Portsmouth Music Scene
This paper draws on a project called “Pompey Pop” that in one sense I have been involved in for around fifty years and in a more specific and structured way for the past two years. The on-going project set out initially to document popular music in and around the city of Portsmouth, from the end of the war in 1945 to 1969. This detail can be found in a number of publications and websites – especially www.pompeypop.co.uk/. In this paper I will draw on that information, identifying some broader ideas about that scene, popular music in general1 and about methodological issues that have arisen in the process.
Southsea, is at the southern end of Portsea Island, including the city’s four miles of seafront. It was forbidden territory in the summer of 1944 as a key site in the D Day embarkations but at the war’s end, those miles of esplanade, parks and beaches seemed a vital element in Portsmouth’s future prosperity and recovery from severe bomb damage:
The citizens of Portsmouth had always been aware of the economic problems brought by relying on the dockyard, with its economic expansions and post war contractions. Ways were sought to broaden the economic base. One was by promoting Southsea as a seaside resort2
This future included entertainment on the council-owned South Parade Pier and other locations, although in addition to holidaying families enjoying their trips to the seaside, Portsmouth & Southsea could offer relatively cheap, popular live entertainment throughout the year to city residents and to servicemen, often far from home.
Directly opposite South Parade Pier and esplanade stood the Savoy Buildings including smaller bars, shops and a large ballroom with two stages. During the war it was a hostel and café for Royal Marines and Royal and Merchant seamen. The holiday camp entrepreneur Billy Butlin purchased it in January 1946, and it reopened on 1 August 1947 with Nat Gonella and his Georgians, Tito Burns’ Accordion Club and Ray Ellington. For the next two decades it was a key local venue for live music, dancing and romancing – plus a fair amount of drinking and the occasional fight.
On VE Day 1945 there were street parties around the city and over 1,000 people pressed into the surviving Empress ballroom to celebrate. That was a Tuesday and on the following weekend, Billy Tennant and his Band entertained dancers on the South Parade Pier. One week later, Eric Winstone’s Full Orchestra appeared there. A pattern of live entertainment was set – Winstone and Tennant were leading British acts of the war years, while local musicians played support or worked in the smaller venues. Elsewhere there were two ‘Co-op’ halls (one is now the Wedgewood Rooms) as well as three theatres (the Theatre Royal, King’s and Empire) and they catered frequently for the young adults who had survived the terrors of the war.
In the summer of 1949, Yorkshireman Tom Peaker took a summer season job as a musician in Southsea. Tom had a good voice and was proficient on violin and saxophone. When the summer ended, he saw good prospects in the city’s three theatre orchestras and future summer seasons, and moved his family south to settle in Southsea. He became one of many local professional musicians – all required to be members of the Musicians Union - who could find a relatively anonymous living through regular live performances in the city’s orchestras and dance bands during the 1940s and 1950s, although that living began to decline thereafter for a variety of reasons including the preference of 1950s teenagers for guitar-based rock & roll and skiffle. During the 1960s, Tom moved on to the bands on the great Southamptonbased transatlantic liners and like many local musicians supplemented his income with part-time work.
Nonetheless one key point of this project is that these older musicians and styles did not suddenly disappear. In the mid-1950s he had played in the Combined Theatres Orchestra at the seafront’s Savoy Ballroom on an evening featuring around a dozen dance bands, orchestras and jazz groups. On that same evening Terry Flynn played vibraphone and piano with the Club Quintet and Terry is still playing in cabaret and Portsmouth’s big band in 2011. On the same bill was drummer Arthur Ward who had played with Portsmouth’s Johnny Lyne Band in 1953 when they won the Melody Maker’s national competition in Manchester. By the early 1960s, Arthur was in weekly residence at another seafront venue, Clarence Pier, adjacent to the funfair and close to the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour. Here on Saturday nights, Arthur’s dance band would share the bill with the new beat groups including Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, Dave Dee & the Bostons and Rod Stewart & the Soul Agents. During the 1960s, Arthur employed two singers who had come from local beat groups, Mike Devon, who with the Diplomats supported the Beatles at the Savoy Ballroom in April 1963, and Mick Reeve who as a member of local beat group the Talismen won a major national competition in 1963 with a feature in the national weekly Record Mirror. Through the ‘swinging sixties’ across Portsmouth and Southsea, local musicians crossed over, venues shifted from tradition to innovation and back again and bills were often shared. Live music in Portsmouth in that period encompassed local, national and international, professional and semi professional dance bands, ‘traditional’ and modern jazz, folk music, skiffle, rock & roll, vocalists, pop, comedy, beat, rhythm & blues and rock acts.
