Many of us who were around during the mid-sixties through to the early seventies will look back on the music scene of that period with great affection. Some of us will particularly remember the great R&B, Rock and Soul acts we saw performing “live”.
These days top bands and solo artists tend to perform at very large venues such as arenas, large theatres and open air festivals to thousands of people. Back in the sixties things were different. Well-known UK bands were booked to play at much smaller venues holding just a few hundred people. You could experience your favourite musicians at close quarters and even get to within touching distance of them. It wasn’t just UK acts that you could see at your local venues. In the latter half of the sixties when Soul and Motown records were filling the dance floors in clubs and ballrooms, many of the American artists responsible for those songs started appearing at venues throughout the UK, including the northeast.
But can we be sure that the famous US Soul stars we saw were actually who we thought they were? If you saw a Motown act or a Soul singer as part of multi-artist tour or at a large venue then you were probably seeing the genuine article. However, if it was at a smaller venue, in particular from 1966 onwards, there is a good chance that you were being entertained by an impersonator.
A recent post on a Facebook page dedicated to Newcastle’s Club a’Gogo prompted me to look into the question of fake Soul and Motown acts. The post concerned a poster for the Ronettes’ appearance at the Club a’Gogo on 2nd May 1968. A question arose as to whether or not the poster, which is currently on sale, was genuine. One fan suggested that the Ronettes couldn’t have appeared at the Gogo in 1968 because they had broken up in 1967 and didn’t reform until 1973.
It wasn’t difficult to find out that the poster is a modern repro artwork based on a gig advert that appeared in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle in May 1968. As for the gig itself – well that’s another mystery but everything points to the likelihood that the Ronettes who appeared at the Club a’Gogo were part of a widespread scam perpetrated by a London based entertainment agent. More about the “Great Pretender” later – in the meantime here’s some first hand experience to set the scene.
In October 1969 my band, Sneeze, was booked to back an American Soul singer called Don Covay at a small club in Lynemouth, Northumberland. Don Covay was fairly big in the States having had a number of hit records earlier in the sixties such as – “Sookie Sookie”, “Mercy Mercy” and “Seesaw”. Don Covay was travelling from London to Newcastle on the day of the gig and we were told to meet him at Newcastle Central Station that afternoon. We were to drive him to the venue in Lynemouth, which would give us three or four hours to rehearse before the performance. We expected him to turn up with some musical scores or chord charts but all he had was a bundle of Soul albums including a couple of his own. He also assumed that he would be using the band’s PA system. At the time we thought this was a bit unprofessional for someone who was supposed to be a major star in America.
Before we began rehearsing the club owners approached us. They asked us to keep the volume low so Don Covay’s vocals could be heard well above the band. We did as he said and made sure that our instruments were turned down low. After listening to a couple of songs the owners were clearly unhappy. They must have realised that the vocals weren’t quite what they were expecting. When Don went outside for a comfort break they approached us again – “Hey lads – you need to crank the volume right up!”.
That evening his performance went down a storm. Strangely, it wasn’t his own hits that went down the best. The number that brought the house down was Don’s version of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’, which we had to play three times to keep the crowd happy.
A few weeks later we got call from our agent. Don Covay wanted us to back him at a gig at the Boat Club in Nottingham. The club was situated on the banks of the river Trent in a converted boathouse and, unlike the Lynemouth gig, it was full of ardent Soul fans. We had no opportunity to fit in a rehearsal before the second gig. Don turned up with a friend who he introduced as Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Clarence had a couple of big hits in the UK in the early sixties.
After the performance I was approached by the DJ at the club. He was convinced that the vocalist appearing that night was an impostor. He had a couple of Don Covay albums with photographs that didn’t look much like the singer we had backed. This was yet another factor that made us wonder who our “Don Covay” actually was.
One incident in particular left a nasty taste in our mouths. Rod, our normal vocalist went into our dressing room at one point while the rest of us and Don Covay were on stage. He caught Clarence “Frogman” Henry rifling through our jacket pockets in the dressing room! After that gig we saw neither Don Covay nor Clarence “the dipper” Henry again.
