The Coast and Cuddles, Gigs and Jazz 1953-58
Alan Wylie (@wylie_alan)
I was born in 1966 in Paisley but have lived in London since 1976. I’m a public reference librarian and an active library campaigner. My personal interests are London history, especially urban regeneration/gentrification, and walking around London.
My father, Robert Wylie, was born in Shettleston in 1935. He started his working life as a apprentice wood machinist, but also had a relatively successful period in the 1950s as a singer in the Glasgow dancehalls. After this he had very short-lived careers as a corporation tram driver, a union steward and a fire place salesman!
In the 1970s he trained as a social worker and we moved as a family down to London. He worked for years in Waltham Forest where he set up the first social work team in a UK local authority Housing Dept. He was a prolific poet and fancied himself as a historian of art and Russian history!
He was also heavily involved in left wing politics, the radical social work and anti-psychiatry movements and died a few years ago a committed Marxist.
Below are some of my father’s memoirs on his time in Glasgow:
For anyone interested in dancing and dance band music in the fifties, Glasgow was the place to be.
There was nowhere like Glasgow for ‘the dancing’. ‘The dancing’ consisted of a large number of dance halls, big, not-so-big and positively tiny.
Among the big halls were the Locarno, Barrowland, Dennistoun Palais and Green’s Playhouse, not-so-bigs included The West End, Astoria, J&J’s and then there were a myriad of very small halls like The Oddfellows and Angus Street Halls in Springburn.
Every young Glasgow lad who liked dancing, popular music and girls visited at least one of the halls at least twice a week. I was a three to six nights a week man. Not only was I interested in dancing, music and girls but I was keen on signing as well. I quite definitely viewed myself as another Frank Sinatra or Billy Eckstein.
Money was tight for a seventeen year old in 1952, certainly for me as I was earning less than five pounds per week as an apprentice wood machinist. So extra money had to be made if I was going to feed my habit of going to ‘the dancing’ almost every night. Even at that early age I liked a flutter on the horses and a game of poker or brag, and if I had been lucky then these pursuits would have swollen the kitty set aside for my obsession. But I was dead unlucky at the horses and a rotten card player, so some other source had to be found.
Now around that time one my workmates fancied himself as a ‘chanter’, the Glasgow slang for singer, to the extent that he obtained for himself a Saturday evening spot with a band as a vocalist. For this he was paid ten shillings which wasn’t to be laughed at since it amounted to one eighth of what he was earning for a 42 hour week in a factory. As a bonus he found himself becoming much more attractive to women. This was definitely for me! If he could do it, so could I, and I did!
Tanked up on a goodly supply of cheap wine, girlfriend on my arm, I made for The Angus Street Halls in Springburn. This was to be the big night. On my previous visit I had asked the bandleader if there was ‘any chance of singing with the band’, ‘come back next Saturday son and we’ll hear what you can do’ he told me.
I duly showed him what I could do, and it did not it seems amount to very much. The ‘bandleader’ didn’t offer me a job and my girlfriends interest in me appeared to wane. But what the hell! There would be other bandleaders and other girls, and there were.
It was difficult to insist on simply developing your own particular style as a vocalist in mid-fifties Glasgow. Embryo singers-with-bands had to sing and even look like one of the established stars, Sinatra, Fisher, Eckstein etc. had to be copied if I was to have any chance of success. ‘aye he’s good but he disnae sound like anybody’ was a remark to actively discourage. I fancied myself as a Sinatra, I could sound quite like him and was just about the same height and weight.
The big problem was a tuxedo or lack of one. On my income there wasn’t much chance of being able to afford such a garment and the accessories to match. I scraped together enough cash to buy a navy blue blazer, cheap grey trousers, shoes, a shirt and tie, all of which went some way towards giving me the required air of glamour and sophistication. I was ready. All I needed now was the opportunity, and opportunities were not easily had.
It took a lot of raw courage and perseverance to become established; fortunately I had the necessary qualities and within six months had obtained work with two separate bands.
My mother, a formidable woman, got me my first singing job. Give my mother a reason to brag and brag she did. She talked to everybody, especially people she had never met before. One of these people had a brother who had recently opened a dance hall in Largs, a small holiday resort on the west coast of Scotland. This dance hall owner had just booked a band that just happened to be looking for a singer.