Portsmouth “has the highest population density of any unitary/ local authority outside London”3 and is Britain’s only island city. In the 1960s, it was predominantly working class because its major industry was the dockyard and navy. Until the end of the 1960s, all the Dockyard technical workers were men but many women were employed in the prolific local corset trade, which had emerged from traditional sail making. Even today when it is in the national news, the topics are normally about the navy, dockyard, defence - or perhaps football. Portsmouth’s levels of health and educational achievement continue to be below the regional and national average4 and it has today the highest levels of alcohol-related illness in the south east5, despite a significant decline in the number of public houses in the city since the 1950s6.
Portsmouth has a tradition of live entertainment – mostly of a popular variety and reaching back centuries7. The large population in this small, clearly defined urban environment provided a regular local audience in the 1950s and 1960s, when every major British and most major American acts visited the city in addition to the many local performers. Our project lists about 170 local pop/beat/rock groups active from the late 1950s to the end of the 1960s with around 1,000 musicians – aside from those who played in dance bands, theatre orchestras, the folk scene or the traditional and modern jazz bands. Of those groups, only two gained significant national success, Manfred Mann who included local musicians and played regularly in the city’s clubs and pubs prior to their hit records and Simon Dupree & the Big Sound – an entirely local group who enjoyed one Top Ten hit in 1968 (“Kites”) and became ‘prog rock’ group Gentle Giant in 1970.
A few other local acts flirted with national success, and a few local musicians of the period went on to work with bigger acts, but no major claims can or will be made for the impact of Portsmouth’s popular music beyond the island and surrounding region. Indeed Portsmouth may be of interest because it appears unremarkable, although we are interested in the particular features of its music scene and how these resemble and differ from other places. To date, our primary task has been accurate documentation but ultimately we hope to produce accounts that are faithful to the ‘case’, yet may be read by ‘outsiders’, familiar with the broader subjects and issues and able to make other connections or draw other illuminating conclusions. In this paper I will identify some of those possible topics.
The first, already mentioned, is to refute the idea that with rock & roll, the transformation of music and fashions in Britain was so all encompassing that the old order was simply swept away. More broadly, the project rejects any incremental account of popular music, which might suggest that each new fashion simply replaces the previous one. As I have suggested, this was certainly not the case in Portsmouth. Even by New Year’s Eve 1969, as the ‘swinging sixties’ came to an end and popular local rock bands were playing at the new Tricorn Club and downstairs at Kimbells Ballroom things were more traditional elsewhere. Upstairs at Kimbells there was a formal dance just as there might have been in the 1940s, and it was much the same at Dorothy Whitbread’s Dancing School in the city centre. The Oasis Club which had featured local and national rock bands in the late 1960s, offered a quartet and insisted “collar and tie essential”, Hayling Island’s Sinah Warren Holiday Camp had a ball and buffet while Ron Bennett, his band and pianist Bill Cole who had also appeared at the Savoy in the mid-1950s, were entertaining the diners (and dancers) at Southsea’s Queen’s Hotel. The Broadsiders sang in the 1970s at the Jug of Punch Folk Club, while ‘original’ British guitarist Bert Weedon starred in the pantomime Aladdin at the King’s Theatrei.
