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Maverick DJ who co-established jazz on the dancefloors of discoteques in the 1970s.
Taken from the book From Jazz Funk And Fusion To Acid Jazz by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
What can you say about this maverick, controversial DJ known as ‘The Godfather of The Funk Mafia’? He has been acknowledged, historically, as being the UK’s first Super Star club DJ. Along with Sean French, Robbie Vincent and Chris Brown, his area was really the whole of the south and south-east, but The Goldmine and Lacy Lady were in Essex - and this interview mainly centre’s around those two important clubs. This is not meant to be all about Chris’ career and achievements – other than Jazz-related – so the all-dayers and Caister Soul Weekenders etc are not covered here (although, let’s not forget the immense importance of the Jazz Room at Caister). Other than London, where George Power ruled, the South of England was Chris Hill's. Without doubt, between what Chris and Bob Jones achieved, Jazz-wise, on the dancefloors of Essex, the Jazz-Dance scene of the South undisputedly began with them.
It wasn’t unusual to hear Jazz in the early 1960’s. It had already crossed over. Dave Brubeck had a hit with Take 5, Stan Getz had been in the charts; infact, jazz was the music of club-land. You’d walk into The Flamingo [Soho, London], and saxophonist Joe Harriot would be playing, and in between the bands you’d hear songs by Cannonball Adderley, Nat Adderley-Work Song. Every UK R&B band from Chris Farlowe, Zoot Money to Georgie Fame would play tracks by Big John Patton-the Organist more than Jimmy Smith. The whole Organ thing was happening. It was normal to hear this music; It appealed to the hipper crowd. There were 7 inch singles: Sidewinder, Mercy Mercy Mercy, Walk Tall, Country Preacher, Jive Samba. Song For My Father-Horace Silver was a song that everybody knew. People would grow up with these. Thelonius Monk-Blue Monk - you’d hear the bloody Milkman whistle that! John Coltrane - Blue Trane; these were Pop tunes - well they felt like Pop tunes. You wouldn’t think “Ugh! What the hell is that?” The theme from the film Alfie - we grew up with it. You went to see a Tubby Hayes gig and you’d see people dancing up at the back. Jazz was on the juke-boxes, Johnny Stacatto was a top-ten hit, and you went to parties and you heard M.J.Q; you’d hear Charlie Mingus - Oh Yeahh, Miles Davis - Sketches Of Spain…The west-end was Jazz-driven. There was the club in Ham Yard called 'The Scene' with the DJ James Hamilton - this was around the corner from The Flamingo. Guy Stephens (who owned the Sue label in the UK) started it and then James took over. Jazz as a new dance-form in the late 1970’s/early 80’s? Bpllocks! Charlie Parker used to play in a dance band……
Yes, but what happened in the 1970’s was different though.
Yes, well I suppose that there were very few DJ’s like James and I that actually lived that west-end scene, so it was natural to draw on those times. It wasn’t a stroke of genius to say, “Let’s play a Jazz record to a dancefloor” though.
In the 1960’s Chris worked at Fords, he did Reparatory Theatre and had a record shop:
It was in Westcliff-On-Sea, in Essex. I had it with two other guys. This was in the mid-60's (when I started deejaying) and we had this competition to see who could sell the most outrageous record: whatever a guy came in for, the idea was to sell him something else as well, that they weren’t after, so this guy came in for a Beatles album and went out with Sonny Rollins-East Broadway Rundown!
Did you always DJ Black music?
My first serious residency was at The Cock in Orsett, Essex in the late 60’s and I always opened with Miles Davis - Milestones, I was playing Soul/Motown music - It was a conscious decision; I’ve always played what I believe in. Even later, when I’d had my two top-ten hits with Renta Santa and Bionic Santa and was being offered shows on Radio 1 and Capitol Radio, I still wouldn’t do it unless I had total freedom. Why would I want to do it? I couldn’t imagine Radio 1, to this day, allowing me to play what I want to.
Tell me about The Goldmine on Canvey Island.
