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PARTS 1 - 2 - 3

 

BILL BLACKLEDGE

The Man Who Saw It All..

 

Bill Blackledge in pose:

Just as thousands of sixties Lankylander's will remember him.

 

 Bill Blackledge's                            Wigan Casino 45's..  

 

Bill Blackledge played The Wigan Empress Ballroom and latterly The Wigan Casino Club with his resident showband for over 15 years between 1955 and the early 1970's. In the intervals, when live music wasn't being played on cabaret nights in particular, he would double as a DJ by spinning the discs and keeping the atmosphere bubbling along until next act was ready to perform. 

  In his time - and instructed by the manager Mr. Gerry 'turn that group down' Marshall - he would occasionally give Bill a £10 note to go off shopping to buy the latest current chart records - and the ones which would hopefully keep the punters happy. Bill too was happy enough to comply, and as a huge perk of his reverered job, he often secreted from prying eyes, the odd 'Ronnie Scott' EP at the bottom of his trusty ole' duffle bag. 

  

So here is a small but priceless archive of a surviving collection of vinyl 45's from the later years of The Casino Club - just before the Northern Soul era kicked in. Amongst the 64 discs are Andy Williams and Shirley Bassey classics, Dr Hook and T-Rex, together with earlier 1960's stuff from The Tams with 'Hey Girl Don't Bother Me' and 'When A Man Loves a Woman' by Percy Sledge.

 

Not exactly de rigueur classic rock 'n roll material, but non-the-less reflecting a true musical flavour of the Top Twenty Hit Parade's of those long - lost heady days which truly belong to the memories of yesteryear.. 

 

 

 Bill Hart: October 2011 

 

 

Bill Blackledge played a double-bass at Wigan Empress Ballroom-cum-Wigan-Casino as early as 1957 with The Bill Unsworth Orchestra - and he was just nineteen years old. Not much later however, he was soon to be one of the youngest band leader's of his time by taking over as leader in 1961 with Bill Unsworth stepping aside. The name Bill Blackledge Showband coming shortly after that but remaining resident at the Emp'- Casino Club until around 1969. 

 

  His undoubted musical skills, quiet airs of leadership and the clear admiration shown by his musical associates and colleagues guaranteed his swift elevation to the dizzy heights of musician's leader of musician's in seemingly no time at all - although he does still regard himself as being the 'worst' musician playing in his very own band. 

 

  That it was so - or not, in those days - was simply because he was surrounded by many gifted and superbly talented high-quality musicians - all of them experts in their own right and most of whom played professionally for most of the rest of their musical lives.  

 

  Just as the hey-day of the big-band had peeked around this time, the slow trend to a raunchier era of music saw the 1960s ushered-in bringing with it a younger audience bringing with them their own preferred brand of popular music - that of rock 'n roll.

 

  It was now becoming a small matter for Bill too, to be moving his particular music on without sacrificing the loss of his strong musical traditions such as playing tunes and dances as near perfectly as it was possible to be. And also to survive these 'new' faddish teenager's trends.

 

  The first phase of the rock' n roll groups were now coming through and they began being regularly booked at the main Friday night function's where the likes of huge businesses etc such as HJ Heinz, Courtaulds and the Wigan Police Constabulary would hold regular 'black-tie ball's and dinner dances.

 

  A small 'interval' spot was fixed to feature these newer 'novelty' act's - just to appease the younger ones in these largely more traditional audience's. But very soon the rock groups were sharing an equal billing with and some cases even upstaging these slowly fading but fastidious musical traditions.

 

  Bill however was out there, and he too was fast learning the new fangled ways of these strange entertainment trends. In 1963 the Emps' manager called Bill into his office.    

  "I don't need your band playing next Wednesday night the 27th November. I've booked three groups instead - but I want you here to run it. I have The Cheetahs to close the show, The Beat Boys to open it and in the middle for an hour will be The Rolling Stones."

 

  Bill shrugged and said quizzically, "Who?"

 

  So, not just being employed to play and manage his own band, he also had to stage-manage, organise, liaise with famous groups and artistes, run the show and generally make the evening tick and in so doing, spotting any kind of trouble brewing-up and alerting the bouncers! It was quite a job discription - heh? 

