As a child of the 60s who discovered the rock’n’roll scene as a teenager in the late 70s, I’ve a fascination with the experience of those who were actually there when rock’n’roll music was new, especially those who threw themselves into it at the time and have remained faithful ever since. Too often, the reality of the British rock’n’roll scene of the 50s is distorted by nostalgia and the popular media, which assumes that every teenager in the UK had access to everything rock’n’roll had to offer, or at least the ’20 Golden Greats’ version that the media subscribes to. The original rock’n’rollers are getting fewer – many drifted off to the mundanities of everyday life and never came back; some, sadly, have had the call to the great heavenly dance hall, and some just don’t find the current scene enticing enough to bring them out – so it’s always a pleasure to run into one of those who’ve loved the music since their youth and are still rockin’. Although he’d never admit it, Tony ‘Zeb’ Marks is one of the kings of the Gloucestershire rock’n’roll scene, is still a regular at gigs, and is one of those who still has an ear out for a great record he’s not heard before. I recently had the pleasure of an afternoon chatting all things rock’n’roll with Zeb and his wife, Sandy, and in between cups of tea and great stories, managed to make a few notes that hopefully give a feeling for what it was really like for an ordinary kid of the 50s.
Zeb can place the first rock’n’roll record he heard, Bill Haley’s ‘Teenager’s Mother’, spun on a 78 on a friend’s record player in 1957, though it was Eddie Cochran’s ‘C’mon Everybody’, caught on the radio the following year, that had a greater impact. Like many of his contemporaries, though, record collecting was in competition with the music that could be heard live. He can remember parting with hard-earned cash for a first 45 by Frankie Vaughan in Mrs Curtis’ second hand shop in Cheltenham’s Henrietta Street, plus all the other great finds bought and resisted in the same shop (and Mrs Curtis offering ‘easy terms’ for those determined to build their collection); sadly, he can also remember learning the hard way that the new vinyl records didn’t take kindly to being dried out in the airing cupboard! For a young courting couple, though, live performances were a much more attractive proposition than listening to records on the family radiogram, and Tony and Sandra were lucky that Cheltenham’s Gaumont cinema (which survived until just a few years ago as the Odeon) was on the circuit for many of the package tours. Between 1960 and 65, they caught performances by most of the British rockers of the day, including Billy Fury, Johnny Kidd, Marty Wilde, Joe Brown, Cliff and, latterly, the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the early years of their careers.
More exciting, though, were the occasional tours by US artists. 1963 saw the Everly Brothers headlining, with Bo Diddley also on the bill and the Stones adding the UK interest. Zeb was on his own for this gig and was delighted to discover when the show began that Little Richard had been added to the line-up to increase the draw (although clearly the publicity machine hadn’t swung into action in Cheltenham). As he left the theatre and ran into a pal who was a big Georgia Peach fan, Zeb was full of news of the gig, but his pal was loath to believe that he’d just missed his hero appearing on his doorstep. At that point, Zeb spotted Bo and the Qasar of Rock squeezing in to a Mini outside the theatre and, leaving his disbelieving friend standing, shot off to score autographs from both of them (and if only he’d had a camera with him – what a shot that would have made). He’s seen Little Richard twice more since, at the NEC and in Chippenham, along with a raft of other US stars caught in that early 60s era, including Brenda Lee, Fats Domino and Roy Orbison – the latter on the same bill as the Beatles.
Another highlight was Gene Vincent’s tour in 1964, with Freddie and the Dreamers and Millie providing the UK element of the bill. After the show, with Gene performing in his white suit, Zeb repaired across the road to the Hereford Arms, where his after show luck came up once again as Gene and Millie strolled in shortly afterwards for a drink and were happy to meet the local fans. Zeb and Sandra have made trips to London, of course, most memorably the Black Raven in Bishopsgate which in 1969 was something of a rock’n’roll mecca, and the usual pilgrimages to the States, with tales of lucky coincidences – finding George Klein DJ-ing on Beale Street – and opportunities missed by a whisker – meeting the best friend of Jerry Lee’s current wife in their hotel, and being invited to join her in a trip out the ranch the following day, which was just when they’d be flying back out!
I was interested in his memories of 50s Teddy Boys. Cheltenham had its share, including the notorious and colourfully named Gandy Schuck and his sidekick Winker White. The young Zeb was quite apprehensive at encountering the infamous Gandy, until meeting him the flesh and finding him a diminutive, if threatening, character. For Zeb, though, rock’n’roll has always been about the love of the music rather than hanging around in gangs. He’s been much more than just an avid audience member, though. As one of the founder members of the Gloucester Rock’n’Roll Club (in competition with Crondall for one of the longest running clubs in the UK), and having run and DJ’d for it for 35 years up to 2013, he’s seen it move around the city from its inception at Brockworth House in the 1970s. Other venues have included the grand but decaying Bristol Hotel, various rugby clubs and the diminutive Aviator bar at Staverton airport (where the Rapiers found themselves sharing the ‘dressing room’ – also known as the kitchen – with guest star Jet Harris, of whom more later). In that time, the Club has played host to innumerable British rock’n’roll bands, many of whom have ended up enjoying the hospitality of Zeb and Sandra’s home, although none perhaps with the enthusiasm of Screaming Lord Sutch who, as a non-driver (and someone who could get lost between Zeb’s house and the local shop), often prevailed on Zeb to deliver him to gigs in the local area. The two became firm friends, with Zeb regularly standing in as Sutchy’s prop man with particular responsibilities for the inflatable skeleton who appeared in every performance.
With Gloucestershire bad boy, Jet HarrisJet Harris, too, was a regular feature of the Gloucester rock’n’roll scene, though sadly this coincided with some of the tougher periods of his life. Nonetheless, although filling in his days in a variety of jobs, including as a bus conductor and barman at the Tankard and Castle, he remained a very popular character, playing gigs in local venues such as Molly Malone’s pub with Mike Porterfield before reclaiming his rightful place as one of the stalwarts of the British rock’n’roll scene with the masterful backing of the Rapiers.
And meanwhile Zeb has continued to promote rock’n’roll with all his might, talking his way into a 14-week guest slot on Mike D’Abo’s Radio Gloucester Sunday afternoon show to play selections from his record collection, which eventually enticed radio rock’n’roll champion Geoff Barker to the station where he still has the Sunday night slot. For years, he was a regular at every weekender and tour by visiting original artists, waiting patiently after each performance to collect an autograph on a suitable record and a photo with his heroes, many of whom have come to regard him as a friend. His photo album is something to be marvelled at and represents an era of performances by 50s artists that is rapidly passing into memory.
Zeb himself rocks on, though retired from the decks and long-distance travelling to gigs, but still avidly absorbing tracks he’s not heard before (especially a wild instrumental) and happily sharing the experiences of a lifetime’s love of the big beat. No matter how many years I clock up on this scene of ours, it will always been a huge compliment to have one of those who were around when the music was new praise my choice of records; more importantly, without them, we wouldn’t have the scene we do, and for that, Zeb and all of those like you, I’m eternally grateful.
With thanks to Zeb for some fascinating afternoons trawling his scrapbooks. This article first appeared in Now Dig This.