Fond Memories of Soho then & now 1957-2012
Artist George Skeggs remembers Soho in the Fifties PART 1
Arriving in Soho in 1957 for the first time was like walking through the old east end docks where I was born, with its wonderful smells from the exotic herbs and spices that came from the many bonded warehouses in the area, but that’s where the difference ended.
Soho was another world of its own, bright lights, flashing neon signs, edgy, and full of colour and a bit dangerous.
This was in 1957, when I was an innocent (not quite so innocent) fourteen year old kid. It was the time when Skiffle, Trad Jazz, and Rock & Roll boom were sweeping the nation.
The previous year, a few friends and I, tried our luck at forming a Skiffle group. Why not? Anything seems possible when you’re young and full of youthful idealism. Tommy Steele had pulled it off, maybe we might too. However, we made a terrible din and soon packed it in, except for the clarinet player who really wanted to join a Trad Jazz Band and, had been having serious music lessons paid for by his keen parents.
Anyway, my future artistic abilities would lay elsewhere in painting (merlin two.com). Although Skiffle and the new rock & roll had a big influence on us as kids, the only place to get a real taste of it was in Soho and its coffee bars. We were all looking for excitement, away from the local caffs and amusement arcades in East London. Soho was the place to be, its where I would meet my future wife.
Before you arrived in Soho, you could follow its aroma of pungent food and fresh ground coffee, along the Charing Cross Rd, from Tottenham Court Rd tube station to the corner of Old Compton St. Indeed, it was at no 59 Old Compton St near the corner of Wardour St that would become the birthplace of the British Rock & Roll Scene. It was here, that I and a few friends, had arrived one summers evening, after hanging around in one of the amusement arcades in Wardour St wasting our money playing on the slot machines and listening to Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers on the juke box.
I thought I looked rather hip, in black Ray-Ban style sunglasses (at night what a poser!!) and a bright yellow black 3 inch check shirt with dogtooth patterned drainpipe jeans, these would be classed as skinny jeans today. My shoes were black with 2inch crepe soles commonly called brothel creepers and my hair style was a ’Tony Curtis’ with a ducks arse at the back. This was a style favoured by the Teddy Boys of which I considered myself to be in 1957.
We were a breath of fresh air, but appeared a bit subversive to the older generation who wanted us to conform and get our hair cut and have a boring military style, short back and sides like our fathers had during the 1940s. But we were rebelling, image wise and gyrating to the new music coming from America.
The most outrageous person, I saw around Old Compton St in the late 50s, was would be, rock star Wee Willie Harris, a man with stars in his eyes a singer, and - (above George in the Soho Brassiere 1980s Old Compton St) -piano player, who had a minor hit ’Rockin at the 2 I’s which was played on the 2 I’s jukebox by the door. He often wore a Zoot Suit a had his hair dyed bright orange (remember this was in 1957, and before the pink pound) his outfit was finished of with a giant spotted bow tie, all the girls loved him. Willie was also the resident piano player in the I’s. Anyhow, as we got closer to Camisa’s Deli, which is still in business today, we could hear the sound of music coming from the basement next door. A sign above the entrance read 2 I’s-- between two symbols advertising Coke surrounded by musical notes with -- Coffee Bar--- beneath all picked out in neon lights. This sign I believe was changed for a more boring utility sign without the neon sometime in the 1960s.
The coffee bar had a plate glass window, in a chromium frame. Hanging on the door was a sign advertising 7up. Inside on the left was a Juke box, the place was buzzing with lots of people, and it felt very hot indeed, that was just upstairs! We ordered frothy coffee (plenty of froth and not much coffee which was a common complaint which, the press eagerly pounced upon, suggesting we were all being ripped of at the time) I think Sohoite Daniel Farson coined the expression in one of his documentaries for television, in a warts and all look, at life, in Soho in the late 1950s.
The machine used to create this new exotic beverage was called a Gaggia coffee machine which looked like something out of a science fiction film, and first used in the Moka coffee bar in Frith St in Soho in 1953. We drank its brew from one of those rather small Pyrex cup and saucers. I thought it was quite expensive. Being a new and exotic drink, having never tasted before, we simply had to try it. It was very nice indeed, and turned out to be a rather sophisticated tipple for us young East End urchins, who were more used to drinking large mugs of tea from the local caff for 3 pence. I think it cost 1 shilling and sixpence.
You could’ve had a cheaper drink of squash out of the tank on the bar, which had one of those plastic oranges floating about in it, and would have been a lot cooler, like the coke and Pepsi which was also being sold, but no alcohol. A sign in the window with a photo read- Home of the Stars- TO-NITE Terry Dene-. Dene look like a Elvis clone, more so than stable mate 2 i’s protégé, Tommy Steele did, but all the same not that convincing.
The best looking Elvis clone was a guy named Vince Taylor. Taylor and his band The Playboys, later opened their own place below Sam Widges Coffee Bar on Berwick St called The Top Ten Club of which I and a few friends became a members, all soft drinks no booze this was either 1959/60 and well before al fresco eating had taken hold on Soho Streets. However, they never quite made it big in Britain as Vince didn’t have much of a voice, but he did look the business, mean, dressed all in black and looking subversive and edgy, for that time. Anyhow they did find fame in France, where they became more successful than in the UK. However, It was Dene’s voice we could hear coming from the cellar of the 2 I’s.
As luck would have it ( by now we had no dough left to pay to go downstairs) the doors to the cellar, were being opened onto the street for ventilation, and the small stage could be seen if you craned your neck. So we spent the next 45 minutes outside in Old Compton St in the cool pungent night air, mesmerized, listing to the music coming from the basement.
This was heady stuff, the aroma of exotic cooking everywhere and the sounds, we drank it all in we were young empty vessels. Not wanting to go home, but reluctantly we had to leave.
But we were hooked and would soon be back for more, and to see what other delights Soho had to offer. Hanging around Soho in those days was an experience just watching the street girls plying their trade, even after the law was changed to stop them working the streets in 1956. However, being inquisitive young males, we would often hang around and try to work out who were on the game and those that weren’t, or leer into suspect looking alleyways. Anyhow, you could still find a girl in most doorways in Old Compton St looking for trade and still flaunting the law.
On later visits to Soho we soon found other places of interest, one such place was The Heaven & Hell coffee lounge which was next door to the 2i’s which we never went into. But more fascinating, was Le Macabre Coffee Bar in Meard St just around the corner of Wardour St. It appears, thinly disguised in Julien Temple 1986 film ‘Absolute Beginners’ based on a book of the same name, by Sohoite Colin McInnis. This was more of a beatnik joint, and appealed a bit more to my gothic sensibilities.
At first, it felt strange going in there dressed as a young Teddy boy with a Tony Curtis haircut and crepe soled brothel creepers, as most of the beats in there, seemed to be dressed in black, well at least the hip ones did. Some looked very unhip, indeed a bit old fogey and more like the cultural tourists that visit Brick Lane on Sunday mornings in order to mix with the local natives.
The scene in Le Macabre was more folksy, than rock & roll, or to be precise, more Jean Paul Satre than Wee Willie Harris. Nothing like the 2i’s, but I still enjoyed it just as much, as it felt even more subversive. Anyway, the next year or so, I was wearing a black polo neck with matching drainpipe trousers and green handmade crocodile winkle pickers, and by 1960 was riding a Paggio 150 GS Vepsa scooter.
PART 2 MOD'S AND TED'S TOMORROW