Rocking back the years

Chuck Fowler R & R Band. Phil Crooks, lead guitarist (ex Joe Cocker).
Chuck Fowler R & R Band. Phil Crooks, lead guitarist (ex Joe Cocker).
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Sheffield musician Phil Crooks, who played in bands with Joe Cocker in the 1960s, is sharing his memories of the city music scene with Retro.

Phil begins this week by talking about some of the most memorable gigs he saw at Sheffield City Hall and some of the musicians he met and played with in the city.

Next week Phil shares some more memories and he’s also working on a third piece, talking in more detail about his time playing with Joe Cocker.

Last year my wife Pam and myself went to see Craig Revel Horwood’s excellent production of The Fiddler On The Roof at the Lyceum theatre here in Sheffield.

From our seats on the third tier of the balcony we watched Paul Michael Glaser as Tevye and an instrument-playing, scene-moving, singing and dancing cast told us the story of a Jewish family in a Ukraine that held many parallels with the troubled Ukraine of today.

At the end of the evening, as we left the Lyceum with the satisfied feeling of having seen a good show, I was reminded of some of the first concerts of live music I first went to in Sheffield.

The year was 1957 at the Sheffield City Hall and on the bill was the Chris Barber Jazz Band with Ottilie Patterson.

Chris Barber was the central figure in traditional jazz in the British Isles.

He was instrumental in introducing many fine blues and gospel singers to this country –Ottilie Patterson, a fine singer originally from Ireland, the great Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, making his final tour of this country.

I was lucky to have seen Big Bill, he died the following year and in my opinion he was one of finest natural folk singers and instrumentalists ever, not just of the blues but popular songs of the time such as The Glory Of Love, I Get The Blues When It Rains and St Louis Blues.

He copyrighted hundreds of his own songs and Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood and Ray Davies of The Kinks have all named Bill as one of their prime influences.

If you like the blues and play the guitar, you could do worse than listen to this man.

I was 13 when I saw Lee Conley Broonzy at the City Hall.

At that time the affordable tickets were for the platform seats, these were tiered from the back of the stage and gave you a great view of the rear end of whoever was appearing that night.

The music from New Orleans or traditional jazz was very popular around the city pubs and most people had heard of Chris Barber, a trombone and bass player whose band had been the training ground for many fine musicians – clarinettist Monty Sunshine, whose 1959 release of Sidney Bechet’s Petite Fleur had the band leader on double bass was a best-seller.

Lonnie Donegan played banjo for the Barber band before picking up his guitar for the Rock Island Line.

Although I don’t remember the titles, the musicians played an inspiring opening set before bringing on a tall black man who waved his guitar at the audience as he strode on to the stage.

I’d heard Big Bill on record and loved his voice and guitar playing but to hear them both that night effortlessly filling every part of the City Hall sent tingles up and down my spine,.

As he began to sing and play he brought the country blues of Arkansas and the American South to a small part of Sheffield.

I remember hearing The Mopper’s Blues, Guitar Shuffle and Black Brown and White, his voice and guitar just as strong and clear as his recordings.

Big Bill was putting it out and an appreciative audience was taking it in. That night has stayed with me ever since.

It was from the platform seats that I saw Buddy Holly and the Crickets on March 4, 1958.

Like a lot of other young newcomers to the guitar I’d been listening to this trio from Lubbock in Texas since the introduction to That’ll Be The Day came shooting out of the radio like an electric shock, entered the ears of John Winston Lennon and altered the sound of popular music forever.

The album The Chirping Crickets had just been released in this country and this single was one of its tracks ; That’ll Be The Day had topped the best seller charts in the UK and in the USA.

These were the days of the 12-inch vinyl long-playing record. In comparison to today’s CDs and downloads they were an expensive and sometimes hard to come by item.

The artwork for the sleeve to The Chirping Crickets was a picture of the band beneath a clear blue Texas sky holding a Fender Stratocaster and a semi-acoustic Gibson; these guitars could have been designed by Cadillac.

