Tracing Peterborough’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Origins

The live music scene in Peterborough in the early 1950s hadn’t changed a whole lot since the early 1900s with big band fronted dance halls being where it was at for those seeking a good night out. You can trace early dance nights being advertised at the Co-Op Dance Hall on Park Road as far back as 1907 and, thanks to a huge surge in popularity during the Great War, dancing was breaking out at organised events all over the city from the 1920s onwards.

In 1929, the local Labour Party decided to christen their new HQ on Fitzwilliam Street as the Mansfield Hall after the city’s first Labour parliamentary candidate, Alderman John Mansfield and the Hall’s organising committee moved quickly to host dance nights in their very sizeable premises which rivalled the Queens Hall Palais De Danse on Queen Street which opened in late 1932 but appears to have only lasted just over a year.

The Mansfield Hall rapidly took over as the city’s established #1 live band venue through to the war years of the 1940s when, for a brief period of time, they were rivalled by the exotically named “Dujon Palais De Danse” above the Dujon Restaurant on Market Place who boasted nightly dancing to live bands from late 1943 through to 1946.

The war years had seen a huge resurgence in big dance nights and with the demise of the Dujon as a music venue, the Mansfield Hall team jumped in to rebadge their base as the “Mansfield Palais” and even the “Peterborough Palais”, confidently proclaimed it as the “biggest and best dance hall in Peterborough”. Big band names such as Ted Heath, Cyril Stapleton, Ray Ellington and Kenny Baker were regular visitors but the best known and most popular nights featured local band Dennis Martell and his Orchestra who were the resident band from 1947 to 1957.

Back in the city centre, the lack of a dedicated live music venue was about to change when, in 1953, Wisbech based entertainments entrepreneur and impresario Norman Jacobs set about bringing his successful entertainment formula to the corn exchange on Church Street with an agreed ten year lease. Jacobs had been securing access to decaying theatres and corn exchanges around the eastern region since 1942 and had introduced his formula of live music and roller skating nights with great success.

The Corn Exchange was rapidly modified – too rapid for some authorities – and, on 5th February 1954, Billy Ternant and his Band headlined the opening dance night with roller skating following two days later. Within days of opening, other residents of the building were complaining about the noise and with local authorities anything but convinced that it was equipped for purpose, the venue was soon pruned back to one Saturday night band slot and one Monday night roller skating slot ….. none the less, Jacob pressed on with modifications to increase capacity and the crowds started to grow.

Over the pond in America, Bill Haley was starting to whip up a rock ‘n’ roll frenzy with his Comets in 1954 and in 1955 a young Elvis Presley was pouring hi-octane fuel onto the fire. Here in the UK, with Peterborough as no exception, it was all about keeping a distant watch on what must surely be a brief “fad” but with the slow but steady arrival of early vinyl recordings and the launch of a rock ‘n’ roll show on pirate Radio Luxemburg, the younger generation were starting to enthusiastically welcome rock ‘n’ roll !

On 7th September 1956, the Peterborough Advertiser carried a front page headline of “Rock ‘N Roll Has Come To Town”. The event was not a live band but the showing of the movie “Rock Around The Clock” at The Embassy on Broadway. The article claimed that youngsters were rushing out to buy the records featured in the movie as well as looking to set up a “club” in the city.

Local reviews reported audience hysteria ranging from “brief out of time hand clapping” to “ignorant louts hooting, yelling, hissing and booing throughout while clapping hands and stomping feet out of time with the music” ….. sleepy Peterborough was clearly in shock !

In subsequent days, the fallout from the movie’s showing and the arrival on Peterborough streets of rock ‘n’ rollers continued in the local press. “These people must be fugitives from Borstal institutions” was one proclamation while another observer asked “I wonder do all these ill-mannered idiots live in Peterborough or were they imported for the occasion ?” !

