Written by Brian Nicholls
Thursday was payday throughout Staffordshire and payment was always in cash. Jobs were in great abundance with opportunity and labour mobility being rife. Single people of all ages were financially comfortable and, during the mid sixties, Thursday night at the Kingfisher Country Club in Wall Heath was, "Party Night!"
Such clubs were decidedly 'up-market' attracting revellers from near and afar to dine, dance and enjoy local and international entertainment.
The club in those days was a mecca for 'A' list entertainment. It was more than just another club - it was an institution. I know this from acquired experience having worked the club many times during the sixties as a professional musician and, socially as a club member. Travelling past the club a couple of months ago it was apparent from the enormous pile of building rubble in the car park that the club was a victim of 'corporate vandalism' having had its heart and soul ripped out of it by its new owners. Even its iconic name has been sacrificed! In the event, I was inspired to write this as a tribute to "The Kingfisher".
The pinnacle of fashion, art and musical creativity came of age in 1967 - known as "The Summer of Love". The Beatles were at number one in the hit parade (the charts) with 'All You Need is Love' which was beamed to millions around the world via satellite television. Their LP (album) 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' plus, of course, Jimi Hendrix's 'Are You Experienced?' were to change the way we all listened to music - for ever! Pirate radio stations were on the up which freed us from the archaic censorship of the BBC. No more unreasonable and frivolous banning of record airplay just because a brand name like Coca Cola (The Kinks' Lola) is featured in the lyrics.
To the delight of local revellers, Jimi and his two bandmates (The Jimi Hendrix Experience) had made an impromptu appearance at the Kingfisher on Thursday 11th April, 1967 directly following their two-show appearance at the Gaumont Cinema, Wolverhampton as part of a twenty five date UK tour headlined by The Walker Brothers and featuring Engelbert Humperdinck, Cat Stevens, and local lads The Californians.
Tony Perry (Astra Agency boss)..."One of our local groups - The Californians - were part of that tour and after the last Gaumont show they were booked to do a spot at the 'Fisher' I drove Jimi (Hendrix) and his two bandmates Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums) to the club. Jimi was an extremely polite and well mannered man - far removed from his wild man persona on stage. Upon arriving at the club he said to my wife... "What can I get you to drink ma'am?" ...so, she settled for a large gin and tonic!"
Mick Brookes (Californians' lead guitarist)... "We had just finished two shows at the Gaumont and headed straight to the 'Fisher' for a pre-arranged gig. The Walker Brothers, and the rest of the show came along too. There was Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck and support acts. At the end of our spot we were joined by John Walker, who was a good guitarist, for a 'jam session' and were soon joined by Jimi's bass player Noel and then, drummer Mitch only to be joined by Jimi himself.
The whole thing turned into a 'dirge' of three chord bashes with four lead guitarists from four entirely different backgrounds all trying to compete with each other. However, the crowd loved every bit of it so, that's all that matters. It's still a talking point though when I boast that Jimi Hendrix actually played with The Callies" (Californians).
Legend has it that Jimi borrowed a steel comb from a member of the audience and played slide guitar with it. Such a feat is quite possible (at a pinch) but, it's a great story worthy of reflection here.
The Kingfisher was amongst a small number of similar country clubs across Staffordshire. They were a 'bridge' between the traditional music venues ie pubs, social clubs, cinemas town halls on the one hand and night clubs on the other. People would start their evening at say, The Waggon and Horses at Wall Heath, pop over to the 'Fisher' at around 10.00pm to catch a popular headlining chart group, take advantage of the "late bar" (12.00 midnight to 12.45 am) and then, pop along to a night club in Wolverhampton or Birmingham which usually closed at 2.00 am. I don't know where some of them got their energy from (yes, I do!)
It was also common for local groups to work three gigs in an evening. Many Household names would do a spot at the Waggon and then take top billing at The Kingfisher - or, just to chill out before going back to their hotel.
I recall doing a gig at The Cleveland Arms in Willenhall on 20th July, 1967 and calling in to the Kingfisher afterwards to catch Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas who had appeared earlier at the Waggon. In truth, we had gone purposely to chat with their superb lead guitarist Mick Green, formerly with Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. In the event, Kramer and Co were a "tight" outfit and would have been a hard act to have had to follow.