  "Oh and bye the way Bill. Here's fifty quid. Go out and buy some of these pop records and play them on that record player during the change-overs - and at the end too."

  'So you want me to be a DJ too?'

 

  This is Bill Blackledge.. Ex-piano accordion player turned band-leader-bass-man playing at the Wigan Emp'/Casino/Beachcomber Club with his own band getting on for fifteen years. These were the transition years between 1955 and 1969 - a time of ground breaking musical trends and huge upheavals of social change. 

 

  Featuring a regular diet of anecdotes, memory jerkers and amazing stories, Bill will take you way behind scenes of the backstage area's of one the most famous ballrooms in Lankyland 

during its transition years between 1955 and 1969 - a time of ground breaking musical trends and huge upheaval of social change. 

 

 

Bill Blackledge 

The man who saw it all.

 

  

I957 and the Wigan Empress Ballroom in all its glory. The peak of the dance bands hey-day with Bill Blackledge playing double-bass in The Bill Unsworth Empress Orchestra. Bill was now being better employed than an accordion player and he was still three years away from the beginning of the 1960's - This - the greatest pop era of all time. Inwhich Bill was about to play his own 

incredible part.

 

 

Wilf Ashcroft - Baritone Sax.

Freddy Jones - Tenor Sax

Les Stuart - Tenor - Lead Sax

Alan Tyrrell- Piano

Freddy Munn - Alto - Lead Sax

Band Leader Bill Unsworth - Alto Sax

Bill Blackledge - Double Bass

Harry Smith - Drums - Vibrophone

Les Martindale - 2nd Trumpet

Dick Taylor - Lead Trumpet - Vocal

Maurice Ferry- 3rd Trumpet

Alan Pepperal - Trombone

Bill Hart: December 2010

 

 

 

PART 2

Early Years..

 

Bill Hart with Bill Blackledge November 2010:

Proudy showing off his 1957 'Big Band' picture displayed below..

 I became involved in music in 1945, when my father returned home from Italy at the end of the war. He had acquired a piano accordion, which he wanted to learn to play. But, the only teacher locally was a friend of his and he felt reluctant to go for lessons. So instead, I was sent and so  - of course  - passed the lesson on to him. Four years later, we were both getting good and playing duets, that is, after buying a second accordion.

 

  At this time a boy across the road - Les Martindale  - more about Les later - and my next door but one neighbour Stan Parkinson were learning to play the trumpet. Stan had a friend who played drums, who had a friend who played piano and so we got together. The pianist was Jeff Martlew, whose father ran the Pagefield Pub in Wigan. We played upstairs on Thursday evenings - out of the way of customers.

 

  Eventually, Jeff’s dad said 'that we not getting anywhere,' and invited a local saxophone teacher named Bob Stuart to come and see want he could do. The following week, we had a full sax section plus another trumpet or two and a trombone.

 

Didn't fit in..

  It soon became obvious that the accordion didn’t fit in, and I was told that they needed a bassist instead. I was shattered. Bob tried to encourage me by telling me that I would never be short of work with a bass. He’d obviously had been thinking about this, since he knew where there was a bass for sale. I desperately wanted to stay in the band, so, reluctantly; I talk my father into buying a bass.

 

  I kept the double-bass at the pub, and I went there most evenings to practice from a small self-teach book. Lots of pain and blisters later, I started to feel comfortable. Not good, but comfortable. This would be about 1949.

 

  During the break, when the rest of the band went for the customary drink, I still practiced, and on one occasion a sax player who stayed behind said that I was doing okay, but it was obvious that I had not had lessons, this upset me. I thought that if a sax player could tell, then it must be obvious to others.

 

  He said he knew a bass teacher who lived in Wigan named Bill Bullock, who was the lead bass in the Preston Philharmonic Orchestra. And so that started an eighteen month period of lessons that led to my playing with the orchestra. It lasted only eighteen months, because Bill died. Well he was eighty-two years old when I started the lessons.

 

  The band at the Pagefield Pub - now designated ‘The Famous Pagefield’ - consisted of musicians from various bands around the area and I started to gig around with intros’ from them.

 

Gigging around..

  I gigged around for a few years, and eventually became a permanent member of the Wigan Court Hall Band being run by Bill Eatock. This was in approx 1952. The trumpet player was Les Martindale, the boy who lived opposite me as kids.

