On Saturday 20th March anti-racists came together in a global day of action to mark UN Anti-racism Day 2021.
In the UK, Stand Up To Racism had called for people to co-ordinate different activities, with the main focus being on a #TakeTheKnee action at 1pm. NorSCARF had explored the possibility of holding a socially distanced and risk assessed public gathering along with a number of community and campaign partners. Unfortunately the police and Stoke-on-Trent city council were unwilling to consider an event of this nature and effectively imposed a blanket ban for 24 hours on anti-racist activity within the whole of the city. See the Sentinel article which ran the headline ‘£10k Covid fine threat if anti-racism campaigners ‘take the knee’ outside Hanley Town Hall’ here.
We were therefore forced to suggest people stay at home and post photos of themselves that we could share online. We also joined…
Sometime, Jamaican time, on Thursday 18th February, 2021 another talented and original musician passed away: Ewart Beckford, known to most people by his stage name, U-Roy. He was also dubbed “The Originator” for his unique and innovative singing style, and was greatly revered by all who love roots reggae music. That much we know because, within hours of the announcement of his death, international news and social media were awash with tributes to the great man. Fulsome obituaries appeared in the newspapers and on news sites, all basically repeating a similar – and strikingly limited – set of wiki-facts. I read quite a number of these articles before the repetition got to me. Let the dead bury their dead. I decided just to turn on my record player and listen again to the man’s music. Two or three days passed, before a friend contacted me to ask whether I would like to share my thoughts on Daddy U-Roy for this blog; I said yes, and then started to worry that I might simply end up repeating all of the words, “facts” and sentiments which are already out there on the internet in such abundance:
So, this is my attempt to avoid that trap by writing about my own response to U-Roy and his music, from the perspective of my own personal experience.
Imagine, if you can, a world without the internet. Imagine! There is no Wikipedia, Twitter, BBC Sounds App, YouTube or Spotify; a world in which, unless you can afford to go to the cinema, the only available moving images are those to be watched – in real time (with no pause or catch-up) – on a thing called television; unless you are privileged, there is only one of these devices per household. People are offered a choice of just three highly curated channels. You watch the afternoon wrestling on ITV with your granny, because, well, because that’s what’s on. It is a very small window indeed, and many people only have black and white pictures to watch through that window. The daily newspapers only carry black and white images. People keep scrapbooks in order to create a personal archive of image and text in hard-copy: the only form of copy there is. There are a couple of radio stations playing music, but, largely, it is an uninterrupted schedule of family-friendly, commercial pop. If you want to listen to any other music, you must buy the record. Apart from very occasional articles in Sounds, Melody Maker, or – by far the best hope in this regard – New Musical Express, everything you know about contemporary music, and the musicians involved, will have to be gleaned from close – sometimes forensic – scrutiny of the record cover and sleeve. Who are these people and what are they trying to tell us? The strange and restricted world which I am asking you to imagine is Britain in the mid-1970s. In that place and time, there was just as much ignorance, mystery, myth and speculation flying about on “the grapevine” as ever there is today on the web; the main difference being that it all moved around much more slowly in the 1970s, when “word of mouth” was pretty much the only way in which news of developments in the cultural underground, any form of outsider art, could be passed on; that is, at walking pace, and one conversation, gig or show at a time.
My memory is a bit hazy from this distance but I’m fairly sure I first heard U Roy in 1976; two of his songs – “Natty Rebel” and “The Great Psalms” – were included on a Virgin roots reggae sampler entitled “The Front Line”.
It was advertised as “An album for the price of a single. 69p.”; this “Front Line At 69” record sported a very stark, monochrome image on its front cover: a strong black fist, in Black Power salute, grasping one of the clusters of spikes on a length of barbed wire, and with blood trickling down the wrist and forearm. There are some glorious tunes from a number of wonderfully talented artists on that album – Johnny Clarke, Keith Hudson and Delroy Wilson to name just three – but it was the U-Roy cuts that really grabbed my attention; he took the music I thought I was beginning to understand and lifted it somewhere else entirely: he extended the form whilst totally respecting its grammar. This man layered an energy over the top of the dubby riddims which was propulsive and compelling; his tone was confident and joyful; his message was serious and meaningful; old, wise but still energetic; his intent was not in doubt; his phrasing and delivery were pitch perfect. Of course, I didn’t think any of this pretentious nonsense at the time; I just went “Wow!”. With all due respect to the excellent Dave and Ansell Collins, this was a dubby-jazz-steppahs “Double Barrel” with a stoned-Rastaman-James Brown in the vocal driving seat encouraging us towards righteous ways. Squared! Cubed!! I knew from someone, or had picked up in NME somewhere, that this man was a “legend” – unbeknownst to me at the time, he must only have been about 30 years old, and already legendary to those in the know – but all I had to go on was the music itself.
Just the music until, that is, I bought myself a copy of the “Dread In A Babylon” LP.
This sleeve was very different from the sampler cover; on it, front and back, a man was photographed squatting in a ghetto yard behind a massive ganja pipe, wreathed in clouds of smoke and looking highly contemplative, serious and suspicious of the camera. The man whom I assumed to be U-Roy – but couldn’t be sure, it didn’t say – looked old and wild. To a polite boy from the uniformly grey, grey Kingston Surrey, the red, green, gold, and all colours in between, of back-a-yard in Kingston Jamaica looked highly exotic and exciting.
