Out of the Camp Ch. 29 – Grants & Mason Webb
When I worked at Grants Furniture Store, we were based in the service department on Niddry Street, which was off the High Street just down the road from the store. They fixed TVs, radios and radiograms, etc. there, if anybody remembers what those gadgets were. I worked in homes all over the city and beyond and was trained by a stout bloke called George Donaldson who I’m sure was a decent sort, but he had no sense of humor, would never do anything that wasn’t precisely the way it was supposed to be done, and he had this awful sinus problem. You know when you’ve got something stuck somewhere up the back of your nose and you try to suck it into the back of your throat so you can spit it out? And, you know the kind of disgusting noise that that makes? Well, he used to do it all the time, and I was stuck in a dormobile van with him every day delivering TVs and erecting aerials literally all over town. Sometimes we’d be driving along, and without warning, he’d throw open the door (you remember the racket those sliding doors on Dormobile vans would make?) and, with a thrust of his head sideways out the door, he’d launch his latest nasal issue and heaven help any unsuspecting passerby that happened along.
Occasionally, we’d drive down to the borders or, on a couple of occasions, up to Arbroath and Forfar erecting aerials. Whenever we’d go there, we’d have to overnight and would stay in the Arbroath Youth hostel where you had to share rooms, toilets, etc. and one morning I woke up to find all my money gone. Fun times, not! But one good thing you could say about George was that he was a good teacher. He knew how a job was supposed to be done and he would accept nothing less. Of course, I hated him for it. Our boss was a bloke called Jack, or Jake, Lowry who lived in Craigmillar I think. He was a big basketball buff which was unusual back then and was the trainer for a team based in either Craigmiller or the Inch, where he lived. I think I stayed with Grants for a couple of years before leaving and transferring to Tynecastle Radio where I actually learned a bit about fixing TVs as well as continuing to erect aerials. Actually, the TV repair part was pretty easy, because there were usually only two or three things that would go wrong with a TV, and these would be fixed by switching a valve (tube). So, I would march into a customer’s house with my little case full of these magical valves and, most times just by recognizing the problem, knew exactly which valve to change. The customers were always very impressed with the speed of the repair. One October morning in 1966 I was on my first call of the day in a customer’s house in Sighthill having a cup of tea with her. The elderly lady was thrilled that her TV was working again when, suddenly, there was an interruption in programming and the first report of the Aberfan disaster was broadcast. It was really very moving, and the customer got really upset about all those innocent children sitting in their classrooms when the colliery tip, a pile of mining waste material that sat above the village, without warning simply slid down the hill and engulfed the entire school, taking the lives of 144 people, 116 of whom were children. A few days later, on October 29, a day after the final victim was recovered from the debris, the Queen and Prince Philip travelled to Aberfan to pay their respects to the deceased and their loved ones.
Playing the drums and singing at the same time gave me the added confidence to come out from behind the drum kit, stand up front and just sing. Like most of the groups I joined, I don’t remember how I joined the Mason Webb Group, in fact I might almost have been there at the outset because I certainly remember where the name came from. There used to be a lady’s hair salon somewhere in Edinburgh called Maison Webb and that’s where we got it. We just dropped the “i” ‘cause we knew what that meant and we wirnie a hoose! The other Roger in the group, guitarist Roger Jevons was, and still is, a hairdresser so I don’t remember if he worked there or if that was just a coincidence. I’m in occasional touch with him via Facebook so I need to remember to ask him. The other members of the group were Cameron Mitchell, lead guitar and not the movie star and the bass player John, who’s last name I’ve completely forgotten but I remember came from Newbridge, and both of whom I’ve lost touch with. John Nicol, the drummer, became a great pal along with Tam (and Rab and Alex now both passed), and who years later was best man at my wedding in Manchester. I think we played at The Gamp Club and I know we played at The Place, McGoos and probably some others but it’s all so long ago, I don’t remember.
I know we used to travel out of town from time to time; I’ve attached an ad for a gig we did at the Locarno, Bathgate clipped from a paper and, on one occasion, after a gig in Cumbernauld, we stopped in the early hours for reasons best known to ourselves at the time, I guess, in Falkirk. It probably had something to do with the fact that we’d gotten hold of some pills, had taken them, and were feeling hopelessly unrealistic optimism about the future, overwhelming love for our fellow man and a ridiculous sense of peace on earth and goodwill to all men. This was at the time of ‘Purple Heart’ pills if that means anything, but what we had were ‘Preludin’, one of the readily available alternatives. We wandered aimlessly around the streets of Falkirk in the early hours for what seemed like an eternity talking non-stop and expressing our optimism for the future and how much love we felt for each other and, to this day I remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday. I arrived home shortly before 6am, went straight to bed and didn’t move an inch until after 2pm but I didn’t sleep a wink all that time and yet I felt rested when I got up. It was a truly bizarre and unreal experience. But then came the downer! I’ve always been a worrier but usually kept such thoughts for the wee hours, but this was different. A sense of hopelessness overwhelmed me. I felt as though I was drowning, that nobody would miss me if I just disappeared. Nothing seemed to have any purpose. There was no point to anything so why bother, why carry on? Thankfully, this insanity was short lived, but I learned my lesson and I didn’t ever take ‘Preludin’ or any other such substance again.
