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Pop Music in Leicester in the 1950s

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Popular music in Leicester in the 1950s

Most of this information is taken from the press clippings scrapbooks at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland (ROLLR). Many of these stories were featured in a column called ‘Rhythm Corner’, in the Leicester Evening Mail, which featured local jazz news while a ‘Solo Spot’ column highlighted jazz musicians such as Bert Lock, Brian Woolley, Lew Branston, and Emma Drew who sang with the New Astorians at the Corn Exchange. Remarkably, there seems to be no mention of folk music in the press clippings.

For a full look at this period in a broader context, and how it progressed into the 1960s, see Gonna Rock Around the Clock (Tower) Tonight: Leicester and the coming of ‘the Sixties’ by Stephen Wagg in ‘Leicester a Modern History’.

This is a printable version of this page - Pop Music in Leicester in the 1950s.pdf

The Start of the 1950s

At the start of the 1950s, before the birth of Rock and Roll, Johnny Denis and his Rangers entertained audiences while dressed in cowboy/cowgirl outfits, while would-be singer/dancer Margaret Tedds was setting sail for Germany to entertain the troops. Long before the Beatles landed in Hamburg, acts could make a good living playing in Germany.

An example of this is the Blackburn cousins, Bryan and Allan. Allan was the son of Harry Blackburn, who ran the Coventry Arms on Halford Street a.k.a. the Brass House. In the early ‘50s they played together in Germany when a planned fortnight’s trip turned into a three year tour. Eventually, Bryan became a writer of West End revues, as well as writing for The Two Ronnies and Bob Hope.

Links: Bryan Blackburn's obituary in The Stage (the date of birth should be 1928) - https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/obituaries/2004/bryan-blackburn/ - and his entry on the IMDB - http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0972379/

Clive Allen was the pianist at the Manchester Working Men’s Club (WMC) in 1951 and, along with his musical partner Bobby Joy, was about to hit the big time through local BBC TV. In 1954 he worked with the famous comic Max Miller. One of his songs, ‘My Little Budgie’ was recorded by Bruce Forsyth (released as the B-side to ‘I’m a Good Boy’ in 1960). By the end of the decade Clive and Bobby were successfully playing at the Windmill Theatre in London and performing in cabaret in the West End.

The first mention of talent shows appear in 1952 when Jimmy Cleeve, who played the harmonica and guitar ‘at the same time’, and 15 year old Patricia Bosworth were both set to play on a new radio ‘discovery programme’ hosted by Carrol Lewis, who was well-known for running similar radio shows before the war. The TV version of this started on ITV in 1957 and was the first of the ‘Opportunity Knocks’ type shows.

In 1952 the legendary Maurice Coleman makes the first of many appearances in the local press. He was playing banjo at a college revue but mainly played guitar and banjo in various jazz bands throughout the 1950s (and was still playing at The Attik and elsewhere many years later). One of the major names in the local jazz scene was the Monk family and the press followed the adventures of trumpet player Sonny Monk throughout the 1950s as he travelled to Canada and the USA. In 1954 Sonny was in Vancouver while brother Owen Monk was starting a new jazz club ‘Blues & Booze’ at the Royal Standard pub, featuring Maurice Coleman among others. The group soon splintered and by 1958 both Sonny and Owen were playing with Benny Snyder’s group in the USA. The brothers went on to run 'The Hungry I' pancake house in what is now the Good Earth Restaurant on Free Lane.

Link: Information about the Hungry I Pancake House - https://boxofmisc.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/the-hungry-i-pancake-house/

Also in the early 1950s, the Lenners were six sisters born in Aylestone to the singer Florence Wright and comedian Arthur Lenner. This talented family were often in the local press and Anne Lenner made many recordings. All but one of the sisters went into show business and Shirley Lenner sang with Joe Loss and his Orchestra at one point, as did another Leicester singer Larry Gretton.

