Geno Washington returns to Dereham

Elaine Maslin Veteran soul star Geno Washington is to return to the stage in the Norfolk town he set alight in the 1960s on Saturday. Elaine Maslin takes a look back at the days when the town was stomping to the beats of Geno and his Ram Jam Band alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.

Elaine Maslin

In 1965 an American US Air Force physical training instructor landed on UK soil. Club nights in the likes of Dereham's Tavern Club were never to be the same again. Geno Washington was here and in his own words - with a great belly laugh - 'you took what was on offer and stole the rest'.

It was the great swinging 60s and Geno was doing his bit to make Norfolk swing, bop, conga, stomp and generally party the night away.

Legend has it that when Geno was in town everyone in the Tavern Club, now The Plough and Furrow pub under the cinema, would conga out of the building, around the market place and back into the club.

His act was the only one which united mods and rockers and saw Dereham become a venue for the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.

“There was some fierce partying going on,” laughed Geno from his home in London.

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“In those days I was single and you took what was on offer and stole the rest. That club would be stomping man, the mods and the rockers, they would all be in there.

“There would be so many kids queuing outside when we were on, they were stomping times.”

US soul acts rarely visited the UK at that time.

So when Geno, based at Woodbridge in Suffolk as a PT instructor, started “messing around” in Ipswich with La Blues band, “a Beatnik type of thing”, there was a great appetite for his music.

Once his name got around, through playing at clubs in London like the Flamingo club, he was soon snapped up to join a new band - the Ram Jam Band.

It just so happened that around the same time a Dereham entrepreneur, Brian Cross, had set up the soon to be legendary Tavern Club.

The rest would be history, as the saying goes.

Nick Sands, now a music historian, helped Mr Cross build the club's reputation for live acts and went on to promote one of Geno's albums.

“On one Christmas gig the Tavern crowd congered out of the door and around the Market Place Christmas tree several times before returning. Goodness knows what Geno thought of his disappearing crowd,” he said.

“It only happened when Geno was on.

“He was always a big draw. He was one of the top live club acts in Britain and a guy who knew how to put on a non-stop dancing show.”

Geno was also a big hit in the then Cellar Club in Norwich as well as ball rooms and theatres across the country.

“We had a huge following there,” he said. “There was so much partying going on.” He says many of the things that happened he could not possibly talk about and were far too crazy to be published.

The popularity of Geno and the Ram Jam Band saw them have two of the biggest selling UK albums of the 60s.

Both were recorded live and Hand Clappin', Foot Stompin', Funky Butt Live was in the album charts for 48 weeks of the year 1966 and was only out-sold by The Sound of Music and Bridge over Troubled Water.

His level of touring and the high energy of his gigs was immortalised by Dexy's Midnight Runners in the 80's hit Geno.

Geno, a Blues singer originally in his home, town of Evansville, Indiana, went off the radar for a decade or so, undertaking a degree in hypnotherapy.

But now he is back, touring again and has made the UK his home.

“I'm loving life here,” he said. “It is a great country and great people. All they ask you to do is simply muck in. I feel like Robinson Crusoe living on an Island.

“I'm married now and all the old party days are gone. But we are in the process of putting another tour together and seeing if we can get a single out.

“People bring their families out and it keeps you young and it is still fun, you know, playing with the audience.”

He said there were many people into their soul music, young and old, and although they based much of their live act on the old 1960s style they had, they were not reliving the 1960s.

“We do it our way, we manipulate the notes and the beats. We are not trying to relive the 60s but we are using it as a platform.”

While this time round there's no need to lock up your daughters, watch out, as Geno said: “We are back stomping again.”

t Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band are playing at Dereham Memorial Hall with a 1970s disco on Saturday, May 31, 7.30pm until late. Tickets are £18 from Chambers, at the corner of Market Place.