THE SIOUX CITY SIX
HOW I BECAME NEARLY FAMOUS
By Pete Crooks
When my son Sam was in the Reception Class at his first school in Chipping Campden, he let slip to the teacher that his Dad played the guitar. As a consequence I found myself taking a class of four and five year old kids for a half hour music lesson every week. They were the best audience that I've ever had or probably will ever have. As well as teaching them such classics as “You Canna Chuck Your Granny Off A Bus”, together we specialised in writing new and really subversive lyrics for many old nursery favourites.
I was roped in to go on the school outing to Gloucester Docks and I took my guitar so that we could have a sing song on the way home. Back at school the children had to paint a picture based on their day out. One work of art was called “Sam's Dad who is nearly famous took his guitar” and that title pretty much sums up my career in music.
Like Sam's Dad (me), my Dad was a musician. He was of that pre-TV generation that entertained itself. He played the ukelele and the banjo and, at one point, the guitar. From him I learned a few basic chords and a few old songs. Perhaps equally important was his small collection of 78 records which contained one or two classic items of British jazz and amazingly, a blues record. Granted it was by a white blues singer, Jimmy Rogers “The Singing Brakeman” but nevertheless it was a blues record and from it I learnt my first twelve bar blues. Consequently when I became a teenager and rock and roll and skiffle came along, I was ready!
One evening back in 1956 or 57, I'd just finished my tea when I heard what sounded vaguely like music coming from the alley at the back of our house. It was my oldest mate, Terry Roberts who lived two doors away from me and a school friend of his, Ricky Gaskill. Terry was singing and Ricky was playing a shiny new Levin flat top guitar and they were surrounded by an admiring bunch of ten year olds and their Mums.
I went and got my Dad's old ukelele banjo and my brand new Yugoslavian guitar - £6 from Barratts with the bottom two strings removed so that I could play it like a ukelele - and joined in. Now Terry wasn't the greatest singer and Rick and I didn't realise at that stage that our instruments not only had to be in tune but they had to be in tune with each other but, from those humble beginnings down our back entry, the “Red Rose Skiffle Group” was formed. We soon persuaded Roy Snelson from the next street to make himself a tea chest bass and sent Georgie Jones, who lived on Reddish Lane, off to the local hardware shop to buy a washboard.
We learnt to play the statutory repertoire and did the statutory youth club gigs. We even toured the local pubs on foot, Terry, Rick and I at the front of the convoy, Roy and George at the rear carrying the tea chest (containing the washboard) between them and moaning about the unfairness of it all. We used to go into the pubs and ask if we could play and being artists, we never asked for money, but I don't remember any landlord ever agreeing. We were paying our dues.
Then, Belle Vue, Manchester's answer to Disneyland, in an attempt to attract teenagers, advertised that they would be holding a series of “Gala Nights”. One of the 'attractions' was a skiffle group touring the fairground playing on the back of a truck and then later playing in the ballroom.
Amazingly we got the gig! I would like to say that we were talent spotted but it was more a case of somebody at Belle Vue asking somebody else if they knew of any Skiffle Groups and that somebody else knew one of our Mums.
One evening we were walking the two miles back home from Belle Vue after a rehearsal. For some reason, Terry wasn't with us so it was just Rick and me with Roy and George in the rear, moaning as usual. We'd got as far as 'The Plough' when a bus rolled up and off jumped Ray Cummings, an old friend of Rick's from the Scouts. I knew Ray by sight; he was an art student and I had seen him in the park sketching. He used to wear a plaid lumberjack jacket, a sheath knife and – most amazing for 1957 – an earring! Granted it was a clip-on but it was really funky, or as we would have said in those days, really bohemian. It turned out that he also played the guitar better than any of us, although that wasn't much of an achievement. Now I don't want to disillusion anybody, but in spite of what Bill Wyman says, Bill Wyman was not the first person in the U.K. to discover the blues back in1962; in 1956, Ray had a small but amazing collection of black blues 78s. He'd bought these from a mate of his at college by the name of John Mayall. Ray joined the band.
Newly augmented, we did our Gala Nights at the Zoo. Of course, every time we climbed on the back of the truck, it started to rain, or so it seemed. I don't know whether it was Manchester's acid rain or the quality of the finish on my Yugoslavian guitar, but the varnish on the sound board started to bubble. The strings weren't affected; they were already rusty. I think that we were paid five bob each per night (25p) or it might have been five bob split six ways, but what they hadn't mentioned
was that part of it would be paid in tokens that we could only spend on rides in the amusement park. Consequently we spent an awful lot of time on 'The Bobs', Belle Vue's big dipper. It was very tame by today's standards but the fact that it was built of rotting balks of timber held together with rusty bolts added to the excitement. I think that it was about this time that Ray put a pick up on his guitar and invested in a Selmer 'Truvoice' amplifier. We already had a microphone and Roy, an engineering apprentice, had made a mike stand to which the microphone was bolted. This was plugged into Ray's amp. Of course the amp was something else to carry round on our travels but Roy and George refused to carry it inside the tea chest with the washboard and George's new snare drum. Very unreasonable.
By the time that we finished our 'Season' at Belle Vue, one major change had occurred; we had a new name. We were now 'The Sioux City Six', a name that Ray had borrowed from a 1920's Bix Beiderbecke band. I was glad to see the back of the 'Red Rose'. It didn't seem right to me that a group who played and sang about chopping cotton and working on the chain gang should have a name suggestive of English County Cricket. I'd like to say that after the Bell Vue gig, the phone didn't stop ringing, but I can't. It could have been because none of us had a phone.