Link: Anne Lenner on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Lenner

Violent Jazz

Trombone player Peter Wells featured in a court case reported in October 1955 in which he was accused of failing to pay ‘entertainments duty’ on money taken at the ‘Dixieland’ jazz sessions at the Royal Standard pub. Wells was fined £25 and ordered to pay costs totalling £11 18s 6d. When the police visited the club it was made clear that, although the club wasn’t allowed to charge a 2s entrance fee, each person could make a voluntary contribution of 2s that would help pay for expenses. This didn’t satisfy the authorities. Trying to avoid paying duty on money made by venues and musicians was common and anecdotal evidence suggests it was one reason why bands went through so many name changes!

Police Supt. Woolley visited the Royal Standard and reported in court that, in a room designed for 50 people, there were 137 present – mostly teenagers. The music ‘was of a violent jazz nature’ he said. Mr Berry, representing Peter Wells, said that there was a world of difference between the traditional jazz played at the club and modern ‘bebop’. Presumably bebop was seen as being more ‘wild’ by the public.

Another point of view is offered by a Leicester Evening Mail article from March 1955, which might point to why the authorities became interested in the jazz club at the Royal Standard. Visiting the club on a Wednesday night with a couple of young women who had never been before, the article reports that the atmosphere was ‘smoky and musically tense’. It added, ‘the music was boisterous, the mood of the audience exuberant and the smoke a trifle painful to the eyes’, but the girls were won over: ‘It’s wonderful. The music really gets a hold of you.’ For the record, the band that night was Owen Monk – piano; Doug Richardson – drums (worked at Imperial Typewriters); Maurice Coleman – guitar/banjo (a tailor); Trevor Jones – trumpet (a teacher); Pete Wells – trombone (a mechanic); Brian Woolley – clarinet (works in father’s hosiery factory).

The Dallas Boys

No look at Leicester's popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s would be complete without The Dallas Boys. Now seen as one of the first 'Boy Bands', they were four lads from the East Park Road area of Leicester who went to Moat Boys' School - Joe Smith, Stan Jones, Bob Wragg, and Leon Fisk - plus London-born Nicky Clarke. Having appeared on the Carrol Lewis show they won a talent contest at a holiday camp and went on to win the national final of the competition. They made their TV breakthrough in 1956, released their first record in 1957, and were well-known faces nationally for years afterwards.

Link: The Dallas Boys on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dallas_Boys

Courtesy of Chris Huscroft.

The Famous Betty Smith

From 1955 onwards Betty Smith, from Sileby, is featured extensively in the press clippings. Billed as ‘Britain’s top girl musician’, she was the sax player with the Freddie Randall band and her long and successful career saw her become one of the country’s best jazz tenor sax players.

Link to Betty Smith's obituary in The Guardian - https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/mar/09/betty-smith-obituary
Link to Ted Easton's Jazzband with Betty Smith playing Sweet Georgia Brown - https://youtu.be/y-MTNyymlrI

Rock & Roll

The first mention of Rock & Roll in the scrapbooks is in a Leicester Chronicle article from September 1956 that was written in response to ‘rowdyism’ at showings of the film ‘Rock Around the Clock' (1956). The song Rock Around the Clock had been released in 1955 and also featured in the film the Blackboard Jungle in the same year. Elvis Presley had charted earlier in 1956 with Heartbreak Hotel and Blue Suede Shoes, so Rock & Roll was fairly well established in the media by the time of the article.

Signed by The Editor, no punches are pulled: ‘Rock ‘n’ roll… is a complete swindle. Its only devotees are teenagers who… are willing to worship the mediocre. What a pitifully shoddy craze! Rock ‘n’ roll is quite clearly a menace because it gives our teenagers an excuse for making trouble. It is because American commercial interests have dictated the craze to them… let us send Rock ‘n’ Roll back to where it came from!’