 

 As a youngster Les was a great musician, playing on the BBC children’s programme, and soloist with several famous regional Brass Bands. Along with Les, I left the Court Hall in 1954 to join the Bill Unsworth Band in the Palais de Dance - The upper room of the Empress Hall Wigan and the first night was 14 March 1954; Eric Delaney Band was on at the Empress Hall so we provided music, mainly in the intervals.

 

  In The Empress at that time was The Ken Hewitt Band, which was a fully professional outfit playing six nights a week. In early 1957 The Empress management decided that a fully profession band was too expensive, since Wednesdays and Thursdays were badly attended. So Bill Unsworth was asked to augment the six-piece Palais de Dance band into a twelve-piece unit, adding three saxes, two trumpets and a trombone for the summer season, with a view to becoming permanent.

 

  At about this time, The Palais de Dance was converted to Mr ‘M’s. It was basically a cabaret club complete with compere, organ and drums and some of the best show business acts around. This for me at twenty-two years old was a great time. Youngest in the band by at least seven years, and surrounded by good musicians.

 

  Rock 'n pop..

  This was at this time that rock 'n roll started to be an influence at The Empress, with the introduction of local rock ‘n roll groups at the interval. Over the next three or four years, the groups became more frequent, and more popular with the regulars. I will say that the musicianship of the established groups that appeared at The Wigan Emp/Casino improved dramatically over a short period of time. I was no longer tuning guitars and basses for the groups.

 

  We band member realised that for most of the evenings, mainly Mondays, Friday & Saturdays, we had to change to a more pop orientated output. Tuesday's being old time dance night, and Thursday set for what older people would call ‘proper dancing’ and so, the band became more of a ‘show band’.

 

  In 1960 I met my future wife Jean at the Farmers Ball at the Emp’, one of the few nights that had two full bands. I think that was The Jess Greenhough Band from Leigh, so it gave me a great the opportunity to dance for a change.

 

  1961 prove pivotal in my future. I was married and Bill Unsworth retired. I was asked by The Empress management to take-over as band leader, which, after discussions with the band members, it became ’The Bill Blackledge Show Band'.

 

Too quickly..

 The next five years went by seemingly too quickly with three or four local groups being booked each week and interspersed by big name groups and bands like The Rolling Stones, The Zombies, Manfred Man etc. I say quickly, because, as well as organising the band. In addition to everything else, like organising spots and dealing with the running orders, I was now a DJ playing records whilst the groups were setting up and dismantling their gear.

 

  Mostly, I spent the time whilst the groups were on stage being told by the Emp’ manager to 'get that bloody group's volume turned down’. I spent seven years trying to get the groups to turn it down which didn’t make me a popular man as far as they were concerned and, of course - they never did turn the volume down. I also had the notorious job of getting the band back on stage by going down to Ship Hotel on the corner of Station Road where they would ‘retire’ for a quiet drink between spots.

 

  A partial list of the major bands, groups and artists of the time are listed in the Lanky Beat Empress Ballroom section.

 

  At Easter time in 1966, I was called into the office and told that The Empress was to be closed for ten weeks, so that it could be converted into The Casino Club, with an opening date approx the first week in August. This was a surprise and disappointment.

 

Out.. and in!

 With no work for two months or so - and trying to keep the band together - I approached Alan, the manager and owner of The Court Hall Ballroom in King Street and offered our services. It was agreed that we would do a ten week stint on Saturday nights, but with a nine piece band and the support of rock ‘n roll group. Which I will say was not very successful in adding numbers to the crowd.

 

  To keep the band in tact and complete, I talked Alan into letting us use the downstairs area on Sunday mornings for rehearsals and letting the band play what they really wanted too. It finished up with not only the regular band members playing, but, musicians from all around the district, sometimes twenty or so, interspersing weekly.

 

  Still playing..

  The amazing thing is that to this day, forty four years later, a band is still playing for pleasure at The Sacred Heart Social Club, Springfield, Wigan, on Wednesday nights. And more amazingly, some of the original guys are still there: Namely, Maurice Perry and Colin Moore; trumpets, Les Stuart and John Guppy saxophones.

 

  In August 1966 The Casino Club opened with Shirley Bassey being the star of the show, complete with the full Alan Ainsworth Band. She insisted that a brand new pink toilet should be installed back stage before she would agree to book this gig.