Perhaps this, plus its unremarkable contribution to the national scene, suggests Portsmouth was lagging behind comparable British towns and cities. The evidence suggests otherwise. Most of the leading British dance and jazz bands (Ted Heath, Joe Loss, John Dankworth etc) visited the city regularly after the war, and from the point when the bombed Guildhall was restored and re-opened by HM the Queen in the summer of 1959, it became a concert venue for most leading popular music acts
including Louis Armstrong, BB King, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Gracie Fields, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Haley, Jimi Hendrix, Woody Herman, the 1965 Motown Revue, Muddy Waters, Pink Floyd, Buddy Rich, Cliff Richard & the Shadows, and the Rolling Stones. The folk revival led to the establishment of a number of local clubs and concerts offering Martin Carthy, Carolyn Hester, Bert Jansch, Ewan McColl, Ralph McTell, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte Marie, Paul Simon, Doc Watson and Josh White. Building on the local popularity of Manfred Mann, the new British rhythm & blues scene arrived at Kimbells Ballroom in January 1964 with a regular venue which became the Birdcage Club and over the next four years, presenting acts like Graham Bond, Cream, the Drifters, Ben E King, Alexis Korner, John Mayall, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, the Small Faces, Ike & Tina Turner, the Who and the Yardbirds as well as cult mod acts like the Action, Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, Chris Farlowe and Jimmy James & the Vagabonds. Towards the end of the decade new acts like Country Joe & the Fish, Cream, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, the Mothers of Invention and Traffic visited, while throughout the decade leading ‘pop’ artists from Billy Fury through the Merseybeat groups, to Cilla Black, Donovan, the Hollies, Tom Jones, the Kinks, Dusty Springfield and the Walker Brothers also appeared in the city.
During the 1960s, the clubs and ballrooms, with capacities of a few hundred (and not all licensed) and the Guildhall with a concert venue holding 2,000 – and often two houses per night - were sufficient to attract most significant artists. Most of these were intimate venues with fans within touching distance of the musicians, giving a particular ‘feel’ to the live gig. Only the Guildhall differed, but this seated concert hall was still much smaller than most that attract major acts today. In addition, the smaller youth clubs, church halls, pubs and schools gave a start to the hundreds of aspiring locals and as they improved would get support spots to the major acts in venues like the Savoy Ballroom. This could not have happened without a significant audience for such a range of live entertainment, catered for by the proliferation of local boutiques, coffee bars and venues in an increasingly ‘swinging’ city.
This point leads us to contest a second popular view, particularly prevalent in wellknown work on the period by Sandbrook and others - that the ‘swinging sixties’ was limited geographically to certain parts of the country, in particular certain ‘groovy’ areas of London. This ignores the thriving live music scene in cities like Portsmouth and the link between this scene and other fashions and behaviours, particularly among young people.
Sandbrook reasonably seeks to “avoid the predictable and tiresome ritual of either romanticising or demonising the sixties” and suggests that
Almost all these accounts concentrate overwhelmingly on the activities of a relatively small well-educated minority, usually people who were in their teens or twenties at the time and went on to become well-paid writers, journalists, publishers and so on.8
But instead of suggesting that the mistake here is the narrow focus, he uses the point to note the ordinariness of most other people’s lives, stressing instead the popularity of gardening, D-I-Y and other domestic pursuits. He seeks to align the ‘swinging’ sixties with a particular class, yet in its own predominantly working-class, not
particularly well-educated, youthful way, Portsmouth, 70 miles from London, was certainly offering interesting experiences for young people in the sixties and it seems to us a tale worth telling. In an attempt to emphasise the ordinariness of most young people’s lives Sandbrook quotes historian John Benson’s observation that
The great majority of young people spent more time in their bedrooms or at a church youth club than they did at rock festivals or on the football terraces9
This may be statistically accurate but it proves nothing. There were very few festivals in Britain in the 1960s – perhaps only one major event each year, beginning with the Beaulieu Jazz Festivals in the 1950s, followed by the Marquee Club’s Jazz & Blues Festivals at Richmond, Windsor, Richmond (and now Reading) and on to the first Isle of Wight Festival in 1968. I attended Festivals every year from 1967 (Windsor) but certainly spent more time in youth clubs and in my bedroom. And what did I (we) do there? In the bedroom we practised playing instruments, listened to Radio Luxembourg and pirate radio, checked out wardrobes, rehearsed dance moves and learned about sex – we had privacy in often small, overcrowded homes. We took some of those things to the youth clubs and shared them with other young people, trying to look ‘cool’, bringing our preferred records, dancing to the most promising local groups and – given that most Portsmouth schools were single sex – learned to mix, boys and girls. As for football, I supported Pompey through the 1960s but in a home season attending every match would amount to seeing less than forty hours of play – of course we spent more time elsewhere - the question is how we spent it.