In 1957, however, the newspaper clippings concentrate more on skiffle groups than Rock ‘n’ Roll. Loughborough lad Bob Cort was making a name for himself, and recorded the theme song for the Six Five Special TV show as well as writing a book, ‘Making the Most of Skiffle’. When his first record was released, Cort and his group made their concert debut in London in January 1957, along with the Ken Colyer Skiffle Group and the Vipers, at a National Jazz Federation (NJF) skiffle session. The Cort group also topped the Skiffle and Blues concert presented by the NJF at the De Montfort Hall in November 1957. Unfortunately this coincided with Count Basie playing in Coventry, which may have explained the small audience. Others on the bill were Dickie Bishop and his Sidekicks, the Johnny Parker Band and a local group, the Betty Smith Skiffle Group. From the early 1960s Cort played guitar and sang songs for various radio shows including Listen With Mother. One article mentions Cort teaming up with Leicester photographer Dezo Hoffman (who had a recording studio in Leicester and famously photographed the Beatles) in London.

Links: Bob Cort – https://youtu.be/qp-8A0y-Pyw - Dezo Hoffman - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dezo_Hoffmann

From Granby Road Youth Centre, the Black Cats formed in 1957 and won the Leicester Diocesan Youth Fellowship skiffle competition organised by Leicester's youth chaplain at St George's Hall. They then took part in Carroll Lewis's television auditions in August 1957 and did well enough to progress to the area finals. They also took part in a local final of the World Skiffle Championship, along with other local groups like the Dynamics, the Foresters, the Johnny Denver Group and the Skiffabillies. The Black Cats won this (at the Palais), beating the Dynamics, and were offered a contract by the BBC to do a series on Six-Five Special but turned it down as it would have meant some of them giving up their current jobs in order to turn professional, which would have made them liable for national service. Michael Dewe identifies these other skiffle bands in Leicester in 1957. Does anyone know anything about them? Barry Lane's, Belgrave, Cobras, Dynamics, Brian Parke's, Skiffrock Boys.

Nancy Whiskey

The wonderfully named Ms Whiskey (born Nancy Wilson) is famous as the woman who recorded the song ‘Freight Train’ with the Chas McDevitt group in 1957. She was Glaswegian, lived in Melton Mowbray in the latter part of her life, but travelled the world and recorded extensively. In late April 1957, the McDevitt Skiffle Group took part in what was announced as "London's First Big Skiffle Session" at the Royal Festival Hall. Nancy Whiskey stated at the time that folk music was her first love, but skiffle was a chance to make some money.

Links: Nancy Whiskey on Wikipedia- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Whiskey . Freight Train performed on the Ed Sullivan Show - https://youtu.be/3N4srNjyRK0

Leicester’s only Rock & Roll group

In 1957 the Craig Rock & Roll Group was hailed as ‘the only out-and-out group in Leicester’. This may be up for debate but the group was notable for having a woman, Betty Hurd, playing an accordion. The leader of the group, Raymond Craig, said of Rock & Roll, ‘It’s come to stay. It’s the beat and the melody that get folk. It should last five years.’

Meanwhile, the city’s jazz scene continued to thrive with a second club opening at the end of 1957. The Leicester Jazz Society moved from the Rail & Road Transport WMC to the Variety Artistes Club on Cank Street. The other club could be visited at the Bedford Hotel where local favourites Brian Woolley and his jazzmen played.

In 1959, 19 year old 'Rock & Roll beat singer' Johnnie Lee, having learnt guitar while recovering from accidentally shooting himself in the foot, recorded his first record, ‘Echo’. The flip side was titled ‘It’s-a-me, It’s-a-me, It’s-a-me, my love’ (honestly).

