Tuesday 29 March 2016

Baby-sitting The Beatles

Holyoake Hall
332-338 Smithdown Road
Liverpool 15

On the corner of Blenheim Road and Smithdown Road opposite the old tramsheds and only 200 yards from Penny Lane where terraced Wavertree meets semi-detached Allerton stands Holyoake Hall, a large and impressive red-brick building built as a Co-operative store in 1913-14 with a ballroom on the first floor.

During the days of the "British dance band era" (1930s) there was a wide range of dancehalls in the Liverpool area. Among the premiere venues were the Rialto and the Grafton with their "Old Tyme" and dinner dances, and at the lower end were the smaller ballrooms like Holyoake Hall and Blair Hall, such venues existing for different, perhaps marginalised clienteles, providing them with somewhere to go dancing and socialise.

I’m not sure when the Holyoake was ‘hot’ probably a long time before 1950′s! My parents only went to these places in the 40′s, dodging the air raids. The Holyoake, the Rialto and Grafton were names that were often remembered as part of their dancing days during WW2. "The girls" (I think there was a gang of them) would also get out to the American Base at Burtonwood or did the GI’s come into Liverpool? Anyway, some serious liaisons were formed! I should add, my father didn’t really dance, it was my mother who usually took to the floor! (Denys Owen, Streets of Liverpool)

By the 1950's, Holyoake Hall was in decline, with poor attendances and often with a dance band consisting of just saxophone, drums and piano. A shame because it was reportedly a lovely ballroom with a beautiful sprung wooden floor and a large stage. Down one side were pillars supporting a balcony and underneath this were the seats. Patrons gained access by climbing a long flight of stone steps from the entrance at the side of the building on Blenheim Road.

Holyoake Hall in 2009 when the ground floor was occupied by the Mustard Bar and Restaurant (I had a fantastic meal there....sorry, I digress).

During the skiffle boom in 1957-58 the hall was used to hold regular Skiffle auditions and Rod Davis, banjo player with the Quarry Men remembers them playing here on several occasions during this period.

The subsequent explosion of rock 'n' roll during the late 1950s would bring a new lease of life to the venue as jiving became popular.

One of the first independent rock and roll promoters in Liverpool, if not the first, was a young man from Wavertree, named Wally Hill.

Hill: I was working at the Rialto Ballroom and jive was not allowed, it was strictly ballroom dancing, and we had to keep breaking them up because they would be doing a bit of jive in the corners. I spoke to the wife and I said "There is a market here" because jive wasn't allowed in any dance halls in Liverpool at that time. The manager of the Rialto thought he would run ballroom dances in Garston and so off we went to Garston. He didn't anticipate the trouble there, he didn't like the bloodshed and so he packed it in, but my wife and I said "We'll have a go at rock 'n' roll. We opened for business and it was great.

The Garstonites didn't like anybody foreign in the dance hall, and by that I mean anyone from the Dingle or anywhere else. Nobody but a Garstonite was allowed in a Garston dance hall. If a stranger wandered in, he was found in the toilets, or what was left of him.  When we had the ballroom dances for the manager of the Rialto, he thought it would be civilised to have commissionaires on and they would last about 15 or 20 minutes and then we would have to escort them to the bus stop, so it was rough.

Hill's enterprise soon attracted at like minded soul, a Garston man named Bob Wooler who offered his services as disc jockey and MC (master of ceremonies), mainly, he said because local bands were having to amble on stage without any proper introduction, which he felt was "terrible".  At the time it was unusual for someone to announce the records and take requests. Bob would play appropriate records while the bands were changing over on stage.

He would soon become known as the "Daddy-O" of Merseyside rock 'n' roll DJs , the soul of Liverpool rock 'n' roll organising all aspects of promotion and doing everything he could to encourage the musicians.

One group benefiting from Bob's support was Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, who'd first met him at the Winter Gardens, Heald Street, in Garston, when they were still Al Caldwell and the Ravin' Texans. Knowing Bob was handling bookings at the time, and wanting to play some dance halls they approached him for help and he sorted out some bookings for them.

The Winter Gardens was opposite the police station but that didnt stop regular bouts of fighting. The police soon tired of it and the venue was closed in December 1958. Despite this setback, Wally Hill saw the potential for dances in the area and for using Bob Wooler.

In February 1959, he started rock 'n' roll evenings at Holyoake Hall with Wooler acting as compere and DJ.

