WEMBLEY, THE FIRST BIG SHOW 

 

Wembley Empire Pool
September 1969 and April 1970
 

The Caribbean Music Festival held at the Empire Pool, Wembley on 21st September 1969 was a landmark. There were two such festivals because a second followed on 26th April 1970. As almost the same artistes were involved in each, and reports tend to confuse the two, it is as well to consider them as a single entity – like the two different innings of the same cricket match. They were unique and have never been repeated as such. As the estimated audience of 14,000 for each show contained several hundred young white enthusiasts it was the perfect response to Enoch Powell, as much as the response in founding the Carnival gave to the Teddy Boys at Notting Hill. 

The Festival showed also the variety of Caribbean music. The programme was more than 90% Jamaican which was then the contest of the UK West Indian music industry. After a brief calypso craze, much of it artificial, and Cy Grant strumming improvised news-calypsoes on television, hardly anything was available from the Eastern Caribbean. 

Reggae, the film Horace Ove, a Trinidadian, made of the second concert was shown at the ICA cinema on the Mall and later on national television. Those who were there, especially the performers, sensed the significance of the event on which they were taking part. They discovered that they belonged to an even wider world market than they had realised. The public knew, too, that Caribbean wasn’t a minority taste. As well as being entertained, the crowds coming to the venue in drizzle shared an experience. 

The national media missed out in not giving the Festival greater recognition. When it comes to the Caribbean heritage community the media have always been a step behind the march. They didn’t embrace the earlier spirit of racial and social harmony and co-operation before the harsher edge of Bob Marley and reggae made them take notice. That has always been the way as well in sport, politics and entertainment. The festivals were promoted by a white man, Stan Beiderbecke of the Clayman (employment) Agency. The talking-heads of reggae included white d.j. Mike Raven and pioneer producer Graham Goodall as well as black producer Junior Lincoln and sales specialist (and founder of Trojan Records) Lee Gopthal, an Asian. 

The face, and most certainly the mouth, of Wembley was that of Count Prince Miller. The format and occasion was made for him. It was Miller’s finest hour, among several fine hours. In spite of his sixty or so years in the business Count hasn’t received the recognition he deserves. He is still a versatile all-round entertainer par excellence. The vast venue and enthusiastic audience provided the right setting for Miller to give full vent to the mouth-gymnastics and stage vitality of his hit song Mule Train. If you still associate that number solely with Frankie Laine’s restrained rendition you will have a shock if you catch Count Prince Miller’s version on You Tube.  Extrovert by nature, he is generous to the artistes sharing the stage with him and makes sure that they receive their due appreciation. That’s the mark of the perfect compere. Count’s imput into the Festival went further than what was seen on the night, great though that was. He was involved closely in planning the programme, selecting the performers, and directing publicity. I was pleased, and flattered, he asked me to join him and Beiderbecke at some of the early planning meetings. His knowledge of his fellow-entertainers was sound – he had worked with so many of them previously. Whatever style, or type, of act the promoter wanted, Miller knew a “man or woman who can”. Although he shared the compere duties with seasoned broadcaster Dwight Wylie, it is Miller who is remembered. 

The Festival brought together the foremost and the best in Jamaican music. All the major specialist record labels such as Island, Pama and Bamboo, were involved, as well as various unattached artistes. The programme was so arranged that there was no top-of-the-bill act as such. Bob (Andy) and Marcia (Griffiths), whose hit Young, Gifted and Black was the anthem of the age for the young, closed the show, and the greatest media attention fell on Desmond Dekker. Yet it is impossible to rule out the significance also of Johnny Nash, an American who had a hit with I Can See Clearly Now, or Jimmy Cliff who had the same success with that song two decades later.  

The Festival was very much a celebration of music. I cannot remember any stage appearances being made by “celebrities” or socially self-important people of the kind who, apparently, have to have their say at such events today. The music was appreciated as music. Some of it was of serious intent, some was romantic, some frothy, and others up-beat. Jamaican/West Indian culture was profiled without anybody feeling that they had to “blab on” about its cultural significance. Sit back and enjoy the music. 

Enjoy just that. 

In 1969 that music was at an interesting stage. Seven years had gone by since Jamaica, and Trinidad & Tobago, had become independent. That was sufficient time for a different emphasis to have developed between the songs/records produced in Kingston and those made in London. UK Jamaican music, which had arrived too late to catch the popularity of Mento, has passed through its Blue Beat and Ska phases and was entering into Rock, Steady. The raw appeal of Desmond Dekker with his unpolished Jamaican had already edged My Boy Lollipop to the side-lines. Five years after her world-wide success Millie was on the bill at Webley, she had to be there, but she was not among the front-runners. 


