Unsung Heroes Of British R&B
Their names might not be as familiar as some of their peers, but Spooky Tooth and the Downliners Sect set the London scene of the 60s and 70s alight with their electrifying take on R&B.
Formed from the ashes of The VIPs, Spooky Tooth have survived more line-up changes than Spinal Tap, and they produced one of the greatest white-boy blues albums of the 60s.
It’s late 1967. Mike Harrison, the Carlisle-born R&B singer and keyboardist who moved to London to f ind fame and fortune as leader of The VIPs in 1964, is standing in the Island Records offices on London’s Oxford Street with bassist Greg Ridley, drummer Mike Kellie and guitarist Luther Grosvenor. He and his band, now called Art, are disillusioned. Four singles as The VIPs have flopped in the UK, a single and an album as Art have flopped. The writing is on the wall. Their manager and label owner, Chris Blackwell, enters the office with a young man in tow. His name is Gary Wright, an American singer with a disarming falsetto voice. He is also a very good songwriter and keyboard player.
“Chris Blackwell says: ‘Greg, Mike, Luther, Kellie this is Gary Wright. Gary this is Art. You’re going to make a band, this is the last chance saloon,’” says Mike Kellie today. “We had our first rehearsal and thankfully we clicked.” In that rehearsal room Spooky Tooth were born. Their story is one of missed chances, bad luck and one truly classic blues rock album, Spooky Two.
It begins and ends with Mike Harrison. Like many of his generation, Harrison f irst got bitten by the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line and the early records of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. He had a skiffle band at school but honed his craft proper in rock’n’rollers The Ramrods – line-up completed by lead guitarist Jimmy Henshaw, rhythm guitarist Frank Kenyon, bassist Dave McCumiskey and drummer Walter Johnstone – who performed Elvis and Jerry Lee songs around the pubs and clubs of Carlisle.
After Greg Ridley replaced McCumisky on bass – Ridley had been singer and guitarist in The Danubes, and he’d later find fameas a founding member of Humble Pie – they became The VIPs to avoid confusion with the American band, The Ramrods. Then on signing up with The Kinks’ manager Larry Page, they were offered the chance to record You Really Got Me before The Kinks recorded it. “We said no, we didn’t like it. The next thing we knew The Kinks were No.1,” says Harrison.
Harrison had yet to fully develop his true voice, sounding a lot like Mick Jagger, but The VIPs’ debut single *Don’t Keep Shouting At **Me* showed promise: a tough British R&B number, rooted in Jimmy Reed, with some cool piano and wailing harmonica from Harrison, it made a strong debut and aligned the group to the UK blues boom.
Soon after, the group moved to London, holing up in a cellar under electronic engineer Pepe Rush’s recording studio in Soho’s Berwick Street. Rush installed equipment at hip Soho basement club The Scene in Ham Yard, a cobblestoned courtyard off Great Windmill Street. Through The Animals’ manager Mike Jeffery, The VIPs managed to secure a residency there. “We had no money at all except what we got from playing The Scene, and that wasn’t much,” says Harrison. “Walter, the drummer, had a job on the underground when they were digging the Victoria line tunnel. On a Friday when we were playing, he would come up through a manhole in the middle of his shift, do the gig, then go back down the manhole and f inish his shift. He was feeding us all from his job on the underground. It was tough.”
The Scene provided a great launch pad for the band though. “All the bands knew each other,” says Harrison. “We would be doing a gig at midnight, and The Rolling Stones would pop in and have a look. The Animals too. We were playing covers of Joe Tex’s I Wanna Be Free and songs by Ray Charles.”
Inroads were also made in Germany as their raw R&B landed them a residency at Hamburg’s Star-Club.
“We were the most popular band there since The Beatles,” says Harrison. “We went there for a month and we played seven days a week. The club started around four in the afternoon and there were three bands a night, and each played one hour on, two hours off until four in the morning – it was the same every night.”