The first twenty three years of Bryan Ferry’s life were spent in the north east of England. For three of those years he was busy gigging in local north east bands and would have played at most, if not all of the venues featured on this web site. There’s an expression “you can take the boy out of the north but you can’t take the north out of the boy”. This certainly applies to people like Eric Burdon and AC-DC’s Brian Johnson whose ‘geordie’ dialect is still is unmistakable. There’s no pretence by Burdon and Johnson to be anything other than native north easterners. When asked about his early life in interviews, Bryan Ferry talks about his upbringing in County Durham. However, outwardly there are no traces of that background in his current persona of a wealthy upper class country gentleman. Here’s a brief reminder of his north east roots including his days in north east bands between 1964 and 1967. The early Life Of Bryan: –
I’d heard about Bryan Ferry eight years or so before he hit the charts with Roxy Music in 1972. His name cropped up in a chance conversation I had at a party in 1964 and for some reason it stuck in my memory, at least for another year until I met the man who actually launched Bryan Ferry’s career as a singer.
One of my first bands in 1964 was a five-piece covers band called the Conrads. We played popular hits by the Beatles, Kinks, Rolling Stones and Dave Clark Five. The local church youth club dance in Hendon, Sunderland was our only regular booking but we occasionally did a party or wedding reception elsewhere.
The Conrads’ bass player was a trainee hair stylist in a Sunderland salon. It was through a client at the hair salon that the Conrads got to play at a very posh house party in Sunderland in the summer of 1964. The house in question was in an upmarket part of the town. The well-heeled young partygoers weren’t really our kind of people. They were the sons and daughters of wealthy businessmen and lived in a different world to the one we knew. We all lived ‘on the wrong side of the track’ both metaphorically and literally; our homes in Hendon were separated from the location of the party house by the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) line, as it was back then. However, for the duration of the party we could all hold our heads high because we were accomplished musicians, or so we thought. We were brought down to earth by the rich girl who was hosting the party. She demanded that we set up in the house’s entrance hall rather than in one of the cavernous reception rooms. Although the hall was nearly as big as my mum and dad’s living room, it still felt as if we were being treated as tradesmen rather than celebrities. We were given our instructions; “When my friends are bored with dancing to records in the lounge, I want them to filter past the band in the hall on their way to the dining room. So when you see my friends coming out through the lounge door, you’d better start playing your best songs.”
We did exactly that and watched a bunch of indifferent rich kids scuttle off to the lavish spread of food in the dining room. After the feast had ended, we played a little more; this time with the lounge door open. Later on when the guests had loosened up a bit we did actually get to speak to a few of them.
I got talking to an ‘uptown girl’ who told me that she and her friends followed a band called the Banshees and that she was in love with their singer – a guy called Bryan Ferry. She told me that she was sixteen and that Bryan was a couple of years older than her and was very cool and sophisticated. She didn’t actually say she was going out with Bryan Ferry but that was implied. I did ask her why the Banshees hadn’t been asked to perform at the party. She replied that they only played at large venues and in any case didn’t play ‘pop’ music like the Conrads. The Banshees were a Rhythm & Blues group and played good music.
A year later I joined one of Sunderland’s top bands – the Jazzboard. Their vocalist, Bruce Lowes had been the drummer in the Banshees in 1964 at the same time as Bryan Ferry. Bryan Ferry, of course, wasn’t famous at that stage so normally there would have been no reason for Bruce and me to talk about him. Except for the fact that Bryan Ferry had started up a band with a similar name to ours – it was called the Gas Board. The Gas Board played similar material to Jazzboard and we were both competing for the same venues. In that respect, Bryan Ferry did become a conversation piece if only because of the rivalry between the two bands and the perceived contention between the two ex-band members as to who was the better vocalist.
And that was how I remembered the name of Bryan Ferry up to the time he came to prominence with Roxy Music in the early seventies. Then he became etched on everyone’s memory forever, not only as Roxy’s front man but as the suave cool style icon of the next few decades.
