A brief history of the celebrated 60s Birmingham rock band.
Any worried band member earnestly consulting his dog-eared copy of the Birmingham A to Z in the mid 1960s may have noticed a little street called King Edward’s Place. It ran from King Edward’s Road to Broad Street between the George Hotel and the Tow Rope greasy-spoon cafe. None of these exist any more. The George, then a popular jazz club is now The 80s Bar. An old street sign still bears the name, King Edward’s Place but the street itself and the old Tow Rope along with its neighbour, Bingley Hall, have gone, making way for the splendid new International Convention Centre.
If our band member had continued along this little street towards Broad Street he would have seen directly facing him the huge solid gate guarding the entrance to what was possibly Brum’s most famous night club of its era, The Rum Runner. Down at the end of the short sloping drive was the club itself.
There seems to be some confusion as to the opening date of the Rum. This is probably due to the fact that the club actually opened twice in the 60s and re opened again in the Duran Duran era. At the bottom of the drive to the left was the casino. This had been open for some time before the second part of the development happened. The Rum Runner night club part two, the restaurant, the quiet bar, the main bar and the dance floor with live local, national and international bands was opened in April 1966 by a local group, The Vacant Lot. They played a one-night stand and were invited back in a fortnight’s time for a second booking. This was where the gods of rock-band fortune played a hand. There was also appearing on that night of the second gig a young recording starlet called Tammy St John. She was booked for a full week and had brought her dots (sheet music) for the resident band to play. However, the resident band who were old guys playing strict tempo ballroom were on their last gig as their music was not quite swinging sixties material. Tammy was worried that there was no-one to back her. Opportunity knocked. The Vacant Lot offered to learn her material, all of it, overnight. She was worried that the unusual key that she sang in might be difficult to read. She need not have worried. None of the band could read a note. Everything was learned by ear and presented the following night and every night for the rest of that week. In fact it went so well that she was asked to play for a second week.
A fortnight’s gigs on the band’s own patch was in itself a bonus. What followed was a miracle. The punters were congratulating the owners of the club on their great new resident band. They were asked to stay on for the foreseeable future, working six nights a week and filling in the second spot for any visiting band that failed to show.
A new name was discussed. The Cat’s Whiskers was suggested and adopted. Within days it had evolved into Katz Wizkaz, then Rum Runner Katz and eventually just Katz.
It had all kicked off some three years earlier. A bunch of students at the City of Birmingham College of Education and Teacher Training on Westbourne Road in Edgbaston were toying with the idea of forming a band. There was lead guitarist, Ken Gardner, whose claim to fame was that he had jammed in his local Newcastle pub with Eric Burden and the Animals. On rhythm guitar was Bob ‘Noddy’ Davies. He had some band experience from playing in his local Ross on Wye pubs. Robert Dalnoki who later changed his name to Daly was hoping to learn to play drums. Chris ‘Click’ Aston was on bass but intended to leave and go back to his home town at the end of the year.
Taking over the bass from Click was Ted Lancaster. With a wide experience of theatrical work, ship’s disc jockey and playing hobby harmonica, alto sax and dance band drum rhythms during his years in the Royal Navy he was able to teach the rudiments to the drummer to get things off to a swinging start.
The name Dominoes was suggested but never quite agreed upon. It was decided that a ‘name the band’ competition should be held amongst the student population. The prize was to be free admission the next college hop where the band was to play. The student whose suggestion was accepted was Lewis Thomas. He went on to become the Head of Art of one of the most prestigious schools in Birmingham and for three years the group was known as The Vacant Lot Beat Band until the change of name at the Rum Runner.
