The Portsmouth Music Scene
Has become a Portsmouth Legend! Joint 1st New Faces, Knocked Boy George off the top of the News Hit list with Pompey Rock in 1983, promoted a zillion shows in the city Organised Folk Clubs and Concerts on the pier and other venues, Radio Victory for 10 years, Honky Tonk Bar Nite on Thursdays in the late 1970's.
CHIPS OFF THE OLD BLOKE - 2 CD SET – MY FIRST 4 ALBUMS.
OLD SHEP Pompey’s Favourite Sea-Dog.
QQQ You're known as Portsmouth's own Shep
Woolley. and yet you come from the
Midlands. How come?
Shep Woolley Around the world and back again
It was back in the late seventies that l first came across Shep Woolley and I have been a fan of his ever since. So, when the editor decided to feature him in this magazine, l jumped at the chance of interviewing him. l duly went along to his home and spent a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting afternoon listening to his truly amazing life story, his anecdotes, and his philosophies on life and the folk world. But later l realised that l had enough material to fill the whole magazine and the editor had only given me three pages!
There was nothing for it but to serialise the feature. So, in this issue will appear the basic outline of his story only, although those who know Shep will know that it is nowhere near complete. For instance, where is there any mention of his years as a folk music presenter on Radio Victory? To begin....
The son of a coal-miner, Shep (real name John) was born in Birmingham. He was brought up in Polesworth and most of his time was spent 'going backwards and forwards the 18 miles from this coal-mining village to Birmingham where the bright lights were ". His musical beginnings were in the skiffle groups of the sixties where he was singing Elvis and Donnegan songs.
In 1960 he joined the Royal Navy. He still played and sang, but now on his own. "I didn't really know what l was playing to be quite honest because, when you're in a boot camp, it's like being in prison. You're away from the "real world', so you just play what you play. He does, however, remember playing Bill Hayley's 'Rock-a-beating Boogie' with the Royal Marine Band at a passing out parade concert at HMS Ganges.
Life changed for Shep when in 1961 he went to Singapore and Hong Kong and met a lot of American servicemen. He describes how he wasn't too aware of Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley and knew nothing about Muddy Waters, and suddenly, there he was learning all about them from the Americans. 'I used to go and sit in bars and play with these blokes and I knew three chords and my only saving grace was that I had an English accent.
He also described how, at that time, he was on the first ship to go into Japan on a goodwill mission. 'The fleet went down there in 1961. I mean it was 1946 that they dropped the bomb. Fifteen years later, this is not the first trip in, this is the first goodwill mission. And Japan was full of American singers, it was full of blokes with guitars singing the most incredible songs. So I actually got into this entertainment thing very loosely through American bars in the Far East.
Then in 1962 he returned to England, 'fired with Rhythm and Blues songs, having never been polluted by the Shadows. Now I don "t consider what they did was bad, it's just that everybody in England at that time was full of tunes like "FBI' and "Apache'. But l wasn't a clever enough guitarist so I didn't learn any guitar solos, but what I did learn about was lots and lots of rock "n' roll singing, which I couldn't have got in this country When he returned he found that at the top of the charts was Joe Brown and The Brothers singing "Picture of You', followed by Frank Ifield's "I Remember You'. And he remembers that the most popular band around the dance halls at that time was Brian Poole and The Tremeloes.
"Then on February 12th 1963 somebody said, "We've got this new band on and it's 9/6 to get in and see them'. That was Shep's introduction to The Beatles and he describes how the whole dance hall stopped in its tracks. 'The great thing about all this was that all these people were milling around and they stopped and watched the band and that's what l wanted. I didn't want somebody to dance to me or drink beer to me. I wanted somebody to stop and watch me.
Shep describes how he was now in great demand because everybody had been into "Shadows stuff ť, but he knew all the words to the Chuck Berry songs. So he was in a number of bands. He then went to Scotland and joined a band called The Beat Mechanics, and they regularly played at the Lindella Club in Glasgow where Lulu and The Lovers were residents.
He then moved to Portsmouth, via Plymouth, and he was involved in several bands playing all the Rhythm and Blues clubs. In November 1964 he joined HMS Triumph and returned to Singapore where he was a member of a band called Downbeats Limited. "We were lucky to have this band inasmuch as all the rock "n' roll bands came to Singapore, the Stones, Dave Clarke Five, Herman "s Hermits, the Honeycombes and we used to be the support act. "Shep describes how the band had a Royal Marine drummer and two RAF bandsmen on saxaphone and trombone. At that time he felt that the world was his oyster. He got paid 14 pounds a week for being in the navy and 35 pounds a week for being in a band. 'And the navy looked after us, the navy was brilliant. We used to fit the gigs in with our various duties. We'd go on board and say, "Can we do this?' and the navy would say, "Yeah, you're quite good ambassadors for us, you don "t go round getting drunk'. And we had a great practice room. You see, we had a hanger on the Triumph with no aeroplanes, so the electrical workshop was our practice room and the drums and all the gear were kept there. However, the navy did interfere with the music once. 'I got a medal for going to war. In the middle of this rock "n' roll thing we were at war with Indonesia - yeah, it gets more bizarre as it goes on.