The posh girl I talked to at the party probably didn’t know that Bryan Ferry, in spite of his air of sophistication, had a similar working class background to me and the rest of the Conrads. He was born on 26th September 1945 and was brought up in a mining community in the Biddick area of Washington, County Durham. His father, Fred Ferry worked at the local pit. In his formative years he lived with his parents and sisters in a terraced house; one of a row called Model Dwellings. Later the family moved to a newly built council house a quarter of a mile away at Gainsborough Avenue, Washington
By all accounts Bryan Ferry did well academically at Glebe Primary School. He was also very sporty. He was in the football teams at both his primary school and Washington Grammar School where he attended after passing his ’11 plus’ exam. As a youth he read a lot and also had a keen interest in music and amateur dramatics.His first taste of fame came aged fifteen when he appeared in a Washington Grammar School production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Bryan Ferry played Malvolio and his picture appeared in the Sunderland Echo newspaper along with a review of the performance.
Before he became a teenager he won a prize in a competition sponsored by Radio Luxembourg and as a result attended his first rock concert at a fairly early age. The prize was two front seats at a Bill Haley and the Comets show at Sunderland Empire. This was part of Bill Haley’s first British tour in February and March 1957 after a string of UK hits in the previous two years. In an interview for the 2003 Tyne Tees Television program ‘Northstars’ Bryan Ferry remembered his first concert as follows: – “The first thing I ever saw was Bill Haley and that was the first rock ‘n’ roll tour, the first time any rock ‘n’ roll had come to England, and it was quite a sensational thing; everywhere they played, teddy boys would rip up the seats and go mad. People rushing to the front – nobody had ever seen anything like that before, so it was kind of a huge thing. I won two front row seats to Sunderland Empire from a Radio Luxembourg competition. I took my big sister; nowadays it would seem incredibly tame but then it seemed very violent and kind of amazing, playing the sax upside down, it was good.”
By the time he’d reached his teens Bryan Ferry had developed tastes in music far beyond his years. He wasn’t satisfied with the American singers who dominated the UK charts in the early sixties; the likes of Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and Bryan Hyland. Bryan Ferry preferred the more down to earth sound of Rhythm & Blues and the sophistication of modern jazz. He boosted his knowledge of the music scene when he was a paper boy delivering, amongst other things, the weekly music paper the Melody Maker, which he read cover-to-cover on his round. When he was in the sixth form at Washington Grammar School he started going to Newcastle for nights out, visiting jazz venues such as the Downbeat and Club A’Gogo.
While still at school Bryan Ferry joined a racing cycling club called Houghton Clarion. Cycle racing was popular with teenagers in the late fifties and sixties, in particular in the northeast. Amongst the members of Houghton Clarion was a champion racing cyclist called Pete Chisman who won many awards in the early sixties, including the 1963 Milk Race. Chisman would have influenced many young people at the time to join and remain at the club. Bryan Ferry was probably one of them.
Bryan Ferry’s combined interests of Rhythm & Blues and cycling were the catalysts for the chain of events that would change his life forever. In various interviews featured in books and on the internet, Bryan Ferry mentions a chance meeting that kickstarted his career as a vocalist. In the ‘Northstars’ interview he said: “I started playing with a group called The Banshees just before I went to university. I used to work either on a building site or in the local steel factory in holiday periods to get pocket money, and in the last summer holiday before I went to college, I bumped into the guy who played drums in this group and he said ‘Can you sing?’ We used to be cyclists together in a racing club and I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years and I said ‘Oh yeah – I like singing.’ So I went along for an audition and I got the job. We rehearsed in his dad’s hairdressing salon surrounded by hairdryers; I have vivid memories. We did Chuck Berry and that kind of thing, light R&B, and we did all the working men’s clubs round here. Good grounding really – terrified I was, but made much more money than on the building site.”
In the book ‘Roxy –The Band That Invented An Era’ by Michael Bracewell, Bryan Ferry goes on to say; “The group did really well, but when it came to September it was time to leave them and start university. If I hadn’t bumped into Bruce, this drummer, I would never have done anything in music, I’m sure of it. So if I hadn’t been in the cycling club and met him then …. It’s funny how things can lead to another in a strange way. So it’s best not to question why you do certain things. It was a chance meeting.”
