Russ Lee

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A couple of weeks before Christmas in the winter of 57 a few mates went out carol singing. That’s what young teenagers did in the 50s, so nothing unusual about that. But what was different, was that three of us (myself, Paul Shanahan,and Keith Shackleton) carried guitars.

Some weeks earlier I had imparted my knowledge of the three chord trick to Paul and Keith, so by the time Yuletide was approaching it seemed like a good idea to expose our newly found skills to an audience,and carol singing was the perfect vehicle.

The response was amazing. I remember us standing in the driveways of the large detatched houses on Halifax Rd. Nelson , singing and playing our hearts out. People would come to their doors.They had never heard anything like it. “Can you play any Lonnie Donegan?” some would say. Are you kidding. We would do Lonny, a touch of Chas Mcdevitt, and even a small piece of Buddy Holly.What a buzz we got .I t was better than sex. Daft thing to say really, seeing as how we were barely out of puberty, and sex wasn’t even on the horizon at that point.
Any way the result of all this was that the Skifflettes (or Les Skifflettes) came into being.

There were several different members in the early days. The above mentioned plus David Shanahan on washboard, Frank Lord on Tea chest bass, Gerry Cunliffe on vocals and guitar,Alan Holt on vocals, and even Alan Buck ( later to join the Four Pennies as a drummer) on vocals and guitar , and Pat Belshaw ( later to become Ricky Shaw) on vocals. We even tried out a girl vocalist, Pat Askew (daughter of Lew Askew) but that didn’t work because she was classically trained, and sang everthing in soprano.
Our audiences , at that time were to be found in Church youth clubs. So we  performed, on Dance nights at St.Bedes, St. Pauls, and St. Phillps in Nelson , and St. Lukes in Brierfield.

We lost Alan Holt and Alan Buck quite early on in the life of the group. Alan Holt splintered off to form The Silhouettes, and Alan Buck,who had discovered a talent for playing drums, finished with the group because his father had decided that the rest of us should pay towards a drum kit. No way could we afford to shell out for a drum kit, and anyway ,we were quite happy with Dave Shanahan on wash board. In the middle of all this, and unknown to me, my mother had sent off a letter to the Carol Levis show, and before we knew it, we were off to auditions at the Ardwick Hippodome Manchester.

I remember  us having to change buses at Moseley St. bus station, Manchester. We were joined on that bus by a young Elvis look-alike carrying a bright red guitar wrapped in a plastic bag. He passed his audition singing a song called “Margo”. His name was Ronald Wicherley. He became Billy Fury.

Also on the same audition were two guitar vocalists singing a Buddy Holly song Take Your Time  - Messrs Lennon and McCartney.

We passed our audition with a rendition of a song called In the morning - one of my own compositions.

Because  Carol Levis said that we should consider cutting the group down a bit, we had to lose Jerry Cunliffe and Pat Askew. So now we were a six piece, three guitars, bass, wasboard and lead vocalist . A typical skiffle group of the period.  It was at this point we were introduced to Tony Hicks.

I can’t remember who brought Tony to us.  It could have been Keith Shackleton, because he lived at the same side of town. Not that it matters who introduced him, we realised at once that this polite well brought up 12 year old with a nice guitar and deft little fingers would be an asset to the Skifflettes.

So it was the final version of Les Skifflettes, a seven piece and including Tony Hicks  that went on to come second in an all Lancashire group competition held at the Empire theatre Burnley, appear on BBC radio and ITV television, do a show at the Palace Theatre Nelson along with the King Brothers, famous for A White Sports Coat.

We now had a manager, Lew Askew. He used to manage the Imperial ballroom and also the Savoy and Hippodrome Cinemas in Colne where he had us playing on stage between the feature films, much to the delight of the young audiences out front.

Much to the delight, apart from the jealous types who took to firing slug guns at us from the darkness of the circle.

Padiham Grand was yet another cinema where we had the dubious honour performing to yet another enthusiastic young audience who hadn’t been overly exposed to live popular music.

At this time there was only one venue in the area approaching what we now would call a disco - Vernon St. Bop Club. A dance was held every Friday ( or was it Sunday) night at the Air Cadets club room on Vernon St. Nelson.

It was run by a West Indian called Vince, and featured the hottest music of the period captured on Vince’s trusty reel-to-reel and pumped out at volume to a lively crowd of late teens and early twenties. In between this “hot music” the Skfflettes were featured  and we had to learn to deal with older, less than enthusiastic crowds. Quite a learning curve, and boy were we learning.

What we, as a group, got from Tony Hicks, was the knowledge that there was more to music than the “Three chord trick”. We now, thanks to him, had minors, 7ths and augs and dims under our belts. What Tony got from the Skifflettes was a chance to perform in front of an audience. He must also have learned some basic stage craft. Whatever he gained , the Skifflettes were certainly the spark which lit the fire inside him that burns until the present day.

All good things come to an end and by late ’59 our musical adventure was over  - well the first chapter anyway.

Some of the “older”  members of the band had  become more interested in the fair sex than music, and the Skifflettes fizzled out.

I left town for a while and when I returned it was to find that Tony Hicks and Pat Belshaw had formed The Dolphins. I was lucky enough to catch their act at the Chez Nous club Colne. I thought that the Dolphins with their smart suits, Selmer Truvoice amps, Watkins Copycat echo, Futurama guitars were brilliant; and with Tony and his nimble fingers playing Shadows classics, and Pat Belshaw, now known as Ricky Shaw up front, and Bernie Calvert on bass they were the best group in the area.

A short while later when Bobbie Elliot joined them on drums they became unbeatable.

I have only mentioned Bobby Elliot en passant. I could actually devote many pages to him.

What I will say about him, apart from him being an exceptional drummer and a thoroughly nice chap, is that if you were ever lucky enough to have him  get on a stage and play behind you he was inspirational and took you to an entirely new level.

The last time I ever saw Tony Hicks in the flesh, as it were. I was working with The Manhattans. I bumped into Tony at the end of Bankhouse Rd Nelson, where he lived.

It must have been about March or April 1963. “What are you up to at the moment ?” he asked.”  “I’m off to Butlins on Summer season” I told him.  “You lucky begger, I wish I was going to Butlins”  he said longingly.

I went off to Butlins, Tony joined the Hollies, this was just the beginning ...


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