To get the job I had to audition, which took the form of me performing about a dozen songs with the band on a freezing cold Saturday night. I got the job and the dancers didn’t attack me!
It was on this otherwise memorable evening that I met the amazing Cuddles, the pianist. What a man and what a pianist. He was a strange sight indeed, wearing a dinner jacket held together with safety pins and stains and trousers too short and too big. He also wore a shirt front with a black velvet clip-on dickey and rubber galoshes over his shoes. Put all of this under a curiously cherubic face and you had a very unusual gentleman of unfathomable age. Jimmy Duguid, alias Cuddles, had his very own style of piano playing, somewhere between George Shearing and Dave Brubeck. His big problem was that he never seemed to be able to start with the band and usually never stopped with them either. As a man he was gentle, shrewd, amazingly persuasive and kind. He was also astonishingly attractive to women!
Cuddles and I would take on anything, anywhere; dances, weddings, wakes, parties, clubs and we would play with anyone, forming small bands with other musicians when needed.
These were great days, only stifled by me having to continue my apprenticeship in a furniture factory. I found the work boring and only got through the day by thinking of the hugely enjoyable times to be had between the hours of 8pm and the early hours of the next morning. I was gigging 4 or 5 nights a week and singing in talent competitions in between engagements to make extra cash. Winning a competition meant pocketing a fiver and singing with the house band for a week.
Despite this hectic and enjoyable activity I still retained my great love for the dance halls as places to actually dance, drink and meet girls. It was during this particularly colourful period that I got up to a crazy prank which almost ruined my career, reputation and almost my life! I met a couple of my mates in a pub in the Charing Cross area of Glasgow for the usual purpose of getting quite drunk before spending an evening at the Locarno Ballroom in Sauchiehall Street. We had been drinking for some time when we were joined by an old pal of ours on leave from the Merchant Navy. He was loaded with cash. foreign cigarettes, chewing gum and little oval pills in flat packages. He said that after a couple of the pills ‘you could jump over the Clyde in a wheelbarrow’. To hell with jumping the Clyde I was due to sing at the Locarno and wanted to feel better than great.
I suppose we must have left the pub at about 9.30pm and made our way to the dancing. Our routine was to deposit our coats and to make our way to the toilets to make last minute adjustments to our hair, tie etc. before launching ourselves upon the delights of the evening. I wasn’t to know that after swallowing a couple of the little pills that I would be launching myself in quite another fashion that evening. We made our way to the side of the stage and within five minutes I was belting out my interpretation of ‘St Louis Blues’. For months after people told me that I had sung that song brilliantly that evening but had had a crazy grin on my face throughout!
Having left the stage to great applause I found my pals and made for the balcony where we quickly finished the whisky from the quarter bottles hidden in our pockets.
I faintly remember joining some women of our acquaintance at a table overlooking the dancers on the dance floor twenty feet or more below. The rest was related to me about 45 minutes later by my pals in the casualty department of the Royal Infirmary!
It seems that I had made a suggestion to one of the women along the lines of ‘would you like to go for a walk’ which she had replied ‘go and take a run and jump’ which I did, right over the balcony, shouting ‘Geronimo’ and landed on the unsuspecting dancers on the floor below. I was then carried to a side alcove along with some injured dancers to await the arrival of the Police and ambulance. Everyone was dazed but only bruised thank god.
Luckily the police found it funny and let me off with a warning and although the Locarno management banned me I was let in a few weeks later with the greeting ‘huh it’s the bloody fly man’.
The entire escapade earned me free drinks for the retelling of the story for many a month afterwards.
My life quickly settled again in to the pattern of working at a job I detested during the day and signing at night. Cuddles found us gigs in far off exotic places such as Coatbridge, Airdrie, Bellshill and Tollcross. ‘How do you fancy singing at the coast’ he asked ‘great’ I replied and the coast it was.
The ‘Coast’ to a Glaswegian means seaside holiday towns like Ayr, Largs, Troon and Irvine. The gig was to be in Irvine on Tuesday and Thursday nights and Largs on a Saturday with the occasional late night on a Friday. The band we were to be playing with was named rather exotically ‘James Lowrie and the Midnight Syncopators’. Actually despite its name it turned out to be a confident and ambitious outfit. One of the band had played in America and had standards scored in the new ‘bop’ style. They were difficult to play but that didn’t stop the six members of the band enjoying the change from the strict-tempo sound.
