Top Twenty Club

A history of artists that appeared at Bridgwater's Town Hall - 1960-1966

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Location: Bridgwater, Somerset, United Kingdom

Rapidly-approaching-old-fartdom individual who is simply trying to spread the music gospel - A male Singing Nun if you like......actually on second thoughts....

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Beginnings

Graham Alford was a music enthusiast who, during late 1955/ early 1956 worked as a TV & radio apprentice in a shop called "Frank’s Radio & Television" situated in Fore Street, Trowbridge, his home town. For lunch, Graham's boss would depart for his customary one-hour break and the shop was left in the hands of the young teenager. Somewhat bored by the lack of frenzied shopping activity, Graham took advantage of the absence of his immediate superior by listening to records on the store's radiogram at full volume. This soon attracted an eager audience, the core of which were mostly old mates from his schooldays. Despite being just a lad himself, it did not take long for Graham to understand the old adage "supply and demand" and sensing that local kids wanted the opportunity to listen to chart music in a social setting, in October 1956 he booked a "record hop" in Trowbridge's Co-Op Hall, advertising the shindig by placing poster's in the town's local coffee bars and by taking out an advert in the local newspaper “The Wiltshire Times”. The Co-Op Hall boasted a capacity of just 80-100 but Graham's opening night attracted twice that amount. The local press reported the following; “A capacity crowd of popular music fans welcomed the opening night of the “Top Twenty Club” at the Co-Op Hall, Trowbridge, last Friday evening. The resident compere Paul Goldsworthy, began the evening by introducing a varied and interesting selection of the latest popular records. The crowded floor soon showed that the Club members preferred to dance to the music of their favourite artists. After the interval, the Two Plus One Trio was well received by the audience. They will be a popular Club band. The Top Twenty Club will be continuing this week with the resident team and new members will be welcome. Mr. G. Alford is the promoter, and records were supplied by W. H. Sims Ltd".

After enjoying a successful run that lasted for about 2-3 weeks, his Friday night bookings began to cause traffic problems in the town centre. Under pressure from the local constabulary and no doubt realising that a bigger venue was required to satisfy the social tastes of this new audience, Alford automatically switched his attention to the bigger Town Hall, which was not only double the size of the previous venue but was conveniently situated away from the traffic sprawl of Trowbridge's centre, thus alleviating any congestion problems. The cost of hiring the hall was a miserly £6.00 per night – money well spent. Once again The Wiltshire Times reported dutifully. “During the past few weeks the young people of Trowbridge and the surrounding district have been flocking every Friday evening to the Co-operative Hall where for three hours they have been able to listen to their favourite melodies, and coo over the latest singers. The numbers that have attended these meetings of the “Top Twenty Club” have far exceeded the wildest expectations of the organisers and as a result of the crowding at the present premises they have decided to hold all future meetings of the Club in the large hall of Trowbridge Town Hall. The organisers regret that there will be no club this week as the hall was booked before the club was formed, but next Friday, November 16th, the club will be held at the Town Hall, when a Latin American Band will be in attendance.” (The advert above included the following message; "The very large number of enthusiasts makes it necessary for The Top Twenty Club to move to a Larger Hall. The Club will in future hold meetings at The Town Hall, Trowbridge. Watch for details.") The potential of the Town Hall was a significant improvement on the Co-Operative’s cosy but cramped floor space with an opportunity to shoehorn approximately 400 brylcreemed boys and bobby-soxed girls onto it’s dance floor. Result? Another packed audience, with some kids queuing up during the afternoon of the Friday night bash. The average age of the typical Record Hop punter was 16-18 years old. No alcohol was consumed on the premises (though it was possible to sink a few beers in the local beforehand), it was free tea and sandwiches at the Co-Op Hall though Coca Cola was available at the bigger venue, courtesy of a local milk bar who, sensing an opportunity to make some money, quickly became a permanent fixture. Sandwiches and security were supplied by Alford's parents with Graham’s mother very much to the fore. Teens wearing the wrong haircut were omitted. Leather jackets were not permitted, belts were strictly off limits, stiletto heels were not allowed on the dance floor. Everything was kept on a very tight leash. Alford meanwhile was a veritable one-man band, in charge of the entire evening's entertainment. He DJ'd, spinning records that mostly came from an already sizable collection, the majority of which were purchased from W.H.Sims, the local Trowbridge record emporium, though such was Graham’s enthusiasm for music, other items were imported from the USA. As lighting equipment was not readily available back in those pre-disco days, the necessary club "atmosphere" was provided by a DIY rig that Alford had cobbled together from various bits of electrical equipment and which was operated by the pressing of keys in time with the music. A little later, as these weekly meetings became a regular fixture, professional equipment was purchased from the local Rank Organisation. During it's heyday, coaches came from Midsomer Norton, Bath and Radstock to these Trowbridge shows, with most of them filled with factory girls from the surrounding area. As one early Top Twenty punter stated "If you didn't get there at a reasonable time, you didn't get in" There were frequent punch-ups at these early gigs though whether they were inside or outside the premises is not known.

