The Black-skinned Blue-eyed Boys

Black History Month is just ending, so I thought I’d have a look at the Black British chart pioneers, those first black British acts to trouble the chart compilers. Not surprisingly the UK singles charts were pretty white in the 1950s, full of the kind of singers your mum and dad – or even your grandma and grandad – might like, Jimmy Young, Lita Rosa and Dickie Valentine plus imports like Frank, Perry and Eddie Fisher.

But then immigration was only just starting. The SS Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in June 1948 and it was only in the 1960s that the West Indian population was sizeable enough to affect the charts. The first UK Singles chart was in December 1952 – our first Number One was Italian-American crooner Al Martino’s Here in my Heart  but it wasn’t until December 1954 that there was an act of colour at Number One: Let’s Have Another Party by Winifred Atwell. Ms Atwell was a Trinidadian boogie-woogie and ragtime pianist who enjoyed enormous popularity in Britain and Australia from the 1950s, selling over 20 million records. 

She is also the person who discovered one of our most beloved of singers, Matt Monro. She heard his demo and she got him a deal with Decca Records at a time when he was still working as a bus driver in North London. Decca decided Terry Parsons, Monro’s real name of course, wasn’t showbiz enough, so he took Matt from the Fleet Street journalist who had written his first good review and Monro from Winifred Atwell’s father.  

She was however not technically from the UK and neither were fellow holders of the Number One title like Harry Belafonte (Mary’s Boy Child) or Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers (Why Do Fools Fall in Love?) or Tommy Edwards (It’s All in the Game) who were all Black Americans (Belafonte was actually from a Jamaican background and still with us at 93). 

No, the first British act of colour to hit Number One was As I Love You as late as February 1959 by … Dame Shirley Veronica Bassey, now 83 and resident of Monte Carlo for many years, but born in Tiger Bay, Cardiff to a Nigerian father and an English mother. Her schoolteachers noticed even when she as 6 or 7 that she had an extraordinarily strong voice and asked her to please not sing so loudly. Not surprisingly by 13 she was singing in Cardiff pubs and clubs, in London by 16 and signed to Philips at 18. Her first single though, Burn My Candle turned out to be utter filth, with lyrics like: Open my door, and spurn the scandal, who wants to help me burn my candle, at both ends! The only radio station in town, the BBC, considered it so racy that they refused to play it, but Philips stuck with her and eventually her cleaner releases made the charts, starting with The Banana Boat Song and then As I Love You, which zipped to Number One for four weeks after she sang it on TV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

She wasn’t necessarily a pioneer, for there was one black act who paved the way but never troubled the charts. His name was Dudley Heslop, a name that may mean little or nothing to you but his stage name Cuddly Dudley may ring some bells with older readers. Cuddly Dudley was the featured singer on ITV’s Oh Boy! ITV’s Saturday evening pop show. He arrived here from Kingston, Jamaica in 1947 and worked the West End clubs with a calypso act until rock and roll hit in the mid-1950s and his manager promoted him as Britain’s answer to The Big Bopper. A chunky bloke, he got some flashy suits, snazzy ties and a new stage name.

You’d know him because he sang two songs a week for more than a year with Oh Boy!’s house band Lord Rockingham’s XI, but alas Dudley was unable to turn his TV exposure into hit singles. He certainly paved the way for the last Number One of the 1950s, What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? by Emile Ford & the Checkmates.

Emile Ford – Michael Emile Telford Miller – was from St Lucia and came to London in the mid-1950s to study Sound Engineering. In fact, once the hits dried up in the Sixties, he retired from singing and spent the rest of his life designing audio systems (he held dozens of copyrights not least for the technology that all Karaoke machines use). But back to the Fifties: he started singing in clubs and won a talent contest at the Cafe Royal at 68 Regent Street as part of the 1959 Soho Fair. Fortunately it was sponsored by Pye Records and first prize was an audition and a contract for a single, which turned out to be a slightly doo-wop version of a really old Broadway tune from 1911 called What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? which was Number One for six weeks.

