The song was ‘Hong Kong Blues’ by Hoagy Carmichael and I hired a professional pianist (for £3!) to back me on the recording, done at a small studio in Hammersmith. The recording engineer made no secret of his contempt for rock’n’roll and for me but the pianist, surprisingly, was very friendly and sympathetic and told me how impressed he had been when first hearing Eddie Cochran on his visit to Britain.
I found out that I had a slight acquaintance with an A & R man at the Decca studios in West Hampstead (literally a walk from my flat in Cricklewood). This was Noel Walker, the recording manager of the Big Three, who, as the leader of a trad jazz outfit called Noel Walker and his Stompers had once played at the Cherokee.
It seemed that he was unfamiliar with the song but remarked on the fact that he had never heard so many blue notes in one composition before.
I had sent demos to all the major recording companies and eagerly awaited their summons. Along Finchley Road, a short walk way, there were several car showrooms and on the forecourts were lots of sleek late Fifties American cars, including my favourite, a Plymouth Fury. I often went to see it and told myself: “I’ll be driving that in a few months time!”
In retrospect, I must have been crazy to imagine that I could ever have been a recording star. I don’t have a bad voice but it has no power or range and a further handicap is that I am extremely nervous on stage and have no presence whatsoever.
I never got to drive the Plymouth! However, there were two curious sequels to this story.
A few months later Pye released ‘Hong Kong Blues’ by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen! The record did not sell and disappeared without trace but I like to think I must have planted the idea in someone’s mind.
The second follow-up happened many years later. I still retained the demo and one day, as a joke, I taped it for a friend, Dave Hunter, under the name of a fictitious blues singer called “Deaf Willy Legless”.
His young son, then about ten years old, accidentally heard it and became obsessed by it, playing it constantly. It was the song that caught his imagination, not my version of it. He, too, had become fascinated by the fantastic, bluesy feel of the song.
And those are (some) of my rock’n’roll and Mersey memories. I shall always be grateful that I was in at the start of rock’n’roll appreciation in this country (1955- ) and also at the start of the Mersey Sound (1958- ), which is just rock’n’roll, anyway.
In 2005 I will have been a rock’n’roller for 50 years. You can come to my celebration! Till then, Rock On, Cats!
Editor’s Notes: I asked Neil to let me have some details of his own personal history and he was to add:
“I was born in Prescot on March 8th 1940 and attended Prescot Grammar School between 1951-1956 and in the early years met (although I never knew him well) Stuart Sutcliffe, who, in fact, was the first person who told me about the existence of the Beatles.
“This was in a small club called The Green Dolphin in Rodney Street. You knew Stuart so you know how mysterious he was in the way he dressed and behaved. He was dressed entirely in black and wearing sunglasses and was accompanied by an art-school girl who was a foot taller than him. She was also dressed entirely in black, with a very pale face (Stuart also was very pale-faced). When we chatted and I asked him what he was doing he was so melodramatic and mysterious that I was intrigued and thought he must be in a “name” band. When he told me that the name of the group was the Beatles I was so astounded that I forgot to laugh. (By the way, he never explained that it was a pun on Beetles.)
“I grew up in a musical family. My father was passionately interested in classical music and light classical music (Gilbert and Sullivan). We had an old wind-up gramophone on which he played 78’s, especially violin pieces by the likes of Fritz Kreisler (my Dad had once played the violin). My mother also liked music, though on a more popular level e.g. Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald. In those days I too was a classical music fan. (Actually, I still am). My favourite composer was Khachaturian, but I also liked Grieg and other “nationalist” composers. I also liked the popular music of the day and the first tune to really possess me was Vaughn Monroe’s haunting 1948 version of ‘Riders in the Sky’.
“I first heard rock’n’roll through ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, the BBC radio programme! This was in November 1955 when they did a great parody of ‘Blackboard Jungle’ which contained the wonderful line: “This school is so tough that if a pupil puts his hand up in class, you don’t know whether he wants to go to the toilet or has a gun in his back!” All the way through this skit the music of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was constantly played and I was fantastically excited by this. “Wow! What on earth is that kind of music?” I wondered.
“I was listening regularly to ‘Jack Jackson’s Record Roundup’ on Saturday nights on Radio Luxembourg (incidentally, we could get that station clear as a bell on our radio set from Rediffusion, with no interference). Jack Jackson, like most of the DJ’s of the time, was a rock’n’roll hater – he was an ex-trumpeter and dance-band leader and never concealed his contempt for the music but what I liked about him was that his comments were often very funny. Two in particular I have never forgotten. He had just played Fats Domino’s ‘Blue Monday’ and said (imitating Fats’s Creole accent) ‘Well, that was Fats Domino, who, as he has just told you, works lahk a sleeve orl day!’ He was still at in 1960, fading out Johnny Paris’s tenor sax on ‘Rocking Goose’ with the scornful comment, ‘Aw, stop squawking!’
