Portsmouth Music Scene

The Portsmouth Music Scene
1956-1959: A Beginning

This story of 1960s popular music in Portsmouth begins in the previous decade, on Monday 10 September 1956.

As Britain’s military and political empire was under threat in the Middle East, British entertainment encountered a new invasion from across the Atlantic called rock & roll.
Bill Haley and his Comets had enjoyed chart success in 1956 as Elvis Presley entered the British hit parade for the first time with “Heartbreak Hotel” and Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent and Fats Domino soon followed.
Even Lonnie Donegan who matched their success with “Rock Island Line”, offered a song and a new skiffle style, which were as American as a Glaswegian ‘Londoner’ could be.
On Sunday 9 September 1956, Elvis 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 bill that the ailing theatre hoped would keep it operational.
The programme records that 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 fare but to finish, Bernard Delfont presented a new six-piece British “Rock ‘n’ Roll” act, Tony Crombie and his Rockets.
Londoner Crombie, a jazz and dance band drummer, was seeking to exploit the new musical fashion.
The Rockets recorded and released the first British rock & roll records and they were the first touring British rock & roll act – in addition, according to Pete Frame, they brought their live show to Portsmouth before any other venue.
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.
In the following day’s review, Portsmouth’s Evening News suggested that the saxophone had been under amplified but 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”.
More specifically the report confirmed “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”, suggesting “Rock ‘n’ Roll may die soon but ” although “at the moment it is a lusty, rowdy, healthy infant”.
Of course it was the live variety circuit that effectively died away while rock & roll grew into a fully-fledged, affluent and sometimes naughty adult.
Rock & roll and skiffle may have seemed a dramatic change from what had gone before but Lonnie Donegan emerged from the already popular traditional jazz scene while Tony Crombie had spent more than a decade playing in dance bands and modern jazz groups.
They were not from the new generation and like Bill Haley they looked pretty conventional.
But while skiffle and early rock & roll grew from older musical styles on both sides of the Atlantic, there were also essential differences and clear breaks with the past, which would lead to the dramatic innovations of the following decade.
One difference was the identification of a younger audience for this new music – teenagers and young adults who were enjoying an unprecedented level of economic independence.
Musically there were two key differences.
Firstly, much of it drew upon black American music in particular black vocal music.
British dance and jazz bands had always raided black American music but more for jazz instrumentals.
The new music had its roots in the folk and blues traditions, which led to the second key difference.
For the first time, British popular music was guitar-based with the historic problems of audibility solved by the proliferation of intimate venues, especially coffee bars, and the development of more powerful pick-ups and amplifiers for larger venues.
The other impact of the guitar and of skiffle was in the emerging folk scene, although those instruments were acoustic.
The impact of rock & roll records was immediate, but across Britain there was still a well-established network of live venues and a broad audience that preferred dance halls, big bands, cinema and variety shows.
The younger generation was attracted by new music but such dramatic changes cannot be embedded overnight.
It was one thing to listen to rock & roll records but quite another to become an accomplished performer or to find established venues that welcomed new styles, young players and their fans.
One of the attractions of skiffle was its musical simplicity and another its portability.
You could walk or take public transport to a local youth club or coffee bar, carrying simple acoustic instruments and once there you could entertain your peers.
Amplifiers, PA systems and drum kits on the other hand, required transport and more sophisticated venues even before anyone began to make money.
As a consequence, during the late 1950s and early 1960s traditional light entertainment maintained its dominance in live venues around Portsmouth while away from the limelight the next generation were learning to play.
For some the result would be fame and fortune, for others a taste of local celebrity and for many young people a new decade would bring unimagined excitements.
While rock & roll came to Portsmouth in 1956, the Savoy Ballroom opposite South Parade Pier still offered traditional dancing to two bands and a vocal talent contest – all for 3/- (15p) and late transport after a midnight finish.
On the Pier, Tommy Trinder and an “All Star Cast” entertained towards the end of their summer season and during the day there were marionettes for the kids, the bandstand orchestra and a café with a resident organist.
The Evening News prediction that rock & roll might be short-lived seemed accurate by the late 1950s as skiffle faded and the ‘King’ of rock & roll lost his quiff, joined the US Army and sang pretty songs like “Wooden Heart”.
In Britain, Tommy Steele who went from “Rock with the Caveman” to “Little White Bull” (1959) was replaced by the new teen idol Cliff Richard whose first hit “Move It” was ‘real’ rock & roll.
But by the early 1960s he too was pursuing the path of all-round entertainer in film and on record.
The next pop stars were smart young teenagers with bright smiles, neat hair and pleasant voices, including Craig Douglas - the milkman from the Isle of Wight, whose sweetheart was “Only Sixteen”.
In Portsmouth, old time dancing, dancing schools and bingo generally dominated the entertainment advertisements in the Evening News in 1959.
Traditional jazz, noting the economic success and popularity of its wild child skiffle, sought its own mainstream success beginning with Chris Barber’s “Petite Fleur”, Kenny Ball’s “Midnight in Moscow” and peaking with Acker Bilk’s huge transatlantic hit “Stranger on the Shore” (1961).
