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(Credits: Far Out / Flickr / Wikimedia)

Music

The Ealing Club: the unlikely birthplace of British R&B

@SamWKemp

When one thinks of the swinging ’60s, it’s usually Soho or Camden that spring to mind; central locations that capture the city in all its frenzied glory. But what if I told you that it was the suburban fringes of the capital where the magic really happened? Places like Ealing, a leafy district in far-West London home to the city’s first R&B club. Today, locals know it as The Red Room, but back then it was famed as an incubator of one of Britain’s most successful exports: rock and roll.

It all started in the spring of 1962 when British blues musicians Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies were on the hunt for a venue for their band, Blues Incorporated. At this time, most jazz, folk, and blues clubs didn’t allow amplified music, but Korner’s group wanted somewhere to experiment with a more aggressive sound. They settled on a dingy venue opposite Ealing broadway Station, far from the hustle and bustle.

Alexis and Cyril knew blues music like the back of their hands. They’d been responsible for bringing blues acts to the UK from America and had even had the pleasure of backing Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Now, they wanted to pursue music on their own terms. In the spring of 1962, Blues Incorporated paid for an advertisement in Jazz News. It read: “Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated: The Most Exciting Event Of This Year. Rhythm And Blues Clubs No.1: The Ealing Club, Ealing Broadway, W5 (Immediately Opposite Tube station). Debut Of Britain’s First Rhythm & Blues Band. This Saturday & Every Saturday: 7.30pm.”

The thought of an R&B club opening in London must have been utterly intoxicating. All over the country, young music fans were falling head over heels for blues, R&B and early rock and roll, but there were scarce few opportunities to experience it in a live setting. The Ealing Club changed that. When it opened its doors, there were probably only 100 or so people willing to go and watch blues music. Within months, the venue had gained a reputation as the place to be.

News of the club travelled fast, filling the city with the hum of anticipation. Recalling that time, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger said: “Just when we were getting together, we read this little thing about a rhythm’ n’ blues club starting in Ealing. Everybody must have been trying to get one together. We thought, ‘Let’s go up to this place and find out what’s happening.'”

Dubbed “London’s first Rhythm and Blues Club” by Melody Maker, the venue developed an excellent reputation among young players. It had an open-mic policy in the early days, meaning that anybody with enough guts and talent could make their live debut on its cramped stage. The Stones, The Who, Manfred Mann, David Bowie, The Pretty Things: all of them got started in The Ealing Club. After performing a few tracks one night, Eric Clapton left the venue convinced that the blues was his calling, as did a young man called Reg Dwight, who decided to change his name to Elton John following his inaugural performance.

The 200-capacity club may have been a bit grimey, but it had real character. With no ventilation to speak off, the heat of the crowd would form into thick layers of condensation, which had a habit of pooling on the walls and ceilings and dripping on the performers, forcing the staff to drape sheets over the electronic equipment. The Who drummer, Keith Moon, would apparently tear his shirt off his back when the heat got too much. Thankfully, somebody would always be on standby with a stack of clean shirts. No wonder the Ealing Club came to be known as ‘The Moist Hoist’.

Word continued to spread. After a trip to The Ealing Club, the manager of the then-struggling Marquee Club, Harold Pendleton, decided to switch his venue’s programming from jazz to R&B. But The Ealing Club didn’t just influence the popularity of UK R&B, it actively contributed to the sonic development of rock music. On an otherwise quiet Sunday evening in 1963, a group of musicians assembled to test the Marshall JTM45 guitar amplifier, one of the most iconic amps in rock music. Mitch Mitchell, the drummer of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, was there that night and was so impressed that, after joining the band, he bought Hendrix to Hanwell to purchase one of the amps. Eric Clapton was equally impressed, falling for the warm overdrive of the JTM45. The company would later develop the 1964 Bluesbreaker combo specifically for the guitarist.

Alas, the popularity of the Ealing Club was also its downfall. As more and more business owners caught wind of the venue’s success, the competition mounted. Kooks Kleek, The Eel Pie Club, the Crawdaddy, the Flamingo: soon, there was a blues club in every city in the UK. Eventually, The Ealing found itself unable to compete with bigger venues and transformed into a casino. In recent years, however, live music has returned to The Ealing Club thanks to a group of dedicated music fans who set up the Eling Club Community Interest Group. These days, the iconic venue even boasts its own blue plaque.