Business prospered, but Alford was always looking one step ahead. In hindsight, making the transition to live performances was a fairly obvious move, however the decision for introducing artistes to these teenage bashes was not arrived at by solid business acumen. Graham found these record-spinning evenings too much like bloody hard work. By combining live music with his DJ'ing it afforded him the opportunity to take a breather in between stage performances. Live bands had been part and parcel of the Top Twenty set-up from the very beginning. An early favourite were the “Two Plus One” Trio. The 2+1’s were a three piece from Trowbridge that featured Shorty Weston on piano, Vic Rees on Alto Sax and Carl Hoar on drums. They could be obtained for the princely sum of 30 shillings and were consequently relied upon to entertain the crowd by banging out a variety of rock n’roll standards whilst Graham lined up the next batch of 45’s. They were almost a permanent fixture at these early shows but gradually Alford began introducing other bands, most of which appear to have been taken from the local vicinity and the burgeoning skiffle scene. Bands like The Moonrakers from Devizes (whom Graham believes enjoyed the novelty of having a single released nationally), The Johnny Rebb Group, Johnny McEllen & His Trio, Jack Steeds & His Band, The Saints Skiffle Group, and the Rod Price Combo appeared frequently. The latter hailed from the thriving metropolis of the capital city and apart from apparently being recommended to Graham by someone connected to the 2 I’s Coffee Bar, in Compton Street, Soho, they arrived fresh from appearances on both “6.5 Special” and “Cool For Cats”. Price was a particular favourite with the female members of the audience who screamed uncontrollably at the singer’s performance. It is not known whether the latter would have been a professional group, but Graham would occasionally attempt to push the boat out and make an effort to bring in more established artist’s to Trowbridge, though the days of doing so on a regular basis were still some way off in the distance.

As an example, in order to celebrate the completion of the Top Twenty’s first season, on Sunday April 26th 1957, the Top Twenty Club welcomed Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band to Trowbridge with The Moonrakers as support. Bilk’s jazz band was, at this point, barely one year old, the clarinettist having originally played in Ken Colyer’s group from 1954 to 1956. Bilk was to eventually enjoy a string of 11 successive hit singles in the UK but at the time of his Trowbridge performance, Acker’s career was very much in it’s infancy and “Stranger On The Shore”, the song for which he is most remembered, was still 5 years away from it’s birth. On this April evening, for the sum of just 5 hard-earned shillings, you were promised 4 and a half hours of solid entertainment at what turned out to be a hugely successful concert. The Wiltshire Times were there and a report of the gig appeared in the May 3rd edition of the paper under the slightly bewildering title “JAMBOREE OF ROCK N’ROLL” From what I remember, Bilk wasn’t known for his Little Richard impersonations, but in these embryonic days of British popular music, you could book an act like the bowler-hatted Bilk, call it rock, and still get away with it.

"Last Friday a capacity crowd attended the Top Twenty Club at the Town Hall, Trowbridge, where as a climax to the season a successful Rock N’Roll Jamboree was held. The main attraction of the evening was the Paramount Jazz Band, which was supported by the Moonrakers Skiffle Group, with Paul Goldsworthy the resident compere. Under their leader, Acker Bilk, the Paramount Jazz Band played an exciting brand of jazz in the real New Orleans tradition. Some fine clarinet playing from Bilk and a good rhythm section gave the band a prodigious swing. They received a great welcome from the crowd, who certainly seemed to enjoy Bilk’s style of jazz. During the course of the evening the club promoter, Mr.Graham Alford, gave prizes to the first and last members to join the club. These were Miss Gloria Perrett and Mr.John Ingram respectively. A presentation was made to Mr.Grant for all the help he has given the club. Fourteen other prizes were given to the winners of the lucky balloons. From the opening night last October to last Friday, April 26th, the Top Twenty has had an amazingly successful run. The full houses week after week have proved that the organisers, Graham Alford, David Deverall and Paul Goldsworthy, have given the public what they want. Next winter it is hoped that this success will continue and no effort will be spared to give the young people of Trowbridge good value for their money. The organisers would like to thank many people for their kind help and co-operation during the last season. It is impossible to name them all, but there is room to thank the following; W.H.Sims Ltd for their kind assistance on the record side; Benjamin’s Music Saloon for the use of their piano, and The Milk Bar* for the excellent refreshments provided for the Jamboree. Also many thanks to the Council members and the Police Force for their co-operation. Mr.F.Farr (Franks) who supplied the amplifying equipment, Mr & Mrs Blaber, who ran the club’s cloakroom so efficiently, and last but not least, the doorman, Mr.Hervin”