Ken, the lead guitar, had left and returned to Newcastle. His replacement, Howard or ‘Fred’ stayed a while but he was only a young lad taking his A levels and left to concentrate on study. Then came Brian Webster. He had belonged to a Lower Gornal band called The Blizzards. His special talent was his ability to sing a very high and powerful falsetto rather in the style of Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons. This gave the band a very wide harmony range with Noddy singing lead, the drummer coming in just above and Brian’s falsetto way above that. Ted’s deeper bass baritone range came in underneath to complete the sound. Ted also was part time lead singer to give Noddy some relief from the strain of singing continuously.The two greatest difficulties facing a new band are firstly, having somewhere to rehearse and practice and secondly getting gigs. The Vacant Lot were lucky in both respects. There were the rehearsal rooms in the music department at the college. These were available every night and proved invaluable as did the amplifiers and speakers that were available to ‘borrow’ when the band had none of their own. However, a most valuable piece of good fortune came in the form of a residency in a small pub just off Broad Street. It was then called The Bull’s Head (or Boar’s Head) but is now The City Tavern on the corner of Tennant Street. The band could have the upstairs room for free every Sunday night taking whatever they could on the door. It was here that they learned their craft, using the takings to finance bits and pieces of equipment until eventually college days were over and Ted, being the only married householder was able to take on the responsibility of hire purchase and the first real pro amplifiers, Vox AC30s, became the pride and joy of each guitarist.
As expertise and experience grew stronger the band was taken on by some of the top agencies. There was Paula Bailey in Solihull whose husband was tragically fatally injured while helping to check underneath the van of one of Paula’s bands. Miriam Horne was another interested agency.
The band were fortunate to be booked on gigs supporting some big name acts. There was Dusty Springfield at Ma Regan’s Plaza, Ben E King at the covered over baths at Thimblemill, The Tornados of Telstar fame at The Marine Ballroom in Evesham. At The Rum Runner there were many more including Tom Jones, Lulu, The Everley Brothers, The Barron Knights, Chuck Berry, The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, The Tremeloes, The Peddlers, The Idle Race and of course, The Vikings with Carl Wayne, Bev Bevan and Roy Wood before they made it big as The Move.
The band had a most unique opportunity at the club. It was agreed by the Berrows, Peter, Don, Ray and Tissie that if the band had a better offer for any particular night then provided that a replacement band was booked then it was OK to have that night off. Occasionally it happened. Several nights at servicemen’s camps, Brize Norton and Gaydon were very welcome. There was a great gig at The Playboy Club in Mayfair with the free restaurant on the top floor for all staff and to which the band was invited. The only thing that spoilt it was the ‘look but don’t touch’ policy concerning the Bunny Girls. In fact a strict warning was issued that the girls should not even be spoken to. The daughter of a Duke was in the audience one night and insisted that the Katz play for her coming out ball the following week for triple the usual booking fee.
What a night that was. It was somewhere on the other side of Towcester at the grand estate of the duke. Unfortunately memory deprives me of remembering just which duke it was.
A great privilege lay in the generosity of the Berrows. They agreed to finance the recording of an extended play vinyl disc at Tetlow’s studio in Birmingham. The disc was called ‘Katz Live At The Rum Runner’, a slight exaggeration but great fun. All my copies of it have been borrowed without trace. I would love to have a copy of my own again. Alas, along with all other recording efforts, Girl on a Swing, Candy, Take It or Leave It, it did not make the big time but it was a wonderful experience.
After the recording session was over an impromptu jamming session spontaneously erupted. It was great to see the Berrows brothers, Peter and I think Don, joining in with the percussion. I don’t know if the sound engineer was still recording but it would be wonderful if that tape still existed somewhere. Neil Diamond’s ‘Cherry Cherry’ never sounded quite the same.
Around the same time the band were invited to London to meet Gerry Bron who managed and produced many famous bands at that time and also Tony Hazzard, the writer of so many famous hits. The tracks, Girl on a Swing and more were released a short time later. A disappointment lay in the fact that Gerry Bron asked the band to record and release in America the Manfred Mann hit, Ha Ha Said the Clown written by Tony. It had not done well for them in the States and Gerry thought that a change of band might be good. A week later the band returned to London to discover that it was too late. The Yardbirds had recorded and released it already.
The band stayed and played at The Rum Runner for four years then disappeared after changing the name to Cinnamon Quill to become resident at a club in South London strangely called The Cat’s Whiskers Club where Don Lang of Six Five Special fame was already playing. Ted had left and stayed in the Midlands forming a new band, Rock and Roll Duo, Mark Arran and Stevie Lee, Fabulous Girl Drummer. They got to the finals in the Talent Extravaganza run by the big local breweries across the whole of the Midlands being closely beaten by a fabulous jazz combo at the Grand Final at the Wolves Molineux Ground Social Club in the early seventies, not bad for a duo placed in the competition’s ‘bands’ category, but that’s another story.