It was while he was in Singapore that Shep met his wife at a tea dance. 'I said to my father-in-law, "Can l marry her?' and he said no. He said, "Let's face it, you're a waste of bloody time, aren't you? Are you a sailor or are you a rock'n'roll singer? Be one or be the other but stop mucking about.' So on World Cup Day 1966 I put my guitar away and didn't play again.
Shep was in Singapore for 18 months and on his return to England went to HMS Excellent, did various courses, passed all his exams and became a drill instructor. He had learnt all about ballistics and how to fire guns etc. 'At that point it was just a job. I didn't see it as killing anybody at that point. " He then joined another ship, went to the West Indies, came back and saw Jon Isherwood. "Andi was gob smacked. There was this good-looking guy with all this hair in a wolf coat with a pair of snakeskin boots and purple trousers and big long sideboards like Dr Who playing the biggest, loveliest guitar I "ve ever seen in my life. And he was rocking the place to pieces and he was singing great songs. Well, that was it. At the first opportunity Shep bought himself another guitar! It was the first time he had played for about two years.
He then in 1970 joined the Royal Naval Experimental Department and went to New Orleans for about sixteen months. Here he learnt to play guitar properly and through playing solo in bars learnt how to command the attention of an audience.
About 1972 Shep returned to England and became a "proper' drill instructor. He was in the tri-service internal security platoon, which would go to lreland and Cyprus and look at IEDs (home-made explosive devices). So Shep was teaching people what constitutes a bomb and making them aware of booby traps etc. After a tour of America on HMS Blake, he returned to Portsmouth in 1974. "By then l'd made a lot of proper friends in Portsmouth and we were doing the Railway Folk Club and The Centre and The Den of Folk in Gosport and I'd found this new world. I "d found this world of people who would sit and listen to you, which is what I "d wanted more than anything else.
Then in May 1974 Shep went on New Faces, that television talent show which changed the lives of so many, and came joint first. He was offered a lot of work from this, which convinced him that it was time to leave the navy. This he did on 12th December 1975 and went on a tour of North Eastern working men's clubs. "I had a summer season with Rod Hull and Emu and Matt Monro, which was a bit hard for the folkies to grab hold of, I may add. Like when Fred Wedlock had a hit with "The Oldest Swinger In Town', the entire folk world used to write to Noel Edmonds and complain that they knew him before he did. It was as if "he was ours and now you've discovered him and how dare you take him away from us and try and make him some money!' So I went to the NE working men's clubs to learn my trade basically.'
Shep described how, in those days, he had been very much a singer who told stories, and then the rambling increased and it became two funny songs in each half and lots and lots of chat. For him there was no success unless the audience were responding, and his way of gauging this was whether they sang songs which he'd penned. He told me about the song which he had written called "Ram It, l'm RDP' which is still the Royal Navy's anthem. "It was really a naval gesture saying, "stuff it, l've had enough' and RDP (run-down period) was to go with the service's great love of acronyms. I wrote it in America when I was in the navy and by the time I'd got back it was being sung by everybody, Royal Marines and sailors. The Royal Marine Band recorded it and the Greenjacket Band had recorded it on the Ark Royal and people used to sing it everywhere. It's been to war a couple of times now. I once stood up in a bar and sang it and someone shouted out, "Why don't you do something original?' Because it's so much the navy's and not mine! And that song sold the first album. And then I wrote a song called "Roll On My Time', which was a similar sort of song but was a bit more melodic.
Shep went on to talk about the 1974-80 period of his life. He told me about his relationship with Cyril Tawney. At this time Shep describes himself as "a bit of a tear- arse; you know, red boots, long hair, long sideboards. I could still sing "Lord Franklyn', but I was a bit of a tear-arse and Cyril had no time for tear-arses. Shep went to the Ham Street Vaults in Plymouth where Cyril ran a folk club, and the infamous Packie Burn intervened and talked to Cyril about Shep. 'And then we got on very well and we've been firm friends ever since.
So l met Cyril at that point and then my folk singing became more in depth and a little less flippant, because I'd learnt songs in those days which I thought were just of entertainment value in the folk clubs. l used to do songs that felt like they meant something, but they didn't really because I didn't understand them. I mean, I used to sing "Hard Rain "s Going To Fall', Bob Dylan, and "Masters of War'. But really they didn't make me cry, not like songs I sing today do make me cry.
