John Howells lead singer (left 1966)
Mick Marson guitar (left 1966)
Don Powell drums
Dave Hill lead guitar
Cass Jones bass guitar (left 1966)
Noddy Holder lead singer & guitar (joined 1966)
Jim Lea bass guitar (joined 1966)
This band would form the foundations of what was to become one of the most famous and successful British groups of the early 1970s. The N’Betweens were from the Wolverhampton area and became well known throughout the Midlands in the 1960s.
The origin of the group goes back to 1963 when singer/guitarist John Howells and guitarist Mick Marson along with drummer Don Powell, formed a band called the Vendors. Donald Powell was born in Bilston, West Midlands on September 10, 1946. He learned to play drums while in the scouts and later met Howells and Marson who were already performing together. Guitarist Johnny Shane joined next from Johnny Shane and The Cadillacs. Because Shane was a superior guitarist, John Howells gave up the guitar to become the lead singer and front-man of the Vendors. The music performed by the Vendors at this time was mostly Chuck Berry style rock ‘n’ roll and the group would play at youth clubs and private parties.
Before a reliable bass guitarist could be found, Johnny Shane left to re-form his old band and was replaced by Dave Hill who was formerly with a local outfit called The Young Ones. David Hill was born on April 4, 1946 near Kingsbridge in Devon and his family had moved to Wolverhampton by the time he was a year old. He was not well regarded at school by his teachers and his disruptive energy would not be channelled until he was 12 when his father bought him a guitar. Dave Hill took lessons from local jazz guitarist Brian Close and soon formed a band with his friends called The Young Ones.
The Young Ones lasted until its members left school to start jobs with Dave Hill finding a position as an office boy but he also hung out with local musicians and maintained an ambition to one day “turn professional”. The Vendors were impressed by Dave’s raunchy guitar style and after he joined, they concentrated more on blues and R&B type material with John Howells playing harmonica and the group projecting an image on-stage similar to that of The Rolling Stones. In 1964, The Vendors recorded some songs that were pressed onto a limited number of acetates at Domino Sound Studios in Wolverhampton and these represent their earliest recordings.
The ‘N Betweens in 1965
By the end of 1964, the group name was changed to The N’Betweens and they had signed to the Wolverhampton based Astra Agency who secured them bookings throughout the Midlands. A regular Monday night residency for the band was at The Plaza in Kings Heath, Birmingham with the group by this time, playing almost every night and thus deciding to give up their day jobs. They had also acquired a good bass guitarist in Dave ‘Cass’ Jones and a smart image by wearing velvet jackets and cuban heeled boots. It was during this period that the N’Betweens shared some bookings with Steve Brett and The Mavericks (see Steve Brett and The Mavericks) with Don Powell becoming friendly with Noddy Holder from that group. According to Don, Noddy was too good of a singer to be in a back-up group.
By late 1964, the N’Betweens were sent over to some bookings in Germany and while on the ferry they met up with Steve Brett & The Mavericks. It was on this trip that Dave Hill and Don Powell first talked to Noddy Holder about forming their own group.
In early 1965 Bobby Graham who had played drums with Joe Brown & The Bruvvers and now a talent scout, auditioned the N’Betweens at the Le Metro Club in Birmingham. The result was a recording contract for the N’Betweens and the group travelled down to Pye Studios in London to record some songs. Well known session guitarist Jimmy Page was booked to play on the recordings but he was apparently not required although he may have appeared on the N’Betweens recording of Little Nightingale, an early composition of his. The sessions resulted in four songs by the N’Betweens being released on an EP in France but these had no impact on the record charts.
Despite the N’Betweens local success as a support band to many famous acts such as The Fourmost, Alexis Korner, Georgie Fame and The Yardbirds, and also attracting a large following of their own, Dave Hill and Don Powell were dissatisfied with the group. Hill and Powell were the only members not to have steady girlfriends and were irritated when the others would fail to show up or be late for rehearsals. Guitarist Mick Marson had also got involved with local Mod gangs, an association despised by both Don and Dave.