 

  From memory this was about the time that The Beachcomber Club came into existence. The reason for opening The Beachcomber Club was to cater for the under eighteens who couldn’t get into

The Casino Club because of the existing licensing laws. My initial task was to find a DJ to run it, but I finished up doing the first few weeks as DJ, with me trying to do this, run The Casino Club and just about everything else too."

 

Question:

"What was the former use of The Beachcomber Club?"

Answer: Below..  

 

MARCH

 

*PART 3 

1961 – 1969

Backstage Afronts..

 "The following are recollections of some of the events that still linger in my mind, some are clear and some have certain vagueness. 

 

In no particular order of time or importance, these are the things I remember, all for difference reasons, but they’ve stuck.

 

 On 27 November 1963. The Rolling Stones played at Wigan Empress Ballroom. On receiving the following weeks running order from Gerry Marshall the Wigan Emp' manager, I said, 'what’s happening this Wednesday?' 'The Rolling Stones', replied Gerry. In all ignorance, I said, ‘who?'

 

 As far as was concerned it was just another group. As everyone in Lankyland now knows, the The Beat Boys & The Cheetahs played too that night. And everyone - except me  - remembers that this night was about to become something very special. I arrived at The Empress at about 6.45p.m. as usual, to find Station Road crowded with people and then I realised that that tonight was going to be different. However, the activities on and behind the stage is a blur. For me, just another night at The Emp'.

 

The Beat Boys with Van.

 

Bandwagon Fisticuffs..

  On another night that I do clearly remember - but not the date however -was the running order which read: ‘The Bandwagon’. No problem here then. But again - a band new to me?  I arrived to open the stage - The BB Emp' Orchestra lads were having a beer at the Ship Hotel - the usual start to the night. I switched on a tape recorder which I had previously recorded a record or two then headed backstage to check on the acts to let them know their running order. There was one almighty argument going on in the far dressing room, so I decided to retreat and go back later.

 

  I returned to find there was a fight in progress. Real fisticuffs. I shouted, 'you're on in five minutes' and I played a couple of records whilst their backing were setting-up their equipment.  I went back in the dressing room and all was quiet. I spoke with a guy who appeared to be their manager and asked what was all that about? He said they have just been told that in future, they will be known as Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon. I introduced them as that and they went on stage and performed as though nothing had happened backstage.  That was the very first time they had been introduced with their new name. Quite something at Wigan Empress. When they finished their set the battle resumed back stage.

 

  Gerimoff..

  Another night to remember was in 1966/67 at The Casino. Wigan and Bolton Casino shared the same artists. One of the stars would finish the first half of the show at Bolton, and travel to Wigan to finish the second half and vice-versa. Freddie Starr & The Delmonts and Tom Jones & The Squires were the 'stars' for the week. One night Tom Jones didn’t appear at Wigan to finish the first half. By the time he arrived, Freddie Starr was already at Wigan. Gerry Marshall told me to get Freddy on stage. He was already into his performance when Tom Jones appeared. At that point  Gerry told me to get Freddy off. I said, 'I’ll tell you what. You get him off. No chance.' I’m sure Freddy dragged his act out for an extra ten minutes just for the devilment of it. Oh what fun!

 

To the right of The Casino Club is this cobbled alleyway.

All the bands would park their vans about half way up and

enter the double stage doors on the left. 

Pic courtesy of Wigan World

 

  Herman..

  I have memories of the first time Hermans Hermits appeared at Wigan Emp. I think their fee was about £10? (Ronnie Carr of The Beat Boys says it was £9) Somehow there appeared to be a problem within the group. My vague memory says that there was a change of personnel. From the pics on Lanky Beat I recognised Karl. And I think he was involved; perhaps he could let us know?

 

  Cough-up PJ..

  P.J.Proby appeared at The Emp. The only thing I remember of that night was that there was a guy sat in the band room. On enquiring if I could be of assistance, he said he was from the ‘Inland Revenue’ to collect money from P.J. Like many others, he seems to have 'forgotten' to pay his income taxes?

 

 

Wigan ABC Ritz Cinema was directly opposite

The Empress Ballroom - Casino and was host to

many 1960's rock 'n roll stars.. 