That Virgin sampler wasn’t my first introduction to reggae music. Since 1970 or 71, I had in my early teenage record collection an album of covers by uncredited session musicians of a dozen mainstream-UK-pop-chart-scraping hits such as Israelites, Long Shot Kick The Bucket, My Boy Lollipop, and The Liquidator. I associated reggae, bluebeat and ska in the late 60s and early 70s with skinhead culture, and, as a nice boy from Surrey who spent many Saturday afternoons quivering on the terraces under The Shed at Stamford Bridge, I was frightened of skins, but I loved the music and played that LP endlessly. The album was called “The Wonderful World Of Reggae” (“Twelve Great Tracks for only 14/6”) on the economy-range Music For Pleasure label. On the front cover, two cartoon figures dance in bright clothing; both are wearing flared trousers and kipper ties; both have pink skin and bouffant, almost afro, hairdo’s; one of the figures sports an improbable moustache. On the back cover, there are a couple of paragraphs, written by someone called Barry Kirsch, which attempt to introduce this new and emerging musical phenomenon known as “reggae” (often, in those days, rendered phonetically as “reggay”). “Soul is dead”, “soul is finished”, Barry starts off absurdly. The remaining two or three hundred words which follow this frankly silly pronouncement are barely less inane. In this introduction to the new music from Jamaica, Jamaica itself does not warrant a mention!
1976, the year in which “The Front Line” was released was a musical and cultural Year Zero in the UK, with single releases by The Damned (“New Rose”) and The Sex Pistols (“Anarchy In The UK”) heralding the arrival of a whole new ethic: DIY, angry, proudly untutored. Every teenager knew straight away that something big was brewing. Throughout 1977 and ’78, at almost every punk gig I attended, the tunes playing over the house PA between bands were roots reggae and dub. Things connected up in those brief years of punky-reggae-party; things started to make sense; music and politics started to mingle to powerful and liberating effect. Barriers came down and the curators of cultural taste were routed, at least for a time.
I guess that Mr U-Roy just kept on keeping on during this period, recording sides for King Tubby and many others, and making regular appearances for various sound systems at the dancehall . I didn’t enquire. There was really no way to enquire. I now know that he left JA and went to live in Santa Ana, Orange County, California for a spell of about ten years before returning to his homeland, but I believe that that was in the 80s. Ewart was born in Jones Town, which borders Trench Town and Denham Town in the ghetto-slums of Kingston, in the parish of Saint Andrew; it’s a place where, as Bunny Wailer describes it, “Town just lead straight into Town”. U-Roy stayed close to his impoverished roots. For all I knew over the intervening decades, he might have been shot like so many other prominent figures in the Jamaican music business. I didn’t enquire. He was legendary, mythical, as old as the hills. What use is biographical detail in the case of a legend, living or otherwise? And where would you find it anyway?
Now we are told that U-Roy died aged 78, and I realise that he was only 15 years my senior. They say that you should never meet your heroes but in the last few days I have searched out, for the first time, various extended interviews with U-Roy, recorded in his later years. They reveal a remarkable man: relaxed, affable, honest, humble, forthright, tough, positive, joyful, grounded and grateful to Almighty Jah for all his blessings. There is no false modesty in his assessment of his own achievements and legacy – he is clearly rightfully proud of what he has done and the global recognition which his work has earned him – but he displays at the same time an extraordinary lack of ego for someone held in such high esteem in their chosen field, let alone anyone in music, show business or the performing arts generally.
U-Roy readily acknowledged his early influences, primarily Louis Jordan, Fats Domino, and Louis Prima (“He was a white man but …”) ; often his own vocal inflections, phrasing and cadences could be described as Sinatra-esque; in other words, his style had “flow”. Flow like never before – truly – and very seldom since. Toasting, DJing, MCing, sing-jaying, rap … go back to the root; go back to the base of the trunk, and there stands the Mighty U-Roy. On record. Timeless. One Love because love is lovely and war is very ugly. Blessings. On the hour every half hour.
There can be few actions or statements that register the British ruling classes view of the slave as a commodity and not a human. The Zong Massacre of 133 slaves thrown overboard in mid Atlantic, is callous even in these dark times. The John Gregson owned Liverpool based vessel run by Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie and captained by inept Captain Luke Collingwood.
The ship was carrying too many slaves 470 nearly double its capacity. In mid Atlantic because of the captains poor navigation skills it hit an area called ‘The Doldrums’ and was becalmed. Disease struck the ship and 7 crew and 60 slaves died, Collingwood made the decision to throw 133 slaves overboard, to allow the ship’s owners to claim against the insurance for lost cargo and to protect his paypacket.
One slave escaped and climbed back on board 132 drowned, it is also reported that the last 10 slaves broke free of those holding them and threw themselves into the ocean, ‘embracing death as free men’.
They claimed to the insurance company they needed to throw the Slaves (cargo) overboard because of water depletion. However the insurance company found out the Zong had 420 gallons of water spare when it reached Jamaica. The insurance company’s underwriter Thomas Gilbert turned down the claim, leading to the now infamous court case Gregson v Gilbert:
C~REGSON v. GILBERT(LE), Thursday, 22d May, 1783. Where the captain of a slaveEhip mistook HispanioIa for ~amaica, whereby the voyage being re~rded, and the water falling short, aeveral of the slaves died for want of water, and others were thrown overboard, it was held that these facts did not support a stateRietit in the deciaration, that by the perils of the seas, and contrary winds and currents, the ship waa retarded it1 her voyage, and by reason thereof so much of the water on board was spent, that some of the negroes died for want of sustenance, and others were throwa overboard for the preservation of the rest.
The resulting court cases held that in some circumstances, the deliberate murder of enslaved people was legal and that insurers could be required to pay for those who had died. Amazingly the owners, captain and crew were found ‘not guilty’.
The Slave insurance law reads as follows:
“The insurer takes upon him the risk of the loss, capture, and death of slaves, or any other unavoidable accident to them: but natural death is always understood to be excepted: by natural death is meant, not only when it happens by disease or sickness, but also when the captive destroys himself through despair, which often happens: but when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection on their part, then the insurers must answer.”
The Slave Ship by J. M. W. Turner 1840
Historically bringing this court case was a serious mistake for the Slave traders, it highlighted the greed and cruelty of the Slave trade to the public and influential people and gave strength to the ‘Abolitionist Movement’.
