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The Rolling Stones: Highbury Fields Forever

by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere in the Distance"

 

When I was growing up in north London during the Fifties, my friends and I would spend many hours in Highbury Fields, an oasis of grass, tall trees and tranquillity flanked by a mixture of impressive Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian dwellings. It was the ideal escape from the hustle and bustle of the nearby area. Many of us lived in drab-fronted houses and blocks of flats that had survived the German bombs that had hurled down in the Second World War. Our homes were unscathed but there were large areas of rough, open ground dotted around where once there were houses, shops and factories. These were the bombsites that blighted the landscape. We played on them, usually war games and cowboys and Indians. Although by the early Sixties things had improved economically in Britain and the landscape was changing, some of these sites were still around for a few more years, stark reminders of the devastation of war.

To the south of the Fields there was a playground boasting swings, rocking horses, a slide and a carousel, everything adventurous youngsters could want. Adjacent was an open-air swimming pool, where if you got there before eight in the morning you could get in for free. We took regular advantage of this, queuing eagerly with our swimming costumes and towels under our arms, impatient for the turnstiles to open so we could dash in and be the first to take the plunge. Even in winter we were there at the entrance, determined to make a splash in the chilly, unheated water.

At the other end of the Fields were clay tennis courts and soccer pitches. We didn’t use the tennis courts until we were well in our teens, but the soccer area more than made up for that. Kicking a ball around was just the thing for boisterous boys. At weekends and during school holidays we often spent hours pretending to be our favourite soccer idol. It certainly kept us out of mischief: the only drawback to this was we scuffed endless pairs of shoes, much to the annoyance of our parents.

Another attraction for us was spotting who lived in the Fields’ ‘posh’ houses. We were fascinated by the comings and goings, creating make-believe personalities and lives for the occupants. Our vivid imaginations must have elevated hundreds of people to rich-or-famous status! Although we didn’t know it at the time, many celebrated people had indeed lived in or visited the Fields over the years.

Which brings me neatly to a day late in October 1962 when, much older and wiser (17 to be precise!), I was sitting on a bench with two friends looking across to one of the splendid houses in Highbury Place just across from the swimming pool when five young guys arrived at the house waiting to go in. We did a double take and then realised that we’d seen them only a few weeks earlier at The Marquee club in London’s West End, where in July that year they’d performed their first gig. They were the band we’d seen on stage, going by the name The Rollin’ Stones (the g was added a few months later).

The man greeting them was a familiar figure to us. We knew him by sight, spotting him many times coming and going from the property, but we didn’t know who he was. We discovered who he was some time later when, at an early-1963 gig by the Stones at legendary jazzman Ken Colyer’s Studio 51 off of London’s famous Leicester Square, we mentioned to Brain Jones that we’d spotted them in the Fields and wondered what had been going on. The mystery figure turned out to be one Curly Clayton.

We learned that Clayton, whose real name was Harvey Omerod, ran a sound recording studio in the basement of the building. He was also a gifted jazz guitarist and was well respected in the music business. The Stones were there that day to make a demo with the aim of getting a record label deal. It didn’t happen straightaway but eventually Decca signed them up … a cover version of Chuck Berry’s Come On was released in the summer of 1963, followed later by their version of Lennon and McCartney’s I Wanna Be Your Man. After that, it was the fast lane to fame and fortune for the group..

After finding out who he was, whenever we saw Curly Clayton walking around the Highbury Fields area, we were always reminded that he had played a part in the Stones’ saga. We never get up the courage to stop and talk to him, alas, which was sur[rising as we weren’t normally backward at coming forward. I can still see him now in my mind, dark, curly hair, glasses, smartly dressed, always wearing a tie. He died in 2009 at the grand old age of 90.

Throughout 1963, my friends and I were regulars at Studio 51, when The Stones did some Friday night gigs along with their regular Sunday afternoon residency. My friends and I became big fans of the group but we never at that time thought they’d turn out to be so massive. Their longevity, huge sell-out worldwide concerts and the money they’ve generated has without doubt earned them the title of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band ever, but for me it’s those early learning-their-trade gigs at places like Studio 51 and The Marquee that stick fondly in the memory.

Studio 51 was also home to many other great acts, the Yardbirds, the Downliners Sect and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers among them. Another group I recall seeing there were Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions. They featured a young singer who went on to become one the greats… Rod Stewart. He was a skinny guy blowing away on a mouth organ and doing backing singing.

Quite a few American bluesmen over on tour played at the venue and some even popped in from other nearby clubs where they were performing to catch a glimpse of the groups playing there. I particularly remember seeing Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker mingling in the crowd.

It wasn’t a very big venue, you could get up close to the stage and chat with the acts during the interval, and there was ample room to dance, although jumping in the air, which we invariably did, was not always advisable as the nearer you were to the low arched cellar ceiling the more liable you were to end up with a sore head! Sadly, the venue eventually closed and the last time I passed-by, the club was no longer there … the cellar steps were gone and paved over at street level and the building above was a bank branch. How the mighty have fallen! It was at Studio 51 that I first heard about President Kennedy’s assassination.

Curly Clayton’s studio moved from the Highbury Place site many, many years ago, but the stylish house is still there in all its glory. Someone once said to me that there should be a plaque outside saying that the Stones first recorded there. Not a bad idea!

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.

 

 

 

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