Were you a jazz fan in the late fifties to early sixties or a follower of rhythm & blues in the mid sixties? If you fit into either of these groups and lived in the northeast then you may have heard of Newcastle’s Downbeat Club.
Most people who enjoyed Newcastle’s bustling nightlife in the mid sixties will know about the Club A’Gogo. The Gogo is long gone but over the years its reputation has grown and continues to do so. In recent years the Gogo has achieved legendary status with mentions in the local and national press, books, music magazines and on television.
The Downbeat and the Club A’Gogo had a lot in common. They had a similar life span; The Downbeat – six years from 1959 to 1965 and the Gogo, six years from 1962 to 1968. Both started their lives as jazz venues and both morphed into dance clubs featuring live rhythm & blues and popular beat music. The main thing that links the Club A’Gogo and the Downbeat is the music entrepreneur, Mike Jeffery who managed The Animals and Jimi Hendrix. At some stage he owned and ran both clubs.
During the six years that the Downbeat was open its reputation varied considerably. In its early days it was considered to be a sophisticated jazz venue. It was somewhere that jazz fans could listen to the music they loved in comfortable surroundings and dance along if they felt so inclined. Towards the mid sixties when jazz had been replaced by rhythm & blues the local press portrayed the Downbeat as a sleazy dive, which encouraged promiscuity amongst young people.
In spite of the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid fifties, jazz was still a popular form of “live” music towards the end of the decade. In the early years of the 1960s jazz would gradually lose its appeal to young people. However, in 1959 jazz in its various forms was still packing out venues throughout the country, including Newcastle.
Malcolm Cecil was an exceptional jazz musician. Before being called up for National Service in the RAF in the late fifties, Malcolm, still in his teens, had earned quite a name for himself as a double bass player in London’s jazz clubs. In the RAF he was stationed in the northeast and in his leisure time he teamed up with Newcastle’s finest jazz musicians, performing with them at various venues in the city. One of those venues was the Marimba Coffee House on High Bridge, which was owned by Mike Jeffery. The main attraction of the Marimba was a jazz cellar known as “the Crypt”, two floors below street level, which provided live music into the early hours. Although the Marimba wasn’t licensed to sell alcohol and the Crypt was small and often uncomfortably overcrowded, the venue was a magnet for both jazz fans and Newcastle’s late night revelers.
Malcolm Cecil and some of his fellow jazz musicians were on the lookout for a larger venue that would be on a par with some of the licensed jazz clubs that Malcolm was familiar with in London.
Malcolm Cecil found what he was looking for in Carliol Square, Newcastle. The top floor of an old three storey building was available to rent. With the involvement of Mike Jeffery and two other partners, Valerie Coleman and David McMahon, the Downbeat was born. All that was needed was for the empty shell of the old warehouse to be transformed into a venue that would appeal to jazz lovers. An art college friend of Eric Burdon called Joe Pharoah was commissioned to design and decorate the interior.
When it first opened in November 1959 as a weekend unlicensed club, the Downbeat received rave reviews in the local press: –
“The Downbeat has an air of sophistication rarely found outside the London night clubs” – “a very high standard of jazz and a friendly atmosphere.”
This is how the club was described in a write-up by Newcastle author/art critic Scott Dobson in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle: –
“There is a small sort of courtyard beside the long stone building and the commissionaire on duty will keep you right. Upstairs a pay box, a short cooridor with dark blue walls and modern paintings and into the discreet sophisticated unevenness of the club itself. At one end an arched bandstand. At the other a section with a low wall and a spidery screen of white cord. Here candlelit tables with six kinds of omelette, soft drinks, coffee, hot dogs and a quiet chat with your girlfriend or listen to the music.”
The music for the weekend was a blend of mainstream, traditional and modern jazz featuring artists such a Mighty Joe Young and his Jazzmen, the River City Jazzmen and Mike Carr’s Emcee Four. It wasn’t long before the club opened for mid-week sessions. All-night sessions commenced at the beginning of January 1960.
Malcolm Cecil never realised his ambition to own a licensed jazz club in Newcastle akin to those he knew in London. In February 1960 the RAF posted him to Cambridge, which at least meant that he would be nearer to the jazz haunts he loved in London. In more recent times this is what Malcolm Cecil had to say about his move from the northeast: –
“The whole experience in the Air Force on one level was very good and on another level was bad, because it was also in the Air Force, while I was up in Newcastle upon Tyne, that I met Michael Jeffery, who was to come back into my life many years later as Jimi Hendrix’s manager and the owner of Electric Lady Studios where I worked with Stevie [Wonder]. He and I started a club called the Downbeat Club. On the same day that Ronnie Scott opened ‘Ronnie Scott’s’ in London, we opened the Downbeat in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It turned out that Michael Jeffery was a high-ranking officer in the British Secret Service. I didn’t know it at the time. He did arrange for me to have a posting down to London because he knew I wanted to go down and play in the jazz clubs, but it was in exchange for me handing over to him my shares in the club…”
One of the other partners, Valerie Coleman took over Malcolm Cecil’s duties at the club.