In 1783 the finding was overturned in the High Court, the Earl of Mansfield ruled in favour of the insurers, however inspite of efforts by Anti Slavery campaigner Granville Sharpe, who had had the case highlighted to him by Olaudah Equiano, no criminal charges were ever bought, indeed it was Sharpe who first used the term ‘Zong Massacre’.
In the end this ruling was simply the denial of an insurance claim like the one you would have on your Ford Mondeo.
To end on a somewhat ironic note, the word Zong is Dutch for ‘care’.
A few days ago on 8th February 2021 we lost one of the true pioneers of British football, Tony Collins (b. 19th March 1926) was a talented left winger who played for Sheffield Wednesday, York FC, Watford (twice), Norwich City, Torquay United and Crystal Palace where he became their first Black player.
Note: It is often stated that Keith Alexander who managed Lincoln City in 1993 was the first Black manager in the EFL, this is not so, it was Tony Collins.
Division IV Rochdale AFC was the team where he established his managerial credentials and became the Football Association first Black manager. He took Rochdale AFC to the 1962 League Cup final, the only team from that tier to reach a final until 2013 when Bradford City achieved it. It remains the only major cup final in Rochdale AFC’s 114 year history.
After a spell of coaching and scouting at Bristol City (then managed by Don Revie), he gained a reputation as an astute analyst of players abilities and tactics, to such a degree that Don Revie brought him to the England camp as part of his management team, where he worked on compiling dossiers on opponents. In 1975 the Scottish team railed against Collins, with a double page spread in the Daily Record, dubbing him ‘Master Spy’, they believed his dossier on the Scottish team was the reason for their 5-1 defeat.
He is however probably remembered for his scouting work for Manchester united under the management of Ron Atkinson and then Sir Alex Ferguson from 1982 to 1988, where he bought Lee Sharpe and Paul McGrath to the club, he also spotted the young Ruud Gullit, unfortunately for Atkinson he was not for sale.
Overall he spent six decades of his life in the service of football, finishing off as scout for Leeds United until he retired at the age of 77.
He received the ‘League Managers Association Service to Football Award’ from the in 2017.
In 2016 Matt Stanger reviewed his biography written with his daughter ‘Tony Collins: Master Spy’ (see below):
He might be too modest to admit it, but Tony Collins is a football pioneer
In 1960 he became the first black manager in England when he was appointed by Rochdale, leading the club to the League Cup final two years later. Although they lost to Norwich over two legs, Rochdale remained the only team from the lowest division to contest the final until 2013, when Bradford City played Swansea.
Now 90, and residing in a care home near Manchester, Collins has told his fascinating story with the help of daughter Sarita in the new book Tony Collins: Football Master Spy.
Despite his achievements as a manager, Collins is most renowned for his scouting work during a career that spanned six decades. It is these memories that he enjoys most, such as the time he perched at the back of the stand on a freezing, rainswept midweek night to get a glimpse of the new hotshot striker making a name for himself in the Southampton reserves.
That particular example, just one of many Collins recalled during our conversation, saw him recommend a young Alan Shearer to Manchester United, long before he joined Blackburn Rovers, won the Premiership title, and then rejected the Old Trafford club in favour of signing for boyhood side Newcastle.
For most football scouts the nickname ‘Super Spy’ would be worn as a badge of honour, but for Collins the moniker he earned as Don Revie’s assistant with England was just a bit of fun.
He had been asked by Revie to compile a scouting report on Scotland ahead of a 1974/75 British Home Championship match at Wembley, and watched as England perfectly executed his advice to defeat the auld enemy 5-1.
“Don gave each player a copy and the match went exactly as I thought it might,” says Collins. “But afterwards one of the England players left their report behind. The papers got news of it and came up with the name ‘Super Spy’.”
The Daily Record’s double-page spread on Collins’ report, bemoaning the comparative standard of Scottish scouts, attracted plenty of attention. As many working in football already knew, ’Super Spy’ was a fitting nickname for Collins, with Ron Atkinson – who wrote the foreword to the new book – a keen admirer of his vast knowledge of the game.
As Manchester United manager, Atkinson once sent Collins, then the club’s chief scout, to watch a Dutch right-back that had caught his eye. But twenty minutes into the game Collins was unimpressed with what he had seen, instead finding himself distracted by a skilful, dreadlocked centre-half.
“He was a beautiful player, pulling it down, sweeping it out to the wings. I thought, ‘Blimey, he looks a bit special’.” Sadly for Atkinson and United, the young Ruud Gullit wasn’t for sale.
Gullit wasn’t the only future star Collins tracked for United. He travelled to Ireland to watch a 22-year-old Paul McGrath playing for St. Patrick’s Athletic, and quickly persuaded Atkinson to recruit the talented defender.
“He was cool as you like on the ball,” Collins recalls. “Clever, a good passer – a very good player all round.”
Collins’ own playing career was almost over before it began when he was conscripted into the army as an 18-year-old. Having been set to join Brentford before his call-up, the tricky left winger served for three years in Italy before signing for Sheffield Wednesday in 1947.
He had some help in the move to Hillsborough from two fellow soldiers, who supported the Owls and had been wowed by Collins’ ability in army matches.
“There were two Wednesdayites who told me ‘Leave it with us’,” explains Collins.
“They wrote letters to Eric Taylor, who was the manager at Wednesday, and he got back to me and said, ‘You’ve been strongly recommended, we’d like to fix you up for a trial’. So I went up there, they put me up in a hotel, and after the match Taylor called me into his office and signed me.”
Despite being highly regarded by the clubs he played for, Collins wasn’t afforded the same opportunities as his peers. He was overlooked by England manager Walter Winterbottom, who watched him playing for Watford in 1954, although Collins doesn’t feel that prejudice blocked his path to the top.