It was a marvellous experience for me, not only was I earning some decent money but I was able to sing the way I wanted, that was in the style of Mel Torme and Sarah Vaughan. The great moments occurred during the intervals when Cuddles, the bass player, the drummer and I stayed on stage and ran through numbers like Ella’s ‘Everytime we say goodbye’ and Torme’s ‘Mountain Greenery’. For me jazz was coming in and Sinatra and co were on the way out.
These were grand days of cheap wine, malt whisky when I could afford it, women and song. More work came my way than I could handle and I was able to choose my gigs, so how did I come to choose the gig at the Crocodile Club? Now there was a place, hardly worthy of the name club. After all a ‘club’ was somewhere Parker or Gillespie played their greatly revered music in not a grotty basement flat in the Woodlands Road area of Glasgow!
It could be that this dungeon had something to do with the origins of the word ‘layabout’, people layabout the floor drunk others layabout the floor fornicating or as near it as was permitted. A few remained upright and danced, they were the weird ones! The Crocodile Club laid claim to having the smallest stage in the world, barely four feet square and yet it managed to hold Cuddles with an upright piano, a drummer and a cut down drum kit, a guitarist and me. Why did I choose to spend Sunday evenings in this crazy place? Well mainly because the members loved the music we played and requested songs such as ‘September in the rain’, ‘I’ll remember April’ and ‘East of the Sun’. They loved it and we loved it, they got drunk and we got drunk.
Our stint at the Crocodile ended suddenly after a police raid, which was a bit of a mystery as the odd officer frequented the club, all we could think off was that someone had forgotten to pay their dues to the constabulary?
My dad then spends a few pages talking about his unexpected draft into the Air Force, but then continues his musical memoirs with:
I was singing under the influence of a goodly quantity of malt whisky one Friday night in a pub in Forres, when a sergeant from the camp took me to one side saying that he was organising a camp concert party and would I consider coming on board. A day or two later I went to a rehearsal, sang like a bird, and became part of the Kinloss Calamities Concert Party.
For about three months we did the rounds of local hospitals, church halls and women’s institutes; getting no money but plenty of sausage rolls and booze.
If this was life in the RAF then I wasn’t going to grumble, and life got better still. While singing at Forres Town Hall I was heard by someone who was looking for minor acts for a new show being put together at the Inverness Empire. The star of the show was to be a well-known Scottish comedian and the supporting acts included some well-known names on the local variety circuit. After I had done my dozen songs or so with the resident band, I was approached and asked if I would like to audition, what a daft question! I auditioned successfully and was all set to make my debut in the ‘big time’.
The contract was to last four weeks and I had to sing one song at the start of the bill and another at the beginning of the second half. It proved to be a reasonably exciting and profitable experience for me but I doubt if the audience took much notice of what I was singing as they were straggling in nosily from the theatre bar.
He then goes on for several pages explaining why he was unceremoniously dumped out of the RAF and then embarked on a career as a shop steward in the factory he was doing his apprenticeship in, led a strike and was yet again unceremoniously dumped! He picks up his musical memoirs again with:
Cuddles came to the rescue. I went to the flat he shared with his mother in the Saltmarket area of Glasgow. He greeted me warmly ‘How’s it going, Bobby boy?’ ‘Any jobs going?’ I asked ‘Nae bother son’ he replied.
That weekend I was down at Largs singing with a seven piece band at a dance hall a Glasgow business man had newly opened. From the beginning the venture was a flop, it was good fun and the band were great but we got paid very little.
He then goes on to talk about finding paid employment as a tram driver, about how he crashed the tram, was yet again unceremoniously dumped and then met my mum at the Barrowland Ballroom:
I met Jean Clark McCallum at the Barrowland Ballroom in February 1958. We seemed irrevocably attracted to each other from that first meeting, but it could all have been very different. On that fateful evening it had been arranged that I would ‘do a number’ with the band, having won a competition the previous week. While we were dancing I told Jean that I had to leave her to get up on the stage to sing, and in doing so asked her if I could walk her home. ‘If you are any good then fine but if you’re rotten I’m going home on my own’. I sang ‘Autumn Leaves’ and presumably I did ok as she was waiting for me at the side of the stage when I had finished.
Jean and I got married a couple of months later and it was farewell to dancehalls, singing, other women, drinking excessively and leaping from balconies.