Bass guitarist Cass Jones decided to leave the band at the end of 1965 for a career in the wholesale fruit business so the Astra Agency placed advertisements for auditions. One of the applicants was 16 year old Jim Lea who had little experience as a performer but showed amazing talent as a musician.
James Lea was born on June 14, 1949 in Wolverhampton and came from a musical family. He learned to play piano and violin as well as read music at an early age, progressing so well that he was soon playing violin with the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra. After seeing the Rolling Stones on TV he went out and bought a guitar which he mastered easily. Jim Lea was an admirer of the N’Betweens and thought of them as a local version of the Rolling Stones so he did not hesitate to apply for their audition. He had to borrow a bass guitar but his talent stood out amongst the other applicants and although no one was selected that day, Don Powell wrote down Jim Lea’s name.
Soon after, Dave Hill and Don Powell met Noddy Holder in a local coffee house. They told him they were leaving the N’Betweens to start their own group and asked Noddy who was no longer with Steve Brett and The Mavericks to join. Noddy agreed so the three then asked Jim Lea if he wanted the job, but meanwhile the N’Betweens were contracted to play a number of bookings with John Howells and Mick Marson who were still officially part of the group. An awkward situation now existed with the N’Betweens divided into two factions and several weeks would go by before Mick Marson was edged out in favour of Noddy Holder and an incident in Bilston High Street almost resulted in Don and Dave being beaten up by the Mod gang that Marson was with at the time.
Singer John Howells remained with the N’Betweens although Noddy, Dave, Don and Jim played their first show without Howells knowledge at the “Three Men In A Boat” pub near Holder’s house. Although John Howells had a fine voice, his bluesy vocal style and image on stage was at odds with the direction that the rest of the group wanted to go. Because they still had a lot of bookings with Howells, their first show together was in April of 1966 at Walsall Town Hall. Noddy sang lead on a few songs with Howells doing the rest. It was a frustrating arrangement for Noddy Holder and came to a head in June 1966 when The N’Betweens were sent to Newquay in Cornwall for some bookings and ended up playing a show in Plymouth without Howells.
When John Howells finally left to join the group Blues Ensemble (later known as The Wellington Kitch Jump Band), there was concern that the N’Betweens following would turn against them, but instead the four piece group started to attract a growing number of supporters. Don Powell would go to The Diskery record shop in Birmingham and find obscure R&B and Motown recordings for the group to learn with Jim Lea working out the chords and arrangements.
The N’Betweens in 1966
A big break for the N’Betweens came when they were performing at a club in London and were spotted by the eccentric American record producer Kim Fowley. After proclaiming the N’Betweens as “the next big thing” Fowley arranged to have the group record some songs at Regent Sound studios and the result of this was a single You Better Run/Evil Witchman being released by Columbia Records in August of 1966.
You Better Run was a cover of a song by the American group The Young Rascals but the single did not sell except in the West Midlands area where the N’Betweens had a large following. Promotional copies of another song Security, originally recorded by Otis Reading was issued in the USA only. The West Midlands group Listen (whose singer was future Led Zeppelin member Robert Plant) also released a version of You Better Run in 1966 but it did no better than the N’Betweens version. Kim Fowley also had the group record some other songs that remained unreleased, including Ugly Girl on which Fowley sang and was probably made up on the spot. The N’Betweens association with Kim Fowley lasted only a short time and he soon lost interest and returned to California.
The N’Betweens continued to play dates across the country as well as having regular bookings at the Silver Blades Ice Rink and the Garden of Eden Irish Club in Birmingham. They also played support for The Move at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. In early 1967, The N’Betweens recorded some songs at Abbey Road Studios in London with Pink Floyd producer Norman Smith but the tracks remained unreleased and it would be two years before the band next entered a recording studio. Noddy Holder had yet to develop the tonsil-shredding vocal style that he would become famous for (see Ambrose Slade).
With Special Thanks
to Brum Beat
Copyright©John R Woodhouse.
Compiled by Keith Law