As a mixed-race footballer in the 1950s, he faced many challenges. His daughter Sarita found 13 job applications her father had sent during his time as Rochdale manager, with not a single one receiving a reply. After leading the unfashionable fourth-tier club to the League Cup final, Collins’ achievements undoubtedly warranted greater recognition.
Management’s loss was to be scouting’s gain, as Collins’ talent for player-spotting was sought throughout the game. As well as Atkinson and Revie, he also worked with Jock Stein and, briefly, Sir Alex Ferguson, to whom he recommended the raw Torquay winger Lee Sharpe.
“I saw Lee Sharpe and thought he was good enough to work on if the money was right,” he says. “I went down to Torquay with Alex Ferguson and Archie Knox and introduced them to the Torquay manager. There were one or two clubs interested but he came to United.”
Billy Waters b.1778 & Joseph ‘Black Joe’ Johnson b.1796
There are many examples of Black men who served in the British army and the Royal Navy as musicians, drummers and trumpeters. Less well known are those who were professional or amateur musicians. Black artists from a variety of social backgrounds were performing in Britain from the 16th century. Billy Waters and Joseph Johnson are two such men.
Post by Rob Burns
Was an ex navy Black man who busked in London in the nineteenth century by singing, playing the violin and entertaining theatre goers with his “peculiar antics”. Known as the ‘King of the Beggars’, he was a well known figure in early nineteenth-century popular culture.
Waters was an African American ex-sailor, who lost a leg serving on the ship ‘Ganymede’ and so turned to busking in London to supplement his meagre pension. Waters’ pitch was outside the Adelphi theatre on the Strand. He adopted a distinctive costume of ‘Cocked hat adorned with various coloured feathers, a sailor’s jacket & canvas trousers and of course his wooden leg’ which together with his fiddle-playing, his dancing, and his trademark song ‘Kitty Will You Marry Me’, made him a well-known figure on London’s streets.
Billy Waters (c.1778–1823) was born in America during the War of Independence. He was a seaman in the Royal Navy and lost his leg as a result of falling from the topsail yard of the ‘Ganymede’ in 1812. Unable to serve at sea, he became a famous London street entertainer and was often to be seen busking with his fiddle to support his family. Waters featured in Pierce Egan’s ‘Life in London’ (1820–21) and was one of the characters illustrated by George Cruikshank. Indeed, Waters appeared in several Cruikshank cartoons, including ‘The New Union Club’ (NMM, ZBA2498). Waters ended his days in St Giles’s Workhouse, having fallen ill and been forced to pawn his fiddle. He was elected ‘king of the beggars’ shortly before his death. While the attribution to Sir David Wilkie is not certain, it is entirely possible that Waters was painted by him most likely in London.
Royal Museums Greenwich
Billy’s greatest fame came, however, after he was immortalised in W. T. Moncrieff’s hit 1821 stage version of ‘Life in London’ (Tom And Jerry). Inside the Adelphi, Mr Paolo played Billy Waters on stage in a scene based on his street performance, illustration and popular culture all intersected.
However he departed this world very poor and prior to his death sold his beloved fiddle to a pawnbroker along with his wooden leg. He died 10 days after being admitted into St Giles workhouse with a lingering condition, ironically a short time before his demise he was elected ‘King of a party of Beggars’. He did his very best as a disabled man but left his wife and two children destitute.
Joseph ‘Black Joe’ Johnson
Was an ex sailor in the Royal Navy and busker extraordinaire a beggar and street performer, also known as ‘Black Joe’, is of unknown parentage and origin. He had served as a seaman until he was forced to retire because of ‘wounds rendering him incapable of doing further duty on the ocean’. Not being entitled to relief payments ‘having been employed in the merchants’ service only’.
Working as a sailor was one of many, primarily lower-class occupations available to Black Britons. Joseph Johnson is notably excluded from the military and thus, despite obvious injuries, does not receive compensation from Greenwich.
To survive, Johnson turned to busking. He was able to draw particular attention to himself on account of his novel head attire – he built and wore a model of the seafaring military vessel Nelson on his cap.
London had for centuries been home to distinct numbers of Black people, and the little that is known of ‘Black Joe’ actually reveals much about some of the ways in which the free Black presence in the capital was constituted two centuries ago.
By building a model of the Nelson, Johnson was not only telling an instantly recognisable and understandable story about his own biography (having been a seaman), he was also utilising a representation of what was one of the most recognisable and celebrated military sea craft of its day. Johnson’s choice of hat was certainly inspired by his time as a sailor, and yet the juxtaposition of a black man and large ship during a time of heated debate surrounding slavery also resonates on other levels.
At the time of this sketch, “taken from life,” the slave trade had (ostensibly) been abolished, but slavery itself was still rampant, a fact that may or may not have been lost on the women taking sugar in their tea as Johnson theatrically “sailed” passed.
‘Black Joe’ is taken to represent both the black urban poor and the particularly creative or ingenious beggar.
NOTE: He is one of only two characters in the book ‘Vagabondiana’ identified by a African British signifier. The other is Charles M’Gee:
The following plate presents the portrait of another black man of great notoriety, Charles M’Gee, a native of Ribon, in Jamaica, born in 1744, and whose father died at the great age of 108. This singular man usually stands at the Obelisk, at the foot of Ludgate-Hill. He has lost an eye, and his woolly hair, which is almost white, is tied up behind in a tail, with a large tuft at the end, horizontally resting upon the cape of his coat. Charles is supposed to be worth money. His stand is certainly above all others the most popular, many thousands of persons crossing it in the course of a day. He has of late on the working-days sported a smart coat, presented to him by a city pastry-cook. On a Sunday he is a constant attendant at Rowland Hill’s meeting-house, and on that occasion his apparel is appropriately varied.
The name Victoria Spivey has been lost to many, but not to blues lovers and devotees. However there is much more to her than just blues music, her contribution to Civil Rights cannot be underestimated.