Link: Johnnie Lee's Discography - http://www.45cat.com/artist/johnnie-lee

Folk Music

The press clippings in the ROLLR barely mention folk music, which is surprising given its popularity in the city and county. As has been noted by local author Roy Palmer, folk songs and music in Leicestershire go back many years, and there is evidence of Morris dancing in Leicester in the 16th century. At the start of the 20th century the 'Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society' identifies the noted local collector of folklore Charles Billson and the Hon. Norah Dawnay of Dingley as its only two members from Leicestershire. By 1928 Billson had moved to Sussex and the only local listed member was the Dowager Lady Beaumont of Swannington House, near Leicester. In a 1927 book about Leicester the wife of Victor Thomas, a musician, conductor and organiser of local choirs, is noted as ‘well-known as a singer, especially in Scottish ballads. Her natural northern accent and unaffected manner of expression of these quaint songs make a direct and irresistible appeal to her audiences’.

After WW2 something seems to have changed because Leicester's De Montfort Hall hosted one of the major folk dance events of 1948. The Journal reports that, 'The first large Regional Festival was held at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester, on the afternoon and evening of 20th November, 1948. The Bacup Coconut Dancers, the Grenoside Sword Dancers and a Ukranian team helped members of the Society from all over the Midlands to put on first rate shows before enthusiastic audiences'. In the summer of 1949 a course on traditional dance was held at Vaughan College and by the 1950s the Leicestershire & Rutland branch of the English Song & Dance Society was holding regular events based in Vaughan College. For example, in March 1956 these events covered Barn Dances including English Traditional and American Square Dances. It seems likely that Eric Swift was the tutor at Vaughan College and that the Vaughan Folk Dancing Society grew out of the course he taught. Swift was a local historian and, according to the website of the Leicester Morrismen, 'In the 1920s a side of dancers was performing Cotswold Morris in Leicester, and the current side were in touch with one of them, Eric Swift, until his death some years ago.' The website also says that, 'The present Leicester Morris men were formed in 1953, and they initially met just to learn the dances, with an occasional demonstration. In 1957 Steve George organized the first summer season of “dancing out”, and the side has never looked back.'

Eric Swift and the Vaughan Folk Dancing Society, date unknown. Courtesy of Mildred Phillips & Cynthia Brown.

Also in the late 1950s a young Leicester man, Harvey Tucker, visited London and Birmingham folk clubs to see Ewan MacColl, Ian Campbell and other nationally known singers and musicians. As there was no folk club in Leicester, in 1961 Harvey placed an advert in the Leicester Mercury and the Leicester Folk Club started on the 10th October 1961 in the Red Cow pub on Belgrave Gate. Local singers that day were John Hayto, Geoff Halford, Russ Merryfield and Harvey. Interviewed for this project in 2017, Geoff Halford mentioned the influence of the BBC radio programme Country Magazine with presenters Francis Collinson & Francis Dylan and others (such as Dylan Thomas, occasionally). This went out on a Sunday lunchtime and produced song books that aspiring musicians could buy. Country Magazine was also a TV programme in the 1940s fronted by Jack Hargreaves and others. The singer was, at one time, Martin Boddey. It was replaced by 'As I Roved Out', which ran from 1953-1958.

The Leicester Folk Club prospered and was helped by Leicester being one of the venues for the playwright Arnold Wesker's Centre 42 initiative. These festivals were held during the autumn of 1962 and the program included theatre, music theatre, poetry, jazz, and exhibitions of local artists and children’s art. The first major concerts of the folk song revival movement were given in the program and a sixteen-piece band was formed, including most of the leading modern jazz soloists in Britain. The event lasted for a week in Leicester, folk sessions were held in pubs, the singer Anne Briggs was one of the performers, and Russ Merryfield, who helped with the project and had the performers staying at his house, remembers a lot of drink being consumed.