Famously he’s the first black British artist to sell sold over a million copies of a single. What is almost never mentioned though is that Emile Ford & the Checkmates were the first integrated, multi-racial pop group. The Checkmates were Emile, his two St Lucian half-brothers, Dave and George – George Ford was later the bass player with Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel by the way – and four white blokes and on big occasion even three white female backing singers. They never had any trouble, never had any comments from anyone and always had plenty of work. In 1960!

The early Sixties was basically guitar groups, none of whom came from the West Indian community, well, not yet anyway. It fell to an axiomatic Jamaican teenager – she was called Millie and she certainly was small – to be the gamechanger. Millie Small’s 1964 global smash My Boy Lollypop may have been recorded in central London but producer Chris Blackwell had had the good sense to bring the voice straight from Kingston. And the guitar, courtesy of the ubiquitous Ernest Ranglin, flown to the UK for the first time in his life for the occasion. It sold a million here and five more around the world. Caribbean music had arrived and had hit the mainstream. Progress was slow but by 1967 ska tunes direct from Jamaica were hitting the charts with great regularity, reaching a zenith with Desmond Dekker’s wonderful and wonderfully unintelligible Israelites.

Black-owned record labels were smart enough to know that most records were bought in chain stores like WH Smith or Woolworths, which happened to be the shops the BBC used for the UK Singles chart. Once Desmond Dekker got on Top of the Pops, it was a pretty short route to the top of the charts, because these songs were being bought not only by West Indian kids around the country but by young, white Herberts like me and I bought my records in Woolies. It wasn’t too long before bands forming at schools, particularly schools in London, would be made up of white kids and black kids. In 1965, three kids – Pat Lloyd, John Hall and Eddy Grant – yes, THAT Eddy Grant – at Acland Burghly school in North London made their own guitars in woodwork and formed the Equals to play youth clubs and get girls. When they were joined by the Gordon twins, Derv and Lincoln, they got serious and hopped on the Mecca/Top Rank circuit.

Signed to a record deal in short order, they did two things: they quit their jobs and they headed straight down to see Colin at the Carnaby Cavern in Ganton Street, just off Carnaby Street, who dressed them in the latest green silks and pink and purple paisleys. If they were going to look different, they were going to look REALLY different. At one point lest we forget, Eddy Grant – yes, THAT Eddy Grant – dyed his hair blond.

The first single did a little on the continent, but it was the follow up – well, the B-side of the follow up, once it was flipped – the Eddy Grant-penned Baby, Come Back that put them on the map. Number One in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, it finally nipped across the channel more than a year after it came out and shot to the top and stayed there for 6 weeks.

At exactly the same time, West Londoners The Foundations had formed in a basement club under at record shop in Bayswater. They were three white guys, four West Indians and Sri Lankan, aged from 16 to 38. After a successful audition with Pye Records, they were offered two Tin Pan Alley songs, Let The Heartaches Begin and Baby Now That I’ve Found You. They passed on Heartaches, which was snapped up by 6 foot 7 inch blues shouter Long John Baldry who took it to Number One. They went with Baby Now That I’ve Found You and once Radio Luxembourg got behind it, hit the lower reaches of the Top 30. A Top of the Pops appearance was booked and ‘ere long they toppled the mighty Baldry from the top in November 1967.

Fifty years on, all the Equals are still with us and are still close friends. Alas, Clem Curtis lead singer of the Foundations, had his head turned and suggested they now be billed as Clem Curtis & the Foundations. The rest of the Foundations suggested he sod off and sacked him, bringing in Barbadian Colin Young for the next biggie, Build Me Up Buttercup. Hardly anyone noticed.

Both bands are still on the road – well in any other year they would be – and are still doing their thing and a great night out.They both had other hits but gradually styles changed and ironically they may have been superseded by the rise of reggae and disco in the 1970s. The only exception is Eddy Grant, who became THAT Eddy Grant: the first owner of black record label, the first owner of a black recoding studio in his backyard in Stamford Hill and a global superstar with Electric Avenue, Living on the Frontline and I Dont Wanna Dance.

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