The Goldmine owner – Stan Barrett and manager Kenny Faulkner came to The Cock and offered me the residency. They’d heard about me. When I started at The Goldmine on Canvey Island in November 1972, people there didn’t understand a ‘Soul’ night. I’d get poison-pen letters from people saying things like “Why are you bringing these c**ns onto the Island?” Why did Canvey work? Why did Wigan work for Northern Soul? Well, there were no locals and also, it was special for people to come to the club at the end of the country. Everyone was there for one reason. We had a great door-policy: if the Doorman didn’t think someone was the right kind of person he’d say, “I don’t think it’s your music?” and if they went “Why? What is it?” they were caught out. They weren’t coming in. Monday nights I did an import-only Soul night that was packed out and had coaches coming from everywhere, and eventually I did it on Thursdays too, and Friday and Saturdays I played records by bands like Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Rod Stewart, Little Feat etc mixed in with Soul and Funk and we had a resident band – like almost all the discos had then. By early ‘74 it was totally black music and no band. Initially Johnny Staines (the owner of the famous Moondogs record shop) was my back-up DJ on the weekends and he and I used to go over to DJ in Belgium (note: at what are now known now as ‘Popcorn’ nights) .We were invited over by the guys who used to come over here and go all over the country to the clubs up North -to The Twisted Wheel and down to The Goldmine. In this club in Belgium the biggest record was Song For My Father – not the original but a different version, and they’d play all these Soul/Jazz standards as well. It was all at a similar tempo and feel, and they’d do this ‘Ceroc’ type Jive to them. I couldn’t believe it. I thought: “I’ve got all these records,” and although there were hundreds of DJ’s in the South, I was one of the few that had this background. I always saw Funk and Jazz together.
What about the huge Swing revival that happened at the Goldmine in ‘75? I’m sure it was a bit of a laugh, but was there a Jazz element leading up to it?
Of course, or I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
What kind of things were you playing?
Funk instrumentals that crossed over, nothing retro, no Blue Note or no Be- Bop at that time. The CTI label – that worked. I was playing Swing as a party idea: Louis Bellson, Basie, Ellington, ‘Jump’ stuff - tracks that people knew. Also, of course, at the same time, Bette Midler and Manhattan Transfer were doing Jazzy stuff too. We played these plus the Jazzy Disco and with my previous knowledge, it didn’t take long to get a set together. Remember that The Hustle dance was a big thing and was a couples dance, so it was easy to get people Jiving in couples. I mentioned over the mic that, “Next week I’m playing glamorous music, and I want you to dress glamorous,” so, the next week a few girls did, and some started wearing army fatigues and within a month the whole club was wearing these 1940’s war clothes! Again, a similar thing happened a few years later when I was at the Lacy Lady: we had a very fashion-student crowd and all the Bromley crowd used to come down – Siouxsie, Billy Idol, Steve Severin, Johnny(Lydon) Rotten, members of The Subway Sect, Bernie Rhodes - the manager of The Clash, and various members of that group. We were open on Boxing Day for the first time and I did a fancy-dress party. I said I wanted people to wear their X-mas wrapping, so people were turning up in black bin liners made into dresses and all that, some held together with safety-pins, and some of the Punk wear ended up getting mixed into it and it all fell together. That was the first time that look appeared.
This became a Soul boy look countrywide quite soon after.