Holyoake gained a reputation for rather heavy-handed doormen, something Hill saw as a necessity after his experiences at the Winter Gardens.

Wally: It was different at Holyoake because we had an army of bouncers. We advertised in the Liverpool Echo and we got replies, loads and loads of them, for baby-sitters. Nobody knew the word "bouncers" then and they thought we wanted "baby-sitters".  The national press wanted to know what a "bouncer" was and did a story about it.

Hill employed between 11 and 16 men a night, paying them £1 each which he later increased to 25 shillings (£1.25) and then 30 (£1.50).

Note: In 1958 £1 was the equivalent of £20.21.

As the hall only held around 400, 16 bouncers seems excessive. Wally Hill explains: When we had a riot and we had a few riots in our time, you needed them, you are protecting yourselves and not just the dance hall. The adrenaline would flow and if we didn't have much trouble, we would think "It's a bit boring tonight". It was quite fun, and, except for a few occasions, we were in the strongest army.

There was a row of terraced houses opposite Holyoake Hall and the neighbours would arrange their chairs in the front windows to watch the goings-on for the evening. I thought at the time they were a bit sad, but (in hindsight) it must have been quite interesting.

Mickey Hill (Wally's wife): I used to take the studded belts off them as they went up the stairs. We weighed one once and it was seven pounds. It was like the western films where you see a row of gun-belts in the saloon. Some of them were very heavy. If they had kept them, they would have been swinging them round their heads to stop anyone getting near them.

Bob Wooler: Once I was at the top of the stairs talking with Wally's wife who was in the box office, and this bouncer hit a lad and sent him flying down the stone steps. It was sickening as the lad must have been badly hurt. Wally employed an oriental doorman who had a black belt in judo but, as I never saw him in action it could have been a con.

Wally Hill and his "baby-sitters". Wally is second from the right on the front row.

Wally Hill: We dealt with the front of house, Bob controlled the stage, and the bouncers the dance floor. The stage was high up at Holyoake and Bob felt safe. He knew how to fade away at the first sign of trouble, but the rest of the time he was dynamite.

Bob's influence on the scene cannot be underestimated:

Freddie Marsden (drummer with Gerry and the Pacemakers): Bob Wooler was the main man and we owe what happened to us to Bob Wooler. In 1959 when we were trying to get going, he got us into Holyoake and then into (Hill's other main venue) Blair Hall. He was always promoting us and we felt really good when he introduced us on stage. We'd think he was talking about another group because he made us sound so good.

Gerry Marsden (Gerry and The Pacemakers) remembers the venues: The Cavern had an atmosphere, right enough, for the fans. It stank of disinfectant and stale onions. It was hot, sweaty and oppressive. Blair Hall was ten times better, Holyoake Hall in Penny Lane was brilliant with a big beautiful big stage and a dance floor the kids could enjoy. All the bands preferred it to the Cavern. If Brian Epstein had gone to any of these places to discover us and the Beatles, these venues would have been famous. But the Cavern went down in history.

A dynamic young black singer from the Dingle, Derry Wilkie was born in Liverpool on 10 January 1941.

His big break came in late 1959 when a group from Huyton called the Hy-tones, featuring Howie Casey on tenor sax was appearing at the Hall.  Bob Wooler asked them if Wilkie could join them on stage for a couple of songs. They were impressed and despite having two singers already he soon became their lead vocalist.

Howie Casey: Derry came up and he was doing Little Richard, which was right up my street because prior to that we didn't have a singer who could get down to that sort of stuff. That was great, so we asked Derry to join the band.

Inspired by Danny and the Juniors, they changed their name to Derry Wilkie and the Seniors in early 1960, and they appeared regularly at all the major Liverpool venues including the Jacaranda, whose owner Allan Williams, booked them for the Liverpool Stadium Show with American rock 'n' roller Gene Vincent on Tuesday May 3 1960.

As Derry and the Seniors they began to play at most of the local venues for promoters such as Charlie McBain, Wally Hill and Brian Kelly. Casey remembers both of Wally Hill's venues (Holyoake and Blair Hall) as being 'quite violent': I vaguely remember the bouncers who wore black leather sort of gloves and white shirts, black trousers, black leather - and they had truncheons, or whatever. They used to circle the hall while the people danced and there was always a fight and they'd jump in and people would get kicked downstairs and there was blood and stuff everywhere. A few things like that went on.

