The Flamingo Jazz Club which operated out of a dingy basement in London’s Wardor Street, Soho in the late 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, has become legendary amongst cultural buffs of that city. It has been featured in a number of articles and documentaries like the BBC’s Soul Britannia, which looked at the history of Soul music in the United Kingdom. The Club is also a sweet memory of those of us who when teenagers spent our weekends in its sweaty bowels.
Although if one reads the odd article on the Flamingo Club that appears these days, one may get the impression it was a Mod club.* Whilst half true this is far from the actual story, it is true the more adventurous Mod’s who inhabited London’s West End back then, gradually became regulars at the club and by 1963 the music played within the Flamingo was entirely within the Mod tradition. However, this is a chicken or egg conundrum, as the claim could equally be made that the Flamingo was a major influence on the music that became inherent within Mod culture rather than the other way around. No, the Flamingo was much more than a club where members of the youth cult known as Mod’s hanged out, it was the precursor of the ethnic melting pot London was to become and this was reflected in the sounds played within the club.
Indeed ask any old Mingolian why their anti racist roots are so firm; and it is a fact few who were Mingo regulars ended up as racists, they would not reply with the names of the great men and women of the civil rights and anti racist movement, nor from having been racially abused themselves, but because for a short period of time their roots lay within that dingy Wardor Street basement lovingly known to its regulars as, ‘The Mingo.’
There were two main Soho clubs in the 1960s that could be exclusively called Mod hangouts, The Scene in Ham Yard and the Discotheque in Lower Wardor Street. In both of these clubs the sounds were American R&B with a touch of Jazz and West Indian Bluebeat. Whilst today’s media may claim the soundtrack of the Mod era was provided by the likes of the Who, Kinks, and Small Faces, I don’t recall ever hearing any of the music of these bands being played within any of the West End Mod hangouts. Although Millie Small, Prince Buster, Barrett Strong, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Smith, Bo Didley, and Cannonball Adderley were regularly blasted out, bouncing off the ceiling and out into the street.
However for many Mods, neither of these clubs were a touch on the Mingo, the Scene was elitist, look at me, am I not a face type of place, edgy, with an undertow of violence lurking beneath the surface, which often erupted outside in Ham Yard. Whilst the Disc as it was known, was more of a rough and ready joint, it had old mattresses along one wall, more welcoming that the scene; and for me it provided a taster of what was to come, whilst the music was black, the cliental of both the Scene and Disc were almost exclusively white.
Just up the road from the Disc was the Flamingo Jazz Club, its clientele were mainly newly arrived West Indian immigrants, plus a sprinkling of black GIs based at the US air bases which were then scattered across the south of England and East Anglia, plus a lesser number of white jazz ‘cats.’ Young Mods, who thought back then they we were at the fore of the UK street fashion scene and as hip as hell with Ben Sherman shirts, Italian cut mohair suits and blue beat hats, would get a fair bit of ribbing and a little abuse from the black guys hanging around its stairwell when they walked past the Mingo.
Most of us were then in our mid teens, whilst the Mingo regulars then were somewhat older, early twenties. We gave as good as we got, although occasionally one of the black guys would chance his arm and half heartedly attempt to roll one of us, on the odd occasion when some blocked up kid, new to the scene would hand his cash over whilst in a drugged daze, one of the other brothers would more often than not put a stop to it and return his cash, after deducting a shilling or two as a lesson for the youngsters gullibility.
Before I go on, Britain was far from the multi racial society it is today; most Mods lived in parts of London or the Home Counties which had few black faces; the more so in the New Towns and estates of the south east of England, like Welling Garden City, Hemel Hampstead, Basildon, South Ockendon-Belhus, etc. Which had been built in the 1950s, to take up the housing slack brought about by the bombing of London during WW2 and the determination of the post war Governments not to make the mistakes made after WW1 and at least attempt to build homes fit for heros, and replace the wretched slums that surrounded most big cities in the UK.