In 1929 during the depression she starred as Missy Rose in King Vidors first sound movie Hallelujah, and a film for which famed Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein expressed appreciation. It was a unique hard hitting film with music and an all Black cast that gave Vidor a Best Director’s nomination for the Oscars.
In 2008 the film was deemed of such cultural and historical importance that it was preserved by the Library of Congress, in 2013 it was shown by Fish Factory Arts Space as part of their ‘Cornwall Black History Month’ in Falmouth in 2015 and in February 2020 (pre-Covid 19) it was shown at the ‘Berlin Film Festivals’ 70th Anniversary celebrations.
This Formidable lady was a singer, songwriter, actress and business women a ‘Tour de Force’, ‘Blues Is My Business’, would become her motto, and she started taking care of matters early on by suing her publisher for royalties in 1928.
Her influence to bring rights to Black musicians worldwide cannot be underestimated, as a major contribution to Black Civil Rights influencing the British Blues Invasion of the early 60’s.
Victoria grew up in a musical family where her father, Grant, played in a string band while sisters, Addie and Elton, sang the blues. But it was Victoria who became the star with a beginning that took her moaning style of singing into honky tonks, bordellos, men’s clubs and gin mills all over Texas.
In 1926, she left for St. Louis and acquired a recording contract with OKeh records but found her stride in New York where she continued to record but performed in all the elite nightclubs, appeared in the musical, Hellzapoppin’ Revue, took a lead role in Hallelujah, the first musical feature film with an all black cast, and sang with the big bands in the 1940s. The crossover into the big band jazz genre allowed her to join Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Benny Goodmanon stages across the country.
As the country’s musical tastes changed in the 1950s, she became an organist and choir master in her church and then in the 1960s she enjoyed a revival of her blues career, setting up her own ‘Spivey’ record label.
Spivey believed that, ‘The blues is life and life is the blues’. Her signature songs included ‘Black Snake Blues’, ‘Dirty Tee Bee Blues’, ‘Detroit Moan’, and ‘Dope Head Blues’. She stamped each song with her moaning sound and uniquely sexy, tantalizing delivery.
Victoria Spivey was born in 1906 and died in 1976.
In 1825, Charles Darwin mentioned in a letter to his sister that he was taking lessons in taxidermy from:
…. a negro [who] lived in Edinburgh”.
John Edmonstone, who had been enslaved and was from Demerara (in present day Guyana), is the man who taught this skill to the then Edinburgh University student. As with many other great scientists, Darwin was inspired by some people whose contribution has been overlooked and uncredited. Edmonstone is one such individual, almost lost to history, but who was hugely influential on Darwin’s thinking.
There are only small clues as to how he taught one of the greatest figures in the history of science a skill that played no small part in his thinking about how life developed over time.
Little is known of Edmonstone’s early life, except that he was born in the second half of the 1700s. The Edinburgh Post Office directory for 1824/5 records him as living at 37 Lothian Street. He earned his living stuffing birds at the National Museum and teaching taxidermy to students.
Darwin, who paid Edmonstone one guinea per lesson in bird taxidermy, also had hours of conversations with him about his homeland and its tropical rainforests, plants and animals.
It fired Darwin’s imagination and his interest in tropical regions. In this piece below written by James McNish we get an insight into this man’s life and influence:
John Edmonstone: The man who taught Darwin taxidermy
John Edmonstone was a former enslaved man who taught the young Charles Darwin the skill of taxidermy. This skill helped Darwin preserve the birds that fermented his ideas about evolution.
Many Black people’s contributions to science are hidden from history and we have to reconstruct their stories from the margins of more famous naturalists’ lives.
One such intriguing figure is John Edmonstone. A former enslaved person from Guyana, John was living in Edinburgh when he met a young Charles Darwin and taught him the skill of taxidermy. This was fundamental to Darwin’s ability to preserve the specimens he collected on his five-year voyage on the Beagle.
Though we only have scant details on Edmonstone’s life, what we know reveals that he was a talented and respected taxidermist and naturalist.
Edmonstone in Guyana
John Edmonstone was enslaved on a timber plantation in Demerara (now part of Guyana), South America, owned by Scotsman Charles Edmonstone (hence John’s surname – his birth name remains unknown).
Waterton had developed new methods to preserve bird skins, which he taught to John, who accompanied him on some collecting expeditions. Despite Waterton believing that John ‘had poor abilities, and it required much time and patience to drive anything into him’, Darwin’s later recollections of John’s skill seems to contradict this assessment.
Edmonstone in Scotland
Plantation owner Charles Edmonstone returned to Scotland in 1817 and John came with him. Although we don’t know if John was already free when he arrived, he would have become a free man on entering Scotland. Owning slaves was banned in Scotland in 1778 following the case of James Knight.
At first, John lived in Glasgow. By 1824 he was in Edinburgh, making a living for himself working for the University of Edinburgh’s zoological museum and living at 37 Lothian Street.
Edmonstone and Darwin
Darwin went to Edinburgh in 1825 when he was 16 to study medicine, but he didn’t really enjoy the subject and only stayed for two years. While there, he did grow his interest in natural history, attending talks and undertaking his own investigations.
Darwin’s lodgings were at 11 Lothian Street, near Edmonstone’s. Darwin hired Edmonstone to give him private lessons. Though in a letter to his sister it seems price was the main initial motivator: ‘I am going to learn to stuff birds, from a blackamoor I believe an old servant of Dr Duncan: it has the recommendation of cheapness, if it has nothing else’, Darwin later mentioned in his autobiography:
A negro lived in Edinburgh, who had travelled with Waterton, and gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently: he gave me lessons for payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.
Edmonstone charged Darwin one guinea for an hour every day for two months. As well as the time spent on instruction, the two must have conversed on the natural history Edmonstone knew first-hand from South America.
