WEST HEATH - BIRMINGHAM
Updated July, 2014Sonny Rhy (Dennis Burgess) lead vocal, harmonica
'Sonny Rhy and The Rivals' a West Heath rhythm group, have made a name for themselves by starting a new dance craze known as "The Bends". It is said that to dance this popular number, all that is necessary is to bend at the knees, go up and down in time to the music, and add little wiggly arm movements.
The above description was printed in a local newspaper shortly after a reporter interviewed the members of 'Sonny Rhy and The Rivals' - an early 1960s Brum band who managed to attract quite a large following of enthusiastic fans.
Dennis Burgess was in his last year at Turves Green school when he auditioned to join 'The Rivals' in 1960. Being younger than the others in the group, he fronted the band as their lead vocalist and harmonica player under the name 'Sonny Rhy'. They were certainly a smart outfit in their matching red and black stage suits so it wasn't long before they were playing increasing numbers of bookings at local youth clubs. At this time, The Beatles were still unknown so it was rock standards by Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Cliff Richard along with instrumentals by The Shadows that The Rivals (and most other groups) performed on stage. Dennis Burgess remembers:
"We used to hire a room in Hampstead House to rehearse, as did another group at the time called 'The Chimes'. Geoff Turton was a member of the Chimes and it was during this period that Geoff was asked if he would join The Rockin' Berries in Germany, to replace a member who needed to come back home. Also the Rockin' Berries borrowed our equipment to make a recording because they could not afford to pay to bring back their own from Germany."
Sonny Rhy and The Rivals became the resident group at the Cofton Community Centre in Longbridge - better known as 'The Gully Club' - taking over that position from The Rockin' Berries when they left to go to Germany. As they grew in popularity they began to be booked at bigger dance halls and Midland venues, including both Plaza's (Handsworth and Old Hill). Dennis Burgess recalls a great memory of The Plaza as follows:
"The Plaza had its drinks bar downstairs with a loudspeaker so that the performance could be heard. When Sonny sang 'Last Night Was Made For Love', a Billy Fury number, the bar was emptied as they all rushed upstairs thinking Billy was on stage! Later Sonny had a personal request sent from Ma Regan, the manager, asking him to sing another slow ballad for her - a rare honour in those times."
Another regular booking for Sonny Rhy and The Rivals was 'Brum Beat Cavern' in Summer Row. It was there where the unique dance craze started by the group was thought to originate. The 'Bends' or 'Benz' was witnessed by a reporter who wrote about it in the local newspaper with the story later featured nationally in the 'TV Times' Magazine. By this time, the band had their own following of fans. The newspaper reported a fan saying; "They are fab! Every place I go now, the dancers do The Bends. Some form a circle and go round and up and down at the same time!"
This media attention certainly helped Sonny Rhy and The Rivals gain even more bookings that saw the band performing on the same billing as 'Johnny Kidd and The Pirates', 'Craig Douglas', 'Mike Sarne', 'The Wildcats' (with Marty Wilde) and other big stars of the day. The group would also perform at parties and weddings if the price was right. Dennis Burgess remembers a particular incident:
"While performing at a wedding of a famous Birmingham boxing family, a fight broke out - just like the ones you see in a cowboy film in a western saloon bar. The 'golden rule' in a disturbance is YOU KEEP PLAYING. But it was so bad we had to take cover behind the piano to continue playing!"
By the time The Beatles arrived on the scene, Sonny Rhy and The Rivals had started to introduce comedy and drama to their stage show. Sonny sang 'Memphis Tennessee' (Chuck Berry) on the telephone, in bed, complete with alarm clock and bedside lamp, at the Moseley Ballroom. On another occasion, The Rivals would go on stage wearing kilts, playing and dancing the Scottish Highland fling. Possibly the most memorable stage appearance by the group was when Sonny Rhy would dress in 'drag' with a white satin tight fitting dress, high heel shoes, full make up and long blonde wig to sing 'Buttons And Bows' in his deepest Tommy Bruce voice!
Things may have gone too far though when Sonny Rhy and The Rivals started using 'starter pistols' as part of their act. The loud bangs and smoke was so realistic that some of the audience became distressed, believing they had really shot each other, or making a mad dash for the exit in panic! Inevitably, at one show the police were called which wisely put a stop to further performances featuring firearms.
Ironically, the group's growing success contributed towards their eventual demise. The ever-increasing number of bookings for Sonny Rhy and The Rivals resulted in a hectic schedule that placed pressure on all the band members. Things finally came to a head around Easter time in 1964 when their management booked the band to play dates over in Hamburg, Germany. This caused an argument about time-off that split the group resulting in the members going their separate ways.
Eric Seaton went on to play in other groups including one that had future Brum Rocked! author Laurie Hornsby in their line-up. George Morton gave up his drum set and later went to work for an electrical firm. Ray Hinsley became a toolmaker and now lives in Rhyl. As for Sonny Rhy - Dennis Burgess went on to become a Design Engineer at the Austin and later Rover works in Longbridge. Looking back on it almost 50 years later Dennis says:
"The things we did may not seem extreme by todays standards, but for some venues that believed a band to be a piano, double-bass, and snare drum, our crazy rock was too much to take. When the Beatles arrived their songs were in demand, but it was always the rock songs that featured most with the Brum groups. After all, the best rock groups of the day came from Birmingham!"
BrumBeat would like to thank Dennis Burgess for his assistance in writing this story of Sonny Rhy and The Rivals and for sending photos of the group shown here from his personal collection.
Copyright © John R Woodhouse 2012