* The Milk Bar in Trowbridge's centre, run by Jack Courtenay & his wife, and where "one cup of coffee used to last all night" was apparently the hottest joint in town for Trowbridge's teenagers.

The Top Twenty rumbled on through the latter part of the 50’s and seems to have stuck to a fairly rigid formula though Alford was not afraid to cash in on whatever was happening in the pop fraternity at the time. On 25th September 1957, there was a special “Tommy Steele evening” in celebration of the singer’s first year in showbiz. The Wiltshire Times advert seems to, perhaps deliberately, suggest that Steele himself was about to appear at the venue. The chirpy cockney entertainer, at the peak of his powers at this point in his career, was always going to be out of Alford’s league but this did not prevent the club owner from using the star’s name in an effort to attract teenagers to his regular Friday night bash.

October 1958 heralded the introduction of some artists that had not appeared previously with The Martell Bros (“UK’s answer to The Everly’s”) appearing on the 17th and The Coasters Skiffle Group (another group used frequently by The Top Twenty) appearing one week later. On the day of The Coasters gig, an interesting offer was made to Top Twenty patrons. “SEE US ON THE TV SHOW OH BOY!” On November 8th at London ITV Studios. “Oh Boy!” was the first television program to focus entirely on teenage popular music and was first broadcast on ITV in 1958, running for about a year. A Jack Good project, he had previously co-produced the show “6.5 Special” for the BBC, but became increasingly frustrated by Auntie Beeb’s insistence that the program’s high-spirited, energetic show format be toned down. The BBC incensed Good by introducing a mixture of jazz and classical music into the program along with slots for film, sport and current affairs. Jack resigned as an outcome, defecting to BBC’s rivals, ITV. Having retained the best bits of his old program but placing a heavier emphasis on the burgeoning success of Rock N’Roll, ABC gave Good two trial broadcasts in the Midlands for his latest venture and eventually granted him a 30-minute weekly slot that was broadcast live from the Hackney Empire. Placed in direct competition with “6.5 Special” on the other channel, it’s success was immediate and heralded the demise of Good’s old show which was still using skiffle as it’s musical template. Oh Boy’s resident musicians included Cuddly Duddly, Cliff Richard (who became a star due to his 20 appearances on the show), The Drifters (later to become The Shadows) and Marty Wilde whilst dancers The Vernon’s Girls (featuring Wylde’s future wife) added some sexy glamour to the proceedings. Despite it’s success, the show’s run on TV proved to be short lived. In 1959 ABC were informed that they could no longer use the Hackney Empire, and Good and his crew were shunted off to Manchester, which wasn’t a terribly successful move as the studio was ill-equipped to deliver the sort of show that Good demanded. ABC were also keen on a new program called “Boy Meets Girl”, which was effectively a watered-down version of it’s predecessor and after “Oh Boy’s” final broadcast on 30th May 1959, the new show, hosted by Marty Wylde, eventually aired 4 and a half months later.

OH BOY! - 4th April 1959

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Songs featured; "It's Late" - Dean Webb - "He's My Own" - The Vernons Girls - "Good Rockin Tonight" - The Cutters & entire cast - "Long Gone" - Lord Rockingham's XI - "Charlie Brown" - Neville Taylor & The Cutters - "Oh Wait For It Baby" - Cherry Wainer

Regarding this latest Top Twenty extravaganza, it may well have been advertised under it’s banner, with the advert cleverly suggesting that the studio visit was “by courtesy” of Jack Good himself but it was not actually a Graham Alford booking. A local guy called Tony Price was behind the idea and having done a deal with a local coach hire firm to ferry the excited teenagers to their destination, he was allowed to use the Top Twenty as a front for the venture.

At this point in the proceedings, Alford was making in-roads into checking out people in the music industry who could help him to improve what was still a local business operating from the cosy confines of the sleepy Devon town. In this respect Graham proved extremely successful, going straight to the top and contacting directly some of the major movers and shakers of the British pop scene. Pretty soon Graham had begun to assemble a list of people that he felt could provide him with what he needed and first up was Tom Littlewood who ran the 2 I's Coffee Bar in London.

