Saturday, 23 November 2019

She Said She’d Always Been a Dancer: Soho in the 60s

Stuart Penney

* Old Compton Street in 1959. The yellow arrow points to Paxton's
In early 1967 I arrived in London with little more than a guitar and a change of clothes.  The summer of love was just around the corner and, to paraphrase Bob Dylan from almost a decade hence, there was music in the cafes at night and cultural revolution in the air.  
Jobs were plentiful and, if you weren’t too fussy, cheap accommodation was easily found, usually without the need for tiresome references or expensive bonds.  Thanks to the Evening Standard classified ads, I quickly landed a tiny bedsit in Notting Hill, followed by a job as a general dogsbody in the post room of W. Paxton & Co, a long-established music publisher at 30 Old Compton Street in the heart of Soho.  Even for 1967 the pay was pitiful, just £8 a week (which translates to £150 in 2019) but, more importantly, it was a foot in the door of the music industry, albeit at the humblest level.  Trudging around the West End every day collecting sheet music orders from the myriad publishing houses also provided an invaluable knowledge of the back streets and alleyways of central London.

Restaurants, strip clubs, exotic delicatessens, folk cellars, guitar shops and trendy clothes boutiques were everywhere in the surrounding streets and Soho was vibrant with colour and noise.  Across the road from Paxton's was the 2i’s coffee bar. Established in 1956, it was purportedly the first rock & roll club in Europe and the place where Cliff Richard and the Shadows (née Drifters), Adam Faith, Joe Brown, Tommy Steele and many other British rockers got their start.  The name 2i's was derived from the original owners, Freddie and Sammy Irani, although the brothers were long gone by the time rock & roll arrived.
A few yards along at number 63 Old Compton Street were the former premises of the Beatles’ tailor Dougie Millings.  This is where the Fab Four’s famous collarless suits were made in 1963. The Flamingo and Marquee clubs were just a stone’s throw away in nearby Wardour Street and a few minutes in the other direction was Ronnie Scott’s jazz club.  Ronnie’s had recently moved to Frith Street, but his original Gerrard Street premises, renamed the Old Place, remained open until the end of 1967.
*The Legendary 2i's Coffee Bar
Upstairs from Paxton's were several floors of offices rented by all manner of showbiz types - publicists, managers, agents and the like.  Among them was Bill Cotton Junior, the television executive and son of the famous big band leader. He later became BBC Head of Light Entertainment and Controller of BBC1. 
Immediately next door was the Prince Edward Theatre.  Opened in 1930, the theatre went through several name changes until, as the London Casino, it became a wide-screen Cinerama picture house in 1954.  In the late 70s the venue reverted to its original name and became a full-time theatre once again, presenting big budget musical productions such as Evita, Miss Saigon and Jersey Boys.  One day in mid-1967 a skip arrived in the street outside and what appeared to be the entire costume wardrobe of the theatre was unceremoniously dumped.  Countless silk dresses, velvet tunics, fancy suede boots and wide-brimmed hats were simply tossed away. A couple of us managed to climb in and rescue some items before they went to the tip, but I shudder to think what the entire collection would be worth today.  It was a universe away from the provincial drudgery of my Sheffield hometown.
W. Paxton's Dean Street head office was strictly old school, publishing classical and brass band music of increasingly limited interest in the swinging 60s. The company was established in 1870 and there was even a Paxton record label which sounded impressive but was virtually moribund by the time I arrived. Thankfully, the Old Compton Street branch was somewhat hipper, supplying stores across Britain and Europe with the latest pop sheet music and songbooks sourced from the various London-based publishing houses, of which there were dozens in and around Denmark Street at that time.  Sheet music had been king in the first half of the 20th century but by the 60s it was losing ground to record sales and the traditional publishers were fast becoming an anachronism.  In the 70s and 80s closures, amalgamations and takeovers became commonplace and the music publishing industry shrank to a shadow of its former self. 