The Swing thing was short lived – Jimmy Lutchford and a few things on Specialty, Blues, Jimmy Rushing etc. The thing that hooked everybody was Glenn Miller-In The Mood. You must remember that I’d just had a big hit with Renta Santa and the newspapers were trying to get an angle on me: “Who is this Chris Hill? He’s a DJ”. A guy called Colin Irwin got sent from Melody Maker – he was a Folk and Jazz writer – and I was only playing, like, a half hour of Swing and he walked into The Goldmine and thought “Fuck me!!! I’ve just seen the most amazing thing. Everyones dressed up in 40’s style and Jiving.” We were in The Sun, The Mirror (a double page spread), The Evening Standard - all in one week! Vogue did a big article on it as well; it was everywhere. TV crews from Australia, Canada, 6 o’clock news. Bizarre! Glenn Miller was a hit again in the charts and dancers came up from The Goldmine to do Top Of The Pops. More importantly, it was the first time a DJ was famous for being a DJ starting a scene. That’s why I left The Goldmine the first time, because it got so huge. I had to walk away from it, so The Goldmine manager, Kenny, went to the Lacy Lady, Ilford and one week I was at The Mine and the next, The Lacy. Stan Barrett, was mortified, but he understood. The club was full of people nobody knew because of the popularity. I thought: “I’m going now….” I wasn’t sure where to go next and James Hamilton gave me the idea, because he said: “Go back to your roots and start again – the 50’s/60’s Blue Note Soul Jazz etc.” When I went to the Lacy Lady it was a very Black crowd and had an edge to it. At first, everybody expected me to play Swing but I didn’t; that Black crowd wouldn’t stand any of my novelty stuff. The crowd wanted it all new, and with so many fantastic new releases why play anything old, so I didn’t play much of that at The Lacy - but it was always at the back of my mind. Between ‘76-‘78 we played records like Lonnie Liston Smith-Expansions, Roy Ayers - Evolution, Bobby Lyle - The Genie, Lalo Schiffrin - Jaws, Dexter Wansal - Life On Mars… now that was the sound of The Lacy, and the whole thing became more selective. Good quality Black music - Liston-Smith, Roy Ayers, Gary Bartz - Music Is Sanctuary….these were big records at the time on 7” single before the albums came out.
Expansions wasn’t made as a dance record.
No, but it fitted into what we were playing in ‘75 and ‘76; The Bottle - Gil Scott Heron, his Lady Day And John Coltrane – I used to play the 7” of that. It got a UK release for Gods sake. These were new records at the time. I went to New York on business and found copies of Sonny Stitt - Slick Eddie, Jack McDuff - Sophisticated Funk, Ingram - That’s All etc as failed new releases. I bought them home in a big box and, bang - overnight they were huge.
Ingram. Was that in 1979?
No. This was the first time around. Ingram and all that were huge at The Lacy. What started it up north was the album Mister Magic - Grover Washington Jr. They got it through Supership - George Benson too. It sounded like a Northern record. Mr Magic was particularly significant as it was Funky and Jazzy – you could do a whole night around that sound: Steve Khan’s version of Darlin’, Darlin’ Baby…..I wasn’t the only one playing Jazz-Funk then - everybody else was, but we popularized it. In the north, they kept records to themselves - “I’ve got this record and I’m going to cover it up so nobody else knows what it is,” but our attitude was “I’ve found this record by Lonnie Liston-Smith (for example) and you should buy it, and I’m going to keep on playing it until you do buy it and make it a hit - make the music bigger, make the scene bigger!” I’ve no sense of shame to keep on plugging the music rather than cover it up. Roy Ayers understood what we were doing. Donald Byrd thanked me - he was absolutely amazed. The payback was seeing these artists in the charts and knowing that our scene did it. Ian Levine has the same attitude. He’s a popularist
When I went back to The Mine in 1978, the environment had been created for real Jazz: 60’s Jazz that works ‘with this that inspired that.’ I thought, “Now we’re going to start playing real Jazz.” There was none of that at The Lacy: a sense of ‘This is real Jazz’, it was just great US contemporary Black music. No sense of retro. All new. By this time, it wasn’t a lone quest, as by then Jonesy (Bob Jones) had also established a situation where that could also be done. Bob came through very un-pressurised – with a loyal, loyal following in Chelmsford, and, musically, he was always left of centre. There was now an audience to play a whole night of Jazz to if you wanted to. That didn’t exist before. I mean, (Paul) Murphy was a punter at The Lacy, and there were other DJ’s doing similar things, and it escalated fast after that. The scene would never have been the same without James Hamilton (his DJ page in Record Mirror was the DJ’s bible) or Robbie Vincent because of his radio show on Radio London.
I remember in my area: as soon as his show finished on Saturday afternoons, all the DJ’s would go down to Colin and Trisha Snow’s Record Man in Rayleigh, Essex, trying to buy what he’d just been playing on his show. The shop would be empty until then.