The 2 I’s will forever be regarded as an integral part of Britain’s pop music history. Situated at 59 Old Compton Street in the old Soho district of London it was originally owned by two brothers called Irani (hence the name) but on April 22nd 1956 it was re-opened by two ex-wrestlers, Ray Hunter and Paul Lincoln, the latter of which once worked under the name “Dr.Death”. It was Dr.Death and his cohort who came up with the idea of using the coffee house’s basement for live performances and skiffle band The Vipers (which included a young singer called Wally Whyton) became the first group to earn a residency there. During a break at a Vipers gig in September 1956, a young upstart called Thomas Hicks appeared on stage and launched into Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”. Agent John Kennedy had been invited to the venue by one of the coffee bar’s co-owners in order to check out the main attraction but after witnessing Hicks’ impromptu performance, Kennedy signed him up. A repeat appearance at the same venue was specifically arranged for Decca’s A&R man Hugh Mendl and within a month “Rock With The Cavemen” by Tommy Steele was in the shops and “Britain’s first rock star” was born.

From that moment on, The 2 I’s became synonymous with stardom and discovery and consequently 100’s of star-struck hopefuls flocked to the venue from all over the country in the hope of becoming the “next big thing”. Also appearing regularly at this Musical Mecca were promoters such as the previously mentioned Jack Good, Larry Parnes and Don Arden who consequently hoovered up any singers who were deemed to be good enough to make the grade and artists such as Cliff Richard, Terry Dene, Adam Faith, and Vince’s Eager and Taylor were all “discovered” by appearing there. Littlewood, a judo instructor by trade, took over the 2 I’s in 1960, and managed some of their artist’s including the unpredictable Vince Taylor who appeared in Bridgwater in 1962. Alford visited London by train, seemingly on a regular basis, and struck up a friendship with Littlewood, whilst also being introduced to Larry Parnes and others. These managers were keen on the idea of promoting their talent in the South West of England and consequently Alford was given access to some of them, though most of the more stellar singers were undoubtedly well out of his price range. One of the first acts that Alford was given was Tony Sheridan, not an established artist by any means but a useful Presley-inspired singer who primarily backed a number of the 2 I vocalists on guitar, one of which was a pre-Drifters Cliff Richard.

Sheridan had been a 2 I’s regular for 6 months and was also a permanent fixture on “Oh Boy!” but despite earning his spurs as a talented musician his somewhat erratic time-keeping earnt him the reputation of being somewhat unpredictable and untrustworthy. His band was given an engagement at The Star Club in Hamburg, Germany and even though Sheridan’s group eventually returned home, Tony decided to stay on. As it happened, some scruffy young urchins from Liverpool called The Beatles had just been offered an engagement at the nearby Indra club, and unsurprisingly, their paths crossed, with Sheridan being regarded by the Pre-Fab Four as something of a guitar hero. If you are familiar with your Beatle history, you’ll know what happened next. Alford, booked Sheridan to play at The Top Twenty on January 16th 1959 and again on May 1st, about a year before his German engagement, after which the guitarist did not return to this country for another 3 years. Sheridan’s part in Beatle history almost never happened as he was almost electrocuted at Trowbridge, receiving a nasty shock from his “live” guitar during the afternoon’s sound check. During the evening’s performance, Sheridan, like most of the artist’s to appear at The Top Twenty at that time, would play in 20 minute segments, interspersed with Graham’s discs and an appearance by the perennial “2+1 Trio” or some other support band. During his May performance, Sheridan appeared with The Lonesome Travellers and the equally wilfully obscure “The Boppers”

CHRIS ANDREWS - Move It (with Tony Sheridan on guitar)

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After the 1959 summer break, The Top Twenty returned with a brand new logo that was directly lifted from the film poster of the recently released “South Pacific”. On September 18th 1959, Geoff & Ricky Brooks – probably the nearest that the UK ever got to a bona fide Everly Brothers duo - made the first of a bewildering 4 appearances spread over a 4-month period. The Brook Brothers returned on the 16th October, the 14th November and 11th December and even though there may just be the chance that their return visits were due to “popular demand”, one could not blame the Trowbridge faithful for feeling a large touch of déjà vu by the time of their pre-Christmas concert. Other concerts towards the latter part of The Top Twenty’s 3rd year of office included The Chequers on October 5th, Daryl Grant & The Descants on the 20th November and a couple of artists who were later to grace the stage at Bridgwater’s Town Hall – Brian Fisher (October 30th) and Dale Rivers (December 18th)

