoting a venue than from merely playing at a venue. Also if he was responsible for the promotion then he could guarantee work for the Combo. It was not long after he started his regular sessions at St. Paul's for Tom Farnell therefore that he sought to 'open' other venues. He realised, as did others, that the larger public houses were promising venues, especially those which were near some of the larger housing estates which had been built during the 1950s. Most of those areas had very regular bus services (more customers were bus passengers than car drivers at that time) and had a large host community of young adults and teenagers.

His first venture into promotion at a public house was at the Three Tuns on Stafford Road, close to the Wobaston, Fordhouses and Rake Gate estates. It was on a main road and therefore offered an ideal situation. The venue did not prove too successful for the Combo because of the regular 'bother' which occurred between some of the customers. The Three Tuns was also the first regular venue for Steve Brett & The Mavericks, as Steve describes:

"We started, like so many other groups, playing at the local school. In our case, it was Northicote. Next, we played any of the Youth Clubs that would have us. We then progressed to the Three Tuns on Stafford Road. Our time there was organised for us by Bob Lightwood’s dad who was a local comedian. We stayed at the Tuns for some time."

"We enjoyed our time at the Three Tuns, although some nights it got a little hairy with some of the customers. Every Friday night we would pack up earlier because there was always going to be a barney between one particular husband and wife and we wanted to watch it."

"It was while we were at the Tuns that Bob got his Watkins Dominator amplifier and I plugged it in during a rehearsal session. It started to hum, I thought it was the microphone but when I grabbed the mic I got this almighty electric shock. Luckily the circuit blew. It was only a two pin socket but I was really lucky"

"We decided it was our final night at the Tuns when a brawl broke out which was just like something out of the Westerns. A table came hurtling across the room and landed just in front of us. We packed up our stuff and hightailed it out of the pub."

Tommy Burton led the way for many groups when he started to play at the Staffordshire Volunteer on Bushbury Estate. He got the agreement of the licensee, Jim Alexander, and began a regular Wednesday evening at the Vol", followed by Sunday lunch-times when he replaced the trio who had played there for some time. It was a successful venture:

"We played at the Volunteer on a Wednesday night and while it was quite rough at times, it was a good night and we started to get people in from all over the area. The Sunday lunch-times were even more successful. We used to have queues outside the pub with loads of fellers there. We had coaches from Liverpool and London coming for those sessions, no word of a lie."

The Staffordshire Volunteer became one of the principal venues for groups in the 60s. It was still featuring as a regular group venue at the end of the decade.

Most of the groups who played in the area during those years appeared numerous times at the Vol'.

As happened at the Three Tuns, one of the next groups to play regularly at the Volunteer was Steve Brett & The Mavericks:

Tommy Burton Combo. Tommy's men belt it out at the Staffordshire Volunteer, one of the best of the early rock venues in the area. (Tommy Burton)

"Soon after we left the Three Tuns, we started regular Friday and Monday nights at the Royal Oak on Blackhalve Lane, near the Scotlands. Once again we stayed there for some time until one very foggy Friday night when we struggled over the hill from Bushbury to the pub to be told by the licensee that there was no point in us turning up because no-one would come. In fact, about 100 regulars from around the immediate area turned up. He was none too pleased because he had to pay us. We decided that we needed to find a venue where we would be more welcome, and the Vol', being in Bushbury was like a local for some of us.”

"We called in to the Vol' on the way home that night and got things settled. We would do the Fridays and Mondays there instead of at the Royal Oak. The feller running the dances was keen because we were popular in the area and it meant that he was taking a group off one of his rivals, even if it was over the other side of Bushbury Hill. It was fast becoming a cut throat business.”

"We did those two nights at the Vol' for a long time and we never regretted it. We used to share the takings with the feller on the door who was also the bouncer as well as the feller who organised the dances. It was always in the back room which they used to rent out.”

"The atmosphere at the Vol' was superb. It was always packed, there was seldom any trouble and if there was, the bouncer would sort it out right away. We used to do the usual pop stuff of the time, Cliff, Eden Kane, Ricky Nelson and so on. It went down really well.”

"When I started doing more C&W stuff later with the second set of Mavericks, a feller came up to me at the Vol' and told me that he didn't like it anywhere near as much as the old stuff. The general consensus seemed to be that it was OK. We still got as many people through the doors at the Staffordshire Volunteer as we had had before.”

When the Strollers broke up, Tony Perry began promoting venues for himself. One of his first ventures was at the Staffordshire Volunteer:

"I took the Volunteer over from a feller called Les Price. He had run it for some time and it had been pretty successful. I had played there with the Strollers and had seen Tommy Burton there many times on a Sunday lunchtime when it was absolutely packed.”

"When I first started at the Vol' I began to take my Dansette record player with me and stacking the Top Ten on the player in reverse order and playing them during the interval through the group’s speakers. Those old record players were incredible because of the number of 45s they could carry.”

"It was at the Volunteer that I first met David Banks who became my doorman at the Vol’ and later at the Lafayette. While he was not that popular with the licensee’s wife at the Vol', he was worth having around just to sort out any problems. He was an excellent doorman.”

When John O'Hara joined the Strangers, he started to play at those venues where the group had been playing for some time, including the Staffordshire Volunteer:

"I knew the Vol' and many of its customers really well because I came from Guy Avenue. It was always useful to be a local lad. The Strangers were a Dudley group but they were really popular at the Vol' because of the sound they made. The Staffordshire Volunteer's crowd always went for a group who could really lay it down. In those early days they loved the old rocking stuff and we were good at it."

