Source of the picture above : Wikicommons https://archive.org/stream/modernscreen54unse#page/n43/mode/2up
Birmingham in the 1950s must have been a city with many problems, but at the same time very lively.
If you like, you can join us here on a cinematic tour of the city. The soundtrack also documents the changes that music went through during this decade:
Many of the old working-class neighborhoods were torn down and new buildings were constructed all over the city. The population is also renewing itself, as many people from Commonwealth States immigrated to the industrial city. This will also leave its mark on the music and lyrics of Steve Gibbons.
The war was still present. And in his environment a socially critical attitude prevailed. Jon Savage quotes him in his book „1966: The Year the Decade Exploded“:
At school we had a great maths teacher. He’d been in Bomber Command and it was easy to get him talk. He was obviously Labour through and through. He never talked about the war which I’d I’d love to have talked to him about – but he talked about McCarthyism, the witchhunt, and what the future would be like. The war had a massive impact on my generation because of the way it shaped everything. All of that had a bearing on me as a musician.“
This left-wing pacifism was accompanied by a religious rejection of war and military service in the immediate family environment.
For explanation again a quotation from the book of Savage:
Gibbons also witnessed the exercising of social conscience within his family, prompted by the period`s leading Christian evangelist: „I have a brother, six years older than me, who became a conscinetious objector. He went to see Billy Graham in the late 1950s. When the call-up came for national service, he refused to go. He had to face a tribunal and it was on the front page of the Birmingham Mail for everyone to see. My mother was furious, but I was proud of him what a great thing to do.
Early musical influences
First: Clean British music instead of „dirty“ US-American
In Germany, the second half of the 1940s with the US occupying troops brought an Americanization of life and also of music
In Great Britain it was just the other way round: After the invasion of Normandy the US troops originally stationed there were either in Germany or they were already back home in the U.S.A. As a result, in Great Britain the „morally corrupting musical influences“ from the other continent disappeared for the time being and the music became „clean“ again.
Laurie Hornsby writes about this in the first part of his two volume history of Birmingham rock music from the 1950s to the 1970s:
„Music was proper again. The Yanks had gone home. Now there were proper tunes with proper words, performed by proper artists with perfect diction The Yanks had gone and taken their jitterbug – going with them“/“The music was proper again. The Yanks had gone home. Now there were clean lyrics again, performed by proper artists with proper diction. … The Yanks had gone and taken their jitterbug stuff. (Laurie Hornsby in Brum rocked, S. 7 and 8)
With the withdrawal and onward march of the US troops, the oh so immoral jitterbug had disappeared from the British sound world.
The „darlings of the family“: radio and its music
Therefore, at the beginning other music styles influenced Steve. His older brother listened to jazz. In addition, the family often sat in front of the radio and listened to the programme „Family Favorites“ together, in which British soldiers on foreign missions could send greetings and get music requests fulfilled.
This resulted in a colourful, cross-genre programme, with pieces that were otherwise rarely heard on the BBC. Steve especially remembers Nat King Cole, Fats Waller and Ottilie Patterson, the singer of the Chris Barber Band. (At that time, he probably never dreamed that Chris Barber would ever play on one of his own records).
America returns – And how!
But from 1955 on, the „un-American“ musical „Mister Proper“ times on the British Isles were over again.
The fault for this was a man who at first sight had nothing to do with Rock`n`Roll. He was
- already thirty (so by rock standards a Methuselah),
- and overweight,
- And then this small-minded jacket!
Source image: Wikipedia: Klau Klettner, Hydra Records, Bill Haley Museum Munich
It is hard to believe that this was the spearhead of a youth movement perceived above all as rebellious!
In fact, „Shake Rattle and Roll“ and then especially „Rock around the Clock“ from the movie „Blackboard Jungle“ (Seed of Violence) started a revolution.
It was on this wave that „Heart Break Hotel“ also landed in the hit parade at some point. This song was sung by a guy who belonged to a complete other category. His name was Elvis.
Although he was still dressed (too) smart for a real rebel, he embodied youthful rebellion much more credibly than the combo leader from the movie. And he was sexy, too.
Skiffle: Do-it-yourself music made in GB
With the arrival of Rock`n`Roll, life came to the British music scene. And with the skiffle a kind of British counter-movement to Rock`n`Roll developed.
Musically, this style was based on the same roots, namely Anglo-American and Afro-American folk, country, blues and jazz music. Also the themes were not necessarily very British: Above all it was about train rides. (Even though the railway had been invented on the British Isles, the railway romanticism sung about there developed in the USA).
However, the instrumentation was different from that used in R`n`R.
While in rock ’n‘ roll the best instruments could be just good enough and the guitar should be electric, in many skiffle groups an acoustic guitar was used and it was usually the only thing that came out of the shop.
The rest was built homemade. Or everyday objects from tea chests to washboards were converted to produce sounds. Buckets and tin cans were also used as percussion instruments, while an old watering can could be given a new life as a wind instrument.