By 1960, Alford had introduced various items during the evening’s proceedings in order to keep his teen audience entertained and amused. One of these was the “Record Request” spot. A post box was provided within the venue so that both guys and gals could ask for their favourite record to be played for whoever their latest squeeze happened to be. The lucky recipients not only had their request aired but were also given free tickets for the next gig. After an evening that usually lasted 3 hours, the end of the live entertainment usually occurred at 10.45 but a cafeteria situated on the right hand side of the stage was sometimes open until midnight. Punters were eventually asked to leave by playing the National Anthem. This was sometimes a useful tool if audiences were proving a little reluctant to depart as a quick burst of “God Save The Queen” would soon send them scurrying out into the street!

1960 turned out to be a year of great change for The Top Twenty though from Trowbridge’s point of view it was more of the same with further appearances by performers that Bridgwater were later given access to. Tex Roberg and Shirley Gaye from Len Canham’s roster of Southampton artistes appeared on the 22nd January 1960, Lance Fortune from the Larry Parnes production line appearing just one week later whilst a special “Expresso Bongo” night – celebrating Cliff Richard’s debut film appearance – occurred on the 19th February. However after establishing himself at Trowbridge Town Hall, an association that lasted for some 14 or 15 years, during 1960 Alford began to expand his empire. Chippenham & Stroud were the next towns to be conquered, gigs being held at the Neeld Hall Chippenham on Saturday evenings for the first time on January 30th 1960 with a concert by those hardy perennials Geoff and Ricky Brooks. The Transcription Rooms in Stroud on Wednesdays were added a little later, though concerts here were more sporadic. Bridgwater became the fourth venue to host Top Twenty concerts and was chosen because of it's similarities in size and population to Trowbridge and the fact that it was only 40 miles from Alford's Wiltshire residence.

From what I understand, Graham was only interested in the Town Hall as a venue though the smaller Blake Hall was possibly sounded out as an alternative. Still a keen record buyer, Graham paid visits to the two record shops that Bridgwater had back in those days, Taylor's & Acland’s, and no doubt nonchalantly mentioned his interest in putting on gigs within the town. Stan Barnett, who was Taylor's record manager at the time, was enthusiastic and got involved, primarily in a promotional capacity, though he was one of the people responsible for providing the music that was played at the Top Twenty's gigs and was occasionally employed as a taxi driver for some of the artists, most of which arrived in Bridgwater by rail*. However, Bridgwater's other record shop, Acland's, were also a part of the Top Twenty’s set-up at least initially and one imagines that it was here that Graham first encountered Carol Waterman, an individual who played an important part during the Top Twenty's early 60's period and who worked behind the counter at Acland's at this time. With both shops being promised “in-store” appearances from some of the club's stars, advertising The Top Twenty’s brand was an obvious move for them to make. The Town Hall may have been an obvious venue to use under the circumstances, with it’s 400 plus capacity and a large stage area but alterations were required in order to house live concerts. Graham tackled the problem with his usual gusto, purchasing drapes and much needed lighting equipment.

*Another method of transport was the "Top Twenty" Commer Van, advertised beautifully here by the glamorous Stephanie Austin, a compere at the Trowbridge Town Hall. There were apparently 3 or 4 of these 10-seater vans used over a period of time, all custom made by the curiously named Hebdon Knees garage. With Stephanie in the above photo is the Hebdon Knees owner, John Knee.

With customary aloofness, the arrival of the Top Twenty was not heralded at all by the Bridgwater Mercury. It's "entertainment" section incorporated sport as well as the arts back in those days, consequently there seemed to be more interest in the exploits of Bridgwater Town Football Club and the latest local skittle league scandals - reviews were only provided for the terribly highbrow Bridgwater Arts Centre's "music club" concerts.

In the Mercury's 23rd August 1960 edition, headlines on the front page included stories about a female charged at Bridgwater Crown Court with infanticide and a "shock horror probe" tale of assault under the film-noirish title "Midnight Scene at Saltlands Avenue". These were placed either side of a photograph of young women parading their plum puddings outside the Brent Knoll Inn (I kid you not.) Lost forgotten films "The Challenge" and "Never Let Go" were appearing at the Odeon whilst "Goliath" featuring Steve Reeves - advertised under the banner "1000 women dream of his embrace" - was The Palace Theatre's blockbuster for the week. Also included was an advertisement for a brand new venture. Regardless of any disinterest the local press may have shown for the club, The Top Twenty began with an absolute belter and Monday nights were never quite the same again for the next 6 years.

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