The wonderful ‘Story of Ready Steady Go!’ on BBC4, was followed a week later by Rock and Roll Island: Where Legends Were Born. This was Eel Pie Island, ‘off the coast of Twickenham’, in West London.
The programme began with trad jazz and a well known trumpeter and band leader of the late 50s, early 60s, Ken Colyer.
I have to say in the crowd I hung out with, it wasn’t cool to like trad jazz, but who knew what Ken Colyer did? He joined the merchant navy so he could get to the home of trad jazz – New Orleans – arrived, met a lot of the black blues musicians, played with them and invited them to the UK.
Here they became very popular –
and then, ironically, their music went back to the States and became popular there.
In the second wave playing on Eel Pie Island were the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds,
the Who, the Kinks (Mick Avory said, ‘It was better to be a drummer than delivering pink paraffin’),
Rod Stuart and Long John Baldry,
even Elton John was there, as Reg Dwight, a member of Bluesology.
Knitting them together was Alexis Korner, who played piano and guitar, and who is often seen as the godfather of the blues in this country.
He had started playing in Chris Barber’s jazz band in 1949, and then played with Ken Colyer. The list of those who went on to play with him is long and luminous and includes Long John Baldry, Ginger Baker, and Graham Bond. He was also generous with support and advice. It is said he suggested to the Stones that they should play more blues and this was the reason for their version of the classic Little Red Rooster.
Apart from Cleo Sylvestre, who sang with the Stones, not a lot of women performers were included in the programme. Perhaps the lack of women was a sign of the times, perhaps it was because not a lot of women were playing blues or rock, or those that were didn’t head over to Eel Pie Island. Or maybe they did, but no-one took their photo. Whatever the reason, for me the story of Eel Pie Island starts to take off with a picture of the little-known (to me, anyway) girl group from South Africa who played there. The Velvettes came over to England in 1961 as members of the all black cast of the hugely successful jazz musical King Kong – in itself a fascinating story about the life of the heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, which played all over South Africa with Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba.
The Velvettes then became backing singers in the Cyril Davies All Stars. Cyril Davies was an English vocalist and harmonica player who looked like a bank manager, and who played with Alexis Korner, before setting up the All Stars.
Another view of the way that Eel Pie Island worked was shown in a Look at Life film made in 1967, when the promoter Arthur Chisnall, who ran the club, as a private members’ establishment so that he could sell alcohol, acted as a kind of social worker with the people who came to hear the music. As well as art school and college students, other people came. People who’d left school at 15, had possibly failed the 11+, or who had drifted through jobs, were encouraged to study (several went on to Cambridge) and then began to do challenging and satisfying jobs, in the way that was possible in the 60s, including running Adventure Playgrounds. A different world.
Take a look at life again soon.