ME, BO A DUCHESS AND THE FLAMINGO
It is summer 1963.
I was up early, it was a beautiful day, but I was as mad as hell. I'd had an argument with my girlfriend the night before; I was seventeen and just didn't understand women. She was sixteen and quite obviously didn't understand men. Well young men anyway. I knew what I had to do. Go and buy some records. I threw on my American Levi's which had a button fly and were faded and beginning to go at the knees. I had a thick leather belt with a huge buckle. Was I at the cutting edge of sartorial grungeness! No. I threw on a red t-shirt and a red and blue cardigan that my mother had knitted me - which was now misshapen - to top off this ensemble. Oh although it was summer I was wearing a pair of large winter woolly socks that my Grandmother had knitted me.
I grabbed a quick breakfast of eggs on toast, kissed my mum goodbye and said that I'd see her later. "Ha! I'll believe that when I see it, she said. Once when I was 12 I stayed at an American families house, on the Airbase next to where we lived, for the whole weekend, from Friday afternoon to Monday midday without informing her. (We had no telephone.) The look of thunder on her face when I turned up is scarred across my cerebral cortex for ever. If I'd have been her I'd have thrashed me. She once told me many years later "You don't know how many nights I lay awake worrying about you.
So I walked to the crossroads in our village where I could 'hitch a ride'. I soon picked up a lift by a young G.I. in an old black Buick and we got to the town where there was a small record store. All of us kids who spent most of our spare time on the 'base' used Americanisms. We said store instead of shop, we grew up on Hershey and Snickers bars and I am amused when people complain about the change of name that Marathon bars underwent over here. I also called records 'reckerds.' So I went into the store where I was probably their best customer, and wondered what the latest soul reckerds were. Well they had very little in at all, so I decided to hitch a ride into Oxford the nearest city with a well
stocked soul section.
So I took up my position outside the town and soon got a ride from an English guy with a Volkswagen Traveller. We chuntered towards Oxford and chatted and I just explained what I was trying to do. He said that if you want that kind of music Soho in London is where you need to be, and they'll do loads of American imports. "Really? Was my response, "Do you know the shops? "I can drop you right out side one. Now the conjunction of the words Soho and American imports proved irresistible. Soho ' I'd heard the name many times and always associated it with sleaze and girls of the night ' no problem there - and American soul imports; fuck! have I struck gold!
It took hours to get there as we had to use the old A40 route with its legion of lorries chugging along belching out toxic fumes. We eventually got to White City and made our way past Shepherds Bush, Notting Hill Gate, Marble Arch, down Oxford St and right into Regents St. and then left into Piccadilly and into Coventry St.. Now, as I recite those names that are now so familiar to me, the excitement in my gut was unbearable at seeing these places for the first time. The largest place I'd ever been to was Oxford which I now
know to be small ' but this was out of this world! The buzz - the lights, the shops, the people, there was just 'zip' everywhere.
I'd come home.
I jumped out of the van and thanked him, he pointed to a street and said you'll find loads of record shops up there. As he pulled away what cloth remained of my right hand pocket in my grungy Levi's gave way, some change clattered onto the pavement and some into my thick winter socks. I'd not been here two minutes and I'd made a tit of myself. I picked up the change stuck it in the other pocket and began to look around. Woah! The lights the sheer energy of the place, I knew this is where I belonged. I said to myself 'this is where I want to be.'
I walked up to the street he'd pointed at, it was called Wardour St.. Oh if only my mates could see me now, I wondered what Sue my girlfriend was doing. I looked across and saw Lisle St., which looked promising. I crossed over but something caught my eye from where I'd just come from, The Whiskey A Go Go. Wow I'd heard of this place, (I hadn't I'd heard of the New York one) but then something caught my eye just beneath it: Bo Diddley tonight. I almost had a seizure right there and then. One of the all time greats and one of my favourites was going to be there ' tonight ' at The Flamingo. 7.30pm to 11.30pm 10 shillings but - and I couldn't get my head around the concept, 12 midnight to 6am £1. An all night session! Now I'd only ever seen a few bands at the local Women's Institute hall, and they were shite, I couldn't blag my way into pubs that had pop bands in because the landlords knew me, and that I was under age. But a fucking all-night session with an icon of Rhythm 'n' Blues, in just a few hours????
