Way back in 1986, I was well established as a successful club promoter and party organiser, having largely failed to make it as a singer-songwriter, despite having had two major record deals, great reviews and – in 1980 – lots of airplay in the US.
It was ironic that I was now well-known as ‘a face’ in club land. Myself and Kevin Millins, my co-director in The Pure Organisation, even appeared in the centre-spread of The Face magazine’s 100th issue which featured ‘100 of London’s Movers and Shakers’ in 1988. Our fellow posers (or should that be poseurs?) included Jazzy B, Norman Jay, Leigh Bowery, DJ Fat Tony and Chris and Spike of The Wag Club, to name a few.
One half of The Face magazine’s 100th issue centrefold – I’m in the Levi jacket, wearing sunglasses (must have been a heavy night before) behind Leigh Bowery.
The Pure Organisation didn’t have a ‘share’ in my open mic/jamming nights, however, as it was entirely my concept, being a musician who’d always loved to improvise. The first was called Downbeat and had started out at a little basement club called The Piano Bar (now The Arts Theatre Club) in Frith Street in Soho in 1986, as London’s first open-mic, club night – It was soon jam-packed every Thursday (people used to queue on the stairs when it was full – we had to operate a one-out-one-in door policy). I would kick-off the night by improvising on the baby-grand piano on its tiny stage, as the club quickly filled-up. Then a gay, black American musician called Eric Robinson (who had a background in professional gospel music and had worked with some of the biggest US names in that field) would take over on the piano, as he knew hundreds of songs – which I didn’t. Then I would direct operations on the mic’, from a tiny mixer in front of the stage.
Some very well-known singers performed spontaneously there, including the late, great Sharon Redd (sadly, she died of an AIDS-related illness in 1992); Afrodiziac (who famously sang the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ chorus with The Special A.K.A), featuring Claudia Fontaine, Caron Wheeler and Carroll Thompson; Juliet Roberts, Mica Paris, Mary Pearce and Angie Brown – all great black, British female singers. American regulars at Downbeat included Kym Mazelle and Chaka Khan’s sister, Taka Boom.
One night, the crowd were mesmerised by a very tall, voluptuous woman sporting platinum-blonde dreadlocks piled high on her head sauntering into the club, swathed in designer clothes – she was like a galleon in full sail. She came straight over to me and asked – in a very LA accent – if I was Steve. I replied affirmatively and she asked if she could sing. ‘I don’t know – can you?’ I replied jokingly and she laughed in an uproarious fashion then said, hands on hip: ‘Honey – aah caan SAAANG! And my name is Victoria Wilson James!’ She then sashayed over to Eric at the piano and whispered in his ear. He smiled broadly and started to play the intro to ‘And I Am Telling You’, the show-stopping song from the stage musical ‘Dream Girls’. All eyes were on her as she belted it out with highly proficient gusto, before receiving a well-deserved, standing ovation.
Victoria Wilson James In The 90s
A few days later, after I’d invited her to dinner at my place in South London, she explained that she’d told some globetrotting friends in LA that she was planning to fly to London to further her career in musical theatre and as a soul singer, and had asked where the ‘hottest place to go’ might be on a Thursday night (the day she would arrive) and they’d unanimously suggested Downbeat, which kind-of shocked – and pleased me.
Then she told me how she’d tried, in advance of traveling to London, to find a cheap hotel in some directory-or-other (this was, of course, pre-internet) and had found somewhere in The Old Kent Road, of all places. She’d turned-up in a taxi, with six pieces of matching Louis Vuitton luggage, only to find that it was, basically a hostel for the homeless which rented-out private ‘rooms’ (‘More like cells.’ She said derisively) to help fund their charitable work.
I immediately invited her to stay – I lived in Walworth, near Elephant And Castle, at the time. And she totally messed-up my front room for several months! This was a while before she became one of the lead singers of Soul II Soul (she sang lead vocals on their hit ‘A Dream’s A Dream’ in 1990). She always thanked me for setting her on the road to success. Soul II Soul’s founder Jazzie B was a fellow club promoter at the time – and I knew him and his co-producer Nellee Hooper reasonably well.