"And then, l suppose, I was getting older and older and more and more into it and then in 1979/1980, there was this bridge where l would do a folk club one night, a police club another night, a rugby club another night, a working men "s club another night, and then a folk club, another working men "s club. . ..l was doing all sorts of things.
It was back in the late "70s that l had first seen Shep' not in a folk club, but at the Royal Marine Barracks in Portsmouth, where he was the cabaret. (My first husband had been a Royal Marine bandsman.) Shep had been extremely well received by the couple of hundred in the audience and had been rewarded with tumultuous applause. He had been able to get under the skins of those marines and speak the same language. A few months later I had seen him in cabaret at the Portsmouth Police Club. Yet again, with an entirely different show, he had been able to communicate with all those "coppers' and speak the same language and the applause was no less than it had been with the marines. In fact, it was generally considered that Shep had been one of the best acts at either place. l remember, even today, all the "in' police jokes and stories. It didn't surprise me that Shep had been able to communicate so well in the barracks because service humour is service humour, but police humour is entirely different. l asked him how he had achieved this.
Shep told me that his brother-in-law was a 'copper' in the Special Branch at Luton and he had therefore had access to the police monthly magazine in which there was a column by someone with the penname 'Dogberry', and this guy was somebody "who told stories on the police'. Therefore, he'd go into the police clubs and "throw it in'. So his act had been well researched. He told me about The Tallyhoe Club, which was at the Birmingham Police Headquarters where he had recited the Les Barker monologue, "Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men, the West Midland Serious Crime Squad.' Said Shep, 'You've just got to do your homework really and not be frightened. He also told me that it was necessary to use a different act with the London police to that which he used in the provincial forces. But you'll have to ask him why yourselves! lt was about 1982 that Shep's life changed yet again. It was then that Jim McPhee from Acorn Entertainments signed him up. 'Until he took me on I was doing endless service based cabarets where l wasn't very happy at the end of the day. It was a sausage machine - me, a girl singer, a magician, whatever, baying crowds, arrive at 7pm, put your gear in, hang around till 8.30, there till 2am. Feeling pretty pissed off with life but you had to earn a living. And the fact that l'd got a daughter and a son on the way, I just had to go and work, wherever it was. That was about 1980-82. The first thing Shep did with Acorn was a tour with The Maddy Prior Band, followed by a tour with Alan Price. 'The audiences were both big but very different. For the Alan Price crowd one had to be slightly vaudevillian and a little bit more "rocky' and a little bit more direct in the humour, whereas with the Maddy Prior crowd, I learned to be unassuming. Having done these two tours, Shep then did Cambridge Folk Festival for the first time. He continued to perform here annually until the 25th Cambridge. Shep was "flavour of the month' and did all the folk clubs around the country. Then Jim offered him a gig in Dubai and 'that's where it all started.
Shep then described how the folkies who were putting folk clubs together in the Gulf, because of the nature of their jobs would only be there for a period and then would move on. So, he would re-contact and find that the folk club had closed. 'So you'd approach it in a different way and say, "Well, it's not a folk night, it's a one-man concert. Would you like it? lt's going to cost Ł1,000 if we just do one gig, but if you can get me three gigs it's Ł330 a gig, etc. You're looking to earn so much in one week and take your airfare and expenses out of it. And that's the name of the game and people responded. Oil camps off the Orkneys and all sorts of amazing things. And you'd meet Ralph McTell on the way back and he'd say, "What a gig! They're all blokes and they just sat there and there's a sign up saying "no swearing' and it's lovely'.
Thus it is, that since the early "80s Shep has been travelling, literally, around the world. He told me how much he enjoyed doing one man shows. 'I don't regulate myself very well in the folk clubs any more because I'm quite used to being on stage for two hours and having that floor to talk and sing and do a poem and a one-man play And that's why I travel around the world a lot â€ś not because with an act like mine you need to travel a lot! But because around the world I'm booked for one man shows. He has taken his one-man show to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Bermuda, all over Europe, the People's Republic of China before it was opened... and the list goes on!
