Saluting the swinging Sixties with Captain Boyton’s Benefit Band
PUBLISHED: 07:34 06 April 2020 | UPDATED: 07:44 06 April 2020
What do you mean, you’ve never heard of Captain Boyton’s Benefit Band? Let former vocalist Keith Skipper enlighten you
A rousing “rockumentary” unleashed recently on Friday night television hurtled me back to the closest I ever came to letting my hair down.
Natural modesty and brutal reality forbid me from labelling Captain Boyton’s Benefit Band as a Norfolk pop sensation just waiting to happen in the early 1960s.
Even so, the fact we landed an airing down Tin Pan Alley must point to a bit of substance to go with starlit dreams. As lead warbler with this colourfully disparate group of local newspaper colleagues, I naturally nursed big hopes of hitting enough right notes to cover my own blatant musical inadequacies.
It all came back to tease as I watched, twitched, hummed and occasionally sang along with the ground-breaking story of ITV’s Ready Steady Go!, a popular music programme breaking so many rules from August, 1963, until just before Christmas in 1966.
The show went out in black and white early on Friday evenings under the slogan “The weekend starts here”. An exciting new breed of pop performers included The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Manfred Mann, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Cilla Black, The Animals, Georgie Fame, Sandie Shaw, Billy Fury, Chris Farlowe and my all-time soulful favourite Otis Redding.
There they were, squeezed together in a small studio, artists on different mini-stages, occasionally on gantries or stairs or on the main floor closely surrounded by an adoring and cavorting audience. Ever-present cameras, large with rotating lens turrets rather than zooms, became an integral part of freewheeling musical happenings.
It was much more informal and youth-orientated than Top of the Pops, its chart-loaded BBC rival from 1964. Ready Steady Go! really did set the tone for Swinging Sixties dreams of being part of a great adventure. As a would-be performer from darkest Norfolk, I sensed a new brand of accessibility beckoning me on.
Let’s place this rather fanciful urge in some kind of musical context. I was weaned on radio favourites such as Billy Cotton, Donald Peers, Ronnie Ronalde, Danny Kaye, Burl Ives, David Whitfield, Rosemary Clooney, Connie Francis, Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine.
I sang solos at Sunday School anniversaries, harvest suppers, village socials, on my constant bike safaris, to workers building new council houses and in any hut with an echo on the old aerodrome. I lasted two lessons on how to play the piano and then started saving up for a guitar I could never afford.
A passable impression of Lonnie Donegan and genuine feeling for the washboard won me a place in a short-lived skiffle group, The Harmondians, formed by a bright fifth-form colleague at Hamond’s Grammar School in Swaffham.
We rehearsed at his home – for about 20 minutes before his parents kicked us out. Hint taken, we disbanded over consoling coffees in the town’s Pedlar Café.
It took Ready, Steady Go! and an invitation to join a merry band of other music-minded reporters on the local newsgathering beat to reignite that flame of hope. I was on the verge of leaving my teens when a powerful rendition of Wilson Pickett’s Midnight Hour, offering full range to my soulful falsetto and uninhibited defiance of most melodic rules, clinched the deal.
My scatty excursions were cheerfully suffered and intermittently followed by Sid Langley and Charlie Catchpole on guitar, David Wakefield on keyboard and Dick Watts on drums. Photographer Alan Howard reigned supreme in the recording studio while other press chums made guest appearances as reputations flowered.
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We penned several numbers of our own and ambitions reached a pulsating peak when we were asked to take examples for sound judges to savour at Chappell’s Music in London. A large woman in a green velvet suit and smoky glasses tapped her fingers encouragingly on an important-looking desk before putting our tapes into various lockers.
She expressed most interest in a catchy little number called Here on the Ceiling Everything’s Fine. “Kenny Ball might like that one!” she enthused without the slightest hint we might like to record it ourselves. We left rather deflated but not without hope.
Kenny Ball was not tempted. We got a very nice letter of thanks, urging renewed efforts to fashion a breakthrough. We didn’t toss aside the day jobs.
The blessed local newspaper industry continued to pay our wages and hone our writing skills while court cases unfolded, local councillors argued and golden wedding couples revealed secrets of true happiness.
SKIP’S ASIDE: Why Captain Boyton’s Benefit Band, clearly the signpost to an era-defining Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a few years down the road?
Well, a newspaper colleague of more studious inclination spotted an advert in an old publication and suggested this colourful character could be the perfect mascot or role model for young hopefuls aiming to negotiate choppy going around the popular music scene.
Captain Paul Boyton became the first man to swim across the English Channel on April II, 1875 – four months before Captain Matthew Webb.
However, because Boyton was assisted by a small sail attached to his foot, and a paddle he used as a rudder, Webb was credited as first in the record books. The redoubtable Boyton also wore an inflatable life-saving suit.
He set off from Boulogne, floated on his back and propelled himself with his hands. Such inventive thinking soon became the hallmark of our rehearsals, recording sessions and occasional public performances.
A Saturday night session at the old Fruiterers’ Arms pub in Norwich earned free beer and several new admirers, not least with a blues-tinged version of Pick a Bale of Cotton, the like of which we were assured had not been heard before in this hostelry.
We shunned all requests for Bob Dylan numbers, even though a recent band outing to Leicester’s de Montfort Hall to hear and see the folk-singing icon put him on our shortlist of performers almost ready for the Norfolk treatment.
When our Norfolk Sound was born – later cultivated for public relations purposes into The Sugar Beat – I had to learn the words of several new songs, including a number of home-made compositions.
I chipped in with Banquo’s Ghost, a meaty answer to A Whiter Shade of Pale, that massive hit for Procol Harum. We never tripped the light fandango or turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor – but Captain Boyton’s boys enjoyed their dip into unlikely waters.
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