Skiffle kid Tony Verno, Norwich’s rock’n’roll rebel still going strong at 79

Pioneers of Norfolk pop…Ricky Southern and the boys in the early days. Picture: Archant library

Pioneers of Norfolk pop…Ricky Southern and the boys in the early days. Picture: Archant library - Credit: Archant

Derek James remembers the young rock ’n’ roll rebel who simply lived for pop music

Ricky Southern is back with the Big Beat Four at the Evening News Golden Years charity gigs at the U

Ricky Southern is back with the Big Beat Four at the Evening News Golden Years charity gigs at the UEA in 1997. - Credit: Eastern Counties Newspapers

He is the man with three names who has spent more than 65 years entertaining us across the country and he still is.

Today Tony Verno lives in Barnsley and has no intention of retiring and is kept busy singing in venues across Yorkshire and neighbouring counties.

Yesterday, so to speak, he was a skiffle kid and then a rock ‘n’ roll rebel fronting bands in Norwich and across Norfolk.

If you were a cool “katz” back in the late 50s and swinging 60s jiving and twistin’ in the clubs, village halls and pubs you may well remember The Big Beat Four, CBO Incorporated , the Jetbacks and the Ken Steven Band.

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Well, the young fella-me-lad fronting the bands at various times was Peter Read, one singer who is still singing and bringing back the good times as he approaches his 79th birthday.

“I love it and will carry on so long as the bookings keep coming in,” said Peter.

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It was in 1997 when he came home to sing with the Big Beat Four when they reformed for the Evening News Golden Years charity gigs at the UEA and brought the house down. “They were great concerts,” he said.

Then he returned to Norwich earlier this month to attend the funeral of his beloved uncle, Len “Mighty Mouse” Read, the speedway ace who we paid tribute to following his death.

“He was such a lovely man. He taught me to drive and when you think how he suffered as a Far East Prisoner of War,” said Peter

Young Peter went to school at Larkman Lane and then to the Henderson School. The girls went to the Gurney.

His parents were Arthur and Mary Read and his dad worked as a bricklayer well into his 70s.

This was Norwich of the 1950s and boys with an ear for the latest sounds were hooked skiffle and the followed in the footsteps of the brilliant Lonnie Donegan. Several washboards went missing from homes. And tea-chests were put to good use.

“We loved it,” said Peter who lived near Denny Royal - another talented young music-maker. Peter got himself a guitar and they were off.

It the beginning with there was also Dussy Gray and Derek Murton.

“I remember playing an an old people’s home near Lower Goat Lane in the city and we met up with Rodney Kidd and Pat Barriscall,. Skiffle faded out and we started playing Buddy Holly songs and others,” recalled Peter.

Those were the days when a black and white world was bursting into colour for the next generation and rock ‘n’ roll music led the way.

“I think it was Denny who spotted a name on the back of a cement mixer which said SOUTHERN LTD., so we thought that sounded better then Read and Ricky was more trendy than Peter,” he explained.

Remember a singer called Ricky Nelson? He was had a lovely voice…and so did the newly-created Ricky Southern.

Beat bands were popping up in Norwich, and other towns across Norfolk and Suffolk. We had some great ones in this neck of the woods who became local favourites.

“”We became the Big Beat Four and started to get a few gigs. Then we were asked to play at what they called Record Hops at the Grosvenor Ballroom (where The Beatles played) on Prince of Wales Road,” said Tony.

At the time the Grosvenor was a big place for jazz but times were changing.

The young dancers decided they wanted more live music rather than records and the Big Beat Four were beating the drum.

There were also playing in village halls and the big American air bases across both counties.

During the day Peter was working as an engineer at Heatrae but, like so many of his mates – they lived for the pop music.

Back in the day young musicians were always on the move, switching from one group to another.

Luke Watson and Mike Lorenz came on board. CBO Incorporated came along.

That stood for the Cadillacs, the Big Beat Four and The Offbeats – all great Norfolk bands. And the Incorporated came from Sounds Incorporated.

Times changed. Some joined the legendary Continentals with Harvey Platt and Andy Field with the American GI singer Milton.

Ricky, sorry Peter, became a member of Jetblacks, another popular group, and then sang with the popular Ken Stevens band at the Samson & Hercules before heading off “Up North.”

“I always loved singing so much and I knew all about the clubs in Yorkshire. I decided to go for an audition and I got signed up for the Federation and got bookings in the clubs they looked after,” he said.

So where did the next name come from.

“There seemed to be a lot of people called Tony about so I went for that and my first wife’s maiden name was Verno.

Based in Sheffield Tony Verno became a much-loved singer working across the north of England. Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney songs are among his timeless favourites.

“There was much more work up here than in Norfolk and I loved singing so much,” he said.

During the day he did a host of jobs… steel worker, electrical retailer, salesman, representative and even ran his own supermarket at Huddersfield.

Today Tony, sorry Peter, has lived all over Yorkshire and is now settled in Barnsley. He has a daughter Zoe, son John and grandchildren Effymia and Rory.

“I’ll keep singing for as long as the bookings keep coming in.”

Join me in a round of applause for Peter Read, Ricky Southern and Tony Verno who will be celebrating his 79th birthday on March 29.

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