It transpired that my job at Paxton’s had recently been vacated by a guitar player named Caleb Quaye, who had gone to work as an engineer at Dick James’ studio in nearby New Oxford Street, where he would hook up with Elton John, then known as Reg Dwight.  Reg and Caleb had met at Paxton’s and would sometimes sit in the downstairs tearoom planning their musical future. Reg had previously worked at another publisher, Mills Music in Denmark Street, known as London’s Tin Pan Alley, just a two-minute walk from Old Compton Street.  Caleb would later record extensively with Elton and with his own band Hookfoot.
*part of an Elton John interview in Zig Zag magazine, early
With a small retail counter at street level and a maze of corridors leading to Dickensian wood-panelled offices and subterranean storage rooms behind, Paxton’s was an odd place indeed, employing a motley assortment of misfits, oddballs and eccentrics.  Some senior staff members had worked there for decades and nearly all had unusual personality traits. Like something from the lyrics of the 1966 Cat Stevens hit "Matthew & Son", a few of the more venerable managers were even rumoured to have been at the company for 50 years, taking them back to the First World War!
There was Ron, an angry little man who commuted by train every morning from Luton.  With Coke bottle specs and a toothpick-thin roll-up permanently clamped between his lips, Ron was in a perpetual state of red-faced indignation and would moan endlessly about the world in general and the deficiencies of British Rail in particular to anyone within earshot.  
More interesting was Harry, the co-writer of several published songs, notably the 1952 Max Bygraves novelty hit “You’re a Pink Toothbrush”, for decades a staple of the BBC radio request show Children’s Favourites (look it up on YouTube).  Despite this modest level of fame, mild-mannered Harry wore a brown warehouse coat and worked in the gloomy basement beneath a bare light bulb filling orders of vocal scores for stage and film musicals. The scores were individually wrapped in brown paper tied up with hemp string. Some hadn’t been disturbed for years and were covered in a healthy layer of dust which he would remove with his sleeve before carefully opening them.
Strangest of all was Nigel. Messenger boy Nigel Cornthwaite's all-consuming twin passions were theatre organs and the Who. Despite resembling an overweight bank clerk in his tweed jacket complete with leather elbow patches and tie, he would regularly perform an impromptu version of “My Generation” for us in the tearoom. 
Using a piece of wood as a makeshift guitar and placing heavy emphasis on Roger Daltrey’s stuttering delivery (particularly the line “why don’t you all f-f-f-f-fade away” which he seemed to find particularly risqué) Nigel would roll around on the floor and then smash his “guitar”, Townshend style.  And, heartless bastards that we were, we would encourage him endlessly, until one of the managers heard the racket and came down to curtail the performance. 
When agitated (which seemed to be most of the time) Nigel would suck his thumb and regress to infanthood.  He lived at home with his mother in Twickenham and it seemed that Pete Townshend knew all about him, inviting Nigel onstage at Who concerts and even to his home on occasion.  Several Who reference books mention Nigel joining the band on stage for “Magic Bus” during their last-ever appearance at the Marquee in December 1968. I suppose these days he would be taken care of properly, but back then Nigel was thrown into the workplace at the deep end and left to sink or swim.  It was all very sad. Years later Caleb Quaye told me What a character Nigel was.  I actually went with him to see the Who at the Marquee.  I don't think he ever recovered!”
In 1967 Soho exuded an air of seedy, down-at-heel decadence with garishly lit strip clubs and walk-up brothels on every street and alleyway.  The doorbells euphemistically labelled “Attractive Model, 3rd Floor” were a clumsy way of circumnavigating the law against soliciting.  The number of Soho sex shops increased from just a handful in the early sixties to close on a hundred by the early seventies.  The Street Offences Act of 1959 had supposedly driven prostitution underground, but it was still visible well into the 60s with working girls appearing in shop doorways as soon as dusk fell.  A few plied their trade from the side exits of the Prince Edward Theatre on Greek Street and after a while I got to know some of the regulars by name. One would tease me mercilessly about my proto Marc Bolan haircut.  “If I had hair like you, darling, I’d be making a lot more money!” she would call out as I hurried past on my messenger boy duties.
Each strip club had a barker standing outside on the pavement whose job it was to cajole the drunks and unsuspecting saps inside where they would be fleeced for bogus membership fees and charged extortionate amounts for drinks.  The girls who worked the strip joints used a well-tried rotation system and every day you’d see them rushing from club to club, make-up in place, peroxide hair in rollers under a head scarf and wearing, more often than not, a PVC leopard skin print or cheap fur coat of some description to perform their act yet again a few yards down the road.  This is surely what inspired Paul McCartney to come up with the line “She said she’d always been a dancer, she worked in 15 clubs a day” when he penned the Abbey Road song “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”.

