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Rock 'n' Roll Wiltshire
A young Eric Clapton
Wiltshire's hidden rock connections
Find out how acts such as Eric Clapton, Dire Straits and Yes are part of Wiltshire's rich musical history.
The list of internationally successful musical artists born or raised in Wiltshire is a long and illustrious one.
Most of us can reel off names of local heroes like James Blunt, Jamie Cullum, XTC, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich or Billie Piper without too much head-scratching.
Think a moment longer and we might recall that Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues was born in Swindon, as was Rick Davies of Supertramp.
Those a little more in the know will be aware that Peter Gabriel's world-renowned Real World studio is located in Box.
Throw in Sting, Madonna and Gilbert O'Sullivan, who were born elsewhere but made Wiltshire their home, and if we're not quite rivalling Liverpool or London, we can certainly hold our heads high as a home of hit makers over the years.
What's much less well-known, however, is that Wiltshire has a hidden treasure trove of equally fascinating rock and pop superstar connections that has largely escaped the attention of even the county’s most devoted rock fans.
Any Wiltshire rock devotee with a long memory can tell you that Eric Clapton's sixties superstar band, Cream, played in the county several times. Few realise, however, that Clapton also trod the boards of the City Hall in Salisbury long before he found fame.
When the now all-but-forgotten London-based R'n'B combo Casey Jones & The Engineers stepped onto that venerable stage on Halloween night in 1963, their guitarist was the young Eric.
Similarly, Jon Lord of Deep Purple, Peter Banks and Chris Squire of Yes and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, all paid some of their musical dues on Wiltshire stages, when they were members of now obscure wannabe superstar combos, namely The Artwoods, The Syn and the Bo Street Runners.
But Wiltshire's place on the international music stage goes back much further than the rock era.
Consider, for example, the case of Eric Edwards. He was born in rural Wilsford on February 2nd 1910, but emigrated to Canada where he found fame in the 1930s as 'Canada's Yodelling Cowboy'.
Adopting the name Alberta Slim, he went on to record over 100 of his own songs for RCA Records. Presumably Wiltshire Eric just didn't have the right ring about it.
And what’s Wiltshire's connection to the famous Dr. Who theme tune? The answer is an extraordinary woman by the name of Daphne Oram, who was born in Devizes in 1935. A feted composer and pioneer of electronic music, it was Daphne who founded the BBC’s celebrated Radiophonic Workshop - which produced the Dr Who music.
Daphne’s legacy - the music and sound effects of the Workshop, is still being heard daily on BBC Radio and TV networks all over the globe.
July 9th 1934 was another red letter day in Wiltshire’s unsung musical history. That was the day when Colin Bailey was born in Swindon.
He grew up to enjoy a long career in America as a successful jazz/swing drummer playing and recording with legends of the era including Benny Goodman, George Shearing, Chet Baker, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and Miles Davis. In fact, start looking into Bailey's recorded credits and it’s almost quicker to make a list of the stars he didn't drum with.
Staying with the jazz world for a moment, one of Britain’s most celebrated jazz stars is Ronnie Scott, founder of the hipper-then-hip Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London but, before he found fame, he played regularly in Wiltshire.
"I first played with Ronnie in 1952," recalls Wiltshire-based pianist John Critchinson.
Jazz legend Ronnie Scott
"We ran a jazz club in The Spirit Vaults in Chippenham. Ronnie was still making a name for himself, but he was prepared to come down and play with our fairly duff local rhythm section, which is what we were at that time.
"As a person, he was quite stand-offish, never any aggro, but he kept himself to himself, did the gig and went home."
One avid chronicler of Wiltshire's rock heritage is Dave Gregory who spent much of the 70s and 80s as guitarist for Swindon's much-loved XTC. "I lived in Purton, just three miles from Swindon," he recalls, "but actually, most of the bands we saw locally were at The Corn Exchange in Devizes. It was one of those venues where bands would do their warm-up gigs before setting out on a major tour.
"You'd get to see them fresh out of rehearsals, trying out the set on a live audience for the first time. We saw it as a major venue. I used to dream about my band, Orange, being big enough to play in Devizes Corn Exchange.
"As a venue, it was easy to get to from Swindon, and it was quite cheap to get in, 7/6d usually. One of my teenage mates had access to a car, and that’s how we'd get there."
Gregory still vividly recalls seeing Yes there twice, plus King Crimson, Blodwyn Pig and Irish superstar axeman Rory Gallagher on his first solo tour after he'd split from his acclaimed band Taste.
"It's said to be the place where the Small Faces played their final gig," he continues. "Their keyboard player, Ian McLagen, says in his book that his first and last gigs with them were in this area. His first was at the Swindon Locarno, and his last at Devizes Corn Exchange."
Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits
Gregory also throws up another little-remembered tidbit when he reveals, "I saw Dire Straits before they were signed, when they came to the Oasis at Swindon as support to Talking Heads. I thought they were terrific then, a great little band.
"Just a guy with a guitar playing the blues and a couple of competent sidemen."
So, next time you go out to see some obscure little band you've never heard of, make a few notes for the future. Maybe that spotty little Herbert on the guitar or that nervous-looking singer could end up a superstar.
Cities like Liverpool, Manchester and London proudly boast of their musical heritage but it's long past time for Wiltshire to hold its head high and sing its own praises. Wiltshire rocks with the best of them.
last updated: 01/06/2009 at 14:54
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