Join Dave Allen, Portsmouth local and definitive expert in the local music scene, as he winds back time and delves into the magical time of the 1960's
Portsmouth Guildhall, seriously damaged by German incendiary bombs in 1941 was rebuilt and reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in June 1959. In the evening there was a concert by Sir Arthur Bliss, George Thalben‐Ball (organ) & the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; the first of many such visits by that Orchestra over the following decades. Portsmouth Choral Union performed Handel’s “Messiah’ that month but on the second night, one of Britain’s most popular ‘Trad’ jazz bands led by Chris Barber brought a different sound to their sell‐out concert and the pattern of classical and popular concerts was set. Over the last few months of the 1950s the performers from the broad ‘popular’ field who appeared there included Frankie Vaughan, Gracie Fields and the first modern jazz visitors from the USA: Dave Brubeck, Dizzie Gillespie and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Some councillors had let it be known that modern ‘pop’ of the rock & roll variety might be less welcome to their glittering new concert hall but the potential audience proved irresistible and in October 1959 Cliff Richard & the Shadows arrived as “Travellin’ Light” topped the charts. It was to herald a glorious decade of variety, quality and the occasional controversy at a time when live entertainment was plentiful and not required to compete with the domestic attractions of multiple television channels (there were in two in 1960) or home computers and video games.
The ‘swinging sixties’ arrived at the Guildhall with early visits from Americans like vocal group the Platters, the Everly Brothers, Paul Robeson and international jazz stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis. Ella was particularly well received with “two terrific ovations from packed houses”, which reminds us that most national tours of the provinces in the 1960s would present two separate houses which meant that the capacity of 2,000+ seats could be sold twice with starting times around 6.30pm and 8.45pm.
In truth, the so‐called swinging sixties took a year or two to get completely ‘in the swing’, but pop stars of the time like Adam Faith, Frank Ifield and another ‘Trad’ star Kenny Ball came in that first year of the decade and Ball was followed in January 1961 by fellow jazz stars Acker Bilk, and the return of Chris Barber. Shirley Bassey first visited in January 1961, Cliff and the Shadows returned and there was an appearance by British crooner David Whitfield. He was from Yorkshire but had been in the Royal Navy in Portsmouth before enjoying hit records through the 1950s. He is a reminder that while Portsmouth’s thriving live scene was principally dependent on an audience from the city and surrounds ‐ with the Guildhall very accessible by train ‐ it was augmented in the summer by the UK holiday market’s last decade before foreign holidays became the lure, and by young sailors seeking entertainment on their free evenings.
December often features Christmas musical events at the Guildhall and in 1961 that included the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and a special concert of Carols and Christmas Music. Then, in the new year, we were back to the ‘pops’ in the last twelve months before the explosion of new sounds and acts unheard of in Pompey in 1962. Schoolgirl star Helen Shapiro was an early visitor followed by the quirky, jazz‐oriented Temperance Seven, Frankie Vaughan again, and a box office record return for Cliff and the Shadows who sold 2,500 tickets on the first day of opening. The first original rock & roller to appear was Gene Vincent on a bill with Brenda Lee but he was singled out by a small group of hecklers who were ejected. Wild piano‐playing rocker Jerry Lee Lewis came in May while a smoother American pop singer was Bobby Vee who came with the late Buddy Holly’s Crickets. Other visitors from ‘over there’ included Dion, Del Shannon, ace Twister Chubby Checker and a solo Phil Everly after his brother went home poorly.
Perhaps the great events of 1962 were the jazz musicians with visits from Count Basie Orchestra, Dave Brubeck and the legendary Louis Armstrong in May. Louis played many favourites including “The Saints”, “Blueberry Hill”, “Mack the Knife”, and “Georgia” and the Evening News correspondent ‘MRH’ suggested it was only the second time (after Sir Thomas Beecham) that he had heard genuinely “thunderous applause” in Portsmouth, although confessing himself a “square”, concluding “I’m pleased I went but still prefer Brahms and Beethoven”.
