By Rita Martelli
In Liverpool, before and after the Beatles made the city famous, there was another group of musicians performing in the city who never quite made it commercially. They were, of course, our black musicians and some of them were very good indeed, and certainly deserved to make it because, as Bill Harry himself said, ‘They are as good as anything in the charts.’ (Who Put The Beat In Merseybeat, 1996). One of these was Ramon (Sugar) Deen.
Sugar’s early life was quite interesting and varied. He was born in Canning Street in the south end of the city to a Nigerian father and Scottish mother. When quite young, he and the family were taken to live in Nigeria, where they stayed for about four years. On their return, the only accommodation offered to them was in the north end of Liverpool.
It was in a tenement block off Scotland Road and Sugar recalls the five years they lived there as horrendous, because this part of the city was very racist. He describes these years as ‘five years of hell’, with people kicking the door, windows being smashed, and name-calling. He also remembered that the black families would invariably be allocated the flats on the top floor of these blocks, therefore making it difficult to have anything delivered to the door – like coal, for instance, which was essential in those days of coal fires and no central heating. Eventually, however, the family was able to move to a more welcoming area back in the south end, but this time in Liverpool 1, known locally as ‘Chinatown’.
Like many of the other black singers/musicians, there was an accomplished musician in the family, in his case, his mother, who played the piano and taught her children how to
Sugar was then able to carry this knowledge to the groups he played with in future years. Neighbours who used to hear the Deen children singing would often ask them to sing at parties, but his mum always refused due to the ‘exploitation’ and ‘black showcase’ factors. Later, however, she did accompany them to sing at places where they would be paid one shilling – a lot of money to a child in those days (1940s/50s).
In his mid-late teens, Sugar met up with another boy, Tony Fayle, now sadly deceased, around Kent/King Gardens where they both lived. They shared an interest in music and began trying to get a group together. This was, of course, happening all over the city with both black and white youngsters. But whereas the white youth was emulating the skiffle sound of the likes of Lonnie Donegan, the black youth was emulating the American doo-wop sound of people like Frankie Lymon.
American records were imported regularly because most of the black men in Liverpool were seamen and had access to the music they heard while abroad, which they then brought home. These boys didn’t have anywhere to go to rehearse, so would do so while standing on the street corners, therefore becoming known as ‘street-corner singers.’
Sugar, and the other prospective musicians in the city, did not just get together for the sake of music. In many cases, it was also for social reasons. They saw this as a way out of the prejudice and harassment they were subjected to. For example, he recalls that, if 3-4 black lads were standing on a corner talking, they would automatically be arrested, because Liverpool was permanently patrolled by police cars at that time. They would be loaded into police vans and taken to ‘Cheapside’, the lock-up, where they would be given a choice of offences, - drunk and disorderly, loitering with intent or urinating in the street. Most would choose drunk and disorderly, even though this was untrue.
The black lads also had to face trouble if they ‘dared’ to go to venues for a night out, which would invariably end up with a fight – for which they would get the blame, true or not! So, for Sugar and others like him, getting a group together was their way of getting out of the forced gang culture they were becoming involved in, through no fault of their own.
The majority of black groups were vocal groups, so they did not play instruments during performances, even though some of them were quite adept and were good players of guitars, basses and pianos, for example.
Sugar was a member of several groups, the first being the Ramones, playing in venues around the city, often on the same bill as bands who later became famous.