His show was absolutely crucial. It was the connection of the people: If he mentioned a gig, it was packed. It had a huge impact for yeahrs. The thing is, it went from being a show with a few listeners to becoming this huge show that was a point of contact for all these listeners. The pirate station Radio Invicta was important for the same reason.
How did the Jazz-Fusion music get introduced?
A style of dancing emerged that needed feeding. Every year a dance style would come out – The Bump, Hustle, Rock – suddenly a dance style emerged - not the complex one that people danced at (Paul) Murphys clubs - but like, a fast, double-time frantic dance which you thought, “Fuck me, I’ve got to find stuff to fit this.” I found more stuff, and it went around in circles, finding stuff to make the dancefloor erupt.
I heard that you would never tolerate circles (dance challenges) on the dancefloor. They are to be avoided, from my experience.
Well, they are all about exclusion, not inclusion. They are intimidating. We rarely had them at The Goldmine or The Lacy, although, occasionally, we’d get them at The Royalty because it was such a vast room. I’d let them dance the track out and then immediately change the music, because it’s me that controls the dancefloor not them. Never let the punters control the room, even if it’s a hen party or a crowd of blokes.
How about Paul Murphy?
With Murphy it wasn’t a suburban thing anymore – Essex and outskirts of East London. He took it into London. Whether people like it or not, Essex was the heartland and it wasn’t an accident. It goes back to the Mod thing that started in Ilford, you know, and North London, out to say, Basildon in Essex It was the same with the Jazz-Funk thing - East London Black fused with White Essex-boy.
I was playing in some clubs to thousands of people and it was getting increasingly hard to play the uncompromising Jazz. You could play the odd one but Murphy took it back to a small room crystalising down to Hard Bop, like Art Blakey, and it revolved around the Jazz dancers. The punters ended up as spectators. This goes back to the West Indian culture of dancing-off against each other. I use to hate all that because, everybody in the room was supposed to be dancing and enjoying themselves, not standing round watching a mock…like…er…two cockerels fighting. Whilst Jazz Dancing was great to look at, I didn’t want a whole night built around it. Murphy found rooms and found ways of making it work. Jazz-dancers became the focus. It was intimidating for a first time punter who would walk in. Where as I would try and get everybody to dance, there you had to be good enough to get on the floor. That wasn’t my thing at all.
But I remember you playing very heavy jazz like McCoy Tyner - 'Love Samba' as well as the softer stuff, and that, to me, was laying the foundations for people wanting to hear more of the stuff.
Well there was the Japanese Jazz as well. We were looking for new stuff to dance to because the US Fusion had turned into elevator music by the early ‘80’s. The Japanese were making some frantic dance music, although, looking back, there were only perhaps two-dozen great ones.
I’ll agree there. A lot of it sounds terrible now. Did you shop at Fusions (Paul Murphys record shop)? I heard you had one of everything that came into the shop.
No ( laughs ). Paul’s partner, Dean, would phone me and say: “I’ve got a couple of copies of this. You and Paul would have the only copies” and I’d say that I’m not into all that, but he’d find me pieces and say: “Don’t tell Paul I sold you that. He thinks he’s got the only one!” (laughs). I’d say to him “Don’t sell it to me if you don’t want to. I’m not interested in being the only one.” I’m sure a lot of those records sold more on import than as a domestic release.
Chris summarized - My thing was to make Jazz normal, like it was normal for me in the early 60’s to walk into a party and hear Cannonball Adderley or Charlie Mingus played alongside the Beatles. I wasn’t brought up in a Jazz ghetto, but I heard as much Jazz as I did Rock and Roll. Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, James Brown, John Coltrane: to me they all were linked and you wanted a whole room to experience the same feeling that you did when you heard it all for the first time.
That’s the main reason you become a specialist DJ.
The same reason kids go around in cars with the window down with their music playing loud: they wanted people to hear it. Luckliy, I was never labeled ‘a Jazz Jock’ - I’d rather play a good Soul record to a bad Jazz record. If there were no new Jazz records out I would do a night without playing any and yet some weeks it would be the majority.
I went to Brazil in the late 80’s and the people were dancing to the wildest stuff at their local dances and just dancing as a matter of course, and it all started to make sense - “This is why we did it!!”
Copyright Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove 2009.