On 8th December 1969 an article appeared in the Daily Mirror about a performance by Don Covay at Nantwich Civic Hall on 6th December 1969. Crewe council had received an anonymous tip-off that the Don Covay due to appear at Nantwich was an impostor. The caller demanded an investigation into a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act. A council official confronted “Don Covay” before he went on stage. The allegation was denied by the performer but he was unable to confirm that he was the genuine Don Covay, saying that his passport was held by his London agent. The show’s organiser was undeterred and the show went ahead. The organiser said “We have a contract saying that this is Don Covay and we accept him as such.” I don’t know if the matter was ever followed up but the same Don Covay continued to perform at many other small venues all over the country.
It turns out that “Don Covay” was just the tip of the iceberg. We now know that many other Soul and Motown acts were being impersonated in the late sixties. To cap it all, the impersonators were mostly amateur or semi-professional singers from America with no connection to the artists they were imitating. Some of the names of the bogus acts that have been bandied about include the Temptations, the Drifters, the Four Tops, the Isley Brothers, the Impressions, Little Anthony & the Imperials, the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, Fontella Bass, William Bell, Percy Sledge, The Ronettes, Clarence “Frogman” Henry and, of course, Don Covay.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the impersonation fraud was widespread involving elements of exploitation and even modern day slavery. So who was responsible for the deception? Step forward Royston Kenneth Jeffries, better known as Roy Tempest, who ran a London based booking agency along with his girlfriend Lorna Wallis. Royston Kenneth Jeffries was born in Cardiff in 1939. He relocated to London as a would be singer around 1960 changing his name to Roy Tempest. After a few years in London he established an entertainment booking agency, which became very successful in the first half of the sixties – “The Roy Tempest Organisation”.
Tempest’s company, which at one time was advertised as the largest band agency in Europe represented some of the UK and American top recording and touring groups including Stevie Wonder and, at one stage, the Rolling Stones. He also had numerous lesser known groups and singers on his books. In addition Roy Tempest ran a couple of subsidiary agencies called “Global Promotions” and “Universal Dancing Ltd”, which were used to provide UK venues with some well known US acts and backing musicians. In fact, the Roy Tempest Organisation was one of the first agencies to bring American artists over from the States.
At first the American Soul artists booked through the agency were genuine. However, around 1966/67 things would change. Many of the famous US acts that Roy Tempest supplied to venues throughout the UK turned out to be impostors.
So why did a successful agent with a glowing reputation in the world of entertainment turn to scamming venues and music fans by promoting fake acts? The answers are that it made him a lot of money and secondly he thought he could get away with it. According to an ex-tour manager, Phil Luderman who worked for the Roy Tempest Organisation in the sixties, Tempest made a lot of cash from the genuine US artists he booked. However, he was unhappy about the increasing amounts of money that some of these artists were demanding for their performances in the UK.
Things changed when he tried to bring over US Soul singers, William Bell and Percy Sledge. Both refused to come to the UK and work for Tempest for the money on offer. At that point Roy Tempest had a “eureka” moment and decided to find some vocalists that could pass themselves off as Bell and Sledge. In the event he discovered someone who could double as both of these artists. Luderman believes that the person he found was an American living in Brixton, London. The Londoner was booked for a series of shows in the UK. One night he would be William Bell performing hits like “Never Like This Before” and the next night, as “Percy Sledge”, he would be singing “When A Man Loves A Woman”. To make it clear to the Londoner who he was actually supposed to be on any given night, Luderman came up with the idea of him wearing a false moustache but only when he appeared as “Percy Sledge”.
The Percy Sledge/William Bell hoax led to another of Roy Tempest’s scams. Hoping that not many English fans knew what US Soul artists looked like, he began bringing obscure American vocal groups over from the States and booking them out to UK promoters as top US Soul and Motown acts. Only he would slightly change the name of the obscure artists by applying an adjective to the name of the original act. For instance his fake Temptations were sometimes called the “Fabulous Temptations”, his Drifters were “The Original Drifters” and his Isley Brothers were the “Fantastic Isley Brothers”. Using this ploy he would then fool promoters into thinking they were getting the genuine article.
The UK promoters and their clientele weren’t the only people being hoodwinked. Roy tempest also duped the relatively unknown American vocalists and vocal groups that he recruited in the States. They were led to believe that they would be performing as themselves at UK venues – not appearing as fake acts. Once they were in the UK he would get them to rehearse the songs of a well known act, such as the Temptations, and in effect turn them into what is now known as a tribute act. They had no choice but to go along with the deception if they wanted to be paid and flown back to the States. They had no means of escaping the clutches of Tempest. He housed them in accommodation that he owned in London, charging them a hefty rent. He also retained their passports for the duration of their contracts. Some of the US groups and vocalists known to have worked for Roy Tempest as impostors were: the Invitations, the Diplomats, the Topics, Oliver Bush.
