I wasn’t born in Sunderland but I lived there all through the ‘swinging sixties’, long before the town was granted its city status. I’m always fascinated by pictures and stories about Sunderland in the sixties, in particular about the music and clubs of that era. Back in the nineties I bought a couple of books with lots of information on those subjects – ‘Sunderland In The Sixties’ and ‘The Sixties Sound That Made The North East Swing’. Both were by Mel Kirtley and published by Wearside Books.

Sixties books

Then a few weeks ago I saw an on-line advert for a recently published book entitled “Sunderland In The Swinging Sixties’ by Alan Brett and Philip Curtis. The advert mentioned four Sunderland musicians who had been around in the sixties and had since become celebrities in the world of rock; Don Airey, Nigel Olsson, Mick Grabham and Dave Stewart.

I knew three of those four quite well; I was a friend of Don in my days at Bede Grammar School. Like me, he was one of the kids who hung around the music room after school hours. Don, who was in the academic year below me, was a gifted, classically trained pianist. In 1962 Don, me and a couple of other kids formed a scratch band in the mold of the Dave Brubeck Quartet for a school concert. For the occasion we called ourselves the Guthrie Quartet (after the drummer Graham Guthrie) – me on alto sax, Don on piano, Graham on drums and a Scots lad called Jimmy Wilson on upright bass. In the school assembly hall in front of the whole school we knocked out a passable rendition of Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’.

Don Airey (photo courtesy of Graeme Stark)

Don Airey (photo courtesy of Graeme Stark)

Later that same year Don and I played for a short time in another school band called the Katians. Don, of course went on to play keys with Rainbow and Ritchie Blackmore. He currently plays with Deep Purple as well as being involved in various solo projects.

Nigel Olsson and Mick Grabham started their musical careers playing in youth club bands. I knew both of them from a youth club at St Barnabus Church Hall, Hendon when we belonged to rival outfits – Nigel and Mick in the Fireflies and me in the Conrads. Mick shot off to look for fame and fortune in London in the summer of 1965. I joined up with Nigel in a band called Jazzboard and played alongside him for the best part of two years. In 1967 we both played in a band called James South before Nigel linked up with Mick Grabham again and they became part of the chart topping band – Plastic Penny. A few years later Nigel became part of Elton John’s band. He currently tours and records with Elton John and is one of the world’s most respected rock drummers.

Mick Grabham performing in Sunderland in 2006

Mick Grabham performing in Sunderland in 2006

Dave Stewart had been a pupil at my old school but is four or five years younger than me so I doubt our paths ever crossed. He was starting to make an impact on the Sunderland music scene at the time I left the north east in the early seventies. Dave was a member of the Sunderland band Longdancer with Nigel Olsson’s brother Kai. He later teamed up with Annie Lennox and formed the Tourists then the Eurythmics before becoming a respected songwriter and record producer.

Here’s one of his masterpieces – the haunting ‘Lily Was Here’ featuring Dave and the alto saxophonist Candy Dulfer: –

Because of my connection with Don, Nigel and Mick, I went ahead and ordered ‘Sunderland In The Swinging Sixties’ direct from the publisher, Black Cat Publications.

When the book arrived I was pleased to see a picture of Don Airey on the introduction page, along with a mention of Jazzboard.

On flicking through the pages I found a photo of Jazzboard on page 22 in an article about Sunderland’s Blue Note Club. As far as I’m aware, I’m the only person to own a copy of that particular picture so I assume the authors must have lifted it from this web site. Apart from the Blue Note, the book also contains material about Club 11, El Cubana, La Cubana, Wetherells plus lots about other sixties venues and pubs.

An excerpt from the book

An excerpt from the book

The Jazzboard in 1966 (left to right standing): Brian Hughes, Bruce Lowes, Bert Lowes, Jimmy Hall & Roger Smith. Nigel Olsson seated in front.

My version of the Jazzboard  photo dated 1966.  Left to right standing; Brian Hughes, Bruce Lowes, Bert Lowes, Jimmy Hall & Roger Smith. Nigel Olsson seated in front.

As promised, the book contains facts about Don Airey, Nigel Olsson, Mick Grabham and Dave Stewart. It isn’t just about music, though. Amongst others, there are articles about football, the 1966 World Cup at Roker Park, industry, transportation and the town’s buildings and shops.

For £4.99 the book is a great buy for anyone who has an interest in Sunderland fifty years ago.

sunderland swinging sixties

  1. David Craggs

    May 21, 2016 •

    Great stuff !
    Is there any mention of the john mile set, the locarno, The Rink and Annabel's in the book?