Norman Jacobs observed events but was standing his ground. His Saturday night big band dances were filling the Corn Exchange and he was in no mood to abandon his winning formula but, not wanting to seem out of touch, he did leak to the Peterborough Standard later in 1956 that he was in negotiations to bring Bill Haley and his Comets to Peterborough for early 1957. There was little of substance to the story and Haley never came close but the news leak whipped up great interest in where he might be going with the Corn Exchange and Jacobs was clearly keen to appear as the “go to” guy.

The big band nights continued at the Corn Exchange throughout 1956 but Jacobs was now advertising “Rock ‘N’ Roll” music slots with the latest imported vinyl feeding the in-house sound system. As for taking the big step of bringing in an actual live rock ‘n’ roll band, he wasn’t ready for that one just yet but down the road, his rivals at the Mansfield Palais were about to make the move and be the first to bring a rock ‘n’ roll band to the city.

Although they had been the long established premier dance venue in Peterborough, having a rival right in the middle of the city was never going to bode well for the Mansfield Palais and with Jacobs also bringing in bigger name bands, the crowds started to migrate leaving the Palais in trouble. Could the new “rock ‘n’ roll” be their salvation ? Well on the 6th November 1956, they gave it their best and shouted loud and proud across the local newspapers that they were hosting the first rock ‘n’ roll band to play in the city !

The problem for the Palais was that rock ‘n’ roll to the enthusiastic  younger generation was all about Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins and more …… all from over the pond. British rock ‘n roll artists were largely made up of mediocre Elvis impersonators and session musicians “having a go”. There were very few originals daring to go their own way with only Tommy Steele threatening to make it at this stage so the Palais graced their big rock ‘n’ roll debut night with the unheard of Don Sollash & his Rockin’ Horses !

Even now there is very little known about Sollash apart from he ran a record shop on the south coast in the early 1950s and in 1957 appeared in the rock ‘n’ roll movie “Rock You Sinners” which is universally acclaimed as one of the worst British movies ever made ! The gig drew an enthusiastic crowd to the Palais but their challenge of trying to represent the new exciting rock ‘n’ roll era before British artists were ready to support it was a dilemma that was ultimately going to cost them dear. The following week they hosted Rory “Shakes” Blackwell and his band The Rock ‘n’ Rollers (see below) who had already made the claim to be Britain’s first rock ‘n’ roll band but he was no Bill Haley and already the crowds were starting to lose enthusiasm.

The next big night for the city came early in 1957 when Tommy Steele played a six night, twelve show stint at the Broadway Embassy. Steele had struck out early on the circuit, he’d already made it into the charts and he was a proper artist playing the theatre circuit ….. not somebody chancing their arm. He was also a youngster at 20 and looked the part. Local Peterborough fans were out in big numbers every night, dressed for the occasion and serving up a level of hysteria that once again had the local newspapers rapidly jumping into defensive mode !

“It seemed incredible to me how the audience worked itself up into a frenzy over nothing. All I felt after 25 minutes was a dull throbbing in both ears and a desire to hear some decent music – repeat, music !” reported the Peterborough Standard reviewer. The young fans had refuelled their enthusiasm for rock ‘n’ roll and the Peterborough establishment had once again renewed its complete rejection of the new scene !

Despite the obvious enthusiasm for the Steele gigs, coupled with the site of Teddy Boys and other fans around the city every day, Norman Jacobs remained loyal to his big band crowds on Saturday nights but, in the Summer of 1957, he did start to entertain Skiffle groups via a number of Skiffle band contests. Skiffle wasn’t exactly rock ‘n’ roll but with Lonnie Donegan having crashed the #1 spot in the UK charts twice, he couldn’t resist checking it out and at least his big band routine had now been broken.

Back at the Mansfield Palais, big problems were afoot on two fronts. A series of “unsavoury events” inside and outside the venue had not only made the venue unpopular with the authorities but also with local residents who were tired of “drunks and thugs” outside and even inside their properties after events. The venue was fast gaining a bad reputation which was putting off more law abiding punters and coupled with their failure to secure regular or attractive rock ‘n’ roll bands, the management decided it was time to bring the curtain down on the Palais and declared itself finished as a Saturday night dance venue.