 

Jam..

 A special night for me came out of the blue in 1967. Wee Willy Harris & Conway Twitty - the American country & western singer - were appearing at the ABC Ritz Cinema. I’m not sure who was the star of the show that night. It may have been The Beatles? I’m not sure. But, they appeared in the Emp' - Casino bandroom, and offered to play some numbers - which they did. Wee Willy playing piano, Conway playing drum's and I had the pleasure of playing bass with them -Wonderful!

 Wee Willy Fishing..

  Coincidently, a few months later, I was sent down to Treforest in South Wales by my company as part of a commissioning team to start-up a machine which the company had supplied. We were staying in an hotel in Pontypridd for a couple of days and decided to take my wife Jean and our four year old son with me. We arrived in the evening, had dinner and  then took a walk around town. On arriving back at the hotel I bumped into Wee Willy Harris in the foyer. I approached him, and he remembered the night at The Emp' and we talked fondly about it. I told him I was working at the Thomas Owen Factory. He told me that Tom Jones used to work there, which was confirmed by the factory manager later on. Willy said that he was going off fishing the following day and offered to take my wife and son out for the day while I worked at the factory, which he did. Complete with hamper etc, they had a special day out as his guest. I thought that was great of him.

 

 

The PACT

 

 He's Electric..

  I have avoided naming individual local groups who passed through the Emp/Casino/Beachcomer as much of it is a complete blur. 

However, some nights and some groups I do remember for various reasons include The PACT. Their last night together was at The Casino Club in 1967. I found Peter Gaskell their bass player in the dressing room, practically in tears. The group had broken up. He had just bought a new bass guitar from Bill Kearns Shop in Standishgate, Wigan. I offered to take it off him and pay whatever was the 

outstanding balance. I think the price was £167. That I did. That was the best move I ever made musically. It was a 1966 Fender Sunburst Precision - a beautiful instrument with flat-wound strings which gave it a sound similar to the doublebass that I was very much used to, 

 

The Summers eventually became Weather.

 

Shocking..

  From another group I bought an Vox AC30 amp, and finally a 18” Vox speaker cabinet from another group - which from memory was The Summers - or may be not? This change to an electric bass guitar nearly led to my downfall however. One night, instead of using the 'front mic', I reached into the piano which had it own microphone to announce the next dance and received an electric shock which kicked me back into the drum kit. Fortunately, the actual fall snatched the microphone from my hand since the cable was wrapped around the piano lid which broke the circuit. 

 

  I had sprung both shoulder joints clean out of their sockets and finished up in hospital. I still have the burn marks from the bass strings on my left hand. It turned out that the wiring at The Casino was faulty and to this day I’m still surprised that more problems had not surfaced prior to this accident and my near fatal downfall."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ken Prescott - Big Band Drummer 

 Wigan Empress Ballroom

Pic courtesy of Mark Prescot

 

"Ken was the first drummer that I played with at the Pagefield pub in 1949 or so. We live about half a mile apart, and played together until I joined Bill Eatock at the Court Hall, Wigan in 1952.
 
  We eventually got together again at the end of 1969 when I left the Casino to take up residence at the Brocket Hotel, I invited Ken to join Gordon Barnes - piano and Harry Jones on trumpet. We played their until 1976. Gordon and Ken went to the Sacred Heart Club and I retired for business reasons.
 
 Ken - whilst not the most technical drummer I played with - but he is the one I would chose to play with - as he made playing my bass so relaxing. We got along great, and we had lots of fun together."

Bill Blackledge: March 2011

 

 

"Do you remember The Bill Blackledge Orchestra at The Emp' or even playing at the Court Hall Ballroom in King Street, Wigan? Amongst many others, he played in the Palais de Dance and Mr M's too.

 

  Tell us about your fond memories, harking back to the pre-pop-1960's days of the magnificent and glamorous big-band era from the early 1950's and beyond.. Lanky Beat would love to hear from you."

 

'LEMONS'

 

"The Sportsmen played many times at the Wigan Emp - Casino. We got to know Bill Blackledge and the band quite well. One night Maurice Myers walked past the stage sucking a lemon!! The brass section lost their lips completely. Hilarious!"

Keith Wright: January 2011

 

bill@lankybeat.com

 

08450 94 87 95

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