On Brian’s birthday, a little vignette of him at the age of 18, in the summer of 1960, courtesy of Rod, aka Ricky Welch.
Rod worked at Syd Tonge’s – the main music shop in Cheltenham – where Brian was also a full-time assistant, almost certainly in the summer of 1960. This was after Brian’s return from London, during a brief interlude when he was attempting to placate his father, by studying optics. It was during this period that Brian’s relationship with his parents was irreperably damaged by the pregnancy of Brian’s girlfriend, Valerie Corbett.
Rod’s insights give us an intriguing snapshot; they show Brian was aloof with non-musicians and , as others have commented, always evasive about what he was up to. At this time, he was yet to join the Ramrods, with whom he played sax – possibly quite briefly – and he was yet to delve deep into blues guitar. We now also know what model of Hofner Brian played – and where he obtained his beautiful pale green Gretsch Anniversary.
Rod plays tonight, Brian’s birthday, on the Wye Valley – near Symonds Yat, where Brian is pictured with Valerie in the book. Have a great show, Rod. And happy birthday, Brian.
You knew Brian around the summer of 1960.
That was the time. I can’t say he was a friend. When he arrived in the shop, I’d been working there for some time as a part-timer. He was full time. And he was quite distant. He was a bit cocky, full of himself and smoked a lot. And I recall he carried a hip flask – which was a bit showy. But when he learned I played guitar he became interested in me.
Who else worked at Syd Tonge’s?
Jim Also was the manager, he was also a sax player. There was young lady called Iris Caswell, very good figure, urchin style haircut and I would’ve thought Brian was interested in her. There was a chap called Richard Tate. John Mills – he left during my tenure and went to Curry’s. There was a Jenny whose surname I can’t remember, who had red hair and a lady called Sonia. She was quite statuesque, a bit older and lived in Winchcombe and I believe Brian lodged with her for a while.
This was after he’d worked in the architects department of Gloucester County Council and he was sacked by one John Fisher who was a family friend. I know that for a fact. It was said, he was sacked because he got a young lady in the department pregnant, but that’s hearsay. It could have been urban legend, yes.
Tell me about Syd Tonge’s.
It was a toyshop and record shop in Winchcombe Street.. It was just off the High Street, in what is now the pedestrianised area. Just as important, if you walk up Winchcombe Street you come to the Odeon [aka Gaumont] Cinema where the Stones played in later years and there was a bit of a riot – so he was playing 150 yards from where he used to work.
The shop was on three levels. In the basement was records, the ground floor was toys, upstairs was sheet music and musical instruments. It was owned by Ron Mansell, who owned another music shop a block away in Pittville Street, that was purely music. That was called Mansell’s. Eventually Syd Tonge’s was turned purely into music and records and Mansell’s was sold. Occasionally staff from Syd Tonge’s would be sent round to Pitville Street. I was sent one time, either in company with John Mills, or Brian Jones – I honestly can’t remember which one, but I think it was Brian because Brian played guitar.
Did you know where he lived at the time, or who he hung out with?
He wasn’t that forthcoming with any of us. He told me that he owned a Hofner Committee, I understood his was the acoustic version. He and I played guitar in our lunch hour, but I never saw his Hofner, though.
What was the vibe at the shop?
It was quite relaxed. Once it became a totally music shop it was a mecca for musicians and those interested in music to meet. You’ve interviewed at least a couple of the Ramrods, who were regulars.
Tell me about Phil Crowther, the main Ramrod, who was a crucial element in Brian’s early story, but who died young.
He was absolutely incredible. If that man hadn’t got married early then died early he could have been a big star. He was charismatic, good looking, a very good guitarist for 1959 – better than me.. Phil was looked up to by Brian. I’m certain Brian was trying to get into the Ramrods, trying to join them.
Did you ever see Brian with the Ramrods?
Brian told Phil he played sax, [and could play] Ghost Riders In the Sky.The Ramrods were playing Cheltenham Town hall with the Cheltone 6 some time in 1960, I think winter time. Brian and I went there, we were told by Buck Jones, their drummer to get there for about seven. Buck gave us equipment to carry and got us into Cheltenham town Hall. But there was no saxophone! He was supposed to have borrowed one from the shop – so he never actually played that night.
Did Brian and Phil get on well?
Yeah.. but Brian would see Phil as being useful to him!
[PT: other people, including mutual friends from Grammar School, have said they were good friends.]
