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R&B in Chinatown

Mar-Keys 1The next piece of central London to be threatened by homogenisation and/or development, according to last Sunday’s Observer, is Chinatown. It’s a small area bounded by Gerrard Street to the north, a short section of Wardour Street to the west (including the bit that once housed the Flamingo), Lisle Street to the south and Newport Place to the east. The original Ronnie Scott’s Club was housed from 1959 to 1965 in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street; after the move to Wardour Street, it was kept open for a while as the Old Place.

My fondest memory of Chinatown comes from the time when Lisle Street still mostly consisted of shops selling electrical equipment. In the 1970s it would become — and still is — the location of restaurants favoured by those who were really knowledgeable about Chinese food and followed the best chefs from kitchen to kitchen. But in the mid-’60s the basement of No 27 opened on Saturday mornings to sell American soul and R&B records.

The shop was called Transat Imports, and there are some nice reminiscences of it here on the British Record Shop Archive. You have to remember that back then British fans of black American popular music still felt like members of a secret society. On a visit in 1964, during a day trip down to London, I remember seeing boxes full of stuff I wanted so badly that I could hardly breathe. I could only afford one 45, so I bought the Mar-Keys’ “Bush Bash”.

Following their huge success with “Last Night” in 1961, the Mar-Keys had stopped having hits, which meant that “Bush Bash” was unlikely to get a British release. That’s almost certainly why I chose it. It’s a minor but nevertheless snappy example of how good the Stax rhythm section (the MGs) and their friends sounded, with a particularly crisp Latin beat from Al Jackson Jr’s drums. There’s a short but pungently soulful tenor saxophone solo — probably by Gilbert Caple, who is listed as a co-writer, along with Booker T. Jones and Floyd Newman, who more usually played tenor but is probably on baritone on this tune.

(Three years earlier Caple and Newman, who were friends, had come up with the riff for “Last Night”, Stax’s first big hit and one of the all-time great instrumentals, but found themselves sharing the publishing with three others, including the producer and the record company owner’s son. When a band called the Mar-Keys went out on the road to promote it, neither of them was included. “I never thought that fair, not at all,” Newman said in Respect Yourself, Robert Gordon’s history of Stax, “because Gilbert and I was a part of that group, but we were black.”)

Maybe “Bush Bash” wasn’t the best record I bought in 1964, which was, after all, a very good year. But I liked it enough — and the memory of visiting Transat Imports — to have kept it with me all these years, in its original brown paper sleeve, just the way it came from the US.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have lobbied for a blue plaque at 39 Gerrard St, the site of Ronnie Scott’s orig club. No luck thus far. I should think a plaque for the Club Eleven – UK’s first modern jazz club – on Gt Windmill St should be considerd too.

    April 1, 2015
  2. John Pidgeon #

    Delightful, Richard. I saw the surviving members at their weekly residency in a club in Memphis some years ago, while, coincidentally, my kids chose to celebrate my son’s birthday last week at Mr Kong, a Lyle Street restaurant their old man introduced them to, also some years ago.

    April 1, 2015
  3. Grat article thanks for those memories.
    I remember Gerrard Street well from 1964. J&I Arbiter Ltd the musical instrument distributors had their offices there and the MD Ivor Arbiter became the manager of a pop group I was then in called The Interns. We made a Pathe Film which was filmed in Ronnie’s old club (It’s on YouTube). Ivor Arbiter opened the first ‘drums only’ music shop in the UK. It was located on Shaftesbury Avenue. After the success of the shop he later opened Sound City on the corner of Newport St. (?) Of course Ivor was more famous for getting Ringo Starr to play Ludwig drums. Up until that time he had played Premier. Eventually due to the huge success of the Beatles, Ludwig drums became the biggest selling drum kit in the world, and still survive today, the business being run by William Ludwig III.
    I also fondly remember Peter Mario’s restaurant where you could usually find the odd ‘star’ having a bite of lunch or dinner. I often spotted Kenneth Williams there on his own quietly reading his paper whilst dining.
    And Al Jackson, at that time, was my favourite drummer! Known as the human metronome he was a greater driving force. I felt it was his simplicity and decision to nearly always stick to playing Time, where lots of other drummers would be filling every space, that tended to lift him out of the mob. A sad loss to soul music.
    Thanks again Richard, hope I didn’t take up too much of your space here .

    April 1, 2015
  4. Michsel in Winchester #

    excellent piece thank you, and also to Mark Goodwin above, for more glimpses of London as it was.

    April 1, 2015
  5. Steve Barrow #

    I bought a few records from Transat Imports basement – the Impressions “It’s Alright” LP, and James Brown’s “Showtime”. I still have them. I never went to the old Ronnie Scotts club in Gerrard Street, but used to hang around outside and listen. One time when Roland Kirk was playing there, on a break between sets he came up the stairs with his wife Edith. I had my copy of “We Free Kings”, which he autographed, Edith Kirk guiding his hand. It was probably about 1.30 or so in the morning, early 1962 I think. The record – someone nicked it at a party a year or so after that……

    October 29, 2015

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