I spent quite a lot of time looking at that record cover and listening to the new and beautiful sounds inside.

Also on the bill that evening were singer Gary Miller and a band called the Montanas,neither of whom I remember, and a young Des O’Connor, who told a few jokes and acted as compere.

When he introduced the main act the lights dimmed and the crowd burst into applause.

This increased as Jerry Allison took his seat behind the drums, then Joe B Mauldin picked up his double bass and a lanky guy in horn-rimmed glasses, carrying the same Fender guitar I’d seen on the record sleeve, joined them and they went straight into Oh Boy.

The audience were stunned into silence and probably pushed further back into their seats by the power of the music.

We weren’t used to this in Sheffield; this kind of singing, drumming, guitar playing and, although we couldn’t hear it that well, this kind of bass playing, and where did these guys come from anyway?

West Texas, that’s where. Almost in Mexico! There was freedom in this American music and we wanted some.

The rest of the evening is pretty vague after all this time but I remember drummer Jerry Allison’s tom tom intro to Peggy Sue bouncing off the walls and Buddy Holly’s Fender starting out Maybe Baby and sending that by now familiar shiver up and down my spine.

They must have been enjoying themselves because during one of the guitar solos Buddy Holly did a wild ‘cricket hop’ across what seemed the full length of the City Hall stage.

That’s it! This is 1958; no cell phones capable of taking pictures, no mini cameras, not even a pocket walkman to record this musical milestone.

Something had happened that night, though; a gift had been given, accepted, and appreciated by way of applause and the looks of gratitude on the faces of the people in this working-class town.

Less than a year later I was delivering the newspapers when like Don Mclean I saw the headline saying that Buddy Holly had died in a plane crash.

Also killed was the Big Bopper, who’d had a hit with Chantilly Lace, and Ritchie Valens, who was well known in the USA for his recording of La Bamba.

I read through all the papers and in one of them was the address of Buddy’s parents.

I wrote to say how saddened I’d been by the death of their son and how much I cared for his music and how impressed I’d been by the show he and The Crickets had played at the City Hall here in Sheffield.

It came as a surprise to me when not too long after that I received a reply, saying that though they were still grieving it gave them some relief to know that Buddy’s music had reached so many people.

The following Christmas they also sent a beautiful card.

In 1963 I had my own chance at playing the City Hall when I appeared there on lead guitar with Vance Arnold and the Avengers.

Vance Arnold was in fact Joe Cocker, a friend I’d made when our newspaper rounds crossed; we’d smoke a cigarette then stagger off with our bags of The Star.

From this encounter we’d formed a band and after several incarnations become popular around the Sheffield pubs.

Joe styled himself on Ray Charles, who’d had a recent chart success with a ‘call and response’ song entitled What’d I Say Part 1.

We appeared at the City Hall twice in 1963, the first time in September supporting Dave Berry and the Cruisers, a great local band, and also another talented band of musicians called The Whirlwinds who had a pretty and talented singer called Karen Young.

The lead guitar was played by Dave Hawley, Richard Hawley’s father and a really good musician.

A couple of months later in November we played the City Hall again, this time supporting the Rolling Stones who had a best seller with a cover version of a great Chuck Berry song called Come On.

The Stones had attitude even then and this was reflected in their clothes, hairstyles and a powerful stage presence.

Their repertoire consisted of songs by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and singers we’d never heard of.

I was sitting a couple of rows back from the stage they all played hard and loud and well and exuded a louche cool.

As a popular local band with our own following we’d played a good set and Joe’s version of Georgia on My Mind, had gone down particularly well.

We’d put a lot of work into this song and were grateful for the deafening applause from a sell-out audience; the band had made a good contribution to the evening’s entertainment.

Brian Jones drinking from a bottle of gin and sending paper aeroplanes from the platform into the auditorium was my last glimpse of my only encounter with the Rolling Stones; cool to the last.