A third issue of interest for this project is that despite my claims for a lively scene in Portsmouth in this period, very few local historians have shown much interest in what occurred. There is a fairly significant history/nostalgia industry around British cities, counties and towns and Portsmouth is no exception, yet the many histories published about Portsmouth, even those that claim to cover entertainment and leisure, have said hardly anything about popular music and young people in that period. The main exceptions to that are personal reminiscences and oral history projects by organisations like the City Museum and the WEA10. The prevalent explanation in Portsmouth is that many otherwise impressive histories have been over dependent on archival material (often official documents) and major photo libraries neither of which has much about teenagers, popular music or associated topics. These are more complicated to collect, especially in retrospect, but our project is seeking to address that deficit and add to the information on social history – and to do so while the majority of participants (and their materials) are still alive. It is quite probable that Sandbrook’s misrepresentation of the lives of ordinary, provincial young people is similarly a consequence of an over reliance on historical archives.
Archives and contemporary artefacts are important of course, not least in avoiding ‘false memories’ or romanticism and fortunately records about Portsmouth are there in documentary broadcasts11, newspapers, and diaries and through the cross checking (’triangulation’) of individual memories. One example illustrates the value of this process. On 30 March 1963 the Beatles appeared in the city for the first time, on the penultimate night of a tour with Americans Chris Montez and Tommy Roe. Miles records how on the opening night three weeks earlier, the Beatles had “wiped the
floor”12 with the two stars and took over top billing. Norman similarly notes that “the running order was changed” and the Beatles closed each show13. I read these accounts 40 years after I had been to the show – my first live ‘gig’ at the age of 13 - and they surprised me because I remembered the Beatles closing the first half. The local newspaper had a full review, which praised the British group but revealed no details. Was my memory wrong? From the public launch of the Pompey Pop project 18 months ago, I have asked frequently whether and what people recall of that show. I have received perhaps half-a-dozen replies and have yet to meet one person whose memory is different from mine. Was Portsmouth a (belated) one-off exception? Are these published stories wrong? We cannot be sure but it seems very unlikely that the Beatles topped the bill in Portsmouth and if they did elsewhere, why the change?
As well as methodological procedures, the interest in local memories raises other questions to do with cultural history and in particular a case study history of a period in living memory. It draws upon Williams’ idea of a “lived culture of a particular time and place, only fully accessible to those living in that time and place”14. Over the past two years, this project has enjoyed the close involvement of many people who lived in that period of social change with many willing contributions of facts and memories to add ‘flesh’ to the ‘bones’ of the archival details. I am in many respects a ‘typical’ academic but I was also born and raised in Portsmouth and before I was an academic I was (and still am) a Portsmouth musician and before that I was a fan. From the outset I have sought to produce a specific history that speaks principally for and to those who were there with the hope that it may resonate with others. I still have many good friends from that period and place with whom I share these memories – and now many new friends. In that circumstantial respect alone it would be difficult to replicate what I have done elsewhere, although there may be others like me, and I am not sure that this mix is essential – indeed if I am not careful my prior and intimate involvement could be problematic.
In this paper, I cannot describe every aspect of Portsmouth’s live music scene over these 25 years so I will focus on that transitional period in the mid-1950s. Despite the impact of rock & roll and skiffle in Britain from the mid-1950s, the majority of British hit records and live acts visiting places like Portsmouth in 1956 were the familiar dance bands, orchestras and popular ‘crooners’. During 1956, the Savoy Ballroom presented a number of major dance bands and orchestras including those led by, Johnny Dankworth, Vic Lewis, Ted Heath, Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, Eric Winstone and Joe Loss. The Squadronaires appeared and in March there was great excitement with a visit for a seated concert by Stan Kenton and his Orchestra from the USA. British traditional jazz was also popular with visits from the bands of Mick Mulligan (with George Melly), Freddie Randall, Alex Welsh and Ken Colyer. In 1954 Colyer had recorded a ten inch LP Back to the Delta which might be considered the first British skiffle record. By the time of his appearance at the Savoy in 1956 Lonnie Donegan with whom Colyer had played in the Chris Barber Band, had enjoyed a top ten hit in Britain and the USA with his version of “Rock Island Line” and the skiffle craze was having its impact. We have photographs of the Saints skiffle group from around that time at Somers Town Youth Club in Portsmouth as well as accounts of other similar groups. Within a couple of years, the Saints became the Cadillacs rock & roll group and enjoyed significant success regionally before careers, marriage and
mortgages led most to leave music by the mid 1960s – although recent retirement brought reformation and they are again playing together in their seventies!
