The 60s: Dancing bands and watching bands

We used to have a Glaswegian piano tuner. He had played in “dance bands” in Glasgow through the 1940s and 1950s. ‘Do you want concert tuning or dance band tuning?’ he’d ask, ‘Dancing or Listening?’ He used to do the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra pianos at the Winter Gardens. When I worked there on variety shows, we’d have to push the Steinway into the wings on Saturday night, then replace it with an identical Steinway for the Sunday symphony concert. We assumed they didn’t want the pianist for the variety show touching it, but not so. My piano tuner explained that first, concert pitch differs from country to country. It is not an absolute. The “normal standard” is A = 440 Hz. Many European orchestras tune A=443 Hz. No, most of us could not hear the difference. So, they tuned the symphony piano to British concert pitch. They tuned the variety show piano very slightly sharp, to make it sound brighter. In his terms, it was a piano for dancing.

In the early 60s the division was clear. Music started for me in church halls, youth club bands picking their way laboriously through The Shadows greatest hits. We started going to the Pavilion Ballroom, Bournemouth on “Beat Night” to watch Zoot Money with The Sands Combo (Andy Somers on guitar), ably supported by Tony Blackburn (who was backed by three members of the regular ballroom orchestra). That venue was a dance hall, designed as such, as were The Royal Ballrooms in Boscombe. In the support act, everyone danced. When Zoot Money came on, a couple or three rows of mainly lads formed at the front to watch, but beyond that was dancing. I worked out that as the watchers were mainly male, this was the ideal time to ask girls to dance.

If you wanted to watch music, you went to the Winter Gardens for a package show. My first was Brian Hyland, Tommy Roe and Little Eva. Then came The Everly Brothers with Bo Diddley, Little Richard and a support band … who were they? Oh, yes, The Rolling Stones or something like that.  The Gaumont had The Beatle twice nightly for a week … plus Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, Tommy Quickly and the Sons of The Piltdown Men.  Next time they came, to the Winter Gardens, and by then The Beatles was totally a watching band because you didn’t hear a note. The screaming from Bournemouth Beatles show can be heard on So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star by The Byrds. When this was revealed, they later claimed that it was their Bournemouth show, but it couldn’t have been because it was only a quarter full and all blokes.

I went to the Pavilion regularly and gradually the standing rows of blokes increased for the likes of  Nashville Teens, Steampacket (the best in this section!), John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers or The Graham Bond Organization. There was always dancing behind the rank of watchers though. In the mid 60s, there’d be regular visits from Irish Show Bands with their ability to switch from Otis Redding covers to Jim Reeves covers at the drop of a hat.

As the 60s wore on the hottest acts for ballrooms were The Alan Bown Set, Simon Dupree & The Big Sound and Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band. For all three it was mainly dancing, which is why they were so popular. Simon Dupree and The Big Sound (who later morphed into Gentle Giant) were playing at £300 a night … nearly £5000 in modern terms.

Friends were in support bands … one regular “second act” of the three bands in a evening was Davy Jones & The Lower Third (David Bowie).  I saw them several times, and sadly I remember absolutely nothing.

At the Pavilion Ballroom in summer, a majority of the audience were there for the dance, rather than the band. They were on holiday:

‘What do you think of the band?’ I’d shout into a perfumed ear.
’S’alright. Who are they?’

We used to go out to watch friends in The Palmer-James Group play at The Steering Wheel, Dorchester (Friday) and the larger Steering Wheel, Weymouth (Sunday). That would be 300-400 people to watch a semi-pro soul band. Packed. Dancing. Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band, Herbie Goins and The Nightimers or Jimmy James and The Vagabonds would have the Saturday night slot. Dancing.

Geno Washington and Herbie Goins were American, Jimmy James was Jamaican. Most importantly for soul singers on the circuit in 1966-67, they were black.