But these were melodic pop tunes whose chart success undermined the status of traditional jazz as an authentic genre.
There were also fierce divisions between traditional jazz fans and the modernists, which manifested in violence in the riots that broke out in Hampshire, at the Beaulieu Jazz festival.
None of this meant so much to the next generation, as jazz, ‘trad’ or modern, became a minority taste as many British jazz venues embraced a new generation’s preference for guitars and harmonicas.
These general histories have been told many times.
In Portsmouth, Keith Francis recalls growing up in North End in the late 1950s as a member of what he called the last generation to remember “life before rock & roll”.
In their mid-teens, Keith and Geoff McKeon spent evenings in a coffee bar in London Road North End – attracted not least by the jukebox.
He, Geoff and a number of other boys (but perhaps not girls) would meet to play skiffle and songs by the Everly Brothers and others.
There were also sessions at the local youth club but progress was interrupted in 1958 by his GCE year at Northern Grammar School for Boys.
After that, Keith’s socialising was limited mainly to weekends and another North End venue that would play a major part in Portsmouth music in the 1960s, the Oddfellows Hall in Kingston Road.
Promoter Reg Calvert staged rock & roll dances there in the late 1950s, with popular British stars, including Billy Fury, Dickie Pride, Vince Eager and acts covering contemporary songs.
There were also singing contests and the likelihood that one of the local Teddy Boys would ‘attract’ most support in an early Pompey version of The X Factor.
Across the area, more teenagers were beginning to take the first steps towards playing in groups.
Bob Hammond from Gosport, left school in the mid-1950s, joined the Army and became a drummer.
After two years, he joined the Dockyard, and began playing skiffle and early rock & roll with his pal, Brian Marshall.
He moved from those early days in the youth clubs and smaller clubs to a new group the Crestas with two of the best local singers, Chris Ryder and Frank Kelly from Titchfield.
Colin Wilkinson and Mike Beacon (Devon) met at Eastney Modern School in the mid 1950s and with George East and Bob Harrigan formed the Rhythmic Five before adding guitarist Colin Quaintance and changing names to the Hot Rods.
Drummer Bryan Hatchard (the Cadillacs) played with other Dockyard apprentices, covering Duane Eddy as well as Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry.
Dave ‘Digger’ Hart began with various skiffle groups before forming the first local Strollers with his brother Colin who went to National Service to be replaced by Bob Hammond’s pal Brian Marshall.
Brian left to back Vince Taylor, ‘Digger’ joined Tony Porter and by 1962 he was in the Southerners who became the Southern Sounds, including Colin Quaintance.
Marc Tuddenham began in 1958 in Jake & the Warriors before moving on to the Renegades and has continued playing in Portsmouth ever since.
One teenage fan who saw Tony Crombie was an aspiring teenage drummer, Terry Wiseman.
After the show he knocked on the stage door and met Tony who was kind enough to take him on to the stage to see a professional’s kit – and Terry was surprised that it was just “bits and pieces”.
He loved the gig, was excited by the new music and met up with a local guitarist and singer, Mick Glover.
Mick had left school in 1953 and formed one of Portsmouth’s first successful skiffle groups, followed by the Mike Glover Rock ‘n’ Rollers with Terry on drums, Mike ‘Flash’ Orton who moved from washboard to double bass and Barry Baron on guitar.
The group appeared on television including Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium but Mick was called to National Service with the RAF and could only play occasionally.
The others added guitarist Chris Harvey and as the Live Five played on Saturday mornings at the LDB (now Debenhams) in Commercial Road.
Entry was free and teenagers like Mike Beacon, Geoff McKeon, Colin Wilkinson and Keith Francis went regularly to see them.
In 1959, minus Mick, the four-piece Live Five appeared briefly in the Cliff Richard/Laurence Harvey movie Expresso Bongo.
Terry completed his Dockyard apprenticeship at Christmas 1960 and turned professional with the Semi-Tones backing Winchester’s hit duo the Brook Brothers (“Warpaint”).
When he returned to Portsmouth, he met up with those teenagers who had watched him at the LDB joining them as the drummer in the Diplomats, with Mike Beacon eventually singing as Mike Devon.
Gradually these groups sought live gigs.
Youth clubs were often obliging and among the more popular were Buckland Youth Club and Hillside Youth Club at the northern end of the city where the Tony Porter Group played regularly for the teenage dancers.
Tony turned his back on the stage to become a leading local promoter.
Soon bigger venues like the Savoy and Ricky’s Club offered support gigs to local groups.
Doug Wheeler, a veteran of the jazz and dance band scene, has recalled that with the advent of rock and roll and the Beatles, “ballroom dancing began a slow decline in popularity” and the “gradual disappearance of the local dance bands”.
However, the emphasis must be on “slow decline” and “gradual disappearance”.
There was no overnight change from ballads to boogie or from big bands to beat groups.
The Beatles may have played in Portsmouth three times in 1963 but, even as the Birdcage club was opening in the spring of 1965, the Ted Heath Band were revisiting past glories at Southsea’s Savoy Ballroom.
