LET THE LITTLE GIRLS DANCE
Wembley Caribbean Music Festival, and the Saffrons
Every five weeks or so Susan Belcher held a graduation of her academy at their small showroom/offices on Oxford Street. The panel assessing the potential of these young ladies, and a few young men, usually comprised fashion writer Sheila Brown, model/dancer Al Shelly, and myself – with the occasional guest celebrity. As far as I am aware, none of the candidates, of whom some hundred or so passed before our eyes each year, became a professional model, but I like to think that the experience of “being somebody” for the evening gave them the boost to face their, often humdrum, daily life with greater confidence or to achieve success elsewhere.
Yvonne Smith was one of the girls who graduated from Susan’s Academy. She was no more memorable than any other. So when she approached me at a show near the Tottenham Court Road I assumed it was to query why she had not been given a higher grade. No, she recognised me from the graduation and just wanted to ask me to dance with her. At the end of the evening photographer Eddie Grant offered to drop her off at Streatham on his way to driving me home. Yvonne was uneasy about me walking with her from the car to her front door. As there had been violence in the neighbourhood I insisted. The front door led to nowhere. The house was derelict and Yvonne, so clean and neat in appearance, was living with all her belongings on/with her as she stood before me.
I could not bear the thought of the young lady staying in such a place and asked her to come back with me. We had a spare room and I knew Hopelyn would accept her as a guest. Yvonne quickly became part of our family: our daughter Elaine, then a toddler, immediately named her “mate”. She remained with us for about a year. Nobody could have wanted a better lodger. Ms Smith, who had so few of the advantages in life, was friendly, determined and helpful. She left us when her mother died suddenly and she was required to look after her father and brothers in Birmingham. We lost contact too soon. In spite of some strenuous efforts it has been impossible to trace one individual named “Smith” in such a large city.
At the same time as she joined us, Count Prince Miller, the doyen of Jamaican entertainers, was putting together the Caribbean Music Festival at Wembley. There were actually two shows – in September 1969 and in April 1970 – but as each involved virtually the same artistes and had the same format it is easy to view them as a whole. All the top Jamaican performers from here, home and overseas were on the same stage on the same evening. There had not been anything like it before (or since). I knew about Count Prince Miller’s fame long before he left Jamaica to come here following his appearance in the James Bond film Dr No, and was present when he and Jimmy James & the Vagabonds played on the cramped small at the Flamingo club on Wardour Street shortly after their arrival. A day or so later Miller called on editor Aubrey Baynes, with whom I was in discussion at the time, and we remained friends until his death over fifty years later.
In performance Miller was tall, exotic and dominating. He used his wide mouth to maximum effect in singing Mule Train, the song with which he is always associated. Yet he was also generous with his time and opinions. Often I sought to interview him on some aspect of his own career only far Count to spend our entire time together talking about the success or welfare of his competitors. He was a proud Jamaican whom his country duly honoured. Miller was also a close friend of his compatriot Wilfred Edwards, who, in my opinion, was the greatest of all ballad singers.
Edwards’ great popularity was evident from the moment I started mixing with Jamaicans (the girls in particular). At house parties it was difficult to miss his romantic lyrics. If he had been an American, Wilfred would have been an international star, a household name, in the manner of Brook Benton. One hot early summer day in 1964 Millie Small, then at the height of her fame, made a personal appearance at a record shop in Queen’s Park. I went along to meet her, but had difficulty getting into the shop through the throng of Jamaicans as Millie lent through the front window distributing photographs of herself and signing autographs.
One of the several white men standing behind her asked: “Do you want to interview Millie’s pianist while you are waiting?”
Of course, I did, and he directed me to a quiet, unassuming man at the back.
Pianist! I could not believe my eyes. It was the great Wilfred Edwards, who went by the name of Jackie Edwards in England where he was known better as a song-writer. He was more than just somebody’s accompanist. Wilfred was a star, and quickly became a friend. Some years later Count Prince Miller and myself called regularly on Edwards and his wife at their home on Gaddesden Avenue, Wembley. It was usually on a Thursday evening, if my memory serves me correctly. Usually other well-known artistes of the time joined us. Sitting fireside by the tank of tropical fish I listened in silence and absorbed all that they said. It was as good as a university crash course in Jamaican music and in humanity.
The show at Wembley was on a Sunday. The Friday evening before the manager of the official promoters phoned me with an impossible request. The dancers who were meant to accompany Desmond Dekker had withdrawn – could I put together a new team for him in something less than 48 hours? I made my excuses and was about to put down the receiver.
“Tell him you can to it” said our lodger Yvonne Smith who had overheard the conversation.
I shrugged my shoulders, but she was adamant.
“The lady says – yes, we can” I said.
“Good. I shall hold you to that” the manager replied.
All we had to do now was to find some dancers, audition, train and rehearse them, and make their costumes. All in ….
