The Junco Partners must be one of the few bands in existence that has been together playing great music for over 50 years, albeit with just one ‘career’ break during that period. Amazingly, most of six of the original 1964 members are still performing with the band. The length of time the guys have been together speaks volumes about friendship and the respect they have for each others musical abilities.
The first time I saw the Juncos was in 1965 at the Blue Note club in Sunderland. At the time I had been playing in my first proper band, the Kylastrons, for about a month and had seen quite a few bands at the Blue Note. But nothing I had seen so far could compare with the show the Junco Partners put on that night. Their performance had such an impact on me that I still have vivid memories of it 46 years later.
The club was full and by the time the band started the atmosphere in the Blue Note was electric. The band was tight with a superb solid rhythm section and individually the musicians were brilliant. It was mesmerising to watch the two vocalists – John Anderson and Ronnie Barker dancing from side to side and clapping their hands in unison. Overall, it was an exciting performance and the band lived up to all the great things I had heard about them.
Later that year and two bands on, I saw the Juncos for a second time. I was playing with the Sunderland based Jazzboard and in December 1965 we appeared at the Sunderland Art College Ball at Seaburn Hall on the same bill as John McCoy’s Crawdaddies and the Junco Partners. The Juncos were just as enthralling as they had been at the Blue Note when I’d seen them earlier in the year. Towards the end of the night there was an impromptu jam section involving some members of the Juncos and the Crawdaddies, including the two sax players from the Crawdaddies, plus me. I can’t recollect exactly what songs we played but for me the experience of playing alongside the Juncos made it a night to remember. I seem to recall Ronnie Barker collapsing in a drunken stupor before the end of the session but that’s rock ‘n roll for you!
Between 1966 and 1970 I saw the Juncos many times and often played on the same bill as them at the Mayfair, first as a member of the Jazzboard and then Sneeze. Over these years the Juncos line up gradually changed and, in my opinion, with every change a little bit of the magic I had seen in 1965 was lost. That’s not to say that the music had deteriorated in any way – it hadn’t. If anything, the band sounded better and more polished than before. While other local bands were changing their repertoires to keep up with current musical tastes, often not that successfully, the Juncos were, by and large, still playing a lot of the blues material they had been performing since 1964. Throughout the mid to late sixties they were still well respected by local musicians and considered to be one of the best bands in the area. However, whereas in 1964 and 1965 there had been an overwhelming expectation that they would achieve national success, by the late sixties it was apparent that the Juncos chances of fame and fortune on the same scale as the Animals were diminishing.
The Junco Partners original six piece line up in 1964 was Ronnie Barker (vocals/harmonica), John Anderson (vocals), Charlie Harcourt (guitar), Peter Wallis (organ), Dave Sproat (bass) and John Woods (drums).
The band became a success in Newcastle almost straight away when they took over from the Animals as the resident house band at the Club A’Gogo. In addition to the Gogo, the band played regularly at the most popular clubs and ballrooms in the north east; the el Cubana and Blue Note clubs in Sunderland; the Mayfair ballroom, the Majestic, the Downbeat and Quay Club in Newcastle and Redcar Jazz Club and Kirklevington Country Club in Teesside. With the prospect of gigs further a field, including Germany, they turned professional and looked forward to striving for the same degree of success as their predecessors at the Gogo – the Animals.
In 1965 the Juncos were signed by the Robert Stigwood Agency. Robert Stigwood had been involved in a string of top ten hits in the early sixties and, despite mixed fortunes as a musical impresario in the mid sixties, his skills as a manager and record producer were not in doubt. With Stigwood as their manager they released their first single in August 1965 – ‘As Long As I Have You’ a cover of an Elgin/Ragevoy composition recorded by the US R&B singer, Garnett Mimms a year earlier. Their ‘B’ side was a song that the band featured in their stage set and always went down well with audiences – ‘Take This Hammer’. The single didn’t do that well and only reached number 60 in the UK charts. Perhaps the reason for this was the lack of publicity given to the record and the band at the right time. In a Tyneside publication called ‘Pop Parade’, reporter Albert Watson wrote –
“.. anyone would think there was a conspiracy against the Junco Partners. Not only have they not appeared on television, but their disc, “As Long As I Have You” is not even being advertised in the Trade Press!