*Don Partridge busking in Brewer Street, Soho
Along with the tourists, office workers and local characters, Soho was home to several street entertainers.  Don Partridge, the self-styled King of The Buskers was a one-man band who scored a couple of UK top ten hits in 1968, the most memorable of which was “Rosie”Don was an imposing figure who could regularly be seen performing around the area with his guitar, harmonica and kazoo in a Dylan-style neck harness and a bass drum strapped to his back, not to mention his trademark snakeskin jacket.  He was frequently moved on by the police and sometimes even arrested and charged with obstruction, but he’d always be back the next day to perform his Jesse Fuller repertoire (Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues” was an essential part of every busker’s repertoire).  Following his brief flirtation with pop success Don continued to travel the world as a street singer almost up to his death in 2010.

One of the most distinctive Soho characters was Billy Davis, an alcoholic semi-vagrant who had a distinctive line in street performance.  He wore thick horn rim glasses and would stick a carnation behind each ear, along with two more in the buttonholes of his threadbare army surplus overcoat.  The flowers were sourced from nearby Covent Garden market each morning and they earned him the nickname “Rosie”. Billy’s arrival was typically heralded with plenty of shouting and swearing, so we’d invariably hear him long before he came into view.  His party piece involved standing in the middle of the street and, casually indifferent to the traffic chaos building up around him, he would carefully balance a wine bottle on his head while singing ancient music hall songs at the top of his lungs. He’d presumably consumed the entire contents of the bottle beforehand.  The spectacle was usually accompanied by the impatient tooting of car horns and the cursing of taxi drivers. Billy’s performance was repeated almost daily around Soho and he would gather crowds of bemused onlookers. Inevitably, he eventually crossed paths with the Beatles. 

*Billy Davis pictured in Gerrard Street circa 1968

Working in Soho we’d see famous actors and musicians on the street daily and while it was always a thrill for a lad from the provinces, after a while it became commonplace and a matter of routine.  “Just seen Sean Connery in the sandwich shop on Wardour Street” someone would say, prompting a co-worker to counter with a bored “Really? the Small Faces were in the Gioconda cafe on Denmark Street this morning” and so the game of celebrity Top Trumps would continue.  But I don’t care how blasé or world-weary you are, seeing the Beatles in the flesh is something else entirely. A few yards along from Paxton’s at 76 Old Compton Street, on the second floor above a shop, was Norman’s Film Productions. It was here that the Fab Four came almost every day for eleven weeks in late 1967 to edit their Magical Mystery Tour television movie.
*The Beatles and Billy at Norman's Film Productions, late

Word started going around that Paul McCartney had been spotted coming and going at Norman’s and, sure enough, a few days later I saw an Aston Martin DB6 driving down Dean Street with Paul at the wheel.  Then, returning from lunch one day, I encountered all four Beatles walking together along Old Compton Street.
*Billy Davis appeared in the "Hey Jude" promotional film clip,
September 1968
They were dressed in their colourful psychedelic finery with neck scarves and beads and George had on a bright yellow Afghan coat.  Chatting and wisecracking among themselves, they were clearly in high spirits. My memory tells me they were walking in single file, like on the Abbey Road sleeve, but that’s probably not true.  As they passed an eatery named The Yodelling Sausage (yes, really) on the corner of Greek Street and Old Compton Street, Lennon became quite animated, laughing and repeating the name in that unmistakable nasal accent.  As for me, I became frozen to the spot. The hysteria of Beatlemania had long since passed and this was Soho, after all, where well-known people were an everyday sight, but here were all four members of the most famous group in the world, casually walking unmolested (and mostly unnoticed) among the shop workers and tourists. It was a truly heart-stopping moment. Then they were gone towards Charing Cross Road and it was back to the workaday drudgery, eccentrics and misfits at Paxton’s.
*Billy Davis at Norman's Film Productions, late 1967
In November 1967 Norrie Drummond from the New Musical Express interviewed Paul McCartney at Norman’s Film Productions.  The Beatles had encountered Billy by this point and invited him up to the editing suite for a singalong.  Drummond wrote in the NME As we walked back through Soho, Paul suddenly spotted Billy, an old friend of the boys.  Billy is about sixty and wanders around Soho with a bottle on his head and a carnation behind each ear.  ‘We'd have loved him for the film,’ whispered Paul as he, John, Ringo and Billy broke into a chorus of [Guy Mitchell’s 1956 hit] “Singing The Blues”.  ‘Long live the Beatles!’ shouted Billy as they continued down the street, ‘And the Stones!’” The Beatles took such a shine to “Rosie” they invited him to the filming of “Hey Jude” recorded for the David Frost Show.  Look out for him standing next to Ringo’s drum kit during the fade out.
A few weeks later we were sitting in the tearoom at Paxton’s when someone came in brandishing the newly released double EP of Magical Mystery Tour.  We pored over it, as people did with every new Beatles’ record back then.  Most vowed to get a copy when funds allowed (the retail price was 19s/6d, or 97½p), but one young square piped up with “I’d like to buy it for my young niece, but I don’t think it’s appropriate because of the lyrics”.  He was referring to the “I Am The Walrus” line “boy you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down”. Now, even in 1967 that was a weird thing to say.