Our next stab at the Big Time was 'The National Skiffle Competition'. What a brilliant piece of marketing that was. By the end of the 50's, Music Halls were on their last legs due mainly to Television. At the same time, there were literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of skiffle groups all over the country singing their worried songs (it takes a worried man to sing a worried song). Some genius came up with the idea of 'The National Skiffle Competition'. Every week in a different town, on each week night, six different skiffle groups would compete against each other, the winner being judged by the volume of the applauds. At the end of the week, the winning groups from the week nights would compete, the winner going through to the final rounds which would be held in London. Of course the groups wouldn't be paid and they'd bring a theatre full of supporters with them every night. Genius! The show was presented by the then popular 'teenage' singer, Jim Dale. This was before he started appearing in the 'Carry On' films.
Of course we signed up to join in the fun. To improve our chances, it was decided that we would look far more professional if we replaced Roy and his tea chest bass with Ricky Blears who played a proper double bass. Ricky was a friend of Ray's from Art College who, like Ray, sometimes played with John Mayall in the Power House Four. He later came into prominence in the music world by being involved in the legendary Brinsley Schwartz scam. I'm not sure how we broke the news to Roy but he must have taken it well because he came to the Hippodrome to cheer us on. Ricky lived in Northenden, a long way from the Manchester Hippodrome where the competition was being held, but he had transport for himself and Boadicea the bass. He had a bike. Originally a pair of pram wheels were fixed to the spike of the bass allowing it to be towed behind the bike. Unfortunately this sophisticated system had fallen apart and he had to ride his bike with Boadicea strapped to his back. We all managed to arrive at the Hippodrome safely and on time and full of nerves, we did our bit. We didn't win, but I did discover that chorus girls aren't as glamorous close up as they seem to be from the balcony and that Jim Dale was wearing make-up.
After the show we had to help Ricky and Boadicea to start off home. First Boadicea had to be strapped to Ricky's back and then we had to help Ricky and Boadicea on to the bike. Finally, holding Ricky, bass and bike upright, we had to give them a push start. Once started, Ricky couldn't stop until he got home to Northenden because if he stopped, he couldn't start again without assistance. I don't know how he dealt with red lights, road junctions and other traffic. It seemed better not to ask.
Although we hadn't won our round, a few weeks later we received a letter from the organisers of the competition saying that as we were so good, they would like us to enter again, this time at the Liverpool Empire. I don't remember which of us received the letter but it wasn't Terry. A couple of the other members of the group came to me and suggested that we shouldn't tell Terry and that I should take his place because I was the better singer. Flattery will get you everywhere because I'm ashamed to say that I agreed. I would like to say that we won, but we didn't. The four girls who constituted our extensive fan base came by train to support us but they had no chance against a theatre full of scousers and in reality, just because the lads thought that I was a better singer than Terry, it didn't mean that I was a good singer, it just meant that I was a better singer than Terry. I think that this time we travelled in the back of a van belonging to a friend of ours who was a painter and decorator. Whilst we had to share the space with ladders and pots of paint, we felt that it was far more appropriate to our status than using public transport like our four fans had to do.
Soon after, a local jazz band, The Mayfair Jazzmen (see my bit on the Bodega), started a jazz club. When I say 'Jazz Club', I really mean a room over a Co-op grocers, unlicensed, without toilet facilities and with refreshments supplied by the local snack bar. The Mayfair Jazzmen, who were friends of ours, thought that it would be a good idea to have a resident skiffle group and that was us.
It went very well but as often happens, rifts began to occur. I started to play a little with the jazz band and Ray was planning a group of his own, 'The Black Snake Four'. The other three 'Black Snakes' were Rick, Roy and George. 'Black Snake' comes from a Blind Lemon Jefferson blues 'That Black Snake Moan'. For the lexicographers amongst you, 'Black Snake' is a euphemism not a reptile. So it came about that one night the Sioux City Six played their last gig in the room above the grocers. It really was an emotional occasion and our extensive female fan base were in tears. In all honesty, I haven't experienced anything like it since.
'The Black Snake Four' never really took off and Ray became a member of Sammy Prosser's 'Wild Five', a skiffle group who actually made it to the National Skiffle Competition semi-finals appearing on 'Six Five Special', the first real teenage TV show.
Eventually Sammy and Ray went to Europe, busking, but they were deported back home from Italy.
Ray and I played together from time to time, ultimately in 'The Blues Syndicate', which was originally John Mayall's band. Terry, Rick and George all joined the Navy.
Terry, the oldest of my friends, used to sing and act a dramatic version of 'Frankie and Johnny' with the Sioux City Six. He sang it all round the world in the Navy and he sang it at my 50th Birthday party.
Rick plays the same tunes on the guitar that we used to play all those years ago and he's taken up the banjo. In spite of that, after forty odd years, he's finally got it together with one of the original Sioux City Six fans. George too married a fan but they're now divorced and George was last seen heading into the sunset, dancing the Salsa with a new lady whilst singing Frank Sinatra songs. Roy became a successful engineer but the last time that I saw him, he was still moaning.
Ray, Rick and I are still close mates but sadly Terry, my oldest friend, died not long after my 50th. I'm still playing but I'm still only nearly famous. To quote Mose Allison – I'm not discouraged, but I'm getting there.
You're not the only one who didn't get famous, Pete. Glad to have Googled you up after fifty years. The 'bass-on-the-back story' is exactly right. In answer to your question about stopping and starting, I occasionally had to rely on passing girls to get me re-mounted. It worked perfectly well unless there was a headwind. Tailwinds were great. Manchester to Northenden in eight minutes!
I play blues keyboards these days....and I can play in A! Just.