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Digital Subscriptions > Vintage Rock > JanFeb 2019 > ROCKIN’ AT THE COFFEE BARS


In 1950s London, early skiffle bloomed into rock’n’roll in the coffee bars of the West End. Vintage Rock travels back with skiffle king Chas McDevitt to days of gig fees paid in spaghetti and the nascent careers of Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, Terry Dene, Wee Willie Harris and more…
The legendary 2i’s in London’s Soho. Never before had a simple coffee bar had such a seismic effect on British popular culture
Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen on stage in 1954, including a young Lonnie Donegan (second from right)
Alex Dellow/Picture Post/Getty

Where was the birthplace of British rock’n’roll?

Could such a thing ever be linked to a single venue? If there is an old cliché that is guaranteed to wind up any unreconstructed fan of early rock’n’roll, it’s the one about how, on this side of the Atlantic, it only properly kicked off with The Beatles at the Cavern in 1961. But, just as Muddy Waters’ line “the blues had a baby and they named it rock’n’roll” is a gross simplification of the music’s beginnings, so are the origins of the performance of rock music in the UK complex and tangled.

Ken Colyer is regarded as the “spiritual godfather” of skiffle. But in 1949, when his Crane River Jazz Band first started playing in a tin hut next to the White Hart pub in Cranford, outer west London, beside the Thames tributary from which they got their name, their roughneck approach, energy and lack of technique was arguably “rock’n’roll in spirit”, as Peter Frame has written, before the term was known.

But Chas McDevitt, another of the skiffle greats, winces when the thought is run by him, saying the phrase would have had Colyer “turning in his grave”. Colyer hated the cult of personality and the idea of the showy frontman, believing firmly in the collective. “He was a purist, devoted to performing Leadbelly songs. To begin with, he wouldn’t even have an electric guitar in his band,” says Chas.

That may be so, but Colyer was undoubtedly something of a catalyst for what was to follow. Shortly after, in the early 1950s, he and Lonnie Donegan came together as members of The Chris Barber Band which, on account of Colyer’s heroic status in jazz circles at the time, took the name of Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen.

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