Thus seeing all these Black guys in Wardor Street was something completely new and in truth somewhat intimidating for most of us, or would have been if we were not so young, naive, and adventurous in search of a good time [stoned-out too]
Given time many of us began to wonder what it was like down in the Mingo basement; and as tales of fantastic live music down below began to seep along the street, not least that a young organist and his band named Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames were bringing the house down at weekends, the more adventurous decided to give it a go. Dube’s [purple hearts] downed we ventured forth, through the crowd hanging at the entrance we went with trepidation, down the stairs to the door where John Gunnell, one of the two brothers who ran the club took your cash, half a quid, normally paid with a ten bob note and then you were in.
On entering you were hit by a wall of cheap perfume, roll on deodorant, smoke, sweat, and dancing bodies, all accompanied by a throbbing R&B soundtrack. As you pushed your way to the front there were three rows of old cinema seats in front of which there was a small stage for the band to perform on, with Hammond Organ, drums and amplifiers set up. To the left on a raised platform, there was a coffee bar type area from where you could oversee the stage and the rest of the club, a foot or so below, and from which you could view the band and check out the people dancing before you.
John Gunnell always introduced the bands, he is heard doing so on the live album Georgie Fame, Rhythm and Blues Live at the Flamingo, which captures the moment perfectly. Whilst Mr Fame was undoubtedly the star within the stable of Mingo artists,** [most of whom the Gunnell Brothers also managed] we all had our own particular favorites, and I like most would diligently get the Melody Maker every Thursday to see who was doing the Saturday Allnighter 12 midnight to 6 am, and in case we had any energy left, the Sunday afternoon 3 to 6 pm slot. My heart used to sink if it was John Mayall, not because he had a crap band, far from it, but he was so self indulgent, a Blues purists who saw himself as a middle class intellectual in the jazz club habitue mold, back then he failed to understand, black music was not an intellectual thing, but was there to lift our spirits and move us emotionally, to take us beyond our dreary lives as factory fodder or to lighten our days at school, where we were being half ‘educated’ to become the cart horses of capital and with a big stick at that. So, if Mayall was playing the Sunday slot it was a no no, as most of us would be done in from the all-nighter and suffering a vicious come down, so John singing about ‘crawling up another bloody hill’ was going to do us no good at all.
With the influx of young Mod’s and our coming together with the black brothers, the Mingo had moved beyond a jazz club atmosphere and John was the wrong band for the club the Mingo had become.. The whirling thump of the Hammond organ and horns is what we wanted, with a singer who punched a whole in our souls, we wanted to be lifted not driven down into our boots. Having said this Chris Farlowe who was one of my favorites got by without a horn section, but he did have Albert Lee on guitar and Dave Greenslande on organ and for some reason, when ever other singers came down to the club it was with Chris and the Thunderbird they more often than not sat in.
Remember things were different back then, outside of Soho, for most working class people life shut down at 10:30, when the pubs and cinemas closed. Whilst there were late night drinking clubs in Soho, an all-nighter that had live music was very rare. Only Ronnie Scott’s [old club] in Gerard Street, which was directly opposite the Mingo springs to mind. There was Ken Colyer’s Studio 51, which used to have an all-nighter now and again, but it was full of middle class trad-jazzers and was an acquired taste to say the least and for me the atmosphere was a kin to an average students bar of the age. (Although in truth back then I had never been in a collage let alone a students bar.)
Thus many musicians who had been gigging around London and the home counties would turn up in their early hours to sit in with the band and blow their horns, the singer Eric Burdon and saxophonist Dick Hecksal Smith were the two I remember most. At his best, long before he became a born again American, Burdon was a wonderful singer. I saw him and Farlowe on many occasions bring the house down, not least when duetting on Stormy Monday Blues, just magnificent. Rod the Mod’s ‘mentor’ Long John Baldry also sat in from time to time, more often he was simply on the pull. As to did Jimi Hendrix, just the once mind, fresh off the plane from the US with his new manager Chas Chandler. I also remember Chris Barber, the Trad jazz guy turning up in the small hours to blow his trombone, which surprisingly turned out to be a treat.