My legs turned to jelly ' holy fuck ' how much have I got? I had about 12 shillings. Shit! I can make the early session with some change for drinks, I was by now starving and thirsty. It would mean walking or hitching to White City roundabout, where I can pick up the A40 and all those trucks going west. Hitch hiking in the center of town I imagined would be difficult, but a 5mile walk to White City was not a problem. Then I suddenly remembered, the change that had fallen into my sock. I spotted a secluded little street across the road called Rupert Court, just the place for checking what loose change one had in one's sock.
I crossed over, leant against the wall, took my shoe and sock off and turned it inside out, and the change clinked onto the pavement. As I was counting, a window opened above me and a woman's voice said "Got enough to come up 'ere love? I looked up to see a woman of about 25 not bad looking, "Um ' I ' uh ' um ' Bo ' um ' Diddley round the corner was all I could stammer. She shut the window. I counted.
Fuck; still only about 13 shillings, it was 6pm and I was hungry. I decided to go and get something to drink and I didn't know if I could afford anything to eat. I saw a café in Lisle St. and ordered a coke and sat pondering. If I buy something to eat that's cheap, that leaves me with no money for drinks at The Flamingo. But I'm bloody starving; but come what may I was going to go and see Bo Diddley.
I pondered on when suddenly a guy came into the café in the uniform of a kitchen porter, white hat, white coat and those strange blue and white-checkered trousers. He announced "Anyone want to earn a few bob this evening doing a bit of washing up at a Wimpey bar just around the corner? He was continuing with something about a free meal, but I think I had him by the throat at this stage yelling "Me me me! And - I would have killed anyone who had tried to take this from me. For a brief moment I believed fervently that there was a higher being.
We walked the few minutes to the Wimpey bar and he explained that their regular kitchen porter had phoned in sick and it was their busiest evening. He said I would finish at 11.30, there were some Cokes down there and he'd bring me a meal at about 9pm. So I got togged up; and I must say that I looked damned dapper in my blue and white-checkered trousers. And there never has been a more happy washer-upper in the history of washing-upping. I duly did all the washing up with brio ' well I think it was Fairy Liquid ' but you catch my drift. I had my burger and chips and drank about 10 Cokes; it was a very hot evening in a very hot kitchen.
I duly got off at 11.30, got paid, got changed, walked down to The Flamingo and asked the gum-chewing doorman what time we could go in. He just pointed to the sign that said 12midnight. He chewed his gum without missing a beat. So I pottered up and down Wardour Street, I noticed another club, The Marquee with some bloke called Joe Cocker playing that evening. I found myself in Frith Street and I heard some funky jazz being played via a speaker outside a club. Wow! Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club it said. Playing music in the street. This was definitely bohemian and it was me! I never want to leave here. I was already formulating a plan. I didn't know it would take another 5 years.
I went back to The Flamingo at 12 on the dot, paid my £1 and went down the narrow stairs that were lit with red lights. I emerged into the main part of the club which in truth was quite small, dark, and also mainly red lit. There was a smallish stage with a line of about 10 seats 8 deep, jammed in front of it. The atmosphere just dripped off the walls. The music was impossibly funky and loud; I seem to remember Roy Head's 'Treat Her Right' playing. The club was made up of about 60% black and 40% white men and women. I noticed a programme of forthcoming artists. Ben E King, Inez and Charlie Foxx, Little Stevie Wonder, Doris Troy et al. What. Have. I. Walked. Into?
And in the middle of this funky musical nirvana, that old Broadway song came to me 'If my friends could see me now. I went and queued for a Coke ' they didn't sell alcohol ' and I was stunned by the price; 2/6d! They're 'avin' a larf I thought, it's about 9d in the pub. Welcome to London Steve. I found myself a little berth on a ledge near the stage as by this time all the seats had been taken. I wondered what time Bo was on ' you see ' we were on first name terms already. There was a band setting up, the name on the bass drum skin said The Gass. I didn't understand the concept of support bands. Damn, I'm going to have to sit through these first of all.
But when they started up ' bang! These guys were shit ' hot. They did all the Tamla and Stax stuff but with a back-beat that melted my gums. The drummer was just the most stupendous player I'd ever heard. That's what I want to do ' my life was being shaped for me. I had no decision in this; this was going to be my life. By this time with my mum's hand knitted cardy and my winter socks, I was completely soaked with sweat and I didn't care. All I could think of was ' if only they could see me now.
The Gass finished their set and moved their equipment to one side, now we were going to get down to the real nitty gritty. About half an hour later the roadies started bring in another kit of drums and new amps. People began moving forward in anticipation, it must have been over a 100 degrees in there. The musicians began to come on stage to cheers and began tuning, the drummer just checking that things were in place. My stomach felt as if I was about to go into the dentist for root canal surgery without anaesthetic.