Wembley – The Performers
September 1969 – April 1970
 

Desmond Dekker (born Dacres), whose early records had portrayed with contemporary Jamaican trends, had teamed up with the rougher sound of Derrick Morgan, who also played at Wembley, to give his message more appeal to the then-prevalent “rude boy” culture. His international hit 007 Shanty Town in 1967 had made him their icon. The next year he had had even greater success with Israelites which must be the most played, and easiest to recognise, Jamaican record of all time. It is still being used on television commercials in the United Kingdom. Dekker  built a strong following also with the English “mods”, who were young men who dressed in stylish modern clothes to distinguish them from the leather-look of their rivals, the “rockers” of the earlier Rock ‘n’ Roll era. They, themselves, were now being replaced by the more assertive close-cropped “skinheads”. Dekker’s appeal to the English public was his very “Jamaican-ness”. His speech, heavy in his island’s dialect, was almost unintelligible to them, and they loved it. His movements on stage had an earthy sexiness. Desmond wasn’t the sort of boy an English girl could bring home to meet her parents, but she could take home his records. The words of in songs such as It Mek and You Can Get It If You Really Want had an equally-earthy appeal. He was also a highly visual performer. At the time of the Wembley festivals, Dekker was at the peak of his popularity. He could have fitted in well with the prevailing urban culture of south-east London where he eventually settled.           

The Pioneers comprising Sydney Crooks, Jackie Robinson and George Agard (Dekker’s half-brother), looking resplendent in their top-hats and tails, were also well received by the skinheads as well as their natural fans. Their record Long-Shot Kicked the Bucket about a racehorse that died was so successful in the United Kingdom that they had decided to re-locate to London. 

The Apollo Club in Harlesden provided a platform for acts represented by PAMA records, who included Stranger Cole, Pat Kelly and Joyce Bond. The club and the record were owned/managed by the Palmer brothers (Harry, Carl and Jeff). I have happy memories of the Apollo without having felt at home there as I did at venues south of the river. There is a definite Thames divide in London. The Apollo was close to the American military base at Ruislip/Northolt and, thereby, closer to the black consciousness if the late-1960s and early-1970s. Clubs like the Apollo, and that run by man named Bertie at a basement in Effra Road, Brixton, are unjustly forgotten in histories of the time because there was no historian around with a camera or a publisher interested in recording their existence. 

That charge could not be laid against photographer Len Garrison. He was recording on film as much as he could. Len started his career as a journalist contributing to the West Indian Gazette at about the same time as myself. A tall, gangling youth, who carried his camera over his shoulder on a long lead, Garrison was distinctive in his quest for news and worthwhile subjects. We worked together on a couple of assignments. He progressed to achieving a university degree, training as an educationalist, and becoming a foremost historian of the back presence and identity in Britain. Len Garrison’s legacy lives on in the Black Cultural Archives, now based in Brixton, which he was instrumental in founding. 

The Wembley repertoire blended the proven smoothness with the very acceptable Jackie Edwards with the public unacceptability of a young Max Romeo whose record Wet Dreams had been banned by the BBC for its overt sexuality, thereby ensuring that it became as a massive a hit here as it had been in Jamaica. Similar fame came to one or two of the other younger artistes there. Jimmy Cliff had had a substantial success already with Wonderful World, Beautiful People and would go on to international renown in the 1972 film The Harder They Come.  John Holt, already an established star in Jamaica, soon made Help Me Make It Through The Night one of the most evocative sounds of the 1970s. Although I did not realise it for some long time afterwards, Holt also wrote The Tide Is High which made Blondie famous. 

The Maytals, sometimes styled as Toots and the Maytals, were then on the point of becoming Jamaica’s most acclaimed group. Their then current release Monkey Man was taken over by the Pyramids at Wembley. The song was big enough for both. On the other hand, the Mohawks and Black Faith are hardly remembered today. The Trinidadian vocal brother-sister vocal duo Mac and Katie Kissoon are all but forgotten. Boris Gardiner, a leading singer, song-writer and bass-guitarist in his own right, had an even greater reputation as a session man, notably with the venerable Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. There were now acts on the crowded bill than I can remember to name. Some, like comedians Bim & Bam, were recruited at the last moment without their participation being picked up either in the programme or in the press reports. 

Whatever the audience were charged for admission, they received full value for their money – and more.
 