One of the unique things we performed – and I was only reminded of this a few years ago by John Nicol – was perform jingles onstage promoting the group and our music. I’d picked up a guitar a year or two earlier and was developing my chord knowledge when I came up with the idea of putting together a few bars, similar to the kinds of things we’d see on TV at the time. Usually, however, these tunes were promoting Tide washing powder, Mars Bars, Nivea Cream or Lees Macaroon Bars or the like. Guess which one of these wouldn’t pass the smell test today? Which jingle, I mean. Anyway, it was somewhat of a departure for a rock group to be doing this. Needless to say, it didn’t catch on, but it got me started in songwriting which I continued for several years. When I left Mason Webb to join The Dollyrocker Band, I know the group continued working and, in fact, I’ve posted a picture of a later line-up.
The Dollyrocker Band had the biggest line-up of any band or group I’d worked with up until then and the first to feature horns. The Iine-up was Willy Barnet-guitar, Colin Hepburn-Hammond Organ, Tam Morton-bass, Andy Hampton-tenor sax, Tam Chervick-tenor sax, Colin Paterson-drums and me singing. What I loved about these guys was the breadth of material they played. From Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band to Frank Sinatra. Tam Morton would take the vocal on Lee Dorsey’s Holy Cow and, as we used to say, it swung like the clappers! I used to sing Sam & Dave’s ‘You Don’t know Like I Know’ and the front line would all be doing high kicks in time with the beat. What a workout! And I’d be singing all the time; couldn’t do that anymore! I’m having a hard time remembering some of the tunes we would do. Frank Sinatra had ‘That’s Life’ in the charts at the time which we performed, and also ‘It Was a Very Good Year’. I think that was the first time that I sang Sinatra material, in fact, probably the first time I sang American Standards. But mostly it was R&B and Tamla, and I’m kicking myself trying to remember some of the titles. We played at The Place fairly regularly, in fact most of the pictures were taken there. One of the others was taken at a gig we did in Galashiels which was a dance for ABC cinema staff. I don’t know the man on the left, the girl in front is Nina Crerar, sister of an old pal (now sadly departed), Rab, and behind her next to me is Linda (then, Rab’s girlfriend, now his widow.) Colin, the drummer, is on the right and I’m at the back. Another gig we played at the border, I think in either Melrose or Hawick, was when we opened for Crispian St. Peters who had had a couple of hits in the 60s. However, by this time his singing career was on the wane and, I guess, in an attempt to reignite some of the old adulation he’d experienced on tour, he was singing ‘The Pied Piper’ when he approached the edge of the stage and sort of leaned into the crowd of girls in the hope that they would pull him over and collectively catch him. Well, they pulled him over all right but when he overbalanced and was falling headfirst into the crowd, like the Red Sea on Moses’ command, they instantly parted and he fell flat on his face on the ballroom floor.
I don’t think I was with Tynecastle Radio two years before something happened that moved me on to my next day-job. My old boss, Jack Lowrie, from Grants Furniture Store turned up unexpectedly at Tynecastle Radio one day and, together with the Tynecastle boss, told me that I’d be transferring my employment to a new company, PTC Electronics. It turned out that the bosses of three TV retailers had met and decided to share the cost of TV aerial and other services by establishing a joint-venture company that would handle aerial installation and servicing for all three businesses. The companies concerned were Tynecastle Radio, of course, Cottingham TV & Radio, and Patterson’s Electronics of Stockbridge, and it was the Patterson’s owner who turned out to be the driving force of this new venture. I never fully understood how Jack had made the transition from Grants to the new company, but I was then dismayed to discover that once again I’d be working with George Donaldson who’d also made the transition from Grants. They set up in a little shop off the Ferry Road that was used as a storage facility. The new business got off to a flying start with guaranteed work coming from the three retailers and there was talk about expanding the business to offer services to all local TV, radio and electronics stores. That’s when the unthinkable happened. Colin Patterson, the owner of Patterson’s Electronics and the managing partner of the new venture had a heart attack and died suddenly. The other owners were both elderly and weren’t willing to take on the responsibility of running the new business and so it was wound up and I returned to Tynecastle Radio.
(1) The Mason Webb Group (1965). L-R: John McLean, Cameron Mitchell (dec), Roger Jevons, Roger Cairns, John Nicol. (2) The Mason Webb Group (1967). L-R: Roger Jevons, Unknown, Billy McKenzie, John Nicol, John Cook. (3) Locarno, Bathgate poster. (4) The Dollyrocker Band at The Place, Edinburgh. L-R: Tam Chervick, Willy Barnett, me, Tam Morton, Colin Patterson, Andy Hampton, Colin Hepburn. (5) (6) & (7) The Dollyrocker Band at The Place, Edinburgh. (8) The Dollyrocker Band at drummer, Colin Paterson’s parent’s 25th wedding anniversary. Leith Town Hall, 1966.