Gallery: Geno Washington … click to enlarge

Geno Washington was huge. He was from Indiana, and had been stationed in Britain with the US Air Force. He stayed in Britain and fronted a British band with his authentic American accent. He may not have been a great singer, but he made up for it with sheer energy. He had a #3 album hit with his first album … Live, naturally. It stayed in the chart for 38 weeks. Then he had a #8 UK album hit with his second. Look at the track list for the first … soul’s greatest hits … Philly Dog, Ride Your Pony, UpTight, Road Runner, Hold On I’m Comin’, Don’t Fight It, Land of 1000 Dances, Respect, You Don’t Know Like I Know … plus the singles Michael, and Que Sera Sera.

The second album adds Day Tripper (Otis Redding style), I Can’t Turn You Loose, You Left The Water Running, In The Midnight Hour, Hi Heel Sneakers, Shotgun all on side one. As on the first album, new songs and rarer material on side two.

They had status:

30 December 1966. Billed above Cream

Look at the ticket below for this 1967 show. It was said to Britain’s first rock festival … and Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band had premier position, closing the show. Anyone on the circuit in those days knew you did not under any circumstances try to follow on after Geno. The audience would not have stood still for a second and would be completely wrung out. Geno was the first act booked for the show too, followed by The Move. Zoot Money & His Big Roll Band would have focussed on soul too.

In Bournemouth, the smaller Ritz Ballroom was booking “watching bands” like The Nice, Yes, Fleetwood Mac and Jethro Tull. Different atmosphere, different audience. My biggest regret is missing Howlin’ Wolf there.  While the Pavilion had more women than men, it reversed at The Ritz. Incidentally, in a head to head, I suspect The Alan Bown Set, The Action or Timebox would have wiped the floor with most early prog bands.

At Hull University, the distinction was maintained. We had the best social secretary in the country in Ed Bicknell, later to manage Dire Straits. We had two refectories either end of the Student Union. The main hall was the West Refectory. The other end was the East refectory. A typical evening would see the main band (e.g. Family) on the West stage. Mainly watching. Then the other hall had a band for dancing … and at Hull that might be local lads like Joe Cocker from Sheffield, or The Rats from Hull (later the Spiders From Mars).

Ed has listed what he paid for bands on the Hull University Alumni website. Two prices mean two gigs. I’ve marked the “dancing bands” in bold:

The Who (£250, £350)
Jimi Hendrix (£350)
Manfred Mann (£300)
Pink Floyd (£150 Union and £300 at the Lawns Centre)
Muddy Waters Blues Band (£350, VERY chuffed to get them)
John Lee Hooker (£250, and him)
The Kinks (£350)
Jethro Tull (£400- top 3 single)
Geno Washington (£250 , £300)
John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers (£300)
The Moody Blues (£110,£125,£150 -3 visits)
Joe Cocker and the Original Grease Band (£40 – yes ! Came over from Sheffield)
Ten Years After (£250)
Family (£175, £250-)
The Alan Bown (£125, £150)
Ralph Mctell, (several times £50-£75)
Al Stewart, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn (same)
Jimmy James and the Vagabonds (£200)
The Action (£75)
The Pretty Things (£125)
Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum (£125)

Ed Bicknell: To put those fees in context using “current” currency- a regular Saturday night gig in the Union would cost about 25p. The Union Ball in Feb 1968 which featured Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity (number 4 single from memory), Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Blossom Toes, disco, steel band AND a meal was priced at around £1.25p. In fact not one of those acts ever had more than two road crew, no one had a truck bigger than 3 tons, no one brought any lights, no one did a sound check , no equipment arrived before 5 pm and no one went on later than 8.30 pm. Sets were either 2x 45 minutes or 75 minutes.

Some universities had a similar set up. At London School of Economics in late 1970, they had Supertramp (the earliest version) in the lecture theatre for listening. Upstairs afterwards, they had Mogul Thrash (Jim Litherland from Colosseum, John Wetton and what became the Average White Band horn section) in a canteen. That was dancing.

The ballroom circuit was dropping off fast in favour of clubs and venues which were much smaller. The last rock band I saw at The Pavilion … in the ballroom … were Family, probably 1972.