On Boxing Day 1962 it started to snow and it didn’t much stop for at least two months, disrupting everyone’s life – Pompey for example played just twice between Boxing Day and early March. Despite this, there was a New Year’s Eve Party although no one can have imagined what was in store for pop music and the Guildhall as that year unfolded. It started with a number of familiar pop names from the UK and USA, Little Eva, Acker Bilk, Cliff and the Shadows again the Tornadoes, Shirley Bassey, Matt Monro before, on Saturday 30 March, two houses welcomed American stars Chris Montez and Tommy Roe with a promising British ‘beat group’ closing the first half. They were the Beatles who came back to Portsmouth’s Savoy a couple of weeks later and by November, with ‘She Loves You’ topping the charts tickets for their headlining Guildhall return were like gold dust. Then tragedy struck, Paul got ‘flu’ and the concert was cancelled. Fortunately they were able to return in
December to a deluge of screams and general mayhem and for those of us there, a night never to be forgotten. Their fellow Liverpudlians Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J Kramer also visited in 1963 as the pop world was turned on its head, while there were reports that some of the jazz audiences were rather slim. A rather different event saw the Vienna Boys Choir in October but it was pop and the beat groups that ruled the roost now with the occasional folk and blues concert featuring a range of artists from Ewan McColl to Muddy Waters and Josh White.
A landmark concert in 1964 saw the Merseybeats supporting British pop acts John Leyton and Mike Sarne while further down the bill another promising group, this time from London and more R&B than ‘beat’ were the Rolling Stones’. It was a spectacular pop year for the Guildhall, with the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, Manfred Mann with their roots in the city, the Searchers, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and rockers Carl Perkins and Bill Haley plus another legend Ray Charles with his Orchestra and Raelets. For older punters Ella came again, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra brought Frank Sinatra ‐ but the junior version ‐ and Woody Herman’s Orchestra performed.
1965 opened with an on‐off‐on‐off controversy when the booking for American pop star PJ Proby was cancelled after he spilt his trousers on stage elsewhere! In April a spectacular Tamla Motown line up brought the Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and the Miracles and among the new acts to appear were the Kinks, Yardbirds, Donovan, the Walker Brothers, Sandie Shaw, Gene Pitney plus a return for the now‐headlining Stones. 1966 was less busy but still welcomed Roy Orbison, the Walker Brothers, the Spencer Davis Group, the Troggs and Tom Jones, and there was still jazz with the MJQ, Bud Freeman and the Dutch Swing College Band. An Anglo‐American Folk Concert in February offered a ticket deal to see Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall, while December hosted three Carol Concerts but no ‘pop’.
1967 started in similar vein, with more jazz than pop including the great Duke Ellington Orchestra, Buddy Rich, Nina Simone and the Jacques Loussier Trio. The old two houses ‘Pop Package’ format was in some decline now with headline artists preferring to play longer sets and only one a night. An extraordinary exception in November 1967 saw a bill with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd, the Move and Amen Corner and around this time too, students at the College of Technology started promoting events at the Guildhall including acts like the Crazy World of Arthur Brown; Julie Driscoll & Brian Auger Trinity and a remarkable ‘Happening’ called the Dance of Words with a number of poets, Fairport Convention, Free and John Peel.
Among the more conventional stars in 1968 were Johnny Cash, the Bee Gees, the Small Faces and Pentangle, while 1969 saw a number of acts popular in the British blues boom including BB King, John Lee Hooker, Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, John Mayall, Albert King and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. Cliff and the Shadows maintained the older pop tradition along with Englebert Humperdinck while the very latest sounds were represented by Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention. By contrast, there was a Sunday Startime show with Kenny Ball’s Jazzmen, comedian Tommy Trinder, local folk star Jon Isherwood, the Southampton Musical Society and Portsmouth’s own Royal Marine Orchestra. The 1960s at the Guildhall was a thrilling, everchanging decade, and usually with something for everyone.
If you are interested in the history of music around Portsmouth and the Guildhall, the Portsmouth Music Experience is an exhibition housed in the Guildhall, which takes you through the musical history of the Guildhall.