The M.C. came up to the microphone and the cheers got louder. The place was about to erupt. "Laydeez an' Gennelmen, we have a real treat in store for you tonight!
We began to go wild, screaming. "No Laydeez an' Gennelmen we have a real surprise for you ' she rarely gigs with him in the States let alone coming to Europe to tour. Some of you may have never heard of her, but I guarantee you've heard her if you've listened to Bo Diddley! Roars and screams from the crowd, but who was he talking about? "Laydeez an' Gennelmen I give you rhythm and blues royalty ' Bo Diddley's cousin The Duchess! We all screamed but I'd never heard of her, but as she walked on-stage the crowd went berserk. Here was a statuesque beautiful black babe, with a black silk top, (and she was stacked) she had a pair of leopard skin pants that looked as if they had been painted on.
She was carrying the very recognizable oblong guitar that Bo Diddley was famous for. She was also carrying an incredibly long guitar lead, the significance of which was to be made all too apparent later in the gig. She plugged in and began to tune up with the place in complete bedlam. She eventually turned and just stood looking at the mini-riot she had engendered and just stared haughtily as if to say 'Yeh, you wish, in your dreams.' How the M.C. was going to keep us all quiet enough to announce the star I didn't know, and I guess neither did he. So he didn't try ' he just screamed into the microphone "Laydeez an' Gennelmen ' Bo Diddley! Complete and utter fucking pandemonium ensued as he walked on with that hat that's almost like a stove-pipe hat; but isn't. He too was carrying an oblong guitar, which he plugged into an amp and began tuning up.
He too eventually turned around and stared at the audience from behind his sunglasses for a few minutes. I didn't see any sign or count, they just hit it. Baddle lee bam bam, bam bam! Written down it looks stupid, but experienced it was life-changing. If there was bedlam before this was a step up from it. We were all dancing like maniacs but I kept an eye on The Duchess and she was certainly Bo's equal on guitar, the rhythmic interplay between them was breathtaking. They were like a couple of oil-covered snakes wrestling musically. 'Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger' melded into 'Hey Bo Diddley' and 'You can't Judge a Book, By Lookin' at The Cover.'
I by this time had jumped into a now empty seat about 5 rows back, not that I was sitting. Then ' during a long rhythmic break where Bo and The Duchess just funked it up ' The Duchess began to move to the steps at the edge of the stage. She began to walk down them; ah the reason for the long lead. She continued playing as she negotiated the bodies littering the aisle as she walked past the rows of seats, I imagined she was going to go out onto the dance floor which was a seething mass of bodies. But she stopped at my row and began to move up past the guys gyrating in their seats; and yes you can gyrate in your seat.
I realized what was going to happen, or rather I didn't. 'I'm just a hick from the sticks.' She looked at me ' still funkin' away ' and there was mischief in her eyes and liquid in my jeans. She turned her back as if to shimmy by ' but just sat down on my lap. And gyrated, and played. The crowd were going wild, I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, scream, wet myself or put my arms around her waist and hold on. So I did them all. She eventually got up and moved back towards the stage, she turned and looked at me with a wicked little grin that said she'd just fucked with a white kid's mind with a funny cardigan on; he'll never be the same - and he never has been. Black guys were slapping me on the back and joshing me, just saying 'Yeh man!' I had been initiated, in what I wasn't quite sure but I liked it.
The gig carried on in a blur after that but suffice to say I had a beatific grin on my face for the whole of it. They finally left the stage, more records were played and I danced my winter woolly socks off. The Gass came on ' were brilliant ' and were gone again. Then there were records played until 6am and I danced like a man possessed. There was trouble when a fight broke out with a tank-like man, and there was even the cartoon breaking of a chair over his head, and he kept on fighting for about 10 seconds then suddenly went down. He was carried out and we just carried on dancing. In all the subsequent years I frequented The Flamingo I never saw any more trouble.
At 6am I stood blinking and dripping in the morning sunlight wondering did all that just happen? I made my way up to Oxford St and caught a bus up to White City. I hitched a ride with a truck that was going to Cheltenham, which would drop me off at Burford where I knew my girlfriend would be working. Her father owned 2 garages opposite one another on the A40. I began telling the truck driver about the night's events but after about half an hour I fell into a deep sleep.
He woke me just after Witney, I must have been asleep for hours. We pulled into Burford and then pulled into the garage. I thanked the driver and jumped down. I walked into the garage and saw Sue my girlfriend. She was looking slightly cross; I said, "You'll never guess where I've been.