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