Though they came from similar backgrounds, they didn’t know each other. The elder of the two, none other than Spencer Davis, of the Spencer Davis Group, came from Swansea in Wales with a family tradition of sons following fathers down the coal mines. The younger, one Ian Wright, came from generations of coal miners in County Durham in the northeast of England. Some 225 miles apart, they both set off on similar journeys, one with a guitar and the other with camera equipment strapped to their bicycles.
To escape his preordained life down the pit the elder lad flouted all convention and set off on his bike from Wales.
Spencer Davis recalls the journey
“Before leaving the Rhondda Valley, I sold my meager possessions, depleted my small post-office savings account and purchased a one-year provisional passport for a guinea. I spent the first night in a red telephone box, where I was awoken from a fitful night’s sleep by the sound of [a] horse’s hooves. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I opened the door of the phone box to find the local milk man with a horse and cart. As if it was a normal everyday occurrence to deliver milk to phone boxes, he sold me a pint of gold-top milk for a sixpence and then carried on with his morning rounds.
“Rather stiff from my first day’s ride and the cramped sleeping accommodations, I consulted my granddad’s old AA map and was soon back in the groove relishing the mild spring weather, beautiful English countryside and adventure of my first trip abroad. Of course, in those days there were no motorways, so I followed what I hoped was my most direct route through Bristol, Bath and Salisbury. By mid-afternoon of the second day a steady drizzle soaked me through, and having already scoped out my nights lodgings — a wooden bench inside a brick bus shelter — I stopped in a village general store to buy something to eat.
“I must have looked like an abandoned orphan because before I could blink, the shopkeeper gave me a spare set of her son’s clothes while she dried mine in front of a coal fire. Her son was away in the Army so she packed me off to his bed after feeding me a hot supper. Next morning she was up at 5:30 a.m. getting the papers ready for the boys to begin delivering at 6 a.m. After a hearty breakfast of fresh farm eggs, I was off again for Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings. I don’t recall how long this leg of my journey had taken, but it seemed like a week before I eventually arrived at the Dover docks where I bought a one-way ticket and peddled up the ramp on to the cross-channel ferry. I stayed on deck as we slowly passed the harbor walls and moved out to sea, fascinated by the waves rushing along the side of the ship. This was something I simply had to do. Travel and music were in the genes. My only emotion was elation.
“The spring sun was shining on both sides of the English Channel, and within a couple of hours and 20 miles across the sea, I disembarked in France. What a doddle. Nobody was interested in my passport or a Brit riding a bicycle, because it seemed everyone was riding one in Calais. Though I remembered a bit of schoolboy French, it was all a bit of a shock to the system. Not only the language but everything was different — the money, food, drinks, sounds, smells and riding on the wrong side of the road. I recall using an outside pissouisory, which had a makeshift cold shower attached to the drain pipe.
“Rambling about the countryside on my own Tour de France, soaking up the ambiance of idyllic old villages and the beautiful towns of Bethune, Arras and Chantilly, I fell under the Gallic spell — no one seemed in a rush and life was so relaxing. I slept in numerous barns always full of fresh clean straw as I traveled down the Val D’Ouise to Paris. Filled with grande joie de vivre, feeling tres avant-garde and bohemian, I set up my open guitar case as the collection plate on the steps of the Church of the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. How tres bourgeois! MY FIRST EVER GIG!
“My repertoire in those days was limited, but a few Francs dropped into my open guitar case, and local mademoiselles seemed to be taking an interest. Though I must admit to a suspicion they might have been taking the piss out of a “Roast Beef” (nickname for the British) for affronting their own chantuers, Johnny Hallyday and Eddy Mitchell. After playing for an hour, a young gendarme approached and in perfect English told me, “Push off. It takes me an hour to do my tour and I don’t want to see you when I return.”
Ian Wright meets his destiny
At the same time, your intrepid columnist was riding his own rusty bone shaker.
The only bike I could afford was a ladies model, which was cheaper because it had no crossbar. But it did have a three-speed gear and a little wicker basket in the middle of the handlebars to hold my transistor radio. A shelf protruding over the rear mud guard served to hold my huge leather camera bag.
As a 15-year-old junior darkroom boy at the town’s newspaper, I was being offered an opportunity of a lifetime by my editor, the now-renowned Sir Harold Evans. Because I was the only person in the photography department with any idea who these emerging pop groups were and the one willing to do it my own time, with no extra pay or expenses, Harold promoted me to the position of photographer for a weekly supplement, “The Teenage Special.”