*The Harry Nilsson Songbook
In 1971 Paxton’s was acquired by the giant American publisher Charles Hansen Music Corp. and the company was re-located to Moorgate in London’s financial district.  Compared to Soho it was a very dull place to work indeed, totally lacking the colour and character of the West End.  Nevertheless, I had moved up the company food chain by early 1972 and one of the first tasks I was given at Moorgate was overseeing the production of a songbook by Harry Nilsson.  Then based in London, Harry was currently riding high with his biggest album Nilsson Schmilsson and the attendant smash hit single “Without You”, so it was decided to rush a songbook onto the market.  Together with the main designer I was dispatched to Harry’s fourth floor apartment at 9 Curzon Place in Mayfair*, close to both the US Embassy and the Playboy Club, to show him proof sheets of the photographs we intended to use for the book.  Although it was well past noon when we arrived, Harry answered the door looking like a man with the world’s worst hangover and I was gratified to note that he was wearing the very same orange dressing gown as on the cover of Nilsson Schmilsson. 
While Harry scrutinized the proof sheets, we drank tea made by his stunning lady friend (who may have been the second Mrs. Nilsson, Diane Clatworthy).  Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist leafing through his small but perfectly-formed record collection. Together with the inevitable Beatles’ albums the LPs were predominantly singer/songwriter themed, with the first two Paul McCartney solo titles, Randy Newman’s 12 Songs and the newly released self-titled solo record by Paul Simon all present and correct.  The flat was tastefully decorated in chic early 70s style by, as I later discovered, ROR (Ringo or Robin), a design company jointly owned by Ringo Starr and Robin Cruikshank, with offices in the Beatles' Savile Row Apple building.  As we left, Harry came to the door to see us off, still in that dressing gown and already on what may have been his second double Brandy Alexander of the day.
*Harry Nilsson's Mayfair apartment was in this building
In July 1974 Mama Cass Elliot succumbed to a fatal heart attack there and four years later Keith Moon died of a drug overdose in the same bed.  Both were aged just 32. The British tabloid press were quick to dub the Mayfair flat “cursed” and “London's most morbid pop location”.  Nilsson later returned to the US and sold the Curzon Place apartment to Pete Townshend. *Following some 80s redevelopment in the area, 9 Curzon Place became 1 Curzon Square.
By the end of 1973 the US owners decided to close W. Paxton down and the entire stock, comprising untold thousands of rare and historic music song sheets, dating from the sixties back to the Edwardian era, was shipped to America.  Poor Nigel was sacked on a trumped-up misconduct charge, presumably to avoid giving him a sizable redundancy payoff (he had been at the company since leaving school in the early 60s), while the rest of us were quietly laid off. Charles Hansen Music Corp itself ceased trading in 1991 and the bulk of their catalogue was taken over by Warner Music.
During the 70s and 80s a Chinese Bank moved into Paxton’s old premises at 30 Old Compton Street.  In the 90s the area became the epicentre of London's LGBT community and today the building houses the world-famous G-A-Y Nightclub.
*The G-A-Y Nightclub at 30 Old Compton Street


  1. Always wondered who that odd old bod was in the Hey Jude video. Thanks. And what an interesting Nilsson anecdote.


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