That evening Yvonne had myself went through our list of contacts with girls we knew at Susan’s and were dancers. We asked some to come to our house in Forest Hill the following afternoon. Before they arrived Yvonne went to Brixton to buy material for their costumes. It was yellow – the only colour she could get. After a brief audition Arlene, Delva and Pearlene were invited to join Yvonne in the team: the others could go home. That was when the hard work began. “Smithy” as she was known affectionately – though her family called her “Girlie” – was sure that they already had a routine of eight tunes.
“We all go out dancing” she said. “And each of us four has got at least two dances we can do”.
Yvonne explained that each team-member would take the lead on one number, do whatever came into her head, while the others bobbed up and down behind them in a basic dance. The eyes of the public would be on the soloist. That was four numbers. Their second dances would be the same, except here the other girls standing in two-two formation would imitate exactly what the leader initiated. To make things easy every moment – jump right, jump back, shake left leg, wave arms, shake hips etc – would be done four times. Hips – one – two – three – four. Jump back – one – two – three – four. It was simple, and it worked well.
The dancers were at our house early the next day. They polished their routine and Hopelyn measured them for the costumes. The design was basic: it comprised a bikini top and bottom with a series of hooks on which ribbons, pieces of cloth and tassels could be attached to give the impression of being sets of different garments. Hopelyn, Yvonne and the girls were still sewing and shaping the material on the train journey to Wembley. The question now was whether the costumes would hold together under the pressure of intense dancing and jumping on stage, or would they fall apart. We would soon find out.
Looking back on Horace Ove’s film of the event – Reggae – I am surprised and impressed by the number of white people in the audience. It was a powerful riposte to the right-wing politician Enoch Powell who had made his notorious “rivers of blood” speech the year before the first show. Nevertheless, it was a celebration of Jamaican music. All the expected artistes were there – Edwards, Dekker, the Pioneers, Mille Small, Derrick Morgan, Max Romeo, Nicky Thomas – and from the other side of the Atlantic came John Holt, The Maytals and Johnny Nash, an American who identified with reggae music – all welded together seamlessly by Count Prince Miller’s tour de force as compere. The very improvisation as bands and singers jostled while waiting their turn on stage provided a sense of dynamism and vitality. I cannot remember any arguments as to top-of-the-bill precedence, though Young, Gifted and Black by Bob and Marcia seemed as if had been written specially as an anthem for the festival.
Arriving early to interview the artistes before they went on stage, I found myself being drafted as an unofficial steward calling and fetching them. It was a privilege. I found myself talking with some of the biggest names in the business as they waited backstage, in the wings, or at the foot of the steps leading to the stage. Yes – Johnny Nash. It wasn’t yet a full decade since, still a schoolboy in my parents’ house, I hid under the bed-clothes with my radio, so as not to wake other members of the household, while listening to his records played on Radio Luxembourg.
Four years earlier Tony Mossop, who worked day-time as in the mail-room of the Jamaican High Commission, and the Soul-seekers gospel group had responded to my father’s last-minute request to help him by playing at the youth club he ran at Longfield Hill in rural Kent. They were an immediate success. The local people had never heard gospel music played in that manner to which they could dance. The Soul-seekers were invited to play at other church occasions in the neighbourhood. As vocalist Tony gained a cult following. His performance at the Bowater Scott social club in Gravesend received a crowd reaction associated with stars of greater magnitude. Yet he could not recapture on record the charisma of his personality on stage.
After several unsuccessful attempts to achieve recording recognition he allowed his reggae version of Red, red wine to go out under the name Tony Tribe. Its modest success was sufficient to get him a spot opening the second show at Wembley. Shortly afterwards he left here to attend a family occasion in Toronto and did not come back. That was surprising. After several years frustration he would have wanted to build on the progress of Red, red wine – but he just disappeared from the radar. It wasn’t until 1980 that I learned he had been killed in a road-accident while he was in Canada. With his passing I lost probably my closest friend from among the vocalists with whom I associated.
What happened to the dancers? The opening shots of the film Reggae show Hopelyn still helping them with their make-up even as the opening acts performed. Then Desmond Dekker was called – it was the moment of truth. The girls danced energetically, shook every part of their bodies, and the costumes stayed in place. They were so successful that other artistes asked them to stay on stage to accompany them. Their popularity cost them dearly. The girls were so surrounded by admirers at the end of the show that they missed their anticipated lift home. The taxi fare from Wembley to South London (and even Croydon) came to more than they earned for the performance. That was the price for being part of history.
One of the musical newspapers – I cannot remember now whether it was Melody Maker or New Musical Express – reported favourably on their performance. That was unusual, if not unique, because background dancers are usually passed over as part of the trappings. And this team didn’t even have a name. That was soon put right. Seeing their yellow costumes the reporter referred to the saffron-clad dancers. And as the Saffrons they stayed together and remained the most prominent of West Indian dance groups until we moved from Forest Hill to Barnehurst five years later and couldn’t supervise rehearsals and bookings. Then they had to close down.
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