So there we were, a couple of hundred musicians, artists, writers, photographers and old blues and R&B fans crowded onto a Bournemouth town centre pavement outside an unremarkable row of shops, bars and restaurants. Those in the know were staring nostalgically at a nondescript door sandwiched between an Italian coffee shop and a Polish Delicatessen. For beyond that door, at number 9 Holdenhurst Road, lies a flight of stairs leading down to a dingy cellar where, 53 years ago on 3rd May, 1961, the town’s first full-time jazz, rock and blues club was born.
The aptly named Downstairs Club was a game-changer for a generation of hip young post-war groovers discovering the joys of a new wave of beat and R&B music. Like a strange magnet this sweaty, low-ceilinged basement almost instantly became the favoured haunt of musicians looking for the freedom to break free from the constraints of dance hall commercialisation. With half a dozen key characters calling the shots, its Friday and Saturday all-nighters sowed the seeds for what would effectively become the house band of Swinging London.
For among the local boys cutting their teeth in that grimy, smokey hole was a young keyboard player and vocalist called George Money and an equally youthful guitarist called Andy Summers. Fast forward a couple of years and the pair, together with another Bournemouth boy, drummer Colin Allen, would be the mainstays of Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band – resident musicians at Soho’s Flamingo Club. Of course it didn’t end there. After some psychedelic adventures with Zoot’s Dantalian’s Chariot, Andy Summers would go on to play with The Animals, Soft Machine, Kevin Coyne and Kevin Ayres before finally becoming a superstar alongside Sting and Stewart Copeland in The Police. Colin Allen would play drums with Bob Dylan, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Mick Taylor, Stone the Crows and Georgie Fame to name but a few
And Zoot? He remains to this day a near-legend One of those characters who seems to have the knack of being at the epicentre of whatever is important just a little while before anyone else realises it even exists. It was to Zoot’s Fulham flat that new boy in town Jimi Hendrix headed when he first arrived in London from the States. It was Zoot who Paul McCartney sought out when he was looking for talent for a new record label. At the age of 71, Zoot is still playing, often alongside Colin Allen with singer Maggie Bell, bassman Colin Hodgkinson and various virtuoso guitarists in the British Blues Quintet while his latter-day version of the Big Roll Band is a regular must-see at The Bulls Head in Barnes.
Zoot has also enjoyed success as a music producer and film and TV actor. A busy man, but thankfully not too busy to return to his hometown to join the jostling throng and officiate over the unveiling of a commemorative plaque marking the site of The Downstairs Club and its later incarnation as the exotically monikered Le Disc A Go! Go! This cellar club was for a time one of the prized gigs on the south coast, a venue where the great and the good played, including, as former owner Allan Azern never tires of telling people, Eric Clapton. However it’s not so much the coup of booking Slowhand himself that Allan is proud of. It’s the fact that he got him for a fee of just 25 quid.
So to the great unveiling. There were many memories being discussed and stories, some of them taller than others, being swapped by the crowd which included several of the names and faces that made the club happen half-a-century ago. Michael Giles, founder drummer with King Crimson, stood quietly at the back. There was author Jonny Kremer – who in 1963 with his good friend Al Stewart (still several years off writing Year of the Cat) hustled his way backstage to chat to The Beatles at the Bournemouth Gaumont. Others included 1960s movers and shakers like John ‘Jet’ Berryman, Pat ‘Pee Wee’ Sheehan, John Penhale, Mike Bowerman – stalwarts of the town’s beat-boom years. Then there was master of ceremonies and blue plaque organiser Al Kirtley who played at The Downstairs Club with the very first Zoot Money band.
As Zoot would later remark many of those present seemed vaguely familiar. “They sort of look the same, only upside down,” he said, pointing at the disproportionate number of bald heads and beards present. “People keep coming up to me saying: ‘I suppose you don’t remember me?’ “Well I can tell you, you’re absolutely right. I do not fucking remember you but I’m glad you’re all here and glad that at least you remember me because sometimes I don’t.”
Andy Summers, who of course Zoot still knows very well indeed, should have been present too but rescheduled dates during his current European tour left him marooned in Germany. A few cynical eyebrows were raised at this news. I heard someone muttering darkly about multi-millionaires who can’t be arsed to acknowledge their humble roots. I know this was absolutely not the case. Indeed Andy, who is reputed to be worth around £200 million ( a figure that, true or not, has the capacity to irritate certain individuals) sent his apologies in a witty and heartfelt email which was read to the crowd.
“I remember with great affection many nights playing at the Downstairs Club. Of course I was only a child of three and my mum was always waiting for me when I got off stage, but it is where I got to grips with the guitar and the road ahead as a musician.
“Without the Downstairs Club it is quite possible that in my case none of it would ever have happened. The dark little cellar is where Zoot and I met and where we knew we’d have to brave the big time in London. I’d live for our weekend all night sessions at the club. It is where I first tried to bring my dreams and fantasies alive and of course the dreams and fantasies of the many nubile maidens that I imagined were at my feet in glowing admiration. In a way it was the perfect beginning to a life in music…I’ll see you downstairs.”
That sign-off caused much guffawing about a collective misspent youth and maybe even deals with the Devil. Zoot told of sexy encounters with the many willing young women who’d find there way to owner Jerry Stooks upstairs flat and long nights fuelled by forbidden alcohol in the booze-free club below. He was positively glowing with nostalgia as he recalled how (decades before the advent of bottled water) he’d pour neat vodka into a milk bottle and keep it on his keyboard, saying it was “just a little water for my throat.”
An even more graphic view of the club and the characters that surrounded it can be found on Al Kirtley’s website where he remembers Jerry Stooks as a jazz-loving beatnik with a penchant for the kind of huge open-topped car generally associated with minor South American dictators and an upstairs neighbour known as Johnny de Monk who had a club-foot, a pet monkey and a stinking, fetted flat. Click on link here. Those were the days, eh?
Before Zoot finally did the honours and pulled the cord that unveiled the plaque, one his old school chums, the current Mayor of Bournemouth, Cllr Chris Mayne arrived hotfoot from a civic lunch to add his official weight to the proceedings. Chris, it was explained, had been one of the crowd that used to see acts like Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, John Mayall, Manfred Mann, Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions and many more at the Disc A Go! Go!
Resplendent in chain of office, he was thrilled by this chance to revisit his colourful youth. I later heard that he considered the unveiling to be the undoubted highpoint of his engagement diary. It seemed to be doing his image quite a lot of good too. Not only did he get to snap a couple of selfies with his erstwhile classmate Zoot but he was suddenly being described by all and sundry as ‘the Rock ’n’ Roll Mayor.’
“What memories!” he said, beaming at the crowd. Zoot, always a jolly japester, took the opportunity to reveal that back in the 1950s he and Chris Mayne used to appear in school productions together and on the last occasion that they trod the boards the future Mayor had been cast as his girlfriend. “We both had to wear tights,” said Zoot before gesturing towards the slightly reddening First Citizen and gently pointing out that “His were a much smaller size of course.” With that Zoot pulled the cord and revealed the plaque that has once more put the site of the Downstairs Club on the map.
*Bizarrely, just two days later, a hoax message appeared on the internet claiming that Andy Summers had died. Distraught fans posted messages of condolence before receiving reassurances that the guitarist is not only alive and well but clearly not ready to take that long walk downstairs just yet.