In the mid-1950s, Portsmouth’s own dance bands were very busy and included Roy Richards and his Mayfair Orchestra, Wally Fry and his Collegians, Reg Bannistra and his Orchestra with Johnny Lyne, and Benny Freedman's Orchestra. Meanwhile, Barry McCarthy and his Dixielanders were one of the first local ‘Trad’ bands and a female vocal trio the Liddell Sisters began as a ‘live’ act, miming in costume to current hit records. On advice from a local television producer, the Honeys began singing live and enjoyed a ten-year career. They toured with Cliff Richard, the Beatles, Helen Shapiro, Adam Faith and others, performing regularly in seaside summer shows and pantomimes.
South Parade Pier’s attractions in 1956 including Victor Silvester and his Ballroom Orchestra, Danny Kaye, Cyril Fletcher, Eric Delaney and his Band and Flanagan and Allen who sang and judged the final of the season’s Beauty Contest. In mid-summer the Tommy Trinder Show was under threat because of a dispute between Portsmouth Corporation, the Pier’s owners, and the Musicians Union with the Union demanding a certain rate of pay for the pit orchestra, which the Pier disputed. This was resolved in time for the comedian to appear for the week. Takings at the South Parade Pier in that summer were £137,616, up the previous summer. Also on the seafront, Reginald Porter-Brown was the new resident at the £3,000 wonder organ on South Parade Pier while Gordon Banner was the organist at the Savoy Ballroom’s Tea Dances.
In 1956 when George Formby appeared at the King’s Theatre, the city centre Theatre Royal which was more accessible by public transport, presented magician David Nixon, comedian Reg Varney, vocalist Ronnie Hilton, variety stars Elsie and Doris Waters and comedian Max Miller. In September 1956, the Theatre Royal celebrated its centenary yet a month later it closed down with the management citing “a decrease in patronage and ever increasing costs”. Before it did so, one of its last apparently typical variety shows played its part in British rock history, heralding the birth of the new guitar-based music. I am focusing on this here because it has a broader significance for live popular music, not least because the birth of rock & roll in Portsmouth was as part of a traditional variety show.
On Sunday 9 September 1956, Elvis Presley made his first appearance on the American national television broadcast of the Ed Sullivan Show. On the following day, the Portsmouth Evening News published a letter condemning outbreaks of violence in cinemas showing the latest rock & roll movies. AB Conning (sic) described “crack-brained teenagers capering in the aisles” and condemned the “disgracefully low” fines on those who misbehaved. The Portsmouth cinemas that week were more restrained, showing Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Tony Curtis and Richard Burton but there was excitement of the new kind at the Theatre Royal on Monday evening (10th) at around 7.45 pm.
The new weekly show was typical of the variety bills that the ailing theatre hoped would keep it operational. It opened at 6.20 pm with an overture by the orchestra, followed by dancers Nick & Pat Lundon, comedian Johnny Dallas and singers, Billie Wyner, Maxine Daniels, the “coloured singing star of television and Oriole Records”, and “dynamic” Don Fox. After the interval the dancers returned, then Scottish TV “funster” Andy Stewart and mime artists Ross & Howitt. So far this was pretty normal variety fare until Bernard Delfont presented his headliners, a new six-piece British “Rock ‘n’ Roll” act, Tony Crombie and his Rockets.
Londoner Crombie, a jazz and dance band drummer who had been involved in the development of British Bebop a decade earlier, was seeking to exploit the new musical fashion. According to British pop historian Pete Frame, the Rockets – clearly named in imitation of Bill Haley’s Comets - recorded and released the first British rock & roll records and were the first professional touring British rock & roll act. What is more, Frame believes that they brought their live show to Portsmouth before any other venue in the country15. Over the next 50 years, the city of Portsmouth might warrant little more than a footnote in the history of British popular music but on this night it had an important role in the birth of British rock & roll.
