Billy Taylor: Basingstoke’s first Rock ‘n Roller
Despite the distinction bestowed upon him by his friend Brian James; Billy was actually born in a mining village on Tyneside on July 21st 1942. His family brought him to Basingstoke in his infancy. He was to acquire two younger brothers. Their first home was in Brambly’s Drive but they moved at least twice (to 106 Worting Road and to number 20 Sandy’s Road) before settling at number 30 Lefroy Avenue at South View, or Oakridge as it is now usually called.
Billy attended two different convent schools; one was near the Holy Ghost ruins, the other at Norn Hill. His family were staunch Catholics but Billy says that the schools only seemed interested in teaching the Gospels in Latin and that he failed his ‘eleven plus’ exam because they hadn’t taught him anything else. Although ‘abuse’ was only rumoured, Billy describes their teaching practises as barbaric. After a period at St. Dominic’s boarding school in Hambledon, Surrey; Billy then attended Fairfields School which, even in the fifties, would have been a bit more civilised. The harshness of his earlier school experiences had the polar opposite effect to that which his parents would have wanted. Billy turned against their religion and maintains that the convent schools were responsible.
Billy’s friends at Fairfields would have included John Walker and Roy Smallbone with whom he was to strike up musical partnerships but key to his development as a teenager was membership of a gang. Billy was in the South View gang. Their common interests will not be surprising; motor bikes, rock ‘n roll and girls. Skiffle was the thing for a while but Billy was first bitten by the rock ‘n roll bug when he heard Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis. However, he wasn’t inspired to take up singing until he heard British singer Billy Fury.
“On Friday nights we used to cluster round a TV set at a house in Baynards Close to watch the Oh Boy Show. One night I saw Billy Fury and that was it!”
His first group was the Page Boys. They were probably Basingstoke’s first rock ‘n roll group and they underwent a number of changes in their time. Billy left them to form his own group which had the slightly unimaginative name of The Drifters. Apart from being monopolised by the US group (hits including Under the Boardwalk, On Broadway and Save the last dance for me) The Drifters was also the name originally used by The Shadows. Nevertheless, Basingstoke’s Drifters got to be the supporting act for Gene Vincent on his locally-famous appearance at the Haymarket Theatre in 1961. Billy retains vivid and precious memories of the event.
Apparently Gene Vincent was brought to the Haymarket by Johnny Prince in one of his more ambitious early promotions. Billy says that Johnny had no money and was unable to pay Vincent or any of the other performers. Gene Vincent was seemingly already on the road to alcohol-related self-destruction. He had performed at Winchester Lido the previous night and on arriving in Basingstoke, headed straight for the Royal Exchange (a pub which stood on the same side of Wote Street as the Feathers [Laarsen’s] but further down the hill) where he set about inducing a state of drunkenness prior to his performance.
Vincent’s backing group during the 1961 tour was called Sounds Incorporated. The group originated in Dartford but was hired to back Vincent when his own US group The Blue Caps were refused UK work permits. Sounds Incorporated (later modified to Sounds Inc.) went on to perform and record with other high profile artists (Little Richard, Jerry Lee-Lewis, Brenda Lee, Sam Cooke) and also played and recorded in their own right. In November 1964 they returned to Basingstoke at the Town Hall as guests of the Galaxy Club.
Billy says that The (Basingstoke) Drifters opened the Haymarket gig which was apparently marred by sub-standard equipment, but when they had finished he got the chance to speak to Gene Vincent who was in the dressing room with a bottle of whisky.
“He was such a humble man; he called me ‘Sir’! He told me all about his meetings with Elvis and Jerry Lee-Lewis and he talked about The Blue Caps. I was so lucky because Johnny Prince had stopped everyone else from getting near him!”
Vincent was apparently quite taken with Billy’s pink suit:
“It was made for me especially for the occasion by a lady at Harry Hall’s factory in Coronation Road. She actually made suits for the whole group though theirs were red.”
Billy thinks that John Walker (previously with The Page Boys, later with The Floox) was missing from The Drifters’ line-up that night though he doesn’t know why. John’s talents both as a guitarist and a drummer made him a useful bloke to have around but Billy thinks that their drummer for the Haymarket gig was Johnny Mears although Roy Smallbone (another former-Page Boy) was also engaged in that capacity somewhere along the line. Billy first met guitarist Ian Shepherd (or Sheppard) at a Basingstoke Carnival.