The Piano Bar was owned by a gay couple in their 60s, who were queens of the old school. They also owned Stallions, which had hosted my streety, soulful gay-mixed club ‘The Lift’ every Friday from 1982 for over three years, until it got too successful and had to move to a larger venue, Fouberts, just off Carnaby Street (this was a wonderful club which was stylistically a genuine 60s time-warp, with red velvet booths arranged around a circular dancer floor that featured clusters of tin cans on the ceiling, with ordinary, coloured bulbs in them). Then, after just a few months, Fouberts was sold – or maybe the lease ran out, I can’t recall – and The Lift was forced to move to the rather grand old Embassy Club on Bond Street. Thus Mark Fuller, the co-owner, kick-started his career as a club-and-restaurant tycoon.
The photo of me taken at The Lift at Stallions that accompanied my two-page interview with The Face magazine in 1983
Bizarrely, regularly to be found playing the fruit machine in the basement bar was Lemmy of Motorhead. So… two ex-members of Hawkwind could be found on a Thursday night at a swishy venue in Mayfair at a largely black, gay club night promoted by one of them… me!
The Embassy Club was a wonderful venue but entirely unsuitable for The Lift crowd, despite me hiring Kiss FM’s Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson to DJ. It was too posh – and sadly, The Lift slowly died. But soon after, BAD was born in The Soundshaft in the back of Heaven on Fridays, featuring the brilliant DJs Vicki Edwards and (the late, lamented) Breeze.
Vicki Edwards. Paris. 1988
Breeze – 1985?
In late 1986 ye olde, gaye couple sold The Piano Bar and ‘Downbeat’ temporarily moved to Tuesdays at The Dakota Bar at Heaven, where it was also very successful. Minnie Driver used to regularly get on the mic and sing jazz and soul classics. I managed to resist to the temptation to ask if her middle name was ‘Cab’, as she was far too nice.
In 1987 Chris and Spike of The Wag Club in Soho offered me the whole club on Thursday nights. This was undoubtably the coolest, most stylish club in London in the 80s and held around six-hundred people on two floors. I called the night ‘Upbeat’. The main dance floor was downstairs and featured my good friends Vicki Edwards and Raggy D playing soulful, vocal house and New York garage music. Upstairs was perfect for the open mic night, but, by now I’d become tired of hearing wannabe vocalists singing ‘Summertime’ and ‘I’m Every Woman’ over and over again and decided to make it more of a jam session, with a full-blown band and singers (selected by me from a pool of performers, based on their availability), making up songs on the spot.
All musicians love jamming, regardless of whether they’re famous or not, and the roll call of the guys (sadly, no female musicians) who regularly jammed with me at The Wag included Culture Club’s Jon Moss, Simple Minds’ Mel Gaynor and Prefab Sprout’s Neil Conti (on drums) and bass players Alan Dias of P.I.L, Winston Blissett (later to play with Massive Attack and Phil Collins) and Dale Davis (later to become Amy Winehouse’s musical director).
Jon, Winston and Dale all became part of my somewhat legendary DanMingo recording project in 2003. All twenty-one tracks that we recorded can be downloaded from my Reverb Nation page.
L-R: Me, Jerry Richards, Jon Moss and Winston Blissett
One night, Upbeat was packed, as usual, and we were jamming up a funky storm, when the manager came up to me on stage and whispered in my ear: ‘The Whitney Houston Band are here.’ I was pleasantly gobsmacked and stopped playing my keyboard momentarily (well, good dynamics were always one of my ‘house rules’), then he added: ‘and they’d like to jam!’
‘Wow!’ I enthused, motioned for the band to finish the number, grabbed the mic and announced: ‘Ladeez and gentlemen, we’re gonna take a break, but don’t go away…’
The band all looked surprised. I smiled broadly and said ‘We have a very special surprise for you. Will you please give a very warm, Upbeat-at-The-Wag Club welcome to some truly amazing musicians who were performing at Wembley Arena earlier…I give you The Whitney Houston Band!’ I saw a sea of jaws dropping simultaneously in front of me, then the audience clapped and whooped and hollered as Whitney’s all-black band filed through the crowd and onto the rather cramped stage. Me and my musicians were all smiles as we surrendered our instruments to them, then gathered in front of the stage to take-in the surprise show.