Thanks to Edmonstone’s teachings, Darwin’s preservation skills were put to great use during his voyage on the Beagle (1831-1836). Of the many specimens Darwin collected, almost 500 were bird skins. The Museum holds nearly 200 of these.
Perhaps the most scientifically evocative of the skins are the mockingbirds collected in the Galapagos Islands. It was the Galapagos mockingbirds, rather than the better known finches, that helped precipitate Darwin’s thoughts on evolution.
We can’t be sure that Darwin himself prepared all the bird skins, since specimen preparation was something that was carried out collectively on the Beagle. However, the skills that Darwin learnt from Edmonstone would have been passed down to his assistants.
A life in the margins
There are scant details of Edmonstone’s later life. We know he was still living in Edinburgh in 1833 and had moved to 6 South St David Street.
We can only speculate as to the effect his story had on the young Darwin. His accounts of South America must certainly have been inspiring to Darwin. Did Edmonstone help form Darwin’s abolitionist viewpoint? We know from his journals from the Beagle that Darwin noticed cruel acts during the voyage which he found repugnant.
n 2009, a plaque was unveiled in his memory on Lothian Street, although it has since disappeared. But awareness of Edmonstone has grown in recent years and we can hope that his story, and that of other Black people contributing to the study of natural history, continues to be told.
The SS Empire Windrush, which sailed from the Caribbean in 1948, is commonly associated in modern British consciousness with the recruitment of much-needed labour for London Transport and the National Health Service, while at the same time solving unemployment problems in the sunny islands of the Caribbean.
To jazz followers, however, it meant the arrival of Jamaican alto saxophonist, Joe Harriott and other modern musicians who rode the wave of emigration to find professional opportunities in England.
However, Harriott and his fellow-travellers were not the first to do this. The music of the Pre-War jazz age became a major form of popular music via dance bands, and this was due to an earlier influx of Caribbean jazz musicians who had enriched the British swing scene.
Most of these earlier jazz pioneers were linked to the ill-fated late-1930s dance orchestra of Ken Johnson, considered by many to be the ‘swingiest’ swing band in Britain.
Just prior to the start of Johnson’s career, the Jamaican-born Leslie Thompson was a prominent London-based 1930s jazz and stage musical trumpeter, who played in Louis Armstrong’s 1934 European band. It is no surprise he was hired by the American jazz legend, for he had by that time built his reputation in the pit orchestras of many high-profile West End stage musicals, bringing them a contemporary credibility.
One of his contacts was the African-American choreographer, Buddy Bradley, who had already taught Fred Astaire and other Hollywood screen dancers. That dancing and jazz were linked was not lost on him and he longed to unite the two.
Thompson was further influenced by Marcus Garvey, who had been deported from America and, although known as the 20th century’s first important pan-Africanist, was no stranger to the music business himself, having written an American hit, Keep Cool. By the 1930s Thompson was well aware of Garvey’s messages, delivered frequently at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, and his British newspaper, The Black Man. Consequently Thompson was inspired to form an all-black dance band and, although there were African-American jazz musicians who frequented Europe, his ideal ensemble would be a solely West Indian one.
By coincidence, the Guyanese student, Ken Johnson’s first show business aspiration was London cabaret dancer. The lure of the Jazz Age drew him to study tap dancing with Buddy Bradley, and between 1934-1935 he went to the United States where he studied this art and mastered film star Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson’s stairs-dance routine.
Like Leslie Thompson’s Garvey-inspired dream, Ken Johnson, now known as ‘Snakehips’, saw that all-black swing-jazz success need not be limited to the United States. He returned to the Caribbean, where he formed a touring band with prominent musicians including the Barbados trumpeter Dave Wilkins, the Trinidad clarinettist Carl Barriteau and fellow Trinidadian saxophonist, Dave ‘Baba’ Williams, all of whom would later feature prominently at a key juncture in Johnson’s career.
In January 1936, Johnson went to England to further his dream. While he had been abroad his tap-and-shuffle dance had been well received in the 1935 film, Oh Daddy! Johnson needed a seasoned musician, a so-called ‘straw boss’, to rehearse the group, and the real work was done by Leslie Thompson, who worked hard to form the band.
Alto/tenor sax and clarinet star Bertie King, alto sax and clarinet expert Louis Stephenson, fellow saxophonist Joe Appleton, trumpeter Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson and pianist Yorke de Souza were all from Jamaica. Trumpeter Wally Bowen arrived from Trinidad, the alto sax and clarinet specialist Robert Mumford-Taylor’s father was from West Africa, guitarist Joe Deniz moved down to London from Cardiff, double-bassist Abe ‘Pops’ Clare was also from the Caribbean. Another bassist, Bruce Vanderpoye, was a South African, and drummer Tommy Wilson was from Birmingham.
Thompson said he could only find one good Black trombonist when he was forming the Ken Johnson-fronted orchestra. However, the Black British musician, possibly Ellis Jackson, who also sang both conventionally and with Negro stereotype dialect in the Billy Cotton band, wouldn’t go on tour.
But this difficulty was overcome in the Johnson Orchestra. After all, despite their contrasting backgrounds they were foremost a Black British band working in white Britain.
Like white musicians, Black jazz players were drawn to London by the opportunity to play in small nightclub bands but the Black artists could not get work in the white bands. A typical place of work was The Nest Club, which was frequented by Black performers from visiting American jazz attractions such as The Mills Brothers and Fats Waller.
Generally musicians who made up the house bands in such niteries received up to £5 a week for their work, a reasonable rate, but not stable employment. As a result the Black musicians found that having their own orchestra was a more secure means of employment.
