The news of the hospitalisation and subsequent death of Colin Silcocks at the beginning of November sent a shockwave across the UK rock’n’roll scene, illustrating for anyone who might have doubted it just what an impact this modest Midlander had on the many thousands for whom his many gigs and clubs had been – and continued to be – an essential part of their rockin’ lives. In truth, he deserves a book (which is friends were always urging him to write), so any obituary will also be more remarkable for what it leaves out than what it contains, but it is a privilege to piece together some highlights from the life of this essentially very private man.
After an early life spent in Gloucestershire, Wales and Bristol, Colin settled in Birmingham after graduating from Aston University and beginning a career as a pharmacist. Rock’n’roll was in his blood, though, and by the early 70s he was DJ’ing, helping out with arranging gigs and starting to promote gigs of his own. The roll call of clubs and venues he arranged, first as Moondog Disco, then Jive Sounds and, for many years, the Hep Beat Record Show, is impossible to catalogue, but speaks for the liveliness of the scene he fuelled around Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry and Derby: the Moon, the Boar’s Head, Bloomers, the Sydenham, Breedon Cross, Elizabethan Days, Bournbrook Hotel, Humming Bird, the Duke of York, the Holte and many others. He made his share of trips to the States, too, including one memorable visit to Ronnie Weiser when they went on to see Jack Cochran on stage who obliged his visitors by performing a succession of his rockabilly material, much to the consternation of the local crowd expecting a full-on country set.
But it was as the promoter of live gigs that Colin gained a lasting reputation, building on the key events of the time including the 1972 London Rock’n’Roll show and ’76 Picketts Lock gig and Teds March, both of which he was part of. After working at Barbarellas with the likes of Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy, Del Shannon and Billy Fury, he determined to provide an outlet for the best of the up and coming British bands and DJs – a quest that continued to his final gigs in recent months. It would be easier to compile a list of bands that Colin didn’t work with than to try and detail those he did – the tributes pouring in after his death were full of thanks for the support he gave new and breaking bands – “He was the first to give us a gig” and “He’d travel for ages to watch us in a crappy pub for an hour” typify his approach of constantly seeking out talent, encouraging it, showcasing it, and sometimes even making introductions to facilitate a new line up.
Perhaps Colin’s signature gigs were the legendary Powerhouse all-dayers in the mid-80s. Inspired by the first weekenders that were bringing original US artists to the UK to perform for the young rock’n’roll crowd, Colin took the groundbreaking step of doing the same thing for single one-off gigs at the massive former Locarno ballroom in the heart of Birmingham. Over the three years from 1985 to 1988, Colin ran twelve of his Rock’n’Roll Jamborees featuring US acts (fortunately chronicled in detail with Colin’s assistance in NDT No 386), aided at the outset by another tragically lost promoter, Bob Brookes. Beginning with Sonny Burgess, the events offered a stellar succession of artists, including the first visits to the UK from Johnny Powers, Dale Hawkins, Ronnie Dawson, Jimmy Wages and in a storming gig that defined the Powerhouse all-dayers, Joe Clay, rescued from school-bus-driving obscurity by Willie Jeffery at Colin’s urging to reprise the tracks that were filling dance floors at rockin’ clubs across the country. It’s hard to overstate the impact of those Rockin’ 50s Club all-dayers as, apart from the headliners – shown at their best with backing from authentic young rockabilly bands, the exposure they gave to up and coming British bands and DJs (including a young Tom Ingram), and the draw they had for Big Beat fans across the country were fundamental in shaping the UK scene.
There is little in the world of rock’n’roll that Colin didn’t have an involvement in somehow. An avid record collector, he was also, along with Terry Earl, Pete Pritchard and Niggsy Owens, part of the team behind Alligator Records who released the 1980 Home Grown Rockabilly LP, showcasing the sound of the UK rockabilly revival and featuring artists like Johnny Key (backed by various Flying Saucers masquerading as the Kool Kats), the Meteors and the Polecats. He later had his own label, Wildcat Records, producing EPs that included four tracks by Joe Clay. Returning to the scene after a break in the 90s, he also developed a passion for the hillbilly and western swing sound, providing an opportunity not only to hunt down a whole new strand to his record collection but also to promote a new genre of gigs, and his own radio show, under the Cuzzin Col’s String Band Boogie brand. It’s telling, though, that the projects in hand at the time of his passing at his venues in Cannock and Wolverhampton included a mixture of hillbilly, rockabilly and good old fashioned rock’n’roll events, showing that, whilst always open to new directions in the music he loved, Colin was never one to discard elements of the scene he’d supported for so long.
It is, though, Colin as a person who will be missed most of all, particularly by his band of close friends, many of whom got to know him as the knowledgeable and reliable guy who would happily drive new converts to the scene to clubs and gigs across the country. Whilst always to the fore in making gigs happen, and working hard to ensure the acts got the exposure they deserved, he never sought the limelight himself, nor was he concerned about his own image or status. He loved the chance to DJ the newer events like the Rockabilly Rave and Atomic, but offers of complimentary tickets to others’ gigs would be politely declined (or he’d try to!), as he knew that every ticket sold counted towards the success of an event. You could always be certain, though, that at any gig or club, you’d be likely to turn round and find him there, quietly absorbed in the band and the music. Never one to rest of the laurels of what he’d achieved, or go on about who he’d worked with, his focus was always on the next gig. The swathes of photos that have appeared on social media in the past week show the same gentle man, occasionally caught in mid laugh, but more often with the shy smile that typified him, often contentedly watching from behind the decks as the crowd enjoyed the event he’d created for them. Occasionally frustrated at the lack of support promising gigs attracted, which frequently left him out of pocket, others would urge him to rein back and pursue only the more profitable, but for Colin the scene was his passion and (at the risk of coming over all Goodbye, Mr Chips), the rockin’ crowd were the family on which this deeply honourable man doted.
Colin’s dedication to our music was complete, no matter what it cost him personally , and he worked tirelessly for the best part of fifty years to bring us the best bands he could and the venues to make them accessible. It was never about him, it was always about the music, and for that he was respected, liked and, by those lucky enough to know him well, loved. It’s a small consolation that, in the time he spent in hospital, he was surrounded by his rockin’ family as well as his relatives, reading to him from the hundreds of cards and messages that had poured in after news of his illness broke. His passing will leave a huge hole in the UK rock’n’roll scene and in the Midlands in particular, but most of all he’ll be missed as one of our generation’s defining characters.
Many thanks to Mark Goodall, Rob Daniels and others amongst Colin’s friends for providing the background for this article, and to Steve ‘Stack of Wax’ for interviewing Colin on his radio show and giving him the chance to tell his story in person – it’s still available on MixCloud and a wonderful legacy of Colin’s memories.
This article first appeared in Now Dig This magazine.