1: 1956-59: From
Skiffle To Rock
Johnny Kidd poses for the camera in his front garden
the honour of the first true British rock Ďní roll single goes to Cliff
Richardís "Move It" in 1958, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates can justly
claim to be one of the major British rock acts prior to 1962. Along with
Cliff and the Shadows they had much influence on groups that broke onto
the Beat scene in 1963. Travelling up and down Britain, come rain or
shine, Kidd and his Pirates were the best known among the trailblazing
instigators of what became "Beat" music, along with bands like Cliff
Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, Neil Christian and the Crusaders and
Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages.
Kidd was born Frederick
Albert Heath in Willesdon, London, on 23 November 1935, the youngest of
three children. At the age of three he was evacuated to the
Buckinghamshire countryside when the Second world War began, then later
into Wales before the bombing and the war eventually wound down and the
family - along with many others - was reunited. After the war,
times were hard with a shortage of money and rationing of even the most
basic items. Heath and his friends found enough to occupy
themselves with playing games around bomb sites. One popular
pastime was "Yank-Baiting".
were buggers for Yank-Baiting. The American servicemen would
hang around Hyde Park and the Serpentine. We would make ourselves a
bloody nuisance, while they were chatting up the English girls or
trying to make love on the grass under deck chair huts that they used
to make. We would throw stones and bits of wood, in fact
anything just to annoy them. We were only kids having a bit of
fun. Sometimes they would chase us, mostly they would tell us to Eff off!"
musical seeds were sown toward the end of 1956 when England was in the
grip of the Skiffle craze, when Frank Rouledge bumped into Brian Englund
and Fred Heath one evening at Ikes Snooker Hall. Englund played
banjo and Heath claimed to know some chords on guitar so all decamped
back to Frank's home where he played lead. After hours of mulling
over possible band names they came up with Bats Heath and the Vampires
and completed the line-up by enrolling Clive Lazell on washboard.
At one time the group was known as the Frantic Four in homage to Don
("Witch Doctor") Lang's Frantic Five. By the end of the year,
Englund had dropped out, Lazell had moved over to drums and Brian
Donelan had been drafted in on washboard. The group had a
collective sense of humour, and Donelan in particular was a zany
character which helped inspired the next group name change to the Five
Nutters. To perform at a special gig the group once had to bail
Donelon out of Pentonville Prison! The final addition at this
stage was bass player Johnny "Fruit" Gordon from Dusty Bohen's Skiffle
(Fabulous) Fred Heath Band, Tony Carlaw on drums
Their repertoire comprised not only Skiffle
favourites like "Cumberland Gap" and "Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O" but
also rock 'n' roll tunes ("Blue Suede Shoes", "Rock Around The Clock"),
pop ("Butterfly") plus a group original, "Blood Red Beauty", a reference
to the red-haired Ada, who was Fred's wife. A typical week saw
them performing on six nights. Coming a close third at a large
Skiffle competition was soon followed by another competition, this time
organised by Carol Levis who was coming to town with his Discoveries
Show and the venue was the Metropolitan on the Edgware Road. Like
"Opportunity Knocks" and its "clapometer", the audience reaction to each
group was measured during an encore at the end. The loudest seemed
to be for the Nutters but again they came third. After
remonstrating with Levis about the possibility of fixing, they were
promised television work - which didn't come off - and some prestigious
dates - which did. More competitions ensued - some of which they won - plus
better gigs such as the Two I's.
Fred had started to write some songs and came
up with some radical ideas such as trying out a song which had only one
chord all through it. As Rouledge noted, the tune "went down a
storm....couples were soon jiving and stamping to this primitive sound".
The BBC with its lack of interest in pop were late to the skiffle party,
which was past its peak when BBC Radio's "Skiffle Club" (which evolved
into "Saturday Club") eventually hit the air. Nevertheless the
Nutters appearance on it was the highlight of this groups' existence.
Heath, Lazell, Donelon and Rouledge even cut two tracks, "Shake, Rattle
And Roll" plus "Blood Red Beauty" at Wilkinson's Radio Shop, which still
As Skiffle declined, so the Nutters hung up
the washboard for good. Local entrepreneur Don Toy, who had a
contract with the local working men's clubs to supply all kinds of
musical acts from groups to orchestras, had actually seen the Nutters in
action once, but was unimpressed. He re-thought his opinion on
being introduced to Heath and between them formed what would become
the Fabulous Fred Heath Band with an expanded and flexible line-up.