Shep told me a little about his "life on the foreign road'. 'You see, when I arrive in these places I'm a very self contained person. Unlike the folk scene - I mean l'd like to stress, l'd really like to shake the folk scene somewhere along the line, give it a nudge, wake it up. When I go to Canada, for instance, I arrive at the airport and probably l've got the guy who's engineered the gigs to hire me a van or a car. So the first thing I'm going to do is go into Toronto to pick up my car or van. I don't know where I'm going so I look at my map, work out where I am, sit down and have a coffee. (And I've got to find somewhere to have the cup of coffee as well.) I then go to the music shop and pick up a PA system, two spotlights on two stands, sometimes another guitar, and I put it all in the van. And then I drive to the place where l'm going to be staying, where they might be putting me up for the first night and they give me a list of hotels, which they book me into but which I pay for. Then I go to the gig and depending on how long I "ve been driving, the gig will pick up the accommodation fee. So if l've been driving for say, six hours, then they'll give me the fee plus accommodation. So you've paid your own airfare, you buy your own petrol, hire your own truck, hire your own equipment, and you pay a "roadie' to go with you. I do the same in Hong Kong. Stephen usually meets me with one of his cousins, he has millions of them, you're there for 10 days and you're maybe going to do 7 gigs. In Canada the PA system will cost you around Ł75 for 10 days. In Hong Kong it will cost you Ł75 a day. I pay him, he drives me around and that's the way it's played' Singapore's really good and they put PA systems on for you, that's the way it's geared up.
"But everything has its ups and downs. When you're on your own and you're travelling around the world and you've finished the gig, you're either left with a video machine and a video, you go back to your digs and watch a film, or you're always in restaurants as they're closing. Quite often, if you're on your own, it's a lonely existence. No home comforts but sometimes it's good if you want to write because you don't have all the things around you that side-track you. You learn a lot of things playing around the world. You learn to keep your temper and you learn how to be tolerant of people and you learn how to be aware that some people are offended by things that you take as everyday standards. lt's been fantastic. And you learn to read people. This year Shep has taken a sabbatical from his world travels. "Not for the whole year. I'm going to Canada and Bermuda in November. There's a method in my madness because it's the rugby in Bermuda in November and I'm a bit of a rugby fan. So l'm going to that and l'm doing the rugby club and the Bermuda Folk Club. And then I'm going to do maybe 15 gigs in Canada. I was getting into a bit of a rut, because I used to go to Hong Kong every year in April for the rugby Oh, it was lovely because I would have a weekend off and go to some great rugby and meet lots of mates and have some fun. But I've done it for 12 years now and I did think that I was becoming stale in myself and it was too much of a regimented way with people expecting me to show up in Hong Kong at that time. And I thought it would be better to give them and me a one or two year break.
Back in England, though, Shep is still busy. He works a lot with Joe Brown. (Last year they did about 80 theatre dates together.) And he plays in a band called The Jooks of Harrods. They're the Jooks and when they're with me, we "re The Jooks of Harrods and there's no comedy, it's all rockabilly songs and a bit of Elvis etc. He also does gigs with Joe Brown's Brothers occasionally. This is when Joe Brown isn't with them and they are then called the Shep Woolley Band. And then there's the odd folk festival and the odd folk club. And he does after dinner speaking. 'I just did Universal Foods last week at the Charing Cross Hotel in London and l've done the Houses of Parliament a couple of times and l've done Scotland Yard and all sorts of things. lt's quite a light hearted way of what it's like going around the world and it's called "Heroes and Villains' what l talk about. And all my heroes are really anti- heroes. Well, they would be, wouldn't they?
Shep is also working on getting together a two week tour with Tom Lewis in September. Tom and Shep had known each other in their navy and folk club days back in the "7Os. "l was very much a sailor's performer, writing songs like "Ram It, " l'm RDP', and "Roll On My Time' and "Messing Around In The Dockyard' etc. And then along came this Tom Lewis feller. And he writes things like "The Last Shanty' and "A Sailor's Not A Sailor's Not A Sailor Any More' and "The Sailor's Prayer'. He's written loads, and were both supported by the same type of audience, but in a different way. Then last year I booked him for Bude and so when he came over we got together and did some songs together. And I recorded a couple of his songs and he sings a couple of mine and so we thought, we've got so much we've got to talk about in connection with the navy, with him being a sub-mariner and me being what they call a "skimmer', a general surface person. So there's this thing that we're better than them and vice versa. So we thought that we'd put something together. I mean, we've said it for years that we would sing together. Hopefully, Tom will be doing the Festival of the Sea, which will be his bridge to get over here (from Canada) and then we will follow it up from there. We'd like to go from folk club to folk club, small venues, because we'd like to do it in 1999 as a bigger thing. We've decided ukelele, guitar, squeezebox, mouth organ and all the songs and stories of the sea.
But meanwhile, Shep continues with his busy life, and writing songs, mainly rock "n' roll ones at the moment. Although the recent story about the two pigs, which escaped from the slaughter house in Wiltshire, jumped in the river and swam away, captured Shep's imagination, resulting in a song; "Two little Tamworth pigs, two little Tamworth porkies, on their way to the baking tray when one of them heard the other one say, l think we should go walkies.' Said Shep, 'And it's the fact that they're in the bushes and one of them says, "did you hear that crackling?' which makes people go "ooh, piss off!' ' irrepressible, as ever, is our Shep!