The other participant of that ‘chance meeting’, drummer Bruce Lowes has a different perspective of the circumstances that led to Bryan Ferry joining his band. Bruce is firmly of the view that there was nothing accidental about their encounter, in fact, he claims he recognised Bryan’s potential star quality a year or so earlier and head-hunted him for the Banshees. This is Bruce’s version of events: –
“I was born in June 1945 and by the early 60s I had taught myself to play drums. I was also a member of Houghton Clarion Cycling Club. Bryan Ferry was a member of the same club. I remember him being a tall slim lad with a short haircut like the rest of us. The club was comprised of cliques and we were in different ones but we knew each other as fellow members. I had gone to the club one night late in the season and Bryan was in the bike shed looking at the array of lightweight bikes. During our chat I told him of my plans to form a band once I could play well enough. It turned out we both liked the same music.
“On the way home I was thinking about Bryan. He seemed to have a kind of aura around him – a nice guy and so cool. It was then that I realised he would be a great front man for a band. Even though I had never heard him sing – I just knew.
“Autumn came and I didn’t see him at the club. I had formed a band called the Banshees and was singing and playing drums. I couldn’t get Bryan or rather my vision of Bryan out of my mind. So one day I cycled to his house at Biddick but there was nobody at home. The lady next door said that the family was out for the day so I cycled home.
“I kept rehearsing with the Banshees in my dad’s hairdressing shop. I hadn’t seen Bryan for months and it must have been March when I went to the cycling club in the hope of seeing him. I hung around a while but he didn’t turn up so I headed home. As luck would have it, I bumped into Bryan coming in the other direction. We stopped and talked for a while. He said that he was finishing school that year and would be going to university in Newcastle in September. I reminded him about the band and told him that we still needed a singer. I suggested that he had the style and looks to be a good front man. I persuaded Bryan to give it a go and come to a rehearsal. He said he could only do it for four or five months but that the extra cash would come in handy. He agreed to come to a rehearsal the following Wednesday. I was delighted and set off for home.
“Wednesday came around and Bryan Ferry turned up as arranged. I’d never seen him in anything else but cycling clothes. His hair was fairly long by this time. He looked very arty and trendy rolled into one. He wore a green blazer, a washed out blue work shirt that looked like a levis shirt, a purple slim tie with the top button on the shirt shirt loose, blue denims hanging around his hips and brown suede casual shoes. He looked the biz.
“We talked about what songs to play and Bryan asked if we knew ‘Talking About You’ – a Chuck Berry song. I said ‘Oh sure – we can play a lot of his stuff’. Bryan seemed a bit more relaxed when he knew what he was going to sing. I had sensed he was a bit nervy. He had a filter tip cigarette in his mouth, which had been half smoked and nipped as an economy measure.
“Bryan being an arty person loved the hairdresser’s shop where we rehearsed. It had new G-Plan furniture, a row of white sinks with hot and cold water and armchairs with built in hairdryers. Bryan laughed, sat in an armchair and put his head into one of the dryers. He said it felt like a space helmet. He switched it on for couple of seconds then said ‘Ho ho, what a jape.’ This became the group catchphrase for the life of the band. We all laughed out loud. Bryan had broken the ice with the band within five minutes flat.
“After bit more fun we got down to playing. We warmed up with an instrumental. It would have been ‘Walk Don’t Run’ or ‘FBI’. Then it was up to Bryan. I think the song he sang first was ‘Not Fade Away’ followed by one of the four other songs we did that night – ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout You’, ‘Around And Around’, ‘Johnny B Goode’ or ‘Bye Bye Johnny’.
“When we started to play, Bryan was moving to the left of the microphone and was about a yard from it. He almost missed his cue to sing. He lunged at the mike and right on time began to sing. We got right through the song OK but Bryan felt the key was too high for him. We changed the key and did it again. This time Bryan sang it with ease. We rehearsed until about nine o’clock and got four or five songs off. Bryan loved the practice session as we all did. We all chatted for a while about what music we would do the following week. We packed up our gear and as we left the shop we saw we had an audience of a dozen young people who had been listening outside. They said we were great and they would come to listen to us every Wednesday. We had fans!
“With Bryan now in the Banshees we continued to play through the summer. Bryan was getting better and gaining confidence with each performance. He also gave the band a great image.
“One Saturday Bryan and I went to Newcastle and mooched around the music shops and put our Banshees card on the notice boards as was common practice then. I felt we had made our mark! On the way home Bryan said he would love to have a couple of dancing girls on stage with us and joked about going on stage dressed like a French burglar with black and white horizontal stripped top black beret black mask and maybe a poodle. I laughed and so did he but I often wondered if he was joking. However, the way things turned out who knows.