With carte blanche to go where and when I wanted, he gave me only two directives: “Photograph everyone on the bill; you don’t who is going to become famous. And keep all your negatives.” The northeast of England had a plethora of venues for an eager young photographer. Many of today’s stars, like Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and Matt Monro, cut their teeth in the region’s 1,500 working men’s clubs. There were also ballrooms for one-night stands, theaters for touring shows, night clubs, jazz clubs and the new up-and-coming discothèques. I was there every night to capture the birth of the swinging ’60s.
For my very first gig, I decided to start at the top and set out with great bravado for the Theatre Royal in Newcastle to photograph Miss Ella Fitzgerald, who everyone said was a diva. I leaned my bike beside the stage door entrance and spent no little time persuading the doorman that I was indeed a bona fide press photographer.
After cooling my heels for an hour, I was suddenly summoned by Miss Fitzgerald’s manager. ‘Son you got one minute to take one shot and get out.’ As the dressing room door opened, my hubris evaporated. The star’s sheer size and presence frightened the life out of me. I took the one shot and found myself back in the alley behind the theater within a couple of minutes. All the way back to the darkroom, I was a quivering nervous wreck, wondering if I’d got the slides in the camera right side up. When the plate was developed and the print fixed, my prayers were answered. She hadn’t closed her eyes.
Ian meets The Beatles
After that encounter, I was never awestruck again. On Feb. 9, 1963, however, my whole world would be changed forever. It was a freezing cold night. Everything was covered in snow. The Empire Theatre in Sunderland was hosting “The Helen Shapiro Variety Show,” performing two shows a night seven days a week.
Sharing the bill were comedians, dancers, singing acts and a crooner named Danny Williams. A group called The Beatles were at the bottom of the bill getting paid 80 pounds per week for all four, including expenses. I had thought I’d photographed everyone before the show and was packing up for my three-hour bike ride home, when I heard the most incredible deafening sound, quite different from any music I’d ever heard before. I raced out front to watch the act making this fantastic sound, and I was just blown away.
It was the first time I’d seen a group move like that on stage. They were smiling, harmonizing, laughing and transmitting their colossal enthusiasm across the orchestra pit — connecting with the audience, encouraging them to clap along with the beat while their heads were shaking to the drummer’s back beat. A force of energy swept over the audience. It was a phenomenon.
I noted the songs in my notebook: “All My Loving,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Please Please Me,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Twist and Shout.” It was between these songs, not during, that I heard timid screams coming from the young girls sitting with their parents.
Instead of setting off home (a three-hour bike ride in a blizzard) I shot backstage. No backstage passes were required in those days. John Lennon answered my knock on the dressing room door. I said, “I’m from the local paper and I’ve got an great idea for a great photograph.” “Yeah, what is it?“ he asked. I pointed to an old cage door lift opposite the dressing room. “I want you in the lift with the door open looking out. The caption will read, ‘On The Way Up.’”
John said, “OK, in the lift lads.” I took the photograph, and they all began pilling out of the lift. I shouted, “Stop, stop. Stay where you are. I don’t know who’s who. I need your names left to right.” They all burst out laughing and asked my name. I introduced myself, and John said, “I’ll call you Wrighty.” From that moment forevermore I’ve been called by John’s nickname. He asked, “Do us a favor. Would you send my auntie Mimi copies of your pictures and cuttings from the newspaper? She doesn’t think we’ll make it big, so she’s keeping a scrapbook of our shows.” I agreed.
Of course, we all know John’s auntie Mimi couldn’t have been more wrong.
And what of Spencer Davis?
That other lad we left singing on the steps of the Sacré Couer went on to graduate from Birmingham University with a degree in modern languages before founding The Spencer Davis Group and recording some of the biggest hits of the ’60s.
Today, Spencer lives on a small Pacific Island (Catalina) where he’s affectionately know as “The Professor.” His new autobiographical CD So Far, co-written and produced by Edward Tree of the Treehouse Studio in San Gabriel, Calif., is testimony to his 50 years on the road.
You can view Ian Wright’s archives of 1960s pop stars photographs at: http://tinyurl.com/Swinging60s
Or contact Ian directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Ian Wright and Lauren Wright