The ‘Snakehips’ Johnson Orchestra
So the ‘Snakehips’ Johnson Orchestra, co-led with Leslie Thompson was born in the spring of 1936, touring cinemas and other venues throughout the country. By early 1937, the Orchestra was playing at the Old Florida Club in the West End, owned and managed by the former Duke Ellington Orchestra vocalist, Adelaide Hall. Thompson earned at least £20 per week but, although he was the original backer and practical organiser of the group, Johnson and his manager legally formalised a joint ownership of the Orchestra with the result that Thompson was cut out of any financial interest. This took place just as the Orchestra was being scouted by a BBC producer for broadcasts.
Many of the players resigned in support of Thompson and the Orchestra would have been decimated, but Ken Johnson retained Jiver Hutchinson and he had already made overtures to other musicians in the Caribbean. The quality newcomers, Barriteau, Wilkins, and Williams, were summoned to Britain and sailed on banana boats. These strong players helped maintain the Johnson Orchestra’s reputation as superlative swingers.
The Johnson Orchestra’s BBC radio programmes, broadcast from the Café de Paris, could not have happened at a better time. The night spot was a magnificent, expensive supper club, featuring an oval, mirrored room with a spacious dance floor. A pair of curved staircases surrounded the bandstand and, from these, the exclusive clientele entered the basement premises.
In 1999, the British Library Sound Archive (for those at school or college, the recordings can be listened to) received a collection of Johnson’s 1938 radio broadcasts. No doubt Ken Johnson understood that singers added variety to his Orchestra’s show, but he only hired a female singer for BBC broadcasts, as the Corporation then had a requirement for two vocal numbers per half hour of such programming.
The commercial disc issues made for British Decca (1938) and HMV (1940) were just that: an attempt to reach the generic buyers of dance band records. The British record industry was not ready to categorise Ken Johnson and His West Indian Dance Orchestra as a jazz market act, but rather as a mainstream dance band.
On 8 March 1941 the Snakehips Johnson Orchestra was still holding down the prestigious and lucrative spot at The Cafe de Paris, when London suffered aerial bombardment and the club suffered two direct hits. While some musicians were seriously injured, Ken Johnson, saxophonist Dave ‘Baba’ Williams and many of the club’s dancers died in the attack. Read about the arrangements made for Johnson’s funeral and correspondences with his mother about his memorial service (archived in the National Archives).
The Orchestra, of course, dispersed but most musicians were hired by various white bandleaders. Carl Barriteau, Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson, Dave Wilkins, Joe Deniz and the Birmingham drummer, Tommy Bromley, all appeared on the famous November 1941 ‘First English Public Jam Session Recording’, held at the Abbey Road studios. Some of the musicians made private recordings and there were a few small group sessions that were issued commercially, such as those by the Cyril Blake’s Jigs’ Club Band and the Spirits of Rhythm Sextet. This was led by Joe Deniz’s brother, Frank, who was also a guitarist. ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson eventually revived the all-Black big band concept, which toured throughout the 1940s. His daughter, jazz vocalist Elaine Delmar, became a favoured star of Ronnie Scott’s Club in Soho.
Fortunately a number of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson’s major players were interviewed in their later years for the British Library Sound Archive’s Oral History of Jazz in Britain Project. These recordings are available for study in the Listening Service at the Library. Such life stories complement the Library’s holdings of periodicals documenting the era, such as the Melody Maker, many jazz-specific publications, and the BBC’s own Radio Times. The Humanities 2 Reading Room also provides information on vintage commercially-issued discs by way of record company catalogues, the Gramophone, and the like.
The surge of Post-War Caribbean immigration would later enrich the London jazz milieu, with the arrival of Jamaican-born alto saxophonist, Joe Harriott, guitarist, Ernest Ranglin, and the St Vincent-born trumpeter, Shake Keane, among others. But it was the pioneering black British swing artists who set the stage for the stars of more recent times.
Not often appreciated or recorded in British music history are our own pioneers of Jazz. The Southern Syncopated Orchestra formed in 1919 and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson West Indian Orchestra from the 30’s and 40’s had a massive influence in popularising Jazz to the British public in particular ‘Swing’.
In a strange twist of fate both orchestras met with tragedy, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra were on a ship from Glasgow to Derry when it was struck by 2 ships on the 9th October 1921 (the SS Rowan Tragedy – this article has a fab film from Pathe News showing some of the survivors), ironically the second ship the ‘Clan Malcolm’ was speeding to their rescue when it cut the SS Rowan in two, 8 members of the orchestra including vocalist Frank Bates lost their lives. This year will be the 100th Anniversary of the SS Rowan tragedy.
Kendrick Johnson had honed his band leading skills with the Leslie Thomson band in the mid 30’s heavily influenced by Cab Calloway and Count Basie. He formed the Ken ‘Snakehips’ West Indian Orchestra his determination to bring Swing to the Cafe resulted in a residency at London’s sophisticated Cafe De Paris, it was here that tragedy struck on 8th March 1941, two German bombs struck the cafe, 36 people were killed including Johnson, just 26 years old, and his saxophonist Dave ‘Baba’ Williams.
In another strange twist of fate the ‘Cafe De Paris’ having survived and reopened in 1948, finally closed its doors for good on 20th December 2020 because of Coronavirus. I’ve attached 2 interesting pieces below from Kurt Barling BBC in 2014 and Elizabeth Richards in 2020 (tomorrow’s blog). We have also created the Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson West Indian Orchestra – Swing Party (enjoy). Unfortunately no recordings exist of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra.
By Rob Burns and Part 2 in tomorrow’s blog with Ken ‘Snakehips’ West Indian Orchestra
Southern Syncopated Orchestra
Kurt Barling, Prof of Journalism at Middlesex University, investigates the band made up of British West Indian and West African and American musicians. 15th May 2008 BBC
London’s cultural life has always been cosmopolitan. The history of jazz is often focused on America and New Orleans but in 1919 the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO) first took London and then Britain by Storm.