Musically, skiffle music was once called „Folk Song With a Jazz Beat“. However, the reference to jazz, in which mostly very complex chords are used, can be misleading. Most skiffle songs got along with three chords.
Altogether there was a lot of „do-it-yourself“ in skiffle music. The motto „This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band“, which was later to apply to punk, also describes the skiffle. Skiffle also spilled over to Europe, but – apart from occasional repeaters – had already largely run itself dead by the end of the 1950s.
But what remained was that the British Lonnie Donnegan had become a megastar with this music, which anyone can make.
The proof that even as a Briton you could achieve something with music, without having to be a virtuoso, was thus provided. That motivated many people to try their hand at music.
Buddy Holly 1958 and 1996
A further motivation for this was given in spring 1958.
At that time Buddy Holly toured Great Britain and also stopped in Birmingham for two concerts on 10 March. He couldn’t have played for long. The first concert started at 18:15, the second at 20:45 and he had four support groups.
The British author Laurie Hornsby sees Buddy Holly and especially his song That’ll be the Day as a kind of bridge from skiffle to rock ’n‘ roll. The same structure, the same three chords, but slightly different phrasing and – above all – a concise solo guitar.
This should not only be a stylistic role model. After Buddy Holly with his Stratocaster, which seemed futuristic at the time, travelling guitar and self-made instruments were suddenly mega-out.
Buddy Holly also has a strong influence on Steve Gibbons. If you listen to No Spittin`on the Bus, you can hear the kinship to Not Fade Away. And on his album Stained Glass he sings in 1996 – and thus almost forty years after the Birmingham appearance of the prematurely deceased Texan with the health insurance glasses (which inspired the German band Die Ärzte in 1985 to write the song Buddy Holly’s Brille which is Buddy Holly`s Glasses) – among others:
Hey Buddy, you`re on my mind
Something about the way you played that made you sound devine
When we get old you’ll still be young, as evening shadows fall
I study you Buddy, you’re on my mind
Hey, Buddy, I think about you.
Something about the way you played made you sound divine
When we grow old, you will still be young when the evening shadows come
I learn from you, Buddy, I think about you
Chuck Berry comes – and stays
Another influence was Chuck Berry, whose Sweet Little Sixteen reached number 16 in the British charts three months after the Birmingham concert of Buddy Holly. (In the 1960s and 1970s he reached even higher ranks, albeit with sometimes considerably weaker songs).
Chuck Berry was also the reason why a band that made a name for itself in Birmingham in the early 1960s called The Rockin` Berries – without sounding like Chuck Berry himself.
With Steve Gibbons it was different:
He was to have his greatest single success with the Chuck Berry song „Tulane“. Chuck Berry also influenced the songwriting of Gibbons. And finally he dedicated a song to his idol with „Chuck in my Car“ on the album „On The Loose“ he describes the exhilarating and relaxing effect of Chuck Berry songs while driving.
Short ride through the skiffle world: „The Kentuckians“
But back to „Brum“ in the 1950s:
Steve Gibbons was no stranger to the skiffle. In 1958, as the booklet to his CD work retrospective „There & Now“ Volume One reports, he invested a monthly wage as a plumber’s apprentice in a second-hand banjo. With three friends he then founded the band „The Kentuckians“.
In his book Blackberry Way MOVE, ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA, Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and STEVE GIBBONS BAND (Balve 1996, p. 23), Jürgen Wanda takes a closer look at this phase and quotes Steve Gibbons himself:
„I listened to the radio quite a bit. When I heard Lonnie Donnegan’s „Rock Island Line“ I bought a ukulele and immediately formed a band with my buddies. I dropped out of school and worked as a bricklayer for a while. But I got bored and I wanted to put all my ambition into the band.
(Did you notice? One time there was talk about a ukulele and another time about a banjo)
This band doesn’t seem to have had many gigs, the booklet to „There & Now“ even talks about only one. But it seems to have been a few more. In the book by Wanda, Gibbons remembers:
From time to time we also got some offers to play, but of course we had no transport. When we went to the gigs, we went by bus – with all the equipment. That was no problem at all, because we connected all three guitars to a 12-watt amplifier and our drummers only had one hi-hat. We had no money to buy a bass drum, so he stamped his foot on the floor
Even if the band was very short-lived: A beginning was made!
In the time after that, Steve, like many at that time, fell under the influence of Elvis Presley, whom Gibbons, in an interview once, probably rightly, together with Marylin Monroe, called the first world star.
Awakening experience in the cinema
According to Hornsby, however, Steve did have his real awakening experience, which finally led him to not only listen to music but to play it, in early 1959.
This is said to have happened in a fitting way at one of the high places of popular culture in Birmingham, the Odeon Cinema in New Street, which opened in 1937 and was also to be used as a concert hall in the 1970s and early 1980s.
There, the young Steve actually only wanted to see one film. But it turned out differently.