“At the end of the summer Bryan left the band and went to university. I kept the band going for a while but it folded a month or two later.
“Months after Bryan went to university – it could have been early 1965 – I bumped into him at Herrington Burn. He told me about the City Blues Jug Blowers and about a new band. He asked me if I could think of any good names. I said that I, too, had formed a new band and had thought of calling it the Gas Board but I had changed my mind and it was going to be called the Jazzboard. He said he would call his new band the Gas Board and he went on to do just that.“
Nothing palpable is left of the Banshees apart from the Banshees business card. Only the memories of a few people remain, which include Bryan Ferry and Bruce Lowes. In Michael Bracewell’s book, Bryan Ferry concludes his story of the Banshees as follows: –
“I can’t remember what we wore. We didn’t have any stage suits or anything like that. There are no photographs from that period. Isn’t that strange? You might have one ten by eight photograph of the group which you’d send out maybe, and get them to pin up – “Appearing Next Week” – that kind of thing. I don’t think we had one of those; the band was thrown together so quickly ….”
In the late summer of 1964 Bryan Ferry started his life as a student at Newcastle University in the Fine Arts Department. Soon after starting his course he went on the lookout for suitable musicians and formed a group with some fellow students called the City Blues Jug Blowers. In Michael Bracewell’s book he says; “When I got to university, I quickly looked around to see if there was anybody else; and in my hall of residence where I lived in my first year, there were a couple of guys who were putting together a band and I became the singer.”
The band started rehearsing in a room at Henderson Hall, the hall of residence where Bryan Ferry lived in his first year at university.
The City Blues Jug Blowers was basically a Rhythm & Blues outfit in the same vein as the Banshees and probably covered a lot of the same material; songs by Chuck Berry and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. The band consisted of Bryan Ferry on vocals, a fellow resident of Henderson Hall, Phil Chugg on piano, a bassist, guitarist and drummer. The band’s name was later shortened to City Blues.
In the following year City Blues managed to secure gigs at some good clubs in the Newcastle and Sunderland areas; clubs such the El Cubana and Blue Note in Sunderland; the Manhole in Wallsend and the Club A’Gogo in Newcastle. This was quite an achievement for a band that hadn’t been in existence that long. Their success probably had a lot to do with their manager, a guy called Colin Ratcliffe who also owned the City Blues’ bandmobile, a VW Kombi – a vital piece of equipment for a group of musicians with a limited income.
In spite of the fairly prestigious venues at which City Blues appeared, Bryan Ferry wanted to move on; “By the following year I had found some people from other parts of the university who were better players and that became the Gas Board.”
The Gas Board was formed in the latter half of 1965 and included a three piece horn section. By this time American soul music was starting to make an impact in Britain with chart hits by Wilson Picket, Otis Redding and James Brown. A lot of the local northeast bands were moving away from Rhythm & Blues and were becoming soul bands. This is the direction the Gas Board took. In describing the band in Michael Bracewell’s book, Ferry said; “We had a horn section so it was quite sophisticated in that sense. We were guitar, bass, drums, tenor, alto, trumpet and me – by which time I was playing a bit of harmonica as well. One or two people said that I “I had a distinctive voice” – but that was as much as I got, I think. But I enjoyed playing with them, and by then we weren’t playing working men’s clubs, we were playing cooler sorts of places – music clubs and so on.”
My own band, Jazzboard had also taken the same route. We were playing songs such as “Mr. Pitiful”, “My Girl”, “In The Midnight Hour” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”. The Gas Board covered the same songs. It was inevitable, therefore, that a comparison would be drawn between the two bands, if only because the two bands names were so alike. Because of the similarity it must have been confusing for punters trying to work out which band was which. It would have also been confusing for the venues booking either Gas Board or Jazzboard. In the newspaper advert below, the 45 Club at Whitley Bay appears to be playing safe!
In reality the Jazzboard probably had a bigger foIlowing than Gas Board south of the River Tyne and on Teeside whereas in Newcastle and Northumberland Gas Board were the top dogs. I remember talking to a girl at a gig in Ashington, Northumberland who had seen the Gas Board numerous times. She said – “Well your band’s all right but you’re nothing compared to the Gas Board.” I’d heard from someone else that although the Gas Board was good, the brass section wasn’t very tight and didn’t play as a unit; more like three musicians doing their own thing. I recall playing at the Club A’Gogo for the first time with Jazzboard in December 1965. One of the Gas Board’s saxophone players was there and asked if he could sit in with us. He was a bit presumptuous because he already had his sax out of its case. I told him it was OK and he joined us on stage. However, it must have sounded awful because after one song he was ordered off stage by our manager who was convinced that his appearance was a plot by the Gas Board to sabotage our performance that night.