“Alfie Cole, (a local character who owned a caravan site at Eastrop) brought a horse and cart into the Market Square and a group set up and played on it. That’s when I first saw Shep; he was a brilliant guitar player.”
Billy Taylor’s (Basingstoke) Drifters attracted a local following and played at most of the local venues, though Billy doesn’t recall appearing at Park Prewett or St. Joseph’s Hall. His father was a fine musician who had played in an act called The Serenaders but he didn’t like rock ‘n roll at all. However, Billy says that he turned up unexpectedly to a Drifters performance at the Drill Hall (bottom of Sarum Hill) and had remarked that they were better than he had expected! Billy savours a moment of contemplation on what was otherwise a turbulent father/son relationship.
Billy’s first guitar was bought through a catalogue as was perfectly normal in less well-off families of the time. Though never known as a guitar player, Billy kept one around until a stroke rendered him unable to hold down the chords. Brian James by his own admission has never learned the guitar yet remembers his first; a Lucky Squire purchased for £25 from Hickies (47, Winchester Street) where the salesman was the ubiquitous Johnny Prince.
Another pivotal moment in Billy Taylor’s short though not uneventful career occurred quite spontaneously at the Agincourt Club in Camberley, probably in 1965. The story goes that Billy and some friends attended a talent contest at which Tom Jones was present. Jones had recently hit number one with ‘It’s not unusual’. The event was promoted by impresario Bob Potter who was quite a big wheel even before he established his Lakeside Club in Frimley Green. Billy wasn’t too impressed with the talent on display so he asked Potter if he could get up and do a number. The house group was called Onyx and included lead guitarist Al Hodge. Another of Potter’s ever-present backing groups was called Wishful Thinking. Both survived into the seventies. Onyx appeared on the bill at Basingstoke Sports Centre in 1973 with Atomic Rooster, Medicine Head and Gonzales. Back in 1965 they assisted Billy Taylor in his rendition of Blue Suede Shoes:
“After I’d finished, Tom Jones tapped me on the shoulder and said that I sounded ‘just like Elvis’ and Bob Potter offered me a contract on the spot! He said that if I wanted to work for him as a singer; to be at Frimley at ten a.m. on Monday. I went back to my job (Billy was a painter with E & L Berg, builders of the Berg Estate) but I had just picked up my paint brush when I suddenly thought – do I really want to do this?”
Thus Billy joined Bob Potter’s empire and toured with Onyx or Wishful Thinking as his backing group. Amongst the acts that they supported were The Small Faces. This is quite an odd coincidence as John Walker had by now formed The Floox. They too supported The Small Faces, certainly in Chelmsford, Essex and possibly elsewhere. The Small Faces appeared at St. Joseph’s on October 4th 1965 supported by The Reedmen. Billy says that he swapped a guitar with Steve Marriott but no longer has it, which is a shame as it would be worth a few bob. He also says that Gene Vincent gave him a demo version of one of his singles:
“I scratched out his name and used to tell the girls that it was me.”
The things we do for love!
Billy’s days as a singer fizzled out as the Beatles, Stones, Doors and Jimi Hendrix ushered in the new psychedelic era. Apart from a couple of half-hearted attempts to re-generate that initial rock ‘n roll energy in the seventies, Billy pretty much abandoned the music business altogether and focused on his own parental responsibilities. He has but two minor regrets. One is that he doesn’t own any photos of himself on stage despite a huge number of performances. He is also slightly irked that he doesn’t have any recordings of his singing voice in his prime:
“I sometimes wish I’d pushed myself more. I knew or met influential people (the managers of Gene Vincent and Tom Jones to mention but two) but I was never an assertive person. I would like to have gone into a studio and made a record but it just never happened. I mentioned it to Bob Potter once, but he didn’t support the idea.”
Brian James and Bill Taylor have become close friends in their seventies (despite being in rival gangs nearly sixty years earlier). Brian, as we know, did the ‘making a record thing’ but freely admits that Bob Potter once told him he was a loser! Billy says that he met Potter at the Lakeside many years later but that he didn’t remember him as anything more than an employee. It is to be hoped that Brian and Billy’s home town will remember them as rather more than that.