Here Steve Gibbons decided that he had to go on stage (Source: Elliott Brown from Birmingham, United Kingdom)
At that time there was a musical intermezzo between the commercials and the main movie. This time it was Tommy Hawk and the Hatchets who performed live.
Steve follows the performance with special interest because Tommy „Sid“ Hawkes, a former classmate from Station Road Secondary School, sang there.
„It was the first band I’d ever seen. And Sid, from school, with a black rose guitar was up there doing just what I wanted to do/That was the first band I ever heard. And there was Sid, from school, with a black rose guitar was up there doing just what I wanted to do (Brum rocked, p. 50)
Desire to travel as additional motivation
However, the passion for music and the desire to perform in front of others was not the only reason why Gibbons wanted to become a member of a band, but also the desire to travel, which a successful musician could cultivate. To achieve this goal, he would even have been willing to put aside his basic pacifist stance and become a soldier. Again a quote from the book of Savage:
Like many 60s teenagers, Gibbons would be liberated by the end of the national service the cut-off age for the last entry was 1 September 1900 90 1939, and he was born in mid July 1941. He didn`t see it that that way at the time: „I just missed conscription, but if I`d been called up, I’d have gone like a shot. It was theIt was the travel. I know it’s selfish. I’ve seen guys come back from the national service in Aden, Cyprus and they `d have suntans and tatoos, they were full of stories. They were men. I did the next best thing and I formed a band.“
From „Youth Brigade“ to rock band
But how to become a member of a band?
The opportunity opened up through a Christian youth group. Steve was then a member of the 64th Harborne Boys‘ Brigade, the local section of an international ecumenical organization that had the following goals:
„The advancement of Christ’s kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline, Self-respect and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness/“The advancement of the kingdom of Christ among Boys and the promotion of the habits of obedience, reverence, discipline, self-respect and all that leads to true Christian manliness.“
At one of the meetings of this scout-like „brigade“, Alan Cox, a member of the Dominettes, told him that the group was looking for a successor to their singer Colin Smith.
The reports on the progress of the matter vary.
- According to Hornsby (Brum rocked) Steve told him about this phase that he had rehearsed and auditioned some Elvis songs. After which he would have been accepted into the band.
- In the interview on the DVD „Live at the Kofferfabrik“, which is worth listening to, Gibbons himself tells that the decisive KO criterion was a song by Eddie Cochrane, namely „Com` on“. The son was a big thing back then, and because he knew it (and could sing it) he would have got the job as lead singer.
- And in the book by Wanda (there p. 24) it is told that Gibbons was only supposed to replace the original singer during an illness, but then the later retired completely from music. So Gibbons remained the singer of the group. Since he was soon fired from his job as a plumber, which he had accepted in the meantime, Gibbons‘ life as a professional musician began shortly after. (According to other sources, Gibbons quit his job himself to be able to take on a foreign engagement with the group. This will be discussed when the 1960s are discussed.)
Different versions of one and the same event. Be as it may. Performing with the Kentuckians was still a casual thing, but since joining the Dominettes Gibbons has been making live music regularly.
And already the first gig with this formation is said to have been memorable. For reasons that were less muiscal. In the audience a brawl between Teddy Boys, the youth movement that was hip at the time, broke out, and chairs flew.
Steve doesn’t seem to have been too bothered by that. From then on he was on stage every Friday evening with the Dominettes in a club called Calfornia in Birmingham.
The band at that time consisted of
- Steve Gibbons (voc., guit.),
- Jimmy Holden.
- John Hustwate (bass),
- Bob Burnett (guit) and
- John Gordon (keyboards).
The repertoire of the band changed gradually. The Skiffle disappeared from the program and daily hits from Elvis, Cochrane, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis were added to the setlist, as well as Motown songs.
The many meanings of the word „joint“…
Years later Steve Gibbons remembers his second double life as a plumber and rock musician. And doesn’t miss the opportunity to play with the ambiguity of the word „joint“.
It was great! I was an apprentice plumber on those days, so I figured I`d fix the joint by day, and rock the joint by night/ It was great! I was an apprentice plumber at that time, so I imagined how I would fix the connections during the day and rock the joint by night. (Brum rocked, p.50)
Gibbons the best „Elvis“ in „Brum.“
Steve was now 18 and a member of a band.
But he is also successful without a band. In 1959 he wins a local Elvis Presley impersonator contest.
A success. Nevertheless, he certainly could not have imagined that in the course of the career he had just embarked on, Scotty Moore, Elvis‘ guitarist, would one day accompany him when he sang „Heart Break Hotel“ in front of running film cameras.
Joining the Dominettes and winning the Elvis competition was the beginning of a career that would last for decades.
The 1950s came to an end.
If Steve Gibbons had visited a fortune teller back then, she would have told him – if she had been good – that a hard lesson, many changes, but also a first chart success in faraway Australia would follow in the next decade. And that despite the successes of the 1960s, by the end of the decade the future for Steve Gibbons would be at least as uncertain as it was at the end of the 1950s.
Information on the 1960s are here.
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