  2. Roger

    May 22, 2016 •

    Hi David - The Rink, Annabels and Locarno are all mentioned with some pics - also the Bay Hotel (and Geoff Docherty). No mention of the John Miles Set, though. Their bass player Bobby Marshall lived near me in Sunderland at one point but wasn't John Miles a Jarrow lad?


  3. David Woodley

    July 15, 2016 •

    I remember Bobby Marshal from The Rink, when He was the guitarist in Bill Sowerby's band.I would like to obtain a copy of "Sunderland In The Swinging Sixties.


  4. Dave Cooper

    April 5, 2017 •

    John was from Jarrow area


  5. christine clarkson (nee Bates)

    March 21, 2018 •

    Hi Roger, it’s been lovely walking down memory lane whilst reading the “Sunderland in the Swinging 60’s” book and in this article. My friend Judith Ree has a photo of you, Dave Snowdon, Judith, Carol Napper, me (Christine Bates) and another lad who may be Arthur Howe but neither of us can remember where it was taken or what the occasion was.There is also a photo of you and Judith taken at the same time. We were all wearing what looked like cowboy hats, so were perhaps on a coach trip organised through St Barnabus youth club which was one of our haunts at that time. We also used to frequent St Gabriel’s when the Fireflies with Mick Grabham and Nigel (Ollie) Olsen were performing (I used to date Mick at that time too!) We used to attend Commercial Road Sec Mod School and wondered if you also went there? We were also friends of Dave Snowdon. I would be interested to hear if you have any recollections of us although I know it was a very long time ago!


  6. Dennis Barkass

    June 16, 2018 •

    Fab days, gorgeous girls, scooters, and some great music.


  7. David Woodley

    June 17, 2018 •

    I used to go to the Londonderry on Friday nights, where they held a folk and blues club upstairs. A few of us from there hitched down to the Plumpton Festival in 1969. It was a great weekend, with Pentangle, and the Who among many great acts. Just after that I turned up at the Londonderry and one of the lads was with a long-haired kid who looked about thirteen, and I asked if he was old enough to be there. I was assured he was sixteen, and I gathered he was having guitar lessons from John Graham, a talented finger-style blues and ragtime player. Anyway, another Friday night after that the kid got up on stage and played a Rev. Gary Davis song, finger-style. Then one night I saw him at Annabel's sitting with a woman I was aquainted with, who looked old enough to be his mum! He nodded, but I couldn't remember his name, and as I was with my new girlfriend I didn't go over. Ten years later I saw him on TV being interviewed, and I nearly fell off the sofa. It was Dave Stewart! The guitar lessons certainly paid off!


  8. Ian At

    February 18, 2019 •

    Interesting reading all the names from my past, although my memory isn’t what it used to be I can certainly remember a lot of the people mentioned. I used to try and organise a band that started playing in St Barnabus Church Hall. I lived in Hastings St, went to Commercial Road School, was on the committee of the youth club. The Band was The Conrads, my name is Ian Atkinson, now 73, Brother is Colin.
    I did find a web site a couple of years ago which had a lot of information about local bands, there was a photo of the groups business card with me as manager!!!!. Sorry I can’t remember the website


  9. Ann Baker

    June 19, 2019 •

    Does anyone remember the Manhattan night club in Sunderland? John Miles sang and played the electric organ and I knew then he would become famous. Mud played there as well. Jimmy was the owner and they would have dance contests through the week. Happy times. A guy called Dennis Davies and Bobby Knoxall would drink there. I remember the Rokoko as well.


  10. Sue kane

    January 21, 2020 •

    Great memories of the Rink on a Saturday morning having a dance with school friends and the kissing competition was the highlight of the morning. Then off to the ABC pictures while mam got the house work done. Too young for the pubs and nightclubs, but great memories of them all in the seventies.


  11. Graham kelley

    February 9, 2020 •

    Well a blast in the past just had to drop you a line my name first of all is Graham Kelley and was involved at St Barnabas youth club and attended Commercial Road SM left in 1963 i was a founder member of the Fireflies group then we got Nigel in to play drums he was a natural on the kit he had at home, I left to start an apprenticeship at Thomas Reed printers. Two names mentioned David Snowden and of course Christine Bates (had a crush on her i can remember) would love to hear back from these guys to chat about the good old days and they were for sure.
    I have been living in Edinburgh since 1986 married with a son 46 and a daughter 39 with one granddaughter 18.
    Always available for a chat.
    Kind regards
    Graham Kelley


  12. mr d bacon

    February 18, 2020 •

    hi, having worked with a trio round the Sunderland area round about 1968 this was a special place to be at that time. We had a great time working in the clubs like Downhill club, Farringdon social club even the Black Cat Club just to mention one or two, it holds special memories for me. I can remember at the time we used to meet up with all the other acts in a night club called the Rokoko just below the beach road on Roker sea front. Can anybody tell me what happened to this club, as everything has changed after all these years? I have tried to get info on the internet, but cant find anything about it. There must be somebody from the acts that worked around that time. regards Derek.