As you would expect, these were amazing players of the highest calibre, and they performed a master class in effortlessly making-up the funkiest, soulful grooves for over an hour. It was pure magic.
As they were playing, the guy who appeared to be their leader, who was playing my keyboards (a Korg T2 and a Roland Juno for the musos amongst you) kept smiling at me and giving me what felt like suspiciously flirty vibes – or was I imagining it?
When they eventually, reluctantly finished (it was nearly closing time) the band leader came straight over to me and I shook his hand, then he hugged me. I invited him into the little dressing room and he introduced himself as John Simmons, Whitney’s musical director. I offered him a beer, we sat down and I asked him if he’d like a line of coke (someone had given me a gram, as so often happened if you were a successful club promoter in the heady 80s). He nodded affirmatively and asked him: ‘So is Whitney a dyke?’
‘Of course she is!’ Said John, laughing and touching my leg as I chopped-out a couple of lines.
‘Is Bobby gay?’ I asked.
‘He’s bi… or pretends that he is. Would you like to come to the show tomorrow?’
‘I’d love to, but I have a club night called BAD to run – it’s gay-mixed and in The Soundshaft, at the back of Heaven, every Friday. The music and the crowd are really cool. Perhaps you’d like to come after the show? Then I could I come to Wembley Arena on Saturday with a friend?’
‘I’ll be there’ Said John, getting up to leave. ‘I’m a bit tired now, but great to meet you Steve – there will be four, front row tickets for you on the door on Saturday.’
‘That’s amazing John, thanks so much,’ then added cheekily: ‘will there be backstage passes as well?’
‘Of course! Nice to meet you – see you tomorrow.’ Said John, giving me a hug, then left.
It would have been great if I’d found Whitney’s musical director attractive – but, unfortunately, I didn’t.
He came to BAD the following evening – I’d put him on the guest list, of course – and he later told me how much he’d loved the club. BAD was packed and had a great atmosphere, as usual, and the funky house music was pumping. I introduced John to The Pet Shop Boys and Jean-Paul Gautier, and they were soon all deep in conversation with each other. John looked across questioningly as I interacted physically with a beautiful young, mixed-race dancer/model by the bar. Well, better not to appear to lead John on, I figured. After all, when people find you attractive, they always blame you – as if you’d come on to them.
The next evening found me and my fellow keyboardist Eric Robinson with our respective guests (I don’t recall who they were; perhaps they might read this and remind me) sitting in the front row at Wembley Arena, where the stage was ‘in the round’. I explained to Eric that the last time that I’d been to a concert there, it had featured a proscenium stage and that this had also been a ‘freebie’ given to me by an American admirer: the difference being that I had slept with him the night before! This guy was the conductor of the full orchestra that magically appeared as huge curtains opened behind The Eagles in the second half of their show. I took my great friend Caroline Guinness and we were literally in tears with the emotion of it all.
The lights dimmed and Whitney’s band – all dressed in white suits – were soon playing up a soulful storm on the huge, circular, slowly revolving stage – John winked at me as he passed by – then Whitney’s unmistakable voice soared over them unseen, until she sauntered onto the stage to a huge roar from the crowd of over 12,000, looking fabulous in a tight, black pencil skirt and a crispy white blouse. What a beautiful woman she was! Once all the poppy hits were skillfully performed (this was about five years before ‘I Will Always Love You’, of course), she unexpectedly introduced a gospel section, reminding the crowd that her mother Cissy was a major gospel star and that (say it loud, proud and staccato) CHURCH was where she’d learnt to sing. Now her voice became huge and both her range and elaborate vocal licks were astonishing and emotionally charged. As she started the second song of this gospel section, Eric, sitting next to me, suddenly grabbed my arm, with a sharp intake of breath. I turned around questioningly to see his astonished face shaking in disbelief. ‘What on earth is it?’ I asked, in a stage whisper.
Oh… my…God. I don’t believe it!’
‘Don’t believe what?’ I hissed.
‘I wrote this goddamn song! I had no idea that it was in her repertoire!’
‘Wowee!’ Was all that I could whisper.
© Steve Swindells. 2014.
Footnote: my current all-star, ad-hoc jamming band is called The Plastic Sturgeons. So far, my special guests have included Guy (Pink Floyd) Pratt and Dale (Amy Winehouse) Davis.