By the end of 1965 and into 1966 the Gas Board had a good reputation in the northeast and was playing at the best venues in the region, including the prestigious Club A’Gogo and the Mayfair Ballroom. Also the band played at Sunderland’s main club – the El Cubana. Eric Puncheon who owned the El Cubana in the sixties remembers the City Blues and the Gas Board appearing at his club numerous times. He also remembers that the utility company – the actual Gas Board weren’t happy about their name being used by a group of musicians. In particular, because their name was being used in Sunderland Echo newspaper adverts for the El Cubana. According to Eric, the local Gas Board boss took his annoyance out on one of the company’s employees, a Fred Barnes, who also happened to work for Eric as a doorman at the El Cubana.
In 1965 and 1966 the band was being managed by Malcolm Dix who is now a key figure on the northeast sports scene. As well as playing at the Club A’Gogo with the Gas Board, Bryan Ferry was also a regular visitor to the club. In fact, he had helped artist David Sweetman paint the famous Day-Glo Skyline mural on the wall of the Jazz Lounge at the club.
Others members of the Gas Board were John Porter, now a successful record producer, bassist Graham Simpson who would have an important roll in Roxy Music’s first album and trumpeter Mike Figgis who would later become a film director and producer.
By his second year at university, Bryan Ferry had moved out of the halls of residence and was living in Jesmond at Esslington Terrace. In his third year he acquired an American Studebaker Champion saloon which he parked outside his home. He admits that the flashy car was used more to enhance his cool image rather than as a means of transport.
Sometime in 1967 the Gas Board turned professional. It was around this time that Bryan Ferry parted company with the band. He had fallen behind with his studies, mainly because of band commitments and had a choice to make. He chose to devote his time to his studies. Trumpeter Mike Figgis had a differing opinion of the split when he talked to Q Magazine in 1993. Figgis claims that the Gas Board actually fired Bryan Ferry after two years with the band “because he wasn’t a very good soul singer; he had that tremble.” When Q Magazine interviewed Bryan Ferry and told him of Mike Figgis’s allegation, Bryan Ferry got annoyed and said; “The reason I left The Gas Board was because I wasn’t doing any work, since I was organising it as well as singing, which meant I was going into college less and less. The rest of the band wanted to drop out and go professional, and I wasn’t prepared to do that at the time. How dare he say that! It’s f***ing rude, isn’t it? I think he was jealous of me.”
Ten years later when interviewed for Northstar, Bryan Ferry had forgotten his earlier clash with Mike Figgis. He said this of his split with the Gas Board: “I was just doing music for fun, and then it started taking over a bit too much so I stopped doing it all together – in my third year I think, around the Studebaker period and the rest of the band went professional. They left college and they did very well in the northern club circuit. The bass player in the Gas Board, Graham Simpson, later worked with me on the first Roxy album, so he’s a very important in the start of Roxy. Another person who was in the Gas Board in Newcastle was Mike Figgis, who played trumpet, and who’s now a famous film-maker.”
Bryan Ferry left Newcastle University in 1968 and went to London. He spent some time teaching ceramics at a an all-girl school in Hammersmith until 1970 when he decided to try and get back into music. He began by teaching himself some chords on the piano so he could start writing his own songs – up until that point all the material he had done with his north east bands, Banshees, City Blues and the Gas Board were covers of other people’s songs. His old Gas Board bass player, Graham Simpson helped him along the way. In the Northstar interview, Bryan Ferry talks about the period leading up to Roxy as follows: “He [Graham Simpson] came down here top stay with me for a bit. I was living in this place on Kensington High Street, teaching art and at night working on these songs. I wanted to not just make it ordinary; I wanted to do something different. When I was a student up in Newcastle I heard John Cage and electronic music – Morton Feldman was another one; avant-garde serious art music, and I thought I’d like to try and get some of that into the blues-rooted stuff.”
Not long after Bryan Ferry formed Roxy music – and as they say -‘the rest is history’.