Two months after Malcolm Cecil’s departure the Downbeat was granted its first alcohol license. Mike Jeffery told a Newcastle Evening Chronicle reporter that he hoped the acquisition of a license wouldn’t attract the wrong type of people to the club saying – “a license is hard to get and easily lost”.
Throughout 1960, the Downbeat’s first year, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle’s jazz column “Jazz Corner” reported enthusiastically about the artists appearing at the club. As well as local groups, jazz musicians from London such as the Joe Harriot Quintet were being booked. By the summer the articles in “Jazz Corner” were indicating that Mike Jeffery was solely in charge of the club. He was quoted as saying that he had plans to break the jazz mold and book a rhythm & blues band. But that didn’t happen for a while. In September it was reported that the Downbeat had a new sound system and that for one day a week on Tuesdays there would be no band, just records.
As the Downbeat moved into its second year, the all night sessions advertised as lasting from midnight to 3.00am were becoming more popular. Some people were turning up at the club expecting a rock group but throughout most of 1961 jazz in its various forms prevailed. More groups from London were booked to appear including the celebrated saxophonist, Tubby Hayes. It wasn’t uncommon for touring jazz musicians appearing in Newcastle to call in to the Downbeat after their own concerts had ended and jam with the local musicians. Some members of Count Basie’s band were late night visitors to the club after appearing at Newcastle City Hall.
Trumpet player Ian Carr who joined his brother Mike’s band, the EmCee Four (making it the Emcee Five) described the atmosphere at the Downbeat sessions as follows: –
“It was always packed with young men and women, electric with expectation, both musical and perhaps sexual. It was a heady mix.”
Jazz at the Downbeat wasn’t going to last forever and the club was beginning to lose its appeal. The local press reported that the club had become dingy. So in the summer of 1961 Mike Jeffery made some changes by redecorating the club, making changes to the stage area and improving acoustics. By October he had arranged a sponsorship of the Downbeat by the Ronnie Scott organisation in order to improve the standard of visiting bands at the club.
In November 1961 Mike Jeffery’s other jazz venues in the city; the Marimba Coffee House and the el Toro went up in flames. Members of those two establishments were offered preferential treatment if they were to become members of the Downbeat. Musician Ian Carr who also wrote a Jazz column for the Newcastle Journal reported “The burning of the Marimba seems to have given the Downbeat Club vitality”. Ian also reported that the club was now presenting an evening of Blues singing each Thursday. One of the guest singers was Eric Burdon, a rising star in the ranks of the city’s jazz fraernity.
By the time of the Marimba fire Mike Jeffery had teamed up with another Newcastle businessman / entrepreneur called Ray Grehan. In 1961 Jeffery and Grehan were planning another jazz venue in Newcastle. This one would be in a better part of town than the Downbeat in the premises of the former Newcastle Labour Club on Percy Street.
In November 1961 the Downbeat began advertising Rock and Rhythm & Blues nights. The first advert appeared in the Evening Chronicle on 1st November 1961. The Invaders and the Strollers were the first non-jazz groups to appear at the Downbeat. But at that point jazz was still the main draw. The same week that beat music eased its way into the club, an article appeared in the Evening Chronicle’s “Jazz Corner” describing how “the Emcee Five had the Downbeat Jumping”.
At the end of 1961 the Rhythm & Blues nights at the Downbeat were being advertised on the same scale as the jazz nights. On 22nd December the Newcastle Evening Chronicle reported that the Downbeat was fast assuming a new look under the guidance of Ray Grehan who was attempting to make the club more efficient and more attractive. But not everyone was welcoming the change of direction. In his ‘Jazz’ column, Ian Carr stated that “It is sad to note that [the Downbeat] has never before featured so much bad music”.
After a brief closure at the beginning of 1962 due to fire regulation issues, the Downbeat reopened in mid-January with Rhythm & Blue receiving equal staus with jazz.
In March 1962 the Evening Chronicle column, which once heralded the Downbeat as a sophisticated jazz venue was taking a scathing approach to the club’s new direction.: –
“[The Downbeat] has moved a long way from its original intention. With Sundays given over to ‘three chord Segorias of the rotating hips – in short the Downbeat will be a ‘Rock and Twist Club’ for yet another night.”