Toy was the manager, agent, promoter and even drummer and started the
Krazy Curzon Klub at the White Horse pub in Willesden High Street for some months
until the landlord became greedy, and the group played one final gig
outside in the street in protest, managing to snarl up the road around
as people danced to the impromptu performance. The Fabulous
Freddie Heath Band simply fell apart after this let down but not before
Guy Robinson became involved with the group. Robinson was involved
with the Mike West Group, the resident band at Wandworth Town Hall, and
introduced Heath to them. He guest-performed "If You Were The Only
Girl In The World", after which He joined the group full-time and roped
in Fruit Gordon as the full-time bassist.
group renamed themselves the Fred, Mike & Tom Show, and all three
singers shared the limelight before West and Brown stepped aside to
allow Heath, the better vocalist take centre-stage. Alan Caddy
(lead guitar), Tony Doherty (rhythm guitar) and Ken McKay (drums) were
the other group musicians who were joined by Johnny ("Fruit") Gordon
(bass) to comple the line-up. Don Toy, who'd run a business
producing sound equipment, constructed a dedicated bass guitar amplifier
for Gordon where usually a guitar amp would have been used for an
electric bass. This huge cabinet, which put out two hundred watts
(and said to make the Town Hall floor vibrate) was very heavy to move.
In return, Gordon designed the red cut-out guitars used by the group.
Heath had always wanted to write songs but was unable to
garner enough interest in the 30 written during a three-month period.
He'd been working as a house painter but by this time he was getting
hard-up and desperate. The 31st song started life as a
catchy title and chord sequence that developed into "Please
Donít Touch". It sold and The Bachelors (a duo unrelated
to the later Irish trio) recorded the first version on EMIís Parlophone
label (45-R 4547) but it failed to sell. In the meantime HMV
scouts visited the Town Hall to view the band in action, whose
performance was described as a "disaster". Guy Robinson, now the
manager of the group, was mad at them but as luck would have it HMV
returned at a later date and Walter J. Ridley, manager of EMI's HMV
label was introduced to the group after a gig in a corrugated tin sheet
hall in Elstree.
Johnny Kidd - "It was suggested that I take a recording test.
I passed, was liked and, well, you know the rest of the story.
["Please Don't Touch" is] the most melodic song I've yet written. I
played all the chords I knew and then began switching the order to
form different combinations. Eventually I stumbled on a pattern
of chords that intrigued me and this became the foundation of "Please
Don't Touch". I though of a title for the song before I tackled
the lyrics. I wanted a well-known phrase, something like "No
Smoking", and I finally settled for "Please Don't Touch". Then I
built the words around the title."
Heath's successful test led to a recording contract on the
companyís HMV label under Producer Walter
J. Ridley who was used to the likes of Ronnie Hilton and the Joe
Gordon Folk Four. He usually left the Rock Ďní Roll to his more
than capable chief engineer, Peter Sullivan. Under Sullivan,
Freddie Heath and The Nutters - as they were now called - entered Abbey
Road Studios on 18 April 1959 to record their own version of "Please
Donít Touch", the master being edited from the best of 28 takes.
Heath was the only one directly contracted to HMV. The rest of the group
- these and all future band members - were paid as session men, in this
case 7 Pounds and 10 shillings. As Mike West noted: "We all
thought we were well off!" When during proceedings they were given
a slip of paper referring to the "Johnny Kidd and the Pirates recording
session", Heath exclaimed "who the hell is that?" A voice spoke
out, "from now on that's your recording name." It was never
divulged to them where the idea came from, although it was possibly
Peter Sullivan's or Guy Robinson's.
The rare and now very collectable second single
Donít Touch", was released on May 8th 1959 and was pure, raw,
gutsy, rock 'n' roll, with a frantic guitar intro, driving bass and
drums and, above all, authentic, powerful vocals from Kidd, making an
instant classic. The B-side, "Growl",
kept the pace up despite being thrown together during the session
itself. Agent Don Toy, a handy drummer who'd appeared with The
Freddie Heath Band when required, actually played on the session
as Ken Mackay's timing was out. He continued to fill in from time
to time especially when MacKay left on the day the record was released.
Don Toy - "All the numbers that were written by Guy, Fred and myself
were a joint effort. I would write down the music, it was composed
in pure Heath Robinson style, and that's why we put Freddie Heath
Robinson on the credits."
Robinson flew out to court the leading Radio Luxembourg DJ's by wining
and dining them. Unsurprisingly, the record received increased
airplay which undoubtedly assisted sales. At
the time Billy Fury was the only other rock Ďní roller consistently
writing his own material in the UK. Everyone in the business
believed the record should have gone to number one, however there was a
National strike at the time, and the resultant lack of promotion (in the
UK at least) left the single bobbing around an encouraging 25 in the UK
charts. In "Melody Maker" of 13th June it went as high as 20.
The cut left such an impression that American Rocker Chico Holiday
released a cover version in the States (an event virtually unknown for
the era) which saw the light of day in the UK on an EP "Chico Holliday"