But, alas, before the sun had even set on the venue, a new venture was gearing up to try and achieve what the previous organisation couldn’t. Two young enthusiasts, former Palais manager “Chalky” Ladd and “young entrepreneur” Clive Smith moved fast to the point of announcing a new, skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll club at the hall and they even had the unlikely backing of city mayor George Smith, whose enthusiasm for the venture may have had something to do with Clive Smith being his son ! None the less, he boldly spoke to the young crowd on the 1st June 1957 opening night and proclaimed “I know there are a few people who don’t believe in this type of dancing but don’t listen to them. Adjust your minds to the new age in which you live, go ahead with your ideas, go ahead with your interests and go ahead with your rock ‘n’ roll !”

Behind him on the opening night stage were the venture’s big gamble. Knowing that securing attractive British rock ‘n’ roll artists would be tough, they re-engineered the successful 1947 Palais formula of having a regular band in residence. Back then it was Dennis Martell and his band ……. now it was The Thunderbolts, a newly formed rock ‘n’ roll outfit of sound musical capability but one that was strangely recognisable to some of the regulars. That was because The Thunderbolts were actually a group formed from several mainstream dance bands and even included Sid Blyth who had been a member of Dennis Martell’s band !

Not surprisingly, The Thunderbolts were a musically solid band but to the young audience they looked wrong. They were hardly hip swivelling teen stars and seeing the same band on a regular basis once again saw the crowds dwindling. The venue rushed to find new talent and brought in American bluegrass star Johnny Duncan and his Blue Grass band who were in the country on tour. They went down a storm and filled the venue but who next ? Answer was George Fierstone, a long established jazz drummer who was backing his own rock ‘n’ roll outfit but only around 150 turned up leaving the venue more than half empty. In desperation, the venue brought in Skiffle legend Chas McDevitt and his band ….. an established touring star who played to 900 fans the night before arriving in Peterborough for his gig on 21st September 1957. Again, only 150 turned up and that was that ….. the two organisers threw in the towel and the Peterborough Advertiser carried headlines “Failure Rocks the Rock N’ Roll Promoters”.

The Mansfield Hall was never to return as the Palais with Ladd and Smith claiming in late September 1957, “it must be down to the Mansfield having such a bad name in the city that people just won’t come ….. whatever the attraction”.

With the competition eradicated, the city’s entertainment menu was now in the hands of Norman Jacobs at the Corn Exchange and, ironically if not a little cynically, he jumped to bring in the Kenny Colson Band to headline his continuing dance band nights ….. the irony being that the band was actually The Thunderbirds, the old resident Palais rock ‘n’ roll band, reverting back to type as a dance band !

It took until 15th March 1958 for Jacobs to bring in and badge up a “rock ‘n’ roll” artist when he booked little known Bobbie Breen followed shortly afterwards by Terry Dene who was more of a “name” having charted several times and featured on TV’s Six-Five Special. With a good response to his new more varied entertainment, Jacobs continued to bring in pioneering British rock ‘n’ roll artists including Wee Willie Harris, another “I was first” act made up of a six foot something eccentric performer described by one reviewer as “gyrates like an exploding Catherine wheel, emitting growls, squeals and what sounds like severe hiccupping !”.

Rock ‘n’ roll artists, mainly British, became a regular feature at the Corn Exchange during 1959 and 1960 which at least prepared regulars for the venue’s hey-day in the early 1960s and the beat band era that brought in most of the A-List artists of those times.

It’s probably fair to say that the transformation from dance bands through rock ‘n’ roll bands to beat bands was a transformation that was always going to happen in the city one way or another so to attribute that transformation to any one person or venue would be wrong …… and anyway, in reality, the greater effort in Peterborough was made to stop it happening rather than to embrace it. However, the records show that it was the Mansfield Palais who were the first to bring in live rock ‘n’ roll acts even if that move was only made after Norman Jacobs had lured away their dance fans so maybe credit all round ?!!!