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Uncle Eric – has guitar and has travelled

Uncle Eric Whitehouse is a legendary local bluesman who has fronted a variety of combos over the years. Here he writes about the Bible for Northampton music historians…

The other weekend, I was honoured to be invited to be a small part of this year’s Northampton Music Festival by playing a set with my band, The Beer Parlor Jivers, at the launch of Volume 4 of Derrick Thompson’s ‘Have Guitars……..Will Travel’ at The Picturedrome.

The books cover the evolution of our town’s music scene from 1957 to 1996, focusing on bands who only did one gig and those who went on to national and international stardom.

I was privileged to be one of a small group of artistes, including Roger Williams, Soupy Campbell, Brian Harding, Dave Wareing and Terry Jackson, who have appeared in all four volumes, making us the oldest swingers in town!

The gig was to start at 3.00pm and carry on, featuring a variety of old and reformed groups until the late evening, when the audience were to be treated to a performance of by the famous local soul band of the 80’s and 90’s, Soul Patrol.

We were on at 4.00pm, a slot recognising the venerable age and relative obscurity of the influences of the BPJ. I felt at home, particularly when I spotted youngsters Charlie and George in the audience.

In an unusual departure we have a set list today. Years ago, Zeppo would pester me for a set list, when I preferred to make it up on the hoof. So, one night, we sat down in a bar and composed a list which I took onto the stage with me.

In the middle of the first number, I ripped it up publicly, leaving the well meaning Zeppo apoplectic. Nonesuch shenanigans today. Our repertoire is an amalgam of country, blues and jazz and rock’n’roll, inspired by the Texas hippie bands ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ and ‘Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen’, including the western swing of Bob Wills and Milton Brown. Not many Top Ten Toons then!

For you officianadoes, here is what we did:

1. Route 66 (Stones, Chuck Berry, Count Basie et al arr. ‘Asleep at the Wheel’)
2. Lost and Found (The Deraillers – Texas country)
3. Smoke that Cigarette (Tex Williams 1948)
4. House of Blue Lights (Ella Mae Morse/Freddie Slack – 1940’s R’n’B)
5. Seeds and Stems Again Blues (Bill Kirchen, Commander Cody)
6. Seven Nights to Rock (L. Innes / B. Traill, arr BR549)
7. Roadhouse Blues (The Doors)
8. Too Much Fun (Bill Kirchen / Commander Cody.

The set is full of toe-tappers, and honky tonk good-time classics and they get the crowd going. As always, we are irreverent, naughty, good humored and fun; it gives me the same buzz as it did half a century ago.

The musicians love it too. Someone from the audience asks me if I realised that in a parallel universe someone in Texas is doing exactly what we’re doing here. I take this as a compliment.

As I no longer retain a regular road band, the personnel can vary and, on this day, consisted of Zeppo Barford on pedal steel and guitar (we were born on the same Kingsley street), Guitarist Robin Hodder (young ‘un – only known him 30 years), Jasper Dunmore (I played with his dad when he was just a boy), and drummer Andy Shaw, who was corrupted forever when he joined my band as a 17 year old in 1976.

As people who have seen us over the years will recognise, the band is not about ‘Eric At the Front’ (banjo, vocals); it’s about the band and the object is to whip up a storm.

Tony South opened the proceedings with his gentle soul/jazz keyboards. The dark room began to fill up and by the time we were ready to go on stage there were probably around 100 faces, many of them familiar Derrick is signing copies of his new book and has copies of all four tomes spread out on the table in front of him.

Seeing them all together makes me realise what a mammoth work it is and what a vital record of social history rests here.

I have always collected books on music – you know, biogs, histories and that sort of thing, from time to time coming across books relating to specific areas or specific genres of music, but to my knowledge there is nothing in this country which corresponds to the epic scope and demography of the HGWT quartet.

I have come across 60s/70s ones from Portsmouth, Salisbury, Newcastle, and Birmingham, an excellent Corby one, and a recent tribute to the 60’s Leicester band LeGay, but none of these amounts to four volumes over forty years and featuring over 100 bands in each.

Different league, methinks! I first met Derrick ten years ago in the Whyte Melville in Boughton where he was introduced to me as someone who ‘wanted to write a book about the Northampton music scene’.

Well, since then the project has grown and grown, developing its own momentum from those who made this history.

The author has put in countless hours listening to to half-remembered stories of lost times spent slumped in the back of rusty old vans, or of dodging glasses thrown in some run-down working mens club in ‘The North’.

My personal favourite is Wick Assembly Hall in the far north of Scotland, where the bouncer said “welcome to the asshole of Britain” and the manager paid our fee whilst attempting to stem the blood flow from a recently received punch in the mouth.

The retelling of these stories is almost as much of a thankless task as actually being there. However, the people who were there want their stories to be told and Derrick has provided a conduit for this – and what a magnificent celebration it has become!

The breadth of musical styles is bewildering: from dance bands to grunge, heavy metal, jazz, reggae, goth, rockabilly, psychedelic, punk, soul, blues, funk, indie, folk, and a huge slice from promotor and singer, archivist and proprietor of Spiral Archive Vinyl Records in St Michaels Rd, Alex Novak.

Off the top of me head, Ian Hunter, Mark Griffiths, Adrian Uttley, Robert John Godfrey, Bauhaus, Pat Fish, Mark Refoy, Johnny Mattocks, Tom Hall, Martin Winning and Freddie Fingers Lee – all these and many more are celebrated in these pages.
The word is that HGWT Volume 4 will be the last, but I am not so sure the weight of history will allow this.

At the beginning of last year, I required major heart surgery to keep my battered body on the road and, as part of my rehabilitation, my darling Annie suggested that I go and sing in a few of the jam sessions that take place regularly around Northampton.

I had feared that I would never sing again. But – hallelujah! – I did and I could and, in the process, I discovered that music is alive and well and living in Northampton.

When you’re playing, you only ever hear of other musicians via reputation and scurrilous tales and it was a revelation to encounter some amazing musical talents who are right now writing their own histories which will be championed enthusiastically by any future HGWT, or similar publication. Step forward (amongst many others) Greg Coulson, Stuart Dixon, Adam Gammage, Roger Innes, Steve Dee, Cliff Brown, Mat Day, Pete Woods, Mark Wright, Luke and Joe Palmer and ‘Boysey’ Battrum.

Derrick Thompson has an understanding of the mindset of the gigging (male) musician and cleverly identifies their main problems as vans and ladies! (See the ‘Intro’ and the ‘Outro’ in Volume 4 – accurate and sympathetic).

I have made, I am sure, many omissions in the plaudits, name checks and general brown-nosing I have indulged in in this missive, but I am particularly devastated to have forgotten Des O’Connor. Des, this one’s for you!

Oh, and another one for Alan Savage, Northampton’s Drum Godfather, who’s played for you for so many years. In my opinion, ‘Have Guitars…..Will Travel’ should be in every municipal and university library as testimony to those many people who, away from the media spotlight and TV talent shows, really do get their kicks on Route 66.

Footnote: Strangely, there is a previous initiative to HGWT in the form of a book called ‘Don’t Play the Music Upside Down’ by Lou Warwick (1980) which chronicles Northampton dance bands from 1920 to the 1960’s, when they died out in the wake of the very electric guitars championed by HGWT.

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