I have yet to hear the record on radio, despite having heard a rival version several times, and it appears it is not being distributed very well.
“We’ve had loads, of complaints from fans,” the group told me. “They can’t even buy the disc in Newcastle shops! We’re a bit choked about the way it’s being put out.”
The low chart position of the single was not high enough to bring the band to the attention of the nation and with no immediate follow up single, the Juncos had to rely on a busy touring schedule to raise their profile.
(Click below to listen to the single)
1966 saw the first change to the Junco’s line up. Keyboard player Peter Wallis was replaced by Bob Sargeant. During the following two years the two front men, Ronnie Barker and John Anderson left the band, handing over vocal duties to Charlie Harcourt and Bob Sargeant.
In October 1969, as a four piece consisting of Charlie Harcourt (guitar), Bob Sargeant (Hammond), Dave Sproat (bass) and John Woods (drums), the Juncos toured as a backing band for the well known blues man – Howlin’ Wolf. The tour commenced with two gigs. The first was at the blues loft in High Wickham followed by a 2am spot at The Lyceum in London’s Strand for Brunel University, with both Fleetwood Mac and Deep Purple on the same bill. Both Gigs were amazing with Peter Green watching from the wings at the Lyceum. Howlin’ Wolf’s voice was so strong that it filled the 3,500 crowd Lyceum with only the help of the Juncos modest PA system. This became even more evident as Fleetwood Mac’s roadies removed their massive PA during the Juncos performance.
The 21 day tour then continued crisscrossing the entire country as far apart as Southampton University to Cardiff University and Aberdeen Music Hall. Other memorable dates were the LSE, the London Marquee Club, The Bull at Richmond and the University of Lancaster where we were joined by Freddie King. Wolf ignored and completely upstaged Freddie King by crawling on stage on all fours clutching an empty bottle of bourbon as the band opened his set with the great riff from Killing Floor. The audience were treated to Howlin’ Wolf’s best ever performance as he asserted his authority over the young pretender Freddie King. Freddie later slipped on to the stage for a jam towards the end of the set but received no acknowledgement from Howlin’ Wolf who he should not have been let on stage.
Wolf made a point of introducing the Junco Partners to the audience each night and as the Melody Maker review of the Marquee gig acknowledged “He seemed to enjoy working with them and they worked well with him”..
After recording an album “Junco Partners” in 1970, Charlie Harcourt departed, leaving the band to carry on as a three piece for a short time before splitting up.
I left the north east in 1973 and in doing so, missed out on the rebirth of the Junco Partners in 1977. In fact, it was to be another 32 years before I saw the band again at the launch of the North East Beat Exhibition at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum in 2009. The only difference in personnel to when I had first seen the band in 1965 was that the organ had been replaced by a tenor saxophone and there was an additional guitarist. Instead of the mod gear sported by John Anderson in the sixties, he now wore the long mac which has become his trade mark in recent years.
The band had re-formed in 1977 for the Newcastle Festival and after that began playing regularly at the Cooperage on the Newcastle Quayside. The revived Juncos included some members of the original line up plus Kenny Barker on guitar and Neil Perry on saxophone – (Neil left the band in 1999 for health reasons and was replaced by Justin Radford). An independent single achieved national release in 1978 and caught the attention of Malcolm Gerrie who had produced the television programs The Tube, its forerunner Alright Now and also White Room. A complete episode of Alright Now was made with the Juncos and Eric Burdon, former lead singer with the Animals, who was especially flown in from Los Angeles to jam live in the studio. A singles deal with Roxy Music’s management followed but chart success was still elusive. A cameo appearance as themselves on Jimmy Nail’s drama series Spender in 1993 reminded those of us who knew the band in the sixties just how good they still were.
So although the Junco Partners never reached the same heights as the Animals, they continue to perform today with the same enthusiasm and professionalism as they did back in the sixties. Perhaps the only thing missing is the youthful energy of the original Juncos but that has been replaced with a vintage quality that comes with 45 years of stage experience and playing together as a band. Long may they continue to entertain and excite audiences in the north east.
Finally, here’s a great video of the band talking about their experiences with Howlin’ Wolf and performing Smokestack Lightning.