Tempest would use UK bands on his books to provide backing for the vocalists and vocal groups that he brought over from the States. One such band was the British blues band – Bluesology, which included a young piano player named Reggie Dwight, later to become Elton John. Bluesology band member, Pat Higgs, remembers that working as an artist or in a backing band for Tempest wasn’t easy. The musicians were sometimes on the road for two to three weeks doing up to three gigs a day. Any rest days that they were promised were filled by Roy Tempest once they started touring.
Roy Tempest’s dubious activities lasted for around four years. But it wasn’t all plain sailing for him. In September 1967 the Sunday People and the Melody Maker reported that 1,400 fans had gone to see who they thought were Tamla Motown stars – the Temptations at Manchester’s New Century Hall. The group they actually paid to see was one of Roy Tempest’s fake acts who he was calling the “Fabulous Temptations” for a UK tour. When approached by a reporter Roy Tempest shrugged the matter off saying – “I certainly didn’t tell anyone they were the Tamla group. At £250 per night how could anyone expect a group which can earn 10,000 dollars for a one-nighter in the States?”. There was a subsequent case brought by Motown Records in which a Court ordered Tempest not to use the name “The Fabulous Temptations”. The judge described Tempest’s activities as “filching somebody else’s name and reputation”.
A year later the Sunday People ran another story about Roy Tempest’s activities with the headline – “The Flip Side Of Roy Tempest”. The People exposed Roy Tempest for booking more Soul impostors including Chuck Jackson, Carla Thomas and the Ronettes. The article also mentioned an injunction brought against Tempest in respect of a fake Marvelettes act plus other injunctions relating to the “Isley Brothers” and “William Bell”. Once again Roy tempest was flippant when interviewed by a Sunday People reporter. He told the reporter: “I have the biggest clientele of any showbusiness agent in Europe. I’m known as the Robin Hood of showbusiness. I’m in it to make a living and that’s all I’m worried about.”
Time did eventually run out for Roy Tempest. The cost of the legal actions taken by various organisations against him in respect of the fake acts took its toll. The Roy Tempest Organisation, Global Promotions and Universal Dancing Ltd were all forced into bankruptcy.
Fast forward over four decades to 2016. Film company Studiocanal announced that it would be producing a film about Roy Tempest entitled “The Great Pretender”. Pre-release information stated that the film would be based on the autobiography of the London-based music promoter, who organised UK tours in the 1960s for some of America’s biggest Soul acts – even though the acts were fakes. As far as I’m aware the film never came to fruition.
Around 2016 Roy Tempest was interviewed in Las Vegas by an American author who was researching another deception relating to a fake Aretha Franklin. Tempest was not directly connected to the Aretha Franklin matter but he did admit to the author that he “industrialised” the imposter scam when he was in London in the sixties. He said that he had recruited amateur singers from America and toured them across the United Kingdom as bands like the Temptations. According to Tempest, his performers were “the world’s greatest singing postmen, window cleaners, bus drivers, shop assistants, bank robbers, and even a stripper”. He told the author that the reason he got away with it, for a time, was that there was no satellite television. No one knew what the real musicians looked like.
As for the Ronettes appearance at the Club a’Gogo on 2nd May 1968. By all accounts the Gogo wasn’t busy that night. The lack of interest was probably because the club was losing popularity and did, in fact, close down six week later. Also the gig wasn’t extensively advertised in the local press.
The Ronettes that performed at the Club a’Gogo, backed by one of Roy Tempest’s stable of bands – Edwin Bee & the Protection Racket, were undoubtedly impostors. They had no connection to the real Ronettes (Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra} who had recorded “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You” in the mid sixties. It would be nice to think that the Club a’Gogo management at that point in time weren’t involved in the deception. However, the ambiguous newspaper ads in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle referred to the group as the “fabulous” Ronettes and wrongly attributed two hit records to them – “Then He Kissed Me” and “Da Do Ron Ron”. Both of these songs were hits made famous by the Crystals!