Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Growing Up With Elvis!


I wasn't quite a teenager when I went to see Elvis in Kid Galahad at the Essoldo Cinema in Tunbridge Wells. I was just six months short of my thirteenth birthday. The idea of going to see an Elvis Presley movie made a relatively small impact on me at the time. It was my sister, Sue, three years older than me, and her friend Ann Church, who persuaded me to join them one Saturday afternoon in late August 1962.
 
Although I barely knew who Elvis was, I had heard of him, of course, who hadn't, but that was some years earlier at secondary school when the older, senior boys stood round in groups in the playground discussing Elvis as if he was God himself, swapping bubblegum cards with his picture on. Even so, I still didn't have a clear picture of who he was. I can't even remember if, back then, I had even heard one of his hit singles being played on the radio. And at that tender age, I was still a little time off buying records and no, I wasn't even listening to the popular radio station of the day, Radio Luxembourg, usually listened to under a blanket at night by those of my sister's age. Nor had I purchased a record myself. When I did, I remember, it was the other hitmakers of the day like Frankie Vaughn and Garry Mills, not Elvis. In fact, I soon became the proud owner of Vaughn's Tower of Strength and Garry's Treasure Island, both on 45rpm records.

My sister was already into records. She had recently become the proud owner of a brand new ‘Elizabethan’ 4-speed, auto changer in a blue and white cabinet. It was the latest mono record player that made her friend’s very basic red and white ‘Dansette’ turntable look like an antique. Going by the records she was buying at the time, it seemed that she was going for all the big pop hits of the day by such names as Eden Kane, Cliff Richard and Russ Conway.

But in the wake of seeing Kid Galahad, the first Elvis record I bought was a 45rpm EP containing four of the songs from King Creole. And the first Elvis LP I owned, was given to me by an older boy at school, Elvis Golden Records Volume 2, released in America under the title 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong. The boy who I only knew by his surname used to fill the Chemistry Lab almost every lunch break with his guitar playing. He impressed any one who showed up with his skill to play an Electric Fender just like Hank Marvin. It was after one of these lunch time sessions that he gave me the Elvis album, and at the same time offered to lend me Elvis's EP of gospel songs, Peace In The Valley, warning me that I may not like it as it was, indeed required listening. I can't believe it now, but I actually turned down the EP. I think he put me off by telling me it was a collection of hymns, and even though I was a regular sunday school goer, under the demands of my parents, I didn't think I wanted to hear anyone sing the same hymns that had driven me mad every Sunday morning.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

First Job

I often get asked what my first job was. It was a post boy at ATV in London. In 1966, when I started there, it was the major weekday and weekend television broadcasting network in the UK, and its boss was the legendary Lew Grade. The only times I remember seeing Grade was when I was on newspaper duty, and had to go and get all the evening papers from the Cumberland Hotel and deliver them to his office! He seemed a rather frightening figure, like I imagine Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was said to be! I never saw him without a cigar, and on one occasion, when I dropped the paper money on his office floor, he was not amused!!

It was quite a place to work. On the 5th floor was Pye Records and on the lower ground floor was ITC who made such television series as The Saint and Danger Man, and a bit later, The Prisoner. I can remember going home with loads of photos of Roger Moore and Patrick McGoohan to hand out to family and friends! We used to get all sorts of goodies. I remember I was once given a film cell from the opening credit sequences for Danger Man by the film editing department. I was so excited! It was of no use, of course, but it was all the same quite a unique piece of memorabilia to own and something you could not buy for love or money! It was also something to show off to my friends.

Most of my school mates had gone to technical college to train as draughtsmen. I wasn't very academic at school, and had left without any GCE passes, so college was not really an option. I had some six months before leaving school gone for a five-year apprenticeship in printing, but had fluffed the entry interview and exam, so instead I went for a job that would get me into either the television, film or music industries, so ATV seemed liked a good starting point, seeing I had no qualifications, and because my father knew the personnel officer, it offered the best hope yet of leaving school with a job, and a job that had a future, as I could train for something once I was working there.

At the interview I was told that ATV expected most of their post boys to end up as trainee cameramen at Elstree Studios. My parents considered that would be a good and worthwhile career. But what was not made clear when I joined as a post boy was that graduation from post room to Elstree studios was not that simple. Any time a trainee cameraman post became available, it was circulated to every television station, film company and recruitment agency in the land, so the chances of getting selected to go and work at the studios was pretty remote! And certainly as a cameraman, because those opportunities were few and far between, and were usually grabbed by someone already working on the studio floor, like a clapper boy.

The other problem was that if a post boy hadn't found another job within ATV by the time you were 18, you were kicked out, because you couldn't be a post boy over that age! Getting promotion out of the post room to another department just didn't happen. Every job had to be applied for. I stayed there for about a year, applying for all sorts of jobs from a trainee film editor to running the stationery department, but to no avail, because there were so many applying for the same job, in and outside of ATV. It was the same old story, how did you get the experience if no one was prepared to give you the opportunity to try... so in many ways, it was all a bit of a closed shop.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

When I Wanted To Be A Disc Jockey


I must have been about 16 when I started going out to discotheques (as they were called then). And, in every one I went to, there was a disc jockey from one of the offshore pirate radio stations, and it kind of hit me: “Wow, these guys are really popular!” And on top of that I was also listening to stations like Radio London and Caroline 24/7, so I was pretty much influenced by the jocks of the day, like Johnnie Walker, Roger “Twiggy” Day, Dave Cash and, a bit later, Emperor Rosco, and to the music they were playing on air. So, with that in mind, I decided that was what I wanted to do.

What could be better, I thought, than having a job where you just play your favourite records and chat about them, and get paid for it? So I practiced at home in my bedroom, with a small record deck, just playing the first couple of seconds of each record, taking it off, putting another on, or the same one back on again and was also doing the in-between record chat, over and over, using a hairbrush as a microphone in front of a mirror until I got it to sound and look right as much as I could.

Next step was to march into one of my local haunts, the Club La Bamba in Tunbridge Wells, not far from the famous Pantiles, and ask if they needed a DJ. No, they didn’t, but I kept going back to pester the management until they finally agreed to let me do a 20 or 30-minute spot two evenings a week as the punters came in. Although I wasn’t allowed to use the mike and wasn’t allowed to talk the record in, it was a start. So there I was just changing the records, which in those days was mainly Stax and Motown, until the resident DJ Roger Munday took over. And, for doing that, I got as much free Coca-Cola as I could drink in an evening! So, after a few weeks of just putting the records on, I started to nag the club to let me talk the records in and, finally, after much debate, they relented and let me have a go one evening. And, as you do, I made a bunch of mistakes, silly things like having the mike switched to off for the first disc I played, getting tongue twisted on another, putting the wrong side of a record on, and so on. So don’t think I made much of an impression that first time. But the club was very gracious, and after picking up some very useful tips and guidance from Roger, they gave me another try, and another, until I eventually got it right!

And when I did get it right, it was great, the most exciting feeling imaginable. Being allowed to introduce each record, well, wow, it was what I wanted and a great first experience of how to be and react with a live audience. But it was only because I persevered, probably to the point of annoying, that the club finally gave in, but it meant I got the experience that all first-timers need, whether club, radio or television.

Of course, gaining experience for presenting on television was a lot more difficult than getting experience as a DJ in a club. You couldn’t just walk into a TV station like you could a nightclub and ask if you could have a go at it. I started out as a disc jockey in an era when the clubs and pirate radio stations were overcrowded with those keen enough to get seasick on ship three miles out at sea or drink as much Coca-Cola as they could in a single evening.

The entrance to Club La Bamba as it looks today, now an eatery