On the following day the city’s Evening News was broadly enthusiastic. The main headline “Rock ‘n’ Roll Greeted with Cheers” preceded a generally positive review of “the most controversial music craze since the Charleston” although it did suggest that the group’s saxophone had been under amplified – a rare wish in those early days for rock & roll to be louder! Reassuringly, the report announced “no wild, riotous debut” to cause anxiety but a performance ending “with cheering and applause that rocked the theatre”. The teenage audience were “shirt-sleeved and sweatered” – fashion and image already linked inextricably to the new sounds in popular music. The newspaper thought this youthful enthusiasm might be considered “mass hysteria, exhibitionism or plain audience participation”, and suggested “Rock ‘n’ Roll may die soon … although at the moment it is a lusty, rowdy, healthy infant”.
It would be wrong to claim that this single week’s residency by Tony Crombie & his Rockets revolutionised the music scene in Portsmouth – I have made the point that to some degree the dance band scene continued through the following decade. However we know that some of the next generation of local musicians attended the show and were excited by the possibilities of the new music. One, Terry Wiseman, plucked up courage to approach Tony Crombie in the dressing room and was allowed to play Crombie’s drums after the show. Terry went on to enjoy a successful local career including playing support to the Beatles at the Savoy in April 1963 when he loaned Ringo his drum kit after a problem travelling to the city. Terry also played with Portsmouth’s Live Five who were briefly with Cliff Richard in Expresso Bongo and toured with Hampshire’s Brook Brothers - who had a hit record with “Warpaint”.
Rock & roll and skiffle made a gradual impact around Portsmouth from that point. In August 1956 the Savoy Ballroom had held a jive competition, and in October the local newspaper featured its first article under the nom-de-plume Spinner who announced that rock & roll “has swamped the Top Twenty”. In the same month, Columbia recording star Ronnie Harris, with Kenny Flame and his (presumably different) Rockets appeared in “Rock around the Town” at the Empire Theatre in Edinburgh Road, a city centre theatre had opened in 1891 featuring mainly music hall. By the 1950s, there were occasional visits from aspiring acts like Morecambe and Wise but it offered mainly static nude shows in the style of London’s Windmill Theatre. The rock & roll venture could not save it however and it closed permanently in 1958.
Elsewhere in the area, Frankie Vaughan appeared at a Youth Club dance arranged by the Hillside and Goodwyns clubs, while in Gosport on 29 November, Lee Tower offered music from the Jack Jones All Star Rock 'n' roll Band. In December, the Evening News published its first Top Ten, with Johnnie Ray’s, “Walking in the Rain” at number one – by which time Britain’s first rock & roll hit, Tommy Steele’s “Rock with the Caveman” had appeared.
Popular music was changing but the new sounds and styles continued to emerge alongside the more familiar music. The local newspaper archives suggest that the early months of 1960 were dominated by light entertainment, ballroom dancing to live bands and jazz, traditional and modern. For example, Acker Bilk was in the city on the first evening of the new decade and would be a regular visitor, Eurovision Song Contest stars, Pearl Carr & Teddy Johnson appeared with Eric Delaney and Lenny the Lion at the King’s Theatre and the Honeys were touring with Adam Faith, including a Portsmouth gig at Fratton Road’s Troxy Cinema, which also presented an evening with Cliff Richard & the Shadows, Kathy Kirby and Norman Vaughan. The Africano Club offered jazz, while Emile Ford & the Checkmates and Frank Ifield shared a bill at the King’s Theatre. Beat group the Downbeats appeared at Ricky’s Club, although the club often favoured record sessions and would be one of Portsmouth’s first regular discos by the late 1960s. British rock & roll star Vince Eagar backed by the Playboys began an attempted comeback at the Savoy, there was a “Top Twenty Hit Parade” show at the Guildhall featuring British stars Craig Douglas, the Avons and DJ Alan Freeman but an all-American show with Conway Twitty, Johnny Preston and Freddy Cannon was poorly received. The Platters visited the Guildhall in January followed by Sarah Vaughan with the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra, although Count Basie cancelled his show.