The first band I saw was Ronnie Jones and the Knight-Timers, Ronnie was one of those GI’s I mentioned above accept he stepped out of the audience onto the bandstand to sing with a sweet soulful voice, Ronnie due to commitments went his own way to be replaced in the Knightimers by Herbie Goings, another American GI or so we all presumed, an R&B belter in the mould of Wilson Picket and I tell you Herb could really shake the Mingo down. Whilst he was to be followed somewhat later by yet another American ‘ex serviceman,’ Geno Washington who teamed up with an outfit called the Ram Jam Band, a real showman but voice wise he never came up to Herbie who had a great voice and a songbook of black music that covered the previous two decades and more, thus he often had the club in the palm of his hand.
Then their was the guy who I thought had the best name ever for a band, Zoot Money and his Big Roll Band and boy did he let the good times roll. Zoot was a bundle of energy with a smile like a cheshire cat, who owed a lot to the show band style of Fats Domino, with a touch of the rock and roll exuberance of Little Richard thrown in, and he went down a storm with most Mods, especially in the suburban halls which ringed London and which most frequented during the week. But some how the black guys never took to him in the same way as they did Mr Fame, who for some reason they saw as one of their own as too did we Mod affectionardios who frequented the Mingo.
Maybe it had something to do with having black guys like Speedy on the Congas or Eddie Thornton on the Trumpet; or that Fame’s voice was just right for Bluebeat, which took the guys back home. In truth I doubt the Mingo would have become the club it was if Clive had not graced its stage, he like all great musician had pure style. Whilst on that small stage, he and the Blue Flames and the crowd became as one. If you have only seen him on TV shows like Top of The Pops, it is easy to understand why you might not feel he is anything special, but catch him in a small room, with the right band and the man is pure class; and still is at times to this day. But there is another reason why people like me owe him a debt, he was a working class lad from Wigan, coming from much the same background as most of us mods. Thus his love for blues, pop, soul, jazz, indeed most musical forms, encouraged those of us who admired his music to follow in his foot steps with our very own Sound Venture and in the process many of us acquired wide musical taste.
It was the mixture of black and white and the music we all enjoyed which instilled in us a rejection of the infantile and nonsensical nature of racism. Against the odds we had been part of a celebration as a black and white crowd, which rejoiced in black music played by white and black musicians, and we were never going to become pawns in any racist politicians hand’s. During the most formative years of our lives, we had been as one. What we learnt down in that dark basement room was not to fear difference, but to embrace and rejoice in it, test it, and if its fine, go with the flow. We learnt to look outside our own sphere of influences, whether in music or life in general; and not to always simply go with the majority flow.
Of course it is impossible to write about the Mingo without mentioning what fueled it, back then as today, no all-nighter could survive without its punters being on just a little more than thresh air and the odd can of larger, no matter how good the sounds. Amphetamines, Dubes, purple hearts, blues whatever one wished to call the speed of the day was the power source, at least for most Mod’s; that and the music. In the early days the pills came having been ‘liberated’ by people who worked for French Kline and Smith, the major pharmaceutical manufacturer, having been passed down the line until small time pushers did the deal on the street. Different pushers had their shop fronts south off Shaftsbury Avenue, much as I presume they have in parts of Soho today. One in the doorway of Revels shoe shop in Wardor St, another on the corner at the T junction where Gerald and Wardor Street converged. The Dubes were as easy to get up West back then as Coke is today, it was only when demand outreached supply that bent doctors, breaking into chemist ships and counterfeiting french blues came into play and by then the Mingo had died a death as many of its best musician’s and punters went in search of flower power or a more steady source of income.
* 1960′s fashion and lifestyle trend, popular amongst working class youngsters.