While the Volunteer was 'just another venue' to many of the local groups, it had quite a reputation for groups who came from rural areas. One example was the Black Velvets who originated from around Bridgnorth. Their lead singer was Selwyn Bowen:

"We were used to relatively small village halls and quite small audiences. When we got a booking at the Staffordshire Volunteer we felt a little intimidated because of the number of people who turned up.”

"We loved it actually because the audience was very receptive. We felt that if we were good enough to play venues like the Volunteer then we had truly arrived, at least locally.”

Black Velvets. A Staffordshire group who managed to 'invade' the town and do well at venues like the 'Vol'. (Selwyn Bowen)
The Staffordshire Volunteer was to continue as a regular venue throughout the decade. In the early 60s it was Tommy Burton's Combo, the Strollers, Tremors or Crossfires playing there and at the end of the decade it was Greenwich Village, News, Penthouse Suite or Moods Of Midas. Tastes in music might have altered a number of times during the decade but the venue continued trying to meet the changing requirements of its customers.

Other public houses around the area also became synonymous with live groups and became places to which many young people were drawn by the sounds of those groups. The three most outstanding examples were the Three Men In A Boat on the Beechdale Estate in Walsall, the Cleveland Arms on Willenhall Road and the Ship And Rainbow on Dudley Road. Once again, there were very few successful groups from around the West Midlands who did not feature at some time at all three venues during the decade. If we now consider each of them in turn: Tommy Burton started playing at the Boat as it became affectionately known, every Thursday evening:

"It was another of those very popular venues. It was not the greatest pub in the world but the customers were excellent. They always gave the groups all the support they could. You got a good audience who had come out for an enjoyable evening dancing and just having Jim. It was great!"

The Strollers played quite regularly at the Boat as George Maddocks tells us:

"In those early days for the groups there were a number of venues which had some standing or prestige with both the local groups and with local customers. The Three Men In A Boat was one of those venues. To play at the Boat was regarded as a feather in the cap for the group. It showed that you were seen as one of the main groups playing at the time."

Tommy Burton Combo. The very distinctive back-drop of the Three Men In A Boat. A night at the Boat was something else! (Tommy Burton)

"When I look at a place like the Boat now I wonder what it was that it had in those days. It was something which you could never put your finger on but it was something special."

Pete Bickley originated from the Walsall area so the Boat was one of the venues most familiar to him, as he says:

"The in-place in Walsall at that time was definitely the Three Men In A Boat. It had started with groups like the Jackpots or Tommy Burton but they set a pattern which all the other groups followed. To play at the Boat was one of the main ambitions of the young Walsall groups when they first started out. So it was with the Cut-Outs. It was the venue which was closest to Noddy’s house and so it was something of a local for us and most of our mates from school."

"The Boat may not have been in the best part of the town but you could always be sure of a full house and an enthusiastic crowd. It was quite rough in many ways but there was seldom any trouble when the groups played there."

"When the groups stopped playing at the Boat, it seemed to go down a bit because there was nothing to really take the place of the groups. My dad used to take the money on the door of the Boat on Sunday lunch-times. Once again, it was always full."

Rockin' Phantoms. Once again the back-drop gives away the venue. A young group of lads who were soon to become the Memphis Cut-Outs and later still join Steve Brett. Notice the very young Noddy Holder to the left. (Pete Bickley)

The Boat continued to present groups throughout the 60s starting with regulars like the Jackpots, Black Diamonds and Brian Gulliver & The Travellers, including the 'N Betweens, Finders Keepers and Staffords and closing the decade with the Sprites playing the regular bar and some of the other, 'bigger' groups like the Californians and Montanas returning in 1969 to play in the new Caribbean Lounge.

It was in the Boat that John O'Hara was first introduced to the Black Diamonds (soon to become the Californians):

"Roger Allen told me he had a group which was looking for a lead singer and he took me down to the Boat where the Black Diamonds were rehearsing. It was about the time that the Beach Boys had Sloop John B out and I was pretty keen on the surfing sound. They heard me sing My Girl and seemed to like it. We decided to give it a go and it sounded great. Roger decided that we went together well and so we became the new group of fellers who formed the Californians. The Boat therefore has some happy memories for me."

"It was never the easiest place to perform though because the customers were demanding and would make it very clear if they didn't rate you too highly. We used to do well there"

Jimmy Lea remembers the Boat as the first place where the group which was destined to become Ambrose Slade/ Slade performed together:

"The day that Dave, Don and Noddy came over to my house and asked me to join the new group was an exciting day for me. We went straight fiom Codsall over to the Three Men In A Boat and performed together. It was just round from Noddy s house. That first session definitely gelled together from the very first beat. It was great!"

There were some nights when the customers at the Boat would get a little too over-excited and could prove a decidedly difficult handful to control. Alan Clee recalls one such evening:

"We used to play the Boat quite often, as did most of the better groups from the area. We used to go down really well, especially Dripper. Anyway, the one night some fellers thought that he was going down a little too well with the girls and took real exception to this. When the rest of us went out to the toilet at the end of the evening, the blokes decided to show their feelings. When we came back we found Dripper hanging from one of the pegs from a wooden coat hanger. They hadn't done him any real harm, just decided to teach him a lesson. Places like the Boat could be like time-bombs however, just waiting to go off.”

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