“I worked in Liverpool Public Libraries between 1956 and 1960. We were allowed to put on record sessions in the rest room of the library and my friend, Charlie Richmond and I, held several rock’n’roll nights there. We also put on classical music sessions and one night I combined the two! I had just played the last movement of Holst’s ‘The Planets’ suite, which is ‘Neptune the Mystic’ (described in the sleeve-notes as “one of the quietest pieces of music ever written”). In the stuffy room (it was summer) people were nodding off – in fact I think one girl was asleep. I slipped the LP off the turntable and changing the speed to 45 rpm, put on Elvis’s current
single (‘Hard Headed Woman’ from the film ‘King Creole’) and turned up the volume full blast. We had to scrape some of the people off the ceiling!
“Most young rock’n’roll fans in the 50’s wanted to play guitar. For me, it was always the tenor sax. I just adored those great solos on records by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Larry Williams and Duane Eddy. I persuaded my Mum to lend me (never paid her back) the £10 deposit on a tenor sax (Rampone, a cheap Italian make) from Hessy’s (the shop they had near the Mersey Tunnel). They gave me the name of a teacher, George Birchall, who was lead alto in the band that played on the Royal Iris. He hated rock’n’roll and did all he could to destroy my interest in it.
“I remember coming in for a lesson, trying to hide a rock’n’roll record from him, which was under my arm. When I told him what it was (‘Dry Bones/Josephine’ by the Bill Black Combo) he ran at me shouting “Keep it away from me! I’ll stamp on it! I’ll stamp on it!”
“My Dad hated rock’n’roll and in particular, Fats Domino, whom he referred to as “Fatto” Domino or “Bugs” Domino. My mother was more tolerant but she didn’t like it much, either, of course. My brother (4 years younger) was a Cliff Richard fan and he didn’t seem to like American rock’n’roll at all. My sister (two years younger) hated it and once, when I was in the kitchen, she came in to the room just as I was about to put the gramophone needle on ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ by Chuck Berry. A look of hatred came into her face and she spat viciously, ‘You’re not to going to play that HORRIBLE Chuck Berry again, are you?’
“The girls then seemed to wear very long clothes by today’s standards, certainly in the early Fifties. Their hair was either worn long, shoulder-length, or short, as in the bubble cut.
“I was not very interested in fashion myself so my clothes tended to be very square i.e. sports jackets, baggy flannels (with turn-ups you were always catching your feet in) and heavy shoes with thick soles.
“When I joined the group in 1961, Italian-style suits were just coming in and the group leader’s mother worked in a firm that produced such suits. They had short ‘bum freezer’ jackets, three-buttoned and trousers with no turn-ups, a real innovation at the time. Unfortunately, the suits were only available in brown, my least favourite colour, but we wore them when we went to the Cavern and also as a group uniform on stage.
“As for the average money we got for a booking, I think the most we ever got was about £7.50. We each got 25/-. Some money was deducted for buying records we had to practice and maybe some went towards petrol for the van (in the early days it was taxis everywhere).
“I can’t remember how long our performances lasted but in some of the places we did play quite late (at the Cherokee in Bold Street, for example). We did play quite a varied repertoire, not just the usual rock ‘n’ roll standards but things like Webb Pierce’s ‘I Ain’t Never’, Harold Dorman’s ‘Mountain of Love’, Gene Pitney’s ‘I’m Gonna Love My Life Away’, the Kingston Trio’s ‘Tijuana Jail’ and Louis Prima’s ‘Buena Sera’ (our most popular number).”
Incidentally, ‘Hong Kong Blues’ was a number by Hoagy Carmichael that he composed in 1938. A wide range of artists including George Melly, Pearl Bailey, Frank Ifield and Kenny Ball also covered it and it was included in the 1945 film ‘To Have And Have Not.’
It was one of two Carmichael numbers that George Harrison recorded for his ‘Somewhere In England’ album and was originally intended to be the opening track, but as Warner Bros required changes to the album it ended up as the fourth track on the second side.
George had first heard ‘Hong Kong Blues’ when he was only four years old, and liked Hoagy Carmichael all his life. Talking about when he quit Liverpool Institute, he said, ‘I had already made up my mind when I was about twelve that I was not going into the army at any cost. I liked music since I can remember. ‘Hong Kong Blues’, that’s one of the first songs I can remember, real bluesy.’