The sad truth was that, although the Downbeat was trying to attract jazz fans by featuring London acts as well as local groups, poor attendances meant that the club was running at a financial loss, at least as far as the jazz side was concerned.
In spite of the rise in popularity of the beat and twist nights, the Friday and Saturday jazz sessions continued for a while. When Malcolm Cecil and Michael Jeffery first opened the club it was perceived as a sophisticated jazz venue, in many respects superior to its main rival in Newcastle – the New Orleans club. However by 1962 the Downbeat had lost a lot of its initial sparkle. Also its location and exterior elevation weren’t that impressive. Michael Jeffery and his recently acquired partner, Ray Grehan were looking forward to launching their new venture; a club that would really match up to the celebrated London jazz clubs.
In July 1962 the greatly anticipated Club a’Gogo opened its doors for the first time in premises on Percy Street.
In the closing months of 1962 Mike Jeffery and Ray Grehan must have been very worried about the future of jazz in their two establishments. Mike Jeffrey had been promoting jazz in Newcastle for over five years, including two at the Downbeat. Although he was a great lover of jazz, he realised that the tide was turning as far as young people’s tastes in music were concerned. Furthermore, there were three venues in the city competing against each other; his own two clubs plus the New Orleans Club on Melbourne Street. This was probably keeping the footfall at the Club a’Gogo lower than it should have been. By the spring of 1963 Mike Jeffery had phased out jazz at the Downbeat in favour of Rhythm & Blues and pop. Newcastle’s remaining jazz elite would have to choose between the Club a’Gogo and the New Orleans Club.
The new emerging crowd at the Downbeat could probably be best described as beatniks, a lot less refined than the jazz fans they replaced. Mike Jeffery wasn’t taking any chances regarding potential trouble with the new clientele. In 1963 he was employing one of Newcastle’s hardest men, George David Findlay (better known as Dave Findlay) to manage the Downbeat. The tide was also turning at the Club a’Gogo as far as jazz was concerned. After four months of pure jazz and Latin American music, in November 1961 Mike Jeffery booked a local band, the Invaders, to provide live pop music in the Latin American Lounge (later to be called the Young Set). Throughout 1963 while the Invaders were keeping teenagers dancing in the Young Set, the Alan Price Combo (later to become The Animals) had gained popularity in the Jazz Lounge. After their sets at the Club a’Gogo had ended the Alan Price Combo would often play an all-night session at the Downbeat. Jazz was officially discontinued at the Club a’Gogo in November 1963.
The heyday of the Downbeat as a Rhythm & Blues club was probably between mid 1963 and mid 1964. In 1964 the Downbeat and Mike Jeffery were getting a lot of bad press in the local newspapers for a variety of reasons; running a club without music and dancing licenses, admitting non-members to the club and failing to pay rent on the premises. There were also a few violent incidents involving the police that were reported in the press
By far the worst piece of publicity for the Downbeat involved a storm that had flared up between Mike Jeffery and a Newcastle lay preacher named Pastor Frank Wappat about the all-night sessions at the club. The management at the Downbeat was allowing teenagers to sleep on the floor of the club after it officially closed at 3.00am. One such teenager was aged just fourteen. Mike Jeffery argued that it was safer for them to stay at the Downbeat rather than at train or bus stations, waiting for early morning trains or buses to take them home. Nevertheless, Frank Wappat was adamant that the goings-on at the Downbeat were an outrage to public decency. A date was set for Wappat and Mike Jeffery to publicly debate the question of teenage morals. On 19th January 1964, acting on the advice of his solicitor, Mike Jeffery failed to attend the debate. Those who did attend, mainly followers of Frank Wappat, passed and signed a resolution asking the Chief Constable of Newcastle to note their views and investigate.
A week later the police raided the Downbeat and closed it down. Although the timing of the raid suggests otherwise, the police said that the closure of the club was nothing to do with Frank Wappat or the allegations of immorality. According to the police the closure was due to the “fire risk” that the Downbeat posed. Michael Jeffery was livid but there was little he could do.
The Downbeat reopened and struggled on until early 1965. By this time the Club a’Gogo was thriving and had become the number one venue in the city for dancing and live music.
Although the Downbeat Club is less well known than its successor, the Club a’Gogo, it played an important part in the development of popular music culture in the northeast. It was also a stepping stone in the life-journey of Mike Jeffery: A journey that would take him from running small jazz clubs in Newcastle to managing one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock music – Jimi Hendrix.