Three years later the Beatles would be at the Guildhall, followed by the Rolling Stones at the Savoy. From 1964 rhythm & blues largely ousted ‘Trad’ from the clubs attracting hundreds of local youngsters every week, the folk clubs were growing in popularity and these new sounds, boutiques, coffee bars and radio and television shows were contributing to the growth of ‘swinging Southsea’. We have a growing collection of recordings by local groups through the 1960s confirming that popular styles changed frequently over the 15 years from 1956 when rock & roll came to the city. For much of that time, whatever the popular style, groups drew on relatively limited repertoires of rock & roll, beat, rhythmn & blues and soul – much of it from the USA or Liverpool. But by the late 1960s, for the first time local groups increasingly wrote their own material, thereby changing the nature of live entertainment in the city and elsewhere. For some promoters and ‘punters’ this led to a growing fondness for the greater certainty of DJs and discos and in the 1970s, for example, the Savoy Ballroom became Nero’s Nightclub and abandoned live entertainment.
Despite these changes the older world faded slowly and for the most part never quite disappeared – even as live entertainment. This is partly of course due to the growing nostalgia industry and on Sundays throughout the summer, the City Council promotes tribute and nostalgia acts at the seafront bandstand, and the monthly appearance of the local big band attracts a full house to the Blue Lagoon. And while ‘Trad’ left the bigger venues it survived for some time in smaller pubs and special events and even today resurfaces on special occasions, complete with boaters and striped blazers.
In addition to my focus on one city and period, I hope I have identified some broadly important issues around British popular music history – in particular, live music . There is a great deal more to be found on the various websites, publications and planned exhibitions and no doubt much more for us to discover, correct and refine as we develop the work.
POMPEY POP REFERENCES and SOURCES
PORTSMOUTH....THE BIRTHPLACE OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SAYS DAVE ALLENSixty years ago, in September 1956, a remarkable thing happened at the Theatre Royal in Portsmouth. It was the year that two important popular music ‘crazes' emerged in Britain; one, rock & roll, from the USA, the other, skiffle, an English interpretation of an American musical tradition.
Rock & Roll had been around for a couple of years thanks to Bill Haley & his Comets, but in 1956, the UK ‘s ‘Hit Parade’ suddenly included Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Little Richard and others — including a young chap from Memphis called Elvis Presley.
Skiffle was the ‘invention’ of the tradition- al jazz guys, a small group from the bands of Ken Colyer, Chris Barber and others who would entertain during the band's inten/al with traditional American folk and blues songs on guitar, washboard and bass.
The Rock & Roll outfits of Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, and Gene Vincent featured guitars which had been pretty minor instruments in the previous dance and jazz bands that entertained those more inclined to fox-trot and waltz. This shift was partly due to the younger generation seeking to reject the ‘old hat’ stuff that their parents’ favoured. it was also crucially a matter of technology, because guitarists had come up with the technology that allowed guitars to be amplified so that they could be heard, in the larger dance and concert halls. in addition to the traditional jazz in the London clubs there were cool looking guys in Italian suits playing a British version of modern jazz. Among the leading names was saxophonist Ronnie Scott who in the late 1940s had been playing at the Club Eleven. Tony Crombie, a drummer in his band, earned a living as best he could but when he saw the success of Bill Haley, decided to form the UK's first touring, recording, Rock & Roll outfit.
They were called Tony Crombie & his
Rockets and their agent, Bernard Delfont,
immediately booked the band into the
London Palladium, and a nationwide tour.
Delfont wanted the band to sharpen their
act with a few nights in the provinces and
he put them in as headliners in a week of
variety at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth.
So Portsmouth can lay claim to being
the birthplace of British Rock & Roll. The
Evening News reported that this new
‘Rock & Roll’ was “greeted with cheers".
The live music scene in Portsmouth
changed quite significantly. From the end
of the war and through the 1950s, the
ballrooms like the seafront's Savoy or Osborne Road’s Kimbell's were at the heart
of live entertainment in the city, catering
for the locals, sailors and holiday visitors.
That was a lively economy with reasonable work for local musicians as well as top
bands like Joe Loss and Ted Heath. With
the abolition of National Service, declining numbers in the services and the shift
to cheap Mediterranean holidays it was
the increasingly affluent teenagers that
became the new audiences in the 1960s.
In 1959, the rebuilt Guildhall began its
concert programme with Sir Thomas
Beecham followed by Chris Barber, Ella
Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and even Louis
Other events in 1966