I remember Wally Hill with favourable memories. He was okay to us. We didn't get paid a lot of money as you can imagine, but we used to get the money up in the end from Wally. He used to secrete a lot of money. He used to give me bags of silver because his wife kept a firm grip on the finances and he used to sneak off a bit of extra money because I'd asked for rises over a period of time. Big deal, you know. I think we were getting about two quid each.

In fact the violence doesn't appear to have put Casey off too much, Wally Hill remembering the well built sax player asking "When you book us here, do you want me to be a bouncer as well so I can get a bit extra?"

Derry Wilkie and the Seniors
(December 1959 - January 1961):
Derry Wilkie (Lead Vocals)
Howie Casey (Tenor Sax)
Brian Griffiths (Lead Guitar)
Billy Hughes (Rhythm Guitar)
Paul Whitehead (Bass)
Stan Foster (Piano)
Jeff Wallington (Drums)

1961 L-R: Derry, Howie, Frank Wibberly, Brian Griffiths (later in the Big Three), Freddie Starr (to play the Star-Club with the Midnighters), and Phil “Spread” Whitehead.

Howie Casey: This was a Liverpool publicity photo for Derry and the Seniors taken at Holyoake Hall in Liverpool in 1961, but who would have booked us on that picture?

Rory Storm and the Hurricanes:
(line up from December 2, 1959 - December 29, 1961):

Al Caldwell (aka Al Storm, Rory Storm)()vocals)
Johnny Byrne (aka Johnny Guitar) (guirar)
Charlie O'Brien (ake Ty Brien) (guitar)
Richy Starkey (aka Ringo Starr) (drums)
Walter "Wally" Eymond (aka Lou Walters)(vocals, bass)

With Bob Wooler's help Rory Storm and the Hurricanes began appearing at Holyoake Hall in 1960 and drew quite a crowd.  Johnny Guitar's diary lists four such engagements:

January 3rd and 30th, 1960

February 27th, 1960 - the diary notes that the band had a row with the club manager so they only played half a set for half the fee. The Holyoake manager, John Guise, would play hell about the rock'n'roll dances, He would say over the mike "Do you know how long it took to get all the chewing gum off this floor last time?", This place is used for proper ballroom, it is not just for rock 'n' roll.  He might as well have been talking to the wall. He turned puce when Rory Storm jumped on his piano and he told him to get off. I thought of Irving Berlin "That's a fine way to treat a Steinway" (Bob Wooler)

March 12th, 1960
Bob Wooler: (Rory) was far more show than substance. He learnt his tricks from watching Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent. He had little originality but was a very good copycat. He would cock his leg over the mike like Gene Vincent and cover his songs like "Rocky Road Blues". I will never forget him kicking the Reslo mike over at Holyoake: his foot hit the mike, which was the only one we had. I thought "Oh god, I hope he hasn't ruined it" and, fortunately he hadn't. I told him he must never do that when we are down to one mike.

The first time we went there was to see Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. I also remember seeing Freddie and the Dreamers perform there. I recall this particular occasion because Freddie looked just like my dad! Holyoake Hall became one of our most frequented out-of-city-centre venues, although it took me three buses to get there.
(Pam Beesley, Merseybeat)

Wally Hill: Rory Storm would come with about 45 followers, all expecting to come in for nothing. We had to sort him out and say he had to curb this. Rory would fill the dance hall anyway. What an entertainer! You would speak to him on the phone and it would take half an hour because he stuttered but on a microphone not one word would be stutter; he could go straight through. The kids would be ten deep at Holyoake watching him

It appears that Bob Wooler had accidently bumped into George Harrison and Paul McCartney at a bus stop opposite the Holyoake in 1959, and offered them a date at the club. They declined the invitation because they had no drummer (this may have been during their Japage 3 period - late 1959- early 1960). It would be another couple of years before The Beatles would appear here.

The Beatles, July 1961. Just back from Hamburg and in need of a haircut.

The Beatles eventually performed twice at Holyoake Hall, on 15th and 22nd July 1961.

Bob Evans and the Five Shillings were a popular group and they asked us if we had used The Beatles yet. We said 'no' and we asked what they were like. Bob Evans said "Don't touch them, they don't wash their hair and there's a fight every night". There was a fight every night anyway, so that didn't mean anything. We wrote to them in Hamburg and they signed an agreement that they would play for us every Saturday and Sunday at a tenner a night, which was big money then (Wally Hill)

When the Beatles first went to Hamburg in 1960 they were a "bum group" to use Allan Williams' phrase, and nobody would touch them.  By the time they returned from their second trip to Hamburg at the start of July 1961 they were head and shoulders above any other group in Liverpool, and they knew it.