In 1964 another club opened. The Couriers Folk Club was run by Jack Harris and Rex Brisland, and started at The Queens Hotel in Charles Street (now the Ale Wagon), but soon moved to The White Swan, which was near to the Corn Exchange where the open market square is. The list of acts who played at both the Leicester Folk Club and the Couriers over the following years reads like a who's who of folk music and includes Paul Simon, Richard Thompson, and Joni Mitchell who played one of her first UK gigs in the White Swan in 1967. The White Swan can be seen in Ray Gosling's 1964 film 'Two Town Mad' and is described by one of the locals as being frequented by 'hard men' and 'tough geezers'!

Link: A Brief History of Leicester Morrismen (aka Red Leicester) - https://leicestermorrismen.co.uk/a-brief-history-of-leicester-morrismen-aka-red-leicester/

Link: The Couriers Folk Club - http://thecouriersinleicester.blogspot.co.uk/

What happened next?

Stephen Wagg notes that by the end of the 1950s the initial outrage at Rock & Roll had died down. In 1957 Tommy Steele – possibly Britain’s first Rock and Roll star – visited De Montfort Hall and was presented with a sweater, a ‘Rhythm Pullover’. His concerts might have featured hysterical fans but the press hysteria died down quickly. By 1960 the Leicester Mercury had a ‘teenage page’ and the first phase of teenage Rock and Roll culture was coming to an end.

Looking back, perhaps things didn't change as quickly as one might imagine. In his book 'A Degree of Swing. Lessons in the facts of life; Leicester 1958-64', Colin Miller writes about his memories of being a student at Leicester University. In this excerpt from an online article for Live Music Exchange he writes:

"When I arrived at Leicester in 1959, musical entertainment at the university was exclusively classical music concerts, light orchestral music for ballroom dancing on a Saturday night and a Friday evening jazz club. There was no place at all for popular music, particularly rock ‘n’ roll. It was the music of the working class young and the university was considered by many to be the rightful domain of middle class intellectuals. I recollect that,

Before leaving home I loaned my record player to my mother and divided my pop music collection between her and my cousin Stephanie, under the misguided impression that rock ‘n’ roll music was considered to be non-U for university students. I bade a sad goodbye to my favourite record purchases of that year – Marty Wilde’s recording of ‘Endless Sleep’, Ricky Nelson’s ‘Poor Little Fool’, ‘When’ by The Kalin Twins, Jerry Keller’s ‘Here Comes Summer’ and many others. On the other hand, my jazz records had been carefully packed in my trunk and accompanied me on my journey to Leicester.

"Most closet rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts with a performance background in skiffle joined the university’s folk club where the music was a curious combination of skiffle numbers, British folk songs, ballads, sea shanties and American folk, country and blues. Through the club, I met with Dave Cousins and Spencer Davis, two students who went on to follow successful careers in popular music. In 1961, along with four other similar minded students with a common musical background, we founded the university’s first rock ‘n’ roll band, Aztec & the Incas, not without some trepidation. The creation of a rock band at the university was met with enthusiasm by a few and a degree of resistance from the rest. I acknowledged that, at the time,

Many members of the university were quite disdainful of students, like me, who had little knowledge of classical music; to them, the Incas and our music were clearly ‘beyond the pale’. A preference for classical music was considered by some students to be an essential characteristic of the intellectual elite; those who preferred anything else were often branded as peasants. Despite such views, all forms of popular music were clearly gaining more followers, much to the chagrin of the traditionalists.

"It is my contention that it was the appearance of growing numbers of working class students in higher education as a consequence of the 1944 Education Act that not only expanded the musical landscape of universities but also laid the foundation for the British dominance in popular music during the 1960s. At the same time as the Incas were established at Leicester, similar rock ‘n’ roll bands were appearing in many universities and colleges of higher education, formed mostly by students from a working class background with a grounding in skiffle. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones fit into this classification. At the Leicester College of Art & Technology, Jimmy King formed the Farinas who, unlike the Incas, went on to have musical success under the stage name of Family."

Indeed, the Farinas' journey to success as Family is a fascinating story but is outside the scope of this project and will have to wait for another day!


This project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.


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