The SSO transformed the London club scene and popularised black music, but tragedy has meant this part of London’s black musical history has remained hidden for decades.
The SSO was formed by the American composer Will Marion Cook and comprised 27 musicians and 19 singers. The musicians came from, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Guyana, Barbados, Antigua and Ghana among other places.
The orchestra had made a deep impression across Europe. It had very quickly become a staple on the London club circuit. So taken were revellers by this new style of syncopated music and the extraordinary talents in its midst that it wasn’t long before the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VIII) had invited them to perform on the 19th August 1919 at Buckingham Palace. According to a contemporaneous report in the Daily Telegraph the SSO entertained about 100 guests in a specially drained out lake in the gardens.
The only surviving pictures of the entire ensemble, taken at the Brighton Dome in 1919 show a group of well groomed and sophisticated performers.
On the first anniversary of the armistice a grand ball was held on November 11th 1919 at the Royal Albert Hall. Top of the bill were the jazz band that had helped breathe joy back into Edwardian London.
Many of the band members including Pete Robinson the drummer, Mope Desmond, pianist and Frank Bates a tenor settled quickly in South London. A number of these black men married white English women. By 1921 there were at least 16 mixed raced offspring.
The legendary clarinettist turned soprano saxophone virtuoso Sidney Bechet, came to England with the SSO reportedly on the considerable weekly wage of $60. Bechet helped put the SSO and Jazz on the musical map. He is seen as one of the twin pillars along with Louis Armstrong of Modern Jazz.
In fact Bechet only turned to the soprano Saxophone after seeing the strange straight instrument in a shop in Wardour Street, Soho. After asking for a double octave key to be added he began to dazzle audiences with the extra power this new instrument gave him.
The first serious jazz review in Europe was written by the conductor of the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet. It talked about the virtuoso performance on clarinet of Bechet. He said that the SSO played arrangements that were:
“Extremely difficult, they are equally admirable for their richness of invention, force of accent, and daring in novelty and the unexpected.”
Ansermet even likened their musical artistry to that of a Bach Concerto.
Although some jazz aficionados are familiar with the feats of the orchestra largely through the subsequent work of Sidney Bechet, no recordings of the group have ever been discovered. It is unlikely they ever recorded. This is how their musical legacy was largely lost.
85 years ago on October 9th 1921 most of the members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO) were sailing on the ship the SS Rowan from Glasgow to Derry to continue their successful tour of Britain. Tragedy befell the band when their ship was struck by two others in an accident. Some of the bodies of the eight members of the SSO who were drowned were never recovered from the sea.
Juliette Jones and her aunt Florence Kenny (daughter of Frank Bates) travelled to the West Coast of Scotland over the weekend to take part in a moving ceremony to commemorate the sinking of the Rowan. Frank Bates was one of those who went down with the ship. The Rowan tragedy was widely reported at the time in the British press.
The story of the SSO’s contribution to popular culture is in part like many individual stories of Black Britons that have failed to make an impression on the official histories of Britain. Only now that historians take a deeper interest in genealogy is a better understanding of how our cosmopolitan Capital came about.
85 Years Later
Last week Julian Joseph the contemporary jazz piano virtuoso came together with descendants of those men lost 85 years ago. It was the first time some of the grandchildren and the daughter of Frank Bates had met. Joseph shared his impression of the music the SSO would have played to the King and Queen; Tin Pan Alley blues and St Louis Blues just two examples of the music that form the basis of modern popular music.
Whilst we were filming the grand-daughter of Mope Desmond, Terri Quaye, struck up an impromptu accompaniment to Joseph with the jazz standard Body and Soul.
Terri Quaye is herself an accomplished jazz pianist and performer and her father, the son of Mope Desmond was also a musician. It turns out that Desmond who was originally from Ghana comes from a long line of African musicians. So in fact some of the musical legacy endured hidden from view.
Florence Bates (now Kenny) and her sister Vivien grew up in 1920s London, raised by white grandparents. Their father’s accomplishments only revealed to them in the past three years since Florence’s niece, Juliette Jones, started tracing the family history. Curiously it was not difficult for Juliette to find hundreds of references to the SSO in contemporary documents including newspaper reviews in the quality press.
Mrs Kenny says learning about her father, from whose memory she was carefully shielded in her youth, has transformed her understanding of herself. She says she has a greater appreciation of and affinity to her Black British heritage and believes the SSO provides a sharp lesson in how to appreciate the talents of individuals irrespective of ethnicity. She concludes that her father’s contribution to British popular culture like that of the whole SSO, should be appreciated by Black and White Britons.
Sentiments echoed by Suzy Kester in her book ‘Under My Own Colours’. Reviewed in the New Statesman:
Suzy Kester’s autobiography Under My Own Colours (Troubador) is compulsively readable, harrowing and amusing by turns. She tells the story of an extraordinary dynasty of mixed English, Welsh, Sioux, African American, Nigerian and Jewish extraction. Somehow Kester manages to record hurt without hatred as she negotiates the ups and downs of life: “In Africa, even a beggar is given honour, because yesterday he may have been a warrior and tomorrow he might be a king.”
Her grandfather, American Pete Robinson, was recovered from the sinking SS Rowan. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Tooting cemetery. Life for her grandmother, like the other widows, was harsh with few getting anything from the shipping company by way of compensation. Their struggle against colour prejudice would be a forerunner of the realities faced by migrants coming to Britain over three decades later.
Kester was born during a Luftwaffe air raid in 1940. She is an example of the many Black Britons who lived in the capital before the arrival of the SS Windrush from Jamiaca in 1948, but are so often overlooked when talking about a black presence in the capital.
The families are now keen to trace other descendants of SSO members, whose families stayed in England after the band disintegrated in the wake of the tragedy. They believe dozens of Londoners remain unawares of the illustrious accomplishments of their forebears.
Image at the top Southern Syncopated Orchestra at a London venue around 1920