Here's how their schedule looked in July 1961. They played for Wally Hill at both Blair Hall and Holyoake Hall.

Mon 3           Arrival in Liverpool (returning from Hamburg)

Thu 13          St. John's Hall in Tuebrook, Liverpool.

Fri 14            Cavern Club. The Beatles do lunchtime and evening performances, the latter bill shared with Johnny Sandon and the Searchers.

Sat 15           Holyoake Hall, Wavertree, Liverpool  

Sun 16          Blair Hall, Walton, Liverpool.

Mon 17         Cavern Club (lunchtime), Litherland Town Hall, Liverpool (evening) with Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Wed 19         Cavern Club (lunch and evening)

Thur 20         St. John's Hall in Tuebrook, Liverpool.

Fri 21            Cavern Club (lunchtime), Aintree Institute, Aintree, Liverpool (evening)with Cy and the Cimarrons.

Sat 22           Holyoake Hall, Wavertree, Liverpool.

Sun 23          Blair Hall,Walton, Liverpool.

Mon 24         Litherland Town Hall.

Tue 25          Cavern Club, with Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Bluegenes, the Remo Four and the Four Jays.

Wed 26         Cavern Club, with the Four Jays and the Remo Four.

Thur 27         Cavern Club (lunchtime), St. John's Hall, Tuebrook, Liverpool (evening) where they also provide backup for Priscilla White who later changes her name to Cilla Black.

Fri 28            Aintree Institute with the Strangers.

Sat 29           Blair Hall,Walton.

Sun 30          Blair Hall, Walton.

At some point during the month, after comparing the fees they were receiving at other venues with what Wally Hill was paying them at Blair and Holyoake Halls the Beatles decided they were being short changed.

They played a few times and we increased it to £12 and then one night they came along to Blair Hall, Walton, and Paul said "We are not going on unless we get £15". There was a bit of haggling and in the end we decided they weren't worth it! We parted company. They didn't play that night and the kids were disappointed and we never had them again. I think I made a mistake there (Wally Hill)

Despite the guarantee of work every weekend, in the case of Holyoake Hall, at the only venue in south Liverpool close enough to the homes of two of the Beatles* that they could walk there, the group decided they would rather not work at all than do so for someone they considered was taking advantage of them.

Following his dismissal in August 1962 drummer Pete Best joined Lee Curtis and the All Stars and found himself back on the jive circuit at venues such as Blair Hall and Holyoake Hall, the very places The Beatles had left behind.

Liverpool in the early 1960s. The Beatles' influence on the lad facing the camera is quite apparent. Holyoake Hall stands in the background with the original shops to the left. The photo below shows a view of the hall taken from the tower of St. Barnabas church on Smithdown place. The area where the shops stood was a wasteground in 2013. 

Holyoake Hall stood facing the Smithdown / Penny Lane/ Prince Alfred Road tram sheds - see the photo below. Anyone who visits Liverpool and takes the Magical Mystery Tour coach trip or a Fab Four Taxi tour will drive past the hall, probably in both directions, but I wonder how many are made aware of it?

The former "tram sheds with no trams", facing Holyoake Hall, Smithdown Road

Three years on a new build occupies the wasteground and partly obscures the hall.

Whenever I drive past now I will think of the dance hall days with all those ballgowns struggling to get down that long flight of stone steps and out into Blenheim Road... of gangs of Teddy Boys armed to the teeth with home made weapons to be confiscated at the door by Mrs Hill and her husband's army of bouncers, one of them ready to send any troublemaker back down the stairs with a well timed judo kick....Rory Storm arriving with his entourage having promised them they will get in for free if they say they are with him.... all this observed by the neighbours from the comfort of their own living rooms... 


* John (1.9 miles) and Paul (1.8 miles). George lived 5.2 miles away in Speke and Pete about 3.5 in West Derby.


Web:  http://streetsofliverpool.co.uk/the-grafton-1956/

Bill Harry's Merseybeat site is a treasure trove of information about this period

The Best of Fellas - The Story of Bob Wooler by Spencer Leigh was invaluable.

Other Voices: Hidden Histories of Liverpool's Popular Music Scenes, 1930s-1970s by Dr Michael Brocken

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