The new sounds of the guitar groups ran parallel also with a 1960s folk boom in which young people often preferred the heritage and music of an ‘authentic’ past.
For a period, Portsmouth offered a rich diversity of (mostly live) popular music and entertainment.
Spinner was the pseudonym for various journalists writing the weekly pop column in the Portsmouth Evening News from the late 1950s - devoted initially to record reviews, with little information about local gigs or acts.
In a review of 1959, Spinner celebrated the Portsmouth visits of the Newport Jazz Festival, Dave Brubeck and the Modern Jazz Quartet and noted that Humphrey Lyttleton’s British supremacy had been challenged by Chris Barber’s Band (at Portsmouth Guildhall in November) and the “smooth” Acker Bilk – due at the Savoy on the first day of the 1960s.
It was about three years since the Rockets had rolled into the Theatre Royal, but as the 1950s came to a close it seemed that relatively little had changed on the music scene.
Indeed on Friday 20 November 1959, Tony Crombie was back in Portsmouth at the Savoy with his Orchestra, entertaining the dancers.
Each week, the newspaper advertised local events and there were always more for old time dancing, ballroom dancing and bingo, than for anything resembling rock & roll or the latest pop music.
Syd Dean, his Orchestra and singer Johnny Kildare still played for dancers at the Savoy, while a visit to Fratton’s Railway Hotel promised pianist Eddie Thompson.
There were many regular venues for the older forms of popular dancing including the Court School in Eastney, Southsea’s Kimbells, the Rock Gardens and the Savoy.
Portsmouth had pubs and clubs that featured British traditional jazz, including the Star in Lake Road – also the home of the city’s first modest folk club - but there were only occasional nights for rock & roll at venues like Ricky’s in Goldsmith Avenue or Caesar’s Club in North End.
There was a major city event in June 1959 when HM the Queen re-opened the city’s Guildhall which had been bombed during the war.
The first concert featured the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and Frankie Vaughan came in those opening months as did Cliff Richard but the broad range of entertainment did not often include the latest pop sounds.
Pianist Semprini with Melanchrino’s Strings attracted a full house in late 1959 and as well as jazz acts like Dave Brubeck, Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) and Chris Barber, there were classical concerts and opera.
The venue booked Paul Robeson, the Platters, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Kenton and Ella Fitzgerald for early 1960.
Clarence Pier had also been badly bombed in 1941 and twenty years later it too re-opened with its new ballroom.
Local fashions included women’s slacks (“ideal for scooter wear”) and suede jackets at around 10 guineas.
C&A offered the ‘Cape Look’ for five guineas and duffle coats for 49/11d.
Young people had increased purchasing power but they were also misbehaving.
On ‘Bonfire Night’ 1959, 1,000 teenagers were involved in “a rowdy scene” on Southsea Common as one young man “went berserk and attacked a policeman” and others threw fireworks.
An inquiry into the death of a dockyard apprentice who died in a fracas in Flathouse Quay recorded “insufficient control of apprentices”.
In November the Evening News told of six Buckland youths who had “kicked and punched police officers” while 3,000 youngsters besieged the changing rooms at Clarence Ground after Tommy Steele played football there for a Showbiz XI.
The MP for Portsmouth West, Conservative Brigadier Clarke supported a motion to restore beatings for certain crimes of violence adding, “some young thugs have not been beaten enough at school”.
There was a letter about “louts” causing menace by speeding on their motorcycles, although an unnamed “popular café” in Goldsmith Avenue welcomed teenagers with a jukebox and pintables.
The 1960s have been blamed for many things but clearly they did not invent hooligans or moral panics.
The number of teenagers in Britain increased by an extraordinary 22% between 1951 and 1961.
High employment, a school-leaving age of 15, more money and no more National Service was good news for the music, fashion, broadcasting and cinema industries.
During the 1950s there was a rise in car ownership of 250% and the average weekly wage went up around 30% in the second half of the decade.
Retail prices increased by about half the rise in wage levels but some of the new electrical and technological goods actually got cheaper and by the early 1960s about 75% of households owned television sets.
British people emerged from wartime and post-war austerity and rationing into a period of increasing consumption.
It was all good fun and teenagers wanted a share.
Nonetheless, on New Year’s Eve 1959 no one in Portsmouth can have imagined the extraordinary cultural and social changes that would transform so much of Britain through the next ten years.
There was very little happening in the city on that liveliest of evenings that offered a vision of the future, although Hillside Youth Club featured rock & roll with regular residents the Tony Porter Group for 3/-.
Ricky’s too offered a “Rock & Roll Carnival” (6/-) and there were other more mainstream “carnival nights” at the Oddfellows Hall with the De Reske Orchestra, at All Saints Hall and at the Savoy.
The Africano Club in Fratton Road offered free entry before 10 pm, but the Tropicana Coffee Club in Castle Road Southsea was charging 2/6d for its party.
The city’s main event run by the Junior Chamber of Commerce was a Ball at the Guildhall with ballroom dancing, cabaret and a buffet for 30/- (£1.50).

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