Venues in London
1971
 

Brothers Bill and Pete Campbell from Nottingham came to London too late to be included at Wembley. They got my address as “somebody who might be able to help” from their sister Patricia, as aspiring model. The brothers were keen, committed to their ambition, and knew the basics of the business. I found them a few engagements, booked them on a couple of my own shows, matched them with a Peckham-based backing-group Heart and Soul led by drummer Winston Bayley, and arranged interviews for them with recording companies. They were joined on occasion by sweet-voiced Honey Boy, who, I was given to understand, was their cousin. All three made their mark in the industry. Whereas Pete has continued mainly as a singer, especially at venues around North London, Bill, while continuing to sing, specialised in production with his own label and recording studio in Shepherd’s Bush. His records have been particularly popular in Brazil. Whenever we meet the brothers give me a generously warm welcome. 

For several years Pete was the regular singer at the well-attended charity dinner-dances organised by Gloria and David Leslie at Tottenham town hall in aid of Jamaican hospitals. When he arrived at the venue Pete always came straight over to where Hopelyn and myself were sitting, clasped me to him, and told the gathering: 

“This is the man to whom we owe our success. He was our first manager when we came to London”. 

Bill has been equally complimentary. It was all much more than I deserve, as well they know. Once I said to Bill: 

“I have something to confess. I know absolutely nothing about music”. 

Bill laughed out loud in his reply. 

“Of course you don’t. We knew that from the moment we first met you”. 

Then why had they been so sure that I had helped them? Bill told me that it was about my having faith in them, having put them in touch with people that matter in the business, and maybe a hint or two about publicity and presentation. That could be true. I may not know anything about music, or body-building, wrestling, art, fashion and many other activities on which I have had some influence – but I can recognise talent and commitment. The Campbell brothers had that ability to persevere and to succeed.

 

Back Wembley – and its after-effects
September 1969 – April 1970
 

The Wembley festival was also a personal watershed. I knew many of the participants as personal friends and most of the other professionally. Although I had been drawn to the Jamaican community initially through cricket, it was music that formed by far the greater part of my writing imput in the 1960s. I had known Count Prince Miller since the days of the Flamingo club and his visits to Aubrey Baynes’ office. That friendship deepened through our regular meetings at the home of Wilfred (Jackie) Edwards at Gaddesden Avenue in Wembley. From them and from the other leading names who were often there, I gained a rich education in Jamaican music and culture. 

Once when we were walking bac to his house Edwards suggested casually that he and I should work together on writing some songs. 

“You have a way with words” he suggested. “I can write music, and you do the lyrics. It’s a good combination”. 

I laughed it off. Me a song-writer? There cannot be anybody less musical tan myself. In later years, however, I have had some poems published which are said to have a lyrical quality. Perhaps after all that should be marked down as another of life’s missed opportunities. We lost contact when Wilfred returned suddenly to Jamaica in the early-1970s. It wasn’t the last influence he had on my career, though. His death on 15 August 1992 opened a new outlet in providing me with the first obituary – of a good number to follow in the next two decades – I have had published in the national press. 

When Count Prince Miller had wanted to get the message about the Festival at Wembley across to the Jamaican leadership I was among the first people he had contacted. As well as being the culmination and landmark of my own career to that date, the musical years, it was also the last. I had a fleeting appearance in the film Reggae. Blink and you will have missed it. It is right at the start immediately after shots and interviews of the public arriving. I am the young white man with glasses and the bouncy walk leading some visitors into one the dressing-rooms to meet members of the band. Memory tells me that I was taking Bim & Bam to meet Tony Tribe. As we have seen already, there is also a shot of Hopelyn helping the Saffrons to apply their make-up. The Saffrons, themselves, can be seen dancing over the closing credits. In spite of knowing the young ladies well, I still cannot be sure who is the one shaking her hips as the titles roll. 

That evening at the show I rushed here, there and everywhere, in and out of the dressing-rooms, at the behest of the stage management, making sure that the next act due on stage did not miss their cue. It was a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing some of the great performers up close from my place close-by in the wings. 

There was also time for me to watch. It was impossible to do otherwise with Count Prince Miller performing his Mule Train routine. I had a rare opportunity, too, to stand talk with John Holt, and his manager, and to Johnny Nash. This was the same Nash to whose singing I had listened as a teenager with my portable radio under the bed-clothes so that its sound did not wake the other residents in the house. It was hard to accept that that had been only ten years earlier. Everybody clustering in their little groups at the steps to the stage, or behind the curtains in the wings, seemed to have sung, recorded, composed or produced a record that was played around the world. 

I had nothing more than write about them. Did I really belong in that company? Surprisingly, it seemed that I did and they accepted me as so. After all, as I have said, so many of them were my friends. Then the curtain came down – but the memory has never really closed.

 

   

 

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