So you didn’t really get on with Brian?
I wouldn’t really say that. Phil Crowther was a very gregarious lad who the girls loved and the blokes liked. Brian was, as you say in the book, dapper, smart, neat and tidy – although most of us were. I can remember his sudden arrival and being introduced. It was just a very cursory hello, then I was ignored. But when I ordered a new guitar in the shop, to replace my acoustic, he started to talk to me. And Phil would come in and talk, he’d come in later in the day and ask about all sort of obscure records he’d heard about on AFN, and whether we could get them in.
So once you got chatting with Brian, what happened?
When Jim Also was out of the way and the shop was quiet, if Phil was there the three of us would put a record on upstairs, get guitars off the wall and try and work out what the chords were. This is where I learned from Brian how he was really into Django Reinhardt. I remember him saying, This guy’s only got three fingers, how does he play like that? And at the time I knew nothing about him. So Brian was searching stuff out. Now, we used to get not only only the pop crowd but later in the day we would get the jazz crowd. Atomic Mr Basie had come out at the time and was a huge hit; Brian was listening to that a lot, and to be honest so was I.
What other music can you recall him listening to?
Thelonious Monk, MJQ [Modern Jazz Quartet, mentioned elsewhere in the book as one of Brian’s favourite bands]. I can remember Phil and I practising Walk Don’t Run in the shop.. he wasn’t too interested in that, he was interested from the point of view of playing the guitar but it wasn’t his sort of music.
I can’t remember that much more about the music. He did tell me I bought the wrong guitar. I ordered a Senator Slimline Electric and a case. He told me, if you hadn’t bought the case you could have bought the Hofner President, which is a better guitar. He was right of course.
Incidentally, I believe Brian’s Green Double Anniversary Gretsch was ordered from Ken Watkinson’s Music shop in the lower High Street, Cheltenham about late 1964. I’ve played it! It was in the shop when I ordered, or maybe collected, a new Gibson SJN.
Did you pick up much more information about him and his life?
No. He didn’t invite me to go and play guitar outside work hours. He was knowledgeable. As you’ve said, this was a bloke with a brain, he was intelligent. I didn’t meet any more of his friends, I can’t remember any girlfriends [of his] coming into the shop.
Was the story/legend of his sexual exploits public knowledge by then?
No, no, no. I didn’t hear anything. Bear in mid this was 1960. You didn’t talk about things like that. Everything like that was swept under the carpet. These were he days when you tugged your forelock to the boss and called him sir. Ten years later it was completely different.
You know it’s his birthday today?
Yes, I just passed that information on to the bandleader tonight. He might mention it, I’m just the bloke at the back of the band.
Cheltenham’s always portrayed as staid, but it wasn’t back then, was it?
Yes. There were a lot of clubs. And I was amused about the [Charles] Irving Hotel. .. this was a hotbed for homosexuality. That was a known fact in the 60s.
And Syd Tonge’s was a fun place?
Oh yes, definitely.. The coffee bar scene was there, where people would hang around in a certain coffee bar, then come in, you’d get the teenagers coming for records later in the day, around 4.30, and a lot of the jazz people would come in. So yes, it was a very busy, vibrant scene.
Although Cheltenham had stuff going on, could it be claustrophobic?
Difficult to say, but put it this way. Cheltenham Town Hall had rock’n’roll dances in 1959, other places weren’t open to it until years later. Cheltenham was far more liberal, way ahead of anywhere except maybe Bristol or Birmingham.
You told me that, in the summer of 1960, he didn’t seem to have really got into blues?
No. There was no mention of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf or any of them during this period. Brian was into Django when I knew him. As I said, we were getting the shop [to order] obscure records – but we weren’t getting obscure blues records, we were getting obscure rock’n’roll.
I have been told Brian was the sort of person who could pick up any instrument and get a tune out of it… but I never heard him play sax or clarinet, anything but guitar. I have an idea it was me who taught him the chord D9. When you’re playing in A, if you play A, D9 and E9, you get that blues sound!
“Shoulda got a President!” Rod with his Hofner Slimline
The Ramrods: the rock’n’roll band with whom Brian briefly played sax. His Grammar School contemporary, and friend, Phil Crowther, is standing, centre, with the Stratocaster. Buck Jones, with drumsticks, and bassist Graham Stodart are also interviewed in Sympathy for the Devil. Phil Crowther died, tragically, on his wedding night in 1964, choking on a chicken bone.