A short walk down our local main drag, County Road, would bring you to Epstein and Sons furniture store, which contained a small music department, rather grandly named North End Music Store, and managed by their prodigal son Brian. The corner display window, facing the junction, was his territory, and as 1956 rolled around, it took on a youthful vitality. The student band instruments began losing space to guitars and harmonicas, along with the sleeves of 10 and 12 inch LPs including the fluorescent yellow scream that was “Here’s Little Richard.” The previous summer, while visiting Butlin’s holiday camp in North Wales with my parents, I’d had an epiphany. There was a big Wurlitzer jukebox in the coffee bar and among the lackluster array of British pop hackery was “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard, a thunderbolt of a record that hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t get enough of that pile driving, piano-pounding beat, with the thick honking saxes, and the manic, overheated screamer riding atop it all. I’d pump my cadged coins in and punch it up repeatedly, the older jitterbugging youths, would respond by choosing it themselves, and I’d stand there for hours, letting this glory wash over me.
Now, I could stand in front of the NEMS window and drink in the display; the tastefully positioned, shiny cheap guitars, a rudimentary drum kit … and the yellow scream – the first record I ever owned (and still have), even though we didn’t possess a record player. Didn’t matter. There were radiograms around in various homes of family and friends, especially the house in Bootle where my parents’ best pals, Bill and Dinah Montague, lived. They had a heavyweight unit, and on Saturday nights, when they made for the pub, I’d have the place to myself, except for old Auntie Kate, my grandma’s sister and Dinah’s mum, who was off in her own room with her telly, so I’d play Richard non-stop until the folks rolled in. That’d be my fix for a few days.
But don’t get the idea that I was totally off in a pre-teen rock ‘n’ roll haze. I was hitting the books hard, getting ready for the 11-plus, that draconian exam, your future determined by one day’s performance, designed by the establishment to separate the working-class brains from the brawn, so there would be a supply of lower class pen-pushers to man the desks of a dwindling empire … educational equality be buggered! However, it had been impressed upon me by my dad that this was a ticket out, leading to grammar school, and beyond that the possibility of a university place and scholarship, something no one in our family had ever attained. It sounded like a good idea to me … I didn’t find school a burden, and was usually in the top three in my class. I’d seen enough of labouring men trudging up the street, dog-tired from a hard day’s graft, to know I didn’t want any of that, thank you very much, so I studied with a will.
There was also the added incentive of the “prezzie,” a city-wide custom. If you passed the 11 plus, you got to choose a present, often a bike, but your parents couldn’t refuse your choice, if it was reasonably in their financial range. I knew what I wanted … on my frequent window shopping visits to NEMS I’d been taken with an f-hole archtop guitar, with a single cutaway and a DeArmond pickup. It shone warmly with a sunburst varnish, and cost twelve pounds. In retrospect, it was a piece of cheap junk, plywood with an awful neck action, guaranteed to cause bleeding fingers, but at the time it looked beautiful to me. Well, I passed the exam, and duly presented my request.
The old man was not a happy camper – he probably saw the writing on the wall – but noblesse oblige, so he reluctantly forked over the twelve quid, and the guitar was mine.
The piano took a back seat for a while, as I wrangled with a new instrument, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly, in a rudimentary way, and was soon nagging Uncle Jack into letting me sit in with his little dance band on weekends, “short pants and all.”
Jack had already shown me my way around a chord chart, so I got to read and play the band book (number 83, I remember, was “I Got Rhythm”), which covered everything from waltzes and polkas to a little Dixieland and swing. My cousin John, already turned twenty-one, was the drummer, and when Jack, plus the trumpet player, and the gloriously busty pianist Dot Williams, took their breaks, John and I would stay on and grind out some “Guitar Boogie” and other basic instrumentals for the kids who’d been dragged along to the dance by their folks. It was invaluable experience for a youngster, as I developed my ear and a reasonably sophisticated sense of chord structure, so when Lonnie Donegan emerged from the ranks of the Chris Barber Jazz Band that year with “Rock Island Line” sparking the skiffle craze, I was readier than some to jump in, and jump in I did!