  13. Edward Watson

    February 29, 2020 •

    Hi Mr D Bacon,
    Yes,the Rokoko is still there although in a different name,it has been several different Clubs and Pubs but it is still there...Bless it!!
    Those were great times around Sunderland and the NE
    I knew a band called The Dynatones in those days.



    March 29, 2020 •

    Hi, they were great days indeed. I actually started the Fireflies with Maurice Plews, Jack Redfern, Nigel Olson, Mick Grabham, and myself Tony Potts. At that time Nigel was the singer and when I left he took over the drums the rest is history. After this I played with three other groups finally taking over from Tom when he left Chris Warren and the Strangers.
    After this I went into comedy changed my name (stage Name) to Clive Webb and amongst other things for the past sixteen years with my son Danny Adams (stage name) have Headlined the Theatre Royal Newcastles Pantomime.


  15. David

    March 30, 2020 •

    I had two rented rooms in a house on Argyle Street off Stockton Road from '68 to'70, and one day the lodger in the attic above brought in a bunch of guys to chat and drink coffee. One of them was introduced to me as Kai Olsson, brother of Nigel. Dave, the upstairs lodger knew I liked Elton John, and as we all know Nigel was Elton's drummer. Another tenuous connection is Dave Stewart.I used to attend the Friday folk and blues nights at the Londonderry Hotel, which was a great night of music an beer. One evening I arrived and saw a spotty little long-haired kid standing near the bar. He looked no older than thirteen, and I expressed my concerns (the notorious police station was just across the road) to one of my mates, who assured me he was sixteen, and having guitar lessons from one of the resident guitarists. One night the lad got up on stage and played a Rev Gary Davis blues song, on a guitar that was bigger then him! Some months later I saw him at Annabel's night club as I walked in with my girlfriend. He was sitting with an older woman who had once spent the night at my place (very embarrassing, as I couldn't remember his name). He nodded as we recognised each other, then I walked on with my girl. I never saw him again until about ten years later when he was on a chat show being interviewed by Ben Elton,sitting beside Annie Lennox. He was THE Dave Stewart! I nearly fell off the sofa!


  16. Pat Hunter (now Prest)

    November 14, 2020 •

    This article has brought back happy memories. I worked at the milk bar in Tiffanys during 1968 and usually found my way to Wetherells and la Strada on my nights off to have a boogie. Happy times - good friends - great music - what a time to be 18!


  17. Rob Quinn

    January 2, 2021 •

    It would be interesting to hear from patrons of La Strada Sunderland, a great upstairs venue in Fawcett Street Sunderland .....I played there with resident pop group The Crusaders at both La Stradas, the other in South Shields with some great acts including The Shadows, The Seekers, Nashville Teens, Joe Brown, Lonnie Donegal and many others. Brillian years.


  18. June Suddick

    January 3, 2021 •

    Hi Tony Potts, did Jack Redern have a brother David?, I used to be best friends with Mick Grabhams sister Susan and used to go to some gigs in church halls with the group I remember Mick and gorgeous Olly - such happy memories.... and I have happy memories of The Manhattan Nightclub.... June xx


  19. Graham Kelley

    February 22, 2022 •

    I played in a band Fireflies in 61/62 at St Barnabas youth club. We asked Nigel Olsson to join us - he had a full set of drums set up in his bay window at home.
    We have been in touch over the past few years.
    I am in Edinburgh now (37 yrs). Coming down in June for the EJ gig and wondered if you have any contact with Nigel these days as would love to meet up with him after all these years. Keep me posted if possible as I believe he still had a house in Roker/Seaburn area.


  20. Graham Kelley

    March 9, 2022 •

    I am coming down from Edinburgh on the 19th June for the Elton John gig at the Stadium of Light.
    I knew Nigel Olsson [Elton John's drummer] when I was 15. What would be the chance to meet him after all these years. I believe he still has a house in Roker - wonder if he is staying there after the gig ??????
    ps I was one of the founder members of the Fireflies.


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