During my many visits to the club during the sixties-both as a musician and club member, there was only one occasion that I witnessed any hint of rowdyism. A frank exchange of views had occurred amongst a group of people within the seating area aside the dance floor. The door staff had skilfully ushered the warring factions into the car park on this hot summer Thursday evening in 1968 whereat the altercation began to escalate-interspersed with the odd punch here and there and promptly diffused by intervening wives and girlfriends.
Coincidence or what, but a Ford Anglia dog handler van 'poured' into the car park and out leaped a police officer with a dog like a German Shepherd crossed with a grizzly bear who, upon being released from his leash, promptly turned around, floored the officer and began mauling him to the accompaniment of expletives from the officer too explicit for me to recount to BrumBeat visitors! The crowed dispersed amidst the officer's misfortune and our manager appeared (oblivious to all this) and yelled... "C'mon lads, yer on in two minutes" ...leaving the poor officer alone in the car park wrestling with his dog.
Tony Perry... "Astra agency in Wolverhampton owned the lease on the 'Fisher' during the sixties but, from 1970 to 1977 we actually owned the club as well. The pop music scene had diminished from 1970 onwards so we provided cabaret nights with first-class recording stars like The Drifters, Gerry and The Pacemakers, The Searchers, The Supremes and also, comedians like Bob Monkhouse."
During the sixties there was something for everyone at the Kingfisher. There was a nice sized swimming pool to sit around (or get thrown in to!) and chill out whilst listening to the music and rub shoulders with celebrities. Although Thursday was perhaps the wildest night of the week there was entertainment pretty well every other night. "Shellfish and Wine" or, "Cheese and Wine" on Tuesday with the Nick Wallis Band (strict tempo). Some Tuesdays even offered "Dancing with Prizes".
Wednesday and Friday was "Five-course Dinner Dance and Cabaret" with a choice of meals for 25/- per head which was "Ideal for Works' Parties, Celebrations or just, Dinner for Two". On such a night (as on 28th November, 1967) you may have been lucky to have seen 'Eddie Calvert and His Golden Trumpet'. On that very evening, the club was offering a "Get You Home in Your Own Car" service as well.
Sunday morning was Ballroom Dancing lessons but, from 12.00 noon the "Hidden Talent Competition" was held encouraging "all types of artistes professional or amateur are welcome where the winner gets a £50 prize" - the club's very own 'X factor', no doubt. Sunday evening was "Ballroom Dancing Night" where typically, you could be dancing to The Reg Bradley Band or The John Bradshaw Orchestra, to name but two. Saturday was usually wedding parties and receptions where a strict tempo band or pop group would perform or, indeed both on the same occasion.
The "Summer of Love" had been much derided by cynics but, is it any coincidence that 1968 in its entirety was the only year in the last century that Great Britain was not actually involved in any military conflict anywhere in the world? The Summer of Love actually spanned from around April 1967 to October 1968. Groups who had started with skiffle in the mid fifties, morphed into rock 'n' roll in the late fifties and then the Beat Boom of the early to mid sixties - reaching their zenith in the psychedelic late sixties - were to finally fall by the wayside with the onset of progressive/heavy rock and finally succumb to what their mothers had always plagued them with which was to "Gerra a proper job will yer!"
Yes, to all things there is a season and tellingly, Thursday 17th October, 1968 was offering "Old Time Modern Ballroom Dancing" from 8.30pm to 12.30am with The Kingsley Quartet for "an evening of adult dancing" - members 4/- and guests 6/- inclusive of refreshments.
Tony Perry... "The prolific local group scene of that era had all but ended by 1969 so, Astra started promoting regular cabaret evenings but, there will never be a time that will compare with the sixties."
Readers can hear recordings of local groups named in this article by typing into Google the name of the group followed by one of their records on YouTube. For example; 'californians, sunday will never be the same'
The author (Brian Nicholls) would like to hear from former punters and group members who may have taken snaps during a Thursday night bash at the "Fisher" during the sixties or seventies. Text me on 07733 130162 and I'll get back to you. A special thanks to Slade Historian Chris Selby for Express and Star adverts.
Copyright © Brian W. Nicholls 2016
Local rock music historian Brian Nicholls played guitar in several West Midlands groups during the 1960s including Varsity Rag. He is a regular contributor to the BrumBeat web site.